Alexander Melnikov whips Rachmaninov into submission, plus the best of March’s classical concerts

Alexander Melnikov, Wigmore Hall
An impressive pedigree: Alexander Melnikov - The Wigmore Hall Trust

Alexander Melnikov, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

Is Slavic melancholy so different to any other kind? According to fans of Rachmaninov’s gorgeously melancholic music, the answer is definitely yes. They insist only Russian pianists can really get the way his sadness luxuriated in his imagination, burgeoning outwards in waves of finger-twisting virtuoso filigree, rising to a thunderous climax as vast as those endless Russian birch forests.

Last night’s all-Rachmaninov concert at the Wigmore Hall offered a chance to test the theory, at least for one pianist. It was given by Alexander Melnikov, who is one of the stars of Russian pianism, with an impressive pedigree. He studied at the Moscow Conservatoire, and was a protégé of the greatest Russian pianist of the later 20th century, Sviatoslav Richter.
In the first piece, Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, it soon became clear Melnikov produces that rich, heavy sound which still seems to be a feature of Russian pianists, even though we live in an era where the constant touring of young pianists has flattened out most differences between national styles. One of the variations turned Chopin’s grand melody into an elfin dance, but these elves seemed more threatening than charming. Later came a variation where a persistent fixed note recurs in the left hand, which Melnikov articulated as a deep bell. The sound of bells haunted Rachmaninov’s imagination, and we heard echoes of them often, particularly at the end of these variations when they rang out in triumph.

The following Variations on a Theme of Corelli were written almost 30 years later, and Melnikov’s subtle colouring and quirky pauses made us aware of how Rachmaninov’s emotional palette had broadened in the interim. There was a sardonic streak in those disconcerting harmonic leaps, and a touch of diabolism in the right-hand flurries, which flickered like distant lightning.

In these two pieces Rachmaninov’s emotional range was somewhat constrained by being tied to a single melody. In the second set of Études-tableaux, which were inspired by images or scenes (Rachmaninov never disclosed which ones) everything seemed more extravagant: the virtuoso leaps, the thunderously gloomy bass lines, the heaven-storming climaxes. All this was thrown off by Melnikov in an impassive, magisterial way which the composer himself—who famously hated grimacing pianists—would surely have approved. The gaunt silences and giant bass chords of the seventh étude seemed to come from the grave, and in the fifth étude the return of the big melody in the bass was so immense I thought the piano might actually give way under the strain.

By the end it was somewhat exhausting. Melnikov rushed from one piece to the next with no pauses, and clearly didn’t consider the fact that these pieces need more moments of relaxation when played as a set than when played singly. It was a relief to be reminded that Rachmaninov was capable of simple lyricism in the shape of his famous G major Prelude, which Melnikov played as an encore. Here, he displayed a lightness and tenderness which had previously been missing. IH

Laurence Cummings
Laurence Cummings - Alastair Muir/amx

Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican ★★★☆☆

At this time of year performances of sacred music are so thick on the ground you could be forgiven for thinking Britain is still a Christian country, at some deep unspoken level. We’re spoilt for choice of performances of Bach Passions in particular, but the one that seemed irresistible was the Good Friday performance of the St Matthew Passion from the Academy of Ancient Music. This wonderful “period instrument” orchestra was founded 50 years ago by Sir Christopher Hogwood, one of that breed of “scholar-performers” who wanted to scrape the grime of centuries off the performance of Baroque music, and in the process became unlikely stars in the 1970s and ‘80s.

So it was partly the magic name of the group, now almost as venerable as the music it plays, which drew a packed house at the Barbican. And the moment they started to play one remembered why the quiet revolution they led 50 years ago actually matters. The introduction was solemn as it should be, but there was a dance-like lilt as well, and a moving transparency in the sound. We could relish the individual colours of the Baroque oboes, the throaty sound of violas.

As the great drama of Christ’s arrest, trial and crucifixion unfolded those colours gave an extra poignancy to key moments: the angry, pained sound of Reiko Ichese’s viola da gamba accompanying the bass singer’s meditation on the cross, Robert de Bree’s tender oboe when Christ prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Most affecting was the beautiful quartet of flutes and oboes in the soprano aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland”, “My saviour wants to die.”

Directing all this from the organ and harpsichord at the front was Laurence Cummings, whose subtle pacing really brought the drama alive. In the early scene in the Garden he made time seem so magically suspended during Christ’s lonely praying that we too were laid to sleep; but then came the brutal awakening, when the soldiers and Judas arrive to arrest Christ. The to and fro in the Trial scene between the angry shouts of the mob and the serene responses from Christ is less violent than in Bach’s St John Passion, a difference Cummings respected. It seemed as if the calm light of eternity was already shining on the story.

