A voice that magically made anguish yield joy, plus the best of December’s classical concerts

Dorothea Röschmann at the Wigmore Hall
Dorothea Röschmann at the Wigmore Hall - Wigmore Hall Trust

Dorothea Röschmann, Wigmore Hall ★★★★★

One of the mysteries of music is its ability to transfigure sorrow and loss and anguish so that they give a strange joy. Rarely have I seen that mystery made so vividly real as at Wednesday night’s song recital from great German soprano Dorothea Röschmann and her no less wonderful accompanist Malcolm Martineau.

Röschmann made her name as a singer of Mozart heroines back in the 1990s, but in recent years that pearly voice has become weightier and deeper. Her favoured musical territory has shifted forward to German romanticism, of which this recital offered a feast. It began with nine songs by Johannes Brahms, full of the imagery of nightingales making twilight sad with their song, the anguish of parting, raindrops tracing the letters on a gravestone.

Röschmann’s voice may not be as flexible as it once was, in fact there were times in the first song about a remembered lost love when her voice seemed reluctant to sound, as if she were dragging it up from some hidden depth. But what a thrilling sound it was. You could feel the weight in the German words, which felt like boulders – even when her tone was rapt and hushed, as it was in Brahms’s setting of a wonderful Heine poem comparing death to cool night and life to sultry day.

Much of the huge, almost Gothic atmosphere of these songs depended on Martineau, who knows how to place a chord and summon up the surge of erotic passion in a way that suggested an entire orchestra. Not everything in Brahms’s songs was doleful. In Wir wandelten (“We were Walking”) Röschmann expressed a state of radiant bliss through her whole body and facial expression as well as her rapt vocal tone. In Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby), one of two songs beautifully coloured with the dusky viola of Scott Dickinson, she caught the way anxiety for the Christ child gives way to blissful peace, as he falls asleep.

With Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, the imagery became grander – nightingales replaced by angels and “cosmic spheres” – but also verbose and clichéd. But it didn’t matter, as Röschmann and Martineau found the feeling behind the clichés. The fading away of “Dreams” in Martineau’s piano postlude, like a fiery sunset subsiding to dusk, was the evening’s most sublime moment.

But even lovers of Romantic song can only take so much transcendence, and to end Röschmann and Martineau brought us down to earth with five songs composed for a Berlin cabaret in 1901 by Arnold Schoenberg, of all people. The songs sound like a mash-up of the Romanticism we’d just heard with waltzes from Viennese operettas, together with very suggestive texts that mock high romantic seriousness. Just right for Röschmann, then, who only had to leaven her usual sound with a little eye-rolling irony to get us all laughing.

With her two encores, she returned us to romantic seriousness – but gently, with two exquisite songs by Hugo Wolf and Franz Liszt. They reminded us that simplicity and innocence are also routes to the sublime. IH

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Bristol Beacon ★★★★☆

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the refurbished Bristol Beacon
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the refurbished Bristol Beacon

Just in time, after a year where it’s been nothing but bad news in the arts world, along comes the opening of a new concert hall in Bristol to cheer us all up. It’s not actually brand new – the Bristol Beacon is actually the fifth incarnation of the first hall opened on the site 155 years ago – and much of the shell and the foyer spaces seem familiar. But this £132 million refurbishment still feels like a new beginning. The roots of the original building in the “Bristol Byzantine” style are actually more handsomely visible than they were before, especially in the impressive and atmospheric Lantern Hall, a small performing space. The wood-panelled main auditorium itself is pleasing to the eye, and – as we discovered at this first professional orchestral concert, given by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – warm and clear in sound too.

Given the Hall management’s stated eagerness to offer a platform to local groups and musicians, you’d think they’d have commissioned someone local to compose the celebratory fanfare to open the concert, perhaps hinting at nautical themes to signal the local connection. The composer they actually commissioned was the celebrated and globally performed Mark-Anthony Turnage, who came up with exactly what you’d expect from him: an exuberant pile-up of hip-swaying, jaunty, jazz-flavoured fanfares, with the occasional reflective moment. It sounded like the signature tune for a comedy drama starring Eddie Murphy as an accident-prone New York cop – fun in itself but perhaps not quite right for the occasion. It fell to Dimitri Shostakovich, in his Festive Overture of 1954, to strike the right tone of grand celebration and exuberant onrushing optimism, played here with invigorating nimble-fingered energy by the BSO under its chief conductor Kirill Karabits.

