Saturday, 31 October 2020

A chilling operatic tale from Frances-Hoad as centrepiece of Sampson & Middleton's impressive contribution to the Oxford Lieder Festival

7.30pm, Tuesday 13 October, 2020

(reviewed from online stream 31 October 2020)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford

Oxford Lieder Festival

Late to the party, I finally caught up today on Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton’s contribution to this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival online, and I am so glad I did - at the last minute, as the concerts are still available until tomorrow evening, so if you’re quick you can still catch this and the rest of the festival’s concerts.

The theme of the festival was Connections Across Time, and the centrepiece of tonight’s programme was the world premiere of the festival’s Associate Conductor, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s song cycle, written especially for Carolyn and Joseph, with a text by Sophie Rashbrook, Six Songs of Melmoth.

Frances-Hoad’s happenstance inspiration for the cycle began when she picked up a copy of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent at a lending library at Bedford station, which led her to read Perry’s other novels, including Melmoth. This book in turn took inspiration from a much earlier work, Charles Maturin’s sprawling gothic tale, Melmoth the Wanderer, from 1820. The original involves Melmoth making a Faustian pact, taking 150 extra years of life in exchange for ensuring that he can convince someone else to agree to take his place, otherwise facing eternity burning in hell. So Melmoth roams through history, searching for someone to pass his curse onto. In Perry’s version, Melmoth is a woman, who seduces her victims as she crosses the centuries. Sophie Rashbrook took both versions as the starting point for her text, and across the six songs of the cycle, she takes the gender fluid Melmoth through time, and ultimately right into the present, the very singer in the concert hall presenting the final temptation to the audience to consent to join her.

Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton
(screenshot from online stream)
Frances-Hoad’s works for voice are always highly evocative, dramatic and in effect, miniature operas, and this is no exception. A gift for Sampson here, with its variety of characters, moods, and an overall narrative arc, complete with dramatic twist at the end, and she certainly relished the opportunity to demonstrate her phenomenal virtuosity as well as her ability to communicate such a complex and dark tale. Right from the piano’s curtain-opening flourish up the keyboard at the beginning of The Painting, Middleton also showed impressive command of the considerable challenges Frances-Hoad’s score presented, providing insistent pace in Shipwreck Gossip, with beautifully fluid, watery accompaniment to the long lyrical vocal lines in Elinora’s Letter, more dramatic flourishes in City of Song-Ghosts, and dark tolling in the final song, Melmoth’s Serenade. Sampson meanwhile took us through the dramatic journey with incredible intensity, and the blaze in her eyes whenever Melmoth is present was positively chilling. The eery tone of the calling voice promising deliverance, contrasting with effortless, long lyrical lines and challenging leaps right through the whole range, passed off with crystal clarity, in Elinora’s Letter. The moment of transition in Deliverance, when the singer’s voice shifts from trembling fear to crazy, wild-eyed consent was truly scary, and Sampson’s final chilling delivery direct into camera, ‘to the audience’, willing us to consent, was definitely disturbing, and hard to resist. A wonderfully striking and operatic cycle, and a highly affecting performance here - a recording must surely follow before too long.

They began their programme with a selection of five Schubert songs, and communication across the spiritual realm featured significantly here, from the heart rending lay dark Schwestergruss to the prayerful Litanei auf des Fest Allerseelen, and finally heavenly peace in Elysium. Again, Sampson shifts from mood to mood, with a desperate, ghostly breeze running through Schwestergruss, contrasting with sheer delight in her bright voice in Die Sterne, attaining bliss at its conclusion. Gott in Frühlinge had a light freshness, whereas her long, lyrical lines in Litanei and the final extended ewig in Elysium showed off Sampson’s impressive breath control. Middleton matched the moods, with warm yet solemn tone in Litanei, and rippling accompaniment building to the triumphant conclusion of Elysium.

Carolyn Sampson
(screenshot from online stream)
They followed the Frances-Hoad premiere with a selection of three songs by Satie, preceded by a beautifully liquid and limpid performance by Middleton of the Gymnopédie No. 1, also bringing out its sad, darker undercurrent. Sampson’s dreamy, fluid lines and bright eyes in Les Anges contrasted with a beautifully playful Mad Hatter in Le Chapelier. They finished this group with the sultry waltz, Je te veux, perhaps with shades of Melmoth the seductress here?

