Not Quite the Hoped-for End to Leif Ove Andsnes’s Beethoven Journey

July 28, 2015

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 12. Stravinsky and Beethoven: Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano/director), Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.7. 2015 (AS) Read more

The Choral Fantasy is the Unexpected Star in the ‘Beethoven Journey’ at the Proms

July 26, 2015

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 10. Stravinsky, Beethoven, Schoenberg. Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano/director), BBC Singers, David Hill (chorus-master/conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London. 24.7.2015 (LB) Read more

A Wonderful Start to Leif Ove Andsnes’ Proms Survey of the Beethoven Concertos

July 25, 2015

Prom 9 CR Chris Christodoulou_

Prom 9 CR Chris Christodoulou_

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 9 – Beethoven and Stravinsky: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano, director), Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.7.2015 (MB)


Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, op.58

With this concert, Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra opened a three-concert survey of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (plus the Choral Fantasy) and works by Stravinsky. The First Piano Concerto opened in highly promising fashion, the tutti offering variegated sound and an already-clear sense of goal-orientation. Andsnes’s tempo was probably fast ‘objectively’ but sounded ‘right’. This was a smallish orchestra, but there was no smallness of ambition. The turn to the minor mode gave a transformation of character, not just of tonality. I could have done without rasping ‘natural’ trumpets and hard kettledrum sticks, although what seems to be an increasingly popular post-modernist mélange of instruments could by the same token have been worse. Upon the pianist’s entry, we heard clear kinship with the early piano sonatas. Transitional passages brought commendable flexibility; indeed, throughout, it was the liminal passages, rightly, which most intrigued, harmonies both telling and questioning. Bubbly woodwind solos were, quite simply, a joy.

In the Largo, I missed a larger body of strings; the sublimity of a Beethoven slow movement seems to demand greater cushioning. Woodwind and piano, however, sounded as gorgeous as ever. Line was securely, meaningfully maintained throughout. For better and for worse, mostly but not entirely for better, this was definitely a post-Abbado performance of Beethoven. Now if only one could somehow combine the virtues of this with the best of Daniel Barenboim… The finale truly sounded as a finale, its post-Mozartian inheritance explored to great advantage. Yes, it was fast, but it breathed. Episodes, moreover, seemed to breathe yet more life into the movement, just as they should.

Stravinsky at his ‘whitest’ followed. I cannot quite follow the logic of the particular Beethoven and Stravinsky pairings, but no matter. Led from the violin by Matthew Truscott (his ever-stylish solos truly excellent), the MCO adopted an unusual seating-and-standing arrangement: cellos seated in a semi-circle, other strings standing around them. Apollo is not my least favourite Stravinsky work; I do not actively dislike it, as I do Orpheus. Yet, the work’s manifest virtues notwithstanding, I cannot dissent from Boulez’s observation about the neo-Classical Stravinsky (at least at his most extreme) having fallen into the intellectual quicksands of others. At any rate, this was a fine performance, with, at times, more than a hint of similarly ‘white’ balletic Prokofiev. (Now there is a ‘difficult’ relationship between composers.) There was a keen sense of narrative from the Prologue onwards, the return to the initial tempo in the ‘Birth of Apollo’ bringing transformation to the opening material in the light of what had passed in the Allegro section.

The Muses joined Apollo’s violin as if truly compelled. This was not a cold performance, far from it, but Stravinsky’s polemical froideur remained, as did the ‘unreality’ of the almost bizarrely – and surely deliberately so – tonal music: Boulezian quicksand maybe, but interesting quicksand. The Muses’ variations were well characterised without excess. Polyhymnia sounded vividly balletic; Terpsichore seemed almost to ‘split the difference’ between her two sisters. Apollo’s Variation benefited from splendidly rich string sound – more of that in Beethoven too, please! – with the god’s emphatic alterity there for all to hear. It was in the Apotheosis that we heard the strongest real echoes of the (French) Baroque, although difference was nevertheless maintained. I may ultimately find the Webernised Rameau of Agon (or is it vice versa?) more to my taste, but this still made its point. Beautifully sensitive playing proved just as variegated as had been the case in Beethoven.

It was to Beethoven we now returned, with perhaps the very greatest, and certainly the most lovable, of all his piano concertos: the Fourth. Andsnes’s opening phrase seemed to offer a piano ‘without hammers’. The orchestral response was subtle, full of life. I do not think this was a larger string section – I did not count the players – but it sounded fuller of tone. There was certainly a strong sense, again unexaggerated, of the Beethovenian sublime, and the MCO’s woodwind section proved as remarkable as ever. The piano’s second entry reminded us that this was, in every sense, a concerto, not a symphony. It may have been in many respects an intimate performance, but it did not feel scaled down. As for Andsnes’s trills, his passagework: they were truly to die for! The exultant moment of return was again subtle but no less powerful for that.

