A Barebones Ring, perhaps Wagner at its best – Ring Cycle/Farnes Review

I was not, much to my own dismay and regret, able to go and see Opera North’s Ring last year. Little did I know, though I was hoping a fair bit, that they would record the entire thing. This review is, then, of the recorded Ring which I saw on BBC iPlayer.

Opera North’s Ring had been many years in the making, one opera every year until finally all were brought together in 2016. I went to a performance of Gotterdammerung when it was being performed a few years ago, and what an experience it was.

Given I wasn’t able to attend the cycle, which would’ve been my first, and from the memory of seeing Gotterdammerung in 2014, expectations and excitement was high. I was not disappointed.

The orchestra of Opera North gave an incredibly well polished performance, meeting and arguably surpassing the standards of excellence they have set themselves in recent years. Hats off to Richard Farnes who gave an insightful and riveting reading of the score. Beautifully intimate and chamber in Die Walkure Act 1, terrify when announcing Wotan’s arrival in Walkure Act 3, but also unleashing the full roar of the orchestra when needed throughout the cycle, particularly in Gotterdammerung, both in Act 2 and in the Immolation Scene. Perhaps we now have a new and brilliant British Wagner conductor joining the likes of Sir Antonio Pappano, Sir Mark Elder, and Sir Simon Rattle?

There is certainly something quite awesome seeing a massive orchestra like this on stage

Whilst I can only speak for myself, I cried in every opera.

Signing Wagner presents gargantuan challenges, and for the most part, the ensemble carried themselves brilliantly. I will single out Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Loge) and Susan Bickley (Fricka and Waltraute) and Mats Almgren (Fafner and Hagen) as giving star performances, particularly Almgren whose voice I just loved.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge
Mats Almgren as Hagen 

But the standout performances came from the two Brunnhildes, Kelly Cae Hogan and Katherine Broderick. In a role that few sopranos can attempt, let alone shine in, Hogan and Broderick were simply superb. Broderick I had never heard of before, but is a name I certainly won’t forget any time soon.

Katherine Broderick as Brunnhilde in Siegfried
Kelly Cae Hogan as Brunnhilde in Gotterdammerung

Credit is also due to Peter Mumford who was the main artistic brain behind putting this stripped back, yet extremely effective production together. The projections helped the story along and little snippets of information would no doubt have been invaluable to novices in explaining the complicated story of the Ring, without becoming distracting. Mumford’s design really put the music centre stage, and with the playing of the orchestra of Opera North, this is only to be welcomed with open arms.

For a mid sized opera company to put on Wagner is an incredible achievement, to perform six Ring Cycles to the standard they did is perhaps unheard of, probably because its an insane undertaking. Suffice to say I was completely balled over, truly stunning stunning stuff. This is a Ring I won’t be forgetting any time soon. It’s been a few days since I finished watching/listening, and I’m still grinning.


All photos © Clive Barda/Opera North.


Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

The next great leap in symphonic writing after Beethoven, came from the Frenchman, Hector Berlioz. This composer was as mad and crazy as he was original and inventive.

Born in a village near Grenoble in the French Alps, he wasn’t a child prodigy and nor was he given a formal musical education in his early years. In 1826 his father, a doctor, sent him to Paris to study medicine. But Berlioz switched courses midway and went to study at the Paris Conservatoire instead, as you do. Berlioz could play the flute and guitar, though curiously couldn’t play the piano.

Whilst at the conservatoire he heard Beethoven’s symphonies for the first time. Whilst the French musical establishment thought Beethoven’s music was noisy, incoherent, without melody, and horribly difficult to play, Berlioz disagreed completely – except for maybe the hard to play bit. On hearing the Fifth, he said, “this style of writing is far above and beyond anything written in orchestral music until now”. Beethoven’s influence on the French composer was profound. Another major influence was the works of Shakespeare and Goethe.

In 1827 Berlioz watched a performance of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, whose star actress was the Irish Harriet Smithson; Berlioz fell in love. This episode, which I’ll explain later, was the seed for his early masterpiece, the Symphonie Fantastique. This symphony has the hallmarks of what makes Berlioz so important a composer; an incredible story teller, and the use of instruments in unusual ways to evoke the sounds he had in his head.

Berlioz was very particular when it came to his compositions. He took an interest in instrument design, made use of the new brass instruments that had valves, and even specifying the number of players needed for his works. Seen like this, he was almost scientific in his approach.

At the same time, however, he was also a bit crazy. He once gathered 1022 performers, including 36 double basses for Beethoven’s Fifth, 1200 players plus choruses with 5 sub conductors for another concert in 1855, 24 French horns for Weber’s Der Freischütz overture, 25 harps for Rossini’s Prayer of Moses.

In his final years he toured Europe a lot, conducting his music with new orchestras bringing it to new audiences, proving a challenge to both. His mental and physical health during his later years was also deteriorating. He returned to Paris from touring in 1868, where he died the following year.


