Claus Efland – Conductor Natalia Lomeiko – Violin
De Montfort Hall, Sunday December 1st 3pm
Concert Review by Neil Crutchley
There was a time I remember, when every concert held in the De Montfort Hall began with the National Anthem. Many people find that surprising in the 21st century, but for non-professional orchestras, it served a very useful purpose beyond being a patriotic gesture; it gave the players an opportunity to “warm up”.
Since the anthem’s demise, the warming up is often done in the opening bars of the first item on the programme, when exposed string or brass entries could be a less than perfect, to say the least.
I was reminded of this when listening to the first bars of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel overture, not because it was in any way deficient; quite the reverse, it was splendid. The sound and weight of tone the horns produced, followed by the glowing string entry was not only extremely impressive, it was also beautiful. I’ve never before heard the opening of this piece played with such style and affection. It got the overture off to a magical start and happily the rest of the concert lived up to the standard set in these first few bars.
The pacing and phrasing of the overture were superbly judged, which is not always the case with a work where the melodies come so fast and tempi change so frequently, but in this account the Bardi players responded with such elegance that it brought a smile to the face.
Natalia Lomeiko was the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and along with the orchestra gave us a memorable performance. She has formidable technique and clear, full and incisive tone, which are allied to an admirable musical perception. Her Russian background no doubt helped to bring out the lyrical sweetness and underlying Slavonic yearning of Tchaikovsky’s sweeping melodies. There was a sense of unforced enjoyment in her playing that transmitted itself to the listener. She was aided by a superbly graded and nuanced accompaniment from the orchestra, which never once overwhelmed her.
The sweep and build-up of tension in the as the first movement’s main theme was developed had a true sense of excitement and after a lyrical and heartfelt account of the Andante, featuring some outstanding woodwind playing, the finale burst onto the scene with tremendous verve and danced along with an infectious lilt in the rhythm.
Dvorak’s 7th Symphony is undoubtedly one of his finest. It is also arguably his most challenging for the interpreter, who needs to balance the various elements with skill and insight for the work to have full effect. The influence of Brahms is evident in its seriousness of purpose, yet every bar displays the inimitable fingerprints of the Czech master and the scherzo is one of the most infectiously rhythmic and dynamic movements in all the composer’s nine symphonies.
The first movement begins in a tense fragmentary manner, which gradually builds to a powerful climax, but this is then counterbalanced by an attractively lyrical descending second theme. It is the interplay of these themes that gives this movement its impetus. Claus Efland ensured that melodic, dynamic and rhythmic contrasts received full weight and imbued the whole with a strong sense of momentum; skilfully grading dynamics and ensuring that, as the composer directs, the biggest climax, with its striking off-beat accents, came just before the quiet close.
Again, in the slow movement, the conductor manged to achieve an impressive balance between the appealing lyricism and the darker elements that surface as the movement progresses and in the scherzo he didn’t “jab” at the rhythmic opening melody but let it unfold naturally, making its fortissimo return all the more effective.
In unsympathetic hands the finale of this symphony can sometimes seem rather episodic, but in Efland’s hands it proved to be the crowning glory of a compelling performance. Once more the pacing, dynamic contrast and rhythmic incisiveness were impeccable. Efland kept tight a rein, yet achieved a superb sense of spontaneity: gathering momentum and increasing tension (but wisely not the speed) to the powerful closing bars, which were punched home with a thrilling sense of finality. Magnificent!
No matter how many times I hear the Bardi (and I was at the first concert) I still marvel at the standard of playing it achieves and as I hope I’ve conveyed, this concert showed the orchestra on top form with superb playing from all departments. The relatively small audience thundered its approval, but it deserved a full house. We are lucky to have so fine an orchestra in Leicester.
Bardi Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Claus Efland
Bardi Wind Soloists
Mozart – Sinfonia Concertante for winds
Bruckner – Symphony No.4 in Eb “Romantic”
De Montfort Hall, Leicester
Sunday 6th October 3.30pm
One of the incidental pleasures of attending Bardi concerts is that this listener at least becomes re- acquainted with music that he cherished both live and on record in his youth, but which seems to have almost disappeared from concert programmes more recently. Not long ago there was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.
