Hagley Music Festival

May 2, 2009


Orchestra of the Swan

at St John’s Church, Hagley

Review by Christopher Morley

An intimate ecclesiastical setting was the venue for Saturday’s “celebrity concert” in this year’s Hagley Music Festival. St. John’s Church, in the idyllic grounds of Hagley Hall, has a wonderful acoustic and warmth of atmosphere, and it can rarely have witnessed the sensational scenes of delight which acclaimed Tasmin Little’s account of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Directing a compact Orchestra of the Swan, this engaging violinist drew from herself and the band a wonderful range of colour out of this much-played score, its highly-important duetting cello part superlatively rendered by Nick Stringfellow. The equally engaging David Curtis collaborated with Little in the measured serenity of Roxanna Panufnik’s Tibetan Winter, the latest in the composer’s own “Four Seasons” cycle commissioned by OOTS, and like a frozen Lark Ascending. Buoyant, athletic accounts of Mozart’s Divertimento K136 and Britten’s almost equally precocious Simple Symphony ended the evening, Curtis’ eloquent hands and smiling features exhorting remarkable players to perform with the empathetic collaboration of chamber-musicians writ large.

York Late Music Festival

Jun 13, 2008


Fitzwilliam String Quartet

at National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York

Review by Martin Dreyer


Multiple marriage is the name of the game for string quartets: four players whose professional lives are wedded to each other. If one should leave suddenly, the others are left high and dry.

That was the Fitzwilliam’s fate a few weeks ago, when they parted company with their cellist.

Into the breech stepped the aptly-named Nick Stringfellow. But only two of the five movements in Steve Crowther’s Here Comes The Night were possible. The work attempts to come to terms with a close friend’s suicide, and quotations from pop songs head the movements.

Dazed And Confused (Led Zeppelin) features keening violins over jagged lower voices, centred round a touching second-violin solo. The End (The Doors) has a cello solo beneath ostinato inner voices, its dark colourings eventually petering into a stark unison. The wait for the full work will be well worthwhile.

Jonathan Rathbone’s More Fools Than Wise discoursed appealingly on Gibbons’ madrigal, The Silver Swan (played deadpan at the start). Jeremy Thurlow’s Ancient Stone At Twilight, in similarly pastoral vein, evoked an earlier age with nicely transparent part-writing.

Any qualms about the cellist vanished utterly with his soulful solo in the slow movement of Mozart’s Hunt Quartet, K.458. Vaughan Williams’s Second Quartet was grittily intense in its Prelude and Scherzo, viol-like in its Romance. The autumnal Epilogue, with Alan George’s burnished viola opening, revealed again the composer’s love for the Elizabethans. Gorgeous. The new grouping has exciting potential.

Smiles all round as Swan takes flight

Oct 23, 2007


Orchestra of the Swan

at Birmingham Town Hall

Review by Christopher Morley

Sunday’s inaugural concert from the Orchestra of the Swan, as associate artist at Town Hall Birmingham, was an absolute corker.

Smiling faces from an excellent audience – many of them tempted into the city by the convenience of a matinee – mirrored the enthusiasm and freshness of the players themselves, smilingly directed by the genial David Curtis.

” The CBSO had better watch out for this lot,” someone said. But with much of the large orchestral canon beyond OOTS’ complement, Curtis constructs instead themed programmes where appopriate works can be drawn together, as in this “Spanish for Beginners” sequence.

Actually there was only one genuine Spaniard represented here, Rodrigo, whose famous Concierto de Aranjuez was given an elegant account by the personable soloist Morgan Szymanski. Discreetly miked in this remarkable acoustic (such true wind clarity, and space for string tone to bloom), all the dynamic nuances and eloquent colourings of a reading which otherwise might have impressed for technical brilliance alone came through.

The famous cor anglais solo in the slow movement was beautifully delivered by Louise Braithwaite, just one of many OOTS players who made valuable individual contributions during the afternoon.

Chief among these was concertmaster David Le Page, the scintillating violin soloist in Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, baroque meeting Argentinian tango with plenty of homage to Vivaldi. Curtis and Le Page cast a sinuously flexible spell, and the orchestral strings tackled the famous “mosquito-bite” glissandi with style and panache.

Elgar’s Spanish Lady Suite brought some charming Restoration-style pastiche, and the hispanic flair afforded to Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture made us forget that he lifted it from an earlier opera about Good Queen Bess.

Musical flight into the past

Nov 8, 2007


Orchestra of the Swan

at Birmingham Town Hall

Review by Christopher Morley

It was just like the good old days on Tuesday, afternoon sun streaming through the magnificent Town Hall windows, illuminating a programme of overture, concerto and symphony which would have been the standard menu here for more than a century.

