Review – Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th May 2017

Christian Kluxen Conducts TchaikovskyTime for us to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra once again for an evening of Italian, German and Russian music. Our conductor for this concert was the exuberant Christian Kluxen, one of those guys who really gets behind the music and cajoles every nuance out of the orchestra with every flex of his body. We’d not had the pleasure of Mr Kluxen’s company before, so I can only assume the photo on the programme is a little out of date; since then he has grown a full hipster beard so that he now resembles the Fred Sirieix of the Classical Scene.

Christian Kluxen They weren’t accepting interval orders at the bar (sigh) which can only mean one thing – a short first half. Our first piece of music was the famous William Tell overture by Rossini, with its irredeemably nostalgic final movement that reminds patrons of a certain age of the Lone Ranger. It’s easy though to forget the three other sequences that lead up to the finale, with its beautiful dawn opening – fantastic work by the cellos, the dazzling thunderstorm that follows, and the pastoral calm of the third part. But the final section must break through and does so almost before the pastoral has finished, and from there on it’s guns-ablazin’ and horses at the gallop. A delightful way to open the concert and the orchestra absolutely had it nailed.

Martin RoscoeNext was Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. A piano soloist on the programme always causes a hiatus as the violins have to scatter to make way for the Steinway to be wheeled on. Meanwhile, the displaced musicians huddle round the back of the stage like they’re sneaking a fag break. It’s a very bizarre sight, but I guess there is no alternative. Enter Martin Roscoe on stage, an unshowy, quiet looking man with a sensible attitude to sheet music (i.e. he has it on display and continually looks at it) but who nevertheless unleashes passion at the keyboard when it’s required. The concerto is full of stunning tunes that Mr Roscoe hones and cares for as he coaxes them off the keys, and he is a true master of his instrument.

Because it is a short piece (and that is why we couldn’t pre-order interval drinks) Mr Roscoe took pity on the assembled crowd and gave us an encore: June, from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, to whet our appetite for the second half symphony. I’d never heard this before and thought it was absolutely sublime. A simple, haunting barcarolle, I’m going to have to add it to my collection of classical CDs.

RPOAfter the interval (yes we did get our drinks) we returned for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique). It’s a bold, exciting work with a number of themes that everyone recognises, that build to a dramatic climax. Most people thought the end of the third movement heralded the end of the symphony and started some rapturous applause; but no, the twist in the tale is that there’s a fourth and final movement that disconcertingly trades down from the triumph of the previous movement and ends not with a bang but a whimper. Such a mournful end will always be associated with the fact that Tchaikovsky himself died only nine days after conducting its debut performance. Those last few notes of the symphony were played so movingly by the RPO that the audience was stunned into silence, not wishing to break the moment by applauding. I think we were in a shared state of shock. A fantastic performance by the Royal Philharmonic that has made me go back to my recordings to listen again to some of these pieces and to want to explore anew – and I don’t think there can be any finer recommendation to a concert than that!

The RPO will be back in June with some more Mendelssohn and Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony – should be a blinder!

Review – The Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th July 2016

Last Night of the Derngate PromsMrs Chrisparkle and I have always enjoyed our visits to the Last Night of the Proms – Derngate style, that is – although we did once get to see the real thing in the Albert Hall which was indeed a privilege. As usual, I booked for this show as part of our subscription package with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Last Night is always a very entertaining – if essentially shallow – flick through some of Classic’s Greatest Hits in the lead up to the usual flag-waving extravaganza of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.

The Derngate Auditorium was packed to the rafters for this final concert in the RPO’s annual season. Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, new to us, and as Mr Hudson himself explained, he was new to Northampton. But I think both Mr Hudson and Northampton got on very well with each other. He’s a charming host, with a reassuring voice of honey, providing an entertaining and informative running commentary on all the pieces we were going to hear. As a conductor, he’s not one of those who over-exerts himself but manages to get the best from the orchestra whilst retaining a simple air of dignity and authority. In honour of the gala occasion, the word had gone out to the ladies of the RPO to wear strikingly coloured gowns, so the stage was awash with beautiful reds, greens, and blues. Mrs C pointed out that if I mentioned what the ladies were wearing, I should, for the sake of equality, also pass comment on the gentlemen’s appearance. They were in their stock penguin suits. They obviously didn’t get the same memo. However, if we are concentrating on appearances, I must congratulate harpist Mr Hugh Webb on his spectacular moustache. His harpistry was pretty spectacular too.