Then one of my first LPS in the early 1950’s was of Karajan and the Philharmonia performing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik coupled with Sinfonia Concertante for Winds K297b, the latter performed by the wind stars of the orchestra of that time, Walton, Sutcliffe, James and last and certainly not least Dennis Brain. I was told by some scholars that the work was of doubtful origin but I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. Music of such wit, elegance, and effortless beauty has always seemed to me quite clearly to have the imprint of the master.
This performance brought that all back to me. It is true that there was a rather reticent start. The orchestra was a mite stiff in its phrasing and the soloists struggled to emerge. It all sounded more like a symphony than a concerto and one wondered whether the body of strings was slightly too large. Perhaps it is the scoring or perhaps it was that all concerned took time to ease themselves into the work but by the wonderful slow movement things took off. The quartet emerged as players of personality and this was Mozart at his divine best as was the case in the virtuosity demanded of the players in the variations of the third movement.
These demands were fully met so that my memories of the 1950’s became even more hazy than they were in the first instance and it was an outright pleasure to hear how Linda Backhouse, Oboe, Andrew Piper, Clarinet ,Mark Penny, Horn and Ceri Beaumont, Bassoon relished the virtuosic opportunities given them. And then from gambolling in the sunny landscape of this work, the players were faced with ascending the Everest that is Bruckner’s huge Symphony No.4 (Romantic). To be frank, one seriously worried for the safety of the climbers. The idea that a largely amateur group of limited symphonic size could do justice to this composer where sometimes even crack professional orchestras fail seemed optimistic in the extreme.
Such feelings were not without foundation. Firstly, in certain aspects, size does matter in Bruckner. All the stuff about ‘cathedrals of sound’ has some truth and that is achieved by building upwards and ,however manfully the double basses sawed away, four of them to my ear simply could not provide that foundation.
Also, and not surprisingly, the strings as a whole were communicating signs of metal fatigue by the time they reached the final movement, which in any case, as quite often is the case with this composer, is not a fully satisfying crowning of what has gone before.
However, as so often is the case, what might be regarded as an impediment to enjoyment was not so. The smaller size of the ensemble emphasised that Bruckner at least knows that he is not writing for organ but for an orchestra with its wider range of colours. The conductor brought out at times, particularly in the cellos and the woodwind, the Schubertian elements in the symphony which so often disappear in the welter of ear bursting sound. Mind you there was plenty of that since the brass were in fine form starting from the first horn, who was only just off soloist duty in the Mozart and was then faced with his own Everest at the opening of the symphony, so important in the setting of the mood of the work. It was a test in which he triumphed.
But then there were many felicities in this performance, not least the clear intention of Claus Efland to keep things moving. One the best performances of this symphony I have heard came in this year’s Proms from the Philharmonia under its chief conductor Salonen (who incidentally comes to Leicester this season) and it was so because some of speeds would have shocked the purists who believe that Bruckner is one comatose meditation and the slower he is played the deeper is the interpretation. Both these conductors showed just what is missed in the music when played like that. The scoring is infinitely more various and more lively than it often seems in the way it is performed and this was communicated powerfully on this occasion.
So, in the end, though unsurprisingly not quite as successful as the orchestra’s performances of Strauss and Nielsen, it seemed a journey well worth the taking, particularly since there seems a severe shortage of Bruckner in the Midlands.
There were three reasons that I found this concert irresistible. Firstly, it featured Katya Apekisheva, a very fine pianist who has over the years been a frequent visitor to Leicester but mostly as a chamber music recitalist. Here was a chance to enjoy her prodigious talents again but as a concerto soloist in a late work by Rachmaninoff which I had not heard live for many years.
Secondly, there was a performance of a Nielsen symphony in DMH which has been hardly a frequent event. ( I can recall only one performance in recent years, that by the Philharmonia and Paavo Jarvi of the first symphony). Following on from that, the third reason consisted of memories from the 1960’s when I and my soon to be wife were knocked sideways by the power of these symphonies, then enjoying an introduction to London similar but, alas, not so long lasting, as the Mahler revolution. And then many years later there was the young Rattle in Birmingham doing the complete cycle of the symphonies which re-inforced my feeling that this was one of the great symphonic cycles of the 20th century, or for that matter any other century . Why, oh why, I wondered , had I missed the early parts of the Bardi Cycle?