All this was good; but there’s something not right about a performance of the St Matthew Passion where one praises the instrumentalists first. The truth is the singing from the eight singers was distinctly patchy, which was especially problematic given that Cummings performed the piece in a (possibly) historically “authentic” way, i.e. with the eight soloists singing the choral parts as well as their own. The two sopranos Anna Dennis and Mhairi Lawson held things together with their firm, sensitive tone, and bass George Humphries was correct if not especially moving as Christ, but it’s hard to find things to praise in the other five. Despite the performance’s many sensitive touches, there was a hollowness at its centre. IH

Soprano Louise Alder performs with pianist Joseph Middleton at London's Wigmore Hall
Soprano Louise Alder performs with pianist Joseph Middleton at London's Wigmore Hall

Louise Alder, Wigmore Hall ★★★★★

The wisdom of crowds isn’t always especially wise, but it certainly was on the night of June 18 2017, when the audience prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition went to British soprano Louise Alder. She had it all: a gleaming, clear voice, thrillingly in focus right across the range, an ability to get to the heart of the song without signalling emotion in an obvious way, and a combination of commanding stage presence with an approachable human quality. She had all the vocal and histrionic gifts to make a proper diva, but looking at her on that stage, one guessed she would never behave like one.

All those endearing qualities were on display at Monday night’s song recital at the Wigmore Hall. On stage with her was pianist Joseph Middleton, an artist every bit as fine and insightful as Alder herself. Alder wasn’t on absolutely top form vocally – there were flecks on the fine threads of vocal sound that suggested she was getting over a cold – but it didn’t matter. All the songs shone out in their own true, rich colours, which was quite a feat as the musical range was so vast.

In some ways the hardest songs to bring off were the opening group of French mélodies by the very young Gabriel Fauré and the equally young Nadia Boulanger. They had a peculiar ecstasy, with lines about “two souls soaring towards death” and a fluttering, rising excitement in Middleton’s piano accompaniment which suggested that the ecstasy was actually very earthly. They could have come over as arch and overheated, but the flaring beauty in Alder’s tone burned away the fin-de-siècle period flavour and caught the emotional truth in the songs.

With Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, the two artists had to switch instantly from grand passion in the salon to deep folk-like simplicity. Swirls of notes gave way to single tolling bells, or – in At Midnight – slow downward scales that in Middleton’s hands seem as gaunt and implacable as the grave. Alder found just the right burningly focused tone, which swelled into magnificence at the end as she realised that God is present even at blackest midnight.

Aaron Copland’s 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson dealt with equally weighty matters but with a light, oblique touch, and even a touch of humour, as when Alder asked – “Why did they shut me out of heaven? Did I sing too loud?”. No she wasn’t too loud, in fact her singing (and Middleton’s playing) were poised exactly at the mid-point between conversational homeliness and awe at God’s mysteries – just like the poems themselves.

Finally came a group of American songs from Ned Rorem, Richard Rodgers and Florence Price. Here, ecstasy and the mysteries of the hereafter were set aside for a gentle, more everyday sort of joy, which Middleton and Alder caught with tenderness laced with a touch of wry worldly wisdom. It showed a nice tact, to bring us down so gently from the heights to the everyday. IH

Edward Gardner conducts Julia Fischer and the LPO
Edward Gardner conducts Julia Fischer and the LPO - London Philharmonic Orchestra

Daniel Kidane premiere, LPO, Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆

New symphonies may be distinctly thin on the ground, but the concerto never loses its lustre for composers. And the violin is still a favourite concerto instrument for the same reason it was favoured by Beethoven and Brahms and Stravinsky: the way it can dominate an entire orchestra through lyrical intensity and dazzling virtuosity, rather than force.

The strange thing about Daniel Kidane’s new concerto, premiered on Saturday night by German virtuoso Julia Fischer and the LPO, is that it foreswore both these obvious routes to musical enjoyment. His concerto, subtitled Aloud, is a cry of protest against armed conflict, particularly the Russo-Ukrainian War (Kidane has skin in the game, as he is part-Russian and his partner is Ukrainian), and at its heart is a folk-song in which an injured Cossack defies the bird of ill-omen that predicts his death.

All this promised something life-affirming and strongly etched. But the folk-song was so thoroughly transformed and hidden I never caught even a glimpse of it, and the concerto itself felt more like a concerto for orchestra than for violin. There were many striking inventions, but they were all in the orchestral music, which under conductor Edward Gardner’s balletic direction danced and parried in strikingly beautiful sounds of marimba, pizzicato strings and seductively liquid clarinets. The violinist also danced and parried, sometimes with the orchestra, sometimes in dialogue with it; rarely did it soar, in true concerto fashion.

Great player that she is, Fischer seized on the splintered fragments and the rare moments of austere dissonant stillness, and made sure they told. Even so, Kidane’s determination to be oblique, and never to settle into an obvious narrative of triumph-over-adversity – which seems admirable in principle – was ultimately frustrating.

There was no shortage of lyricism in the other main event of the evening, Mozart’s unfinished Mass in C minor. It’s less well-known than his Requiem but every bit its equal, with choruses of awe-inspiring grandeur next to arias and duets of operatic seductiveness. Unfortunately, neither quality shone out brightly in this performance. The opening chorus should have a minatory heaviness, but here it seemed merely well-turned, and the London Philharmonic Choir lacked body.