There were eighteen pieces to listen to. Eighteen! Seventeen in the programme and one encore. Given that the concert lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and including 20 minutes for the interval and say 20 minutes for chat and applause, I estimate the average time per musical item to be about 5 and a half minutes. It’s not really long enough to get fully engrossed in any particular piece; but on the plus side, if you don’t like any particular item, it won’t be long before it’s over and the next one has started!

Gareth HudsonThe programme began with the overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie – probably one of the longer pieces of the evening as it happens – lively, fun, and full of the joys of orchestration. The RPO were obviously going to be on great form. Then came the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, one of my favourite pieces of music, played with lush exquisiteness by the strings. When I was a kid I wanted to write an opera (I know, always had grand plans, me); I often used to think how chuffed Mascagni must have been to win that opera-writing competition, and what a brass neck he had to write the Intermezzo so that his two-act opera became a one-act opera, and therefore eligible for the prize. Clever chap.

So that was two Italians – now for a Czech: Dvořák’s Song to the Moon, from his opera Rusalka. We welcomed soprano Deborah Norman to the stage for the first of four appearances to sing this famous aria, although it’s not one with which I’m that attuned. Miss Norman certainly transported us to a lunar scenario, with her engaging interpretation and glittery voice. Then we had the famous Onedin Line theme from Khachaturian’s Spartacus suite – I know he didn’t strictly write it for the BBC but it’s what every one of my generation associates with it. I thought this was performed absolutely terrifically; incredibly stirring, a full tidal wave of emotion. Khachaturian was to be the first of two Russians – next was Tchaikovsky with the Sleeping Beauty Waltz, a timeless piece of sheer delight, again played beautifully by the orchestra.

Anyone who knows me, understands that I don’t do Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes, I know, it’s a failing on my part; and I have tried, believe me. But, as the old song in Liza of Lambeth goes, nothing is duller than Gilbert and Sullivan, in the British tradition they’re palpably rooted, the music is trivial and far from convivial, the words are appallingly convoluted. (Don’t worry, I won’t quote the whole song.) So I confess I wasn’t looking forward to Deborah Norman’s performance of The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze (even the title is so trite in its need to rhyme) by Sir Arthur Sullivan, an aria (if you can call it that) from The Mikado. But, guess what? I really enjoyed it! I think it was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed any one song from G&S. Don’t get me wrong – I’m never going to be a convert. But I was most surprised to hear its delicacy and sweetness.

After the atrocity in Nice on Friday, Gareth Hudson simply said in his introduction to the next piece that he would like to dedicate it to the people of France. André Caplet’s orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune received a stunning performance from the orchestra and it was a very moving moment. The first half of the concert wound up with another blistering performance, this time of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, No 2: Farandole, a piece I can never remember until I hear it, which is when I instantly remember how much I love it.

Deborah NormanIt was after the interval that things just started to get a little weird. Not musically – by any means; the RPO continued to give a fantastic performance. Mrs C and I just got the sense that this year’s flag-waving jingoism had taken on a little more… shall we say, sinister aspect. It all started in the first piece after the interval, the splendid overture to the operetta Light Cavalry by Franz von Suppé. The orchestra really got into its military stride with this, creating a fantastic rhythm; but the elderly lady sitting further along the row from us got totally carried away and started to pretend that she was on a horse, bobbing up and down with the rhythm, swaying the reins, and basically giving us all the giddy-ups. That’s fine. Good music well performed can do this to a person.

We welcomed back Deborah Norman to give us a tender rendition of Je veux vivre, from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. This piece was new to me and I found it very touching and full of that youthful enthusiasm we would associate with the young tragic heroine. Then it was time for the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. We saw this performed in Bratislava a few years ago and absolutely loved it – but I regret I couldn’t particularly remember the Polonaise. The RPO gave it a full-on rumbustious run for its money and the audience responded really warmly to it. Then came – for me, at least – perhaps the most rewarding performance of the evening – Two Songs Without Words (Country Song and Marching Song) by Gustav Holst. As Mr Hudson mentioned in his introduction, Holst’s back catalogue became completely eclipsed (pardon the pun) by the success of his Planets Suite, reducing the rest of his output to virtual insignificance. So here were two earlier pieces that rarely get performed, and I thought they were sensational. This is the English Folk Music-inspired Holst, rather than the astronomically-inspired version, although I definitely heard a music prequel of Jupiter somewhere in there. A fantastic performance of (for me) an exciting find. This section of the concert wrapped up with (as the RPO often do) those few minutes of intense emotion that constitute Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Nimrod never does quite give you that same tingle when it’s played outside of the context of a full performance of the Variations, but nevertheless, it’s still a magnificent piece and gives you a few moments to cherish those you love and remember those you’ve lost.

