Tuesday 9 April 2024

A strong sea-inspired finish to Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra's 99th Season

Adam Hickox & the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra
© Nick Boston

Adam Hickox (conductor)

Ragnhild Hemsing (Hardanger fiddle)

Joanna MacGregor (piano/conductor)


Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

Nicky Sweeney (leader)


2.45pm, Sunday 7 April 2024

Brighton Dome


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Four Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’


Geiir Tveitt (1908-1981): Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 252 for Hardanger fiddle, ‘Three Fjords’


Ryuichi Sakamoto (1952-2023): Still Life

                                                    Bibo non Aozora

                                                    Happy End


Claude Debussy (1862-1918): La Mer


Ragnhild Hemsing, Adam Hickox & the BPO
© Nick Boston

I’ve been fortunate to catch many of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts over recent seasons, and it has been a pleasure to see them go from strength to strength, with imaginative and innovative programming, and some great performances along the way. The final concert of their 99th season was no exception, and certainly sets them up well for an exciting centenary season to come.


Conductor Adam Hickox was at the helm, and his assured confidence and clear direction was key to bringing out the best from the BPO players. Their opening of the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, was full of atmosphere and evocative colour. From its pianissimo opening, Dawn had darkly ominous brass layered with the strange angular violins, and aside from one imprecise pickup, entries were secure. The horns’ bells rang out clear for Sunday Morning, with spiky seagull cries from the woodwind, against a slightly seasick dance from the violas and cellos. As the movement built, there were a couple of moments where the flutes’ birds didn’t quite knit fully into the overall orchestral texture, but Britten’s cumulative queasy effect was nevertheless achieved. Moonlight brings more unsettled atmosphere, and here the BPO’s dynamic range could have been more expansive in places, and there wasn’t total unanimity in note lengths from the strings, revealed by Britten’s use of silence and stop/start phrases. However, Storm had immediate drive and pace, with Hickox eliciting greater range in the brass surges, as well as controlling a tight transition into the briefly calmer central section. 


Next came a Violin Concerto, but with a difference. Ragnhild Hemsing performed Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt’s Violin Concerto No. 2 for Hardanger fiddle, Three Fjords. The Hardanger fiddle is a fascinating hybrid instrument, with four strings bowed as on a normal violin, but also with a second set of strings running under the fingerboard that resonate sympathetically, providing a drone-like quality to the sound produced. It goes back to the 17th century, and is thought of as Norway’s national instrument. Tveitt, whose family came from Hardangerford, was a prolific composer, and today’s concerto was his second for the instrument. As well as the fiddle, folk melodies from the Hardanger region and the traditional Norwegian modal scales were central to much of his music. The three movements of the second Concerto all contain elements of dance rhythms as well as folk-like, pentatonic melodies and harmonies, somewhat dictated by the fixed tuning of those resonating understrings. Hemsing’s fiddle was miked – a necessity in a large venue when the quieter instrument is put against a full orchestra if the resonances were to be heard. The consequent sound in the concert hall was richly resonant, and there was often a sense of Hemsing leading the orchestral violins in particular into the dance, joined in Hardangerfjord by a bright snare drum. Sognefjord had darker moments, with the fiddle opening alone, followed by mournful brass and strings. Nordfjord provided a sparky finish, with jerkier rhythms and wild virtuosity from Hemsing, with swirling and sliding building to an exciting finish. We then got to briefly hear the fiddle on its own, with Hemsing treating us to an encore of two traditional tunes, a ‘listening tune’, with strongly resonating drones and swirling bird-like figures, followed by a ‘dancing tune’, with orchestra and audience alike stomping along to the lively rhythms. 


