The Heat and the Passion of the Mediterranean – London Symphony Orchestra

Sunday 18th January,
The Barbican Centre, London

Wow! Sunday night at the Barbican Centre was one of those rare concerts where every single note was pulsating with energy and vibrancy. From the first chord of Verdi’s Force of Destiny Overture to the final flourish of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappricio Espagnol, the London Symphony Orchestra were a phenomenal musical force. The focal point of this raw passion was undoubtedly conductor Xian Zhang, whose presence on the podium seemed to constantly push the ensemble to greater heights and often tempos.

The aptly-named Force of Destiny Overture showcased an impressive blend of orchestral sound, particularly in the woodwinds. There is an elusive moment when flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon combine to give a shimmering unified colour that seems more than the sum of the parts, and the principal winds of the LSO seemed to slip in and out of this state with utter ease. The orchestral sound as a whole was crisp and sparkling, with technically difficult passages in the strings ringing out with amazing clarity.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the centrepiece of the exhilarating program, was an emotional rollercoaster. Ukranian pianist Valentina Lisitsa played with amazing dexterity and attention to detail, ensuring that even the densest passages rang out. The work was described at its premiere as one that “left its listeners frozen with fright, hair standing on end”, and this performance captured that feeling of terror bordering on fantastical. The Intermezzo – one moment eerily grotesque, the next whimsical – was a particular highlight.

Following the interval it was party time, though Zhang and the orchestra instilled both Manuel de Falla’s Three Dances from ‘The Three-Cornered Hat’ (Suite No. 2) and Cappricio Espagnol with dramatic energy rather than carefree. Christine Pendrill’s cor anglais in the de Falla was rich and round, and the orchestra’s technical precision and intense trust as an ensemble allowed the music to sparkle and dance.

Bravo LSO – the concert was deservedly packed and quite a stunner!

Bach and Handel: Flute and Violin by Candlelight

January 8th, 2015
London Octave, St Martin in the Fields, London

Meditative if somewhat conservative, this concert presented a selection of trio sonatas and solos by Bach and Handel. Flautist William Bennett and violinist Andrew Watkinson are stunning musicians, infusing every note with a glittering vitality that made each work sing. The Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin was a particular highlight, and a brief introduction by Watkinson was perfect for those who didn’t know the work so well. Bennett’s performance of Bach’s E minor flute sonata was delicately coloured and a pleasure to listen to, though I did wonder occasionally whether he was finding the performance tiring.

Joined by Christopher Bevan at the harpsichord and last-minute ring in cellist Tim Lowe, the ensemble’s trio sonatas were fun and easy-going. As the concert progressed, the contrast between Bach and Handel’s writing was very noticeable. Though astutely composed and beautifully phrased, the Handel felt light-hearted and fleeting compared with the emotional intensity of Bach’s musical journeys. Moving from Handel Sonata for violin and continuo in E major Op.1 No. 12 into Bach’s Trio Sonata in C minor from ‘Musical Offering’ made for a luscious though weighty ending to the program, and I left feeling incredibly refreshed and musically content.

Others might have done something a little more daring with either programming or presentation, though I’m not sure that such a concert would necessarily have suited the serene grandeur of St Martin’s. As it was London, and all performers were of such a high calibre, the concert was well (though not stunningly) attended. It’s concerts like this, though, that make me wonder about the future of classical music – is this necessarily the best way to present small chamber works in a way that might draw audiences back? Or will the audiences slowly disappear in other directions?

London Philharmonic Orchestra: Brahms, Schubert and Strauss

Wednesday 19th November, Royal Festival Hall, London

Under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the London Philharmonic Orchestra last night presented a dazzling and touching program of orchestral favourites. Opening with Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 seemed somewhat unusual – a short orchestral piece might have been preferable before being launched into the full 50-minute concerto – but was a technically astute and musically assured performance on the part of soloist Lars Vogt. Exaggerated left hand flourishes aside, he is a compelling pianist, pushing the second movement scherzo to a brisk tempo and easily matching the orchestral forces. While special mention must be given to the excellent playing of principal cellist Kristina Blaumane in the Andante movement, the orchestra seemed on the whole to still be getting going. Colourful playing in the strings was occasionally marred by intonation troubles in the winds, and dynamic swells in the final movement in particular could have been greater to match Vogt’s stormy performance.

