A majestic Verdi’s Requiem in suitably majestic surroundings, plus the best of October’s classical concerts

Mark Elder and the Hallé at York Minster - Bill Lam/Hallé
Mark Elder and the Hallé at York Minster - Bill Lam/Hallé

Hallé Orchestra and Choir/Mark Elder, York Minster ★★★★★

Verdi’s Requiem has long since shed its subtitle “for the anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni”, and with that we have lost our understanding of how an atheist could have composed a religious masterpiece. The most successful Italian novelist of his day, Manzoni was a symbol of national pride. In commemorating him, Verdi emerged with renewed vigour from a period of creative silence. When he issued his pleas to “hear my prayer” and “free me from eternal death”, he may not have been addressing the Creator those words were written for, but the pleas are given an edge by life’s experiences, and universality by musical imagination.

The Requiem is proof against the most routine performance – certainly, once the bass drums are unleashed against the massed chorus. But it takes a sense of occasion to release its full potency. This is precisely what we had in York on Saturday: in triplicate. Not only were we enveloped in the imposing interior of the Minster, but the performance marked the conclusion of this year’s much-vaunted Ryedale Festival, and it was dedicated to the memory of Dr Richard Shepherd, a much loved friend of the venue.

So when Mark Elder coaxed the Requiem aeternam into sound, or unleashed the storm of the Dies Irae, or issued periodic injunctions to maximise energy or exercise discretion, his gestures were framed by the Minster’s columns, ceilings and organ pipes. And his command of the piece’s 90-minute architecture was in symbolic harmony with the magnificence of the space.

At the same time, the cathedral acoustic brought challenges that the best wills in the world could not entirely overcome. For all the lightness the Hallé Choir brought to the ‘Sanctus’, Verdi’s polyphonic riches here were largely dissolved in the sonic soup. Even the famous drum thwacks in the Dies irae were somewhat muffled. The most intimate lines of “cum vix justus” were accompanied by bells that were not of the composer’s intention.

But how little any of that registered beside the vision of Elder’s interpretation and the excellence of his soloists. Natalya Romaniw’s soprano soared seraphically, performing minor miracles of nuance and blend above the stave. So what if she made a momentary premature entry in the Libera me? She is an artist I would travel far to hear, whatever she was performing. Alice Coote responded vividly to the imploring tones Verdi assigns to the mezzo soprano; Thomas Atkins’s tenor had an authentic Italianate ring; and James Platt’s cavernous bass seemed to defy the Minster’s stones not to resonate in sympathy. DF

An Anatomy of Melancholy, Barbican Pit Theatre ★★☆☆☆

Countertenor Iestyn Davies - Cordula Treml
Countertenor Iestyn Davies - Cordula Treml

In darkness let me dwell: John Dowland’s ethereal song, one of the great soliloquies of the Elizabethan age, was indeed the best way to begin this short show devised by the director-designer Netia Jones and countertenor Iestyn Davies. In actual darkness, with all the lights extinguished, it made an effective opening to An Anatomy of Melancholy and came as a relief after the endlessly looped readings to which the waiting audience in the Pit Theatre had been treated. The Barbican’s airless subterranean venue is enough to make anyone melancholy.

The production borrows its title from Robert Burton’s famous 1621 labyrinthine treatise on the subject of depression, a work that wears its paranoia lightly. In Burton’s words: “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness.” The creative team behind this depressing multi-media show have perhaps not been busy enough.

On the plus side, we hear Davies in several of Dowland’s greatest hits. In addition to “In darkness let me dwell”, he sings such celebrated songs as “Flow my tears” and “Come again”, all drawing lively and responsive accompaniments from the lutenist Thomas Dunford. Dowland (1563-1626) was the prototype of today’s alienated singer-songwriter and his work has an acutely modern resonance. Though this is what the staging visibly sought to exploit, it focused mostly on the more depressive end of Dowland’s output and failed to find what was so curiously uplifting about it.

Interspersed with this were lute solos and recorded readings from Burton’s strangely comforting prose. Another recorded voice chimed in with Sigmund Freud’s 1917 essay Mourning and Melancholia, and the contemporary psychoanalyst Darian Leader was piped in reading from his 2008 book The New Black. It may all sound intriguing but it really wasn’t, and somehow the material dulled the senses of the show’s often brilliant creators; the idea would have been better left on the therapist’s couch.

