Category: Concert Reviews


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.

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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!

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?

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!

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.

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.

Aldo Baerten, flute; Stefan De Schepper, piano

Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London, October 5th

I seem to be getting along to a lot of Belgian flautist Aldo Baerten’s recitals (this is the third), and have now also had the opportunity to hear him play a piece twice! This performance, given at the Royal Academy of Music in London as part of the British Flute Society (BFS) Premier Flautist Series, was my favourite so far, mostly due to an engaging and varied program that showed off Baerten’s musicality and technical prowess on the flute.

Baerten opened with J.S. Bach’s Partita in C minor, BWV 997, and, while the performance was sprightly and imbibed with character, I felt that it was the low-point of the recital. It seemed like a bit of a warm-up for the soloist, and in many ways the stylistic understanding of pianist Stefan De Schepper  were more consistently visible. Of particular note, Baerten chose to start both slow movements incredibly softly, to the point that it made me rather nervous for him as an audience member!

The unquestionable triumph of the program was Hindemith’s Sonata, which I also heard Baerten perform at the 2013 Australian Flute Festival, and seems almost to be his signature work. Here, the sprightliness evident in the Bach came into its own, particularly in the concluding Sehr Lebhaft-Marsch, where it really did feel like the performers were just having fun together. Baerten has an impeccable control of pianissimo high notes, which this work gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate to sensuous effect. The colours created in these moments were utterly stunning.

I was pleased to see that Baerten had mixed Bach with more contemporary repertoire, programming two of Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages as well as a very new work, Suite for flute and piano, by Belgian composer Robert Groslot. I’m a fan of Kurtag, and particularly these little miniatures, and was delighted to hear them performed live. Hommage à J.S.B, in particular, was rendered with wonderful attention to the musical contour. The Groslot, while admirably performed, didn’t entirely hold my attention. Moments, in particular shimmering internal section of the Metamorphosis movement where flute and piano threaded in and out of each others’ sound, were fascinating. However, the whole was a bit pastoral for me, and lacked any logical compositional direction through the movements.

Baerten concluded with a flute and piano arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune, a bold undertaking considering that most of the audience were flautists! Both his and De Schepper’s sense of colour was stunning, encapsulating the sweeping orchestral sounds of Debussy’s original. However, Baerten did take rather a lot of rhythmic liberty in the solo passages, and I was not the only flautist in the audience distracted by this.

The recital was followed with a short question-and-answer session, which I found engaging and insightful. I hope to hear Baerten (and hopefully some more twentieth-century works) very soon!

 

Hamer Hall, June 7th

This concert has been firmly on my calendar all year – a program of Copland, Stravinsky and the world premier of a new Piccolo Concerto by Australian composer Paul Stanhope felt like just about the perfect choice. It was great to see that I was not alone, though much of the rest of the audience seemed a little more excited about Firebird than the concerto (but then I’m a flautist!).

Appalachian Spring Suite, in its original form for thirteen instruments, was played sensitively and with careful attention to subtle variations of colour in the writing. Conductor Benjamin Northey seemed at times to be more a part of the chamber ensemble than strongly leading, giving the musicians room to play soloistically but at times resulting in a lack of clarity in the strings. Tempos were brisk, and the feeling of dance was never far away, though I wonder whether some of the audience were expecting the sweeping gestures of Aaron Copland’s fully orchestrated version of the suite.

Copland’s Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson is a work that springs less readily to mind in the context of an orchestral concert. Emma Matthews did a stunning job with what is clearly challenging music, singing with apparent ease and flexibility. Diction was clear throughout, and in the acoustics of Hamer Hall it was possible to enjoy the subtleties of Dickinson’s poems without needing to resort to the printed program. Copland’s orchestrations, however, felt a little inconsistent, at times supporting the singer beautifully and at others seeming a bit lack-luster. Dear March, come in and The Chariot stood out for their execution, with an almost dramatic intent on the part of both Matthews and the orchestra.

I can easily say that Stanhope’s new Piccolo Concerto was the highlight of my evening, taking its place easily alongside two giants of the twentieth century. The concerto was written for and premiered by Andrew Macleod (also the MSO principal piccolo), and was a fantastic showcase of exactly what the piccolo can achieve in terms of both expressive and dramatic power. The opening Hymn was stunning in its juxtaposition of colour, with the piccolo at times blending into the orchestral texture through doubling lower voices, at others standing out with ringing declamations. Macleod’s control of the instrument is stunning, with his ability to diminuendo to nothing on even the highest of notes particularly impressive. The second movement Scherzo: Wheels within Wheels worked at an incredible level of intricacy on the orchestral level, with a devilish-sounding solo part to match. If there was any irony at the “boutique” size of the solo instrument, then composer, soloist and conductor alike were at once laughing with the audience and utterly defying their expectations.

Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite rounded out the evening in a blaze of still more colour. Benjamin Northey, conducting from memory, egged the orchestra on to play at bright speeds with wonderful clarity.