Poldowski was in fact the pseudonym of Belgian-born composer Irène Régine Wieniawska, daughter of violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski, and she lived most of her life in London. She particularly loved the poetry of Paul Verlaine, and the five songs presented here were all settings of his verse. In Cythère, Middleton’s dancing accompaniment underpinned a playfully flighty delivery by Sampson of the brief romantic encounter, and En Sourdine was all dreamy calmness apart from a muted, brief ecstatic outburst. Sampson’s Colombine was mischievous and balletically light, whereas L’heure Exquise had a beautifully romantic, liquid simplicity. Middleton had great fun conjouring up the strumming textures in Mandoline, disappearing away ‘in the shivering breeze’ with a light flourish. 

They completed their programme with Walton’s Three Façade Settings, less well-known than the ‘entertainment’ piece with spoken voice, Façade. Daphne has a folk-like melody, and is mainly straightforwardly narrative, with hints of a rippling river in the piano part, and a brief solo voice moment at the climax as Daphne transforms into a tree. Through gilded trellises plays with lilting Spanish rhythms, with a stop-start pattern hinting at brief sultry glimpses through the trellises, whilst Old Sir Faulk (which appears in Façade) closes the group with its foxtrot rhythm and jazzy humour. Sampson and Middleton delivered the set with style and a light touch, bringing their hugely varied and challenging programme to an end. 

Carolyn Sampson
(screenshot from online stream)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828):

Die Sterne
Gott im Frühlinge
Litanei auf des Fest Allerseelen

Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980)
Six Songs of Melmoth
1.The painting (Narrator) 1816
2. Shipwreck gossip (Old Biddy Brannington) 1816
3. Elinora’s letter (some salt-water damage to the text) 1516
4. City of Song-Ghosts (Narrator reprise)
5. Deliverance
6. Melmoth’s Serenade

Erik Satie (1866-1925)
Gymnopédie No. 1
Les anges
Le chapelier
Je te veux

Poldowski (1879-1932)
En Sourdine
L’heure exquise

William Walton (1902-1983)
Three Façade Settings
1. Daphne
2. Through Gilded Trellises
3. Old Sir Faulk

Friday, 23 October 2020

Sunlit Brahms and fizzy Haydn on the south coast

Stephen Hough, Mark Wigglesworth & the BSO
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Stephen Hough (piano)
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

Wednesday 21 October, 7.30pm

Lighthouse, Poole
(reviewed from BSO@Home online stream)

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No. 99 in E flat major

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83

© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

'Playfulness continued into the Menuet and Trio, taken at a steady pace, but full of fun and energy. That energy then broke free in the skittish Finale'.

'The woodwind players in particular demonstrated impressive articulation, while string ensemble was once again tight, with the fugal passages given great intensity and bite'. 

Hough certainly delivered the requisite weight, yet never at the expense of clarity of articulation, or warmth of interpretation.

'Full orchestral tuttis again had power and particularly rich brass, but almost no detail was missed by Wigglesworth'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Brighton Early Music Festival - ‘BREMF@home – across the Earth’

For obvious reasons, there will sadly be no live concerts to attend in this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival. However, undeterred, BREMF are presenting a series of events online instead. 
Events will be premiered at a fixed date and time on YouTube and will remain online for a week. Although the events will be freely available, BREMF are requesting that viewers make a donation in place of buying concert tickets in the normal way via their website. This is crucial, as most of their regular funders have diverted funds to emergency aid during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Events run from Friday 23 October to Sunday 1 November


Pocket Sinfonia will perform classics by Mendelssohn and Beethoven, adapted for chamber proportions, with animation and film of the natural world. Meanwhile, Spiritato! take the music of Heinrich Biber, and use puppets made from recycled materials to present Birds, Bugs and other Beasts – a Musical Menagerie

Piers Adams (credit: Emma Bailey)

A fifteenth-century barn and the pastoral Sussex landscape are the setting for Ensemble Augelletti’s Arcadian Wilderness, with music by Handel, Corelli, Geminiani and others, whilst James Duncan from Sussex Wildlife Trust is joined by Piers Adams on recorders for Bird Charmer, a talk with music on the song birds of Sussex. 

Joglaresa (credit: Andrew Mason)
Father and son Dirk and Adam Campbell play new and traditional music on a variety of instruments from Africa and Asia in Connections, while Joglaresa introduce us to medieval songs of protest in Rebellion!, including songs challenging corrupt leaders, religion and even sexual norms. Continuing the Sussex theme, Musicke in the Ayre will perform Sweet Ayres of Arcadia, set in the house and gardens of St Mary’s House, Bramber, in the Sussex Downs. 