What would probably have been novel, however, was the amount of audience-engagement any event from the Orchestra of the Swan involves, from pre-concert conversations to introductions from the rostrum by conductor David Curtis, so friendly and embracing in his contact with the listeners.

His approach even extends to having his musicians play extracts to the audience to illustrate particular points, such as in the Fingal’s Cave Overture by Mendelssohn, a composer whose spirit hovers so undeniably over the organ-loft of this building where he performed so often.

Though beautifully phrased (or perhaps because of it), this was a reading of this storm-blown music which lacked an essential element of ruggedness, and balances favoured wind instruments over what is an admittedly small-scale string complement.

No such problem in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.21 in C, K 467, where the composer’s expert wind-scoring communicatively combined with neat, full-toned strings.

The young Taiwanese pianist Chiao-Ying Chang was the charming soloist, her fingerwork crisp and confident, her colouring rounded and rich without any forcing. She made highlights of the cadenzas (often yawn-stifling from some hands), and her collaboration with Curtis’ sparkling woodwind in the finale brought fleeting awareness of passing clouds in an otherwise blue sky.

La Bohème

Mid-Wales Opera

Theatr Hafren, Newtown

Rian Evans

Tuesday September 11, 2007

The Guardian

Opera on a shoestring often scores highly on clarity and emotional impact and Mid-Wales Opera is one of those companies who do sterling work in bringing opera to people for whom the full works are beyond reach, financially and geographically.

MWO’s new La Bohème is clearly chosen for accessibility and, with a strong cast singing in louder-than-life verismo mode, it generally succeeds. The milieu of the Henri Murger play Puccini set is firmly mid-19th century, but director Martin Lloyd-Evans makes his bohemians followers of Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the Paris student riots of 1968; the posters in their garret are emblazoned with the slogan “Sois Jeune et Tais Toi”, also the title of Cohn-Bendit’s more recent book.

The concept seems to work quite well until everyone repairs to the Cafe Momus to celebrate Christmas Eve, when it becomes clear that MWO’s budget is as restricted as that of the impecunious students. No chorus means no crowd scene. Two tables are set with cloths and candle and no amount of high spirits can disguise the fact that this is still the garret set. Not only does this deprive audiences of the wider social context against which the students need to be viewed, but musically, too, there are problems, with motifs relating to the numbers that have been cut no longer making sense.

Musical director Keith Darlingon nevertheless pushes things on in brisk fashion and manages to allow Rebecca van Lipinski and Christopher Steele the lyrical expanse needed to express the bliss and, ultimately, the tragedy of Mimi and Rodolfo. The wonderfully comic portrayals by Ian Jervis of both the landlord Benoit and Musetta’s sugar-daddy Alcindoro add an extra kick to the proceedings.

At Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (01484 430528), on Thursday. Then touring.

From The Times

June 29, 2007

Smokey Robinson

Clive Davis at the Albert Hall

Ask yourself this: what are the chances of Sean Combs or any of his peers holding the Albert Hall in the palm of their hand when they reach the age of 67? Even if the corporate cash registers are merrily ringing, we are not exactly living through a golden age of R&B. Which means that a rare visit by the grand old man of the Motown sound is all the more significant an event.

Having survived cocaine addiction, Robinson is now said to be hooked on golf. But what matters is that his voice shows astonishingly few signs of wear and tear: he is still God’s gospel choirboy on Earth.

Even if the Albert Hall’s notorious acoustics undermined the opening numbers, the evening turned into a triumphant mixture of classics and newer material, all held together by Robinson’s impassioned vocals. Two lissom dancers made occasional sorties from time to time. But this was otherwise a straightforward, unadorned performance underpinned by an ultra-tight band and subtle and unobtrusive string arrangements.

It was a pity, perhaps, that Robinson – who arrived, soul deity-style, in all-white knee-length coat and matching trousers – chose to rush through truncated versions of The Way You Do the Things You Do, Get Ready and I Second That Emotion. But this was, you might say, the price that an artist pays for writing so many memorable songs. Brief though they were, Robinson’s achingly beautiful phrasing was simply irresistible.

After a brisk costume change, he sounded equally at ease with the standards taken from the album Timeless Love, his band reconfigured into a cultured jazz quartet. To hear him glide through Fly Me to the Moon or Night and Day is to be reminded that his stablemate Marvin Gaye harboured a passion for Rodgers & Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind. This was no gimmick; the music had clearly been in Robinson’s bloodstream since his youth.

In all honesty, Being With You and the songs from the latter end of his career are not in the same league as the Motor City favourites. Even so, Robinson invested them with true class. Magical, absolutely magical.

