Category Archives: Opera & classical

Review Strauss’ Don Quixote, BBC NOW, St David’s Hall by James Ellis

I’ve seen much less of our BBC National Orchestra this year, I’ll admit that. Though what I have seen has been dazzling, I’m thinking back to the Charles Ives and John Adams a few weeks ago as a highlight. Our bright, American conductor Ryan Bancroft as Principle is choosing much more stimulating music than usual.

First we begin in Wales with Grace William’s and her Concert Overture. On a sad day, Grace chose to destroy manuscripts of several of her pieces, this overture being one of them. Other copies from previous performances had been salvaged and the piece is saved from being lost. It’s a jumpy, jolting few minutes. Grace’s vibrancy for orchestration is proven in this early work, I’ve never understood why she doesn’t get more love outside of Wales? The strings got a lot of attention from the composer and you can feel a unburdening anticipation to it all.

Next, a fashionable performance of Mozart’s 39th Symphony. Ryan made it breezily cool and light. The only discrepancy was a rogue phone from the audience going off between movements, holting Ryan in setting off into the rest of the symphony. I think we had some new concert attendees who didn’t quite grasp phone etiquette, especially when we are live on national radio. You don’t see Mozart symphonies as much with BBC NOW and I’d be down for more. You can feel the passion and the genius, thanks to our loving conductor who really cares about this music.

For this finale concert for the season, we had a rarity: Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, a strange tone poem, which is also a cello concerto. Taking Cervantes’ famous epic of the mad Spanish knight, this made for one of the finer discoveries for this year. Lead cellist of the orchestra Alice Neary wowed here, were so used to seeing her in the thick of the other players, all eyes on her here. Not an easy piece to play, she delighted in the odd nature of the beast. The ironic waltzes, loved up romance and the acidic modernism that could only ever be R. Strauss. The discordant bars when Quixote famously mistakes windmills for giants are piercing, no doubt triggering a few audience members. On viola, Rebecca Jones adds to the joy as Quixote’s man servant Sancho Panza, not really a soloist though some curious playing for the much mocked viola is appealing.

Cardiff audiences would love to see BBC NOW players get more soloists roles not just for budgetary reasons. A chance to get to know who we’ve had all along in this marvellous orchestra. I only ever get more proud of BBC NOW.

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds till 1st July 2023.

Review The Hallé, St David’s Hall by James Ellis 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

I’ve  not seen a classical concert so hectic at St David’s for years. The Hallé made the call and Cardiff answered with an impressive audience. Sat in Tier 5 I finally got to see the conductor’s face, that of an emboldened Dalia Stasevska. She turned and gave time to all the players, though I could hear her scoffing quite loudly doing dramatic moments. I love her though, she makes for a fascinating maestro to watch and seeing here near head on made for a highlight. 

Sibelius would being and end the night, Karelia Suite open with a typically Finnish, folksy fashion. It remained delightful, the last movement partially jolly within it’s ringtone nodding vibe. To be nearer the woodwind I could hear them much clearer and they ring out in a work like this if only for moments. One of the composer’s more accessible works, the symphony which follows might also be applied in that category.    

Sad to say Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano left me mostly unmoved. With Nicola Benedetti having to cancel, Hyeyoon Park was up for the violin solo, aside cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. This busy concerto has little going for it, though the three soloists made it more attractive then it really is. With so many soloists, little time is given to really get into the nitty gritty of a concerto proper. Some earth moments you’d expect from Beethoven are here and the usually rollicking passages were here. Hyeyoon and Sheku shared thematic elements due to their instrument being in the same family. Benjamin did some noodley piano from old Ludvig van, though little if anything took flight. Having said that seeing these three young talents on the Cardiff stage was quite touching. 

A surprise form Sweden and Andrea Tarrodi with her Paradisfåglar II (Birds of Paradise). With the first piece being just for string orchestra, here the second imagining is a lush and livid depiction of the jungle and the birds who frequent it. Inspired by Planet Earth from the BBC, Andrea was taken aback by the beauty of the Birds of Paradise, a subset of endangered birds who seem to have drag plumage and delightful dance moves. Wonderful glissandi evoke the shrill songs of these birds (though which specific bird of paradise is unclear), Fien orchestration sees a tam-tam struck very gently a few times and the string still shining in most of the piece. 