As for the four soloists, they too were unimpeachably elegant, including soprano Nardus Williams and tenor Rupert Charlesworth, last-minute stand-ins for two indisposed singers. But their sound, along with soprano Hera Hyesang Park’s, seemed constrained and lacking in bloom. Only bass-baritone Ashley Riches’s sound charmed the ear; it was a shame Mozart gave him so little to sing that one hardly had to time to enjoy it. IH

No further performances

Laurence Cummings and friends at the London Handel Festival
Laurence Cummings and friends at the London Handel Festival - Chris Christodoulou

Esther, London Handel Festival, St George’s Hanover Square ★★★★☆

For 25 years, the harpsichordist and conductor Laurence Cummings has been musical director of the London Handel Festival, and in that time Handel has shot up the rankings of our most popular composers. With the advent of period instruments and a new generation of stylish young singers, Cummings’s buoyant, sophisticated performances have been ideal in exploring a wide range of Handel’s repertory, and he has successfully made the case for some of the neglected areas of his output.

He chose to open his final festival as musical director with the 1732 version of Handel’s Esther, which really lays claim to being (in its first version of 1718-20) the first English oratorio – the creation of a form that would produce a stream of choral masterpieces in the years that followed, including Messiah. In 1732 Handel, stung by the threat of a rival private performance of Esther, enlarged his original concept in double-quick time, and produced what Handel scholar Ruth Smith aptly called “a stellar example of Handel’s alchemical pragmatism”.

He grabbed everything in sight to expand the work, from a couple of coronation anthems (including a rewritten Zadok the Priest), a Latin motet for soprano, a vocal version of a Concerto a due cori, and several numbers from his Brockes Passion. It cannot be said that the result is entirely coherent, and the Old Testament origin of Esther’s story is obscure at best, but it is energetic and compelling when delivered with the vigour that Cummings lent it here.

Skilful casting brought together some of the best voices currently active in this repertory: Nardus Williams as an extrovert Esther was immediately thrown into a virtuosic Alleluia, well matched by alto Tim Mead’s stunning roulades as Ahasuerus in the final chorus. He had some of the best arias, while soprano Rachel Redmond as the Israelite Woman managed to deflect some dubious anti-Jewish writing in the libretto with beautifully turned, gently phrased eloquence. As Mordecai, Jess Dandy wonderfully combined a genuine, full-voiced contralto of the kind we rarely hear with absolute precision, focusing the jagged contrasts of her aria to the river Jordan, the sacred tide.

We were hearing all this in Handel’s own church of St George’s Hanover Square, where he played the organ and where the festival is based. That atmospheric connection comes with the price of less than comfortable seating and restricted sightlines. It seemed perverse to place the soloists on the left-hand side, making them invisible to an entire balcony area while the focus on centre stage was occupied by harp and lute which only occasionally contributed. Even Esther standing high in the pulpit was obscured from me by a chandelier.

Still, the excellent 20 or so voices of the London Handel Singers delivered the choruses with vigour and panache, and Cummings even sang a couple of recitatives himself. Esther will never be numbered among the greatest of Handel’s oratorios, but this recital of the 1732 version made for a fine celebration of his splendid achievement. NK

London Handel Festival continues to April 20, various venues,

Soprano Danielle de Niese
Soprano Danielle de Niese - Geoff Pugh

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Battersea Arts Centre ★★★★☆

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s two-week festival The Music in You is designed to show the world – and a sceptical Arts Council England – that the orchestra as an artistic medium is still alive and kicking. We’ve had three premieres including two involving audience participation, we’ve had a reimagining of an early 20th-century ballet score “using digital and human intelligence.” And on Wednesday night, the orchestra decamped from the Festival Hall to the more edgy Battersea Arts Centre for an intriguing two-part performance.

First came the recent Accordion Concerto by Portuguese composer Luís Tinoco. The accordion has come into fashion as a concerto instrument because of its protean sound: icy and almost electronic at one moment, earthy and folky the next. Tinoco made full use of that palette, echoed and amplified ingeniously by the orchestra, and soloist João Barradas’s playing was wonderfully characterful – more than the piece itself, which had luminous moments but overall felt too unremittingly dense in texture and harmony.

Then came a semi-staged production of the Seven Deadly Sins, the final collaboration between composer Kurt Weill and fiery communist playwright Berthold Brecht. It’s a sung morality tale in seven scenes, in which a young woman travels from one American city to the next to earn money for her grasping family back home in the deep South. Her attention should be fixed on money-making, but feelings – including love for some un-named man – keep intruding, and her family and imaginary alter ego (the practical, cynical Anna 2) are always on hand to tell her she’s committing yet another sin.

There wasn’t much room in BAC to bring all this to life, once Weill’s fairly sizeable orchestra (including “sleazy” guitar and saxophones) was squeezed on stage. But the music for each scene is so vivid it needs only a helping hand, which director Dominic Dromgoole provided with a minimal staging. The baleful family (represented by a male quartet) were at the back on a raised platform, while Anna, played by soprano Danielle de Niese, pursued her restless journey between the orchestral players. The male quartet in their dungarees and checked shirts advanced ever closer to Anna, making it clear that for Brecht the awful bourgeois family is a bigger threat to human flourishing than any of the Seven Deadlies.

