Steven Isserlis/Connie Shih, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
Steven Isserlis's illuminating programme at the Wigmore Hall focused on three composers and their muses, though not just any muses: all three of these muses were also composers in their own right. Ranging from unconsummated relationships to married domesticity, the programme also prompted speculation as to who else might qualify for a sequel. Not Gustav and Alma Mahler, for he forced her to abandon composition — but in any case neither of them wrote cello music and Isserlis already had to resort to some clever adaptation to make his programme work.
Clara Schumann gave up composing after her husband's death, and poignantly enough the Three Romances that opened the evening were her last works. They were originally written for the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, though she is known to have played them with the cellist Alfredo Piatti — cue Isserlis's adaptation, a welcome addition to the repertoire. Maybe more Mendelssohnian than what is traditionally thought of as Schumannesque, this music's warmth and playfulness inspired flowing, liquid tone from Isserlis. Robert Schumann's Fantasiestucke date from just before his Cello Concerto, and their searching and ultimately fiery expression brought lively interaction between Isserlis and the pianist Connie Shih.
The poignance of the passionate affair between Vítězslava Kaprálová and Bohuslav Martinu, Czech composers living in Paris, was heightened by the Nazi occupation of their homeland and the invasion of France, but above all by her tragic death in 1940 at the age of 25. Her last surviving work, the Ritournelle Op. 25 for cello and piano, has defiant energy flecked with lyricism, and both cellist and pianist caught its unmistakably Czech sound in a performance of virtuosic attack.
Also dating from this time, Martinu's Cello Sonata No. 1 bears witness to the same trauma. In a performance that proved the evening's highlight, Isserlis (a long-standing champion of all three Martinu sonatas) and Shih were equal partners in a sustained dialogue full of nervous energy, at once haunting and haunted.
The French-Irish composer Augusta Holmes inspired a number of men in late 19th century Paris — famously so in the case of Cesar Franck but also even Saint-Saens, who featured here in an encore. An ingenious arrangement by Isserlis brought us an extract from her cantata La vision de la reine, before he and Shih played Franck's big Sonata in A in the cello version authorised by the composer — their lyrically reflective performance defusing a mood of sometimes tortured love. JA
Steven Isserlis returns to the the Wigmore Hall on November 17 as part of the Chamber Music Season and on December 17 for his 60th Birthday Concert. www.wigmore-hall.org.uk
Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
Like it or not, competition in the arts is a very fruitful thing. Two nights ago, the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave a terrific season opener, full of colour and excitement. On Thursday night, the Philharmonia fired back.
This opening salvo came in the Festival Hall ballroom, in the shape of a mesmerising and (for me) somewhat discomfiting new virtual reality installation, which immerses the viewer in filmed performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mahler’s 3rd symphony, from a position just in front of the conductor.
Then, at 6.00pm in the Purcell Room, came two “contemporary cabaret” pieces for solo singer and a dozen or so Philharmonia players. Hans Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire – inspired by the first ever Dada cabaret in Zurich, in 1918 – was puzzling. Humour and deliberate provocation must have been part of that long-ago evening, but none of those qualities was discernible in this strangely deadpan piece.
Much more satisfying was Philippe Manoury’s Blackout, in which contralto Hilary Summers movingly recounted the thoughts and feelings of a woman temporarily trapped in a lift, on the way to an assignation with her lover. The instrumental weave beautifully summoned a sense of nostalgia, anxiety and longing, and when the mournfully distorted sound of Ella Fitzgerald singing “You’re my thrill” drifted over the speakers, it emerged from and faded back into Manoury’s own score with perfect ease, giving the imaginary scenario the pathos of an old photograph.
Finally in the main hall, the Philharmonia Orchestra, complete with four Wagner tubas, came on stage with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen for the Funeral Music from Wagner’s Siegfried. It’s a hard to summon the full emotional magnitude of this piece, so full of tragedy and yet also triumphant, and this performance didn’t hit the heights. But the following performance of Schoenberg’s great monodrama Erwartung (Expectation) certainly did.
Soprano Angela Denoke, standing in at short notice for Camilla Nylund, played the crazed protagonist, wandering in a wood in search of her lover, whose body she eventually finds. There’s horror aplenty, in the orchestra’s shrieks and nervous tics, and the soprano’s outcries. But there’s desperate longing too, and rapturous beauty, and it’s these qualities that shone out in this wonderful rendering.
