In concert – Daniel Pioro, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Manze – Vaughan Williams: Symphony no.9, Lark Ascending & Tallis Fantasia; Tom Coult Violin Concerto

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Tom Coult Pleasure Garden: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2020) (London premiere)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914-20); Symphony no.9 in E minor (1956-57)

Daniel Pioro (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Manze

Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 26 October 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Concert pictures with thanks to the London Philharmonic Orchestra; picture of Andrew Manze (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Subtitled Visions of England, this concert from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrew Manze was a celebration of Vaughan Williams, marking 150 years since the composer’s birth. As part of an extremely full conducting CV, Manze has a recently recorded cycle of the composer’s nine symphonies under his belt with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and clearly holds a special affection for his music.

Two of RVW’s most popular pieces began each half of the concert, but the main act was a relatively rare encounter with composer’s final symphony, completed a year before his death. The Ninth Symphony is a work needing repeated listening before its treasures can be fully revealed, but more recently it has started to get the performances it needs to make an impact. As Manze himself told us from the platform, it also has a deep resonance for the London Philharmonic Orchestra themselves. On the morning of 26 August 1958 they were rehearsing with the composer’s friend and advocate, Sir Adrian Boult, when news came through that Vaughan Williams had died.

This performance delved into the spidery textures that seem to provide a link to the afterlife itself, rather like one of Holst’s later Planets. Also evident were a series of cloudy, watery vistas, such as those found in Debussy’s Nocturnes. Manze probed deeply into the first movement, helped by the baleful colouring of three saxophones, beautifully managed by Martin Robertson, Tim Holmes and Shaun Thompson to enhance the unusual orchestral textures. The tension between the ‘home’ note of E and its immediate neighbour F was ideally weighted, the thoughtful mood tinged with a sense of foreboding.

These emotions underpinned a convincing performance, with references to earlier, angrier music from the Sixth symphony sharply noted and delivered. There were also moments of calm acceptance, as though the composer was reappraising his life with some satisfaction, the darkness held at bay by silvery strings and consoling woodwind.

The second movement, with its curious rhythmic profile, had nicely balanced syncopations, while the scherzo danced as though in an empty room, the music never quite leaving the leash on which it was held. Segueing directly to the finale, Manze’s control and passion could be felt in equal measure, a sense of resolution hard to come by but ultimately found as the music headed for its final three chords, the ‘E’ and ‘F’ finally resolving their dispute. This beautiful symphonic ending offered genuine light in the darkness, a similar sensation to Shostakovich’s final symphonic statement if seen through very different eyes.

The concert opened with the ubiquitous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, less elusive music perhaps but equally profound when casting its eyes back over time. This ideal concert opener speaks as loudly as it surely did in 1910, providing consolation for the fevered brow through subtle but far-reaching statements. On this occasion the performance did not quite have the ‘tingle’ factor, but it did feature beautiful string playing and finely wrought balance between the ‘choir’ of ten instruments, elevated a little at the back of the stage. Meanwhile the main orchestra could boast excellent contributions from four section principals, Pieter Schoeman and Tania Mazzetti (violins), Richard Waters (viola) and Pei-Jee Ng (cello).

The Lark Ascending holds a similarly treasured status among lovers of Vaughan Williams, remaining one of the calling cards of 20th century English music. In the right performance it creates a magical evocation of George Meredith’s lark, as it ‘drops the silver chain of sound’. Daniel Pioro played the solo part with great sensitivity and more than a little panache, choosing not to overindulge in a relatively straightforward opening sequence, but appearing to add a few extra ‘blue’ notes as the violin warmed to its characterisation, ‘lost on his aerial wings’. Manze’s pacing, initially quite fast, settled to a satisfying pace, with ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. The hall responded with commendable silence to the absolute quiet at the end.

A busy evening for Pioro included a role as soloist in the first London performance of Tom Coult’s Pleasure Garden. A four-movement concerto for violin and carefully chosen orchestra, it is effectively a compilation of four very distinct tableaus, taking its lead from constructed ‘natural spaces’ in and around congested living areas.