It was Gareth Hudson’s introduction to the final sequence of patriotic numbers that encapsulated whatever it was that had been bothering us. He said (and I paraphrase) that no matter how we all voted in a certain referendum recently, we should take the opportunity to allow the evening’s music to unite us. Now forgive me, gentle reader, for going off piste here, and I know this may alienate many of you to bring politics into music, but Mrs C and I are still very much coming to terms with (what we feel is) the (disastrous) result of the referendum. The wounds have gone very deep; it’s going to be a long time before the healing takes place (indeed, if it ever does). Surrounded by an audience made up of almost entirely white, middle-aged to elderly, middle-class Northamptonians (our town voted 59-41 in favour of Brexit) we suddenly realised the extent to which we were in the minority in that room. The patriotism of our neighbours all waving the flags and standing, Nuremberg rally-like, to Land of Hope and Glory, felt very, very uncomfortable. I can’t help it – at the moment I’m not proud of our country, so I couldn’t permit myself to get up and join the others. I was happy to sing it, as I always am. But there was a swelling of nationalistic pride going on in that hall on Sunday night with which I really did not want to associate myself.

Back on piste. Our final sequence of music was as unchanging as the waning moon, starting with Tom Bowling and the Hornpipe from Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Mr Hudson introduced lead cellist Tim Gill for the Tom Bowling and he was exceptional as usual, bringing out all that deep-seated sadness and searing emotion from its lamentation-like theme. The Hornpipe, of course, couldn’t be a greater juxtaposition, with Mr Hudson already encouraging us to clap along, even if, (of course), we all did it too loudly, too enthusiastically, and too early. Ms Norman returned for the final time (a little early in fact, as Mr Hudson was still humiliating us with My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, making us stand, then sit, each time a word beginning with a B comes along – think about it, it gets exhausting) for Rule, Britannia! And I really appreciate it when all three verses are sung in full. Jerusalem, which followed, has much claim to be my own personal favourite song of all time, and nothing’s going to stop me from bellowing each syllable as if I were still in Morning Assembly in 1973. And finally, a lively and fun performance of the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, which got our Cavalry overture lady up on her feet at the first whiff of a land of Hope and Glory. All credit to her, when no one else got up so early she didn’t budge but held her ground. Classic rule – if you ovate and no one else does, it looks appalling if you sit down again. Have the courage of your convictions! Reservations (as per the previous paragraph) aside, it was a wonderful performance.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraAnd it was also with great pleasure that I realised it wasn’t to be quite the final number of the night. As an encore, and once again with a respectful nod to France and maybe something to assuage the Bremainers, Mr Hudson returned to the podium to crack out a fun and frolicsome performance of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld – the Can Can. Now that did deserve an ovation.

No more Royal Philharmonic Orchestra here in Northampton until much later in the year – and unfortunately we can’t make that concert! Still we’ll look forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the RPO next February.

Review – The Planets: An HD Odyssey, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th June 2016

The PlanetsMusic hath charms to soothe the savage breast. Mrs Chrisparkle’s and my combined breasts were feeling particularly savage after the slings and arrows of outrageous referendum results, so we were really looking forward to an evening in the company of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who have so many times in the past coddled us, cushioned us, and sent us on our way home with a warm Ready-Brek glow. We also had friends up from Leatherhead joining us for the concert and we met Mr Smallmind there too, now such a permanent fixture at the R&D that an orchestra member asked his help in shifting his instrument up the cordoned-off Royal stairs post-concert.

Sometimes theatre or concert programming taps into the Zeitgeist and it wasn’t long before there were very few tickets left for this concert; and indeed it was a sell-out on the night. It was great to see so many families going out to enjoy this special space-themed selection of classical hits. The main attraction was to be the performance of Holst’s Planets Suite accompanied by a film created in collaboration with NASA and award-winning producer/director Duncan Copp, and featuring the latest high definition planetary images of NASA’s exploration of the solar system. I wondered to what extent the multimedia accompaniment would enhance or maybe diminish Holst’s commanding music. But more of that later…

Robert ZieglerOur conductor for the evening was Robert Ziegler. It was the first time we had seen Mr Ziegler on the podium. He comes out onto the stage, enthusiastic and with an air of kind-hearted wisdom, like a good-tempered History teacher, if one of those ever existed. With his jazzy shirt and black velour jacket, you sense he could be a man of many surprises. He certainly got the best out of the RPO, who gave us an evening of sparkle and chic, with really crisp playing and fantastic timing.