  1. Symphonie Fantastique

Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra

As mentioned above, the seed for this masterpiece came from Berlioz’s infatuation with the Shakespearian actress, Harriet Smithson. How to impress her though? How about writing a major symphony, make a name for himself and then introduce himself, as equals? As bizarre as this might sound, and it gets weirder because its Berlioz, that’s what he did. This symphony, premiered in 1830, tells the story of an artist who falls madly in love with a woman, but unrequited leads him to overdose on opium in order to commit suicide. Instead of dying, though, he has wild hallucinations. In the end his head is chopped off by a guillotine. One of the great champions of Berlioz’s music was the late Sir Colin Davis. If there is a Berlioz recording by Davis, you can be sure it’s going to be good.


  1. Berlioz: Requiem; Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale (DECCA The Originals)

Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra. Chorus: London Symphony Chorus. Soloist: Ronald Dowd (Tenor)

This mighty Requiem, also called the Grande Messe des Morts, was commissioned in 1837 by the Ministry of the Interior to mark the death of the French war hero General Damremont. The scale of this work is massive. It’s about one and a half hours in length, scored for a huge orchestra which is to include 12 French horns, 4 tubas, 8 sets of timpani, with 4 extra off stage brass choirs, choir and a tenor. Again, Davis is at the helm steering things along in this landmark recording.


  1. Berlioz: Roméo & Juliette

Cond: John Eliot Gardiner. Orch: Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Chorus: Monteverdi Choir.

Berlioz wrote 4 symphonies in total, all quite wildly different from one another. Romeo and Juliet is a choral symphony telling the doomed love story. It was premiered in 1839, 12 years after first seeing Smithson performing the role of Juliet. Berlioz adored Shakespeare, and Romeo and Juliet is not the only work of the bard he set to music. Interestingly, the roles of Romeo and Juliet are not sung, but “acted”/performed in the orchestra instead with the cellos representing the hero, and the woodwinds representing Juliet. Wagner was at the premiere upon whom it made a significant impression, enough for him to send Berlioz the score of Tristan and Isolde 20 years later inscribed with “To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet, from the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde.” Moving away from Davis for a bit, Gardiner is also a great Berlioz conductor, who uses period instruments for this recording.


  1. Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust; Harold in Italy

Cond: Igor Markevitch. Orch: L‘Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureax. Chorus: Chœur Elisabeth Brasseur. Soloists: Consuelo Rubio (mezzo); Richard Verreau (tenor); Michel Roux (baritone); and Pierre Mollet (bass).

Along with Shakespeare, the other great literary influence on Berlioz was Goethe. Regarding Goethe’s play Faust he said, “I read it incessantly, at meals, at the theatre, in the street, everywhere”. He set part of it to music in 1828/29, and expanded on it which was premiered in 1846. Whilst Berlioz’s rendering may seem like an opera, he actually called it a “concert opera”, but was published as a “dramatic legend”. It has a bit of everything really – opera, cantata, symphony – which is why it lacks catergorisation. Nonetheless, what this piece clearly does show, is Berlioz’s talent as a musical storyteller. There are a few decent recordings of the work, but to make sure every recommendation is not Colin Davis, I’ve opted for the Decca Originals Igor Markevitch recording instead, which is still one of the benchmark recordings of today.


  1. Berlioz: Les Troyens

Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra. Chorus: London Symphony Chorus.

Berlioz wrote 4 complete operas, and a 5th, La Nonne Sanglante, he left unfinished. The most important one out the lot is the epic Les Troyens, The Trojans, which tells the story of, if you haven’t guessed already, the Trojans. As far as ambition and scale is concerned, this is perhaps Berlioz’s most ambitious creation. It’s in 5 acts coming to about five and a half hours in total, with 19 singing roles, 2 silent and 1 spoken role, a huge orchestra and chorus, as well as various off stage instruments. It was written between 1856 and 1858, but the sheer scale of it meant only Acts 3-5 were premiered in 1863. Berlioz only heard the full thing performed once in his life. The first “serious” performance of the work took place at the Royal Opera in 1957 under Rafael Kubelik, even if it was in English.

If you want to see the spectacle on your screen then go for the blu-ray/dvd recording by Antonio Pappano, who conducts the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House.

The Halle Ring carries on, at the beginning – Das Rheingold: Halle/Elder Review

With Gotterdammerung and Die Walkure already under his belt, the Halle/Elder Ring continues from the beginning, with Das Rheingold.

So far, all the recordings of the Halle/Elder Ring, this one included, have been concert performances. This sort of completely goes against Wagner’s vision of Gesamtkuntswerk, that is, a “total artwork”. A detail I had overlooked until reading Alfred Hickling’s review of the performance. I’ll come back to the “total artwork” idea in a different blog post.

In terms of staging and props, there was very little of it. Two gold and red chairs for Wotan and Fricka, a golden cloth for the Rheingold and some brass knuckles acting as the ring. The evening’s visual spectacle was something most people probably missed. Whilst smoke machines were blowing out “smoke” as the gods enter Valhalla via the rainbow bridge, stage lighting lit up the ceiling in rainbow colours. The little lights on the ceiling acted as the stars in the night sky. As everyone was looking forward, and not up at the ceiling or behind them, it was something most probably missed.

The entire performance was an ensemble singing marvel, making for a fulfilling and satisfying experience. This can really be quite hard to do in general, let alone Wagner, so the fact it was pulled off is quite something. Hats off to all the singers.