The first movement, Starting to rain – Zennyo Ryuo appears, found as vivid a portrayal of rain as you could wish to hear – in my mind I was checking the roof for a leak! Throughout the concerto Coult’s keen ear for orchestral colour was evident at every turn, as was his assured writing for violin, brilliantly played by Pioro. The coloristic effects were enjoyable and easy on the ear, harmonies largely consonant but never over-simplified, and the description of events in Dyeing the lake blue for Queen Victoria, Francesco Landini serenades the birds and The art of setting stones was easy to follow. The birds in particular were vividly portrayed by the soloist.

There was however a fragmented feel to the green spaces, as though they had not fully germinated, and this was exaggerated by the stopping of each movement to pause the descriptive process. When the piece did finally finish there was still an element of unfinished business, in spite of its 27-minute length. Repeated hearing would be welcome to give a more thorough appraisal and understanding, as the warm reception would suggest Coult hit the mark for the vast majority of listeners. His music has many attractive traits and he is a gifted orchestrator, so his is most definitely a space to keep under watch.

In concert – Kathryn Rudge, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Across The Sea: Mendelssohn, Elcock, Britten & Elgar

Mendelssohn Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)
Elcock Wreck Op.10 (1998) [World Premiere]
Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op.33a (1945)
Elgar Sea Pictures Op.37 (1899)

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Malvern Theatres, Great Malvern
Saturday 15 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This first full-length concert in the English Symphony Orchestra’s new season focussed on the sea in all its varied qualities, taking in four works whose encompassing a span of almost two centuries also identified crucial aesthetic differences as to what music itself can express.

Not least as it comes between masterpieces of the early Romantic era (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Hebrides), Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage has often been overlooked on its own merits. Yet this concert overture, as inspired by two of Goethe’s best- known poems, is a fine example of the still-teenage composer’s prowess – Kenneth Woods securing a rapt intensity in its introductory phase, then steering its characterful continuation through to a grand while not unduly bathetic peroration with the sea accorded the final word.

From here to Steve Elcock’s Wreck is to encounter more elemental, even existential forces – what the composer refers to as a ‘‘symphonic allegory’’ portraying a ship’s struggle against intemperate weather at sea. This unfolds as a constantly evolving design, juxtaposing music of unchecked aggression with that of fraught serenity, while highlighting Elcock’s mastery of large-scale formal and expressive contrasts, toward a seismic culmination whose gradual subsidence makes possible the sustained closing section. Here, off-stage mezzo sings in an invented (hence unknown) language what he describes as ‘‘a message of salvation beyond despair, of consolation beyond grief’’ but even this is tempered by encroaching doubt. The ESO gave its all in a piece as demonstrably commended itself to the appreciative audience.

Marine vignettes rather than epics came after the interval. Woods had an audible grasp of the diverse moods in the Four Sea Interludes that Britten drew from his opera Peter Grimes, but more notable was his successful segueing between them – the keening plangency of Dawn leading into the equivocal assurance of Sunday Morning, emergent tonal and emotional blur of Moonlight, then the visceral conflict of Storm with its yearning oasis of calm and brutal closing onslaught. A few failings of ensemble hardly offset the intent continuity of the whole.

The ESO previously recorded Elgar’s Sea Pictures in an arrangement with chorus by Donald Fraser, but it was good to hear this song-cycle as Elgar realized it for mezzo – not least when Kathryn Rudge (taking her customary place at front of stage) proved so eloquent an exponent. The troubled pathos drawn from Roden Nole’s Sea-Slumber-Song was duly complemented by the whimsical charm of Alice Elgar’s In Haven (Capri) – tension rising accordingly for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sabbath Morning at Sea, its larger emotional contrasts well defined. Expressive nuances in Richard Garnett’s Where Corals Lie might have been more subtly pointed, but there was no doubt as to Rudge’s identification here or in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Swimmer with its anxious though determined progress to certain affirmation.

