Jurowski’s beautiful, blood-curdling Wagner, plus the best of April’s classical and jazz concerts

The London Philharmonic Orchestra performance of Wagner's Gotterdamerung at the Royal Festival Hall
The London Philharmonic Orchestra performance of Wagner's Gotterdamerung at the Royal Festival Hall

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆

Wagner is of course renowned for taking his time, but even so the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Ring cycle has taken longer than most. Its concert staging of Siegfried (third of the Ring’s four instalments) in February 2020 had been scheduled to be followed by full cycles in 2021, representing Vladimir Jurowski’s swansong as the LPO’s principal conductor before he left to become music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. But the pandemic intervened, and four years on the cycle has finally been completed with this Götterdämmerung – just in time for Jurowski, now the LPO’s conductor emeritus, who begins a new staged production of Wagner’s epic on the Maximillianstrasse in October.

This performance was a reminder of how much Jurowski’s formerly frequent presence is missed in London. Showing charismatic command across the afternoon and evening – with a running time of over six hours including intervals, The Twilight of the Gods presents the destruction of Valhalla and the return of the contentious gold to the Rhine – Jurowski had the work’s large-scale architecture in place while pursuing every detail with untiring energy.

Together with Jurowski, the performance very much belonged to the orchestra, and not only in such famous set pieces as Siegfried’s Funeral March. Sculpted strings made the opening breathtakingly beautiful, the brass had punch and coiling woodwind solos (clarinet especially) were memorable. The orchestra also supplied visual drama, from the six harps to the steerhorns in Act 2’s summoning of the vassals, where the London Philharmonic Choir and London Voices had blood-curdling power.

Only the Brünnhilde of Svetlana Sozdateleva was disappointing, lacking ideal amplitude to soar in the closing Immolation Scene. Burkhard Fritz supplied a solid, dark tenor as Siegfried, and Albert Dohmen granite tone as Hagen. Sinéad Campbell Wallace was a glamorous-sounding Gutrune and Günter Papendell a strong Gunther. As Alberich, Robert Hayward’s delivery was authentically Wagnerian, and as Waltraute, Kai Rüütel-Pajula was warm-toned in her entreaties. The trios of Norns (Claudia Huckle, Claire Barnett-Jones, Evelina Dobračeva) and Rhinemaidens (Alina Adamski, Alexandra Lowe, Angharad Lyddon) were superbly blended.

The Norns’ rope, which fatefully snaps, was one of only few props in PJ Harris’s concert staging, intelligently managed with the aid of discreet lighting and minimal video. As for sets, none was really needed, but the Festival Hall itself did depressingly good service. Once something of an artistic and musical Valhalla – built idealistically at the start of the 1950s when governments still believed in the public good of funding the arts – the hall’s deepening state of decline makes it something of a Twilight Zone. John Allison

Samara Joy, Roundhouse ★★★★☆

“I’m still a student, I have a lot to learn,” says jazz singer Samara Joy. Well you could have fooled me. Her gig at the Roundhouse felt more like the triumph of a fully-formed artist than the debut of a tyro. Joy has singing in her blood – her grandparents were members of a the Philadelphia gospel group the Savettes, and her bassist father toured with gospel singer Andraé Crouch. And before her 24th birthday she was anointed at the 2023 Grammys with awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best New Artist. But last night (April 27) Joy was more keen to let us know she’s just graduated from SUNY Purchase’s jazz programme, and that she studied with the reclusive 90-year-old pianist Barry Harris before he died.

The great tradition clearly means everything to Joy. Most young jazz singers will mingle rap, gospel and soul into their sets. Joy, by contrast, is determinedly purist. Not until the very end did we get a brief blues number, and Jobim’s bossa nova classic No More Blues, which Joy launched first in Portuguese before switching to English (she takes no short-cuts). Before that came a dozen or so songs, all chosen from interesting rarely explored corners of jazz song. They allowed her to show off a truly magnificent voice, with a flawless ironclad technique reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan.

Samara Joy on stage at the Roundhouse
Samara Joy on stage at the Roundhouse - Nick Haill

She hit several blazing top Ds during the evening, notably during Tight by the great Betty Carter.  In Charles Mingus’s Reminiscences of a Love Bird she spun a delicious introduction, where the razor-sharp tuning added to the sultry charm. Alongside Joy was her superb seven-piece band, which as well as being rhythmically tight as a drum also contributed several arrangements, including a brand-new one from trombonist Donovan Austin of Ron Obrite’s Sweet Pumpkin which was interestingly different to the one she’s recorded.

