Unforgettable Prokofiev and Shostakovich Performances from London Philharmonic

September 30, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lindberg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano),  London Philharmonic / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, (GD) 24.9.2014

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Exhilarating and Transparent Choral Symphony from BBC Philharmonic

September 30, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: John Daszak (tenor), Alastair Miles (baritone), Raquel Lojendio (soprano), Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Saturday 29th September 2014 (MC)

Juanjo Mena, photo Chris Christodoulou

Juanjo Mena, photo Chris Christodoulou

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Uplifting Russian Concert  from Runnicles and BBC Scottish SO

September 30, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich: Barry Douglas (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 28.09.2014 (SRT)


Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain
Scriabin: Piano Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10


I predictably begin every BBCSSO season by complaining about the lamentably small number of concerts they do in Edinburgh each year.  This year, at least, they are doing three rather than last year’s two, and one more pleasant side-effect of this is that we tend to get the pick of them.  Later this year Runnicles conducts Beethoven 9 and an evening of Beethoven and Sibelius, but tonight it was a Russian programme, ranging from the pops of Mussorgsky to the unsearchable depths of Shostakovich.  Runnicles is always the common link in the Edinburgh concerts, and that’s worth celebrating, too.  His Night on the Bare Mountain paid the piece the ultimate compliment of taking it seriously, crafting an interpretation that was always changing and never static.  Tempi fluctuated throughout, as did dynamics, giving the piece a life of its own that you seldom get in the concert hall (and almost never on disc).

Similarly, he breathed well-structured life into Scriabin’s Piano Concerto.  I’ve said before that Scriabin’s sound world is a bit of a mystery to me, but I found this early work (a new one to me) remarkably compelling, mainly because it flowed from episode to episode in a way that made thematic and musical sense.  Not only Runnicles, but Barry Douglas, too, brought strength and directness to the work, giving each melody just the right level of spotlighting before something new shimmered into view.  The orchestra rose to the kaleidoscopic challenge too, with the strings surpassing themselves in both the heady emotions of the outer movements and the gorgeously expressive middle movement.

Those same strings launched Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony with a sense of unknowable depth and overpowering gloom.  All the more impressive, then, that the violins could retain just the right level of cheek for their perky, syncopated second theme.  Runnicles isn’t particularly known as an interpreter of Shostakovich, but his vast experience in shaping the great paragraphs of Mahler have helped make him every bit as compelling in crafting moments like this huge opening canvas.  So too was his approach to the “Stalin” scherzo, which benefited from not giving away too much too soon.  Instead this was a movement full of ebb and flow that clearly built up to the astounding climaxes of its last minute (and even then there was the surprisingly quiet violin run to provide contrast).  Likewise, it was the solemn, purposeful introduction to the finale that felt like the real heart of the movement, not the suspiciously upbeat theme that follows.  The orchestra met Runnicles every step of the way, most impressively in the gloriously played third movement with it sparky piccolo, meandering violins and, above all, the bell-like clarity of the horns that sang out Elimra’s theme with tone that lifted me out of my seat.

Simon Thompson

The Benyounes Quartet Shine Light on Unfamiliar Music by Women Composers

September 30, 2014

Janáček, Kaprálova, Tailleferre and Ravel: Benyounes Quartet [Zara Benyounes & Emily Holland (violins), Tetsumi Nagata (viola), Kim Vaughan (cello)] King’s Place, London, 22.9.2014 (CS)

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Gergiev’s Russian Opener to the LSO’s 2014/15 Season

September 30, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Boris Tishchenko, Prokofiev, Shostakovich. Denis Matsuev (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor) Barbican Hall, London 21.9.2014 (RB)
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Excitement and Pointillism from Eager & Welsh Sinfonia

September 28, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Fauré, Gareth Glyn, Michael Csanyi-Wills, Beethoven: Welsh Sinfonia, Mark Eager (conductor). Doris Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 27.9.2014 (PCG) Read more

Joyce DiDonato’s London Recital Compromised by Some Second-Rate Material

September 27, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Joyce DiDonato: Stella di Napoli: Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, Riccardo Minasi (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 25.9.2014. (JPr)StelladiNapoli-500


Pacini – ‘Ove t’aggiri o barbaro’ from Stella di Napoli
Bellini – ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ from Adelson e Salvini
Rossini -Sinfonia from Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra
Carafa – ‘L’amica ancor non torna’ and Romanza di Lucia ‘Oh di sorte crudel’ from Le Nozze di Lammermoor  
Rossini – Ballabile III from Le siège de Corinthe 
Final scene ‘Riedi al Soglio’ from Zelmira    
Bellini – Sinfonia from Norma
Mercadante – ‘Se fino al cielo ascende’ from La vestale
Verdi – Sinfonia from Alzira
Donizetti – ‘Par che mi dica ancor’ from Elisabetta al castello
Pacini – Final Scene from Saffo



Initially the most applause this Joyce DiDonato concert achieved was for her second-half change from black into a sparkly blood-red Vivienne Westwood dress. Then there was little further excitement until a standing ovation for a magnificent encore of ‘Tanti affetti’ (from Rossini’s La Donna del Lago) – with added tomato throwing (more about this soon) – suggesting all was not as it should have been. This review is going to be a case of if you do not have much good to say then say little. Joyce DiDonato has a wonderfully infectious presence on the concert platform that lacks pretention and affectation and her voice basically is a natural instrument; she seems as surprised as we are with the range she has and there is little ‘technique’ revealed in her open-throated singing.