The first half was a fascinating mix of little classical jewels, all with an eye to the celestial. We started with the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – giving the concert the equivalent of a musical lift-off – and I’d forgotten what a thrilling little piece it is; for an overture-in-miniature, it sure packs a punch! This was followed by Strauss’s (different Strauss) Blue Danube Waltz; also known, in the programme, as On the Beautiful Blue Danube; I’m not sure if the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s lyrics to it “The Danube is blue, it’s blue, it’s blue, I tell you it’s blue, it’s blue, it’s blue…” are entirely pure Strauss. Anyway the orchestra played it with swaying delight, hitting that first phrase of the chorus with wonderful as slow as you dare characterisation. You could almost feel the fairground merry-go-round whipping up to speed as the waltz gained traction. Really enjoyable.

RPOAn interesting third item: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but not played on the organ, but as a full orchestral piece as arranged by Leopold Stokowski. It’s a composition I love; and what I most enjoyed about this performance was the way in which the orchestra played some of it slow and stately, and other parts quick and quirky. It really lent itself to this different arrangement. (But I do prefer it done on the organ!) Next was the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony; always moving, a strange mixture of the sombre and the triumphant. Again, beautifully played by the orchestra, that thick pizzicato tattoo that runs throughout the piece like a stick of rock creating a strong sense of unease and drama. It’s better when played in the context of the full symphony I feel, but nevertheless it was a super example of one of Classics’ Greatest Hits. Finally, we came much more up to date with the Main Theme to John Williams’ Star Wars: dynamic, exciting, irreverent; the violins could have been light-sabres and we could have become enmeshed in full intergalactic battle.

After the interval, we came back for the Main Event – The Planets. The orchestra took their places. Mr Ziegler returned to his podium. Unusually, the lights dimmed, like we were in a cinema, apart from the bright lamps illuminating the orchestra members’ music stands. And just as you thought Mr Z was about to cue in Mars… the movie started. NASA scientists giving their opinions on whether or not Holst characterised the planets correctly. OK…I’ll go with it, I thought to myself, but I hope they don’t push it… Eventually the movie announced Mars, The Bringer of War. This worked so, so well. Really fascinating and beautifully photographed footage of the red planet combined by an absolutely riveting performance of seven of the finest minutes in classical music. Not only a first class performance but absolute timing precision so that the footage on the screen changed at exactly the same instant as the first beat of the next bar in the music. A fantastic combination – I was pretty much gobsmacked.

Northampton Bach ChoirSadly, visually, for me at least, that was the most exciting footage by a long baton. The subsequent cinematographic accompaniments for each planet were attractive and nicely realised I guess, but as it went on, I felt like the visual effect created a laziness in one’s head; it served to limit one’s imagination and emotional response to each piece of music rather than enhancing it; and by the time we’d got to Jupiter – which has so many memories for me of my teenage years and all absolutely nothing to do with astronomy – I decided to shift my concentration from the screen to the musicians. Jupiter was performed with a freshness and vitality that I think you could simply describe as awesome. Whether the I Vow To Thee My Country section had an extra post-referendum resonance I could not tell; for me it had an interesting lack of sentimentality which I actually found quite refreshing.

Moving on; the words on the screen: Saturn The Bringer of Old Age created a few chuckles from around the auditorium as grandparents wrestled with cheeky grandchildren; and, no doubt about it, in the movie accompaniment – nice rings. Uranus always reminds me more of a sea shanty than a magician, so it was back to concentrating on the instruments for me. We ended with a stunningly eerie performance of Neptune, The Mystic; when the disembodied choral voices joined in, it was a moment of sheer dramatic magic. The programme promised us the Northampton Bach Choir, but they were nowhere to be seen, which caused a little post-show controversy amongst our party. Were the voices recorded? Or were the Northampton Bach Choir lurking backstage, as reticent to come forward as a politician to invoke Article 50?

PlanetsAn unusual structure for a classical concert but by and large it worked really well. Certainly the RPO were on top form and played some of Classic’s Greatest Hits with dynamism and éclat. Next up it’s the Last Night of the Derngate Proms next month – make sure you’re there!

Review – Christoph Koenig conducts Beethoven and Elgar, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th April 2015

RPOA welcome return to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visiting the hallowed halls of the Royal and Derngate, for this intense concert featuring Beethoven’s Third Symphony – the Eroica – and Elgar’s Violin Concerto with soloist Pinchas Zukerman. I say “intense” because they’re two meaty pieces, and without any side dishes like a light overture for starters or a quick entr’acte as a palate-cleanser, they took a lot of concentration and attention on the part of the audience in order to appreciate them at their fullest. They were also completely new to Mrs Chrisparkle and me vis-à-vis a concert experience. I have recordings of both somewhere in the old CD collection, but I have to say neither has ever really surfaced as a particular favourite.