Without a doubt, though, and the applause he received for it is testament to this, the evening’s highlight was Samuel Youn’s Alberich. The transition from lusty dwarf, to ring owning dictator, and finally to broken person who imbues said ring with a curse that then courses through the next three operas, was seamless. Youn gave a very colourful performance, both through his singing and acting. To quote Hinlicks, “Youn’s eye-popping transformation into a toad was a priceless moment of comedy”.

Iain Paterson’s Wotan was understated if anything. Given in this opera Wotan is rather laid back, relaxed and arrogant, being slightly understated might be the right way to go. The torment and anguish is all to come, so no real need to really shout the house down, yet. Having said that, like Youn, Paterson looked completely comfortable and gave an effortlessly solid performance.

Elder matched Paterson’s singing with a slightly understated performance of the score. The oft stereotype of playing Wagner as loud as you can possibly can wasn’t there. Having said that, the ending was exactly how I like it; loud, triumphant but above all, crisp, clear and clean. Fabulous stuff from the brass who played with such richness and majesty, not just at the end, but throughout the entire evening.

Peter Warren

In general, though, this was a far more measured performance, which is at odds with the recordings I particularly like – namely Solti and Barenboim. Elder just does not conduct in that fully blown romantic style, which has forced me to rethink the way I look at Wagner performances. As a major Wagnerian, this is no small revelation.

Having said that, perhaps this was a long time coming. When Hartmut Haenchen conducted the Royal Opera House’s production of Tannhauser earlier this year, it was pacey and far milder compared to some CD recordings. It sounded almost “classical”, because I can’t think of anything else to call it. But again, like Elder’s rendering of Rheingold, neither lacked in thrill or drama. On the contrary, Haechen forced me to really listen to the music, and since I found a new appreciation for the opera.

Nonetheless, Elder gave inspiring performance bringing together impressive displays from everyone involved. I’m very much looking forward to the final instalment of this Ring, whenever that may be.

Now all that remains between now and then, is to listen to the other two recordings of this modern marvel.

“The Hallé prove you don’t need a theatre for vivid Wagner”, Review by Alfred Hickling

It may be heresy against the doctrine of the Gesamtkunstwerk – Wagner’s idealised synthesis of all the arts – but the more one sees of concert-based cycles emanating from the north of England, the more one is led to wonder if the Ring really needs a theatre at all.”

See the full review here:

What’s the connection between a barge on the River Siene and a convent in Tuscany? Puccini of course – Opera North/Jac van Steen Review

In actual fact there is little that connects a barge and a convent together. And yet, these are the 2 settings for 2 of his operas in Il Trittico (The Triptych). Il Trittico combines 3 very different mini operas of about an hour long each, performed together over one night. Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is a melodrama, Sour Angelica (Sister Angelica) an intense tragedy and finally, Gianni Schicchi (name of main character) is a raucous comedy. The 3 one act operas contrast sharply to one another, but come together to form a whole.

Opera North put on a production of the first 2 in the trio; Il Tabarro and Sour Angelica.

If you’re a fan of Puccini, like me, and have heard some of his greatest hits, like La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot, then you’re in for a surprise. Il Trittico is not full of great sweeping arias and choruses like La Boheme. The music is far for atmospheric, like it’s trying to bring to life the setting of the opera through sound. The reason for this is because Puccini was heavily influenced by Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisende (Pelleas and Mellisende) first performed in 1902, and Debussy’s style in general. Wagner and Verdi operas can get very loud and are full of great tunes and sweeping arias. The musical setting of Pelleas et Mellisende was very different, because it has very little of this. This forced Puccini to think in a different way, bringing us the music of Il Trittico.

That isn’t to say Il Trittico has none of the characteristic Puccini arias, it does. O Mio Babbino Caro, an audience favourite, comes from Gianni Schicchi. Il Tabarro has a few as well, like “I sacchi in groppa e giù la testa a terra”, a rather depressing aria about how men are required to bend their backs in work and that there is no joy in life. Shortly after this comes the central duet (“È ben altro il mio sogno” between the lovers Luigi and Giorgetta, singing about their home town. This is just pure Puccini, and when you get to it, a feeling of “finally!!!” will probably go through your head, as it did me. Credits to Giselle Allen, David Butt Philip and the orchestra who lathered the audience with pure Puccinian joy.

Tristram Kenton

Sour Angelica is curiously devoid of any big arias, until the very end. Senza Mamma ends the opera, a gut wrenching aria where Sister Angelica pours out her heart upon hearing some devastating news. Anne Sophie Duprels gave the performance of the evening, delivering a heart breaking rendition of the aria. When walking out the theatre I noticed a few people wiping tears from their eyes. I also want to single out Patricia Bardon who was brilliant as the Princess.

Tristram Kenton

The playing, singing and sets were all brilliant, making for a well polished and mesmerising performance. Brilliant stuff.


Dramatic Inaction – Royal Opera/Pappano Review

Want an opera filled with drama, but where nothing actually happens? Then looks no further.

I’m a huge Wagnerian. I love this opera and have done so since I first heard it. This was the first time, however, that I’d got to see it performed live. With an all-star cast and Pappano at the helm, who conducted one of the first Ring Cycle’s I ever heard, expectations were high.