Well, the answer to that was quite simple. I questioned whether a mainly amateur orchestra could possibly meet the colossal orchestral challenges of these works, particularly Symphonies 4 and 5. That was compounded by having a few months ago heard The Inextinguishable played by the LSO and Rattle in performance which literally stunned a Barbican audience into silence for a moment or two so overwhelming was it. Then, I remembered what a friend of acute musical intelligence had said to me about the quality of the Bardi performances of this music. So, the only answer was to go and hear for myself. The result of that was that I wished that I had taken notice much earlier to what he said.
Not that in the first piece played the concert seemed about to be particularly revelatory. True, it was a delight to be re-acquainted with Sibelius’ Karelia Suite which was one of the first records that I possessed as a youth and which these days, like a lot of music in Suite form, tends to be a rarity in the face of sterner musical expression. There was much in this performance which did justice to the work. Particularly notable was the rich sound that the strings managed to conjure up in Ballade, totally worthy of any professional ensemble. Similarly the nuanced phrasing and sound of the horns at the beginning of the Intermezzo were extremely impressive, particularly when playing from cold as it were and as a whole the performance certainly delivered the essence of the work, without perhaps achieving quite the swagger and bounce some of it ideally requires.
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Then came Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini and here the music making moved onto a different level. The pianist and the orchestra delivered a performance that can only be described as scintillating. Indeed, I felt I had not heard a better or more exciting interpretation of the work. It highlighted how the late works of this composer should sound compared to the more famous works he wrote before he went into exile. Compositions like The Symphonic Dances , after very tepid critical reviews when they first saw the light of day, are now receiving the attention they deserve, as music which set off in a different direction to the romantic sound world so associated with the composer. Of course, these Variations always received approval of sorts because of the gorgeous melody in a middle variation and for which there is often the tendency to wait impatiently for its arrival. This ignores elsewhere the wealth of wit , the passages in which brittle colours predominate and for which absolute clarity is required from the performers. Of course, being Rachmaninoff , often the virtuosity demanded of the pianist is phenomenal. Anyone knowing the pianist on this occasion could guess that those demands would be met in spades and so they were. However, the many delightful moments in the more reflective parts of the work were also fully presented and one finished by wondering whether one had ever heard the clarity of the DMH instrument used to better effect. The performance had a truly pristine quality which revealed a glittering sound world quite unlike for instance what happens when the music is played on the ubiquitous Steinways which so tend to dominate our concert halls. It was overall a wonderfully invigorating musical experience.
One last thing in regard the above. I was so impressed by the pianist having the score in front of her. It occurred to me to wonder why concert practice in the last century became locked into the virtue of playing entirely from memory and I remembered the story of Sir Adrian Boult, told to me by a friend who as a lad was present at his rehearsal of a youth orchestra . When the great man was asked why he conducted from a score back came the reply, ‘ Because I can read one!’
And so to the climax of the concert, a performance of Nielsen’s mighty 5th Symphony. The previous evening, not having heard the symphony for some years, I played a disc of it being performed by a Finnish orchestra. I listened to the characteristics of the composer’s late style, huge outbursts of sound with strings playing in several sections at the top of the range and producing what I have come to think as the edginess of the sound produced by electrical discharges and which is so extraordinarily expressive of colossal energy. Then, there are the many passages that demand to be played at colossal speed. In addition, the whole orchestra needs to produce at times another characteristic Nielson sound which forever reminds me somehow of the outdoors and the openness of the Scandinavian sky. Lastly, in this particular symphony, there is the titanic battle between orchestra and side drum which, if not delivered with complete musical conviction, can teeter slightly on the brink of the crudely obvious. Could a largely amateur orchestra of the size of the Bardi, rather fewer in number I would think than that routinely fielded by a London orchestra in this music, really do justice to this work?
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Well, they most certainly did. All the above was in this performance. Of course, there was occasionally the sense of strain. For instance, the LSO delivered the frantic start of the last movement of The Inextinguishable almost as if it was a walk in the park. However, that very sense of strain in its own way rather added to the delivery of the titanic things in the symphony and at the end one could only marvel at the hours of rehearsal which had obviously gone into the delivery of something with this impact. This is music close to Claus Efland’s heart as was clear from his amusing address before the performance, even though there were moments when I thought him a little too intent on warning the audience of the perils ahead, notably about there being supposedly no tunes! There is no doubt, though, that he is a formidable conductor and interpreter of this music and the Bardi are very lucky to have his power to persuade and inspire musicians to play out of their skins. I look forward to the cycle being brought to a completion in the not too distant future.
