Monday 26 February 2024

Sian Edwards and the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra bring jazz and cabaret to the Corn Exchange

Sian Edwards and the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra
© Nick Boston
Sian Edwards (Conductor)
Alistair McGowan (The Devil)
Jo Castleton (Narrator)
Max Keeble (Soldier)
Claire Guntrip (Princess)
Richard Williams (Director)

Ruth Rogers (Leader)
Fiona Cross (Clarinet)

Joanna MacGregor (Music Director)

7.30pm, Sunday 25 February 2024
Corn Exchange, Brighton

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Ebony Concerto
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974): La Création du monde, Op. 81a
Kurt Weill (1900-1950): Kleine Dreigrochenmusik: Suite from the Threepenny Opera 
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Histoire du soldat

Sian Edwards, Joanna McGregor
& the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra
© Nick Boston
Sian Edwards returned to Brighton to conduct members of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra in a fascinating programme of early twentieth century works, showing the powerful influence of New York and Parisian jazz and Berlin cabaret on composers of the time. 

Stravinsky began and ended the evening. His striking and substantial theatre piece, The Soldier’s Tale formed the second half of tonight’s concert. But proceedings opened with something altogether more playful, his brief Ebony Concerto, written for Woody Herman and his band. As Sian Edwards pointed out in one of her brief informative chats with Joanna MacGregor during stage resets, the works on tonight’s programme are somewhat rarities on the concert platform, mainly due to their unusual scorings, mostly for wind and brass. The clarinet features most in the final of the Concerto’s three short movements, and Fiona Cross’ virtuosity and ease with the idiom here (as throughout the whole concert programme) was impressive. The mournful central movement had a suitably bluesy feel, although the saxophones were a little jagged in places, although the virtuosic perpetual motion set up by a saxophone in the finale was smoothly secure, and the ringing final chords set up an appropriately jazzy feel for the evening.

Milhaud first heard American jazz in London, but soon after headed off to New York to explore jazz music in Harlem, and then emersed himself in the jazz bars of Paris, embracing what he referred to as the ‘jazz idiom’ in his compositions. La Création du monde, a short ballet work written for the Ballet Suédois in Paris, is a case in point. Written for solo strings (although no viola – this part being replaced by the alto saxophone) and woodwind, brass and percussion, it is a gloriously atmospheric piece, with an African creation myth as its scenario. The original ballet wasn’t a huge success, but the music stands alone as an inventive concert piece. The BPO players relished the opportunity for ample solo spotlights with the complex textures, although some appeared more at home in that ‘jazz idiom’ than others. A few tutti moments felt a little over counted, with some rhythms rocking as players interpreted the degree of swing differently, the percussion in particular pushing ahead once or twice. I expect all are still getting used to the newly, beautifully refurbished Corn Exchange’s acoustic, with some balance issues needing to be ironed out, such as cello and percussion significantly louder in the mix, as opposed to rather muffled flutes at the back of the stage. However, Edwards steered them all safely through, and the central joyful riot of creation and desire came across well, as well as the springtime return to calm, with slinky horn and oboe and buzzing flutes and muted trumpets to finish.


Weill’s Kleine Dreigrochenmusik takes us from the Paris jazz bars to Berlin’s cabaret scene, bringing some of the music from his opera with Bertolt Brecht to the concert hall. Set in Victorian London, the opera cast a harsh satirical eye on Weimar Germany of the 1920s, with its array of antiheros, led by Mack the Knife, and was a huge success at home, as well as spreading around Europe and to the USA. The Suite includes ‘hits’ such as the Ballad of Mack the Knife, and Polly’s Song, as well as the sensual Tango-Ballade and the dark Kanonen-Song, and is scored for wind, brass, percussion and piano, with banjo and guitar. The BPO players were strongest in the march-like sections, with strong rhythmic drive provided by Joanna MacGregor on the piano, although the darker sections could have taken more force from all to accentuate the dark satirical mood. Edwards had a challenge to bridge the distance on stage between the piano and percussion at either side, and the final accelerando into the chorale was in danger of coming loose, but enthusiastic energy carried things along, with some strong moments from the swirling clarinet and sultry saxophone, and a particularly chilling chorale over the tolling bells to finish.