As if all that weren’t enough Joy schmoozed the audience as shamelessly as any grizzled jazz veteran, and even sang a song of her own in praise of London. Altogether she seemed just too perfect, and by the interval I was feeling more impressed than engaged. There was something a tad self-conscious about the way she kept flipping from floaty head-voice to powerful chest voice, switching on her vibrato like a dazzling search-light.

Fortunately in the second half she loosened up. The vocal pyrotechnics were still there, but they now seemed inspired more by simple joie de vivre, and in Horace Silver’s Peace she floated a lovely lyrical line with unaffected ease. Best of all was a song Billie Holiday authored but never sang, Left Alone. “First they love me then they desert me,” sang Joy, reaching for the words’ meaning in a way we hadn’t heard before. Perhaps, like many jazz singers before her, Joy will need to attend the school of hard knocks before she can really touch the heart. In the meantime her total dedication to the tradition, modest charm and god-given vocal instrument are moving in themselves, and surely a portent of great things to come. Ivan Hewett


Northern Soul Orchestrated, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★★

After the unexpected success of last year’s Northern soul Prom – the concert has had over a million plays on iPlayer and Sounds – the BBC will surely be hoping for another Cinderella-story moment in 2024 (the Sound of Disco, on July 20, looks like the safest bet).

What made the Northern soul Prom so special was its cross-generational appeal: aimed, mostly, at those who danced in the clubs of the North and Midlands – from Wigan and Stoke to Wolverhampton – in the scene’s heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but at their children too, brought along for a merry night out. So it proved at Northern Soul Orchestrated at the Royal Festival Hall, as the London audience embraced the pure musical euphoria shepherded by six fantastic soloists and the BBC Concert Orchestra, under conductor Joe Duddell.

The original movement was characterised by small-town pubs and clubs playing black American soul music to working-class crowds, who spent their weekends dancing into the early hours until the realities of Monday morning – and a return to work – crept in. The surroundings may have grown grander, the audience older, but the music retained its magic.

Hosted and curated by broadcaster Stuart Maconie, the evening got off to a shaky start as the soloists – including standouts Vula Malinga, Darrell Smith and Brendan Reilly – battled to be heard over the full orchestra and five-piece rhythm combo on stage. Reilly’s showmanship thankfully made up for the teething issues, as he opened the concert stood within the crowd before grooving down to the stage ready to break into a run of classics: The M.V.P.’s Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up, Dobie Gray’s Out On the Floor.

Northern Soul Orchestrated at the Royal Festival Hall
Northern Soul Orchestrated at the Royal Festival Hall - Peter Freeth

Every audience member greeted Salford-raised Smith like an old friend; his crooning spins on Ray Pollard’s The Drifter and Frank Beverly & The Butlers’s If That’s What You Wanted uniting young and old in their sliding, swivelling and shuffling. An instrumental rendition of Sliced Tomatoes by the Just Brothers, meanwhile, granted the orchestra their time to shine with its rapid-fire drum tracks and infectious rhythm guitar licks (so memorably reincarnated in the late 1990s by Fatboy Slim on The Rockafeller Skank).

Malinga, known for her vocal work with Basement Jaxx, delivered a lustful interpretation of Gladys Knight & the Pips’s classic wronged-lover anthem No One Could Love You More – declaring this one “goes out to my future ex-husband” – before bellowing out Gloria Jones’s Tainted Love (a song which has managed to earn equal acclaim in its various soul, synth-pop and metal guises).

Wigan Casino’s classic “Three Before Eight” – usually the last tracks performed before the clubs had to close at 8am – had couples around me embracing, in floods of tears, at the veritable early hour of 10pm. As all six soloists came together to perform closer Do I Love You (by Frank Wilson) the energy in the room was irresistible: filled with the sweaty bodies of lovers, friends and family members united in joyful passion – showing exactly what live music can, and should, do. Poppie Platt

Northern Soul Orchestrated is at Manchester’s Aviva Studios on May 15, then Sheffield (16) and Gateshead (18)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool ★★★★☆

Alim Beisembayev and the RLPO give the premiere of Eleanor Alberga's piano concerto
Alim Beisembayev and the RLPO give the premiere of Eleanor Alberga's piano concerto - Gareth Jones

As the funding climate for classical music becomes ever bleaker, so the temptation for regional orchestras (and London ones, come to that) is to play safe. Much to its credit, the RLPO under its newish chief conductor Domingo Hindoyan is deftly resisting the pressure, combining sure-fire audience pleasers with new works and forgotten masterpieces. Its own new-music orchestra Ensemble 10:10 is still going strong, commissioning national as well as local composers and programming the modernist masters such as Harrison Birtwistle that the musical world is in danger of forgetting.