Everything about the performance was surpassingly vivid; that quartet, above Callum Thorpe as the Mother, the playing of the exuberant foxtrots and parodic waltzes under conductor Edward Gardner, and de Niese herself. The wit and pathos of Brecht’s text in the English translation by Auden and Kallman shone through without surtitles – but perhaps they would have shone through anyway without amplifying the voices, which is always alienating.

My only other quibble was that de Niese’s physical miming of the various scenes at times felt hyperactive; Dromgoole could sometimes have let her simply sing. But if the humour and wit of the piece was somewhat flattened by the performance’s unremitting intensity, its tragic dimension came over loud and clear. IH

Festival ends on March 16 with Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor and Daniel Kidane’s new violin concerto Aloud;

Karl Jenkins
Karl Jenkins - Huw John/Shutterstock

Karl Jenkins’s 80th Birthday Concert, Royal Albert Hall ★★★☆☆

Composer Karl Jenkins is now so famous he can be the subject of social media fantasies. Last May when he was spotted at the King’s coronation (having composed a piece for it), he was declared on X to be Meghan Markle in disguise, or possibly half of Ant & Dec.

But in truth, Jenkins doesn’t need the pinheads of social media to boost his profile. According to Classic FM’s Hall of Fame, he is the most popular living classical composer, and his bestsellers such as Adiemus and the The Mass for Peace have racked up a billion YouTube hits. He has also stormed the heartlands of classical music, with a concerto recently premiered in Berlin’s Philharmonie.

What’s his secret? It’s partly Jenkins’s no-nonsense, man-of-the-people stance, demonstrated in his 1970s career as a pop-jazz star with supergroup The Soft Machine, and revealed on Sunday night in his disarmingly brief, modest welcome to the audience at this sold-out 80th-birthday concert. Then there’s his reassuringly old-fashioned stance towards his art. As we discovered, his literary tastes are those of a public-school headmaster c 1950: The Bible, Shelley, Dryden, Tennyson. And his musical idiom is absolutely mainstream, with constant echoes of classical music’s history: here a Renaissance fanfare, there a busy Baroque-style Moto Perpetuo. Sometimes you even get a whiff of Victorian pious sweetness.

We heard that Baroque style right at the beginning, with Jenkins’s YouTube sensation Palladio, played with bite and precision under the composer’s own baton by the Philharmonia Orchestra. With Adiemus, when two soloists and the Crouch End Festival Chorus joined the musicians on stage, we encountered another side of Jenkins – the one that likes to bring a flavour of “world music” such as Indian percussion and a non-Western-classical singing style into his lush orchestral sounds. These symbolise his attachment to good causes: pacifism, the unity of religious faiths, care for the environment.

That feeling of spiritual one-ness was even more pronounced in Jenkins’s recent big choral-and-orchestral piece One World. It included Jewish and Hindu prayers, and a passionate plea against contemporary slavery beautifully sung by Kathryn Rudge (though the annoying amplification gave her voice and everybody else on stage a peculiar harsh edge. Why do promoters eager to promote classical music persist in trying to gild the lily with pointless electronic tweaking?).

Finally came Jenkins’s biggest and most famous piece, The Armed Man. The idea of a sturdy 15th-century war song being gradually vanquished by the peaceful message of a Catholic Mass is a good one. But as with everything I heard, Jenkins’s undoubted sincerity and musical gifts were undermined by his fondness for literal repetitions, too-obvious musical symbolism, and static harmonies. And the constant procession of movements in a slow tempo, made more ponderous by Jenkins’s slack conducting, had me almost chewing the Albert Hall’s plush upholstery in frustration. Jenkins has good ideas and noble intentions, and the packed Albert Hall seemed to love him, but he badly needs a good editor. IH

Touring until 14 April;

Konstantin Krimmel performs music from incarcerated Jewish composers
Konstantin Krimmel performs music from incarcerated Jewish composers - Wigmore Hall

Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall ★★★★★

Buried in history’s vast tragedies are the individual stories that break your heart. In yesterday’s concerts from the Nash Ensemble, the wonderful small group set up more than 60 years ago, there were several such tales. The particular tragedy was the Nazi attempt to wipe out the Jewish people; the stories were of the remarkable Bohemian Jewish composers sent to the concentration camp of Terezín (Theresienstadt), who’d had good careers before the war and might have featured in the history books had their lives not been cruelly cut short. They lived there for years, organising concerts for the camp orchestra and – incredibly – even composing music.

The Nash’s two concerts – prefaced by two films, including Simon Broughton’s tremendous documentary on Terezín, made for the BBC – focused on four particularly gifted composers whose music is now becoming mainstream. But they also glanced at others, whose music survived oblivion by a hair’s breadth. There was Carlo Taube, a nightclub pianist before the war, whose Yiddish song about a homeless Jewish child is his only surviving piece. There was Ilse Weber, who sang lullabies to the children, and who actually volunteered to be sent to Auschwitz with her son, where they both perished; we heard some of her touchingly ingenuous songs, including one about the nocturnal peace of the camp that recalled other starlit skies – the ones in romantic songs by Schubert, before the horrors of Nazism were on the horizon.