Joanna MacGregor & the BPO
© Nick Boston

Music Director Joanna MacGregor took to the stage to open the second half of the concert, performing three short pieces from Japanese composer and pianist, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 2013 album, Playing the Orchestra. Sakamoto, who sadly died just a year ago, composed, performed, produced, and worked with many musicians and artists, including Laurie Anderson and Youssou N’Dor, as well as acting and writing film scores, such as The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky. MacGregor performed and conducted from the piano in these atmospheric miniatures. First, Still Life, with MacGregor conducting the muted divided violins, shifting independently within the texture, joined by soft woodwind chords. MacGregor then sat at the piano, her playing initially inaudible but then emerging from the texture into the limelight. Bibo no Aozora (Beauty of a Blue Sky) had greater rhythmic interest, with the piano opening alone, joined by pulsing violins. The jazzy harmonies build into lush, romantic expression, subsiding to leave the piano alone once more. Finally, Happy Endcontrasted repeated woodwind notes with a singing, falling cello line, then a walking bass line from the bassoons. MacGregor’s confident octaves on the piano built to a dramatic conclusion and sudden surprise end. An enjoyable start to the second half – although not quite fitting into the overall ‘Sea songs’ theme, perhaps.


Hickox returned to the podium to conduct Debussy’s magnificent impressionist masterpiece, La Mer. In his brief discussion with MacGregor whilst the stage was rearranged, he referred to it as the greatest piece for orchestra, and talked of how Debussy used the strings in particular for rhythmic interest or orchestral colour, rather than simply for melodic lines. And indeed the muted violins shimmered in the opening movement, De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From dawn to noon on the sea), and the multiply divided strings produced complex textures, against which the woodwind and brass provided the ebb and flow of the waves. In Jeux de vagues (Play of the waves), Hickox brought out the sensuous playfulness, and leader Nicky Sweeney delivered a suitably skittish solo. With ringing high harps and moments of swaying waltz (Hickox swinging to the rhythms), this had a real sense of the spray, before disappearing away to a wisp at the end. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the sea) opened with ominous low strings, and the woodwind began a little tentatively here, but once the strident trumpet broke through, they rose to the challenge with the melodic line’s increasing rising intervals building relentlessly. And when the final tutti came, there was real power and a sense of stormy turmoil, with the insistent timpani driving to a spectacular conclusion. 


All in all, this was a suitably impressive finish to the BPO’s season, and I look forward to hearing where they go next for their 100th season. 

Saturday 6 April 2024

Stylish performances of Clive Osgood’s Three Shakespeare Songs from the Sofia Vokalensemble and Bengt Ollén

In 2008 the Esterházy Chamber Choir in Lewes commissioned a set of Three Shakespeare Songs from composer Clive Osgood (b.1977). They’ve now been recorded by the Swedish choir, Sofia Vokalensemble, based in Stockholm, and conducted by Bengt Ollén. It’s a short set, coming it at around twelve and a half minutes for the three songs, but they are given a bright and secure reading here, with beautifully blended singing throughout. The texts all come from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, and have all been set by many composers, from contemporaries of Shakespeare right through to the modern day. ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’, with its penetrating clusters and semitone clashes, is a striking opener, and the bell-like sopranos atop a rich, resonant recording are very effective. However, Osgood doesn’t just rely on the cluster harmonies here, with contrasting rhythmic movement for the ‘Heigh ho! sing’ chorus. ‘Under the greenwood tree’ has more straightforwardly warm choral harmonies, and a bright soprano solo rises out of the second verse. Here, the thicker choral textures could be brought down in the balance a little to allow the solo to fully shine through, but there is warmth of tone from all here. The set concludes with ‘It was a lover and his lass’, in a swingy, playful setting from Osgood, with hints of barber-shop. Here, the light, clear sopranos would benefit from a little more confident weight in places, but Ollén shapes the varied textures well. Osgood has certainly employed contrasting styles in the three songs here, with ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ being the most convincingly successful. The set certainly offers a choir the opportunity to demonstrate range, and the Sofia Vokalensemble definitely achieve this. I reviewed an enjoyable album of Clive Osgood’s Sacred Choral Music back in 2019 (here), but there is a greater variety of compositional style on display in this short set here. As it did for the Esterházy Chamber Choir, this set would sit well within any programme of Shakespeare settings, of which there are of course many to choose from.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

20th-century English quintets at Cadogan Hall: sensitivity and orchestral scale

Mark Bebbington & RPO Principals
© Jenny Robinson

Mark Bebbington (piano)
Principals of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Tamás András (violin)
Andrew Storey (violin)
Abigail Fenna (viola)
Jonathan Ayling (cello)
Benjamin Cunningham (double bass)

3.30pm, Sunday 24 March 2024
Cadogan Hall, London

John Ireland (1879-1962): Phantasie Trio in A minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): 
Piano Quintet in C minor
Edward Elgar (1857-1934): 
Quintet in Q minor for Piano and String Quartet, Op. 84

'Jonathan Ayling’s opening lyrical cello melody was supported by gentle rippling from Bebbington, and violinist Tamás András responded with quiet delicacy'.