The cast really lived up to their global reputations: absolutely amazing. I was taken aback by the power of Nina Stemme’s voice, right from the first note she filled the entire House with her rich tone. This was unfortunate for Sarah Connolly, who can’t match Stemme when it comes raw vocal power. Connolly is a brilliant singer, there is no doubt about that. But she couldn’t match the intensity of Stemme’s performance creating this disparity between them, and occasionally being overpowered by the orchestra is never good. But, to be quite honest, there aren’t many singers that can match Stemme and making the orchestra play quieter would compromise on the drama quite a bit. Nonetheless Connolly did a superb job of Brangane’s warning (“Einsam wachend in der nacht“), probably the character’s central ‘aria’ in the entire opera.

ROH/Clive Barda

The role of Tristan is formidable, making huge demands of any tenor brave enough to take the role on. Stephen Gould’s task was made that much harder knowing his Isolde will be performed by Stemme, a tall order to fill, but he delivered. It was pure joy listening to them throughout the evening, especially in the dreaded Liebesnacht.

ROH/Clive Barda

Soon after this came the next highlight of the evening, the great Sir John Tomlinson. Tomlinson’s Wotan, conducted by Barenboim at Bayreuth in the early 1990s, is my favourite. I was so excited to hear him sing. However, this once formidable Wagnerian is no longer in his prime and his singing was at times very shaky. Yet, despite this, the power of his voice remains and when he got it right, and there were a few of these moments, the effect was truly thrilling. He reminded me of how Stemme, right at the beginning of the opera, filled the entire house with her incredible voice, Tomlinson was no different. He has recorded CD’s a fair few times, but you really need to hear it live to appreciate it properly.

ROH/Bill Cooper

Antonio Pappano was brilliant once again, creating magic with the orchestra of the Royal Opera. I’ve heard a few operas and concert pieces conducted by Pappano, and I think it’s probably safe to say this is a conductor at the height of his abilities. What the future holds, who knows. But we can certainly expect further greatness from him.

If there was one aspect that let the entire experience down, then it was the horrid staging. Bare, grey and uninspiring, the set was terribly depressing. I tried to work out why the staging was so minimalist and for the most part, a big grey wall. I couldn’t think of much. But even the dreadful set couldn’t detract from what was otherwise, a wonderfully magical evening. Bloody brilliant.

Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759)


This great composer who wrote some of the most recognisable music for royal occasions in Britain, was actually born in Germany. His father wanted him to become a lawyer and instruments were banned in the house, but a duke convinced his father to give Handel a musical education. Handel composed in Halle, Hamburg and Italy, but his really famous stuff was composed in London. He was employed by the Elector of Hanover in 1710, but then Handel moved to London in 1712. Seeing the opportunities London provided, particularly in composing Italian opera, Handel didn’t want to return to Hanover. As it turned out, he didn’t have to. In 1714 Britain gained a new King, George I, who also just happened to be the Elector of Hanover. In 1727 Handel became a naturalised British citizen allowing him to compose for royal occasions. His music is now a key component in British musical culture.

The two greatest composers of the Baroque period are Bach and Handel. They were born 80 miles and about 4 weeks from one another, and yet they never met. I tend to wonder what they would have said to one another if they had. Both were brought up in the Lutheran tradition, but whereas Bach wrote for the church, Handel was an opera composer who wrote for audiences. That said, Handel went onto write oratorios, much like Bach, but again, these were written for paying audiences.

Handel was a celebrity composer in England, extremely famous and well celebrated during his lifetime in a way Bach never was. Like his contemporary, Handel was heavily influenced by the Italian compositional style which he took and made his own. In London Italian opera was the way to prosperity, so Handel churned out 42 of them. Soon enough, however, opera fell out of fashion and wasn’t making him money anymore. In the end, his opera company, into which he poured so much of his money, went bankrupt. So, forever the pragmatist, he turned his attention to oratorios, writing 29 of those.  Along with that are 120 cantatas, and various other orchestras suites, overtures, concerto grossi and concertos.


  1. Zadok the Priest

Don’t know who the performers are unfortunately.

If you’ve seen the UEFA Champions League, then you’ve heard this piece. Not originally written for UEFA – surprise surprise – it was actually written for King George II’s coronation in 1727, the year in which he got his citizenship. Zadok the Priest is one of four coronation anthems, which have been played at every coronation since. This is the first performance I remember YouTubing, and the one I still go back to. Loud, joyful, uplifting and endlessly exciting. Bloody wonderful.


  1. Water Music

Cond: Herve Niquet. Orch: Le Concert Spirituel.

One of the fist royal commission Handel got was this. King George I wanted music to accompany the royal barge as it sailed down the Thames in 1717. Like Zadok the Priest, which was also performed outside, the Water Music is scored for a huge orchestra to makre sure the sound would carry. Though 50 doesn’t sound like a big number for an orchestra today, back in 1717, it was basically unheard of. 3 separate suites make up the Water Music, with the first one being the most famous. The King liked it so much, he had the musicians play the entire thing 3 times! Admittedly, I had never heard of the Water Music until I listened to the Proms concert linked below. It was the number of instruments, which I thought was really odd, because there’s so many of them, that got my attention. The period instruments they play on, which apart from making an incredible sound very different to modern orchestras, are quite a visual spectacle.


  1. Giulio Cesare

Cond: William Christie. Orch: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Chorus: Glyndebourne Chorus.