All these and others were sung by Konstantin Krimmel with a telling variety of tone, simple and with an age-old resignation for the Yiddish song, lyrically tender for the starry skies, and surprisingly fierce for the rare moments of anger. Pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips made the guitar-strumming simplicity of Weber’s accompaniments seem eloquent.

Yet it was those four gifted composers who had the lion’s share of the evening. The variety of tone in their music was astonishing. Viktor Ullmann’s String Trio was close to the hyper-romanticism of early works by Arnold Schoenberg, while Pavel Haas’s extraordinarily original String Quartet No 2 began with vernal happiness, all bird-trills and blustery skies, and ended with 1920s urban sass summoned with the aid of a drum-kit. Gideon Klein’s String Trio was suffused with Moravian folk-song, while Hans Krása’s Three Songs expressed surreal oddity tinged with sarcasm. It felt as if the whole of 1920s and 30s modernism were there. Bohemia was certainly no backwater.

The players of the Nash Ensemble rose with heroic fortitude to the challenges of this music, which often demanded an almost manic emotional heat. At times, their performances were wild and rough-edged; but this was understandable. The music was produced in extremis, and you could say that demands extreme performances. The lyrically tender moments, meanwhile, of which there were many, were beautifully projected, and the final performance of the suite from Krása’s children’s opera, Brundibar, ended the evening in a mood of defiant high spirits. IH

Available for 90 days via the Wigmore Hall video library:

Soprano Anu Komsi
Soprano Anu Komsi performing previously at the Barbican in 2023 - Mark Allan

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican ★★★★☆

A solemn German Requiem, a memorial piece for a beloved parent, and a musical tombstone for an unknown East German killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall. That in sum, was the content of this concert from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and on its own was an eloquent rebuttal to the accusation that the BBC has lost its cultural weight and panders to the lowest common denominator.

However, it was a tough sell for an audience, especially when you consider the latter two pieces were written by contemporary Finnish composers in quite an abrasive modernist idiom. The evening might have been something of a penance; in fact it was enthralling from start to finish.

The two Nordic choices were small masterpieces, in their different ways. Einojuhani Rautavaara gained a cult following for the mystical, Northern-lights soundscapes of his later music, but this, A Requiem in Our Time, for brass orchestra and percussion was very different. At times it was like an austere ceremonial, with sharply dissonant fanfares that evoked the courtly music that Sibelius wrote for the theatre. Set against this were anxious chants, suspended over the tiniest muted trumpet note, suggesting prayer pushing against a void of doubt. It was performed with tremendous control and concentration by BBC SO brass players, under their Finnish chief conductor Sakari Oramo.

Aulis Sallinen’s Mauermusik (Wall Music) was more overly modernist, with all the tragic feeling focused on single burning chords, two-note drooping laments and – at one point – a despairing single note in the violins, sustained for what seemed an eternity. With this emotional weight placed on tiny things, the whole gossamer edifice could simply have collapsed like a house of cards, but this performance from the BBC SO and Oramo burned with sadness and anger.

In the second half, the orchestra was joined by the BBC Chorus and two soloists for Brahms’s great German Requiem. This offers a different sort of intensity, bound up with thoughts of resignation, surrender to God’s will, and the peace that follows the labour of life on earth. So not laser-like focus, as in the concert’s first half, but a tender sympathetic glow, rising at times to majesty and awe. The performers under Oramo’s ardent direction summoned all those qualities. The terror of All Flesh is Grass and the consolation of the final Blessed are the Dead were equally vivid. My only small quibble was with How beautiful are thy dwellings, which lifts the heart more when taken at a less stodgy pace.

Of the two soloists, baritone Christian Senn seemed somewhat lightweight, but the performance by Oramo’s wife, Anu Komsi, of You now have sadness was simply heart-stopping. Her extraordinary soprano voice seemed to float down from an angelic realm, but as it descended it became human and consoling. It was truly the heart of this wonderful performance. IH

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 4 April at 7.30pm and is available for 30 days on BBC Sounds

The Afghan Youth Orchestra
The Afghan Youth Orchestra

The Afghan Youth Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★★★

“Afghanistan is the only country in the world where music is forbidden. Our beautiful musical culture has been silenced. But tonight we are breaking the silence.” Those words, from the founder of the Afghanistan National Institute for Music D. Ahmad Sarmast, brought a cheer from the audience, and set the defiant, joyous tone of the evening. Yes, his institute is now destroyed, and its youth orchestra (including many girls, a source of particular rage to the Taliban) fled on the last planes out of Kabul.

But the orchestra still exists, in exile in Lisbon, and is now on a UK tour to remind the world of the beauties of its homeland’s musical heritage. The tour almost collapsed when the Home Office refused to grant visas to the players, but fortunately they changed their minds at the last minute.