The mood of unquenchable optimism continued with Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, in which the soloist was the Korean Sunwook Kim, famous for winning the Leeds Piano Competition at the age of 18 in 2006. While the orchestra and Karabits struck a straightforwardly spacious, generous tone, Kim went the other way, making a clear almost dry sound without much pedal, so he could illuminate the music’s detail. He made the Liszt-like octaves fierce and jagged rather than simply grand, and in the slow movement summoned a tone of mysterious delicacy for those moments when Beethoven seems to be contemplating a starry sky.

Finally came a monument of musical modernism that used to terrify orchestras, but which nowadays can all too often sound like a walk in the park: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This was not the most note-perfect performance I’ve ever heard, but it was one of the most thrilling. It also had a mesmerising beauty, particularly at the mysterious breaking-dawn opening of Part 2, and the final Danse Sacrale had the right seat-of-the-pants excitement, as if it could go off the rails at any moment. In all the concert felt like a heartening beginning to a new era. Let’s hope the cuts recently announced by Bristol City Council to its culture budget don’t nip the new beginning in the bud. IH

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gives the world premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Odyssey at Bristol Beacon on January 28.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth
The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth - BBC

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Ryan Wigglesworth, Barbican Hall ★★★☆☆ 

It’s that time of year when orchestras can set aside all thoughts of being “challenging” with a good conscience, and bring in the crowds with Messiahs and Johann Strauss. But not even Christmas can stand in the way of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s ambition, and last night it offered a very different seasonal celebration. We were offered a newly composed setting of the Magnificat, that familiar prayer of the Virgin Mary when she learns the child she bears is to be the saviour of the world.

Composers have traditionally set the prayer as a shout of joy, with reflective moments for when Mary remembers God’s power and wisdom. With this new Magnificat from Ryan Wigglesworth, the extraordinarily talented composer and conductor, who also conducted this concert, it was the other way around. In his ambitious setting, in which the ancient prayer was shared between the BBC Symphony Chorus and Wigglesworth’s wife, the soprano Mary Bevan, one had the sense Mary was more oppressed than overjoyed at the news of her mysterious pregnancy.

Wigglesworth is a composer of painstaking craftsmanship, with creative debts to the luminously austere religious music of Stravinsky’s late years, and the stark, mythic world of Michael Tippett. In this piece Wigglesworth didn’t trouble to hide those debts, in fact he flaunted them – rightly so, as the music showed he can give his borrowings a very personal twist.

There were some beautiful lapidary inventions, such as the ritualistic genuflection of cold muted brass, which gave a sense of a miracle quietly unfolding. Bevan struck a nice balance between awe-struck revelation and terror, and the chorus handled Wigglesworth’s tricky rhythms with fierce clarity. The problem was that Wigglesworth’s language, though it can stretch to the numinous, can’t do plain unbuttoned joy – and a Magnificat without joy feels sadly lacking.

There was joy in abundance in the final piece, Schumann’s 2nd symphony, though Wigglesworth was perhaps too respectful of Schumann’s marking “not too fast” in the 1st movement. There should be a sense of impatience in those obsessively repeated rhythms. The most poised and satisfying performance of the evening was the first: Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, in a new arrangement by Wigglesworth for string orchestra. Set against the sometimes huge, sometimes intimate sound of the strings, and sung with focused intensity by Bevan, Arianna’s heart-breaking lament at her abandonment by Theseus took on a new force. IH

Hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30pm on January 18, and for 30 days thereafter on BBC Sounds

Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall: Messiah with bass soloist Morgan Pearse
Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall: Messiah with bass soloist Morgan Pearse - Shoel Stadlen

Messiah, BBC Singers, Britten Sinfonia, Barbican Hall ★★★☆☆ 

With the pounding jazz rhythms of Marin Alsop’s Gospel Messiah still ringing in our ears, it was refreshing to return to a much-earlier updating of Handel’s classic oratorio, conceived by Mozart in Vienna in 1789. Mozart’s interest in baroque music was stimulated by the august figure of Baron van Swieten, who mounted explorations of Bach and Handel; Mozart provided some new preludes for Bach fugues, and re-scored four Handel pieces for him.