Alistair McGowan, Max Keeble, Jo Castleton,
Claire Guntrip, Sian Edwards & the BPO

And so to Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. This is a curious piece, part theatre, part chamber work, with even some dance thrown into the mix, and it feels somewhat of its time. That said, the music is full of vivid colour, and the darkly comedic tale of a soldier being duped by the devil is entertaining and succinctly told with humour in the libretto by Stravinsky’s friend C F Ramuz (here translated from the original French). There are three readers, with the Devil, in a variety of guises, played here by Alistair McGowan, with understated humour and an impressive array of accents. The Narrator, who drives the story along as well as providing snappy interactions with the cast to liven things up was delivered with commanding ease by Jo Castleton, and the bumbling soldier was charmingly played by Max Keeble. Richard Williams’ direction was light and unfussy, with simple staging elements not getting in the way of the musical performance, yet using the space on stage effectively. Dancer Claire Guntrip brought elegance to the non-speaking role of Princess, and the sequence of persuading and teaching the initially clumsy soldier to dance worked well with the music’s sequence of Tango, Waltz and Ragtime dances. As the soldier’s fiddle is central to the tale, there is lots for the first violin to do here, and Ruth Rogers’ devilish dances had real spark and flourish. The Royal March heralding the Princess’ entrance and the final Triumphant March of the Devil had great energy and solid ensemble from the full band, perhaps the tightest formation of players of the evening. Ultimately, a curio of the repertoire not destined for frequent performance, but given a persuasive performance here tonight by all.


Once again, Joanna MacGregor and friends have demonstrated a real creative approach to bringing varied programmes to BPO audiences, and it was great to see the new Corn Exchange full for such an eclectic mix of rarely performed works.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Intensity, virtuosity and life-affirming energy from the Pavel Haas Quartet's all-Czech evening

The Pavel Haas Quartet
© The Wigmore Hall Trust, 2024
Pavel Haas Quartet

Veronika Jarůšková (violin)

Marek Zwiebel (violin)

Šimon Truszka (viola)

Peter Jarůšek (cello)


7.30pm, Monday 12 February 2024

Wigmore Hall, London


Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959): String Quartet No. 3


Vitězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940): String Quartet No. 1, Op. 8


Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): String Quartet in C major, Op. 61

The Pavel Haas Quartet
© The Wigmore Hall Trust, 2024
'Now in their 22nd year, the Pavel Haas Quartet 
continue to impress with their sheer dedication and virtuosic intensity, and tonight was no exception'.

'Truszka gave a richly sensuous tone to the slow movement’s bluesy solo, as well as driving the setup for the finale’s dance'.

'... after a tender conclusion to the slow movement, the finale danced away, building to a joyful climax, the Haas players proving powerful advocates for this strikingly individual quartet'.

'The players’ flowing momentum, with some especially poised birdlike calls from Jarůšková, and their sheer enjoyment in the rousing lead into the recapitulation communicated perfect elegance and style, before subsiding into its quiet final chords'.

'The Pavel Haas Quartet performed throughout with such ease of command, never overstated yet full of life and commitment, making for a joyous celebration of these three fine works'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Thursday 8 February 2024

Chromosphere - arresting performances of Woodwind orchestral music from Shea Lolin and the Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble.

Conductor Shea Lolin and the Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble have recently recorded Chromosphere, a delightful selection of contemporary works (all first recordings) showcasing the ‘symphonic colours of the woodwind orchestra’, as the album’s subtitle describes them.