The closing performance of Bruckner’s puzzling Sixth Symphony was if anything even more impressive. In Salonen’s hands, the music’s sudden stops and starts, the radiant lyricism and craggy brass explosions, all cohered into a magnificently convincing whole. IH
The VR/Soundstage presentation can be seen at the Core Ballroom until 30 September.
LPO, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
On Wednesday night, the LPO launched its new season with three modern works and not a single crowd pleaser – a bold move, rewarded with a handsomely full and wildly appreciative audience. It helped that two of the pieces – the Symphony in Three Movements by Stravinsky, and the 3rd Symphony by Witold Lutosławski – were undoubted masterpieces, each supercharged with adrenal excitement and orchestral glitter.
It also helped that on the podium was Thomas Adès, the 47-year-old virtuoso composer, conductor and pianist who has mesmerised the musical world through a combination of uncanny brilliance and a ubiquity that rivals Britten and Stravinsky in their prime. Apart from the old masters such as Steve Reich, he’s the only really bankable star in the world of new music,
The evening was almost a triumph, but at its heart was a problem, in the shape of Adès’s own Piano Concerto In Seven Days. As the title suggests, the piece was inspired by the Biblical creation myth, and at its premiere 10 years ago was accompanied by a video made by Tal Rosner, which traced in abstract imagery the emergence of light and dark, sea and sky and so forth. The combination of dancing, hyperactive music and equally hyperactive imagery was just too much, and in most performances in recent years the video has been quietly dropped.
Alas, even without the images the piece is still too much, as this performance proved. The soloist Kirill Gerstein did his best to find an expressive heart in all the whirl and glitter, giving a melting tenderness to the brief moment of calm in the fifth movement. But all the brilliance couldn’t hide the fact that the piece still feels over-muscled, every idea made to burgeon and accrete massively complex detail. The aural spectacle was mesmerising, but one couldn’t still a nagging doubt that there was little genuine feeling behind it.
Thank goodness the performances of the other two pieces were so riveting. Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, inspired by grim imagery of the Second World War, packed a powerful punch in the outer movements, but it was the lyrical delicacy in the pastoral idyll of the central movement that really struck home. Lutosławski’s symphony presents a special challenge, in the way it morphs from a static, playful kaleidoscope of fragments to an irresistible forward momentum, but Adès and the LPO made the narrative seem both thrilling and moving. IH
Hear this concert for 30 days on the BBC iPlayer via the Radio 3 website
1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, Warsaw ★★★★★
When it comes to the making of pianistic history, no venue worldwide has witnessed more than Warsaw’s Philharmonic Hall. The annals of the Chopin Competition read like a Who’s Who of pianism and have featured more big-name prize-winners – including Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman – than any other musical contest. But the Chopin Competition is not resting on its laurels, or even laureates, and with the launch this month of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments it has again produced Chopin playing of the highest order.
Slightly less gladiatorial than the traditional competition, this new event was nevertheless hotly contested by 30 players from nine countries. The eventual winner was Poland’s Tomasz Ritter, second prize was shared between Naruhiko Kawaguchi (Japan) and Aleksandra Świgut (Poland), and third prize went to Krzysztof Książek, also of Poland. The host nation’s dominance was hardly surprising: Warsaw is very much at the vanguard when it comes to historical performance trends, thanks to the tireless vision of the Chopin Institute’s Stanisław Leszczyński, creator of this competition.
A little less monographic than the traditional Chopin Competition, the rules here required contestants to play some Bach in the first round, plus polonaises by Chopin’s Polish predecessors. Participants were also able to choose from a range of instruments of the sort Chopin would have known, not only Erards and Pleyels but pianos by the makers Buchholtz, Graf and Broadwood. This made the jury’s work tougher: unlike homogenised modern instruments, piano design in the 19th century was still evolving, and the instruments had far more individuality.
One thing the competition proved again is that Chopin on old instruments can be infinitely more expressive. In the winners’ concert, Książek (also recipient of the special prize for the playing of mazurkas, given by Polish Radio since the inaugural 1927 competition and now extended to this contest) cast a spell with his selection of mazurkas and the Polonaise in F sharp minor, drawing dusky warmth from an 1837 Erard.