The strings in the Andante con moto seemed very much to have taken to heart the oft-repeated comparison to the Furies. But need they have been so brusque? Gluck’s Furies are not, or at least should not be. There was, however, an undoubtedly heightened contrast with the piano’s melting tone as Orpheus. Again, those trills! The finale seemed especially alert to its subdominant provenance and to the continuing tension between tonal centres. Others will again doubtless have been keener on the trumpets and hard sticks than I was. Rhythms were spruce. Above all, harmonic motion was understood and communicated, syncopations working their magic in tandem. And yes, once again, those trills! A couple of Bagatelles as encores (op.119 no.8 and op.33 no.7) had us longing for more.

Mark Berry

‘The Play’s the Thing’: Shakespeare and Mendelssohn Combine to Excellent Effect

July 24, 2015

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2015 – William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn: Members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Anna Sideris (soprano), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano), Chorus and Orchestra of Garsington Opera/Douglas Boyd (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22.7.2015 (JPr)

Garsington  Opera  RSC  Ross  Armstrong  Joan  Iyiola Forbes  Masson  Simon  Manyonda  Hedydo  Dylan  Marty  Cruickshank  credit  Mark  Douet

Garsington Opera RSC Ross Armstrong Joan Iyiola Forbes Masson Simon Manyonda Hedydo Dylan Marty Cruickshank credit Mark Douet

Lysander: Ross Armstrong
Helena: Hedydd Dylan
Egeus / Philostrate: David Collings
Flute / Mustardseed: Chris Lew Kum Hoi
Hermia: Joan Iyiola
Puck: Oliver Johnstone
Starveling/Moth: Jake Mann
Demetrius: Simon Manyonda
Snout / Peaseblossom: Chris Nayak
Oberon / Theseus: David Rintoul
Quince: Tim Speyer
Bottom: Forbes Masson
Titania / Hippolyta: Marty Cruickshank
Snug / Cobweb: Sophie Khan Levy

Director: Owen Horsley (under the creative guidance of Gregory Doran)
Design Associate: Rosanna Vize
Lighting Designer: Caroline Burrell


A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the one (only?) Shakespeare play to which I am happy to return time and again. ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’, remarks Lysander near the start and the truth of this soon becomes clearly apparent in what is one of his best-loved comedies, where fantasy, magic, mischief and slapstick unite against the backdrop of Theseus’s Athenian Court and a feuding fairy kingdom ruled by Oberon and Titania. Also thrown into this mix are six ‘Rude Mechanicals’ who are attempting to put on a play-within-a-play. There are probably darker elements to the plot such as Hermia’s father being willing to send her to a nunnery or have her executed if she does not marry the man of his choice. And what is that stuff all about concerning Titania’s Indian page boy that Oberon demands from her? As I did on this evening – and have done countless times before – it is best to just sit back and enjoy Shakespeare’s eternal battle of wills, misunderstandings, and all the ensuing fun.

Mendelssohn wrote his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842, 16 years after he wrote the more familiar Overture. It was written for King Frederick William IV of Prussia for a performance of the play on 14 October 1843 at Potsdam. These days, putting on the play and including everything Mendelssohn wrote would be inconceivable for any theatre company so it was an interesting idea for Wormsley’s Garsington Opera – with its orchestra and chorus – to invite the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform an abridged version of the play to Mendelssohn’s complete score.

The original Overture was incorporated into the incidental music as the first of its 14 numbers. There are also vocal sections and some other purely instrumental movements, including a Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March. The vocal numbers include the song ‘Ye spotted snakes’ and a number of melodramas where music is designed to enhance Shakespeare’s text. Act I is generally played without music. The Scherzo, acts as an intermezzo between Acts I and II. There is then the first melodrama, a passage of text spoken over music. Oberon’s arrival is accompanied by a fairy march, scored with triangle and cymbals. ‘Ye spotted snakes’ opens Act II’s second scene. The second Intermezzo comes at the end of the second act. Act III includes a quaint march for the entrance of the Mechanicals. We soon hear music quoted from the Overture to accompany the action. The Nocturne accompanies the sleeping lovers between Acts III and IV and there is only one melodrama in Act IV which closes with a reprise of the Nocturne to accompany the mortal lovers’ sleep. In the RSC’s abridged version it was now interval time.

The famous Wedding March – probably the most popular single piece of music Mendelssohn ever composed – was originally the intermezzo between the last two acts. Act V contains more music than any other, to accompany the wedding feast. There is a brief fanfare for trumpets and timpani, a parody of a funeral march, and a Bergomask dance which makes significant use of Bottom’s ‘braying’ from the Overture. There are three brief epilogues. The first is introduced with a reprise of the theme of the Wedding March and the fairy music of the Overture. After Puck’s speech, the final musical number is heard – ‘Through this house give glimmering light’, scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano and chorus. Puck’s famous valedictory speech ‘If we shadows have offended’ is accompanied, as day breaks, by the four chords first heard at the very beginning of the Overture, bringing everything full circle and wrapping it all up.