In just over half a century of attending orchestral concerts in the De Montfort Hall, this series of Nielsen symphonies from the Bardi Symphony Orchestra, has been, and continues to be a personal highlight. No other orchestra has had the courage or conviction to embark on such an ambitious project.
Nielsen’s six symphonies are amongst the greatest of the twentieth century yet were it not for the Bardi, we in Leicester, along with most other provincial cities, would hear one (usually the 4th or the 5th) once in a blue moon. In fact it’s possible that the Bardi’s accounts of the 2nd and 3rd symphonies were the first in the city. And what tremendous performances they were! As is usually the case, no allowances for the Bardi’s “non-professional” status were necessary, despite the fact that I suspect most of the players were performing the works for the first time. The same could be said of the Bardi’s searing account of the marginally better known 4th Symphony (The Inextinguishable).
And now we have the 5th, considered by many to be the composer’s greatest work. What a ground-breaking, compelling and fascinating piece it is. It’s not just the first movement’s extraordinary snare drum outburst that’s arresting; the whole piece is harmonically, tonally and structurally exceptional.
Of course it helps to have a Danish conductor in charge – especially one as inspiring and committed as Claus Efland. He knows every note of these symphonies and he knows exactly what he wants from the music and the players, although I have to take issue with his assertion that Nielsen didn’t produce memorable tunes in this symphony.
It’s an old cliché I’ve used dozens of times in relation to Bardi performances, but it still holds true; the results are astounding. For long periods you would not know you weren’t listening to a professional orchestra. In fact having heard performances of Nielsen’s music from some renowned ensembles, it’s these Leicester performances that are the ones that stay in the mind for their enthusiasm, panache and vigour. Above all they have shown (and I hope, will continue to show) what a strikingly original musical thinker Nielsen was.
This account of the symphony was a remarkable journey in sound and mood – just as the composer wished it to be. His “progressive tonality”, so much easier to hear than explain, leads the ear onwards; surprising and teasing along the way, but ultimately achieving its goal. The playing was exemplary in all departments and it would be unfair to single out any one player or department as this was a truly unified effort.
The first movement began with just the right balance between mystery and tension; the “wavy line” of the violas being clean and precise, providing a rhythmic background to the fragments of melody that follow. It is essential that the tension is maintained here and in what follows and as always, Claus Efland was exemplary in giving the whole movement a strong sense of momentum with vivid dynamic contrasts, well-graded crescendos and incisive rhythmic drive. The highpoint of this movement is the superb string melody that emerges just over half way though, this was allowed to expand and glow (but never to lose momentum) before the snare drum began its persistent, destructive barrage. The closing bars had an extraordinary, eerie stillness about them.
The energy of the second movement was exhilarating right from the opening bars. This is music of optimism, but the hard-won, gritty optimism of a realist. The orchestra’s response to the demands made on it was astounding; enthusiastic, cleanly articulated and supple. The slower, quieter central section provided the necessary respite from the onward rush, but Efland ensured that even here there was a sense of portent and onward movement. The mounting excitement towards the close is edge-of-the-seat stuff with its final glorious blaze of E flat major. Here was my only tiny criticism – the build-up to the “blaze” was not quite as abandoned as I was expecting, but then in preparing the programme notes I had been listening to Bernstein’s recording of the work with the New York Philharmonic and in that conductor’s flamboyant style the closing bars are little short of cataclysmic, so perhaps I was expecting a little too much at that point – even from the Bardi!
Katya Apekisheva was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody and unusually, she played from the music – with a page turner! She appeared to be sight-reading at some points (had she never performed this work before?) and it has to be said that this was not the most subtle of performances. However, there were many delights and the piano was audible throughout, which is not always the case in this work. The orchestra’s accompaniment was magnificent, the conductor managing to keep up with the soloist and drawing flexible warm-toned playing from all sections.
The concert began with a good straightforward account of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. The Intermezzo had a jaunty bounce to it and the Alla Marcia, although fairly sedately paced, was nicely phrased, with good dynamics. The Ballade was beautifully done with superb solo playing and an affecting sense of nostalgia and melancholy.
This was a fine concert which will be remembered for yet another superb account of a Nielsen symphony. We’ve only two more (Nos. 1&6) to go before the cycle is complete. I hope it isn’t too long before they appear.