The lighter action of these instruments also suits the “style brilliant” of Chopin’s fast movements, as both Świgut and Kawaguchi showed in the F minor Concerto when playing with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Grzegorz Nowak. Winners of the traditional competition have almost always played the E minor Concerto, but that superstition was put to rest here with players favouring the F minor Concerto, and in its slow movement Ritter proved that, even at 23 years of age, he has a rare feeling for Chopin rubato worthy of his victory. JA
Explore the competition and its performances: iccpi.pl
LSO/Rattle, Barbican ★★★★☆
The London Symphony Orchestra’s bold season-inaugurating programme was the sort of thing that would empty many halls. But that would be to reckon without the Simon Rattle factor, for it seems that audiences attend whatever he conducts. In a show of gratitude, the Barbican Centre and LSO jointly commissioned a “Simon’s Gift” thank-you present from Harrison Birtwistle to open this concert.
Donum Simoni MMXVIII is a grand title for a short fanfare, but the venerable Birtwistle is not writing many long new works these days. Although he does still sometimes have fresh things to say, this sounded more like an offcut from one of his monolithic old scores. Like all self-respecting fanfares, it begins in the brass — though in their growling lowest range — and percussion and woodwind join to build powerfully before the music quickly burns itself out again, settling back in the low brass.
Slightly less new, but still in keeping with the concert’s “New Music Britain” theme, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 1995 concerto for two trumpets and orchestra, Dispelling the Fears, proved much more substantial. Indeed it was a welcome reminder of the grittier style of a composer who has mellowed in recent years. An urban soundscape at first menacing and then melancholy, Turnage’s score speaks with expressionist intensity. Philip Cobb and Gábor Tarkövi were the steel-lipped soloists.
It was an inspired idea to link these with Egdon Heath, Holst’s homage to Thomas Hardy. Composed 91 years ago and neither tonal nor atonal, this score still presents players and listeners with a challenge — evidence of Holst’s under-appreciated modernism. Eeriness is never far away, even when the composer of The Planets momentarily steps into view, and Rattle drew beautifully voiced, muted sounds from his orchestra.
After so much wintriness, Britten’s Spring Symphony cleared the air. Sitting somewhere between Mahler’s Song of the Earth and Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, this can be a cumbersome piece, but also fascinating when done with such conviction. Britten’s first large-scale choral work (1949) draws on poetry from across seven centuries, and is right up to date with Auden’s wartime “Out on the lawn”, its strangeness sustained here by the mezzo Alice Coote and the London Symphony Chorus.
Allan Clayton’s free, easy tenor and superb diction made his contributions a highlight (especially in the stillness of “Waters above”), but the soprano Elizabeth Watts and the children’s voices of the Tiffin Choirs also played their roles in this reawakening of the earth after winter. JA
Simon Rattle conducts the LSO on September 18 and 19. tickets: lso.co.uk
Leeds International Piano Competition, Leeds Town Hall ★★★★★
In the ranks of prestigious piano competitions Leeds stands among the very top, as is shown by the simple fact that the best young pianists worldwide all want to compete in it. Eastern European, Russian and Asian names were most prominent amongst the 24 pianists who made the trip to Leeds; even the two British contestants were named Berezovsky and Yang. New directors Adam Gatehouse and pianist Paul Lewis have given the 55-year-old competition a thorough makeover, making it less lonely and gladiatorial and more musically collegiate. Taking a leaf from the Honens competition in Canada, they livened up the the semi-final round by including a chamber music piece and a contemporary piece.
The most stunning music-making over the past week has been in these semi-final rounds, which I caught thanks to the superb coverage by Medici TV and BBC Radio 3. Among many good things was a performance of a Berceuse fro, Busoni’s Elegies by Russian pianist Anna Geniushene of superb cloudy grandeur, a delightfully joyful Dvořák Dumky Trio from Czech pianist Pavel Zemen, and a superbly stylish performance from Chinese pianist Xinyuan Wang of Bach’s B flat major Partita.
Wang was one of the five pianists who appeared in Leeds Town Hall for the two final rounds on Friday and Saturday, where they were accompanied by the Hallé Orchestra and Edward Gardner. His performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto caught that genuine Schumann tone of fervent yet intimate feeling, but some details were smudged and he didn’t seem to be on his best form. The same could be said of the other finalists. Geniushene’s performance of Prokofiev’s bitter-sweet 3rd Concerto was technically polished but under-characterised, German pianist Mario Häring missed the humour in Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto. Croatian pianist Aljoša Jurinič’s performance of Mozart’s great C minor concerto was sensitive and beautifully shaped, but missed the music’s expansiveness.