Melbourne Recital Centre, April 20th

A grand finale to Melbourne’s Metropolis New Music Festival, Shadows showed off the wealth of music that comes under the festival banner. It also made me wish that I’d had time to go to a few more of the numerous other concerts across the festival’s two weeks.

British composer and conductor Thomas Adès both programmed and conducted the concert, showing himself to be both versatile and daring in his approach to new music.  Adès’s works are almost approaching mainstream in both his native England and overseas. While maybe not so well-known to Australian audiences, the opportunity to hear these works conducted by the composer was not to be missed. The program was tantalising in its variety, juxtaposing the more conventional orchestral forces with solo cello and large chamber configurations, and Adès was totally at home on the podium.

Niccolo Castigliano’s Inverno In-ver was an intriguing study in the the variety one can achieve with a limited soundscape. In this case, the limiting factor was pitch – all eleven movements were concerned with the high and tinkly. The variety of sounds produced (if occasionally a little taxing on the ears) was mesmerising, a wonderful study in colour and orchestral texture. Each movement felt exactly right in its length and scope, and the work left the impression of having been treated to an exquisite tasting-platter of sound.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Kai for solo cello and ensemble dragged the audience out of this dream-like state into a harsher reality. The cello was constantly pitted against the full force of the ensemble (including bass guitar and drum kit), forcing soloist Steven Isserlis to respond with a dramatic and occasionally forced musical vocabulary. Isserlis executed the solo part with incredible sincerity and flawless technique, though the piece as a whole might have benefited from a little more contrast in colour and instrumentation.

Isserlis’s solo performance that followed the interval was breathtaking in a totally different way. Four movements of Gygory Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages for solo cello, the miniatures were delicious in their economy of gesture and idea. Isserlis’s performance captured this beautifully, demanding absolute attention of the audience as he captured even the most delicate of gestures. It was a pity that this segment of the concert seemed to be over too quickly – placed directly after the interval it took the audience the first few of these short movements to settle down and stop rustling! I could quite happily have listened to the whole work; the performance was one of the rare moments where it felt like soloist and work were perfectly matched.

While this may have been my high point of the concert, I was still suitably impressed with what followed. One of the winners of this year’s Cybec composition competition, Lachlan Skipworth showed that the younger generation of Australian composers are continuing to produce new and interesting works. His piece Afterglow, while not really resembling the piece described in the program note, was nevertheless refined and a pleasure to listen to. Framing a central piccolo solo (played by Andrew Macleod with his usual precision), the work showed an economy of gesture and interesting attention to the details of colour.

Adès, having shown the same enthusiasm for every piece on the evening’s program, finished the concert with three dances from his first opera Powder Your Face. Lively and catchy as one can be while still staying in the new music vein, the dances rounded out a spectacular evening (and I am told festival), and were certainly a crowd-please. For me – I’ll certainly give the opera a listen very soon, but failed to be quite as revved up by the dances as I thought I would be. Maybe, after reading the opera synopsis in the program, I wanted a little more drama. But then new music never intends to please universally, the challenge to confront the unknown is far more important.

Bring on Metropolis 2014, next time I will make sure to attend more!

South Melbourne Town Hall, 28th March

The only way to describe this concert was wow! Wow for the sheer gumption to program such challenging and contrasting works, and wow for the dramatic performance that resulted.

From the first minutes of Peter Hill’s pre-concert talk, it was clear that we were in for something special. Hill, arguably the world’s most pre-eminent Messiaen scholar, was also a incredibly articulate speaker, and gave a wonderfully engaging survey of the composer’s career. The narrative was not overly academic – equipping the audience with valuable knowledge in preparation for music that is without a doubt intellectually challenging. One could say he was preaching to the converted – we had all already bought a ticket – but Hill went beyond this, making the works on the program highly accessible and indeed incredibly exciting.

The concert itself, while possibly a little on the long side, balanced Messiaen’s large-scale work Visions de l’amen in the second half with a selection of smaller ones – Préludes No.1, Catéyodjayâ and two movements of 4 Feuillets inédits – in the first. Directly preceding the interval, of all things, were four of JS Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. As a whole, this seemingly disparate program had a wonderful arc to it, and was a wonderful showcase of both Hill’s versatility and the skills of the ANAM piano students.

Visions de l’amen, clearly the central focus of Hill’s masterclasses at ANAM during the week, is an epic and deeply meditative work for two pianos. Hill played the second piano part throughout, while the six ANAM students shared the first part in something of a relay. Though this set-up had the capacity to be distracting, the result was nevertheless stunning. Each student brought a new energy to the instrument that was very much in line with the varied musical material of each movement. Aidan Boase and Jacob Abela, in particular, were stunning in the final three movements. Hill’s profound understanding of the work underpinned this, making for complete performance that was utterly thrilling.

The students’ performances of the Bach may have suffered a little from the Messiaen work being the week’s central focus, though Gladys Chua played Book II, C sharp major with a wonderful fluidity. Hill’s Book I, C major and B minor were stunning, with an elegance of touch and economy of gesture that show him to be an all-rounder in the most complete of senses.