Handel was a major opera composer. That’s how he became rich and famous. Of the 42 he wrote, the most famous is this one, based on the story of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. It had all the ingredients that made Italian opera so popular at the time; rousing arias, plots, counter plots, the inevitable triumph of the hero and a happy ending. It was a great success and remains one of today’s most performed baroque operas. Whilst there are recordings on YouTube, if you want a version to watch, then go for this one.

If you just want to listen to it, then go for this one, conducted by Alan Curtis and performed by Il Complesso Barocco: Period instruments are used in both.


  1. Minuet in G arr. Wilhelm Kempff

Pianist: Khatia Buniatishvili

I was going to include the Sarabande here, which is far more well known than the Minuet and one of those Handel pieces that everyone knows. But I thought to move away from orchestras and operas for a bit, and include some piano music instead. I’ll include a link to the Sarabande right at the end. This Minuet is the last movement from his Harpsichord Suite in B flat major HWV 434 published in 1733 and probably written before that. The version liked below is not the original, but an arrangement made by the pianist Wilhelm Kempff.

For the original skip to 6:52: Pianist: Andras Schiff.


  1. Handel: Messiah

Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra. Chorus: Tenebrae Choir. Soloists: Susan Gritton (soprano), Sara Mingardo (alto), Mark Padmore (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass).

The one that has the Hallelujah Chorus in it! Handel wrote 29 oratorios, and of them Messiah is the most famous and performed every Christmas across the country. But it wasn’t actually written for Christmas, but for Easter which is when it had its premiere in 1742. Handel’s opera stars often led lives as dramatic as the operas themselves. And with opera falling out of fashion, Handel attracted a lot of criticism. As he approached middle age, and put on weight, satirists and cartoonists depicted him as greedy, fat and selfish. Literally, a pig in a wig.


The proceeds from the first performance of Messiah were donated to the Foundling Hospital, a charity that looked after orphaned children. Benefit concerts were held annually after that, with Messiah performed at everyone, a tradition that ended in the 1770s. Upon his death, Handel donated a considerable amount of his estate to his chosen charity, the Foundling Hospital. These actions paint a very different picture those pedalled by his critics. The rousing and uplifting Hallelujah Chorus is the part everyone knows, found right in the middle of the work. It may well be the most famous thing he ever wrote. If you don’t fancy listening to the whole thing, and at nearly three hours I don’t blame you, then take a look at these bits.

  • Overture: 3:45
  • Ev’ry valley shall be exalted (tenor): 10:42.
  • For unto us a child is born (chorus): 36:57
  • Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (soprano): 47:54
  • Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried out sorrows (chorus): 1:15:05
  • Hallelujah (chorus) 1:54:38



Shakespeare and Shiller; Verdi and Beethoven – Halle/Elder Review

The last time I went to the Bridgewater Hall, I was in my first year of college, which was nearly 5 years ago. Coincidentally, Beethoven was on the programme as well. Rather strangely, now that I look back, I never went back to Bridgewater. Because Elder is on the telly every now and again, so when I first got into classical music, it was his face that I saw in documentaries. He’s also one of Britain’s most prominent conductors, who restored the Halle back to its former glory making it one of the UK’s best orchestras today. So I’m a bit surprised I didn’t go to Manchester. Missed opportunity there.

Beethoven’s 9th symphony is not just my favourite symphony, but my favourite piece of classical music. But before that, opening the concert, were scenes from Verdi’s opera Macbeth, which happens to be one of my favourite Verdi operas. So, all in all, I was pretty psyched.

Elder started by conducting the prelude, and I was nearly in tears about 60 seconds. The orchestra was scaled back a little, with not as many players as you would have for an opera performance. And yet, I was really taken aback by the power they released in the opening. Macbeth’s soliloquy and duet with Lady Macbeth followed from Act 1 (“Is this a dagger which I see before me?”), sang by Scott Hendricks and Beatrice Uria-Monzon. This was followed by Macbeth’s last cantabile from Act 4 (“Pieta, rispetto, amore”) and finally, the famous sleepwalking scene by Lady Macbeth (“Yet, here’s a spot”). Both soloists were great, but it was Scott Hendricks that really impressed.


Then, the 9th.


I cried 3 times during this performance, twice in the first movement. The opening felt like a huge unrelenting thing that would not give up, a constant hammering of Beethoven. I don’t know if that’s what composer intended, but it was exhilarating nonetheless. I remember thinking, “this is why I love Beethoven”. The second and third movements were incredible also. It’s quite incredible how different all four movements are from one another. That realisation is one of the things that really stood out for me.

The choir’s entrance in the final movement was a bit underwhelming to be honest. A feeling of “oh dear” went through my head, but it was replaced with “holy crap I was wrong” just as soon as it appeared. The choir recovered almost immediately and the forceful power of their singing took the performance to the new level Beethoven intended. The soloists were great as well, but it’s the choir that deserves a great chunk of the praise. Hats off to their director Matthew Hamilton.

This wasn’t what you’d call a perfect performance. Bridgewater is really reverberant, which means sometimes the detail can be lost if a performance is too fast. This became a problem for the soloists who were at times just a little drowned out by the orchestra. But I do stress only a little because here I’m nitpicking. I was sitting on the right near the front of the hall, which makes me wonder what people sitting at the back or high up in the galleries thought. Reducing the tempo can lead to some of the drama being lost and everything feeling a bit sluggish.