From Christopher Morley

May 2008


Masquerade String Quartet

Everthing’s Coming Up Roses

Forget the tired old jokes about the ineptitude of viola players. Anyone who can come up with arrangements as stylish as these deserves to be taken very seriously indeed, and Mark Chivers, violist with Orchestra of the Swan, has created marvels here.

These jewels of easy listening, whether as background to a social event or as undemanding foreground, cover well-known numbers from stage and screen, as well as a couple of light classics. My particular favourite is the theme from “Moonraker”, one of John Barry’s many masterpieces for the movies.

Performances from the Masquerade String Quartet are given with infectious, obvious enjoyment, production by David le Page (like the Masquerade players, part of the OOTS complement) is clear and natural, and the insert-booklet is charmingly presented. Certainly a disc for all seasons.


From Ivan Moody

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December 2009




Olivia Robinson (soprano),

Edward Price (baritone),

Jane Watts (organ),

The Bach Choir, Southern Sinfonia/

David Hill

The music of Swiss composer Carl Rütti seems to have gained considerable ground in the repertoires of British and American choirs in recent years, and this setting of the Requiem shows just why. He has a gift for finding a memorable “hook” to trigger a section – and, in this case, the entire work, which begins with a haunting soprano  solo, beautifully sung by Olivia Robinson – and a clear connection to the English choral tradition (he studied in London, in fact). The orchestration is the same as that of the Faure Requiem, and that is not the only resemblance between the two works: there is frequently a wistful gentleness here that any admirer of the French composer’s work will respond to. Rütti also does not, of course, include the “Dies irae”, but does set the “In Paradisum”.

While gentleness is far from being the end of the story, however, as the Elgar-meets-John Adams style of the opening of the Kyrie, for example, or the Nymanesque moments of the “In Paradisum” demonstrate, the tone is definitely predominantly elegiac and consoling. The Bach Choir under David Hill respond to this with warmth and passion, and soloists Olivia Robinson and Edward Price are outstanding, but I wonder how well the work would fare with less competent performers: the sense of pulsing urgency present here is definitely necessary to hold the work together. The recording, made in St. John’s, Smith Square, is wonderful, responding to the wide sonic and dymanic range of the music in every detail.

NAXOS 8.572317

From Peter Dickinson

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December 2009



Concertino for Piano & Orchestra


Piano Concerto

Mark Bebbington (piano),

Orchestra of the Swan/

David Curtis

This seems to be an age of completions. If a composer was unfortunate enough to die without finishing a piece some zealot will do it for him. It can be worthwhile, as with Elgar’s Third Symphony, and Graham Parlett has carried out another dedicated task with what Bax called a Concertino for piano and orchestra. In fact the work lasts half an hour and even though Bax described it as “a small concerto” for Harriet Cohen it’s a substantial work that accumulates some massive climaxes. Bax left it unfinished in l939 because he was disillusioned about the war. Parlett had to decide most of the scoring and sometimes fill out the thin textures. These are beefy piano chords in the first movement and at times the writing sounds turgid. But there are many characteristic touches and the finale is insistently ebullient. Anyone interested in Bax will be fascinated.

The Ireland Concerto is inescapably associated with Eric Parkin, whose first recording was with Boult and the LSO in l968. Surprisingly Bebbington takes a minute longer than Parkin for every movement in the Concerto as well as the eloquent Legend. There’s little impression of Bebbington dragging, although Boult cunningly moved things along from time to time. The rapt piano solos, such as the soloist’s entry in the slow movement, have the same mesmeric quality in both performances. This is vintage Ireland with a real melodic gift and harmonic textures that could come from no other composer.

The old Lyrita LP transferred well but Bebbington’s more modern sound is an asset. So is his total sympathy with the music, well supported by the Orchestra of the Swan. Ireland enthusiasts will rejoice.

Somm SOMMCD 242

From Jullian Haylock

August 2007



Piano Concertos

Nos 11, 12 & 13

Mark Bebbington (piano),

Orchestra of the Swan/

David Curtis

Three of Mozart’s most enchanting piano concertos in performances that trip the light fantastic, relishing in the Austrian master’s effortless flow of golden melody. Mark Bebbington sings his solo lines with a velvety cantabile touch and unhurried vitality and warmth that is well-nigh ideal for these timeless scores, supported to the hilt by stylish orchestral playing under David Curtis. Particularly impressive is the way No.11 is given its full musical due, ensuring that it is not overshadowed by its more famous bedfellows. Full marks also to producer Siva Oke and engineer Gary Cole for such immaculately balanced, lucid sound.

Somm SOMMCD 066.

Cellist at Large