It set the seal on a rewarding programme and fine start to what will hopefully be an eventful season for the ESO. More concerts will be announced soon, but for now the recent release of Adrian Williams’s First Symphony (Nimbus NI6432) confirms this as an orchestra on a roll.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Kathryn Rudge, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on composer Steve Elcock, click here

BBC Proms at Birmingham – Claire Barnett-Jones & Simon Lepper in songs by Horovitz, Smyth, Clarke, Vaughan Williams & Wallen

BBC Proms at Birmingham – Claire Barnett-Jones (mezzo-soprano), Simon Lepper (piano)

Horovitz Lady Macbeth – a scena (1970) [Proms premiere]
Smyth Fünf Lieder, Op. 4 (c1877) [Proms premiere]
Clarke The Seal Man (1921-2) [Proms premiere]
Vaughan Williams Four Last Songs (1954-8) [Proms premiere of original version]
Wallen Lady Super Spy Adventurer (2022) [BBC commission: World premiere]

Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Monday 29 August 2022, 1pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (Claire Barnett-Jones) (c) Benjamin Ealovega

The series of regional lunchtime Proms this afternoon reached Birmingham for a song recital by Claire Barnett-Jones, whose success at last year’s Cardiff Singer of the World and having studied at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire made her appearance doubly apposite. Equally so the initial item by Joseph Horovitz, after his death in February at 96. Lady Macbeth – a scena revealed his more serious side – with monologues from the first, second and fifth acts of ‘The Scottish Play’ charting the anti-heroine’s journey from aspiration via ambition to desperation.

The music of Ethel Smyth has been a recurrent feature this season – the present set of Lieder a reminder that, before she achieved fame with The Wreckers and notoriety as a suffragette, she had received a thoroughly Teutonic musical education in Leipzig. Fluent and idiomatic, these five settings are fluent and idiomatic: the enervation of Büchner’s Tanzlied followed by the wistfulness of Wildenbruch’s Schlummerlied and eloquence of Eichendorff’s Mittagsrum, then the assertiveness of Groth’s Nachtreiter and transcendence of Heyse’s Nachtgedanken.

Barnett-James rendered them with sensitivity and insight, with Simon Lepper (above) no less attuned to those most often intricate accompaniments. Qualities equally evident in Rebecca Clarke’s luminous setting of Masefield’s evocative if rather prolix The Seal Man as well as Four Last Songs that Vaughan Williams set to texts by his second wife, the poet Ursula Wood. From the fatalism of The Death of Procris, via the acceptance of Tired and the poise of Hands, Eyes and Heart, to the fulfilment of Menelaus – these are songs which speak of a life well-lived.

A very different take on the journey from innocence to experience is proffered by Lady Super Spy Adventurer, written by Errollyn Wallen for this recital and which might be described as a ‘concert aria’ in that its highly visual – and often visceral – rendering of the composer’s own text is balanced by a sure formal sense as to where these deceptively superficial observations are headed. Barnett-James despatched them with suitable aplomb such that Wallen, listening from home, must have been well satisfied.

Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, the second song from his cycle of Rossetti poems House of Life, made for an affecting encore.

Click on the artist names for more information on Claire Barnett-Jones and Simon Lepper. For more information on this year’s BBC Proms, head to the festival website

BBC Proms #47 – Sheléa, Vula’s Chorale, Jules Buckley Orchestra / Jules Buckley – Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Prom 47 – Sheléa (vocals), Vula’s Chorale, Jules Buckley Orchestra / Jules Buckley

Royal Albert Hall, London

Monday 22 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Mark Allan

The year during which she would have celebrated her 80th birthday made this celebration of Aretha Franklin a shoo-in for the Proms. Jules Buckley was on hand with his newly formed eponymous orchestra for an evening that surveyed the Queen of Soul’s considerable stylistic range, as surely as it introduced a much-heralded American singer, songwriter, and pianist to the wider UK public. After her performance tonight, indeed, it would be more then surprising were Sheléa (Frazier) not to have found an appreciably higher profile this side of the Atlantic.