Sunday 24th March 3pm
De Montfort Hall Leicester
There is an admirable generosity of spirit in the Bardi Symphony Orchestra. Whether it be encouraging young musicians, getting together with local choirs or as in this concert, performing alongside Dance Activate, the willingness to share the concert platform brings enormous rewards for everyone involved, not least members of the audience.
That was certainly the case with this hugely enjoyable presentation, the second of the orchestra’s partnerships with Graham Fletcher’s team of talented young dancers. Everyone benefits: the dancers have the opportunity to perform with an excellent orchestra; the orchestra has the chance to play great ballet scores and to have the live dancers in front of them and the audience has the pleasure of both watching and listening.
The main work and the one in which Dance Activate featured, was the whole of the 2nd act of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet with all its familiar characteristic dances and great Pas de Deux.
One of the most difficult aspects of conducting for the ballet (I imagine) is keeping everything together, yet this presentation was beautifully coordinated and Claus Efland as always, conducted with authority and panache. Each of the dances was charmingly characterised and the pacing was spot on – nothing forced or overdone yet full of life and vigour. There was an infectious sweep to the Waltz of the Flowers and in the Pas de deux, (probably the most substantial and emotional piece in the ballet) the conductor graded the climaxes with impressive assurance, only allowing the full force to emerge in the closing bars. Equally compelling was the finale where the various threads were drawn together into a powerful peroration.
I’m not a ballet expert but I think I can confidently say that the dancing was enchanting throughout. It was clear that hours of painstaking rehearsal had gone into reaching so high a standard. The various nationalistic dances with their splendid costumes was a real feast for the eyes and the glorious pas de deux was brilliantly executed by Oliver Speers and Samantha Camejo, both principal artists of the English Youth Ballet. The closing scene was especially affecting, featuring all the young dancers in turn and bringing the curtain down in glittering fashion.
The first half of the concert opened with an invigorating account of the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia and this was followed by the Ballet Music from Gounod’s Faust – once a relatively popular concert item but seldom heard nowadays. However it is a delightful piece – especially when played with such charm and affection. There was an infectious lift to the rhythms and the conductor’s ability to stylishly shape and turn a phrase was, as always, very impressive.
The same could be said of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, a short ballet from his opera, La Gioconda. This too was once a concert favourite but is less often heard today. It is full of delightful melodies (one of which has been immortalised in a song by Alan Sherman) and the performance sparkled from the first bar to last.
It was very gratifying to see Claus Efland lavish as much care and attention to detail on these charming works as he would on a symphony by Brahms or Nielsen. Some conductors would see this sort of programme as an “easy ride” but happily he’s not one of them and consequently, in the case of the Gounod and Ponchielli, many of us were left thinking “Why on earth aren’t these pieces played more often.” What greater compliment could be paid to the quality of the performances?
The orchestral playing throughout the concert was astoundingly good. Not only as an ensemble, but also in the quality of the soloists within the orchestra – especially the woodwind. The Bardi must be one of the most professional of non-professional orchestras, as for long stretches it was difficult to believe we weren’t listening to a full-time group. Only very occasionally a slight discrepancy in string ensemble gave the game away, but even then the actual tone of the strings was extremely fine. Surprisingly, the sound from where I was sitting was not affected by the orchestra being in a “pit”.
Altogether this was a superb afternoon of music and dance, fully deserving the large audience it attracted.
War Requiem – Benjamin Britten
10th November 2018 De Montfort Hall Leicester
The Bardi is at the moment on its peek. I don’t think the Orchestra has since my tenure been any better. Great and committed playing with many many fine details. Full credit must be given to the Orchestra for controlling the balance so well – also in the loud bits – without loosing intensity. And it is a great skill (also when not very musical) that the Orchestra carries on and sticks to the beat if the playing gets rocky.
However, it is such a shame when piano, harp and percussion are joining in so late. With such complicated pieces, they should attend more rehearsals. But when the players are there, they work well and are so responsive. Great singing throughout the Requiem from the choirs – also from the choristers. How wonderful to have them with us.
The 3 soloists must have been the best voices we ever had. And they want to come back. So all in all a trememdous success in every sense for the Bardi, simply due to perfect management and outstanding commitment from everybody involved.