It’s an open question how creatively engaged Mozart was in these re-scorings, as van Swieten probably gave as many instructions to him as he pompously did to Haydn when he was setting his Seasons and Creation oratorios. But hearing again the burbling bassoon counterpoints, rushing wind scales and triumphant horns with which Mozart filled out Handel’s spartan score was to relish the creative impact of one mind of genius on another. New-fangled clarinets twiddle, jogging rhythms animate “All we like sheep”, and the torrents roar in “Why do the nations?”: all vivid enhancements of Handel’s sometimes clunky word-setting, while wind fill out the cadential points at the ends of aria.

The Britten Sinfonia tackled all these add-ons with flair, while the ever-professional 24-strong BBC Singers might have benefitted from a few more voices to balance the added instruments. However, what we were hearing was neither pure Handel nor pure Mozart, but a “hybrid edition” using the additional scoring but reverting to a conventional modern sequence.

It was understandable to ignore Mozart’s enforced changes to “The trumpet shall sound”, especially as it enabled Imogen Whitehead to give a splendidly sonorous account of the trumpet solo that rather upstaged bass Morgan Pearse. But it was an opportunity missed when the conclusion entirely ignored Mozart’s and Swieten’s one structural intervention in the score, deleting the aria “If God be for us” and inserting a short original dramatic recitative to link to the final choruses. And where was “O death where is thy sting?”, which Mozart embellished with violas?

I guess the practical aim of this new version is just to make it usable as a bit of added Mozartian colour to an otherwise standard Handelian performance. But that is to cloud the cross-cultural fascination of the interaction between the two. And it needs a compelling and convincing account of the score. None of the soloists seemed completely at ease here, even Hilary Cronin who, after her glorious performance in Handel’s L’Allegro earlier this autumn, is surely the stand-out Handelian soprano of the moment; she took a while to settle in “He shall feed his flock”, though “Rejoice greatly” was predictably thrilling.

Helen Charlston, always measured and eloquent, did not quite cut through the acoustic in “He was despised”, while Laurence Kilsby’s tenor was agitated, fresh-voiced but not quite fully rounded. Most oddly, Sofi Jeannin conducted with neat precision but in a rhythmically totally unenergising manner that cast a dull pall over what should have been a fascinating celebratory occasion. Is Handel her thing? NK

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Dec 19

La Serenissima with director Adrian Chandler
La Serenissima with director Adrian Chandler - The Wigmore Hall Trust, 2023

La Serenissima, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

La Serenissima, the “most serene republic” of Venice, is also the name of one of Britain’s best-loved chamber orchestras. The connection is Antonio Vivaldi, the “red-haired priest” and Venice’s most famous musical son. La Serenissima has made a speciality of his music, and last night, in a programme of much-needed festive jollity they placed the red priest’s music alongside concertos by his contemporaries, much of it with a Christmas flavour.

While Vivaldi came off best, that’s not to say there weren’t wonderful moments in amongst those rival composers. The Sinfonia to “celebrate the sacred birth” by Giuseppe Valentini included a pastorale to evoke the shepherds’ joyous arrival at the scene of Christ’s birth, played with lovely swaying grace. The group’s chatty director Adrian Chandler assured us in his introduction from the stage that Lorenzo Zavateri’s Concerto for Two Violins – which he’d unearthed in a library somewhere in Italy – was “a real corker”, and he wasn’t exaggerating. It too had a lovely pastorale, and a delicious slow movement that at one point featured Chandler and his violin partner Oliver Cave crooning in close-knit harmony. For a moment I thought I was listening to a sentimental Italian pop ballad from the 1970s.