After interval, however, the orchestra came into their own with Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished) and R. Strauss’s Don Juan. Nézet-Séguin directed the Schubert with the ease of an old friend, caressing the well-known opening melody and allowing for a comfortable ebb and flow of the music. Here, principal winds came into their own, tossing melodic lines back and forth in the hall’s excellent acoustics. The Strauss, something of an showpiece, was performed with full forces and plenty of excitement. An excellent horn section, coupled with Nézet-Séguin’s brisk tempos, made for a rendition that seemed as much fun for those on stage as in the audience!

Flute and Piano Recital – Wissam Boustany and Aleksander Szram

Friday 14th November, St Mary’s Church on Paddington Green, London
Chamber Music in Little Venice series

I came to this recital with a very good idea of what I’d be focusing on for the entire evening, and thankfully was proved totally wrong. Both flautist Wissam Boustany and pianist Aleksander Szram make a big deal of the fact that they perform from memory, to the point of it becoming a bit of a calling card for them. While I’m still not sure that it needs to be a key point in one’s biography, I was pleasantly surprise that the memory aspect didn’t dominate my concert experience. Far from it – though the memorisation of such a program is amazing, the music was the most amazing part, as it should be!

Boustany chose a challenging program, featuring both the hair-raising Ballade by Frank Martin and Bohuslav Martinu’s Sonata No. 1. These were stunning performances, with the clarity of bell-like high notes in the final movement of the Martinu a particular highlight. Boustany’s sense of melodic arc was apparent throughout, and while the storytelling was often aided quite a lot by his eyebrows, the sound nevertheless soared in the small church. For the most part delicately phrased and showing keen ensemble with Szram, the opening Sonata in Bb major by Beethoven felt at times to be something of a warm-up, as Boustany’s high notes were somewhat strained.

However, the stand-out pieces on this program were not the standards but the less well-known works. Boustany’s own composition – Broken Child for flute and piano – showed strong Middle-Eastern influences in its musical language and was utterly compelling. Deeply mournful, the flute was used to draw out rich tone colours with beautifully subtle inflections of sound. For the recital’s final work, the duo were joined by violist Karen Norlén to perform Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude, Récitatif et Variations Op.3. This is a gem of twentieth-century chamber music, and it was a pleasure to her such a thoughtful, compelling rendition. The Récitatif theme was beautiful in its simplicity, and Norlén’s rich tone added an wonderful depth to the performance.

The Turn of the Screw – Glyndeboure Tour

November 7th, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

It cannot be doubted that Benjamin Britten is a very English composer, and his choice of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw the subject for an opera in many ways confirms this. Very little concrete action actually takes place in James’s tale – most of the time is spent in the head of the governess as she grapples with the reality of what she may or may not be seeing. In the end, the book prompts us to question whether the children were actually haunted by ghosts or whether the governess herself was just going off the rails in her seclusion.

I was surprised, then, to find that the characters of Peter Quint (Anthony Gregory) and Miss Jessel (Miranda Keys) to be incredibly present in Britten’s operatic adaption. One is never quite sure whether they’re working together or whether the malevolent presence of one draws the other along as well, but their on-stage characters are quite compelling. Peter Quint, in particular, is portrayed  as an evil woodland spirit as he sings of being:

“all things strange and bold,
The riderless horse Snorting,
stamping on the hard sea sand…”

Gregory’s performance was easily the stand-out in a fantastic cast, with a strong, flexible voice complemented by a striking stage presence. His and Miss Jessel gradual encroach on the peace of Bly was highlighted by the twisted form of a large dead tree, initially suspended above the stage, then coming to rest in the background in the second act. Though the governess (Natalya Romaniw) and Mrs Grose (Anne Mason) don’t interact with this prop, the ghosts twist and turn around it, suggesting an other-worldliness to the otherwise sparse scenery.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the necessity of casting Miles (Thomas Delago-Little) and particularly Flora (Louise Moseley) somewhat older than the age suggested, and found Moseley’s childlike playing with her doll somewhat unconvincing considering that she was almost as tall as Mrs Grose! However, both were excellent actors, taking effortless command of the stage and capturing the carefree of innocent play beautifully. Moseley’s voice is rich and sure, and I hope she continues to shine on the stage! Delago-Little dealt with the challenging part of Miles incredibly well, and despite some erring on high notes was suitably eerie in his trance-like renditions of the Malo song.

Mason’s portrayal of Mrs Grose was a strong one that seemed at odds with some of the characters more unsure lines. However, her interaction with Romaniw constantly carried the narrative forwards, and supported by the expressive chamber orchestra under the direction of Leo McFall, deftly captured the gradually mounting hysteria. Though her voice was sometimes a little lost in the bigger ensemble, Romaniw is a compelling actress, and was particularly stunning in the schoolroom scene confronting both Miss Jessel and her own fears.