After the speeches and the cheers, we heard two small-scale performances which reminded us how much Afghan music owes to India. First, three female sitar-players came onstage with a player of the tablas (Indian tuned drums), all wearing traditional Afghan costumes of such beauty they brought tears to the eyes. After their brief unfolding of an Indian raga, four young male musicians each carrying the Afghan lute or rubab, played another raga with tumultuous rhythmic energy.

After that it was a surprise when the 45-strong orchestra came on, as it looked very like a Western orchestra, apart from a row of rubabs and sitars in the middle. In terms of the music it plays, Sarmast takes the wise view that his orchestra should not be “pure” Afghan: it should be open to the world. So what we heard over following hour was a feast of Afghan music of many kinds, mingled with other things including a Brahms Hungarian dance and a movement from the Háry János suite by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, with the sitars making an intriguing substitute for the twang of the Hungarian cimbalom.

Without any printed programme, the evening could have been bewildering. Fortunately, an Afghan audience member at my side kindly offered to explain everything. An ecstatic, dancing piece I guessed was a folk-song was actually a Pakistani-style sacred song, or qawwali. An even livelier piece, with an impressive Mexican mariachi-style trumpet solo, turned out to be a hit by the “Afghan Elvis”, Ahmad Zakir, who was murdered by the communist government in 1979.

There were Bollywood-style singalongs, and a peculiarly jolly folk song about a lover who writes a letter in the blood of his murdered beloved. It skipped along in a tricky seven-beat pattern, but with a bit of help from the very able Portuguese conductor Tiago Moreira da Silva we all managed to join in. In fact, it went down so well he brought it back, as the evening’s tumultuous encore. In all, the evening was a joyous revelation of the beauties of Afghan music – proof that it will not, indeed, be silenced. IH

Tour continues to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham ( To contribute to the orchestra’s tour visit

Dance Re-Imagined
Dance Re-Imagined - Mark Allan

Dance Re-Imagined, Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆

The Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s wild and whacky ballet score Harnasie, which had a long gestation between 1923 and 1931, has never found favour as a concert piece: in contrast to his sumptuous song cycles, this is a Polish Rite of Spring, by turns barbaric and pungent, which is striking in its sonorities but fails to cohere. It certainly benefits from visual distraction and Wayne McGregor and Ben Cullen Williams’s experimental multimedia reimagining, presented at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, provided plenty of that.

The original story revolves around a girl from the Tatra mountains about to be unhappily married who is abducted by a bandit, its ending unresolved with the wistful soloist asking: “Are you glad to see me or someone else?” In this interpretation, though, McGregor and Ben Cullen Williams have taken the composer’s words that the ballet scenario should be thought of only as a general guide to the folk-based inspiration of the piece: this new work is called A Body for Harnasie.

The score was performed with scrupulous clarity and brilliant textures by the LPO under Edward Gardner, with solo tenor Robert Murray forever in the shadows, and a small but magnificent Flemish Radio Choir. As they played, in the middle of the Festival Hall stage, a huge metal structure designed by Ben Cullen Williams like an Instagram screen that bent, folded, twisted and turned was used for projections of drone shots of the Tatra mountains, abstract designs, and film of McGregor’s characteristic writhing bodies, two males and a female echoing the scenario. The movements had been generated through improvisation and refined by AI, “to create a choreographic instrument that invites a new kind of sculptural dance between artist and orchestra, motion and AI”, but while there were moments of eloquence it was not obvious to see the relevance of Cullen Williams’s moving structure to this ambitious aim.

The technical demands of this structure must make it extremely tricky (not to say expensive) to export, yet at a time when all concert organisations are looking for new ways to animate their events, this approach certainly provides a potential new way forward: the combination of film, dance, and AI-generated combination with music must be transferable to other concert scores in other, perhaps simpler, circumstances.

In the first half of the concert, as we waited for the metal structure to spring to life, Gardner and the LPO presented Raíces, the first new commission from their Cuban composer-in-residence Tania León, a 17-minute sequence of attractive but episodic orchestral textures -- brass chords counterpointed with fluttering flutes, piano and percussion with solo clarinet-- all with labels like Calm, Jovial and Enchanted, telling us what we should feel about them. Then, Gardner and his virtuosic orchestra treated us to an exceptionally clear, wide-eyed reading of Ravel’s tumultuous La valse completed in 1920, an apt companion piece to Harnasie, which shatteringly chronicles the collapse of the waltzing certainties of 19th-century civilization. The question of what the 20th century would put in place of those cultural certainties hangs heavy in the air, and was not resolved here by Harnasie. NK

No further performances

András Schiff
András Schiff - The Wigmore Hall Trust

András Schiff/ Wigmore Hall ★★★★★

Some say Bach’s Art of Fugue, which takes one musical idea and leads it up an ascending spiral of complexity is just too sublime for human ears. We should just hold its image in our minds, silently, like a Platonic form.