Despite not being able to audition new ensembles for their prestigious BREMF Live! scheme this year, previous ensembles will be showcased with past and new footage of their musical activities. 

And as ever, the festival will end with a celebration – The Four Faces of Gaia. Four regions of the earth (Africa, India, the Middle East and Europe) and the four elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) combine in a celebration through traditional and early music and dance. 

For more information, dates and times, and details of how to donate, go to

Thursday, 8 October 2020

CD Reviews - October 2020

French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet released his set of complete Piano Sonatas by Beethoven (1770-1827) back in 2017, and it still remains the go to edition for me. So it’s great to see him now turn his attention to the five Piano Concertos. Spread across a three-disc set, he throws in a performance of the Quintet for Piano and Winds, for which he is joined by players from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, who play alongside him in the concertos. Beethoven’s five concertos span well over twenty years of his career, and sketches exist at either end of concertos from as early as 1783 and as late as 1815. Here the five completed concertos are placed in order of their composition, so No. 2 in B flat major comes first, as it was actually composed back in 1787, before No. 1 in C major (1795). No. 2 is clearly Mozartian in many ways, but already here we have Beethoven’s stamp on the genre, with dramatic contrast of emphatic statements followed by delicate responses in the slow movement, and constant playing with the sense of downbeat and upbeat in the joyful Rondo. No. 1 has the same sense of rhythmic confusion in its Rondo too, and here Beethoven makes wonderful use of the clarinet in conversation with the piano in the slow movement. There is sprightly energy from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra throughout, and Bavouzet positively fizzes in the rippling runs, and attacks the finales with a great sense of fun. On the other hand, his delicacy of touch in the slow movements is delightful, and this comes to the fore again in No. 3 in C minor. The Swedish wind players are also prominent here, and their conversational exchanges with Bavouzet are subtle and poised. In the faster movements, Bavouzet’s tempi are always brisk, but never feel rushed, his fast runs always fluid and effortless. No. 4 in G major moves things onto another level, with a much broader sense of architecture, from its prayerful opening, right through to the galloping finale. Again, the slow movement is conversational, this time between just strings and the piano, with Bavouzet and the Swedish players creating a moment of intimacy amidst the grandeur of the outer movements. No. 5 in E flat major (the ‘Emperor’, although the origin of this nickname is unclear – it definitely wasn't specifically linked to Napoleon, as famously the Eroica Symphony was initially) is again on a grand scale, and there is a real sense of opening out here, with more expansive playing from both Bavouzet and the orchestra. The outer movements have great panache, particularly in the joyfully ebullient finale. The central slow movement is understated, and Bavouzet avoids over-sentimentalising proceedings – although I could have tolerated a little more indulgence here. But this is a minor point of taste – overall, this is an impressive collection, and I’ll definitely be returning to this frequently, alongside Bavouzet’s Sonata set. The bonus Quintet is a treat – a young work from Beethoven, giving greater prominence to the clarinet than to the other wind instruments (oboe, bassoon and horn), but packed full of joyful melodic material. The Swedish players here play alongside Bavouzet with great style, creating a pleasing palate-cleanser to round off the three-disc set.

Beethoven, L.v. 2020. Beethoven - the Piano Concertos. Jean Efflam-Bavouzet, Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Discs (3). Chandos CHSA 5273.