They kick off with Keiron Anderson’s (b.1955) joyous Alice in Wonderland, which beautifully exploits the variety of textures and moods of the woodwinds. There is humour in the frenetic White Rabbit, and the craziness of A Tea Party and the Lobster Quadrille, yet the dreamy opening, Alice and Her Sister is full of pastoral tenderness. Meanwhile, The Trial brings dramatic tension, before the Return to the Garden brings things to a spirited conclusion. The episodic nature of the piece means that none of the ideas stick around for long, but that adds a sense of forward momentum and story-telling pace. And right from this opening piece, the clarity of articulation and precision of the players is in evidence. 
With Judith Bingham’s (b.1952) Mozart’s Pets, we are still in the realms of fantasy to some extent, albeit based on some truth, in terms of Mozart’s fondness for his pets.
Miss Bimperl, Fox Terrier has a slightly stuttering rhythm, with snappy saxes contrasting against the scurrying upper winds, whilst A London Cat uses the saxes again, this time in more sultry, feline mood. Dawn Chorus in a Viennese Bird-seller’s Shop is cleverly packed with quotes and hints at motifs, repeated like birdcall, and gradually building to a fabulous chattering chorus from the flutes, whilst The Grasshopper has fluttering keys against flighty, jumpy movement. A Canary Sings by Mozart’s Death Bed has thick, mournful textures from the bassoons and saxes, making the frantic crying song of the canary on the piccolo, left alone at the end, almost painfully moving. 
Charlotte Harding (b.1989) contributes Bright Lights, a two movement work, originally written for smaller wind band forces, capturing the excitement of moving to a new city. The first movement, Luminous, is bright and atmospheric, but also full of mystery and a sense of discovery. The cor anglais makes a notable appearance, and there are flashes of colour from the flutes and piccolo amidst the glowing chordal texture, with everything building to a final flashing of lights, again led by the flutes and piccolo. Energetic, Colourful does what it says on the tin, with bright energy and sparkle throughout, and the players excel in bringing out all of the detail, with Lolin managing the rapidly shifting tempi and complex rhythms with evident command, building to an impressive climactic finish.
The programming on the disc comes into its own here too, with the frenetic energy of Bright Lights immediately subdued by the darkly atmospheric Domes from Kamran Ince (b.1960). Straight away, the falling, entwined flutes create a sense of awe and calm, occasionally disturbed by rapid interjections, the piece contrasting the ancient city skylines of Rome and Constantinople. As it develops, the ideas combine and clash more and more, with fiddling movement layered over the insistent falling lines and thick chordal textures. There is also frequent use of silence, the breaks accentuating the drama but also constantly reinforcing the calm, yet Lolin maintains the momentum, and the balance between the chordal textures and more energetic movement. The Pärt-like falling lines return at the end, picked up with tenderness by the clarinets, creating a rather beautiful, if somewhat poignant ending.
The disc concludes with Christopher Hussey’s (b.1974) Child of the Wandering Sea. Having recently been fortunate to be involved with Brighton16 in a recording of one of his choral pieces, Songs from the Temple, this work is a fascinating contrast to that work’s more transparent (but equally evocative) writing, a demonstration of Hussey’s compositional range. It is vivid and atmospheric, and in its three sections, Hussey explores marine life at increasing depths of the ocean. So Sunlight is busy and literally full of life, with trilling clarinets and a plethora of melodic material for mostly upper instruments competing for attention. The energy gradually builds, and Twilight quickens the pace, with more virtuosic demands on the players, and the precision and articulation here is as bright as ever, with Lolin clearly steering proceedings with confidence. After a wild climax, the tempo and mood subside into the darkness of Midnight, the deepest part ocean where there is no light. The weighty chords have a disturbing quality, and a final brief outburst notwithstanding, we are left in solitary darkness.
As an exceptional demonstration of the often neglected range that wind music can deliver, and with such commandingly expert performances from Lolin and the Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble, this has to be highly recommended.   

Monday 29 January 2024

'Wagner's Dream' - the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra on great form, with Geoffrey Paterson conducting

Lotte Betts-Dean
© Ben Ealovega
Lotte Betts-Dean (Mezzo-soprano)

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

Geoffrey Paterson (Conductor)

Joanna MacGregor (Music Director)


7.30pm, Saturday 27 January 2024

Dome Concert Hall, Brighton




Györgi Ligeti (1923-2006): Atmosphères

Luciano Berio (1925-2003):  Folk Songs

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure

arranged by Henk de Vlieger (b.1953)


Geoffrey Paterson

The Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra were back at the Dome in their relatively new Saturday night slot, and whilst the concert hall wasn’t completely full, they had a good audience for one of their most ambitious programmes in recent years. The main draw for most will have bee Henk de Vlieger’s crazy arrangement of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (yes, all four operas, around 15 hours of music) into one orchestral concert work, coming in at around an hour and ten minutes. But more of that later.  

In the understandably short first half, the BPO gave us two challenging and highly contrasting twentieth century works, and there was no sense of these being there purely as filler. Ligeti’s Atmosphères may be known to some from its appearance in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where it provides an other-worldly sense of suspension in time and space. Consisting of dense cluster chords of up to fifty or more pitches at once, these ‘sound masses’ create that sense of suspension, and what movement there is, is almost indiscernible within the density of textures, with the dynamic only rising above quiet on a couple of occasions. Conductor Geoffrey Paterson took the BPO through this with taut control, and by and large, they successfully achieved the desired effect. There were shimmering, strange oscillations and glassy strings, with the woodwind leading one of the crescendi up to four strikingly shrill piccolos. Towards the end two percussionists sweep and stroke the strings inside the piano, adding to the ethereal effect, as well as providing a little extra on-stage interest.