Not true, says the great Hungarian-British pianist András Schiff.  These 14 fugues and four canons may be fabulously intricate, but as Schiff showed in his introductory 80-minute lecture-recital they’re also very human. There are whimsical moments (one fugue seems to be invaded by cuckoos for a few bars) there are pompous French dances, tight little military marches. There are moments of sheer manic “ecstasy” as Schiff described it, when Bach sends a pattern vaulting up the keyboard with enough energy to send it skittering off the end. And there are moments of deep mystery, when Bach’s obsession with following his own rules bends the harmony into peculiar shapes. “Is there any more strange dissonance in music than this?” asked Schiff, playing a bar from the final fugue that Bach left unfinished at his death – and then playing it again, so we could savour it.

What all this showed is that the music’s energy is as much physical and emotional as intellectual. But would Schiff’s actual performance of the piece in the evening’s second half reveal that, and would it also bring out the music’s unsuspected lyricism and poetic strangeness? Some of his performances at the Wigmore in recent years have been forbiddingly dry. The bon viveur side of Schiff, who revels in sensuous harmonies and dancing rhythms has been occluded by the grump who sees signs of cultural decline everywhere.

Last night the loveable side of Schiff came roaring back. There was no reverent “let’s pay homage to a masterpiece” furrowing of the brow. He just plunged straight in to each fugue with an engaging no-nonsense quality, taking care to highlight the innumerable recurrences of that all-important idea, which was often buried deep in a tangle of notes. But Schiff wasn’t pedantic about this, and if he was more attracted to the naive pictorialism of cuckoo-calls, or the mysterious shimmer of a harmonic sequence, he would highlight those instead.

But what really held us on the edge of our seats was the sheer concentration of Schiff’s performances (and of pianist Schaghajegh Nosrati, who briefly joined Schiff for the scampering ‘mirror’ fugue which needs four hands). That energy was especially thrilling at each fugue’s ending, where all the preceding complication was gathered up and flung angrily at the final chord. It revealed the demon lurking in that white-haired, soberly suited figure – and in Bach himself.

In the final fugue the spiral of increasing complexity reached its dizziest height, in playing of perfect limpid clarity. Then without warning Schiff simply stopped, without any emphasis or false pathos, at the point where Bach’s manuscript ends. The long silence from the packed audience felt like a small slice of eternity. IH

Simon Rattle conducting the LSO
Simon Rattle conducting the LSO - Mark Allan

London Symphony Orchestra/ Barbican ★★★★☆

It’s an occupational hazard for a serious composer to find that his or her brand-new piece has to compete with a popular favourite. The subtly crafted work on which they laboured so hard could all too easily be put in the shade by a bunch of catchy melodies jammed together any old how.

But all’s fair in art and war, and you just have to take your chance. John Adams, who made his name with Nixon in China and some would say is America’s most distinguished living composer, found his brand-new piece Frenzy – here receiving its world premiere – put up against not one but three pieces by George Gershwin, which some might say was a little unkind of the LSO’s management. Two of them were the irresistibly fizzing overtures to the musicals Let ‘Em Eat Cake and Strike Up The Band, played by the orchestra under Simon Rattle with that hip-swaying, sassy energy that is the LSO’s speciality.

The third was his Piano Concerto, in which the pianist was that Russian-born American pianist who started out in jazz, Kirill Gerstein. It was longer and more ambitious, but still with that tendency to simply fling a new melody at us whenever the music threatened to run out of steam – or better still, repeat an old one, with yet more whooping horns and swooning strings. Gerstein flung off the concerto with a pleasingly light touch, the Liszt-like heroic octaves touched in with feathery delicacy, and managed to make that oft-repeated melody seem different each time round.

Against all that, did Adams’s new piece hold its own? Yes, just about, though it helped that his piece wasn’t the only one to offer a more serious sort of Americana, in this all-American programme. There was also the Depression-era Third Symphony by Roy Harris, a composer whose brand of rugged, austere counterpoint, touched by hymnody and folk music, is about as far from Gershwin’s cheeky pizzazz as you could imagine.  The sturdy opening melody suggestive of honest, sweat-of-the-brow toil was etched with heroic force by the cellos and violas, and the change to pastoral lightness and the subtle shifts in tempo – sounding like an Americanised form of Sibelius’s Nordic landscapes – were handled by Rattle and the orchestra with sympathetic subtlety.

By contrast Adams’s new piece expressed a single state of breathless agitation across nearly 20 minutes. Adams certainly proved more than capable of overcoming a persistent problem of contemporary composers – an inability to write fast music. He did this partly by juxtaposing different pulses, with ticking three-beat pulses in woodblocks and marimbas pushing against hammered four-beat patterns in the strings. But more important was that Adams turned what could have been a dry rhythmic game into a tense nocturnal chase, with a touch of film noir glamour similar to Adams’s previous LSO commission City Noir, and moments of uncanny neon-lit stillness. As the panic-stricken final ascent built to a climax, I found myself imagining James Stewart running up that bell-tower in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. You don’t get much more frenzied than that. IH

Watch this concert on on March 28.  Listen to it on BBC Radio 3 later this year.