By pure chance the best of the final rounds was saved until last, with a performance of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto from American pianist Eric Lu. It was really no surprise when the jury announced him as the winner, because although he was the youngest of the finalists, in terms of self-possession and technical command he seemed the oldest. Some finalists seemed to ignore the orchestra, some went along with it, but Lu seemed to command it, setting a tempo in the tragic slow movement which puts the piano apart in its own lonely world. Artistry of that kind is rare in pianists of any age; to find it in a 20-year-old is simply astounding. IH
BBC PROMS 2018, Berlioz Night, OSS/John Eliot Gardiner, Royal Albert Hall & Radio 3 ★★★★☆
Now on the home straight, it's also wall-to-wall week at the Proms. There has been a tango night, and still to come are evenings devoted solely to big works by Britten and Handel - not forgetting the unrelenting drivel of the Last Night. But this all-Berlioz concert was something special: thanks to the French composer's blazing inspiration there was nothing remotely monochrome here, especially not since the music was brought to vivid life by the period instruments of John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.
They got off to an arresting start — the orchestra playing standing up — with Le Corsaire, the exuberant concert overture loosely linked to Byron and James Fenimore Cooper but really an excuse for Berlioz to indulge in exhilarating, zesty orchestral effects. In such experienced Berliozian hands as Gardiner's it was a thrilling ride, the silken strings contrasting with rasping winds and brass.
In a concert surveying all the periods of Berlioz's career, the earliest work was La mort de Cléopâtre , in which Classical grandeur receives a Romantic reupholstering; death's final spasms have seldom been more vividly portrayed in music. Joyce DiDonato caught the scene's stillness and rage and her mezzo supplied all the dark colours required, but she tended to switch on the histrionics. Luckily there was no scenery to chew either here or when she sang Berlioz's other great North African queen, Dido, whose farewell aria from Les Troyens was prefaced by the opera's Royal Hunt and Storm interlude.
Not even Harold in Italy, that masterful "symphony in four parts with solo viola", was immune from acting, with the soloist Antoine Tamestit impersonating Byron's Childe Harold himself. Appearing once the music had started, he resembled a wandering minstrel or more prosaically an orchestral latecomer trying to sneak to his seat, but he was standing by the harpist in time for their entry together. He prowled the stage throughout the performance, yet one could forgive these antics for the sound he made: Tamestit is one of today's finest viola players, and he projected with tone of buzzing warmth and bel canto beauty, his solos full of story-telling character.
Gardiner's long-standing championship of Berlioz was felt here too, and he took the opportunity of having both his starry soloists together to deliver an inspired encore: in Marguerite's "Roi de Thulé " ballade from La Damnation de Faust, mezzo and viola interweaved in a perfect display of Berlioz's genius.
BBC PROMS 2018, Boston Symphony Orchestra/Nelsons, Royal Albert Hall & Radio 3 ★★★★☆
Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Shostakovich – it’s a combination we’ve seen a few times in Bernstein’s centenary year, and which the Boston Symphony Orchestra tried out again on Monday night, at the second of its two Proms with its Music Director Andris Nelsons.
On the face of it, it seems an odd pairing. True, both composers were beset by anxieties, but the extravagantly extrovert and intellectually flamboyant Leonard Bernstein’s troubles were all of an internal, self-generated kind. He never had to worry about the knock on the door from the secret police at 4.00am. Whereas the anxieties of the nervous, over-sensitive Shostakovich were prompted by the hard realities of Stalinism. The knock on the door never came, but it might have done.
Perhaps that’s one reason why in any encounter between the two composers, Bernstein always seems to come off worse. So it was at this Prom, which began with Bernstein’s violin concerto inspired by Plato’s Symposium, entitled Serenade. This is Bernstein’s shot at the gleaming white, graceful neo-classicism of Stravinsky. As this appropriately refined and witty performance from Latvian violinist Baiba Skride reminded us, the piece does at times attain a refined dancing rapture. Sensuality was kept firmly at bay by lemony dissonances in the melodic line, touched in by Skride and the orchestra with insinuating slyness. Only at the end does Bernstein let himself off the leash, in a revel in which big-band sassiness drives out Grecian coolness. Despite the fine performance, I was as always left with the impression of a piece pulling in too many directions, in its determination to be a masterpiece.