But, in the end I really didn’t care. The performance was tear jerkingly great and a fabulous start to the Halle’s concert season.  Wonderful stuff and I look forward to coming back soon.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)


If you look at the most famous composers in classical music, the Russians don’t really make much of an appearance until the late 1800s. Once the Russians had made their mark, all classical music, not just that which came out of Russia, would never be the same again. Tchaikovsky didn’t actually start this revolution to “Russianise” Russian classical music, but plays an important part in it given he’s Russia’s most famous composer. Before this Russian Revolution, composers tended to imitate the Austro-German tradition.

Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk in Western Russia, about 800 miles from Moscow. He wasn’t a child prodigy when it came to performing or composing, and was actually on the way to become a civil servant. But it was music that he was interested, and in 1862 enrolled in the newly opened St Petersburg Conservatoire. After graduating in 1865 he took up a teaching position at the Moscow Conservatoire, and within the first five years he composed his First Symphony and the Romeo and Juliet overture. His more famous works, the ones which generated his popularity home and abroad, started appearing from the mid 1870s onwards. 1876 was an important year because he got a dedicated patron, Nadezhda von Meck, who paid him to compose allowing him to resign from the conservatoire aand go on a European tour. The really famous and important works came after this point, such as the Fourth and Fifth Symphony, Violin Concerto, 1812 Overture and the ballet Sleeping Beauty. He married in 1877 to a student who obsessed over him, but being pretty much incompatible (and gay), he fled weeks later never to live with her again. In 1890 his allowance stopped because von Meck was close to financial ruin. He died 3 years later, only days after premiering his final, and most haunting Symphony, the 6th in October 1893.

Unlike some of his contemporaries like Mikhail Glinka or Modest Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky was given a formal western style musical education at St Petersburg. That led to some criticising him for his music not being Russian enough. Hard to think anyone would say that today. Tchaikovsky liked Beethoven, called Brahms “giftless, self-inflated, mediocrity hailed as genius”, and said about the final notes of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung “I felt as though I had been let out of prison”. Tchaikovsky’s lasting influence was two-fold, firstly to the Russian symphonic tradition, which barely existed before him and would then be taken to new heights by subsequent Russian composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninov and particularly Dimitri Shostakovich. And secondly, to ballet, which he helped turn into an expressive art form inspiring composers to write for it.


  1. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6, Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture

Cond: Valery Gergiev. Orch: Kirov (now the Mariinsky Theatre) Orchestra

Tchaikovsky thought this was “the best thing” he ever composed. It’s about death, and ironically he died 9 days later in October 1893 due to cholera. This had led some to believe that this symphony was a sort of suicide or death note, which isn’t true. This symphony really is a whirlwind of emotions, one minute it’s all light and dance like, then suddenly the characteristic Tchaikovskian heavy darkness comes through with full orchestra. Out of that then come these fully romantic, really luscious sounds to sweep you off your feet into another world completely different from the one heard just seconds ago. But the really remarkable thing about this symphony is the way it ends. Symphonies up until this point ended with jubilation, on a (to reduce every ending to just one word) “happy” note. The 6th ends quietly, the music fading away into silence in the dark key of B minor.

  1. 1812 Overture

Cond: Mark Elder. Orch: Halle Orchestra and London Brass

If there is one piece, apart from some famous bits from his ballets, that you will have heard, then it’s this. Tchaikovsky was commissioned in 1880 to write something to commemorate Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia in 1812. It was not, and I repeat NOT, written to commemorate the War of Independence, also fought in 1812. Suitably, then, this overture includes a fragment of La Marseilles, the French national anthem which is interrupted by said cannons. After this the former Russian national anthem, God Save the Tsar, kicks in accompanied by 11 canon shots. How very patriotic. And because conventional instruments weren’t enough, this overture calls for live canon fire. Yes, LIVE canon fire. Oh, and one last thing, even though audiences loved it and made him very popular, Tchaikovsky hated this piece. The orchestration is still controversial; do we use a choir, military band, actual cannons, chime bells, organ? Because of that there are quite a few recordings to dig through. But start with this 2004 Proms performance.

  1. Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.3/Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1.

Cond: Kyril Kondrashin. Orch: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Piano: Martha Argerich

One of the most famous concertos in the entire repertoire, and once you’ve heard that opening, you won’t forget it. It was written in 1875-75 and when Tchaikovsky’s friend, the composer and head of the Moscow Conservotoire, Nikolay Rubinstein, first heard the concerto, he hated it. He told Tchaikovsky to make some serious revisions and refused to premiere it otherwise. So, Tchaikovsky went to Hans von Bulow instead, and the concerto was an instant international success. In the end, Rubinstein changed his views and agreed to conduct the Moscow premiere, and even made it part of his repertoire. Martha Argerich is one of the greatest pianists alive today, and there are some great recordings of this piece. But for me, I haven’t yet heard a version that truly challenges hers.

  1. Tchaikovsky, Brahms Violin Concertos

Cond: Fitz Reiner. Orch: Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Violin: Jascha Heifetz.

