Sunday Organ Recital – Westminster Abbey

Jeremy Woodside, 28th June, 2015

I’ve been trying to get along to one of the Sunday organ recitals at Westminster Abbey for a while, as much for a way to see some of the abbey for free as to hear some wonderful music! While some of the recitals advertised in May focused on arrangements of popular orchestral repertoire, I was pleased to see that Jeremy Woodside’s program for the 28th showed off some more substantial pieces.

Opening with Eugène Gigout’s Grand choeur dialogué, Woodside showed himself to be a master of the Westminster organ. Passagework was equally expressive and technically secure, and the dialogue of the work’s title was created through striking use of stops. Keen to use the full force of the instrument at key points, Woodside nevertheless showed a command across its varied timbres, with particularly clear use of articulation.

A relatively contemporary work on the program, the Siciliano for a High Ceremony by Herbert Howells explored a sparser, meditative musical space that is often absent from organ recitals. Though perhaps not the greatest of pieces, it was subtly and delicately performed with rounded melodic lines drawing towards the climax.

Woodside concluded the performance with J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582. Whether due to a lack of preparation or a fault of the instrument, the Passacaglia was sloppy where both the Fugue and earlier Grand Choeur were at their strongest – a lack of attention to unity of voices resulted in a confusing rendition. Luckily, this was remedied in the Fugue, which showed an intrinsic understanding of Bach’s contrapuntal writing. Excellent technical facility and attention to the interrelationship of fugal voices and harmony produced an exhilarating rendition that used the Westminster space to full advantage.

Alsop Conducts Beethoven – London Philharmonic Orchestra

February 21st, 2015
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

Despite really enjoying Beethoven, I had a few reservations about last night’s concert being an all-Beethoven affair.  I though the performance was sparkling and full of energy, no question about it. Marin Alsop is a striking conducting force, and showed a deep understanding for Beethoven’s works and style. She presided over the podium with an intensity of focus that spurred the London Philharmonic Orchestra to some stunning music.

Opening with the overture to Leonore No. 3, the woodwind played with keen ensemble and sense of colour. However, the balance between strings and the rest of the orchestra was not good in the balcony – every time the brass entered they were drowned out entirely. David Fray’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was refined and well-crafted. His second-movement phrasing was particularly graceful, though there was a tendency to be rather heavy in the fast movements.

Finally came the triumphal Symphony No. 7, which the orchestra played with passion and zeal. Alsop always sat on the faster side of the tempo, pushing the music still faster in the final measures of the Allegro con Brio. By contrast, the second movement Allegretto returned to the minor sound world of the piano concerto, lending weight and rich instrumental colours to its memorable melodies.

Nash Ensemble

6pm, Saturday 7th February,
Wigmore Hall, London

The first of two concerts the Nash Ensemble presented last night as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations, this concert was fantastic but a little on the short side. This review isn’t the place for going into the musical politics of having all the contemporary music in the free concert and then the more mainstream works in a paid concert later in the evening, and I only went to the earlier one anyway. As a result it was rather short, and I was left feeling like I wanted more music.

The program featured three works commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, and opened with Debussy’s Syrinx, which morphed into Richard Rodney Bennett’s Sonata after Syrinx for flute, viola and harp. Flautist Philippa Davies played with energy and a rich, velvety sound, filling Wigmore Hall with what seemed like not effort at all. Joined by Lawrence Power and Rachel Wakeford, the Bennett was an intriguing and well-paced meditation on the Debussy. However, it didn’t hold my interest consistently, and I have to confess to admiring the hall’s decor as well!

The standout of the concert – both as a work and a performance – was Lawrence Power’s rendition of Prayer for solo viola by Julian Anderson. Far from a soft, mellow utterance, the piece was one of drama and tension. Only occasionally did the atmosphere relax a little. Power seemed totally at home here, and rendered every passage expressive and daring no matter what the technical challenges.

Finally, the original trio were joined by baritone Roderick Williams for Nicholas Maw’s Roman Canticle. This was a pleasant, colourful piece, the vocal line pastoral with the instrumentalists scurrying and running underneath. I could easily have listened to more!

Sir Mark Elder – London Symphony Orchestra

Thursday 5th February,
The Barbican Centre, London

A wide-ranging and thrilling program from the London Symphony Orchestra last night under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. By interval, I was convinced that mezzo-soprano Susan Graham’s performance was the night’s stand-out, only to be blown away again by Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony again in the second half.

The concert opened with a new work by Patrick Brennan as part of the LSO’s Panufnik Composers Scheme. It’s fantastic to hear newly commissioned works by up-and-coming composers on main stage programs, and orchestra gave Brennan’s work every ounce of passion and commitment as much as the other works on the program. However, in this case I was a little underwhelmed by the finished product, despite excitement after reading the program note. Ballabile was interesting in part, but seemed to lack an overall structural direction and often felt like Brennan was merely getting excited about the wealth of microtonal possibilities available to an orchestral string section.

Susan Graham was mezzo-soprano soloist in Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, and she gave a stunning, expressive performance. Despite the inherent difficulties stemming from this piece’s score calling for different voice types in each of the songs, Graham soared effortlessly above the orchestra, blending particularly smoothly with the strings. Au cimetière and L’île inconnue were particular treats, balancing warmth with daring inflections of colour.

Following the interval, the London Symphony Orchestra was let loose on the dramatic weight of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique‘ Symphony. Under Elder’s invigorating direction, the intensity of this music became a shimmering presence in the hall, as it seemed the orchestral players put every fibre into the music. Particularly striking were principal clarinetist Andrew Marriner’s daring playing in the adagio-allegro non troppo, as well as the frenzy of energy that grew from the third movement. I was clapping as hard as anyone! Though it’s a pity that the program note on the work itself wasn’t cross-checked with Tchaikovsky’s composer profile (the latter claiming he committed suicide, the former saying there is no evidence to support this), the Finale’s throbbing fate theme left all in awe.


Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – London Symphony Orchestra

Sunday 25th January,
The Barbican Centre, London

A glittering program of virtuoso performances, the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance on Sunday was quite a treat. The program opened with Blossoming II by Toshio Hosokawa – a work of shimmering simplicity and beauty. Starting with a single, sustained note, the music grew in elegant ripples inspired by the way in which lotus blossoms come into flower. The orchestra played with sophistication and poise, drawing breath as one. Here, conductor Robin Ticciani was in his element, and this performance rather stole the show for its elegance, ensemble and artistic vision.

By contrast, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major sparkled with the virtuosity of individuals. Simon Trpceski is a deft performer whose deep understanding of the music gave rise to a dancing rendition that fulling embraced the composer’s jazzy inflections. The second movement was particularly memorable – with subtly rendered phrases passed elegantly between piano and wind soloists. Though Trpceski’s rousing duet with leader Roman Simovic was undoubtedly the audience’s favourite encore, mention must also be made of the beautifully lyrical, almost understated Poulenc.

Orchestra and conductor alike seemed to enjoy Malher’s Fourth Symphony immensely, performing with energy and vigour thoughout. Woodwinds and principal horn Timothy Jones played with striking colours and seamless cohesion. While it seemed that things came momentarily unstuck at the end of the third movement, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill’s agile voice brought a new layer to the finale portraying a child’s view of heaven. Sunlight and shadows, doubt and glorious affirmation, before the final note shimmered and faded into silence.