Lotte Betts-Dean,
Geoffrey Paterson & the BPO
© Nick Boston
This was followed by Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs, a set of eleven songs, drawn from eight different countries or regions, in as many different languages, written for and dedicated to his muse and wife at the time, Cathy Berberian. The BPO were joined tonight by the Australian mezzo-soprano, Lotte Betts-Dean, who gave us an incredibly assured and engaging performance. I have to confess, you’ll be surprised to hear, to having little Armenian, Sicilian or Genoese dialect, or Azerbaijani, Sardinian or Occitan for that matter, but none of these linguistic challenges appeared to phase Betts-Dean, and in every song, there was a clear sense of communication and variety of tone. Her range is impressive, from the gracefully held higher notes in Loosin yelav right down to the almost bluesy, yearning low notes of A la femminisca. And she also demonstrated nimble virtuosity in the La la las of Ballo, as well fluid expression over the droning cellos in Lo fiolaire. Paterson and the BPO enjoyed the lighter textures, from just two violas and harp at the start of Black is the Colour, to the orchestral woodwind and trumpet colours in the gently lilting La donna ideale. Only in a couple of places did Paterson allow the orchestra to get a little too loud, risking overpowering Betts-Dean, particularly in her lower range. But overall, this was a characterful performance from all of this delightful and engaging set of songs.

And so to Wagner. Despite the risk of being dismissed as a bit of a ‘greatest hits’ compilation, Henk de Vlieger’s arrangement nevertheless manages to include most of the major musical themes and motifs, with some vocal lines covered instrumentally, obviously, but also keeps much of the orchestral textures preserved, meaning that overall, this does actually work as a stand-alone orchestral piece. Here, programme notes taking us through the synopsis of the four operas, distilled by de Vlieger into fourteen sections, were supplemented by somewhat sketchy surtitles. The orchestra may well have been the largest iteration of BPO, certainly that I’ve ever seen, with a mammoth brass section including eight horns (four of whom doubled on Wagner tubas) – oh, and of course, the anvils. Paterson steered them through the adventure with remarkable energy and drive – this is definitely a feat of stamina, and to their credit, they kept the energy levels high right through. The frolicking Rhinemaidens were joyous, and the flowing Rhine itself from the strings had suitably swirling, watery atmosphere. On the whole, the brass delivered, particularly glorious when evoking the World’s Light appearing as Siegfried wakes Brünnhilde with a kiss, and Siegfried’s subsequent riding away on her steed. Inevitably with so much reliance on the brass, there were some lapses in precision later on, but overall, the excitement and commitment made up for the occasional lack of shine and finesse. The BPO woodwinds continue to show their proficiency, with some particularly evocative birds in the forest, and desperate cries at the death of Siegfried, whilst the string sound was rich and ensemble tight throughout. Hagen’s stabs that kill Siegfried could have had a little more strength and violence, but the final climactic fire of Valhalla, followed by the majestic overpowering by the Rhine brought things to a suitably exhilarating conclusion. Hats off to all concerned for an impressively dramatic performance – an orchestral adventure it certainly was!

Geoffrey Paterson & the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra
© Nick Boston

Tuesday 23 January 2024

Energetic Scottish Symphony lifts a weighty evening of the Schumanns and Mendelssohns

Natalia Ponomarchuk
© Alina Harmash

Alexander Melnikov (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Natalia Ponomarchuk (conductor)


7.30pm, Saturday 20 January 2024

Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Overture in C major

Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Introduction and Allegro for piano and orchestra, Op. 134

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphonhy No. 3 in A minor (Scottish)

Fanny Hensel:

'The LPO's violins responded to the horn’s quiet opening with lyricism, although their pick-up following the introduction was a little imprecise'.

Clara Schumann:

'Melnikov was most at home in the lyrically rhapsodic slow movement, joined by guest principal cellist, Waynne Kwon, beautifully complementing Melnikov’s lyricism with warmth and depth'.

Robert Schumann:

'Melnikov’s chromatic scales swirled and the orchestra surged appropriately in response. He was assured in the delicate intricate passagework, but occasionally, in the more bombastic moments, attention to detail was surprisingly matter of fact, with more than a few imprecisions creeping in'.

Felix Mendelssohn:

'Here the LPO winds came into their own, with a flowing clarinet opening and fizzing articulation from them all, complemented well by the joyful string filigree passages'.

'Once at full pelt, Ponomarchuk elicited rich and expressive drama. The finale had immediate attack, and the fugal sections here were tight. Clarinet and bassoon gave a delightfully expressive duet, and then the transformed ‘Holyrood’ delivered stately grandeur, with glorious horns to finish'. 