Mark Elder conducting the Halle in Gateshead
Mark Elder conducting the Halle in Gateshead - Tynesight Photographic

Big Bruckner Weekend/Glasshouse, Gateshead ★★★★☆

A weekend celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anton Bruckner, the devout, humble but quietly stubborn Austrian symphonist could only be big. The symphonies are immense, full of a grandeur suggesting forests, mountains and starry skies as much as cathedrals – the clichéd and limiting comparison Bruckner is always saddled with.

To do him justice the Glasshouse (the renamed Sage Gateshead) brought together no fewer than four orchestras, two choirs, and soloists to perform the final three symphonies, the finest of his several settings of the Catholic Mass, several unaccompanied choral motets and his solitary chamber work, the String Quintet. It was a risky venture. Bruckner wasn’t interestingly neurotic and “modern” like Gustav Mahler, the other great composer of huge symphonies. He wasn’t one of us.

And yet the hall was packed for the rarely-heard Mass in F minor, which launched the middle day of the festival. The German violinist conductor Thomas Zehetmair returned to lead the orchestra he once directed, the Royal Northern Sinfonia, plus the orchestra’s own Chorus, Durham University Choral Society, and four soloists who instead of dominating the event at the front were tucked away behind the orchestra. It was a shrewd move, as it made their voices seem movingly distant and almost humble – a quality heightened by their tenderly rapt performances in the Benedictus, especially from American tenor James Ley.

At the other end of the scale were the shouts of praise in the Credo, and later an angular, thrillingly weird fugue. Bruckner’s naivety made him run with interestingly awkward ideas a more sensible composer would have binned, and it gives his music a recklessly joyous quality, well caught in this unbuttoned performance.

That piece was like a series of grand but eccentrically shaped peaks. In Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, composed almost 20 years later in 1878, the peaks seemed loftier and smoother. It was performed by one of the three visiting orchestras, the Hallé, now in its final months with Mark Elder as director. It would be going too far to say it felt valedictory, but it certainly had that quality of epic ease that comes when an orchestra and its music director know each other like the backs of their hands. Elder didn’t need to micro-manage, he just allowed the music’s mighty river to flow. Here and there, as at the beginning of the Scherzo, I missed a sense of eager urgency. But the reflective moments, like the sunset glow of Wagner tubas at the end of the slow movement were truly sublime. IH

LSO/Rattle, Barbican ★★★★★

If you think you detect a glimmer of a smile in the above photo of Isabelle Faust, the great German violinist who last Thursday performed Brahms’s violin concert with the LSO, you’d be right. In fact she smiled a lot during the performance – which tells you something, because violinists are not normally given to smiling during this piece. It’s too massive, too heroically striving, and so difficult it often seems as if Brahms is composing against the violin rather than for it.

For Faust, it seemed if not exactly a breeze, then something joyous as well as many-shaded and subtle. She could certainly dominate the orchestra when necessary, but not through sheer force, the way a violinist such as Leonidas Kavakos would achieve it. It was more to do with delicate exactness. One’s ear was seized by her decorative passage-work amid the triumphant din, the way one’s eye would be caught by a string of pearls seen across a crowded room. And she plumbed the emotional range of the piece in an unusually searching, thoughtful way. The mysterious section when the music ventures into some lonely, lost region has never seemed to eloquent. But Faust can rise to gleeful high spirits too, as the gypsy finale proved.

In all this, the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle was tenderly spacious in support, and often richly beautiful in its own right too – as in the slow movement, when oboist Olivier Stankiewicz floated that heavenly melody over a radiant sea of woodwind sound. But it was the evening’s other piece, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, that really allowed the players to shine.

The LSO conducted by Simon Rattle perform Johannes Brahms Violin Concerto
The LSO conducted by Simon Rattle perform Johannes Brahms Violin Concerto - Mark Allan

This symphony was so radical in its ear-shredding dissonance and sheer blank-eyed horror that the musicians didn’t dare go ahead with the premiere. This was 1936 after all, at the height of Stalin’s Terror. This tremendous performance caught the way genuine feeling keeps trying to be born – a sad little melody in the bassoon over here, a fragile moment of rosy harmonic pinkness over there in harps. But these were soon blotted out by the return of the music’s relentless war-machine, gathering in sinister quietness in the side-drums before rising to engulf everything.

Rattle’s performance had an annihilating force, but was also subtle enough to offer a lesson in how tyranny degrades whatever it touches. Even the moments of tenderness seemed dubious, because they had this tendency to turn into parodies of themselves, a corruption brilliantly caught by the numerous instrumental soloists – too numerous to list, alas.

After the apocalyptic ending, which felt like witnessing the aftermath of nuclear war, everyone sat aghast, hardly daring to move. It was overwhelming, and not an experience you’d want on every visit to the concert hall. But it was proof, if anyone actually needs it, that this art form can reach into every crevice of the soul. We’d traversed the breadth of human experience in two-and-a-half hours, from the most delicate shades of nostalgia to the obliteration of everything. IH

See this concert on from 16 March.