Staged in the round (actually square, given the Pit’s dimensions), Jones’s design featured three Perspex cases and a desk, all stacked with plants and test tubes. Live and recorded video - projected onto screens and the floor of the acting space - featured watery images, pills and twirls of marijuana smoke, as well as clinical charts addressing the use of narcotics. The default setting was one-dimensional.

The same can be said of the sonic collage, which sometimes superimposed readings over the music. Even more damaging to Dowland was the amplification, probably necessary in this small space only because at any given moment Davies has his back to half the audience. Though the amplification threw a sort of halo around Davies’s velvety tone it also dulled the poetry of Dowland’s words — anyone unfamiliar with these songs will be left in the, er, dark.

As the show circled round, somewhat inevitably, to the closing “In darkness let me dwell”, Davies did a good job of projecting the meaning of the music, and, despite being dressed in an anonymous suit, he supplied sometimes manic behaviour.

In other circumstances his artistry would have saved the show and he sang with freedom — as much anyway as the straightjacket of this staging allowed. JA

Until October 30 (October 28 performance livestreamed); barbican.org.uk

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

Fortune favours the bold, and it certainly favoured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday night. While post-pandemic nerves and imminent recession are persuading some outfits to play safe, the RPO booked the biggest venue in town to play the biggest symphony ever written, Gustav Mahler’s Eighth, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”. They were rewarded with a near sell-out house and a standing ovation.

It was a risk because unlike, say, Verdi’s Requiem, Mahler’s symphony is a tough listen, long on massive climaxes and philosophical musings about heaven but distinctly short on memorable melody. And the yoking together of a medieval Latin hymn with a setting of the last scene of Goethe’s Faust, where the soul of that dabbler in the black arts Faust is finally redeemed and lifted up to heaven can feel distinctly odd.

But it’s hard to keep a critical distance when your ears are assailed by an outsize orchestra including mandolin and harmonium, eight excellent solo singers, hundreds of choral singers, an organ, and off-stage brass. Just keeping so many musicians co-ordinated is a superhuman task, which conductor Vasily Petrenko managed superbly well. But more than that, he balanced these huge forces so we could hear the fine detail under all the tumult.

There’s a particular moment early on when one of the three soprano soloists has to float a high note effortlessly above a tumult of praise to the Almighty. If it comes off, you know the performance is likely to be good, and on this occasion it was really wonderful – though honours for that must be shared with soprano Sarah Wegener.

After the first movement’s outburst of joy came the enormously long introduction to the second part, portraying Faust’s soul lost in the dark wood of sin. It was played with such wonderful piercing intensity by the RPO that I almost didn’t notice how thin it is musically. And the gradual ascent to the heaven-storming ending had so many telling moments, such as the keening sopranos among the three choruses, the delightful “angelic voices” of the Tiffin Boys and Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Choirs, the doleful plaint of bass James Platt as one of the spirits of the lower regions.

At the very end, the massed voices of the Philharmonia Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and City of London Choir first almost whispered and then sang at full volume Goethe’s famous lines about the Eternal Feminine leading us upward. Lord knows what they actually mean, but the joy and splendour of that final affirmation were overwhelming. IH

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Dalia Stasevska, Barbican ★★★★☆

Startlingly energised: Dalia Stasevska with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - Sarah Louise Bennett/BBC
Startlingly energised: Dalia Stasevska with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - Sarah Louise Bennett/BBC

Following its Autumn break after the Proms the BBC Symphony Orchestra has come roaring back into action. This concert offered a UK premiere, from Japanese-born composer Dai Fujikura, Sibelius’s grandly nationalist 1st symphony, and what seems to have become the world’s favourite cello concerto, the one composed by Edward Elgar in the sad twilight of his life.

But before all of that, the evening kicked off with “A Party with Auntie,” a brand-new musical party cracker for the BBC’s 100th birthday. The composer Iain Farrington is a dab-hand at evoking a convivial atmosphere — he shot to world fame when he played piano alongside Rowan Atkinson at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.