The first performance of Britten’s War Requiem was certainly one of the most extraordinary musical events in the 20thc. Never in my lifetime has a new work received such acclaim. It sold over a 100,000 LP’s worldwide when it was recorded , a number unheard of for a classical disc. Of course, such popularity brought its inevitable number of nay sayers ,who assume that popular taste must be one that is debased, chief amongst them being Igor Stravinsky , never noted for his generosity to a fellow composer, and a distinguished American critic who declared the work to be in the last resort ‘superficial’. Well, here we are in the 21st century and to judge by the frequency of the work’s performances around the globe the public’s initial opinion has been vindicated, that the War Requiem is a gold plated masterpiece of the choral repertoire.
However, it is a devil of a piece to deliver. There are first of all the problems of balance between the main and the chamber orchestras and between the main choir and that of the choristers. The musical demands , the spotlighting at times of all participants, particularly the soloists where the males in particular are singing a song cycle in the middle of a Mass, are relentless. On occasions some problems are insoluble. I have heard the work done at least twice in London’s Festival Hall where the dry acoustics nullified some of the most striking features of the work. It was after all written for a cathedral and its spaces. In London perhaps the best venue in my experience was the dear old Royal Albert Hall but of all the concert halls Symphony Hall in Birmingham did just fine a few years ago in a performance under Andris Nelsons.
All the above might explain why I approached this performance with a degree of trepidation. Common to all the performances I had heard previously were top of the range singers, choirs and orchestras. In addition the level of expectation associated with this performance was unique. Here it was to be done on the day before the 100th. anniversary of the end of the Great War and, as if that was not enough, a week after Wilfred Owen’s own death on the battlefield a century ago. What a wonderfully moving touch it was for The Times to publish last week an obituary a 100 years on to a poet who was at the time of his death virtually unknown. With all that, how likely, I wondered, was it that soloists relatively early in their careers , three choirs of a provincial city, a largely amateur orchestra and a conductor directing the work for the first time would collectively be able to deliver the goods.
Well, they could and they did. Of course, not everything resulted in complete satisfaction. Of the soloists, soprano Ilona Domnich, singing the more conventional part of the Mass itself, made perhaps the greatest impression with a glorious voice sailing above the orchestra on occasions. As regards tenor Mark Milhofer and baritone Malachy Frame tackling the Owen settings, both clearly have fine voices which were used here with considerable refinement. Ideally at times I wanted something a bit rougher, more dramatic. For example, in The Next War the forced trench jollity wasn’t quite communicated. Also, I felt that a relatively light baritone was not an ideal voice for one or two of the settings, notably Britten’s devastating delivery of the poem describing a big gun being brought into action. The final line ‘May God curse thee and cut thee from our soul !’ ideally does need a weight and darkness of timbre. However, conversely the likeness of voices did make the ‘Strange Meeting’ of the two opposing soldiers perhaps even more poignant in that it drove home the bond between the two that leads to the benediction of the work’s closing moments.
The local choirs rose to the challenges splendidly. Unsurprisingly in such a huge work not everything was ideal. The problem of the positioning off stage of the choristers was not entirely solved. They were ethereal to the point of disappearance if one was seated stage right whereas I was assured by one person they were splendid for those sitting stage left. In the main choirs there could at times have been rather more projection in some of the intense quiet moments of the score. The start to the Libera Me was one such moment but here and elsewhere, as in the Dies Irae, waves of full throated sound eventually drove everything before it to magnificent effect. Overall, though, what was so moving was the obvious commitment of every member of each choir to strain themselves to the very utmost of their capacity and therefore time and again the essence of the work was communicated . That in itself made for an especially moving occasion.
And as for the orchestras, well, they were simply magnificent. One aspect of Britten’s genius is his ability to conjure up the most atmospheric of sound worlds from small bands and nowhere is this better shown than in this work in the chamber orchestra’s accompaniments to the Owen poems. The drawback for the instrumentalists is their exposure! Suffice to say that time and again they fully supported the singers in establishing the wonderfully precise and evocative musical setting of each poem. Has any music ever been written that is more likely to produce tears than the setting of one of Owen’s very greatest poems, ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’, or the ending of the work with, in the Libera Me, the ghostly dream Purgatory of ‘Strange Meeting’? Here the orchestral accompaniment was simply superb in creating Britten’s and Owen’s vision. Lastly, it must be said that as far as the main orchestra was concerned there were just too many fine moments to record but perhaps the palm goes to the brass who displayed, for example, a wonderful punch to the Dies irae.
