Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th February 2022

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIt’s a welcome return to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate for one of their increasingly traditional winter matinees! It was a very varied programme of British music, presented in front of a nicely full house – in part due to the presence of the Northampton Bach Choir, more of whom later. The stage jutted forward into the auditorium more than usual so as to accommodate the choir, but the RPO also filled the stage with more musicians than I’ve seen since before the pandemic – and it was wonderful to hear again the sound only a truly full orchestra can make.

Adrian PartingtonOur conductor for the afternoon was Adrian Partington, a dignified and avuncular-looking chap, with a deceptively laid back and unhurried style that nevertheless galvanised the orchestra into a very exciting and dynamic performance.

First off, we heard William Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture, an instantly arresting piece that delights and surprises. The orchestra took the opportunity to throw themselves into its irreverence and nautical naughtiness and it was a fantastic start to the proceedings.

After a spot of on-stage chair reallocations and repositioning, our next piece was Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op 47. It’s another very arresting, very tuneful piece that demands full commitment from its string leadership, and First Violinist Tamas Andras and Second Violinist David O’Leary (I think – it’s hard to identify individuals when they’re masked!) put in a terrific performance.

The nature of the programme meant that the interval came rather early in the afternoon, as those first two pieces barely last longer than twenty minutes together. However, that was probably unavoidable considering the main item in the programme that took up all of the second half – Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. Both the composer and the piece were new to me, although having read Sir Karl’s Wikipedia page I realise I must have heard a good deal of his music as he has collaborated with some of the most significant figures in modern music.

Rebecca BottoneThe Armed Man is an extraordinarily thrilling piece of music, taking its audience on a journey from the beginnings of war, faith to see us safely through war, to the bloody reality of war, its devastating aftermath and the realisation that Better is Peace. It was a superb performance by all the orchestra, and the choir, full of highlights. I loved the gripping percussion throughout, from the ominous war-drumming at the beginning, to the occasional surprise outburst of drums and percussion to signify gunfire. Our soprano soloist, Rebecca Bottone, was sensational in all her contributions to the piece, but perhaps most eloquently and effectively in the Angry Flames section, a sung poem by Hiroshima victim Togi Sankichi; I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “smoke” given such power and menace.

Northampton Bach ChoirCellist Jonathan Ayling received a particularly enthusiastic round of applause for his performance in the Benedictus, wringing more pity and sorrow out of a melody than you ever thought possible. As for the Northampton Bach Choir, they gave it their all as they always do; their singing of the opening section, The Armed Man, was truly haunting as it built with its repetitions, and I particularly enjoyed their performance of the Charge! Section – exciting, dangerous, riveting. Sadly The Call to Prayers (Adhaan) section was omitted for some reason, I can only assume that the Muezzin, Naeem Mahmood, was unavailable.

A thunderously enjoyable performance of a dramatic and intense piece; we loved it, and would love to hear it again! Hopefully it won’t be long before the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra make a return visit to Northampton.

P. S. I repeat my plea from the last Royal Philharmonic performance back in October 2021. Please can we go back to having old style proper printed programmes? I hate these digital things!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Mozart Requiem, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2014

Mozart RequiemOne of the good things about including the Northampton Bach Choir and the Boys and Men of All Saints Church Northampton in a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Derngate is the fact that all their friends and families buy tickets so there is a virtually full house and always a fantastic atmosphere. Another is that they are extremely good at singing, but I mustn’t get ahead of myself.

Alexandra DariescuThis was the first time we’d seen the Royal Philharmonic since last summer, and we’ve definitely missed them. But I wasn’t entirely sure how much I would appreciate an evening of non-stop Mozart. Do you remember the criticism of him in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, that there are simply too many notes? That’s always struck a chord with me, if you’ll forgive the expression. However, the two pieces that made up the evening’s programme are so different in structure and content that you certainly don’t suffer a surfeit of Wolfgang.

Renato BalsadonnaThe first part of the evening was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, with the Romanian soloist Alexandra Dariescu. She was BBC Music Magazine’s Rising Star in 2011 and 2013’s “Woman of the Future” for Arts and Culture, and it’s not hard to work out why. From where we usually sit in the auditorium you can very clearly see the pianist’s hands on the keyboard, and I have to say the dexterity with which Miss Dariescu launches herself on the ivories is extraordinary. This is not a piece that necessarily calls for quite as much intense expression as some piano solos we have seen – Janina Fialkowska last year playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 comes to mind. What it does require is immense skill, incredible clarity and a great feeling for all those Mozartian scales and arpeggios, especially in the first and final movements. The Andante section in the middle is instantly recognisable as the theme to Elvira Madigan, an essential track on any 1960s easy listening album; Elizabeth LlewellynI believe it’s even been used to flog woollen carpets in TV adverts in its time. It’s always rewarding to get the chance to hear a frequently heard piece of music in the context of its original setting, and with superb accompaniment from the orchestra Miss Dariescu made that lovely theme stand out. By the time we’d reached the final movement, I had become so mesmerised by her hands that I was struggling to concentrate. She could use that skill for hypnosis. It was a great performance that rightfully got a huge reception and during the interval the bar was buzzing with people discussing how skilfully she played it.