This piece wrapped a tune of Leonard Bernstein-ish rhythmic catchiness into a melange of half-hidden BBC signature tunes, carried off with brilliant panache by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the powerful direction of startlingly energised conductor Dalia Stasevska. I spotted Match of the Day, Blackadder, EastEnders, Animal Magic, and no doubt more hardened telly-watchers than I would have spotted several more. It was a reminder of how theme tunes have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives.

Then came Fujikura’s “Glorious Clouds”, heralded like so many new pieces by a programme note from the composer which told us about the eccentric private obsession behind the piece. Fujikura is fascinated by the microorganisms that live on our skin and in other unmentionable places, and went on about them at such length I felt squirmy and itchy before the piece even began. It prompted the obvious question: what exactly is “Glorious” about swarms of microbes?

The piece answered the question, sort of, by conjuring a truly extraordinary sound-world of piccolos, shimmering high percussion and glistening stratospheric violins, rising and descending in shifting layers and leading to an unexpectedly fierce dénouement. One had to admire the way Fujikura kept the piece constantly hovering between aimless drifting and purposeful movement. But all his brilliance couldn’t banish the question: why should I care about any of this?

Thank goodness Elgar and Sibelius’s pieces were there to lend a sense of real human value to the evening. Elgar’s concerto is hard to bring off, particularly at the beginning where a feeling of beautiful resignation can tip into simple weariness. One didn’t expect that problem here, with two such impassioned musicians as star Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta and Stasevska. But at the beginning their co-ordination seemed uncertain. The opening phrases were too spacious, the pauses and hesitations too long-drawn-out. Fortunately the piece recovered by the second movement, which was engagingly witty, and the slow movement burned with quiet intensity. By the end the performance seemed wholly magnificent, a reminder that in music you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

There was no such hill to climb in the closing performance of Sibelius’s 1st Symphony, which was magnificent from the start. Here Stasevska’s way of lengthening dramatic pauses, which had been problematic in Elgar’s concerto, became a positive advantage. Combined with her flair for conjuring playing of white-hot intensity from the players, it made for something huge and unruly, an enthralling picture of the Finnish nation finding its rebellious spirit. The devastating ending - a precipitous fall from blazing optimism to deathly hush - had us all frozen in our seats. IH

Hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 on November 3, and for 30 days thereafter on BBC Sounds

Patricia Petibon and Wonsick Oh, Oxford Lieder Festival ★★★☆☆

Song is the eternal bedrock of music the world over, but in classical music one gets the sense that while orchestral and chamber-sized concerts are holding their own, song is hanging on by its fingernails. It’s not hard to see why. The spectacle of a tenor in full evening dress singing about a lovesick nightingale or the agonies of a jilted farmhand seems hopelessly antiquated.

But that scenario can seem real in a great per

Soprano Patricia Petibon with pianist Susan Manoff
Soprano Patricia Petibon with pianist Susan Manoff

formance, and besides not all classical song is so remote. The excellent and indispensable Oxford Lieder Festival refuses to accept that classical song is a lost cause. Apart from its unfortunately hoity-toity name, borrowed from the German word for art-song – why not just “Oxford Song Festival”? – the festival brilliantly achieves its goal of making classical song feel exciting and even fun. They promote young artists, experiment with the song-concert format, explore unknown areas of this vast musical territory, and blur the divide between art and popular song.

All these virtues were on display at Sunday night’s song concert in Europe’s oldest purpose-built concert hall, the Holywell Music Room – though the 30-minute Emerging Artist showcase which opening the evening reverted to an old-style seriousness. That was it should be, because the songs chosen by Korean bass Wonsick Oh were all sad or even tragic.

He has a voice of rich, unforced gravity, exactly right for Tchaikovsky’s famous None but the Lonely Heart, Rachmaninov’s luxuriantly sad Oh do not sing for me, fair maiden and also two sad Korean songs, in which Oh and pianist Aron Goldin didn’t stint on the heartbreak. Oh has dignity and gravity to spare – if he can find a more nuanced stage presence and flexibility of tone, he could be really something.

In those respects, he could really learn from the evening’s star turn, the French soprano Patricia Petibon. She might just be the most gifted showman of any classical singer alive. Over a 75-minute recital of breathless changeableness and surprise, she howled into the piano, danced with a stuffed fish, duetted with a stuffed parrot, and finally – in a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s witty setting of French recipes La Bonne Cuisine – donned a cook’s apron and became a surreally manic chef, tossing kitchen utensils around the stage as she shrieked Bernstein’s comically manic songs.