Finally, there was the conductor, Claus Efland. This may have been his first performance of the work but he gave the impression of having a clear vision with everything at his finger tips, which obviously gave to all the security needed to ascend this Everest of music. Hence, he and all who took part were able to make this a truly memorable evening of remembrance and contemplation. At the end the silence was palpable and then all received the ovation they had truly deserved.
BARDI – WAR REQUIEM
Saturday 10th November 2018 saw many performances in England of Britten’s War Requiem, but I would doubt if any of them were more compelling or emotionally charged than Leicester’s, given by the Bardi Symphony Orchestra, the Leicester Philharmonic Choir, the Leicester Bach Choir, the Leicestershire Chorale and the choristers of Leicester Cathedral.
The fact that these are all local groups, performing to such a high standard, shows what can be done through commitment and dedication and makes one realise how fortunate we are in Leicester to have such talented musicians willing to expend time and effort to achieve such high standards. It was a privilege to be in the De Montfort Hall for this performance. The simple, but beautiful effect of the two soldiers with heads bowed and guns lowered projected either side of the stage added to the poignancy of the occasion.
The War Requiem is one of Britten’s greatest creations. The remarkable and moving juxtaposition of the Latin Mass for the Dead with the disturbing and powerful poems of Wilfred Owen, creates a many-faceted, intensely emotional canvas that despite its complexity, speaks to the listener with a compelling and often heart-rending directness – and for me, this performance brought that home with resounding success. Yes, there may have been the occasional technical slip, but that can occur in the most “professional” of performances, but what this account under the Bardi’s Claus Efland had was an emotional power that went beyond the surface of the piece and at times had a searing intensity that took the breath away.
The work is fiendishly difficult to balance, having so many disparate sections. My only observation on that score would be that the choristers were a little too distant, having been consigned to an offstage corridor. Otherwise most of the balance problems seemed to have been solved. The choirs (trained by Tom Williams) were impressive in attack, rhythmic precision and dynamics – especially in the great climax of the Libera me, which was shattering in effect. But it wasn’t just the big climaxes that were effective, the singers were alert to the subtler aspects of Britten’s choral writing and the choristers, despite my reservation about their position, certainly achieved the required ethereal quality.
The standard of the playing in both orchestras was some of the best I’ve heard from the Bardi – and that’s saying something! All sections excelled themselves and the big moments had tremendous sweep and assurance. Both choirs and orchestras maintained a tension and accuracy that showed Claus Efland’s admirable technical control, confidence and intimate knowledge of the score – despite the fact that this was his first performance of the piece.
Soprano Ilona Domnich was assured and impassioned in her role in the Mass setting. She had no difficulty in soaring above the chorus whenever necessary.
The all-important male soloists were well-matched. Tenor Mark Milhofer was perhaps the more animated, but baritone Malachy Frame sang with precision and feeling but occasionally, as in the violent cursing of the great gun, at the close of the Sonnet on Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action, he was rather overwhelmed by the chamber orchestra, but this is not the first time I’ve heard this happen. However his rendition of Bugles Sang was one of the most poignant and powerful I’ve heard, sensitively accompanied by the orchestra. Mark Milhofer showed a similar perception and passion in One ever Hangs and Move him into the Sun, which was heartbreaking in its sad intensity.
It is in these Owen settings that Britten shows his towering genius. Can anyone remain unmoved listening to So Abram Rose, with its devastating final lines and Strange Meeting; perhaps the most heart-rending of all – “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” – with its repeated line, “Let us sleep now.”? It was in these two unforgettable duet settings that the quality of the voices really showed, especially when they almost merge in the work’s closing pages.
I have no hesitation in saying that this was one of the best things the Bardi has done. It was a triumph of organization, presentation and interpretation. It packed an enormous emotional punch. The choice of date made it all the more telling – especially for those of us who had seen some of the recent TV programmes of archive footage of Great War veterans talking about their experiences and Sunday evening’s remarkable colour footage of life in the trenches.
The War Requiem is a great work of reconciliation – a cry for peace and a lament for the futility of war. It is as relevant in today’s world as it when it was written and when a century ago the “war to end all wars”, slew “half the seed of Europe, one by one”.