On Thursday night, the main orchestra brought us a brand-new piano concerto, commissioned as a result of the orchestra’s partnership with the Leeds International Piano Competition, where the orchestra awards a Contemporary Music Prize. In 2021, it was won by Kazakh pianist Alim Beisembayev, who also carried off the main prize, a double win that was thoroughly deserved. There’s no pianist under 30 in the world I would rather hear.

The prize was for him to give the world premiere of a newly commissioned piano concerto from a composer of his choice. Beisembayev went for the 75-year-old Jamaican but British-based composer Eleanor Alberga – a shrewd choice, as it turned out. Contemporary piano concertos often seem curiously oblivious of the piano’s history, giving the pianist notes that lie awkwardly under the hand. Alberga is clearly in love with the virtuoso piano tradition from Liszt to Ravel, and revelled in it, in a four-movement concerto that was generous in sound and profuse in ideas.

The first movement launched off in a dancing rhythm in the strings that provoked a leaping, percussive response from the piano, redolent of the Caribbean but filtered perhaps through Bartók’s Balkan dances. The second movement was more edgily dissonant, and was the only one that seemed formally uncertain, ending with strange abruptness.

The third movement was a delicious nocturne, in which dreamy glitters of piano figuration rose and fell from a sea of rich harmonies, while the fourth was a proper finale. It romped towards a triumphant close with tumultuous virtuosity, while in the orchestra an exuberant Latin-flavoured xylophone vied for the soloist’s spot. Beisembayev clearly enjoyed the piece, lavishing all his deft virtuosity and prismatically varied touch on it, and the audience did too.

There was more prismatic colour in the opening piece, the second suite drawn by French composer Albert Roussel from his 1931 ballet Bacchus and Ariadne. The sad abandonment of Ariadne on Naxos and seduction by the god Bacchus were painted with fine-grained detail, and the final love-dance had the right sense of disciplined abandon.

The final piece, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, was the polar opposite to everything we’d heard in its pitiless, iron-grey tragedy. The orchestra under Hindoyan didn’t quite catch that quality – in fact, what stood out were those more lyrical moments when human feeling peeped out, as in the lost, lonely solos from flautist Cormac Henry. If not leaving the audience crushed at the end of this piece is a fault, it’s a forgivable one. IH

See this concert for free for two weeks from 11 May at medici.tv. Hear it on BBC Radio 3 on May 14 and for 30 days thereafter on BBC Sounds.

Everyday Non-sense, Purcell Room ★★★★★

Everyday Non-sense at the Purcell Room
Everyday Non-sense at the Purcell Room - Pete Woodhead

More than a century ago, the Dadaists decided that art was a cheat and a lie, and set out to mock it with nonsense poetry, ballets for mechanical dancers, and a moustache painted on the Mona Lisa. Half a century later, their descendants, the neo-Dadaists of the 1960s, went further. At one of their elaborate “happenings” a naked cellist played; at another, the artist Nam June Paik jumped on stage and cut off John Cage’s tie.

There was no cutting of garments at “Everyday Non-sense”, Wednesday night’s homage to neo-Dada, and no naked cellists. But we did get some “classics” of neo-Dadaism, mingled with some proper (but silly) music, including Mozart’s very strange Musical Joke, a delicious parody of a salon waltz from the French composer Jean Français, and fragments of the opera Le Grand Macabre by Hungarian mischief-maker György Ligeti.

Among the nonsense pieces were four composed by none other than the well-known violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja (or “Patkop”, as everyone calls her), who conceived the whole event, and was at the centre of it. She’s become famous as the puckish soloist who infuses a spirit of folkish waywardness into performances of classic concertos. These days, she seems increasingly impatient with her role as a proper violin virtuoso, and last night she had the gleeful naughtiness of someone who’s finally thrown caution to the winds.