It 1877 Tchaikovsky got a letter from a woman who professed her love for him, and need to keep the fact that he was gay out of the limelight, he married her. It was a disastrous marriage, he fled to Europe after only 3 months. During his European tour he wrote some of his most famous music, the Fourth Symphony, the opera Eugene Onegin and, his only Violin Concerto. The inspiration for the concerto did not come from his failed marriage per se, but from his former pupil, the violinist Josef Kotek. Kotek was with Tchaikovsky when he composed the Concerto, sketched out in just 11 days. Tchaikovsky wanted to dedicate it to Kotek but didn’t “in order to avoid gossip of various kinds”. The two were probably lovers. This is probably the “go to” recording, performed by the great Jascha Heifetz who was taught by Leopold Auer, to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated the work.

  1. Tchaikovsky: Ballet Suites

Cond: Herbert von Karajan. Orch: Berlin Philharmonic.

He wrote three ballets, and are among the most performed in the world. They were written in 1875-6, 1889 and 1892 respectively. Swan Lake wasn’t well received by critics, Sleeping Beauty was more favourably received, and the premiere of Nutcracker went pretty badly, but some critics praised the score. Before him, the Russian ballet scene was dominated by one figure, the choreographer Marius Petipa. Together with Tchaikovsky, they took it from mere decorative dance accompanied by some music into an expressive art form in its own right. This in turn inspired a new generation of ballet music. One of these ballets would onto revolutionise music, similar to the way Beethoven did with his Eroica Symphony. Tchaikovsky did not innovate all that much – except for maybe the ending of the 6th – but his lasting influence can be measured by what he made possible. Future Russian composers were completely in his debt.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)



Known as the “composer’s composer”, Bach is one of the most important composers in the entire canon. He is one of the Holy Trinity of composers, Mozart and Beethoven being the two. It’s not an exaggeration to say Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms, Duke Ellington and The Beatles would not have sounded the way they did had it not been for Bach. The pianist Andras Schiff has called Bach the “daily bread” of musicians, whose work they must all learn how to perform. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all admired Bach a great deal. Brahms famously said,”study Bach, there you will find everything”. And yet, for a 100 years after his death, his music fell into obscurity. Most people didn’t listen to it. It made a resurgence in the late 1700s and early 1800s, but really took off after 1829 when Mendelsohn conducted the St Mathews Passion. For listeners today, it’s hard to imagine there was a time the classical music scene did not include Bach.


He was born on 23rd March 1685 in Eisenach, which is today in central Germany, into a family of musicians stretching back generations. So much so that being a member of the Bach family and being a musician were virtually synonymous. Naturally, therefore, Bach had a very musical upbringing. He learnt to play the violin and harpsichord from his father, Johann Ambrosius, and the clavichord from his brother, Johann Christoph. In his time J.S Bach was known not as a composer, but as a performer. He was, after all, a skilled virtuoso at the keyboard sometimes even improvising fugues at the organ!


Even though Bach died being remembered as a performer, his job required him to compose, a lot. In terms of religious music, he wrote about 300 cantatas of which 209 survive, nearly 200 chorales, 7 motets, 3 oratorios, 2 passions, a Latin mass and a magnificat. His secular works include 6 organ sonatas, 6 partitas for keyboard, 2 sets of preludes and fugues for the harpsichord, 13 harpsichord concertos (7 for solo, 3 for double, 2 for triple and 1 for quadruple harpsichords), 6 cello suites, 3 violin partitas and 3 violin sonatas for solo violin, 2 violin concertos for solo violin, 1 double violin concerto, 6 orchestra concertos, and 4 orchestral suites, among other things. These are the works that have survived. God only knows how much he actually wrote.


So you get the picture, he wrote a lot of stuff for a lot of different instruments and occasions, though no operas. One of the main things Bach is known for, is the way he composed. To completely oversimplify how music is written, you have a melody (the tune) and a harmony (chords) to go with it. Bach turned the melody into a harmony of its own by playing the same tune on top of itself, starting at different points. To make things interesting, sometimes the tune is played twice as fast as the original, or twice as slow, or even backwards. If this sounds complicated, then that’s because it is! And Bach is the undisputed King of this kind of composition, or “counterpoint” to use the fancy word. If you’re still confused, and I really don’t blame you, then hopefully this will make it a bit clearer:

Now, onto a few recordings. In truth, picking out only 5 really does not do justice the monument he is. But, this article is intended as an introduction, not an encyclopaedia entry. As a compromise, here are 8 recordings.


  1. Toccata and Fugue in D minor

(Normally here I’d put who the performers are, but in this case I don’t know who the organist is. Sorry)

This you definitely will have heard, the beginning bit of it at least. It’s one of those pieces of classical music that is very famous in popular culture (Disney’s Fantasia), and the most famous piece of organ music. It was probably written 1702-1707, but there is no exact date and some even doubted Bach wrote it, who say it’s too crude for someone like him. True or not, and I’m not sure I really care, it’s a mighty magnificent work that gets your blood going.


  1. Bach: Cello Suites

Cello: Mstislav Rostropovich

Bach wrote 6 suites (sort of dances) for unaccompanied cello, and are in a sense the bread and butter for cellists. Each suite is made up of six 6 separate bits (movements in the fancy word). The prelude (the opening bit) of Suite 1 in G major is the most famous, and like the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, you will probably have heard it. If you’ve seen Hangover 3 then you’ve definitely heard it. Rostropovich was one of the greatest cellists who ever lived, and his recording of these suites are one of the “go to” recordings.