For entertainment value, Petibon and her equally histrionic pianist Susan Manoff scored highly. For artistic value, I wouldn’t say nuls points, but it was a disappointing evening, especially as here and there both showed themselves to be real artists. Petibon found a lovely joyousness in Canteloube’s dialect song Shepherdess if you love me, and as with all the songs she danced and mimed the feelings as much as she sang them. In Reynaldo Hahn’s song about a pretty grape-presser felled by a mystery illness, Petibon caught exactly the song’s sudden change to hollow desperation, as the “pretty maenad with an angel’s eyes” develops a sickly pallor and fades away.

There was a nicely wry comedy in the Spanish songs, especially Turina’s Your Eyes are Blue. But the fidgety back-and-forth between comedy and heartbreak, and Petibon’s tendency to sometimes sing flat (and to over-egg the pudding – a good comic song doesn’t need a clown’s nose) meant the evening wasn’t the unalloyed pleasure it could have been. IH

The Oxford Lieder Festival continues until Oct 29; oxfordlieder.co.uk

Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

Mountainous, baggy-trousered, folk-song-loving conservative: Ralph Vaughan Williams with his second wife, Ursula, in the 1950s - From the collection of Ursula Vaughan Williams
Mountainous, baggy-trousered, folk-song-loving conservative: Ralph Vaughan Williams with his second wife, Ursula, in the 1950s - From the collection of Ursula Vaughan Williams

The music of Vaughan Williams has been like healing balm these past years, rising serenely above culture wars and political turmoil, offering a vision of an English nation that is suspicious of ideology and triumphalism, rumbustiously humorous and quietly visionary, all at once.

We were immersed in that vision last night at the Wigmore Hall, in a tribute to VW performed just four days after his 150th anniversary by Britain’s most venerable small-scale group, the Nash Ensemble. And it was a generous affair, with 25 musicians and a feast of music that lasted almost three-and-a-half hours. (One could argue that it was too generous; the curators should have taken their courage in both hands, programmed only VW, and omitted the accompanying bits and bobs of Elgar, Bax and Bridge).

Not everything we heard confirmed the familiar image of the mountainous, baggy-trousered, folk-song-loving conservative. The very first piece, the Nocturne and Scherzo from 1906 offered a very different VW, thoroughly immersed in the heated, late-romanticism emanating from “The Continent”. The side-slipping harmonies and sensuous undulations of the Nocturne rivalled Schoenberg for over-heated emotionalism, and they were performed with sultry, sighing intimacy by the Nash’s string players.

It seems po-faced to speak of “lessons” in connection with a concert as heart-warming and radiant as this. Nevertheless there was a lesson in the Phantasy Quintet that came later and above all in the 6 Studies in English Folksong for cello and piano. To find his inimitable musical voice VW had to renounce the amazingly fluent, perfectly formed romanticism of that early work and find a new folk-based simplicity that can seem austere and even a bit awkward. It took the perfect focus and sensitivity of Adrian Brendel and Philip Moore to reveal the quiet but burning glow of these little pieces.

Elsewhere we were reminded that VW could be startlingly original, as in the bell sounds heard as if from afar in the fifth song of On Wenlock Edge, performed with moving intensity by tenor Alessandro Fisher. But the moment that raised the evening to the sublime was baritone Roderick Williams’s performance of the Five Mystical Songs, above all the third, Love Bade me Welcome. The little drama of the timid Christian soul persuaded to accept Love’s blessing took on a tender radiance that melted us all, before the assembled 25 musicians gave a full-throated performance of the still more radiant Serenade to Music. It was a wonderful ending to an evening which evoked the whole man, in all his rounded humanity. IH

Isata Kanneh-Mason, Barbican Hall ★★★☆☆

Isata Kanneh-Mason - Robin Clewley
Isata Kanneh-Mason - Robin Clewley

Isata Kanneh-Mason, the eldest of the seven extraordinarily gifted Kanneh-Mason siblings dubbed “the world’s most musical family”, may not be quite as famous as her younger cello-playing brother Sheku. But the British pianist’s career is pretty spectacular, with an impressive international concert diary and a recording contract with the venerable Decca label.