Overall the music was well played by the small Garsington Opera Orchestra and spiritedly conducted by Douglas Boyd with the chorus and soloists Anna Sideris and Catherine Backhouse doing well during their small contributions, notably in the ‘fairies’ song’, ‘Ye spotted snakes’, as Titania is lulled to sleep. Heard on their own during the Overture the sound from the orchestra was not as ethereal as it must be. However, as the evening progressed the marriage of words and music became well-nigh perfect. In the intimate setting of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall it was revealing how much Wagner’s music owes to Mendelssohn and that probably explains why he became one of Mendelssohn’s fiercest critics!

Owen Horsley’s staging mixed the tradition with the modern and this extended to the casting that seemed admirably keen to eschew any unanimity of age, gender, ethnicity, accents, costuming and acting styles. It is as though the Royal Shakespeare Company looked around and collected together some of those who happened to be available and find them a part to play. In 1971 there was a TV adaptation for the BBC of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Robert Stephens as Oberon and an exceptional cast including Eileen Atkins (Titania) and Ronnie Barker as Bottom. This is my ‘benchmark’ performance which is always – wrongly or rightly – in my mind whenever I sit down to see the play again. I also played Oberon myself when I was much younger and I suspect that was the definitive portrayal of this role … only joking!

Rosanna Vize’s eclectic modern clothes and spare set evoked nothing of the period or location of Shakespeare’s comic masterpiece. This was rather jarring at first but increasing less relevant as the story-telling became more convincing and Mendelsohn’s sublime music created more and more of the requisite magical atmosphere. At the back over the orchestra there was basically a large moon and a platform for the singers on which all the characters could run hither and thither as they did across too smaller bits of staging on either side at the front of the stage.

I often have seen actors double up as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania but I wonder have these characters ever been played by two who are not in the first flush of youth as David Rintoul and Marty Cruickshank are. They brought gravitas to their ruling class roles and their ‘old school’ acting gave them an otherworldly presence as ‘fairies’. Rintoul thankfully looked remarkable good when having to play Oberon bare-chested behind a white dinner jacket. I was a bit sorry for Marty Cruickshank who is undoubtedly a fine actress but was made to go about as if an escapee from a care home. That was the only thing about Owen Horsley’s production I could not eventually come to accept. The four lovers grew on me and especially Hedydd Dylan’s Helena that I cannot remember seeing performed better. I eventually realised that Puck was Oliver Johnston who came initially out of the orchestra and acted on occasions as an onstage/offstage conductor …if this makes any sense. Together with Oberon they did provide real touches of magic when transferring the flower with the love juice between themselves!

Best of course – as always – were the scene-stealing Mechanicals, including a fabulous Flute/Thisbe from Chris Lew Kum Hoi, thick red lipstick and all, and a genuinely funny Bottom from Falkirk-born Forbes Masson whose accent as Pyramus had the lilt of his compatriot Billy Connolly, as well as, something of his comic timing. I was also impressed by Sophie Khan Levy as Snug who gets the ‘lion’s part’ and here was given a mane made of large paint brushes and Chris Nayak as Snout, one of the funniest ‘walls’ I have ever seen.

To quote the Bard: ‘The play’s the thing’ and it won in the end … and Mendelsohn’s music helped a lot too!

Jim Pritchard

For more details about Garsington Opera and the 2016 performances visit their website .


Pinchas Zukerman Commemorates the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide.

July 23, 2015

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Bruch, Brahms. Diana Adamyan (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, (conductor/violin), Cadogan Hall, London. 21.7.2015 (LB) Read more

Igor Levit’s Virtuosity Serves Cardew and Rzewski Compellingly

July 23, 2015


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cardew and Rzewski: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 20.7.2015 (MB) Read more

An Attractive Prom from Thomas Søndergård and the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales

July 22, 2015

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 6. Poulenc, Stravinsky, Haydn, Mozart: James O’Donnell (organ), BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 21.7.2015 (AS) Read more

Andris Nelsons’ Bids Farewell to the CBSO at the Proms

July 22, 2015

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  PROM 4: Woolrich, Beethoven Margaret Cookhorn (contra-bassoon); Lucy Crowe (sop); Gerhild Rimberger (mezzo); Pavel Černoch (tenor); Kostas Smoriginas (bass-bar); CBSO Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.7.2015 (CC)

Andris Nelsons conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2015. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Andris Nelsons conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2015.
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

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