Vaughan Williams:
'The strings delivered warmth, with Bebbington soft-toned and sensitive throughout'.

'The free variations of the expansive finale gave all opportunities for fuller expression, and the string response to an emphatic statement from Bebbington midway was orchestral in magnitude'.

'The players followed András’ lead, with great swagger and bounce'.

'... with full-blooded passion from today’s players throughout'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here

Friday 22 March 2024

The Atchison Quartet give affectionate performances of String Quartets by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) was a prolific composer, particularly of choral music and songs, and was important for the amateur choral and festival scene in Britain in the twentieth century. However, his output included a fair amount of chamber music, albeit a significant number of unpublished works. So of his twelve or so string quartets, a good half of them remained unpublished and mostly unperformed in his lifetime. He studied at the Royal College of Music with Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood, and Adrian Boult, who was responsible for encouraging him away from teaching and into music study. He later joined the staff at the RCM, as well as founding the Danbury Choral Society, which he conducted until just before his death. His compositional style, whilst not as overtly influenced by the English early twentieth century folksong revival that influenced many of his contemporaries, it nevertheless was distinctly melodic and definitely tonal, which, when combined with his own reticence to publish many of his works, meant that whilst popular in his lifetime, much of his music has been somewhat neglected since.


The Atchison Quartet is a project based quartet led by Robert Atchison (also of the London Piano Trio), joined by Ian Belton (the Brodsky Quartet), Elisa Bergesen (viola, the Bergesen Quartet) and Sophie Harris (cello, the Smith Quartet), and they have recorded three of the String Quartets, along with Three Pieces for String Quartet and A Birthday Greeting for Ralph Vaughan Williams


They open with the latest of the three quartets recorded here, the String Quartet in C, op. 95, written in 1940. Gibbs and his wife had recently moved to Windemere from their home in Danbury, Essex, and the opening movement has a spacious, sunny feel, although unsettling moments do edge in, before it feels like a train rushed through the conclusion. The middle movement has a gentle lilt, with a faster, more urgent middle section, before gently dancing pizzicato opens the final movement. As the instruments take up their bows, the music rocks and the cello sings a pastoral, pentatonic melody, with a slightly more chromatic response from the other instruments. The pizzicato returns, and all almost dies away, before a briefly emphatic finish. 


They jump back to 1917 for the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 8, one of the few that was performed in Gibbs’ lifetime. It was composed before his studies at the RCM, but it resides in much the same soundworld as the Op. 95 from some 23 years later. The opening movement has a lilting dance feel, although energy builds to something more complex, and a harshly insistent climax, before winding down to a gentle finish from the viola. Lilt is the mood once again the middle movement, with another pentatonic melodic line circling up and down. The finale has a more mysterious opening, but then picks up on the previous movement’s four note idea, with more insistent repetition. Lines swirl around, with perhaps some loss of overall direction, followed by some slightly more angular fugal material which also meanders along towards an energetic coda and an emphatic upward scale from the first violin to conclude. 


Next come Three Pieces for String Quartet, three musical impressions of places in the Lake District. Here, his impressionistic and pastoral style comes into its own, with flashes of sunlit chords breaking through the lyricism in Above Blea Tarn, and a flowing folk song gambolling along in Winster Valley, with undulating remnants of rain being driven away by soothing duetting lines in Loweswater: Calm after Storm. 


The String Quartet in E minor from 1958 follows, written less than two years before his death. His wife died in January, and then his friend Vaughan Williams suddenly died in the August. So understandably there is more introspection here, and the opening movement, whilst full of rhythmic energy, is full of nagging repetition. The central movement has more poignant lyricism, building to brief anguish, before a clam finish. The finale is a Theme and Variations, with a theme definitely reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ ‘old English’ tunes. There are hints of viol consort, as well as a homage to (and direct quote from) Warlock’s Capriol Suite, and the final variation is a kind of Bachian fugue. The theme returns at the end, but stalls at the last minute, ending the work with two doleful E minor chords. This is the most overtly emotional of the works here, with Gibbs’ feelings perhaps breaking through that comfortable pastoral style for a moment.