Dalia wasted no time and went straight into the next Sibelius: his Seventh Symphony. Surprisingly slight around 20 odd minutes, it lost momentum a few times and a musical storm did feel like it was coming. Dalia dazzled here, in the brief affair, the breeze and fire of the composer lived. The ending was full of promised and went off well, a finale which develops in the under current for such a brief piece. Brass and percussion here were devastating. I’ll have to listen to this again.

The short second half, left wanting more though still remained an evening full of bold and memorable music making. 

Review Camenae de Cymru, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons & Arias, All St Church, Bristol by James Ellis

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

It is lovely to see Wales based singers out and about, here the Camenae de Cymru visited Bristol for an evening of Vivaldi. Though they had two dates in Cardiff and around the area, a little trip over the border is never a strain.

All Saints Church in Bristol is a great find. Wrecked by Blitz bombs, the restoration in the 1960s is staggering and theatrical, the vivid stained glass work of John Piper also dazzles. The fine selection of lesser know Vivaldi in his operatic arias were fascinating and touching. Kristina Bitina as vocalist gave these a good shot, the choice from her opening Gloria stood out. The opera choices from Judith Triumphans and Orlando Furioso prove they should be performed more, they stand out for helping the opera art form develop as we know it. Kristina delivered in proud song and more of these lesser known feats would be highly encouraged.

The main event would be the famous Four Season concerto we all know and love. Yuri Savkin on violin needed no sheet music and was up for the challenge for this pristine piece. On cello Tabitha Selley made for a marvellous addition, whilst on harp Ben Creighton Griffiths was suitably Baroque in appearance and played with ease and contentment. Our host for the evening was singer and writer Nichola Bojczuk, with some fitting lesser known poems past the composer’s era. This as well as her own verse was fitting for the Seasons and a reminder that in the UK we are drastically losing our bird population.

Due to the size of the church the music was sometimes drowned out by it’s unrelenting echo, the harp at times had an overbearing bass. I’d be intrigued to hear more music in the church, I just cant get over how impressive the space is. There was a crunchy noise heard throughout the concert, which no one could seem to detect. Popping outside in the intermission, it may have had to do with the stained glass, though I heard little when out there. Apparently someone had taped protein glass earlier in the day, a strange ambient noise which felt watery aside the Seasons.

A pleasure to come and listen.

Camenae de Cymru perform in Penarth the Best Romantic Music of the 19th Century on May 13th 2023 at All Saints Church.

Review Rosewood, Manchester Collective, RWCMD by James Ellis

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

In their most recent outing, the Manchester Collective are wowing audiences with Rosewood, featuring Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe. John Cage’s 6 Melodies starts us off with restrictive playing and a strict atmosphere of music making. Highly minimalist, Cage has given the players strict methods of playing and how many notes to be heard also. The concert takes it’s name from David Fennessy, now pluralised to Rosewoods. Inspire by an Italian church in Orkney, this delightful piece bringing the crisp air and stunning landscapes of the islands to life.

Kelly Moran offered up a touching personal note of bereavement and heart break in her Living Again. Some fine cello playing here aside Sean on electric guitar gave soft tones, a very pretty piece and not ashamed to admit it. The traditional piece La Folia, was given a sideways look with a fabulous reimagining from the whole quartet and Sean. Perhaps his arrangement both sums up these players who look back to the past and are still looking forward. Their was a vitality to this outing and they really knocked it out of the park. David Lang’s Killer felt a world away from his softer, modest work. This brazen, brash piece stunned with it’s jolting swipes and strikes, the guitar shining, the strings roaring. Majestic.

Emily Hall and her Potential Space started with Sean playing a violin bow on his electric guitar, something which impressed my plus one. This remained another fine premier, I was quite taken with it’s approach, the string starting off pizzicato and Sean getting many highlights, his talents and hunger for the experimental never wavering. This wonderful night wrapped up with a composer getting the popularity he always deserved: Julius Eastman. His Buddha, sees an egg like formation baked in the sheet music, with some performances lasting two hours. It was a slight affair, though it felt like a highly ambient version of this odd little piece. It never over stayed its welcome and left us highly satisfied with a fabulous night.

