Category Archives: Opera & classical

Review Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time & Montgeroult’s Etudes, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama by James Ellis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Montgeroult’s Etudes

French music filled the Royal Welsh over the past few days. In a concert entitled ‘Beauty in Darkness’ has at it’s focus the Quartet for the End of time by Olivier Messiaen, written whilst at a POW camp in Poland during WWII. The surreal nature of the piece stems from biblical protheses of the end of all things. Whilst the first part of the night had an unclear focus on composers effected by the Holocaust, these were unlisted pieces, which had a laid back and cheery feel to them.

The Messiaen quartet has such a strangeness about it, it’s hard not to be taken along. The oddball mix of instruments (violin, cello, clarinet and piano) proves the oddness though the effect on an audience since it’s first airing in the actual camp, can’t be underestimated. A devout Catholic, Messiaen saw hope through the darkness of his circumstances. A sparseness fills the work as the clarinet gets a resounding solo filled with bird song and staggering breath work. The cello has an unbearable and moving movement in the middle, the violin at the end reaching a similar sadness. The piano throughout is pounding, ethereal. It’s easy to underestimate the quartet but when sat there listening you feel the true power of Messiaen as a composer.

Violinist Bartosz Woroch has had the honour of performing once again, this piece where it first premiered. Here he leads, his love of the work always present. Fine musicianship.
On piano, Ayaka Shigeno battles the outrageous nature of her role, almost being the back bone of the work in a fierce display. I’ve heard Robert Plane play this piece with his clarinet a few times, he was replacing another ill musician. If anyone can truly do this part, it’s Plane who always dazzles. The rapt silence which fills his solo, the shrieks and sweet harmonies in other parts. WNO’s Rosie Bliss on cello makes her instrument weep more than usual, in an offering of such touching beauty. Few pieces in chamber music are truly as touching as this.

Composer Hélène de Montgeroult is a new discovery for me. With recent campaigns from Clare Hammond, new ears will get to hear more of a woman who lead a stimulating life. An aristocrat who fled France during The Great Terror, she would later be nearly executed were it not for her rousing variations on the French anthem. I’d like to think that story is true, you can already see the feature film on her life. With an army of students from the college, an array of her Etudes graced a small but eager afternoon audience. How utterly charming these pieces were. Somewhere between Mozart, Brahms and early other romantics with her own voice ringing through. There was a spiralling technique, with moments of humble resignation and a confidence in its music making.

The students did an impressive job of bringing these fluttery etudes to life. There may have been a misstep here and there, but the whole concert remained a delight. Looking back, I’d say the Etude no. 28 in E major stayed in the mind. The left hand notation for Etude no. 99 in E flat major for two pianos was another highlight. With the amount of musicians on stage, it went along swimmingly with the occasional adjustment to the piano stool as brief rest bites. Promising young musicians played in this and we all hope their time at the college is fruitful.

The real question remains why she has been forgotten to time? Is it sexism or politics? This remains an unjust crime which is in need of swift rectification. Consider me a proud convert.

Clare Hammond’s recording of Montgerolut’s Etudes with BIS Records is due for release in autumn 2022.

Review London Mozart Players & Isata Kanneh-Mason, St Davids Hall by James Ellis

Photo Credit: John Davis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It’s all go for St David’s Hall and their International Concert Series. Though what surprised me the most for this concert was the surprising gaps of empty seats in the auditorium for the London Mozart Players. The rugby was of course on, it seems.

In a finely crafted concert, the focus was mainly in the first half of the 19th century, with a touch of the early 20th century to boot. In Prokofiev’s 1st Symphony (dubbed the ‘Classical’) we see the ground work for the early days of the composer, one who would go on to effect the musical landscape for years. It is rigid in style, even with some charming elements. Written the year of his countries shattering revolution, one must also consider the music later which would delight and disgust in equal measure. You’d never think listening to this symphony that a prickly, angular vision would form from the composer. No doubt, this is a rare sighting of a Russian work of music right now for obvious reasons.