However even the pungent rhythmic accents and thrilling unanimity of the group couldn’t save Giovanni Gregori’s Concerto Grosso in D from routine. In this group of pieces that made up the first half it was Vivaldi’s concerto for two violins that stood out for its surprising harmonies and an intriguing way of ending phrases almost too soon, which the players made sure we couldn’t possibly miss.

Finally came the piece everyone was waiting for: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. No classical pieces are more overplayed, recomposed and generally abused than these four concertos. And yet when played with fire and imagination, as they were last night, they are revealed as the masterpieces they truly are. Each concerto is based on a sonnet which describes the season, and part of the fun of the piece is bringing to life the vivid scenes of storms, hunting, dancing peasants and summer blowflies.

Chandler and his group achieved that magnificently. The storm in Summer rushed by like a proper whirlwind, the icy sounds at the beginning of Winter were a cross between a shiver and a crackle of ice. At these moments the group seemed as precisely drilled as an army, but the really telling moments came when the players relaxed into the solo sections. Here Chandler would step forward with some new bit of scene-painting – a pungent “wrong note”, say, to illustrate a barking dog. For a moment music the tempo would seem to be completely lost, but then by degrees a sense of pulse would re-emerge and soon we would be engulfed in more rushing, hair-trigger virtuosity. There was a pungent earthy vividness to everything, which reminded us that Vivaldi – unlike the modern-day sophisticates who’ve recomposed and rearranged his masterpiece – had actually experienced the country realities his music evokes so brilliantly.

George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel - Leemage/Corbis via Getty

Gospel Messiah, Royal Albert Hall ★★★☆☆

Hallelujah! As dozens of Handel Messiahs pop up around the country for Christmas celebrations (ignoring, as we have always have, the fact that the oratorio was planned as a life of Christ for Easter rather than Christmas) there can have been few as life-affirming and yet as disorientating to some as this Gospel Messiah. The conductor Marin Alsop created this version three decades ago, and it finally reached England and an Albert Hall audience that initially seemed mightily puzzled.

After a sober start, the piece erupted in arrangements by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson that cleverly and not disrespectfully intertwined Handel with gospel music, big band, bar-room ballads, and plenty of Star Wars, changing the nature of virtually every movement but rendering very few totally unrecognisable. Rhythms were punched out by the ever-versatile BBC Concert Orchestra, and the massed BBC Symphony Chorus – with the animating help of the London Adventist Chorale – fairly buzzed with exuberance.

The score was mightily cut, so there were few longueurs, and with Alsop’s fluent, encouraging direction the pace was fast. The choral movements were snappily sharpened: twisted off-beat accents in “For unto us a son is born” at “the ev-er-last-ing father”, though the choir were shorn of their semiquavers in that chorus, which made for easy impact. Interestingly, Handel’s choral writing in Messiah is not as strictly fugal as in other oratorios, with the use of equal lines for each part, and is largely based on two-part duets he had written earlier: these proved susceptible to pounding ostinatos and brightly shaped riffs.

Part one ended with “Glory to God”, which is not a climactic point in the original –we missed the uplift of “His yoke is easy”. And inevitably, the show had to end with the Hallelujah chorus (only two-thirds way through Handel’s original), which brought the clapping British crowd to its feet, neglecting Handel’s glorious final sequence. With such a reduced score, there were only two soloists, both great advocates of their style: a bright tenor Zwakele Tshabalala, flying through Every Valley and riffing on Behold the Lamb of God, while gospel singer Vanessa Haynes had the most intimate cool numbers, more of a challenge in this hall.