This golden concert is continuing proof of the Manchester Collective’s genius. See on tour!

Rosewood continues on tour to Saffron Walden, Nottingham, Leeds, Salford, Liverpool & London.

Review WNO Associate Artists Recital, Hoddinott Hall by James Ellis  

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

WNO is filled with promise. With new singers emerging from our fine country, the company are on the quest to seek them out and give them the platform they deserve. For this newest recital, Dafydd Allen took the helm in a string concert.

Though programmed as a baritone, an introduction would state he has transposed into a tenor (at least for this programme). A selection of songs by Henri Duparc: Cinq mélodies Op 2, would be of great, evocative appeal and here Dafydd delivers. Though some strain with a few high notes and I assume some recital jitters may have come along, his voice does grab attention. Good acting must come into play for these songs, joy, anger, merriment et al, which continued in the choice of Hugo Wolf songs Mörike-Lieder. The last piece Abschied or Goodbye, has good fun and Dafydd seemed to enjoy himself. Light music from Eric Coates and Ivor Gurney, was sweet and a selection of Welsh songs also proves his native talents. Dafydd has so much to offer, though I do wonder about the singing range he will find himself in and no doubt, any vocal blips can be ironed out. We look forward to seeing more of him with WNO and further afield!

Soprano Isabelle Peters followed with a stunning selection of Debussy with Ariettes Oubliées. This was the real deal, no doubt here time with WNO giving her a lot of support and guidance. Further Richard Strauss and Brahms also thrilled, the German sounding good as well. Her voice just seems effortless in moments, airy and touching. Britten using Robert Burns, Spanish and Irish folk songs also felt like a treat, Isabelle proving see can sing in an array of languages and styles. Even some Rachmaninov at the end with Zdes Khorosho, had a vitality to it. An encore with both singers would be a duet from The Merry Widow, they seemed to have voices which moulded well for this soupy departure. 

Hats off to both Dafydd and Isabelle for a lovingly sung recital that proves talent after talent.      

Review Benjamin Appl & Simon Lepper, Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, St Martin-in-the-Fields by James Ellis

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

The most wonderful concert occurred at St Martin’s in London. German baritone Benjamin Appl wowed with a fine evening of songs that will remain an unforgettable vision.

Starting with the UK premiere of David Lang’s ‘flower, forget me’, we had a ghostly atmosphere that was heavily inspired by the Schubert we would hear after. Its floral ambiance from all the poems by Wilhelm Müller that Schubert did not use for the latter cycle. It’s all very subtle and typical Lang. Both Appl and Lepper quite subdued for most of it, strange feelings of pain and disappointment predominate. Few notes are played by Lepper, what appears to be over thirty of Schubert songs in quotation form. Appl is soft and smooth here, his English showing very little of an accent. This new work should find it’s place with the now popular Lang party.

Straight into the Schubert with his Die schöne Müllerin, the bulk of the evening. These twenty songs prove the composers mastery over the lieder. The evocative sights are of nature, love and loss remain almost unbearable in their intensity. I was amazed at how brilliant Appl made things, he seems to eat and sleep these songs. I spent little time with the English translation, I simply wanted to watch him and his fine acting as well. It was his adorable little smile, his snarling, his teary turns that got to me. The song Pause, The Huntsman and the finale The Brook’s Lullaby remained as highlights, though numerous passages did also stand out.

This was the real deal in many respects, Appl seemingly taking the baton from singers like Dietrich Fischer Dieskau amongst others. Simon Lepper remains a staggering pianist, who impresses in everything he does. Even a moment lost between the sheets, he was able to find his footing, as Benjamin held a note patiently. The chilly air of the church would give Benjamin his own brief phase of coughing though nothing intruding upon his singing and he kept it well under wraps.

Consider me an absolute fan.

Review Claron McFadden & Alexander Melnikov Recital, Wigmore Hall by James Ellis 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

In what might be the most strange and wonderful concert programme  seen at Wigmore, Claron McFadden & Alexander Melnikov gave us an education in avant-garde vocalise. What a treasure of an evening, Claron in her solo moments shone, Alexander proving a stunning accompanist as well as piano soloist. 