Last year I reviewed a delightful recording from Flaugissimo Duo, who I first came across when they were part of the Brighton Early Music Festival’s BREMF Live! Scheme. Now, one half of the duo, guitarist Johan Löfving has recorded Fandango!, a collection of music for solo guitar from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the six-stringed guitar flourished in the salons and concert halls of Paris and Vienna. So the works on offer here vary from the Viennese classicism of Mauro Guiliani’s (1781-1829) Sonata Brillante, with its playful Beethoven- or Hummel-esque pianistic style, and lyrical melodies, to the more explicitly Spanish influenced Fandango Variado by Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849), with its swirling dance rhythms and strumming flourishes. Interestingly, the guitar’s lack of ability to sustain notes creates interesting pregnant pauses in the slow movement of the Giuliani, but Löfving’s gentle vibrato manages to still make the melodies sing here. French composer, Napoléon Coste’s (1805-1883) Soirées d’Auteuil is unashamedly romantic, full of operatic melodies, virtuosic runs and cascading arpeggios, and Löfving has great fun here. A sense of decorum is restored in the brief Étude from the great composer and teacher, Fernando Sor (1778-1839). Löfving’s touch here is delicate and expressive, bringing out the duetting melodic lines with great sensitivity. Giulio Regondi (1822-1872) spent most of his adult life in the UK, and his relatively recently discovered Introduction et Caprice, following its chorale-like opening, is full of dancing virtuosity, another chance for Löfving to demonstrate the fluidity of his playing. To close the disc, he is joined by the Consone Quartet, current BBC New Generation Artists, for a performance of Luigi Boccherini’s (1743-1804) Quintet No. 4. This opens with a warm Pastorale, full of birdlike violin twiddles and musette-droning lower strings. The sound here is somewhat muted, and the rippling guitar part is understated, with only a brief moment of emphasis towards the movement’s conclusion. The strings sound more insistent in the second movement, but again, perhaps with an aim to achieve the right balance with the quieter guitar, the overall sound is subdued, although energy picks up with rustic dancing and a joyful, trilling close to the movement. The final movement, after a dramatic introduction and guitar solo, launches into a spirited and lively Fandango, and here the performance takes flight, with playful, almost laughing figuration from the first violin, and cheeky sliding gestures from all the string players. To add to the joyful sense of occasion, Nanako Aramaki joins in with castanets, and the energy rises to a spirited conclusion with lots of string tremolo and guitar strumming. A fun end to a very enjoyable disc, full of refreshing and sprightly-performed repertoire. 


Various. 2020. Fandango! Music for Solo Guitar and String Quartet. Johan Löfving, Consone Quartet, Nanako Aramaki. Compact Disc. Resonus RES10260.

The Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble (pianists Natalie Tsaldarakis and Panayotis Archontides) and composers Hugh Shrapnel (b.1947) and John Lewis (b.1947) were completely unknown to me, so their new disc, Elements of London, combining movements from two collections by the composers, was a total voyage of discovery. Lewis’ pieces (Elements) are all inspired and named after chemical elements, whilst Shrapnel’s (London) are all associated with people, places and even politics of South London – hence the combined title of the disc – and they are mixed together to form an overall programme. Despite their differing inspirations, the pieces fit together remarkably well, with influences of minimalism, jazz and blues cropping up throughout. Lewis makes use of insistent rhythmic repeated chords in Niobium, and minimalist influence is most evident in Mercury and Phosphorus. Yet there are Latin-infused rhythms in Chlorine, and hints of Shostakovich in the gently romping Cerium. Shrapnel’s pieces are more overtly expressive, such as the atmospheric Ladywell Station (surely quoting Misty) with its background train whistles, and the plaintive, lamenting In Memoriam Jane Clouson. Dad’s Army even makes an appearance in Hunt Hunt, a defiant political piece dedicated to the Save the Lewisham Hospital Campaign. The pieces have been sensibly curated here, with energy and drive contrasting with more lyrical and atmospheric movements. Few pieces are longer than five minutes, yet they are surprisingly effective in capturing a mood or energy. Tsaldarakis and Archontides have clearly developed a strong affinity for this music, and a close relationship with the two composers, and their performances are strong throughout, contrasting well the thicker chordal textures with bright melodies (often in bell-like octaves), and enjoying the jazz-infused melodies. A very enjoyable discovery.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Warmth and pleasure in music-making from Michael Collins and LMP friends

Michael Collins
© Nick Rutter
  Michael Collins (clarinet)
  Members of the London Mozart Players
  Simon Blendis (violin)
  Jennifer Godson (violin)
  Judith Busbridge (viola)
  Sebastian Comberti (cello)

  Thursday 1 October, 7pm

  (reviewed from online stream)


Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826): Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, Op. 34

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581

Michael Collins & the London Mozart Players
© Nick Rutter
'There was some especially sensitive pianissimo moments from the players in the operatically dramatic slow movement'.

Collins' 'virtuosic command was without doubt, but also the variety of tone was impressive, from the bright upper reaches right down to the rich depths'.

'A beautifully warm performance, with close communication from all and evident joy on Collins’ face'.

'The finale was a joy from beginning to end, and Judith Busbridge’s viola solo in the slow minor variation was heartfelt, with a gorgeously rich tone'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.