Patkop was just one of a dozen or so eccentrics on the stage of the Purcell Room, dressed as harlequins or cleaning ladies or wrapped in a dressing-gown. These were members of Aurora Orchestra, best known for their perambulating, choreographed concerts. Their opening gesture was to hurl screwed-up bits of paper at us, which on inspection turned out to be the evening’s programme – a witty way of saying “we don’t give a damn about the programme”, but which was also a performance of Mieko Shiomi’s Falling Event of 1963.

After that, the players roamed among the props, which included a dining table set up for a kiddie’s tea-party, a piano, an ironing board, and a kitchen. As they roamed, they hurled short pieces at us, often simultaneously. Mozart’s Musical Joke dominated proceedings for the first 20 minutes – maybe the evening’s only miscalculation, though it was played by Aurora with entertainingly madcap precision.

Meanwhile, Patkop, immersed in a bathtub, would burst out occasionally with some extravagant bit of violin virtuosity, or György Kurtág’s mad homage to Tchaikovsky on an upright piano. At one point, everyone started to bang rhythmically on pots and pans; at another they all started to sing, while processing in a circle.

Everything was performed with razor-sharp timing, and the show was cunningly contrived to move from calmness to hilarious frenzy. The last few minutes, with Patkop shrieking nonsense poetry and the orchestra jabbing and feinting in support, brought the house down. To tread such an exact line between desultory chaos and precisely controlled nonsense must have taken hours of patient rehearsal. As the Dadaists knew, being silly is actually a serious business. IH

No further performances

Marriner 100, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆

Marriner 100 at the Royal Festival Hall
Marriner 100 at the Royal Festival Hall - Leahairphotography

The most successful British classical musician of the past 60 years isn’t Simon Rattle, or Emma Kirkby or Dame Janet Baker. It’s a dapper, smiling violinist-turned-conductor, born into a working-class family, who created the world’s most-recorded and most-broadcast orchestra: the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Neville Marriner didn’t quite make it to his 2024 centenary – he died in 2016 at the age of 92 – but the orchestra he founded wasn’t going to let the occasion pass without a big splash. They’ve mounted three celebratory concerts, of which Thursday night’s at the Festival Hall was the most lavish.

Marriner founded the orchestra as a self-directing group who were all “refugees” from the conductor’s overmastering hand, and here it stayed true to that founding principle. The evening launched with four pieces by Mozart from the soundtrack to the 1984 film Amadeus, for which the ASMF recorded all the music. In between, we heard memories of Marriner from long-standing players, singers and composers. One got the impression of a generous man who loved nothing more than nurturing new talent.

It could have been a relaxed trip down memory lane, but the ASMF – as if alert to that danger – played with a stunning, edge-of-the-seat energy. The leader of the first violins, Tomo Keller, gave all the minimal direction the players needed, leaving it to instincts honed over decades to do the rest. And just as in the film, the Adagio from the Serenade for Winds was a moment of utter sublimity, thanks to the heart-breakingly beautiful sound of oboist Tom Blomfield and the combined winds of the orchestra.

Then on came the orchestra’s current director, American virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell. He gave a fabulously high-stepping and brilliant performance of Saint-Saëns’s Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, and once again Keller and the orchestra were absolutely on the nail. Whenever Bell played one of his tumultuous descents to a down-beat, they were with him to the millisecond.

Bell was also a soloist in the evening’s brand-new piece, which was something of a surprise. Rather than commissioning an old friend of the orchestra’s such as Sally Beamish, the orchestra stepped out of its comfort zone by approaching New York-based jazz composer Vincent Mendoza, who came up with a double concerto for violin and drum-kit. The piece was unfailingly attractive in an open-spaces, almost Copland-ish way, and drummer Douglas Marriner was a deftly light-touch soloist. But it was too modest for its own good, coming to an end just as it threatened to become interesting.

Finally came an astonishing performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony, directed by Bell from the leader’s chair. Performances of this piece tend to bring out its veiled melancholy and relaxed good-humour, and we certainly heard those things. But there was also an impatient energy thrumming away underneath, which at the symphony’s tumultuous end became positively demonic. It was a wonderful end to an evening which proved that Sir Neville’s creation has never been in better shape. IH

No further performances

Leeds Lieder, Leeds Conservatoire ★★★★☆

Nikola Hillebrand at the Leeds Lieder festival
Nikola Hillebrand at the Leeds Lieder festival

Song is the Cinderella of classical music genres, adored to distraction by its fans but regarded by many as formal and remote, a matter of over-emotional singers pretending to be lovelorn shepherds while dressed in penguin suits.