John Cage’s Aria is a quirky few minutes of chattering, squeaking and sneezing. It is amazing for its liberating stance for the singer, even La Traviata gets a reference. A thread of bizarre acapella vocal work would be heard later as well. Prokofiev’s 5 Melodies have some lovely moments for both, though can fall into that mawkish aspect that a vocalise can sometime get trapped into. Though I found moments to be a joy, Claron plunging head first into everything she does. Luciano Berio sees another glorious vocal encounter in the vain of Cage and his gang. There is more scurrying here, hand over mouth vibrations and whispering. It is, as you might think a mighty little thing to hear live. 

Berio’s singer wife Cathy Berberian, had her own turn with Stripsody. Here the singer is shown graphic comic panels and asked to deliver the sounds they see on the page. In the same vein as Cage and Berio, you get the idea but understanding the ideas behind these pieces, things which I have a lot of good to say about though some might roll their eyes. The now late Oliver Knussen got a collective of Whitman Settings. Poems from the American writer. Odd, angular piano meets the elaborate line of the verse, Claron really bringing out their best qualities. Perhaps a less interesting part of the night, though I did still find it intriguing.

Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue remained an eye bulging encounter. All the right notes were struck here, the series nature of Alexander coming into his own in what feels like a terror of a piece to play, maintaining a swell chromatic scale that remained enticing. A little flutter form Erwin Schulhoff and his Sonata Erotica saw more fun with Claron and Alexander got to pour water into a metal punch bowl mimicking the sound of a man urinating. This felt like another piece from what is the Dada era and left an impact. 

George Crumb’s Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises ended the programme and made for another discovery of the late, great American composer. More Whitman, the plucking of piano strings and an all round sense of the ethereal rang through the piece. The moment when Claron turned to sing right into the piano was simply magic. A difficult piece by some means, though it had a folk like charm and theatrical flare that made me smitten with these two.  

Two encores left us well appeased. Please come back! 

Review Aidan Mikdad Recital, Wigmore Hall by James Ellis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Starting off at the Royal Academy of Music, Dutch pianist Aidan Mikdad has easily made a name for himself. How easily he made mincemeat of both composers in this fine hour afternoon concert.

The lighter side of Robert Schumann is evident in his Carnaval, a delightful multi movement thrill. Even name dropping a few fellow composers: Chopin and Paganini, the whole feat had the thrill of the joyful ride that teleports us back to the era it was written. Aidan fused well with the many moments and made it look so easy. I imagine these passages proving to be hard work, the winking eye and fairground attraction of the whole piece still having the utmost charm all these years later. This is well needed today.

We’d see Scriabin follow, the Russian born composer who has a cult . I expected a bit more of a storm from his Piano Sonata No. 3 in F sharp major, perhaps I went in with too many assumptions about the composer. Saying this, Aidan proudly showed off his skills in the work. Here a lot of vigour is needed, much frantic action aside daring compositional techniques, bold for Scriabin’s era. Though not my complete cup of tea, I marvelled at Aidan’s technique here. Not essentially sounding Russian, more akin to impressionism and expressionism that would follow in art. Curiously in four movements, each seemingly getting more intense as the rhapsodic flow unveils itself with impressive effect.

Aidan is a pianist to watch out for

Review Messiaen’s Sermon to the Birds, BBC SSO, Glasgow City Halls by James Ellis  

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

I don’t often review concerts I’ve heard on the radio. Though the rarity of hearing anything from Olivier Messiaen’s huge opera Saint François d’Assise could not be missed. Though the continent is being treated for the next year with at least three separate set of performances in Stuttgart, Bucharest and Hamburg, our shores would see a sliver of the grand opera. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have taken on the challenge of performing the longest tableaux, that of the third scene of the second act entitled ‘The Sermon to the Birds’.