This was the opening concert of the ‘Barbican Presents Artist Spotlight on Joyce DiDonato’ series that will continue with the title-role in Handel’s Alcina, a musical evening inspired by the Belle Époque as well as a masterclass at Milton Court, and will culminate with Shéhérazade with the New York Philharmonic. With Stella di Napoli she was plugging her new Erato/Warner Classics CD where she performs – as here – some long-neglected nineteenth-century Neapolitan bel canto arias by Saverio Mercadante, Michele Carafa (a student of Cherubini and close friend of Rossini), and Giovanni Pacini, a prolific opera composer in his day whose 1845 Stella di Napoli gives the recording – and this concert – its title. There was also some little-known music from three genuinely great composers, Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti. Her conductor, Riccardo Minasi is largely responsible for these musical exhumations.

Joyce DiDonato herself comments how ‘These were [all] composers who wrote gorgeous melodies, which are set up by the clarinets, by harps, etc. … they are melting and they immediately trigger something emotional. Bellini is of course the master of this. But he has help from a composer such as Mercadante for sure. Then there is this mastery of the voice, where the voice as instrument can convey deep emotions. It’s done by taking the voice to its extremes, sometimes in tempo, certainly in range. Many of these arias have a two-and-a-half octave range and the voice is a master of the vocal range and the voice is the master of the vocal line. After bel canto the voice wasn’t required to do quite so much in terms of flexibility and colour.’

Ms DiDonato was seemingly keen not to over-extend herself as there was almost as much time allotted to a selection of overtures and dance music as for her arias and these instrumental items were persuasively played – again as on the CD – by the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon under their flamboyant baton-less conductor Riccardo Minasi, whose snake-like gestures I have only seen bettered by Andris Nelsons. I am always very happy to re-hash some background I have used in previous reviews if they are several years old and I was glad to see there is some significant musical precedent in this habit for Rossini ‘recycled’ the overture to Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra (that was originally written for yet another opera) into what we are familiar with as starting Il barbiere di Siviglia. That music composed for a queen can end up being used for a barber is typical of the period though I doubt the ‘Virgin Queen’ would have purred!

Despite Joyce DiDonato’s claims, for me, most of the music is intrinsically unable to convey ‘deep emotions’. Her arias often began with a woodwind obbligato – Jean Michel Bertelli’s clarinet excelled when called upon – before setting off into some jolly ‘rum-ti-tum’ rhythms that even occasionally had Ms DiDonato’s bare-shoulder jigging during the second-half and her encores. Whether a character is being parted from a loved one or being reconciled or is being led to execution and about to die, they often have the most implausibly upbeat music with repeated stanzas and a flurry of notes and rollercoaster runs demanded from the singer.
Joyce DiDonato is best when expressing full-blown rage, such as during ‘Ove t’aggiri o barbaro’ from Pacini’s Stella di Napoli which was a suitably showpiece opener and here the heroine prepares to die. However some vocal issues became apparent during Bellini’s more reflective ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ from Adelson e Salvini when I heard a slight vibrato and her chest voice did not have the ability always to caress the lines sufficiently to produce a strong, even legato. The centrepiece of the first half was Carafa’s Recitative and Romanza ‘L’amica ancor non torna’ and ‘Oh di sorte crudel’ from Le Nozze di Lammermoor, his version of Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. Even if it is more lyrical than melodramatic, Joyce DiDonato brought to it some of her trademark emotional intensity.

Opening the second half with the Prayer from Mercadante’s La vestale, she revealed all the idiomatic style and nobility of spirit that is at her command in an aria that clearly influenced Puccini’s ‘Vissi d’arte’, confirming Joyce DiDonato’s words about how without ‘this period of great creativity in Naples … we don’t have Verdi or Wagner or Puccini.’ The official part of the programme ended with the Final Scene from Pacini’s Saffo when Sappho bids farewell to her loved ones, blesses the marriage between Phaon and her sister and is about to leap from the Leucadian Rock. It had all Joyce DiDonato’s admirable traits of impeccable diction, beautiful tone and detailed musical expression whilst not entirely dispelling some – possibly heretical – thoughts that her voice could do with a good rest or even a change of fach.

Then came that tomato-inspired triumphant conclusion to what had been a slightly disappointing concert. A rather motley bunch of flowers was left by a fan by the steps to the platform and this – for some reason – contained part of a tomato plant and a tomato! This made Joyce DiDonato reminisce about the Michigan ones she misses because she has been away from home all summer. ‘Tanti affetti’ was prefaced by a disarming comment referring to recent events in Scotland (where Rossini’s opera is set) and she wished everyone ‘la bella pace’! This encore was remarkable and encompassed what perhaps makes Joyce DiDonato worthy to be considered as the finest mezzo-soprano of this generation. The voice was more forwardly placed and the coloratura was more secure and at greater ease than at any time during the rest of her programme. At one point whilst she was in full flow the tomato dropped to the floor only to be retrieved and juggled both by her and Riccardo Minasi before being put on his score. Later Ms DiDonato feigned horror when he wanted to consign it to his pocket and was made to put it on the stand of the first cellos. Much fun was had by all and this deserved the standing ovation it got which went on and on. A second under-rehearsed encore involving more of Rossini’s Zemira was not her best moment but everybody was still enjoying themselves immensely.

I look forward to hearing Joyce DiDonato again soon and perhaps next time it can be with songs and arias that she likes best and not what she must sing to help the sales of her latest CD.

Jim Pritchard

For future events at the Barbican visit www.barbican.org.uk.

BBC SSO Opens Season with Dramatic and Uncompromising All-Russian Programme

September 26, 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich: Barry Douglas (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, / Donald Runnicles (conductor), Barry Douglas piano, City Halls, Glasgow, 25.09.2014. (CG)

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