There are no penguin suits at Leeds Lieder, the annual festival of “art song” in Leeds which has just started its 20th-anniversary season. Under the direction of pianist Joseph Middleton, it triumphantly proves the doubters wrong, with a programme that reaches thousands, including school-children and students at Leeds Conservatoire, which hosts the concerts. The variety of song this year – as every year – is immense, from the cabaret impertinences of Erik Satie to songs in Bengali to the heartlands of Romantic song. And the artists come from all over Europe and beyond, turning Leeds into a paradise of polyglot musical emotion.

For its first day, the festival offered a survey of classical song’s greatest figure, Franz Schubert, across three concerts. We heard more than two dozen songs, replete with the favourite imagery of the Romantic poets Schubert loved: starry nights prompting thoughts of a distant beloved, stormy seas, joy at spring’s return, and the happiness of simple good times over a glass of wine.

Mirroring the incredible variety of the songs was the intriguing variety of performers. The second concert featured no less than nine excellent pairs of young singers and pianists, each chosen by video audition from conservatoires in the UK and all round the world. In between their performances the great scholar of song Richard Stokes showed how the genius in the poetry was illuminated by the genius in the music. It was moving to hear so much talent in the bud – you could warm to the feeling on display, while also sensing in many cases that it wasn’t yet fully ripe.

With the day’s two star singers, German soprano Nikola Hillebrand and British baritone Roderick Williams, those feelings burgeoned with wonderful naturalness, thanks in no small part to the sympathetic and intelligent accompaniment from Middleton and Roger Vignoles. The singers turned out to be interestingly contrasted, in a way that shed a bright light on the composer. Hillebrand has a voice of lovely pearly delicacy, a perfect control of the lyrical line, and a way of making heavy German syllables seem light. It was exactly right for those songs such as Berta’s Song in the Night when the body seems laid in a trance, and the spirit flies aloft.

Williams doesn’t make such a perfectly honed sound, but his alertness to every word helped him bring out the earth-bound humanity of Schubert. We could feel the romping good humour of In the Spring, and that heart-stopping moment in The Wanderer when the lonely traveller thinks about the happy scenes taking place in his home village – but without him. Seeing those two wonderful artists side-by-side, we could span the whole of Schubert, from spiritual heights to homely intimacies – and realise they’re separated by only a hair’s-breadth. IH

Festival continues until 21 April, with all concerts streamed live, and many available for 60 days; leedslieder.org.uk

Samoan tenor Pene Pati, pictured with conductor Kazuki Yamada, performs as Faust in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's The Damnation of Faust
Golden thread: Samoan tenor Pene Pati with conductor Kazuki Yamada - Andrew Fox

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: The Damnation of Faust, Symphony Hall, Birmingham ★★★★★

Imagine a journey that takes in wild mountain gorges, a tavern full of roaring drunks, and armies drawn up for battle on the Hungarian plains. Roaming through all this is a once dissatisfied, dried-up scholar named Faust, now suddenly come to life and eagerly learning about excitement and love and lust under the guidance of his new friend, Méphistophélès. He has a few moments of delirious happiness with his lady love, Marguerite, but the devil demands his due and he ends up in hell - though the girl is rescued and lofted up to heaven.

The story is so vast in scope that composers have mostly steered clear of it. Berlioz, however, turned it into The Damnation of Faust, a sort of dream, or perhaps nightmare, for soloists, chorus and vast orchestra. Some have tried to realise Berlioz’s vision in the opera house, but I’ve never been convinced. There are too many huge gaps in the narrative, which flies from gorge to tavern to Marguerite’s bedroom with no real explanation. A concert performance is the only thing that really suits this “theatre of the mind”, but to do that the set-pieces really need to be surpassingly vivid.

At Saturday’s riveting performance from the CBSO, the work’s difficulties seemed to melt away, not least because of the sublime playing of the orchestra, and the exuberant, tenderly expressive yet tautly disciplined conducting of Kazuki Yamada. The elfin Dance of the Spirits, when Faust dreams of Marguerite while Mephistopheles looks on ironically, had a delicacy that simply melted the heart. So many individual players distinguished themselves, above all Rachel Pankhurst, whose sad cor anglais sound plumbed the depths of Faust’s sorrow in the final part.

