Tag Archives: Lancaster Arts

Widden’s Reviews

Contributed by Martin Widden


The first concert from Lancaster Arts to take place in 2021 with a live audience was held in Lancaster Priory on Saturday 5 June, with full social distancing in place. This meant of course that audience numbers had to be reduced, but it in no way detracted from the enthusiastic response from the audience for the music played by Michal Rogalski (oboe) and Petr Limonov (piano).

The first part of the concert addressed the theme of the series The Water Season, through works by Benjamin Britten and Robert Schumann: pieces from Britten’s Metamorphoses after Ovid were interspersed with three Schumann Romances, not specifically about water, but full of emotions such as might be inspired by the ever-changing nature of streams and rivers. The four pieces by Britten, dealing with the changes wrought in humans after interaction with gods, covered the myths of Narcissus, who wasted away into death through excessive admiration of his own beauty reflected in a pool of water and was transformed into a flower; Phaeton who drove the chariot of the sun too close to the earth and was thrown by a thunderbolt from Zeus into the river Padus; Syrinx who in trying to escape from the unwanted attentions of Pan was changed into a marsh reed, from which Pan made the first pipe; and Arethusa who, again resisting advances from an immortal, was turned into a stream.

The Britten pieces were linked by readings by Jocelyn Cunningham, Director of Lancaster Arts, from the Ovid Metamorphoses myths. This narrative helped to illuminate the music, played sometimes solo on the oboe, and sometimes in duet with the piano.

The second half of the concert comprised solo piano pieces by Rachmaninov and Debussy: all of them virtuoso pieces, they were played with great skill by Petr Limonov. Despite the technical demands of the music, he nonetheless conveyed brilliantly Debussy’s interpretation for the piano of the idea of reflections in the surface of still water. The recital closed with a performance of Debussy’s l’Isle Joyeuse. Inspired by Watteau’s painting l’embarquement de Cythere, this piece describes in music a group of revellers leaving the mythical island of Cythera, including the sound of the swell moving their boat. Once again, the pianist Petr Limonov played this excellently.

It was very good to hear this music played live. Zoom is a wonderful thing, but no amount of technical expertise has been able to replace the emotional force of a live performance such as this.



Opening the 2021-22 International Series of concerts in the Great Hall were two very different performances.

‘Voice of the Whale’ was the title of the first concert, given on 23 September by four members of the Manchester Collective. To avoid the risk of covid infection being transmitted, there was no printed programme. Members of the audience could read the programme in advance from the concerts website, or bring their smartphones with them; if however they had printed the programme off at home, they may have had some difficulty reading it, for the Hall was dimly lit, and some audience members will have had to take it home and read it afterwards.

The Hall had been laid out with small tables, well spaced apart, with a small vase of flowers on each table; recorded music was playing as the audience arrived and took their seats. It all looked and felt quite festive. The first item on the programme was High and Low, an improvisatory piano solo by Molly Joyce, very skilfully played. This was followed by two pieces, Curved Form and In Beautiful May, for cello and violin augmented by some recorded music. The first consisted of a gradual crescendo of a chord, rising to a climax, then gradually dying away to nothing: pleasant to listen to, but without detectable rhythm. The second included snatches of a rather fine recorded voice singing Lieder, whilst the violinist continued to play and also to sing – quite a tour de force. The final piece of the programme was Vox Balaenae, composed by the American composer George Crumb. This made use of some unconventional sounds: solo flute played whilst the player sang through the instrument, piano right at the bottom of its range where the pitch of the note was almost impossible to discern, twanging on the strings of the piano, and so on.

All this made for an interesting evening, although it could take more than one airing for the music to be fully appreciated.

The programme for the second concert, performed on 28 September by the Brodsky String Quartet, consisted of three substantial works, but only the last of them might be considered conventional fare for a Great Hall concert.

It opened with an arrangement for string quartet (by Paul Cassidy, the viola player of the Brodskys) of the sonata in C for solo violin by J S Bach. One might think ‘hold on, how can a sonata for solo violin be arranged for the four instruments of a string quartet?’, but this would be to fail to appreciate the power and depth of Bach’s capacity as a composer. In places he uses all four strings of the violin to provide harmony – no doubt this is very demanding on the violin soloist – and at other times the harmony is very clearly implied. Evidently Paul Cassidy is a Bach enthusiast. His arrangement of the sonata is a remarkable achievement that made a very satisfying piece of music for string quartet.

The second piece was the string quartet no 3 by Benjamin Britten. Probably few members of the audience will have been familiar with this piece, but to this reviewer it seemed very convincing. The Brodsky Quartet had clearly spent a good deal of time learning the piece, and their performance of it was excellent.