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Friday 12 January 2024

Atmospheric and expressive piano works from Hugh Shrapnel performed with virtuosic command by the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble

I reviewed a recording from the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble (pianists Natalie Tsaldarakis and Panayotis Archontides) performing piano music by composers John Lewis (b.1947) and Hugh Shrapnel (b.1947) back in 2020 (here), and I very much enjoyed their atmospheric yet virtuosic performances. They’re back, with Piano Works, this time just by Hugh Shrapnel. On the previous recording, I was struck by the variety of Shrapnel’s mostly miniature pieces, from moody and atmospheric to energetic and at times even aggressive, and this new recording confirms that variety in Shrapnel’s writing for the piano. Again, there are few pieces here longer than a few minutes, yet within this miniature form, Shrapnel captures a mood instantly. A pecking Robin, a weird unidentified creature (insect? small rodent?) in Jump, or comedic, even slightly chaotic Jugglers, all feature in his Piano Set No. 1, alongside the darker, more introspective moods of Shade and Wood at Night. On this disc, in fact there are only two pieces for the duo – the rest are works for solo piano, and they are split fairly evenly between Tsaldarakis and Archontides. So Tsaldarakis takes the Piano Set No. 1, and captures beautifully those mood swings from one momentary movement to the next, some under a minute long. There is a lazy, bluesy tiredness to Small Hours, and Red Queen’s minimalist running on the spot is delivered effortlessly. Archontides plays Shrapnel’s Sonatina, ostensibly more formally structured, but still with now familiar elements such as rippling movement and subtly shifting harmonies, but Archontides also captures the lilting yet plangent mood of the central movement, written as a memorial to Shrapnel’s father. Archontides also takes Love-Hate, contrasting an almost violent opening with more introspective, reflective passages, and his tone is rich and resonant, with a deep tolling bass. And in Esquisse mécanique, written for a volume of piano music inspired by Alkan, Archontides’ virtuosity shines through, its playful, perpetual 5/8 rhythms rippling along without much let up, and exploiting the extreme registers of the keyboard. He also takes two of the three movements of Le Temps Perdu, giving the second movement’s slightly sarcastic, tango-esque rhythms quite dramatic weight, contrasting with the calmer yet darker mood of the slower third movment. Tsaldarkis’ opening movement of this set is playful with hints at dance rhythms within a jazzy, cabaret-style mood. Tsaldarkis performs Sphinxes (drawing on the sets of cryptogram notes Schumann laid out in the middle of Carnival), which is full of silence and hanging resonance, with just a brief moment of outburst adding to the mystery. Premonition is full of foreboding, with its contrary motion between the hands and tolling bells, and For Bob, a tribute to Robert Coleridge, a friend and colleague of Shrapnel’s, shares some of the same bell-like tolling, with repeating falling cries, which later become more chordal in texture, possibly even slightly angry in tone. The players join for just two pieces. In Follow me up to Carlow, Shrapnel pays tribute to his composition teacher Cornelius Cardew, drawing on an old Irish tune celebrating victory over English soldiers at the Battle of Glenmalure. The longest track here, at nearly eight minutes, this is a piece full of dramatic rhythmic energy, and its cross-rhythms build in intensity over insistent rumblings in the bass. The two pianists circle each other in the virtuosic sections, yet retreat into a more reflective mood, before everything comes together for a slightly frenzied climax, before subsiding into ringing chords and tolling bass notes. And they end the disc with For an Alternative, another piece honouring Cardew, with clamorous, resonant bells to open, before driving rhythmic energy takes hold, and here the duo’s virtuosic timing is particularly impressive. This is a great showcase for the variety of expression and mood in Shrapnel’s piano writing, as well as for the virtuosic command of these two pianists, alone or as a duo.

Friday 22 December 2023

Passionately committed Brahms from Janine Jansen and friends at Wigmore Hall

Janine Jansen
© Lukas Beck

Janine Jansen (violin)

7.30pm, Thursday 21 December 2023

Wigmore Hall, London

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100
                                                    Viola Sonata No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 120 No. 2
                                                    Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60

Violin Sonata:
'Jansen and Kozhukhin contrasted well the intimate, almost prayerful opening with playful bounce in the offbeat rhythms that followed'.

'Beautiful pianissimo playing from Jansen always retained a warmth of contact, never airy or breathy in tone'.

Jansen, Ridout, Kozhukhin & Blendulf
© Nick Boston
Viola Sonata:
'Ridout has a quietly commanding presence, and right from the opening singing melody, he showed that he had the lyricism to convey Brahms’ long lines, but it was the ebb and flow of joint proceedings with Kozhukhin that drove this opening movement forward'. 

Piano Quartet:
'Right from Kozhukhin’s thundering opening to the Third Piano Quartet, and the dark string response, it was clear this would be a totally committed performance from all four musicians'.

'All four galloped through the strange rhythms of the second movement, with its gloriously startling major conclusion, then Blendulf stepped into the limelight with a beautifully lyrical opening to the Andante, Kozhukhin providing a gentle pulse'. 

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.