Behind the orchestra was the CBSO Chorus, fortified by men from the Hallé Chorus. They threw themselves into their different roles like a properly operatic chorus, whether it was the drunken revellers in the tavern, the damned souls of Hell tormenting Faust in the final scene, or (in the epilogue) the blessed spirits welcoming Gretchen into heaven.

Wonderful though they were, Berlioz’s eccentric, sublime vision would not have come to life if the soloists hadn’t been so strong. Jonathan Lemalu as the innkeeper Brander had a voice that seemed marinated in centuries of drinking and good times. Grace Durham was an affecting and dignified Marguerite, while Nahuel di Pierro clearly enjoyed himself as Méphistophélès, materialising in Faust’s study with a smirk that made everyone chuckle, but soon developing a real heft and snarl that was, well, diabolical.

But everyone was put in the shade by the Samoan tenor Pene Pati as the yearning, confused and increasingly desperate Faust. He showed an extraordinary gift for producing a golden thread of sound that can swell without strain to magnificence, and his lyrical line was perfectly rounded in a way that reminded me of great French tenors of old. The agonising moment when he called out Marguerite’s name in despair simply wrung the heart, and is still echoing in my ear. IH

Hear this concert on BBC Sounds for 30 days

Alison Balsom delivers the premiere of Wynton Marsalis's new trumpet concerto, with the LSO
Alison Balsom delivers the premiere of Wynton Marsalis's new trumpet concerto, with the LSO

LSO/Pappano, Barbican ★★★★☆

Of all our orchestras, the London Symphony Orchestra is the closest to America in its brazen, sassy sound, and it has always been welcoming to American composers and conductors. So it was inevitable that when the new trumpet concerto from virtuoso jazz trumpeter, composer and band-leader Wynton Marsalis received its British premiere, it would be given by the LSO. It took place on Thursday night in front of a packed and rapt audience, with Britain’s star trumpeter Alison Balsom as soloist, and the orchestra’s soon-to-be Chief Conductor Antonio Pappano on the podium.

A nine-time Grammy winner, Marsalis has assumed the mantle of the jazz tradition, and sometimes it sits heavy on him. The 62-year-old is insistent on the art form’s civilising qualities, using its discipline and lofty aspirations to art as a stick to beat hip hop – a stance that has made him a few enemies. As director of Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra, he has made it his life’s mission to ensure that jazz reaches every school and town in America. But he also celebrates the uproariousness and spontaneity of old-time jazz in his native New Orleans.

Just occasionally, we caught a whiff of that on Thursday – not least at the concerto’s opening, when Balsom unleashed an amusing elephant’s whoop to launch things – but rude energy was mostly held at arm’s length. Marsalis’s aim was to lead us through all the different “voices” of the trumpet, so after an exuberant New Orleans-style street march we were led into what seemed like a half-forgotten ballad from the Great American Songbook, a Mexican village band, then a blues number. All this one might have predicted; less predictable was the brief excursion into a waltz, which we learned was meant to evoke the French trumpet tradition of Maurice André, before an up-tempo two-step carried us energetically over the finish line.

It was all done with great skill, each picture-postcard evoked in vivid orchestral colours. Balsom’s high-wire virtuosity and lyrical grace were complemented by beautifully turned solos from numerous orchestral players. The problem was that – apart from one or two striking moments of still reflection – each musical idea was hurried off-stage quickly by the next, so one could never savour anything. It felt like an enjoyable and somewhat dreamy musical travelogue, which rarely engaged the feelings. I never thought I’d hear a blues from Wynton Marsalis that was so entirely free of traditional bluesiness.

From that fantasy America, we moved to Ravel’s fantasy of ancient Greece, as expressed in his sumptuous, 50-minute-long ballet score Daphnis and Chloé. The big set-pieces like the sunrise in Part 3 were ecstatically gorgeous, but they are not so hard to bring off. The challenge is the numerous short episodes in the middle, which can seem bitty without the dance to guide our feelings. Pappano was clearly aware of this, and made sure that the delicious, pirouetting flexibility of these moments didn’t compromise the dramatic sweep of the whole. That, plus the dazzling virtuosity of the players and sumptuous sound of the choir Tenebrae made for something truly magnificent. IH

Ben Goldscheider and Nicky Spence, Britten Sinfonia, Saffron Hall
An ecstatic dance: Ben Goldscheider and Nicky Spence - Shoel Stadlen

Britten Sinfonia, Saffron Hall ★★★★☆

What does an orchestra do when it receives a 100 per cent cut to its Arts Council of England funding, as happened to Britten Sinfonia last year? Answer: keep calm and carry on. Which means continuing to provide wonderful music-making, often of a daring kind, to under-served parts of Eastern England.