After our halftime Tempranillo we returned for the performance of Mozart’s Requiem. The Northampton Bach Choir and All Saints Choir had patiently sat in their seats for the duration of the piano concerto, but now it was their turn to shine. The conductor for the evening, Renato Balsadonna, is Chorus Director at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and he was a great choice as his specialised ability to get the best out of the vocalists was really apparent. When we saw the Northampton Bach Choir at the Last Night of the Derngate Proms lastKitty Whately June, we thought they were a bit ragged at times, and suspected that there wasn’t a lot of understanding between the conductor and the choir. Not a bit of it this time. All throughout, the choir were absolutely at the top of their game – clear, forceful, gentle, emotional, triumphant and all the attributes in between – and all timed perfectly together.

Anthony GregoryThe four vocal soloists were also superb – soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, Mezzo Kitty Whately, Tenor Anthony Gregory and Baritone David Stout – investing passion, authority and personality into this glorious music. Right from the start there was a feeling of instant attack from orchestra and choirs alike: a wall of sound that filled the theatre from top to bottom. There was a palpable sense of drama and power; surely this is the most stirring music that Mozart ever wrote? Excitement and strength from the Dies Irae and the Rex Tremendae; the beauty of the solo voices in the Tuba Mirum and Recordare; the haunting choral delicacy of the Lacrimosa; all building up to a stunning climactic Sanctus and Agnes Dei, and a superb final soprano solo by Miss Llewellyn in the Lux Aeterna, who I thought was magic throughout.

David StoutMy only criticism of the evening as a whole was that, as it came in at about one hour and fifty minutes, it would have been really nice to have a third, short, piece to start the proceedings, just so that we could have been introduced to the orchestra by themselves first. A little five-minute overture would have given us the chance to settle down and appreciate the various sounds that the RPO so skilfully make and get to know the conductor’s style. By going straight into the concerto at the beginning of the evening, all eyes were (quite rightly) on Miss Dariescu; and with the massed choirs and stunning soloist singers for the Requiem, I thought the orchestra itself rather missed out on their share of the glory of the evening.

Nevertheless it was still a fantastic concert with orchestra, choirs and soloists all on tip-top form. It’s a privilege to have this kind of entertainment on our doorstep.

Review – Fauré’s Requiem Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, January 30th

Faure's RequiemThe Royal Philharmonic returned to the Derngate this week with a concert culminating with Fauré’s Requiem. Very pleasing to see that there was hardly a spare seat, as quite rightly these concerts attract many happy music lovers.

Owain Arwel HughesOur conductor for the evening was Owain Arwel Hughes. He has an avuncular presence on the podium, letting the music be the star, smiling encouragingly in all the right places, keeping his orchestra perfectly together and sounding sweet. Sweetness was very much the order of the day, as the central work was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 with Andrew Zolinsky as the soloist. I was new to this work, and if ever a piece was delicate this is it. Andrew Zolinsky I don’t mean to sound patronising about it, but it is a thoroughly pretty piece of music. It conjures up images of waterfalls and pixies and jewels and fairy dust. Andrew Zolinsky sat tense and tetchy on his stool as the long orchestral introduction ensued, but once he started playing he relaxed into this marvellous escapist dreamlike piece. It was a very luxurious experience. Not particularly demanding for the audience. More like bathing in honey.

Northampton Bach Choir There was more oomph in the other pieces though. The evening started with Handel’s Zadok the Priest, a piece I can never recall until I hear the first couple of notes. It was full of the regality and splendour you would expect and the choirs – the Northampton Bach Choir and the Boys and Men of All Saints Church – were in fine voice. Really stirring stuff.

Boys and Men of All Saints Church After the interval we had Fauré’s requiem and again the choirs gave a super performance, strong and subtle in turn. For our soloists we had Elin Manahan Thomas for the Pie Jesu and Giles Underwood for the baritone parts. It seems slightly unbalanced that you have a singer of the quality of Elin Manahan Thomas Elin Manahan Thomas come and perform for barely three minutes, but they were exquisite ones, so I’m not complaining. I love Fauré’s Requiem and it was excellent throughout. The strings hit a forceful and portentous note from the start, the singing was haunting and beautiful and you just felt like it was a privilege to be there.

Giles Underwood There was an amusing end to the evening when after the Choirmaster had come down to take a bow to richly deserved enthusiastic applause, two bouquets were brought out for the soloists; the first went to Ms Thomas, but the second one bypassed Mr Underwood and was given to the Choirmaster by mistake, so that we had a bereft baritone! Another splendid concert by the RPO, we’re very lucky to have this season here in Northampton.