The treat of the night came from Isata Kanneh-Mason for Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto. I’ve spoken in the past how beguiling Robert Schumann’s music is, yet his wife has for the longest time remained in his shadow. Very much a power couple with a turbulent relationship, the Schumann’s remain some of the finest artist of their era. Clara’s Piano Concerto has a live, chattering quality hard not to love. From a renowned family of musicians, Isata has all the grace and standing the piece demands, even with some wonderful, clamouring moments. This was a testament to the underrated beauty of this female composer and only proves just how much we need her music. Time for Clara to shine…

A cheeky return after the intermission with Rossini and his overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers. Amazing how funny an overture can be, the timpani standing out in it’s blasts. The choppy, whimsy Rossini is well known for is heard as well as an undercurrent of malice. Ending with Mendelssohn’s 4th Symphony made for a familiar and effective finale. Known as the ‘Italian’, named so as he wrote the piece on tour, it shines with a breezy pace, never giving up its style or panache. Bulgarian conductor Delyana Lazarova all night, slashed away at each score, an intense scope on the music never let up, formulated by the players. The spritely musicians offered us an intimate evening, something which this Cardiff audience would love to see again.

Review Madam Butterfly, WNO by Gwyneth Stroud

Photo-credit-Richard-Hubert-Smith
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It’s incredible to think that there has been just one WNO production of Madam Butterfly for around 40 years. Revived many times, of course, but still remarkable. So it’s difficult to put to one side the Japanese post-colonial setting with which so many of us are so familiar.

But lay it aside we must, and approach this new production, directed by Lindy Hume, with an open mind.

It’s worth it. We are catapulted into the future – quite when is not important – and the effect is startling. Unencumbered by place and time, our attention is focused on other aspects of stage management – set, lighting – and of course the music. Costume by Isabella Bywater, is stark, and yet subtle. White is the predominant theme here, but from which era? We see late50s/early60s-inspired dresses; boots straight out of the 70s; nods to early 80s New Romantics, all adding to our sense of dislocation of time and place.

Set and lighting take centre stage here. The Pinkertons’ Americanised home could be found anywhere, a stripped, blank cubic canvas in and around which the action centres. Framed in a harsh neon square of light, Butterfly and Suzuki in particular appear trapped by confinement. Contrast this with the soft and skilful use of colour washes by Lighting Designer Elanor Higgins, on the outer walls of the stage. Rose petals, the sea and the sky, dusk, daybreak are all beautifully captured through the medium of lighting alone.

Alexia Voulgaridou manages to capture both the tender love and the horror felt by Cio Cio San on learning her fate. Leonardo Caimi’s tenor is fabulous in demonstrating his sense of entitlement and Western superiority, and both Goro and Suzuki (sung by Tom Randle and Kezia Bienek) fulfil the demands of their roles well. Other parts are sung by Keel Watson, Sion Goronwy, Neil Balfour and Sian Meinir. As ever, one of the highlights was the magnificent orchestra under the baton of James Southall, and the ever-reliable chorus. The scene accompanying the hauntingly beautiful Humming Chorus will stay will long endure.

A bold production which, via its dislocation of time and place, serves to demonstrate that this saga of power and entitlement is, arguably, as relevant to us today as it has ever been.

WNO’s Don Giovanni – Review by Eva Marloes

WNO Don Giovanni Duncan Rock Don Giovanni photo credit Bill Cooper
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The WNO offers an accomplished production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that never quite takes off. Don Giovanni is a womanizer who seduces and even rapes women. He is condemned by the community and unrepentant is brought down to hell. Mozart’s dramma giocoso alternates playful elements with tragedy. The able cast seeks to balance the two but the perhaps confusing direction leads them astray taking the tension away. This is exacerbated by the heavy and lugubrious art design throughout the show that leaves no room for playfulness.