The disc ends appropriately with a short single movement, A Birthday Greeting for Ralph Vaughan Williams, written in 1942 for the composer’s 70th birthday. With its Vaughan Williams-esque melody and walking accompanying parts, it shows the great respect Gibbs had for his teacher and friend. 


The Atchison Quartet give warmly respectful performances throughout here, responding to the lyricism in Gibbs’ melodic lines, whilst also taking advantage of the rarer moments of darker harmonies and greater rhythmic activity. It is the Quartet in E minor that sticks out for me in terms of musical interest and diversity of textures, but this collection nevertheless stands as a strong advocate for Gibbs’ neglected chamber works. The album is well supported by informative notes from Nicholas Riddle, and the recorded sound is warm and bright throughout. 

Gibbs, Cecil Armstrong. 2023. String Quartets. The Atchison Quartet. Compact Disc & Digital Download. Convivium Records CR083.

Saturday 16 March 2024

A triumphant Esther from Cummings at the London Handel Festival's Spring Awakenings

Esther at London Handel Festival
© Sisi Burn
Laurence Cummings (Director)
Tim Mead (Ahasuerus)
Jess Dandy (Mordecai)
Rachel Redmond (Israelite Woman & Second Israelite)
Laurence Cummings (First Israelite)
John Bowen (Habdonah)
Edmund Hastings (An Officer)
London Handel Singers

7pm, Thursday 14 March 2024
St George's, Hanover Square, London

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Esther, HWV50 (1732 version)

The London Handel Festival
© Nick Boston
'Cummings set the tone, launching the overture at a sprightly pace, with a bright, joyful sound from the tight ensemble. As expected, there were some cracking speeds this evening, but there was also tenderness and grace, with deft string work, elegant woodwind and gleaming brass'. 

'Nardus Williams' Esther had powerful presence, delivering her opening virtuosic “Alleluia” from the pulpit with assertive brilliance'.

'Jess Dandy give us deeply fruity tones as Mordecai, as well as opening up expressively in her upper registers in “So much beauty, sweetly blooming”'.

'The London Handel Singers showed their skill throughout, expertly delivering the key dramatic mood shifts'. 

'Tim Mead’s Alleluias in the final chorus ... were breathtaking in their virtuosic display. Combined with glorious brass and triumphant choral singing, joined at the very end by all the soloists, they brought the evening to a stupendous finish'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Sunday 10 March 2024

Mighty River: A powerful celebration of women composers from Joanna MacGregor and the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra to mark International Women's Day

Joanna MacGregor
& the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra
© Nick Boston

Joanna MacGregor (Conductor & Piano)
Ayanna Witter-Johnson (Cello & Singer)

Ruth Rogers (Leader)

7.30pm, Friday 8 March, 2024

Meredith Monk (b.1942): Ellis Island
Nina Simone (1933-2003): Good Bait, arr. Joanna MacGregor
Eleanor Alberga (b.1949): Clouds for Piano Quintet: Scudding
Errollyn Wallen (b.1958): Mighty River
Ayanna Witter-Johnson (b.1985): Ain't I a Woman?
                                                     Colour War
Sam Cooke (1931-1964): A Change is Gonna Come, arr. Ayanna Witter-Johnson
Ayanna Witter-Johnson: Unconditionally
Florence Price (1887-1953): The Mississippi River

The Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director, Joanna MacGregor took back the baton following Sian Edwards’ visit last month for their concert marking International Women’s DayMighty River: Celebrating Women. And this was another great example of imaginative and brave programming, with music most if not all unfamiliar to their audience, who gave enthusiastic responses throughout.