Our conductor was Christoph Koenig, whom we have also never seen before, but he has a CV as a long as a baton, and he obviously inspires both confidence and respect from the orchestra. He’s quite a debonair chap, bounding on to the stage in a swish black Chairman Mao suit; and once he’s on the podium – for the opening Beethoven at least – he never stands still again. He’s the kind of conductor who throws his body heart and soul into the whole performance to encourage the very last iota of energy out of the orchestra. Cajoling here with the palm of his hand, triumphantly punching there with an upraised fist, nodding furiously as if to say “yes! yes!” to any section he might feel is being a little backward with coming forward. When he wants the orchestra to deliver the next part quietly he almost crouches down on his knees with a “shush!” before raising himself up again when it he wants it louder. He’s very entertaining to watch!

Christoph KoenigTalking of shush, there were a couple of guys a few rows in front of us who were really quite annoying. They whispered and fidgeted occasionally, which is ok in the noisy sequences but it’s nice to observe restraint during the quieter parts wherever possible. During one quiet moment in the Beethoven, one of them decided it was time to fumble with a rustly crinkly bag in order to extricate some difficult-to-find, bottom-of-the-bag sucky sweets. It completely drowned out one of Beethoven’s more delicate moments (and, let’s face it, there aren’t that many of them). They seemed totally ignorant of the fact they were in spitting distance of the back row of the first violins. You should have seen the daggers look the nearest violinist gave him. Mrs C expected him to pluck the catgut off his bow and strangle him with it. To no avail, he obviously didn’t notice, as later on, during the Elgar, he decided to start some kind of running commentary to his mate (or so it seemed to me) and once again the violinist gave him the death glare. So, please, dear classical music fans of Northampton, next time you go to see one of these concerts, would you mind shutting the ***k up? Thanks awfully.

So what of the Beethoven? According to the programme, the Eroica was inspired by his hero-worship of Napoleon; indeed it was originally to have been called the Bonaparte. But, as is often the case, your heroes have a tendency to let you down, and when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven declared he would now be no more than a simple tyrant and ripped up the dedication page of his original manuscript in a hissy fit. It is a vast, stirring, strong and moving symphony, with extensive sequences given over to buzzing violins, but also room for a funeral march, a scherzo, and an electric final movement that started within a split second of the scherzo ending; no hanging around here, as if Mr Koenig had a bus to catch. I’d noticed that the usual layout of the orchestra had been changed slightly, with the violas and the cellos having swapped places. Mrs C wondered if that was because the first violin and the violas seem to have almost a duel between themselves at times, and by facing each other they could really act out their battle of the strings. If so, it worked well, because it was a highly dramatic performance. We also appreciated the warm and rousing contribution made by the French Horns – Congratulations to Laurence Davies, Samuel Jacobs and the rest of your squad.

Pinchas ZukermanAfter spending the interval observing how long the queue for the healthy frozen yogurts are, and appreciating how much more efficient it is to pre-order one’s Shiraz, we headed back inside for the performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. I was particularly looking forward to hearing Pinchas Zukerman because I had read a lot about him and wanted to hear him live for myself. Mr Zukerman is definitely somebody who lets the music do the talking. He only briefly acknowledges the audience before the performance; not, one feels, out of any sense of self-importance – far from it – more out of embarrassment at being on show – don’t look at me, please could you look at my antique violin instead. When he performs he is deadly serious, concentrating hard on what he is doing, observing his fellow musicians and Mr Koenig, who incidentally stepped back into a much less flamboyant role, conducting simply and effectively from the side but with no bravura antics to distract you from Mr Zukerman’s quiet determination.

Of course, it goes without saying that technically he’s extraordinary; it was a very strong and vibrant performance. He seems to have a way of jabbing deep into the violin to scour the instrument for maximum sound and effect. Watching and listening to him was a very satisfying experience, but a challenging one. Neither of us found it an “easy” piece of music; it was demanding, serious, and without any “laughs”, if you get my drift. Despite Elgar’s own opinion that it was a highly emotional piece, for me it appealed more to the cerebral than the emotional. Maybe that is due to Mr Zukerman’s intense interpretation. But there was no doubting the audience’s appreciation, and when it was over Mr Zukerman received three “curtain calls”, much to his unassuming discomfort.

So, overall an intense and challenging evening of appreciating musical excellence. As always, you come away with a sense of privilege to be able to witness such mastery. It’s good to be confronted by something different every so often, simply to see how you react to new experiences. Rest assured, the Royal Philharmonic never let you down. Looking forward to our next concert in May!