The final item in the concert was the string quartet in D minor by Schubert, often called the Death and the Maiden quartet because the slow movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s own song of that title. This is a dramatic piece in which a young girl is enticed by the calm embrace of death: Schubert was already seriously ill and aware that he was likely to die soon, which very probably explains why the composer was attracted to the poem. Occupying some forty minutes, the string quartet he composed on this theme is a dramatic piece, all in minor keys, and is recognised to be one of the pillars of the string quartet repertoire. This rounded off an excellent concert.

Widden’s Review – Songs in the Great Hall

Contributed by Martin Widden

It is good to be able to report that some things are getting back to something like normal, or at any rate to New Normal: the University’s International Concert Series resumed on the evening of Thursday 8 October. The furniture in the Great Hall had been rearranged to provide the necessary distance between the social bubbles in the audience. One might have feared that this would destroy any atmosphere that might otherwise have been generated, but – all praise to the organisers – it had been done very thoughtfully: each little group had its designated space, consisting of one or more chairs at a small folding table with a tablecloth, on which had been placed a sheet bearing the names of the members of the little group, and beside it a small vase of flowers. If the group had pre-ordered drinks, they were waiting on the table too. The Hall looked almost festive.

The programme for the evening consisted of two song cycles by the composer Franz Schubert, both of them setting poems by Wilhelm Müller. Each is for a solo singer and pianist, and consists of a series of twenty or so songs on a single narrative theme. The first to be performed at the recital, die schöne Müllerin, tells the story of a young journeyman miller walking through a wood beside a stream, which leads him to a mill. He falls in love with the miller’s daughter, but his love is frustrated by the arrival of a glamorous hunter, who supplants him. It is not completely clear how the story ends, except that it doesn’t end well for the young man, who submits himself to the stream and presumably drowns. The young baritone Huw Montague-Randall told this story well, with excellent German diction.

The second cycle, Winterreise (winter journey), is again a tragic tale of a young man’s love for a girl, but it is not just about his failure to capture her love. As the narrator wanders through a winter landscape, he bids his farewell not only to his beloved who has forsaken him, but this time he appears to be leaving all human company. Appropriately, Schubert’s setting of these downbeat poems is set almost entirely in minor keys. This second song cycle was sung by another baritone, Roderick Williams, who acted it out in a quite moving way.

In his song cycles Schubert uses the piano very skilfully to illustrate the songs, for example to evoke the sound of the water in the stream in die schöne Müllerin. In fact, the piano part is perhaps of equal importance with the sung part. We were fortunate at the Great Hall recital to have Gary Matthewman at the piano, for he was able to reflect the mood of the songs in his playing very sensitively. The final song in Winterreise, der Leiermann, describes a hurdy-gurdy man who is standing just outside the village hoping to collect money on his little plate, but sadly the plate is empty. The piano reproduced the sad music of the hurdy-gurdy quite accurately.

This was a very satisfying start to the season of Great Hall concerts – let’s hope further concerts will be able to go ahead.


Contributed by Martin Widden
Prompted by the refugee crisis across the Mediterranean, the programme for the recital given on 5th March by the twelve-strong a capella choir Stile Antico was focused on John Dowland’s set of pavans for voice and lute, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares. (According to Dowland’s contemporary Thomas Morley, a pavan was ‘a kind of staid music, ordained for grave dancing’.) Although dating from the early 17th century, these pavans seem completely appropriate to the tragedies being played out in the 21st, before our eyes as it were: indeed, the first pavan, which opens with the words ‘Flow my tears, fall from your springs! Exiled for ever let me mourn’, could have been composed for the recent Syrian crisis.
Only one of the seven pavans, the first, had a text; the remaining six were purely instrumental pieces, although all were melancholy in flavour. However, Stile Antico commissioned the poet Peter Oswald to provide texts for the remaining six pavans, highlighting contemporary issues of displacement and exile through the prism of Dowland’s music. These pieces were performed in the Great Hall recital on 5th March, alongside the superb Lamentations by Robert White, a contemporary of Dowland. The verses of these Lamentations describe the grief and desolation of the Israelites exiled in Babylon, but they will have had extra significance for White: being almost certainly a Catholic in Elizabethan England, he may well have felt like an exile himself.
Also on the programme was a series of pieces for oud (a form of lute from the Middle East), played by Rihab Azar, a Syrian oud player.
The final piece in the recital was a new work Bodrum Beach, commissioned by Stile Antico from the composer Giles Swayne, which was first performed at the 2019 Brighton Festival. This takes as its starting point the poem Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold, but the piece was animated by the press photographs of the dead body of a three-year-old boy face down on a Turkish beach opposite the island of Kos – another refugee tragedy.
This piece closed what had been a very well rounded programme, illuminated by excellent programme notes, and brilliantly performed by the singers of Stile Antico.
It also closed the season of Great Hall concerts, since the final concert unfortunately had to be cancelled owing to the COVID-19 emergency.


Review: Debussy 100

The present year, 2018, is being observed as the centenary of Debussy’s death right across the musical world. Why the fuss about Debussy?