The first two scenes of the second act already make up an hour, so this proves to be the most testing part. Having said that, this 45 minutes remains a shimmering thrill, the amount of birdsong absurd and the excitement it brings is unbounded. With ten percussionists and a heap of woodwind, there is even three ‘ondes Martenot’, an early electronic instrument filled with smashing, ethereal sonorities, you cant deny this is highly original. In this moment, St Francis watches the birds with Brother Masseo, the former blesses them and they sing out in glory. In this strange orchestration, the birds delight in the sacred nature of the act and sing out loud and proud. The battery the woodwind players and others face in this moment remains a highlight of the entire opera. It is an modulating canvas of colours and noise, seeing birds both local to Umbria and around the world show off. The brass terrifies and the strings also wow with uneasy harmonics. The percussion getting the spotlight for constant playing and energetic vitality. 

I think I could hear Ryan Wigglesworth slightly moaning during peak moments. I imagine this to be exhausting for any conductor to perform, there was apparently a second maestro on stage to reign in the buckets of chirps and whoops of these blessed birds. Ryan has proven his talents time and time again, I imagine this might have been his choice of programme and it being performed so well, should be celebrated. This tenure up north can only prove his brilliance. As the Saint, Ashley Riches pushes through a dense vocal line, all stone like chant and affirmed declarations of the cross. Ashley seems to get it, never any easy role to play by any standard, he might just work in a full outing of the work. As Masseo, Nicky Spence proves his lush tenor, something which has only gotten better as he matures. These two could easily be in the complete opera, I can just picture it.      

In the first half, was Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ or his Sixth. Nicely tying into the theme of birdsong and nature, this might be my favourite of the old Ludvig van, though it’s a fairly vanilla symphony on many levels. Like Messiaen the transcription of birdsong is clear, though a bit arbitrary from Beethoven. You can clearly tell when the birds come in, I imagine that to be quite novel in his day. Having said this, the orchestra offered a pristine take on this delightful symphony. It’s the clarity that has to shine through in this piece of sunshine, storms and other charms. The first moments cant be beat, a tonic for the weary. The last movement with the rampant storm passing to clear the path of sunlight is another mighty moment within the music. 

I wish I had been there for this head turning concert.   

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra perform Messiaen and Beethoven again in Edinburgh 16 April at Usher Hall at 3pm.

Listen to the concert on BBC Sounds here

Review Dialogues of the Carmelites, David Seligman Opera School, RWCMD Sherman Theatre by James Ellis  

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A review of Poulenc’s second opera, presented by the performers of the David Seligman Opera School, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Sung in English.

Francis Poulenc, the bisexual, French composer is known for a lot of things. His cheery music covers broad strokes in his canon, yet his masterpiece remains Dialogues des Carmélites. This fictionalised take on the Martyrs of Compiègne makes for a fittingly, great opera, though it is not without it’s slight flaws. 

Poulenc fashioned this fine work with scuttling rhythms, tributes to Catholic chants and a fine ensemble of large female voices. In France, The Reign of Terror saw many types of people executed for different reasons, for this warped cause. In what is one of the most lamentable moments in their history, the nuns of the Carmel of Compiègne are sentenced to death. The opera famously ends with each one of them getting the guillotine…

The students of the Royal Welsh College and Music and Drama deliver fine vocals and a stellar orchestra of 60 players also impress. A very bouncy James Southall remained spirited and rigorous throughout this near three hours. A long first half, left us taking a break in the middle of the second act and the English translation remaining mostly audible, a rarity in opera. Director Rachael Hewer kept most of the faith in setting, though couldn’t resist some brief, subversive moments. 

Stella Sifan Chen makes a production of arches, candles and the colours of the French flag looming over the proceedings. Costumes by Shane Erikson are of the era and a nice touch see’s each of the nuns adorned with their personal, golden halos to remind us of their sainthood (they were beatified in 1906 by Pope Pius X).

The cast is filled with vast promise and far too many to mention in an idle review.  Easy to get confused with which sister is which, but all the cast had Mary on their side, some angular moments of blocking also effective for the space. 

The executions themselves were more of an axe affair then the guillotine, a white screen fell for the entire last scene and blast of harsh light from James Blakeman got each nun on the block at sonic speed. I should be more moved at this final agony, yet I’ve always thought Poulenc could have lost himself even more in this wallowing tableaux, piercing moments throughout the opera prove this dreaded anticipation. These students pulled off this demanding opera with might. 

Next David Seligman Opera School is Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel in July 2023.