Review – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2015

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays Russian musicWe welcomed back the Royal Philharmonic to Northampton this week, under the baton of Alexander Shelley and with Clio Gould leading. I always enjoy the RPO when Mr Shelley is conducting. They seem to have such a good mutual relationship, and he always brings the best out of them. Maybe it’s because Mr Shelley is obviously a man of the people, picking out individual members or sections of the orchestra for their own applause whilst standing in their midst, rather than loftily from the podium.

The RPO had lined up an evening of Russian greats for us to enjoy at last Sunday’s concert. They’re always lively and dynamic works. Such a programme was to be an encouraging start point for Lady Duncansby’s first foray into the world of classical concerts, encouraged to dip her toe in the musical pool (so to speak) by her butler William. She wasn’t too sure that she would enjoy the experience so we softened her up with a trip to Pizza Express before the concert. By the time we got to the theatre, we were all already quite mellow, having spent an entertaining two hours dipping dough balls in garlic butter, attacking Diavolo Romana pizzas, and spending ages desperately trying to catch the eye of the waitress so that we could order dessert. I expect the two bottles of house Trebbiano contributed to our state of mellowness.

Alexander ShelleyMy favourite Russian composer is Prokofiev, but he didn’t get a look-in. Instead, the orchestra started us off with a rousing overture, Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila. It’s a perfect start to this kind of concert as it gives the orchestra an early opportunity to show their mettle with all its lively and fast moving tunes and attacking style. It’s also relatively brief, so it wasn’t long to wait for the main event of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with our soloist Alessio Bax. It’s fascinating to watch the different styles of different soloists. Some pianists absolutely hurl their bodies at the Steinway, writhing with the passionate expression of each note. Others, like Mr Bax, sit there dignified, controlled, like a proper grown-up person, simply allowing the emotion and passion to come from his piano hands. I’m unsure if one is a better style than the other, but there’s no denying Mr Bax coaxes a huge amount of beauty out of the keyboard. But it wasn’t only our soloist who gave a great performance. Rachmaninov Piano 2 calls on the orchestra to produce some fireworks and they did not disappoint, with some vivid stabbing interjections from the strings, and massively hefty percussive drums. However, I’m going to be controversial here and say that in my opinion Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto is an excellent example of style over substance. It all feels very lush and romantic and stirring, but when you take away the frilly bits I don’t think there’s much left. Sometimes when the wrappings fall there’s nothing underneath at all. However I’ve no wish to detract from the sheer bravado of the performance. In the interval Lady D could not contain her excitement at what she had witnessed. It’s always nice when you discover an art form that you didn’t think you were going to like. I bet she becomes a timpanist in the next life.

After a half-time Pinot we were back for Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5. Nothing sounds scarier than the name Shostakovich – to me it suggests all sorts of harsh clashing, uncomplimentary sounds, enough to batter the most distinguished of eardrums. But given that he had to make his 5th symphony something of a Politburo Pleaser – if he wanted to continue his music career at least (or indeed, keep on living, as old Stalin definitely had it in for him) – then it should come as no surprise that this symphony is a box of tricks with more melodies than the Pied Piper, that apparently had its first Leningrad audience weeping in the aisles. I could achieve that when playing the recorder as a child. A good three-quarters of an hour of pure Soviet panache that again encourages the orchestra to give as good as they can, with amazing string work, lovely harp highlights, effective decorations by the celesta and some good old banging of the drums. A really enjoyable performance; enough to send you out into the cold winter air protected by a veritable Cossack hat of musical warmth. The next RPO concert is on Valentine’s night. It’s a lovely looking programme but to be honest I’d sooner be wining and dining on February 14th.

Alessio BaxPS. I don’t think everybody enjoyed the concert. About halfway through the Shostakovich, the first violins all turned over their next page of sheet music to reveal several more intensely inscribed staves with a helluva lot of notes on them. The gentleman two seats to Mrs Chrisparkle’s left let out a sigh and said something to the effect of oh no there’s another ten pages at least, to which his companions either side of him retorted with a simple and curt shut up. They’d obviously been practising. Clearly someone who would have preferred to stay in and watch the Super Bowl!

Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th July 2014

Last Night of the Derngate PromsWith the BBC Proms just around the corner – first night is Friday – what better way to wrap up this year’s classical season with the RPO than by having Northampton’s very own Last Night of the Proms. This is always a fun occasion, with a packed audience, lots of flag waving, and a programme full of old favourites so that there’ll always be something for everyone.

