Classical music reviews by Mike Wheeler


Derwent Singers, St Mary’s Church, Derby, 8.4.17

Choral conductor and composer Knut Nystedt (1915-2014) has been one of Norway’s best-kept secrets for too long. Whatever the position outside the UK, his strikingly idiomatic and imaginative writing for choirs deserves to be much better known and more frequently performed here.

Composed in 1986, his Stabat Mater is scored for unaccompanied chorus and solo cello, and at around fifteen minutes is one of the most compact settings of this text in the repertoire. The Derwent Singers, conducted by Richard Roddis, made it the climax of their concert of music for Holy Week, exploring its fluctuating emotions with complete assurance. Sinfonia Viva’s principal cellist, Deirdre Bencsik, did the same with the cello part, that plays continuously, underpinning the choral textures and providing an independent prelude, interludes between some of the verses, and meditative postlude following an abrupt choral cut-off on the last verse.

In the first half we had the opportunity to compare three settings of the responsory ‘Tenebrae Factae Sunt’. Victoria’s setting ended a group of five of his responsories for the office of Tenebrae, in which effective use was made of solo voices in the central sections. From Victoria’s richly sombre sonorities we moved to the existential angst of Gesualdo’s knotty harmonic and contrapuntal labyrinth, in which the singers negotiated the unsettling harmonic shifts with intensity and rock-solid technique, after giving his O Vos Omnes similar treatment. The more homophonic textures of Poulenc’s Timor et Tremor and  Tenebrae Factae Sunt, from his Motets for a Penitential Season are, in their way as anguished as Gesualdo, and were given equally committed performances.

Gesualdo’s shadow seemed to hover, too, over the harmonic language of a sequence of five Latin-texted Passion motets by Schütz. The opening Quid Commisisti, o Dulcissime Puer, in particular, was incisively and forcefully projected.

As well as her eloquent contribution to the Nystedt, Deirdre Bencsik also punctuated the choral pieces with the Sarabandes from three of JS Bach’s Suites for solo cello, Nos 5, 2 and 1, in that order – performances that combined combined dignity and introspection, the underlying dance rhythm coming increasingly into focus with each one.

Derby Chamber Music: Coull String Quartet, Multi-Faith Centre, Derby University, 21.4.17

The Coull Quartet’s return visit to Derby Chamber Music was their third appearance here, by my reckoning, and there could scarcely have been a more emphatic, exhilarating, or exhausting, conclusion to the current season.

The evening began with a slightly under-characterised reading of Mozart’s E flat Quartet, K428. There was  clarity in the textures, but also something circumspect about the playing. All the same, the serenade-like quality of the second movement was finely projected, and the players’ clipped, dapper way with the minuet was appealing, as was their effective handling of the disruptive silences at the end of the finale.

But while the Mozart was a touch colourless, the rest of the concert was anything but. Shostakovich’s Eleventh Quartet got a searching performance that teased out the moments of desolation, the wry humour of the second of the work’s seven short continuous movements, and its more savage, bitter counterpart in the fifth. There was relish, too, for the work’s more arresting sonorities, such as the fourth movement’s buzzing first violin over brusque comments from the other three instruments. The transition from the sombre sixth movement into the fragile seventh was a withdrawal into a private space, Shostakovich enigmatic to the last.

Beethoven’s Op 130 famously has two finales, the so-called ‘Grosse Fuge’ and the lighter rondo he was persuaded to replace it with when it was felt to be too taxing for both players and audience. The Coull Quartet went with the Fugue, and though there were moments when the first violin seemed oddly reticent, the performance thoroughly vindicated the work’s original form.

There was a wonderful sense, at the start, of the music simply unfolding, and carrying through all the discontinuities that establish an essential part of the work’s character. The outer sections of the second movement had a feeling of subdued tension, and there was something both amiable and guarded about the two following movements, the players relishing those moments when Beethoven opens a window onto something rich and strange, and delighting in the sense of him subverting his own formal elegance.

The Cavatina was eloquent, the shift into the sombrely edgy central passage a breath-catching moment. It was possible to feel that the passage was understated, but this was a useful reminder of two things. Firstly, that this is Beethoven, not Mahler; secondly, powerful though it is, the Cavatina is not the work’s centre of gravity, and in ending with the Grosse Fuge Beethoven had been right all along.

The Fugue was simply gripping from beginning to end. If at times it felt that the players were barely on top of this avalanche of Beethoven’s most demanding quartet writing, well that’s what the piece is all about. The performance induced the curious sensation of simultaneously wanting it both to stop and never end.

Derby Choral Union, Derby Cathedral, 22.4.17

Mendelssohn’s Elijah has been regaining something of its former popularity in recent years. Derby Choral Union’s vigorous, full-blooded performance with conductor Richard Dacey showed the work at its best.