Inevitably, the taut power of Handel’s original was sometimes sentimentalised and softened, nowhere more so than in the triumph of The Trumpet Shall Sound, which was weirdly turned into a mournful last post echoing a hundred American war movies. If this Messiah never seemed quite British enough to take root here, it was a fascinating evocation of a moment in American musical life when classical music met the mainstream. Gospel Messiah is now a valuable period piece, just like Thomas Beecham’s Messiah with all the bells and whistles or Christopher Hogwood’s Messiah stripped down to its roots: each a characterful view of a work that can withstand constant reinterpretation. NK

Angela Gheorghiu on stage with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Angela Gheorghiu on stage with the London Philharmonic Orchestra - LPO

Angela Gheorghiu/LPO, Royal Festival Hall, ★★★☆☆

Of all the odd traditions of the classical-music world, the “operatic gala” must be one of the oddest. An orchestra flies in a star soprano or tenor, at vast expense, to sing a few arias lasting around 20 minutes. To bulk out the programme to a respectable length, the orchestra intersperses a selection of pop-classical favourites. The star’s loyal fans turn up in their thousands for this brief glimpse of their idol, applaud every note deliriously, and are rewarded with blown kisses, at least one change of frock and a handful of encores.

Saturday night’s gala at the Royal Festival Hall, from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, followed the formula to a T: we heard a series of Russian-themed pieces, including a somewhat over-emphasised and heavy rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 1, and the star did indeed appear in two different frocks. Gheorghiu made her electrifying debut back in the early 1990s, with heart-stopping portrayals of Mimi in La bohème and Violetta in La traviata. The operatic world was transfixed by her mesmerisngly beautiful and perfectly controlled voice, together with a gift for histrionics that allowed her to embody these heartbroken and vulnerable women to perfection.

She stayed true to her strengths, at least, in Saturday’s programme. All five arias were in the emotional territory of yearning for love, or love lost, and they included one exquisite rarity, Ombra di nube, by the Catholic priest-cum-composer Licinio Refice. Yet Gheorghiu seemed weirdly unfocused, her voice a lovely but hazy simulacrum of the sound to which we once thrilled. The most disconcerting thing was her seriously awry tuning. Whole phrases began and ended a semitone flat. Did she not notice? Could she not hear?

It was only with Donde lieta uscì, Mimi’s sad song of farewell to her beloved Rodolfo, that Gheorghiu began to find her form. She reminded us how she can embody a whole world of yearning in a long, drawn-out note, while conductor Gergely Madaras expertly followed her every unpredictable move. Then, in Un bel dì, vedremo, Madama Butterfly’s dream of her long-absent American husband’s return, Gheorghiu finally let forth a golden top-note. The audience went mad, and the encores duly followed – so why did she sing the last of them, Agustín Lara’s Granada, in a couldn’t-give-a-damn half-voice? Having just won my sympathy, Gheorghiu promptly lost it again. If a diva is only on-stage for half-an-hour, she should really, at every moment, give her all.

No further performances

Pianist Imogen Cooper
Pianist Imogen Cooper - Sim Canetty-Clarke/Askonas Holt/PA

Imogen Cooper, Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★★☆

When launching a big solo concert most pianists opt for something light that loosens up the audience’s feelings and their own fingers. At her recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, Imogen Cooper began with something that sounded like a slow-motion dance for a puppet and a crab. This was the first of the set of fourteen Bagatelles by Béla Bartók, which is rarely heard – with good reason, might be one’s first response.

In fact this seemingly austere exercise in playing two different keys at once – an amazingly bold stroke for 1908 – seemed mesmerising in Cooper’s performance. I found myself leaning forward, as if there might be a secret lurking under the dry-as-bones notes. Like all the music we heard, it offered none of the satisfactions of flashy pianistic virtuosity. It was as if Cooper had deliberately avoided them, to make us focus on the notes themselves.

And what notes they were. Cooper put together a programme in two distinct halves, mingling together pieces in that fashionably “curated” way which can often seem merely clever but here worked directly on our feelings. The first half led from the uncertainties of Bartók (with Liszt’s futuristic Bagatelle without Tonality slyly slipped in) to the bright daylight of Beethoven’s Eroica Variations. Cooper was wonderfully responsive to the way Bartók’s pieces veer between jaunty sarcasm and a yearning, other-worldly quality. Some might say she needed a more biting tone for the sarcastic pieces, but I appreciated the way she wrapped the entire cycle in a special, intimate colour.