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony on the other hand has no time for clever stylistic juggling; the feelings of panic and terror it expresses are too raw for that. Which isn’t to say the piece is devoid of stylistic contrast; on the contrary, its power comes from the way wheezy fairground waltzes, crazily intense fugues, dry little musical mechanisms for one bassoon and side-drum, and overwhelming Mahlerian funeral marches are all flung together.
I’ve heard more manically intense performances of this piece, but none in which the numerous sad, lonely solo lines were played with such feeling (cor anglais player Robert Sheena deserves a special mention) or a more eloquent performance of that tremendous moment at the end of the 1st movement where a dazzling gleam of harmonic radiance bursts out, like a glimpse of a better world. IH
BBC PROMS 2018, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall & Radio 3 ★★★★★
For its second Prom, the Berlin Philharmonic cleaved to its home territory of the great Germanic tradition, with two tone-poems by Richard Strauss in the first half, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the second. So no surprises there; but the concert itself was full of surprise, of a wonderfully energising and thought-provoking kind.
Some of this was due to the vivid personalities of individual players. The timpani call-to-arms at the beginning of Strauss’s Don Juan was so vivid it almost made me jump out of my seat. The solo violin phrase later from co-leader Daishin Kashimoto was comically amorous (these players are too smart to take the Don’s escapades entirely seriously).
But much of the evening’s energy emanated from the small, neat, bearded figure of Kirill Petrenko, the orchestra’s Chief Conductor from 2019. There’s a constant back-and-forth in his conducting between standing back, maintaining the energy with the tiniest quiver of a wrist, and stepping forward eagerly to propel the musical narrative in a new direction. In the second Strauss tone-poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), the most memorable moment was the turn from the death-rattle music of the opening to the first stirrings of memory and regret, which Petrenko handled with surpassing subtlety.
However the evening’s real event, in terms of making something familiar seem new and mysterious, was the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the Prom’s second half. Petrenko hasn’t bought into the driving motoric tempi and clipped phrasing of the “period performance” brigade; on the contrary, this was a performance full of revealing and often startling tempo flexibility. Sometimes – as in the oboe’s rendition of the first movement melody - this had a relaxed spacious quality that reminded one of the Philharmonic’s previous principal conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. At other times it seemed new-minted, as in the Finale, where the melody with the off-beat accents was in a distinctly different tempo – but without compromising the integrity of the overall tempo, a seemingly impossible feat.
The Allegretto passed by with mysterious glassy smoothness, the ends of phrases dropping away to nothing, though most astonishing was the whirlwind energy of the Finale. If this is “the apotheosis of the dance” as Wagner called it, then here it was a dance of winds and tempests rather than bodies. The effect of all this was to defamiliarize Beethoven’s all-too-familiar masterwork, in a way that magnified rather than diminishing its overwhelming power. IH
BBC PROMS 2018, Berlin Phil/Petrenko, Royal Albert Hall & Radio 3 ★★★★☆
A Prom from the Berlin Philharmonic will always be a hot ticket, but there was a particular reason for the electric tingle in the hall on Saturday night. It marked the Proms debut for Kirill Petrenko, the man who next season takes over from Simon Rattle as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor. He’s rarely been seen in this country, hardly ever gives interviews, and is famously publicity-shy.
As this Prom demonstrated, Petrenko may be in some ways be timid, darting on and off the stage with a smiling, self-obliterating nerviness, but his presence on the podium is every bit as riveting as his famous predecessor’s. His movements are so elegant that he seems to be dancing the music as much as conducting it, but he gives the players space to breathe too, reducing his hand movements to a mere tremor – until the moment when without warning he seems to reach into the orchestral sound to pull out a telling detail, or raises his arms high to encourage the flutes to float like foam on a breaker. With Petrenko, every graceful gesture is also strictly functional.
All this makes him a natural ballet conductor, and the opening piece, the fanfare and “Poème Dansé” La Péri by Paul Dukas – a contemporary of Claude Debussy – had a seductive swaying energy, and needlepoint delicacy, exactly right for the ballet’s slender tale of a surpassingly beautiful female deity from Persian mythology. The way the final chord thinned magically at Petrenko’s gesture, leaving just the massed brass hanging in the air, so rounded and soft it sounded like the Albert Hall organ, was worth the price of the ticket in itself.
In Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, Petrenko demonstrated another gift – an ability to accompany a soloist with a mix of tact and forcefulness. But this couldn’t rescue the performance, which was emotionally blank. The soloist Yuja Wang demonstrated once again that when it comes to fleet finger-work and conjuring a pellucid sound in pianissimo, she has few rivals. But those gifts seem to begin and end in her fingers; of her heart or mind there’s very little trace. She took the first movement so fast that nothing could take on any weight or definition, and in general the whole piece seemed as insubstantial as thistledown.
The final performance of the Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt was at the opposite pole of deeply inward seriousness. Schmidt is often compared to Mahler, but as this performance proved his intimate fine-grained music is actually world’s away from Mahler’s bombast. Written as an act of mourning and remembrance for the composer’s daughter, this piece unfolded here in gorgeously sombre colours. The final trumpet call, a gleam of transcendence after the preceding distress, was sublimely moving. IH
BBC PROMS 2018, Trial by Jury, Alexandra Palace Theatre & Radio 3 ★★★★☆
Despite its enduring association with the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Proms has a long tradition of dipping into other arenas around London that offer contrasting atmospheres and environments: this year sees an excursion up north to Alexandra Palace, the vast Victorian arts and entertainment complex that crowns a municipal park on a hill high above Tottenham.
Built by the same firm that constructed the Albert Hall, the Ally Pally has weathered over a century and a half all manner of conversions and humiliations – bombing and fires, as well as general collapse, damp and decay – to the point at which it seemed doomed to extinction. Fortunately it was saved at the eleventh hour after being turned into a charitable trust, and the blessed Heritage Lottery Fund has stepped in to kick-start a massive fund-raising campaign that will see the site recover something of its former glory and popularity.
One of the Ally Pally’s many past tenants was the BBC, which made its first television broadcasts in 1936 from studios here. The corporation has long since departed, but will now visit as a guest to use the newly restored theatre on the site as one of its concert halls (Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night will be relayed here from December).
Its walls picturesquely decorated with plaster casts set in brickwork left in a fashionable state of raw distress, this space contains a two-tier auditorium accommodating about 1300 in flexible seating. Graced with a sizeable stage and platform, a vividly resonant acoustic and spacious foyer, the Alexandra Palace Theatre looks set to be a popular addition to London’s musical scene.
The inaugural programme was fitting: 1875, the year Ally Pally opened, was also the year of the first performance of Trial by Jury, that 40-minute distillation of the genius of Gilbert and Sullivan’s partnership. Combining the topsy-turvy conceit of a thoroughly corrupt courtroom with Sullivan’s brilliant parodies of Handelian oratorio and Donizettian opera, it’s a sparkling gem of its period, lovingly polished up here in a corker of a performance conducted with crisp precision by Jane Glover.
Sam Furness and Mary Bevan were all youthful charm as the unhappy couple, under scrutiny from Neal Davies, Keel Watson and Ross Ramgobin as ludicrous representatives of Gilbert’s favourite target, the English judiciary. The BBC Singers gamely acted out their roles as the jurors in a lively if needlessly frenetic staging directed by Jack Furness, and everyone concerned had a very jolly time. G and S lives!
The first half of this matinée concert consisted of a pot-pourri of Victorian and Edwardian sweetmeats, not quite so full of beans. The BBC Concert Orchestra galumphed through the airy Mendelssohnian graces of Sullivan’s overture to Act IV of The Tempest, but came into its own in the more rumbustious opening to Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate, charged with her irrresistibly stirring Suffragette anthem, March of the Women.
A suite by Hubert Parry from a production of Aristophanes’s The Birds proved a protracted bore and a weedy aria from the musical comedy hit of 1892 Alfred Cellier’s The Mountebanks, prettily sung by Mary Bevan, left little impression. But there was one highlight: the seductive Onaway, awake beloved from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, delivered by Sam Furness with a relish and ardour that recalled his great Welsh tenor predecessors and left me wondering whether it wasn’t time for a full professional revival of this once enormously popular cantata, composed by a half-Creole native of Croydon who poignantly died in straitened circumstances before he had fulfilled his promise. RC