Our conductor this year was the jovial Owain Arwel Hughes, who conducted our Last Night of the Proms concert two years ago, and who we also saw take command of Fauré’s Requiem in 2011. He’s a very warm and friendly figure on the podium, enthusiastically communicating with his musicians, and with his shock of white hair and glasses perched on the end of his nose occasionally has something of a mad professor about him.

Owain Arwel HughesYou can’t get much more of a lively start than Rossini’s William Tell overture. It galvanised the orchestra into a buzzing frenzy for its famous last section, and from my seat I could clearly see our First Violin Favourite Mr Russell Gilbert’s bow deftly darting over the waist of his violin whilst those of his colleagues doubtless did the same. Before all that, there was, however, a beautiful cello introduction to this piece, superbly played as always by Tim Gill.

Next, we were to enjoy the first contribution to the evening by the Northampton Bach Choir – a terrific performance of Zadok the Priest, full of power, crispness and joy. We could already tell the choir were going to be on great form. Then it was time for Fauré’s Pavane, beautifully and delicately played by the orchestra, expressing all its 19th century French elegance. One aspect of the Last Night programme is that it has many more individual pieces than normal, on average much shorter in length, which adds to the variety of the evening. It can also sometimes be a little frustrating though, when you hear a short piece that by rights should be part of a larger one – as in the next piece, the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Again the choir gave it a really good performance, but you felt a slight twinge of disappointment that there wasn’t more from the Messiah for our entertainment.

Danny DriverThe last item before the interval, which certainly wasn’t an abridgement of anything else, was Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. With “Hallelujah” still ringing in our ears, it was time for that laborious moving aside of all the chairs and then lugging the Steinway onto the centre of the stage. “Why can’t it be there from the start?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle with more than a little petulance. “Well there would be no room for the conductor” I suggested. “But the conductor will still be there during the piano playing” she replied. I had no answer to that. The First Violins had all huddled by the entrance stairs, as if they’d nipped out for a quick fag break. Once everything was in place, Mr Hughes returned with our soloist for the evening, Danny Driver. What an incredible performer he is. Mr Driver played with such precision and attack that it took your breath away. Amongst all the keyboard gymnastics of the Rhapsody, there’s one stand-out variation that’s extremely lush and romantic, and feels very different from the rest of the piece. Mr Driver put his heart and soul into it – and it was just sumptuous to listen to. Mrs C and I were overwhelmed by how good he was; and the orchestra also gave him superb support in what was overall a stunning performance.

After a very pleasing Cab Sav break in the interval we returned for one of my favourite pieces of classical music, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. The female voices from the choir stood out particularly well, and whatever it was they were singing, it wasn’t Stranger in Paradise. I did have to stop myself – only partly successfully – from singing along to all the Kismet tunes. I’m only human, after all. It was a really stirring performance, and a great way to start the second half.

RPOThen we had yet another of my favourite pieces, Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. No other piece of classical music captures that warm, safe, noble feeling of deep friendship that you get in Nimrod; but like the Hallelujah Chorus earlier on, it definitely lost something by not being part of a full Enigma performance. Normally it has me choking back the tears, but not this time. A change of mood next for Parry’s I Was Glad, with the choir in full voice, and the orchestra nicely augmented by Alistair Young on the keyboard providing a full organ effect as if we were in a massive cathedral. Visually odd, aurally wonderful.

Into the home straight with the classic final sequence. Starting off with Sir Henry Wood, we had two movements from the British Sea Songs: Tom Bowling, with Tim Gill exquisitely teasing out the melody on his cello, and the Hornpipe, which, despite Mr Hughes’ plea to allow the instrumentalists to have “first go” before we all joined in, was instantly drowned out by a few noisy people in the boxes, one of whom may well have been the manic man from last year. Being an incorrigibly obedient person, I waited with my claps and stomps until Mr Hughes cued me in. Then it was straight into Rule Britannia, with just the chorus being sung by the choir – and by us of course. I couldn’t help notice that the man with the clear voice singing behind me made two classic errors – he sang “Britannia rules the waves” (shocking) and “Britain never never never shall be slaves” (dreadful). I’m afraid the Last Night of the Proms brings out all my pomp and circumstance. Next Jerusalem, favourite classical singalong song of mine since my English teacher used to love to play it on the organ at school assembly over forty years ago. Have you noticed, at Last Nights generally, you might get an encore of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, or the Hornpipe, or all three – but never Jerusalem. I’d be happy to start a campaign for the inclusion of Jerusalem in the repeats.