The set pieces all came off to great effect. There was a palpable sense of desperation in the face of seven years’ drought in the first chorus, “Help, Lord! Wilt Thou quite destroy us?”, the singers riding the surge of Mendelssohn’s seamless join from the orchestral overture to create maximum impact. In Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, the choir’s “Baal we cry to Thee” conveyed a sense of increasing desperation overtaking the stiff formality of the opening. The call for them to be slaughtered, that sent such a shudder of revulsion through Bernard Shaw (a feeling I share) was certainly vigorous. In the chorus “Thanks be to God” that ends Part 1, choir and orchestra together celebrated the end of the drought with an exhilarating rush of energy. There are moments, particularly in Part 2, when the tension sags and a feeling of pious worthiness gets the upper hand, but the chorus “Woe to Him” was suitably forthright, and with “And then shall your light shine forth” the performance ended on a note of powerful conviction.

Of the four soloists, soprano Susanna Fairbairn brought urgency to her role as the Widow. Mezzo-soprano Jeanette Ager was a warmly sympathetic Angel and a steely Jezebel. Tenor Ben Thapa had a tendency to scoop and his tone to lose focus when singing loudly, but quieter passages were sensitively delivered. In the title role, bass Alan Fairs, stepping in at the last minute, was richly resonant and patriarchal. He succeeded in making his great Part 2 aria “It is Enough” sound world-weary, steering it away from any hint of self-pity. They were a well-balanced quartet in “Cast thy Burden upon the Lord”. Derby Cathedral chorister Charles Green brought a  touching innocence to his cameo appearance as the Youth.

The Heart of England Chamber Orchestra was on particularly good form, with incisive playing, creating a sense of restlessness in the Overture and adding to the tumultuous vigour of the final chorus in Part 1.

Members of the Kanneh-Mason family, St Peter’s Church, Belper, 7.5.17

Look out, world, here come the Kanneh-Masons (pictured above). Where pianist Isata and cellist Sheku have blazed the trail, their younger siblings are coming up close behind.

On this occasion, part of the Belper Festival, violinists Konya and Aminata, and cellist Jeneba began with a string trio transcribed from four of Mozart’s twenty-five pieces for three basset-horns, K438b. I don’t think I’ve seen so much intent eye-contact even from a number of professional chamber groups. Their playinghad a wonderful sense of freshness.

Konya then moved to the piano for the first movement of Haydn’s Sonata No 59 in E flat, HXVI:49, finding the wit in the passages of treble/bass dialogue, and plotted a turbulent path through Chopin’s Scherzo No 1

With Jeneba at the piano, Aminata was agreeably buoyant in the first movement of Haydn’ Violin Concerto in G. Jeneba then had the platform to herself, bringing out apt moments of Beethovenian gruffness in the first movement of his Sonata in E, Op 14 No 1, and heightening the expressive contrasts in Chopin Scherzo No 3, from vehemence to an attractive delicacy in the chiming figures.

At this point their mother, Kadiatu, was invited onto the stage by one of the Festival organisers, pianist Beate Toyka, (who dubbed her “Wonder-woman of the Midlands”) for a short interview. Among other insights into just how they all cope, she insisted on the importance of first establishing that her children really had the talent and the desire to take up music. Only then did she start putting them through the hard work, which now includes Saturday trips to the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department that see them all up at 4.30 in the morning and only getting back home to Nottingham at 8.00 in the evening.

The three players then rounded the first part off with a piano trio transcription of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No 5, dispatched with zip and enthusiasm.

After an extended tea-break, it was pianist Isata’s turn, in a  solo recital that began with JS Bach’s Partita No 5. Her clear, even runs in the opening Praeambulum were typical of a clarity that also illuminated the fugal writing of the concluding Gigue.

It was followed by a reading of Fauré’s Fourth Nocturne that combined lucid elegance and sensuousness, and a fleet-fingered account of Ligeti’s Etude No 4, ‘Fanfares’ that delighted in the Bulgarian-style dance rhythms.

Chopin’s Sonata No 2 was launched with a fevered, urgent performance of the first movement spilling over into a frantic scherzo that paused for breath in the lyrical trio section. The heavy tread of the funeral march third movement enclosed a poignant account of the middle section, while the will-o’the-wisp finale, instead rushing by in a blur, had a focus and definition that somehow made it seem all the more menacing.  Grigory Ginzburg’s fantasy on ‘Largo al Factotum’ from The Barber of Seville, was a dazzling showpiece of an encore.

So next time someone tries to claim classical music is ‘elitist’ (whatever that means), you could point out that here were four players, young, female, black, past and present pupils of a state comprehensive school, playing Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin and the rest, because they love it.