Joshua Bloom performs well as Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant. However, he expresses a little too much reprobation in singing ‘In Spagna son gia’ 1003’ leaving out the ridiculing of Don Giovanni. In contrast, Meeta Raval plays Donna Elvira, one of the victims of Don Giovanni, with a little too much humour. Donna Elvira feels love and hatred for Don Giovanni. Although Raval sings beautifully and with conviction, the confusing stage directions bring about a too abrupt turn to tragedy leaving out the inherent tension within Donna Elvira. At the end, when she declares she will confine herself to a convent, the audience laughed. Donna Elvira’s suffering is being denied.

Linda Richardson, as Donna Anna, steals the show with a powerful and dramatic voice. There is no ambivalence in Donna Anna who is the victim of an attempted rape by Don Giovanni and whose father, the Commendatore (James Platt), is killed by Don Giovanni as he runs away. Duncan Rock, as Don Giovanni, gives a solid performance, but not a powerful one. Harriet Eyley shines as Zerlina, who is almost seduced by Don Giovanni on her wedding day. Her husband Masetto is played with vigour by James Atkinson, who offers an impressive performance. Don Ottavio, fiance of Donna Anna, is played by Kenneth Tarver whose agile voice is impressive though perhaps lacking in robustness.

WNO Don Giovanni Meeta Raval Donna Elvira Duncan Rock Don Giovanni photo credit Bill Cooper 

On the whole, the performance lacks energy and subtlety. The usually excellent WNO’s orchestra fails to do justice to Mozart Mozart’s polyphonic music and keeping the pace slow. This production fails to bring out that alternation between playful and dramatic. Don Giovanni finds his death inviting to dinner the statue of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father who he killed at the beginning. It is rather confusing to see the statue on stage from the very beginning, even before the Commendatore is killed.

The WNO assembles a good cast and can usually rely on a strong orchestra and excellent choirs. Their performances are too often let down by the art production and direction, often based on a previous production. In this case, the original direction was by John Caird. This makes originality and innovation impossible.

REVIEW MAHLER’S FIFTH SYMPHONY, BBC NATIONAL ORCHESTRA OF WALES, ST DAVID’S HALL BY JAMES ELLIS


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)


I’ve been slow to return to our BBC National Orchestra after restrictions have lifted. For me, they remained a large part of my concert going in Cardiff, with many dates in the cultural calendar. 


Finally back to seeing them, a concert of Grace Williams and Mahler would dominate an evening. Born in Barry, Williams is evocative in her Sea Sketches, a vision of the Welsh coast during her exile in London in WWII. They give off a clear British feel, Benjamin Britten would trump this mood with his opera Peter Grimes a year later. Written for just string orchestra, it finds a way to depict the sea through scales and a tense underlay of notes. The chippy Sailing Song lifts the air and Breakers impresses, with he final movement Calm Sea in Summer being the most celebrated extract. More of Williams in the canon could only be a good thing.


The German conductor Christoph König is in demand internationally. It was in the 5th Symphony by Mahler that he really got to show off, bringing these stalwart players to attention. I might be sad to say that some moments in the brass were a little off, yet for a work which is about 70 minutes long, we can let that go. Also live on Radio Cymru, this large Cardiff audience lapped up this grand picture that the infusion from he Austrian composer. Some highly intense moments with the percussion and brass add to this sound world, the famous Adagietto a soft and somber ten minutes, a must needed rest bite from the dower thoughts and irony.  


I’ll confess this work is over played, been forgotten by major orchestra for the some decades. BBC NOW have embraced the piece, with most of his other symphonic works along the way. My heart yearns for the lesser heard things, the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies are extremely powerful examples. The visions of the Alps, forrest, waltzes, misery and the universe are never far away from Mahler, the 5th having some of the finest examples. The composer went through a lot in life and at this time I’m thinking of my own heart break, loss and health conditions. 