Northampton Bach ChoirThe final scheduled piece was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, the aforementioned Land of Hope and Glory, where we impressed Mr Hughes with our magnificent lungs. Well not perhaps the manic man in the side stalls, whose voice clattered over everyone else’s; at first I thought we’d been joined by Zippy from Rainbow. But it wasn’t the end – they’d kept back a very appropriate encore for Northampton with a fantastic rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In, with the choir giving it everything and the orchestra loving every minute of it. A superb way to round off the evening.

Looking ahead to next year’s season, there’s some great highlights but I note that there isn’t a Last Night planned for next summer; the final concert then will be an evening of John Williams’ film music. Hmmm. Not quite the same I feel. Bring back the Last Night for 2016!

Review – Classical Masterpieces, Chloe Hanslip with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 4th May 2014

Classical MasterpiecesIt’s always a pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic to our humble little town, and for this performance of Classical Masterpieces the Derngate auditorium was more or less full to the brim. Our conductor was Nicholas Collon, new to us, and he reminded me of… well, me actually, at something of an earlier age. It wasn’t his shiny suit – I don’t think I ever went down that line – but it was the hair that did it – fair, and scruffy, and lots of it. All I can say is, watch out Mr Collon, greyness is just around the corner.

You could tell he was enjoying the proceedings, though; constantly smiling, striking a relaxed pose, making sure all the different sections of the orchestra knew where they were and checking they were alright, a bit like a musical janitor. The orchestra had had something of a jiggle around – the violas and the cellos had swapped their usual places, but I guess as long as they knew what they were playing it shouldn’t be a problem. Mr Collon’s enthusiasm certainly caught light with the orchestra and with the audience who, after almost two hours of wonderful entertainment, responded with a very warm final round of applause.

Nicholas CollonBut I’ve ended before I’ve started. First on the menu was a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. According to the programme notes he didn’t finish quite a few symphonies, so it’s a bit of a misnomer always to refer to his Symphony No 8 in that way. Still, there are definitely only two movements, which is one movement short of a picnic – symphonically speaking. It’s a very beautiful, warm, welcoming piece of music – a good choice to start off a varied evening of masterpieces. The orchestra attained a level of mellowness and mellifluousness that was jolly rewarding to listen to. All apart from the mobile phone that went off during the performance. It wasn’t one of those subtle, space age sounds – it was set to the old-fashioned 1960s “ring-ring” setting. Bit of a shame, that. I’m sure that’s not how Schubert would have chosen to finish it.

Next we had Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor, with Chloe Hanslip as the soloist, on her “Guarneri del Gesu” 1737 violin. Not only is it a privilege to be able to watch and listen to such a gifted violinist but also to hear an instrument that is now 277 years old is just incredible. Ms Hanslip appeared, bright and enthusiastic, in a beautiful black and silver dress that showed her off very nicely indeed. She too has an endearing connection with the audience and the rest of the orchestra, frequently nodding around to make sure everyone’s enjoying themselves.

Chloe HanslipAs soon as she played her first few notes, there emerged that fantastic resonance of the characterful violin – speaking its own language of music rather than just merely playing notes. It sent a shiver down my spine. Ms Hanslip gave a tremendous performance, absolutely feeling the vibe right from the start. She played with verve and panache, and indeed, an incredible feat of memory to get all those notes in her brain in the right order without a whiff of a piece of sheet music. The orchestra gave her superb support, and when it was all over you had that sense of having witnessed something really special. When Ms Hanslip came back for her second well-earned round of applause, there was the customary bouquet of flowers waiting in the wings for her, which was brought on by a young chap in a Royal and Derngate uniform, who insisted on planting a huge sucker kiss on her as reward for the embarrassment of being on stage. I don’t blame him.

RPOAfter a pleasantly Merlot-filled interval, we returned for one of the all-time favourites in the classical world, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. We’d seen the RPO perform this before, and they had a lot to live up to. It’s such a magnificent work that can rend you apart with its emotions as it takes you on a wandering path past Elgar’s colleagues, friends and loved ones, stopping to share memories and point out foibles. No piece of music reflects love and friendship quite like the Enigma. Stand-out variations for me were WMB which was full of enthusiasm and humour, and Troyte, massively stirring and bold. I always look forward to Nimrod and have to steel myself lest it cause a little tear; but this time it didn’t quite move me as much as usual – it felt a little too romantic and not quite heroic enough for me. And my other favourite movement – the final one, EDU – sounded a little rushed and sloppy to me at the beginning, before everyone caught up with themselves and launched into that incredible melody. But these are minor quibbles – the whole evening was superb entertainment as always. Next up in this series – John Williams playing Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez with the RPO. Can’t wait!