If not strictly chronological, the programme began with an obvious homage to Aretha’s roots in John Wright’s Precious Memories and gospel as its most soulful – astutely balanced by the Broadnax/Paul/Wonder Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) and soul at its most pop. The pathos of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark was enhanced with a flute-drenched arrangement, then Sheléa took to the piano for the emotional build-up of the Nelson/Ertegun Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) with the sax section bracingly to the fore. Next came two co-writes from Franklin and her one-time husband Ted White – the smouldering blues of Dr Feelgood (no pub-rock connotations here) followed by the up-tempo Think with its rousing call-and-response between Sheléa and Vula Malinga’s gospel choir. Expressively mannered though her take on Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere might have been, the evocative quality of the arrangement by Quincy Jones could hardly be doubted. The raunchy r&b of Dan Covay’s Chain of Fools, keyboards much in evidence, saw this first half through to its full-on close.

An interval costume-change and Sheléa got the insouciance of Burt Bacharach’s I Say a Little Prayer down to a tee, thanks in part to an atmospheric orchestral introduction, as she did the plaintive soul-pop of Curtis Mayfield’s Sparkle. A member of the choir audibly enjoyed his ‘George Michael’ cameo with the Climie/Morgan duet I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me), complemented by the punchy afro-beat of Franklin’s own Rock Steady. The choir came into its own first via the Leiber/Spector Spanish Harlem with its effective interplay of solos and ensemble, followed by Franklin’s Day Dreaming with its sensuous contribution from flutes and vibes. A second costume-change – and Sheléa returned for a suitably though sincerely histrionic rendition of John Newton’s Amazing Grace, before launching into a take on the Goffin/King (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman that oozed pulsating energy. This, in turn, segued into the inevitable closing number – Otis Redding’s Respect, its incitement   to the attaining then maintaining of freedom surely as relevant today as it was 57 years ago.

Throughout this programme, Sheléa’s commitment to the Aretha cause was underpinned in no uncertain terms by Buckley, who rightly took a moment to pay tribute to those arrangers – two of whom, tenor saxophonist Tom Richards and the trumpeter Tom Walsh, were active members of his orchestra – whose input had made this evening the success it proved to be. Singer and conductor met the applause from a capacity Albert Hall with a version of Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water finding Sheléa and her piano in intimate communion.

Click on the artist names for more information on Sheléa, Vula Malinga and Jules Buckley – and for a site dedicated to Aretha Franklin, click here

Song at Wolfson – Ukraine Fundraiser

It is so gratifying to see all the musical initiatives currently underway to raise money for Ukraine. One that I particularly wanted to draw attention to is a concert taking place at the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium in Wolfson College, Oxford, on 9 June.

British-Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus will be joined in a celebration of Ukrainian song by pianist and Oxford Lieder Festival founder Sholto Kynoch. Rozanna is a former Oxford Lieder Young Artist, and the programme will be introduced by Philip Bullock, setting the history of Ukrainian music in cultural context.

The program includes songs by the 19th-century Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko, as well as music by Yakiv Stepovyi, Kyrylo Stetsenko and Stefania Turkewich. The commentary for the concert reveals that Turkewich studied with Joseph Marx and Arnold Schoenberg, before fleeing the Soviets for England in 1946, where she stayed until her death in 1977. Some of her songs have only recently been discovered. With the inclusion of Ukrainian folk songs, the concert promises to be an eye-opening occasion, bringing the music and poetry of Ukraine to the forefront at such an awful time for the country.

The concert will be presented in support of the DEC Ukraine appeal. With generous support from Breckon & Breckon, all costs of the concert are covered and 100% of ticket sales will go directly to the DEC. Although seating is unreserved as usual, tickets are priced at £15, £20 and £25 to help raise as much as possible. If you would like to donate further, please click here to give directly to DEC.

You can book tickets for the concert at the Oxford Lieder website