None of this has gone to her head. She shares with Sheku a pleasing modesty and straightforwardness, and a playing style that is elegant, beautifully modulated, and never draws attention to itself with striking interpretative moves or arresting gestures. On Monday night, she played a programme of pieces inspired by childhood, which on the face of it might seem an easy option. In fact, music that evokes childhood is far from simple, because after all it’s composed by an adult, who might look on childhood with very un-childlike feelings such as ironic tenderness, humour or nostalgia.

We reached those areas of feeling, eventually, but first Kanneh-Mason played Mozart’s variations on the nursery rhyme known in this country as “Twinkle twinkle”. She despatched it with wide-eyed grace, though she could have been more expressive when the music turned briefly serious and minor-key.

With the Easter sonata by Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix, Kanneh-Mason seemed to come to life. She made the sonata’s portrayal of the Easter story vividly alive, with furious left-hand thundering for the earthquake that followed Christ’s death, and a beautifully radiant hymn to end.

Then we arrived at the first of those complicated “childish” pieces, Debussy’s Children’s Corner. It started disappointingly, with a rendition of Debussy’s witty evocation of childish piano exercises that was too slick and fast (“moderately animated” is what Debussy wanted). But the later movements were more varied emotionally. The Snow is Dancing had a lovely muffled mystery, and the final Cakewalk was appropriately tongue-in-cheek.

After the interval, we had the much more cosy, nostalgic and occasionally rumbustious Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, qualities thaht Kanneh-Mason caught but in a way that was fleeting and understated. I wanted her to linger on the nostalgia a little more, and be more unbuttoned in the rumbustious moments. Interestingly, the most unbuttoned performance came in the piece that stood aside from overall mood of innocence. Cwicseolfor (Quicksilver), an evocation of mercury’s shimmering glitter by Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga, was flung off by Kanneh-Mason with startling wildness. It proved there’s real fire lurking under that smiling humility. IH

Isata Kanneh-Mason’s most recent album Summertime is released on Decca

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits, Lighthouse, Poole ★★★★☆

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Kirill Karabits
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Kirill Karabits

In the context of the vast suffering of the war in Ukraine, the displacement to Poole in Dorset of the world premiere of a long-lost Ukrainian cello concerto, which should have taken place in war-torn Kharkiv, might seem very small beer. But it demonstrates how the struggle for Ukrainian survival is now being fought in the cultural sphere too, as Putin sets about destroying Ukrainian identity.

So, this premiere  of a concerto composed exactly 100 years ago by little-known Ukrainian composer Feodor Akimenko didn’t feel at all small. It felt like a triumph, for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the cellist Victor Julien-Laferrière who performed it, and above all the orchestra’s Ukrainian Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits, who rescued the piece from oblivion.

Karabits is on mission to unearth forgotten music by Ukrainian, Russian and other eastern-European composers, and recently discovered Akimenko’s piece slumbering in a Parisian library. Wednesday night’s performance of the concerto was the first ever, and two of the violinists who were due to perform in the Kharkiv premiere travelled all the way to Poole to join the BSO.

It was a shrewd move to preface Akimenko’s concerto with the brilliant bouquet of orchestral fireworks that is Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique. Stravinsky was briefly a composition student of Akimenko’s, and though the older man’s concerto had none of the younger man’s brilliance, there was certainly a family resemblance between the pieces.

There was a similar feeling of exotic magic in the harmony, and in the slow lyrical passages you could detect a distinctly Wagnerian sultriness. But Akimenko’s piece was much more solid and serious, and the Wagnerian element much more prominent. Julien-Laferrière’s performance of the very virtuoso part was beyond praise, and he and the orchestra and Karabits brought out the special flavour of the concerto, poised intriguingly between Germanic romanticism and Russian exoticism. We must hope this team play the piece again soon, before the memory of that flavour fades.

After the interval, the orchestra (still with the Ukrainian violinists) gave a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that traced the journey from funereal blackness to joy and sunlight with total conviction (all praise to horn player Alexander Wide, stentorian and subtle by turns). But though it was the uproarious ending of Mahler’s symphony that brought everyone to their feet, it was the experience of that subtle, moving concerto and all it symbolised of defiance and survival that made the evening special. IH

Listen to this concert for 30 days at bsolive.com