We hope the orchestra will continue with a more adventurous programme, something they were well regarded for in the past.

WNO’s Jenůfa, a review by Eva Marloes

WNO Jenufa Eliska Weissova Kostelnicka Burjovka Elizabeth Llewellyn Jenufa photo credit Clive Barda
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The evening began with the orchestra conductor Tomáš Hanus wishing the performance be an island of humanity. Sorrowful and deeply humane, Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa was the perfect opera to bring reflection upon the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The WNO’s Jenůfa touches the audience with the perfect balance of intensity and quiet sorrow. The interpretations of Elizabeth Llewellyn in the lead role and Eliška Weissová as Kostelnička stand out in this impressive production. The orchestra under the capable baton of Hanus conveys the complex beauty of Janáček’s music.

WNO Jenufa Elizabeth Llewellyn Jenufa photo credit Clive Barda 

The story of Jenůfa is decidedly unpalatable to contemporary sensibilities. She is disfigured out of jealousy by Laca, the man who claims to love her, and abandoned by Števa, the man she loves and whose child she bears. Her own stepmother Kostelnička kills her child for fear Laca would not marry Jenůfa. Yet Janáček’s music makes one overlook the misogyny of the story and brings out a deep sense of humanity.

Elizabeth Llewellyn gives an intense and nuanced performance. The tonality of her voice adds a deep and pure emotion. Eliška Weissová’s powerful voice and dramatic interpretation capture well the complexity of Kostelnička, whose strong personality is diminished and consumed by her crime and sin.

WNO Jenufa Eliska Weissova Kostelnicka Burjovka Peter Berger Laca photo credit Clive Barda

Janáček’s Jenůfa is no epic tragedy but a journey taking us to a place of pain and compassion. The WNO orchestra is impeccable in conveying the moments of tragedy, quiet sorrow, and intimate love. Peter Berger gives a solid performance as Laca revealing a compassionate note and Rhodri Prys Jones interprets Števa convincingly. Of note is also Aaron O’Hare in the role of Stárek.

The production is let down by an unimaginative setting that emphasises the ordinary neglecting the tragic and religious dimension of the opera where the infanticide is not only a crime, but a sin. Yet there are a couple of good tableux: one when Števa is at one end of the stage away from the rest of the village that underlines his culpability and one when Kostelnička confesses her crime in front of the jury of the crowd.

The performance was well received by an audience already moved by the current tragic events in Ukraine.

UPROAR: Scenes From A Street, RWCMD Review By Lauren Mallin


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Escapism.


That is what we are all coveting right now, isn’t it? To be transported to a world devoid of distractions, anxiety, and exhaustion – even for just a couple of hours. I was lucky enough to find a welcome slice of escapism thanks to the talents of contemporary classical music ensemble UPROAR’s latest production, Scenes From A Street.


Now, full disclosure. I am not a classical music expert. Nor have I ever claimed to be. However, I do champion anyone who wants to break barriers and make the arts an ever expanding and inclusive space. UPROAR’s claim to seek ‘new ways to break down the fears and misconceptions about new music’ had me instantly intrigued. Fear and misconception are words that are easily equated to artistic practices like contemporary classical, due to many people (myself included) feeling as though they can’t engage because they lack knowledge. This promising welcome from UPROAR gave me the confidence to take that leap and give myself over to the classical world for the evening.


Scenes From A Street consists of works from five composers based in Wales, each presenting a piece which captures UPROAR’s ethos of bringing ‘contemporary classical music into the heart of everyday culture’ – a phrase we don’t hear often enough. Again, there is no prerequisite here to be an aficionado of classical. If anything, having little prior knowledge presents the experience in its truest form, allowing full immersion in the musical story.