  1. Violin Partita 2 in D minor

Violin: Gidon Kremer

Bach wrote 3 partitas (suites) and 3 sonatas for solo violin, and they form part of the core repertoire for violinists. They were written between 1703-1720 but we don’t really know if they were performed in his life time; a shame really. In my opinion the second partita in D minor ranks among the finest writing the violin has ever seen. The “meaty” bit of the second partita comes in the final movement, known as the Chaconne. Truth be told, I never thought a solo violin piece could reduce me to a babbling emotional mess of a human, but that is exactly what happened. At the time, I had no words to describe what had happened to me, or how I felt, except for overwhelmed and emotionally paralysed, which is really a weak description of what happened. The recording below is the one I heard at the time. Then, as now, I have nothing more to say.


  1. Glenn Gould Plays Bach: Goldberg Variations Bwv 988 – The Historic 1955 Debut Recording; The 1981 Digital Recording

Piano: Glenn Gould

If writing towering masterpieces for the cello and violin weren’t enough, Bach did it again for the keyboard. The Goldberg Variations are a set of 30 variations based on the bass line of the opening “aria”. Rather unusually for Bach’s work, it was published in his lifetime around 1741 but the “aria” can be dated back to at least the late 1730s  when Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, wrote it out. The Variations are usually played on the piano these days, an instrument he did not like all that much, but they were actually written for a two keyboard harpsichord. Below is the 1981 recording by the legendary pianist and Bach interpreter Glenn Gould, the benchmark for this piece. Gould recording the Variations in 1955 as well, a much faster and fiery interpretation, but he became unhappy with it leading to the 1981 recording.


  1. Bach: Violin Concertos

Orch: English Chamber Orchestra. Cond: Daniel Barenboim. Violin: Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman

Onto some concertos now. Bach wrote three violin concertos, but the recommendation here is the Double Concerto in D minor for two violins. It’s a greatly uplifting and fun piece with the two violins duelling it out. We don’t know the precise date for when it was composed, some say it was during his Leipzig period (1723-50). Others think he recycled material from his Cöthen period (1717-1723). Bach wrote some pretty intense stuff, but he could do joyful and jubilant just as well, and the Double proves it, even though it’s written in D minor. These concertos were recorded by Itzhak Perlman, probably the greatest violinist alive today, with Pinchas Zukerman helping him out for the Double. This recording is a personal favourite.


  1. Brandenburg Concerto 5 in D major

Orch: Freiburger Barockorchester.

If someone were to point to the best orchestral writing of the baroque period, then this is where they’d point, to the 6 Brandenburg Concertos. Each is scored for different instruments, probably reflecting what he had at the time to use. The first concerto, for example, requires two horns, the fourth concerto for two recorders and the fifth concerto a harpsichord. They were composed 1708-1721, during his Cöthen years when he himself remarked was his happiest period. The concertos show a much lighter side to Bach, sounding almost dance like, a world away from the Toccata and Fugue or Chaconne. All the Concertos are worth checking out, but start with number 5 which features the harpsichord a lot, intended to dazzle the audience with flashy playing. The performance below, one I like, uses period instruments – instruments they used in Bach’s day.


  1. Bach: Mass in B Minor BWV 232

Cond: Phillipe Herreweghe. Orch and Choir: Collegium Vocale Gent. Soloists:Dorothee Mields (soprano 1) Hana Blazikova (soprano 2), Damien Guillon (alto), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Peter Kooij (bass).

Cantatas, chorales and church music in general make up a big chuck of Bach’s music. It’s impossible to introduce anyone to him without mentioning it. Bach was brought up strongly in the Lutheran tradition; he set the German bible to music in nearly 300 cantatas. And yet, (and this is a really big exception to the rule) he wrote a massive Catholic mass in Latin. The Mass started out life as a job application, to put it crudely, to the Catholic Augustus III of Poland who had just become King. Bach presented the Kyrie and Gloria (the first bit of the Mass) which were performed in 1733. At some point, scholars don’t really know when exactly, Bach decided to turn it into a full mass, which he only finished in 1749, the year before he died. He never heard it performed in its entirety, and nor did anyone else until 1849. Today the Mass is central to the choral repertoire.


  1. St Matthew Passion

Cond: Phillipe Herreweghe. Orch and Choir: Collegium Vocale Gent. And there are too many soloists to name.

The crown jewel not only in Bach’s musical output, but in all of Baroque music (I think so anyway), is Bach’s setting to music Christ’s crucifixion and the events that led up to it first performed in 1727. Scored for double orchestra, double choir and soloists, and about 3 hours long, it’s massive in scale compared to the half an hour cantatas written before. Even the earlier St John Passion of 1724 (Bach wrote at least 3, maybe more but they haven’t survived) was only a “mere” 2 hours long. The St Matthew Passion was revised in 1736, 1742 and again in 1743-46. It’s the last version that we’re familiar with today. 3 straight hours of anything can get a bit much, so start with the opening (1:06) and ending chorus (2:35:50), and this aria (1:24:00). This is the version that I first heard, and still listen to. Don’t worry if you can’t understand what they’re singing, let the music take care of it.