Meredith Monk
© Julieta Cervantes
But before taking to the podium, MacGregor opened the concert with two solo piano works. First came Meredith Monk’s watery miniature, Ellis Island, originally written to accompany her 1981 film compiled from footage of immigrants arriving in the USA in the 1900s. MacGregor made the minimalist cascades flow with a fluid lilt, and allowed the brief fragments of melodic material to emerge from the textures, whilst keeping everything atmospherically quiet, particularly at its pianissimo conclusion. She followed this with her own arrangement of Nina Simone’s Good Bait, from her 1958 debut album. From the Bach-like opening, it quickly morphs its bluesy melodic line into jazzier lines over walking bass lines, and then the rhythms and rolling textures intensify, building to a virtuosic, Lisztian conclusion. MacGregor is in her element in this repertoire, and these two striking solo works from two contrasting women composers and performers from the twentieth century (although Monk is of course still composing and performing, now in her eighties) provided a strong opening.  


Eleanor Alberga
MacGregor remained at the keyboard, and was joined by the four BPO string principals, for the opening movement from Jamaican born composer, Eleanor Alberga’s Clouds for Piano Quintet, composed in 1984. Scudding conjures up wide skyscapes and shifting clouds, with its sliding, almost sultry solo lines, first from the cello, and then viola. The complex rhythms develop, and at one point, the pizzicato strings sounded reminiscent of the West African kora. There are lots of intricate moments here, and the players clearly enjoyed the challenge of their offbeat rhythms. The music builds and speeds up to an exciting coda with a rapidly repeated pattern – they might not have quite nailed the finish together, but their energy brought this fascinating piece to a lively conclusion. I will definitely have to check out the rest of the Piano Quintet on the back of hearing this.


Errollyn Wallen
© Azzurra Primavera
There was then a brief hiatus as the stage was reset for the full BPO’s arrival (and a rather long wait for the first violins to join – the Music Director shouldn’t have to go off stage to fetch them!), for Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River. This orchestral work from 2007 was composed to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, and Wallen blends the spirituals Amazing Grace and Deep River into a rich tapestry of orchestral colours. It opens with a horn solo on Amazing Grace, and whilst this was relatively secure, the tuning when the horn was joined by piccolo and then clarinet could have been purer. However, once the strings began their rhythmic pulsing, with flutters from woodwind and brass, the orchestral sound settled. In the faster, more energetic sections, MacGregor danced through the joyful rhythms, but the orchestra as a whole felt a little cautious in these sections, perhaps as a result of limited rehearsal time, preventing full ownership of the piece. Yet Macgregor managed the frequent rhythmic transitions smoothly, successfully keeping the strings at bay later on as fragments of the spirituals were passed around the orchestra, and the concluding horn solo was much more secure, this time accompanied by the djembe drum, played with impressive attack by Donna-Maria Landowski.  


Ayanna Witter-Johnson
After the interval, came a real departure for the BPO, and a welcome injection of something completely different in the programme. Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a singer, cellist and composer from London, and performed four songs, accompanying herself on the cello. Her opening number, Ain’t I a Woman?, based on abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech demanding equal rights for women, showed off her incredibly soulful voice, as well as a virtuosic ability to make the cello sound like a blues guitar. Colour War also had rhythmic pizzicato pulsing accompaniment underpinning her mellow, soulful voice, and her cover of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come was incredibly powerful, the pared back sound adding strength to this classic protest against injustice and racism. And finally, Unconditionally took her percussive use of the cello to a new level, with the Cuban rumba clave providing the bass for her vocal dexterity to shine out. Her latest EP, including two of these tracks, was released today – more info here. Including such an exciting performer in their concert is another testament to MacGregor and the BPO’s innovative and adventurous programming.


Ayanna Witter-Johnson
© Nick Boston
Another hiatus for stage reorganisation (this really needs to get a little slicker), the evening concluded with a majestic performance of Florence Price’s
 The Mississippi River. As epic as the river itself, this large scale orchestral work combines four spiritual tunes, an Indigenous American song, ragtime music, and a Creole tune, all flowing one into the other, just like the rapid river. The opening section is full of pastoral woodwind, followed by moving brass chorales, and immediately one sensed the BPO were in a more confident mood here. There were moments of lush Hollywood, and some glorious harp moments (Alex Rider deserves a special mention here, and for his deft contribution in the Wallen earlier in the evening), and there was some remarkably delicate rapid work from the bassoons too. Nothing stays still for long in this piece as we move on down the river, and the build up to the climax was powerfully delivered, before the wind down to the solo trumpet’s Deep River fragment – but the final word was given to more delicate work from Alex Rider on the harp, over glistening, watery strings.  

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.