Each piece provided a unique sound and style, instantly transporting the mind to various locations, scenes and scenarios. The entire experience is one that initiates all the senses and emotions, resulting it a truly unique experience and allowing the audience to really feel what is played out in front of them. From states of calm and innocence to unsettling doses frenzy and panic; if you are looking for a way to allow your brain to switch off from worldly distractions, Scenes From A Street provides this with ease. Immersion and escapism were particularly present in Guto Pryderi Puw’s ‘Popping Candy’ – a beautiful ode to the delightful fizzy fun found in the nostalgia of the popular childhood treat. It was especially lovely (and skilful) to present the audience with their own pack of popping candy at interval, taking the immersive musical experience to new levels and allowing us to create our own crackling composition while awaiting the next musical morsel.


Of course, the skill of the composers shines through that of the musicians tasked with breathing life into their work. There is nothing quite like witnessing an ensemble lost in the rapture of a skilfully crafted piece of music. It is almost bewitching to bear witness to the passion, enthusiasm and connection each musician has to the works they are performing. A truly joyous and moving experience and each member of UPROAR’s ensemble deserves the highest ovation. A special word of commendation is also directed to the wonderful staff at RWCMD – extremely welcoming, helpful and knowledgeable, which is never to be underestimated.


All in all, to the untrained ear of contemporary classical like myself, UPROAR’s Scenes From A Street will feel wildly new – but that is exactly what they set out to achieve. Although it can feel daunting at times I would highly recommend, regardless of your musical persuasions, to give yourself over to the music and allow any fears and misconceptions of contemporary classical to escape. You never forget your first, and I’ll never forget my first evening with UPROAR.

UPROAR Scenes From A Street is playing at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 25th March and Borough Theatre @ The Priory Centre, Abergavenny on 8th April 2022.

REVIEW HARPS OF THE ROYAL WELSH COLLEGE, ST DAVID’S HALL BY JAMES ELLIS

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

This St David’s Day is filled with worries. We’re in the post-pandemic timeline, with the worry of war also everywhere. My own thoughts on nationhood are usually compromised today and sometimes not feeling Welsh enough does enter my mind.

If only for an hour, the Harp Ensemble from the Royal Welsh College made everything okay, with a fine programme native to Wales and artists inspired by our country. Monika Stadler evokes the Preseli Skies in a light opener, the ladies of the ensemble warming up for this concert. It’s the interplay between each harp that was highly stimulating. You didn’t know where to look at times. Melodies abound in this fine little piece.

David Watkins’ Petite Suite was another sure fire delight, the Nocturne in the centre particularly noteworthy, the Fire Dance finale had some pleasant dynamics as well. In a more austere choice, one of Wales’ biggest 20th century composers: William Mathias and his Zodiac Trio made more of a chin stroking choice. Each movement is the Zodiac sign of the musicians who premiered the work (Pisces, Aries and Taurus) and Mathias isn’t afraid to try more experimental modes, even if it still feels quite conservative in nature. Flickers of Messiaen and serialism hit the ear, though the combination of harp, flute and viola might not sound as enjoyable as you would think. Through this, I still want to hear more of Mathias, who seemed to have a big impact on Welsh music.

Our host for the concert, tenor Rhydian Jenkins delivered three sublime Welsh songs. The delights of Mae Hiraeth yn y Môr and Llanrwst really made this special, Jenkins having a bright, easy voice with a little strain in the high bits (he mentioned how hard the latter song opens with some very high notes). Dafydd y Garreg Wen in an arrangement by Meinir Heulyn saw Jenkins sing with the return of all six harpists in another superb song which proves why we are known as the land of song. Wrapping things up with the Jig-a-Jig from Catrin Finch’s Celtic Concerto in an arenment by Jeff Howard. Having heard this before, Finch’s mastery over the harp is evoked in this pristine and sunny work, with it’s opening a tune worthy delight, never waining and always uplifting. Perhaps things wont be so bad after all?

Harps of the Royal Welsh College: Nia Evans, Cerys Rees, Jemima Small, Matilda Whates, Yasmin Richards & Bethany Coggon. Tenor, Rhydian Jenkins, flute Lila Bhattacherjee and viola, Michael Cilburn.