Cooper brought a similar quality to the Eroica Variations – so-called because it uses the same striding, confident bass-line and cheerful melody of the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Instead of launching that bass-line with brusque confidence, Cooper played it with an almost-diffident softness, as if the piece had to find its self-belief as it went along.

Cooper’s determination to seek out the poetic heart of the music was evident in the second half, which began with a descent into seriousness, via two of Bach’s chorale preludes for organ in piano arrangements. The first of them, Nun freut mich in Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement, had a scintillating right hand running over two independent parts in the left hand. It could easily sound flashy, but here seemed transcendental, like a dance of angels. The pit of darkness was reached with John Dowland’s lute song In Darkness Let Me Dwell. We heard it first over loudspeakers in Anne Sofie von Otter’s wonderful recording and then in the hair-raisingly strange piano recomposition by Thomas Adès, Cooper emphasising the way brilliant shafts of moonlight flit through the music’s nocturnal gloom.

Finally came the ascent back to light with Beethoven’s 31st Piano Sonata, and here Cooper’s energy sometimes flagged a little. The right-hand melody in the two tragic arias needed a more overtly yearning quality, and the scherzo lacked bite. But she recovered in the final fugue, giving it a moving sense of serenity after tribulation rather than outright triumph.

No further dates

Symphony Orchestra of India, Cadogan Hall
Symphony Orchestra of India, Cadogan Hall

Symphony Orchestra of India, Cadogan Hall ★★★★☆

It’s been a long wait for India’s first full-time symphony orchestra. Not until 2006 was the Symphony Orchestra of India founded, around a century after the first orchestras in China and Japan. The reason isn’t hard to find. India has its own mighty classical tradition, with an improvisatory freedom so utterly alien to classical music that this Western import has never taken root.

Until now. It takes decades for an orchestra to properly settle into form, but it is clear that this orchestra now has real depth of tone and some strikingly good individual players. In Strauss’s Rosenkavalier Suite, the leader (ie principal violinist) Adelina Hasani found the swooning, sugary heart of the music, and in Stravinsky’s Petrushka principal trumpeter Adan Delgado conjured up the ghost of the dead puppet with piercing clarity. Horn player Bernardo Cifres showed off the kind of soulful vibrato one used to hear in Soviet-era Russian orchestras.

On the podium was the conductor Alpesh Chauhan (British-born, but of Indian extraction) who strove mightily to bring the authentic saucy swing to the waltzes in Strauss’s suite. I wouldn’t say he was unsuccessful – far from it. But it took a while for the orchestra to find its esprit de corps. There was some uncertain tuning at the beginning of the Suite, and the uproarious dance at the beginning of Petruchka didn’t have that savage, biting precision it really needs.

When it came to poetic flexibility, the palm must go to the soloists in the evening’s UK premiere, the Triple Concerto by the famed and seemingly ageless percussionist Zakir Hussain. He was also one of the three soloists on the raised platform in front of the orchestra, seated cross-legged with his two small drums (tablas) alongside Niladri Kumar, performer on the Indian lute or sitar, and Rakesh Chaurasia, a virtuoso of the bamboo flute or bansuri.

Hussain explained that the sitarist and flautist picture two childhood friends who are forced apart by warring communities in their village, but eventually find the strength of character to reassert their friendship – surely a reference to current religious strife in India. In truth, it was hard to trace that narrative in the actual music. Of strife and tension there was little trace, apart from a brief moment in the second of the three movements.

What seized the ear immediately was a sense of blissful unity, with yearning sitar and flute phrases lovingly entwined over a deep drone. Kumar was more rhapsodic, his melodies soaring up heavenward, Chaurasia was more content to float, as if heaven were his natural home. Repeated bursts of rhythmic energy from Hussain inspired a more assertive interaction, until in the final movement everyone was joined in an ecstatic dance.

Here the orchestra—until then a humble accompanist—met the soloists on equal terms, tossing bracingly irregular rhythms from one side to the other with irresistible brio. Music may not bring an end to strife, but as this concerto showed it can offer a beautiful metaphor for that happy state.

Tour continues until Dec 8;

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