Sunday’s concert was a perfect example of what makes them treasurable. Two bankable stars were on the platform with the orchestra: horn player Ben Goldscheider, for a brand-new horn concerto by that gifted all-round musician Huw Watkins, and tenor Nicky Spence for the most famous song-cycle ever composed by an Englishman, Benjamin Britten’s Serenade. Alongside these were a rarely-heard early-ish work by the Master of the King’s Music Judith Weir, and to cap everything, perhaps the most brilliant and joyful symphony Mozart ever wrote, the “Haffner”.

So there was much to simply enjoy, but the opening piece, Weir’s “Heroic Strokes of the Bow” was quite a tough nut. Weir doesn’t do heroic, so it was a fair bet that this piece, based on a witty painting by Paul Klee, would make imperiously florid gestures and then immediately deflate them. And so it proved to be. The deflating gesture was more often than not a silence — indeed there were so many silences the piece seemed more a tattered rag than whole cloth. But the rags were so interestingly coloured, and the players concentration was so fierce and the rhythms so taut that by some miracle a satisfying if very quirky sense emerged from it all.

Compared to that Watkins’s new concerto seemed positively traditional. The more confident and fluent Watkins becomes as a composer, the more he feels free to flaunt his debts, most obviously to Britten and also (in this case) to Schumann’s dancing scherzos for horns, with possibly a hint of Mahler in the background. It was cast in the traditional three movements, beginning with a swaying pastorale with typical ‘leaping’ hunting-horn figures. The slow movement seemed as if it might be too obviously symmetrical, with two lyrical outer sections balanced against a dancing central one - until new horizons opened unexpectedly. The finale romped home in irregular Balkan-style rhythms, soloist Ben Goldscheider in perfect lockstep with the orchestra under conductor Michael Papadopoulos.

Britten’s Serenade, which sets gems of English poetry from Ben Johnson to Keats and Tennyson, was the only slight disappointment, not because Nicky Spence’s tenor voice didn’t ring out splendidly or the orchestra didn’t dance ecstatically. It was more that Spence’s tone, though winningly humorous when needed, was generally too extrovert. One missed the hooded corruption of William Blake’s “O Rose, thou art sick!”, and a sense of hushed mystery at the end.

After all that, to end with Mozart’s Haffner symphony felt exactly right. The players could revel in sheer uncomplicated joie de vivre, and we could, too. But that doesn’t mean subtlety was left behind. The high-stepping elegance of the  middle movement was just as captivating as the high spirits of the finale. IH

Hear Britten Sinfonia play the same programme at Milton Court, London EC2 on Tuesday brittensinfonia.com 

Karen Cargill performing at The Stoller Hall with the Manchester Camerata
Karen Cargill performing at The Stoller Hall with the Manchester Camerata - Jay Cipriani

Manchester Camerata, The Stoller Hall ★★★★☆

To flourish in a city already provided with two fine symphony-sized orchestras the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra has to be nimble on its feet. One week it plays core classical repertoire of Haydn and Mozart – including a complete Mozart piano concerto series – the next it intrigues us with a carefully curated event that mixes old and new in surprising ways.

Last night’s concert, in which the Camerata was joined by the Manchester-based chamber choir Kantos and Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, was one of the latter kind. We heard nine shortish pieces ranging from the late 17th to the 21st centuries, unified by two things. There was an overall mood of spiritual uplift, darkening sometimes to an intense yearning to escape from an intolerable life, as in Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra, or a desire for God, as in Sally Beamish’s Showings. And there was the sound of a solitary bell, which ushered in Purcell’s choral piece Hear My Prayer, marked a solemn tread through Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and Da Pacem Domine and rang out at key moments in Britten’s Phaedra.

All this showed care and imagination, an impression slightly marred by the annoyingly skimpy programme notes, which told us nothing about composer Nick Martin or his piece Fallings, or what the words were for Beamish’s piece. And not all the performances were a triumph, in fact Kantos’s opening performance of Henry Purcell’s hearty-stoppingly intense Hear My Prayer was distinctly shaky.