Review Andrei Kymach & Llŷr Williams, St David’s Hall by James Ellis

Photo Credit: Alexander Andryushchenko
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Those pesky storms would keep me from Don Giovanni with Welsh National Opera the past weekend. Though for now I missed the damnation, Andrei Kymach gave up time from the show for a recital at St David’s. Cardiff Singer regulars will know he won back in 2019, a long time ago in the grander scheme of things.

We are living in heightened times. Ukrainian born Andrei offered up a fine conveyor belt of native songs. We need to hear things like this at the moment, with war feeling imminent after two dower years, we’d rather forget in all honesty. These patriotic and joyful songs bleed out of Andrei, a well versed repertoire he will undoubtedly be singing more of in the near future. The songs of Schevchenko, Scheli and Liybomyr would be banned by the Tsars and early Soviet leaders, only ganging resurgence more recently. It is the conviction that Andrei brings to every word of each song that affirms his command as a baritone, filled with gusto and pride.

There is a rock star feel to Andrei’s look, his hair and beard trimmed and cut for his turn as the wicked Don down the bay. A headbanger of another sort, Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death ended this fine recital with a chilling air throughout. Here the singers details four scenes of lives ending, as Death emerges to claim his reward each time. Things start off particularly dark, with the death of a baby. Other songs sees the battlefield, a man lost in the snow and a knight (disguised as Death) lulling a sick maiden.

It’s Mussorgsky’s rollicking, compositional nature that makes these songs shine. Andrei is brilliant in execution, truly on top form, wallowing in the ironic, morbid mirror that permeates each bar. Llŷr Williams as accompanist has also excelled, glowing as he plays and never taken over the limelight to much from his partner. A lone piano stool next to Llŷr was intended for a page-turner, none such was needed as he swiped at the sheets, creasing them in each time within their plastic folder. Some three encores would indulge this loving Cardiff audience, who has seen this superb singer grow and grow.

We hope we can find peace at this time. Music will always be the answer.

Don Giovanni continues at the Wales Millennium Centre till 17 March 2022, then on tour.

REVIEW JAMAL ALIYEV & MAKSIM ŠTŠURA, ST DAVID’S HALL BY JAMES ELLIS

Jamal Aliyev Credit Kaupo Kikkas
Jamal Aliyev Credit Kaupo Kikkas
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

In a return to live events, the all ways reliable afternoon concerts at St David’s Hall would be my first venture out in this new year.

This first outing for me saw Azerbaijan born cellist Jamal Aliyev and Estonian accompanist Maksim Štšura. It annoyed me that the entire programme was completely changed (Chopin, Schumann and Martinů were billed), though a new show of tricks saw pieces I’ve never heard. Turkish inspired music began filled with experimentation and jazz. Though giving of a feeling of let’s try this and that, I found moments particularly enjoyable: the Henry Cowell like manipulations of the piano and perfumed cello lines were highlights.

An arrangement of Paganini’s Variation’s on a theme of Moses in Egypt takes snippets of Rossini’s really heard opera and shows off the violin, or the cello in this instance. Jamal really gets to prove his talents in this piece, the composer usually pushing the fundamentals of performing along with dynamics. No one takes on Paganini lightly, you feel Jamal has taken great care to bring this together in a showcase of both vim and intrigue.

Some slow tango vibes followed in Oblivion from Piazzolla. Pushing the genre to new heights, Piazzolla has the fortune of being accessible and experimental. Whilst this is not his most audacious piece, I found some joy in this brief outing, evocative of the tango genre it calls back to. Wrapping with up with a work by cellist composer David Popper also gave Jamal more chances to shine. He doesn’t really need to play anything special to prove his talents. Maksim on piano also being a highly watchable, refined pianist, who joins Jamal in this almost hour of fine music making.