But the good things were very good. The way Pärt’s Cantus seems to emerge at a huge altitude from nothingness, like wisps of cloud, and gain heft and intensity as it descends, was beautifully caught. Nick Martin’s Fallings was a somewhat soft-centred lament, but the choir and orchestra together generated a real intensity in Beamish’s settings of poems by the 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich.

In Britten’s Phaedra the evening abruptly switched from calm meditations on the hereafter to the burning shame of a queen who has to admit to the world that she lusts after her own son. Karen Cargill didn’t quite catch the unhinged despair of the opening section, but she was completely magnificent in the final moments as the queen takes poison, and sings of how the glorious day that she soiled by her presence will soon resume its purity.

Standing to the side of all this anguish was Michael Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli. The abrupt switches from the striding Baroque dignity of Corelli’s original to Tippett’s rhapsodic ecstasies are hard to bring off, but the orchestra managed it beautifully. Under the disciplined but relaxed direction of Brazilian conductor Simone Menezes the music’s tangled melodic foliage burgeoned luxuriantly.

The concert’s end returned to its beginning, with more Purcell; we heard Karen Cargill, again regal and commanding in Dido’s Lament, and finally the choir and orchestra joined in lament over the dead queen. It was an apt ending to an evening which despite the occasional rough edge touched the heights – and the depths. IH

The Manchester Camerata plays the penultimate instalment of its complete Mozart Piano Concerto series with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at The Stoller Hall on 17 May manchestercamerata.co.uk

Maxim Emelyanychev and the OAE at the Royal Festival Hall
Maxim Emelyanychev and the OAE at the Royal Festival Hall - Zen Grisdale

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆

As its name suggests, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s mission is to offer ‘ancient’ classical music from Mozart and before, played with spine-tingling verve and more style than a Milan catwalk. Arrayed on the concert platform in front of you, you find an enticingly odd musical menagerie appropriate to the music: straight trumpets, old-fashioned valveless horns and primitive-looking oboes whose sound sometimes rasps against your ear, and sometimes seduces it.

On Wednesday night, the OAE looked very different. For a start, it was twice the normal size, with a positive army of strings and six double-basses instead of the normal two. The bassoons and oboes and horns looked more or less as they would in any orchestra. Most surprising of all was the programme: Grieg’s First Peer Gynt Suite, Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture, a rarity from Rachmaninov’s youth entitled The Rock and, to top it all, Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. It was less the “Age of Enlightenment”, more the age of volcanic national aspiration, expressed through folk-like sweetness, swooning romantic melody and (in the Sibelius) a feeling of oppression leading to triumphant release.

Venturing so far from one’s musical comfort zone could be enormously risky, but the OAE played this feast of northern-European romanticism as if to the manner born. It helped that joining them on the podium was that Russian firecracker of a conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev. He co-founded Il Pomo d’Oro, an orchestra very like the OAE, and also plays the harpsichord – but he also loves Romantic music. So, he’s just the right person to grasp the importance of getting the right period sound (we weren’t told, but judging from the tone those were genuine late-19th-century instruments we were looking at) while making us thrill to the music’s full-blooded expressiveness.

Granted, Emelyanychev’s hyperactive podium manner is distracting to behold, and there were times when his determination to reach into the musical texture and pull out this or that enticing detail went too far. But mostly, this concert was a joy. Glinka’s overture sped by like a perfectly calibrated hurricane, while Rachmaninov’s early piece was like kaleidoscope of fantasy colours, here a touch of Wagner, there a whiff of late Rimsky-Korsakov, and even a bit of early Stravinsky. Grieg’s suite is one of those pieces regularly described as “hackneyed”, but thanks to Emelyanychev’s subtle pacing and attention to detail it recovered all its mystery and delicate pathos.

Finally came Sibelius’s symphony, and here it soon became clear why an orchestra devoted to old music might be right for a proto-modernist symphony in which vastly slow music morphs into blistering speed, before your very ears. There’s no sheen on the OAE’s sound, no luxurious blend. Everything stands out in its own fresh colours, so the grinding of musical layers moving at different speeds jumps out in sharp relief.

Sibelius’s amazing radicalism stood nakedly revealed, thanks to an orchestra raised on Haydn and Mozart. It’s a paradox, but an invigorating one, and a reminder that music can feel like a revelation of a mystery as much as a joy. IH