Debussy’s music is unlike that of any previous composer. Indeed, the music critic Paul Griffiths has written that ‘if modern music may be said to have had a definite beginning, then it started with the flute melody, the opening of the Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy.’ This opening phrase, whilst not atonal, is not in any key; furthermore, the rhythm is not in any obvious metre, and the whole feeling is of improvisation and of freedom from the constraints of key and rhythm.

In the Prélude, Debussy conjures up very effectively not just the sultry afternoon heat in a wood, but also the thoughts of the faun in Mallarmé’s poem on which the music is based. He went further than any composer before him, and probably more successfully than later composers, in revealing in music the workings of the subconscious mind.

In the concert in the Great Hall on 22 March, students from the Royal Northern College of Music celebrated the life of Debussy by performing a varied programme of some of his lesser-known works. The concert opened with Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane, written for harp and strings – which was excellently played, particularly by the solo harp. This was followed by the Rhapsodie for alto saxophone, arranged for saxophone and ensemble.

Between these works, a chamber ensemble performed Erik Satie’s Sports et Divertissements, arranged by the composer Dominic Muldowney. This is a set of pieces written to accompany an album of drawings by the illustrator Charles Martin; each of the pieces has a corresponding short poem. At the side of the stage sat a narrator, a Rees-Mogg lookalike in a Norfolk jacket and cap, smoking a pipe. The whole thing was very droll.

The concert closed with arrangements for orchestra of four of Debussy’s Préludes, originally written for solo piano. Some of this was serious stuff – but some was surprisingly funny.

Reverting to L’après-midi d’un faune: there was something of a scandal in 1914 when Nijinsky danced to this music, because his dancing exposed the erotic undercurrent in the piece. Since then, many dancers, most notably Rudolf Nureyev, have done the same. Both before and since, other composers, notably Richard Wagner in his opera Tristan and Isolde, have attempted to portray in music sexual desire and even orgasm, but none of these attempts reaches into the subconscious as Debussy did. His music is unique. If anyone reading this is around in 2062, perhaps they could promote a celebration of the bicentenary of Debussy’s birth.

Contributed by Martin Widden


Review: Kabantu at the Nuffield

Five young musicians in line across the stage of the Nuffield, one of them squatting over a bongo drum. This was Kabantu, the Manchester-based band that played in the Lancaster Arts Concert Series on 17 February.

As well as the drum, the line-up consisted of violin, cello, bass and guitar, all of whom played standing up – which for a cellist is a highly unusual thing to do. It’s achievable if, as here, the instrument is fitted with a long enough spike to raise it to a playable height. So: no chairs.

No music stands, either. The group plays from memory and/or by improvising, so they don’t need any copies.

Very little electronics on show either.

All this fits with the influence of busking on the group. Four of the five musicians met at the Royal Northern College of Music, where they were classically trained, but in this group they have extended their range into a much broader spectrum of styles. Their repertoire spans from Scottish traditional tunes, Bulgarian folk music, Israel, South Africa and beyond, performed with remarkable skill on their instruments, or by whistling, or in some cases by all five musicians singing excellently in close harmony.

It is unusual for the International Concert Series to feature what was in effect a fusion performance, but it made for a very enjoyable evening.


Review: Ella Remembered

This was the title of a performance given in the Great Hall on 7 December as part of the University’s International Concert Series. Few people who know anything about singing would need to ask ‘Ella who?’ – Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996, but more than twenty years later her recordings are still selling very well, particularly those of songs from what became known as the Great American Songbook: standards by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and others. This is partly due to the high quality of the songs, but also to the fact that Ella was such a high-class performer. As her recordings demonstrate, her diction was very clear, her intonation absolutely perfect, and her ability to improvise and to sing scat second to none.

Clair Teal, who sang the Ella tribute in the Great Hall, measured up to this daunting track record very well. In fact, she has made a speciality of performing songs recorded by Ella. Although she only took up her singing career relatively late, in her twenties, she has been very successful, and has won many awards, most recently the vocals category at the British Jazz Awards 2017. An accomplished presenter, she compèred the whole evening in an attractively witty manner. She was supported by an excellent trio, of piano, drums and bass.

This was somewhat different from the usual run of Great Hall concerts, but nonetheless the evening attracted a good audience, of people who were clearly knowledgeable about the songs and the genre – they clapped in all the right places. It was a high-quality performance in all respects, rounding off the term’s concerts most appropriately.

Contributed by Martin Widden.


By Martin Widden

It was once the convention that a concert would begin with a work by a composer from early times; the programme would then move chronologically through pieces by successively more recent composers. A concert by a string quartet might open with a quartet by Haydn (1732-1809), the composer who virtually invented the genre. Next might come a quartet by Beethoven (1770-1827), and the concert might perhaps close with a piece by Dvorak (1841-1904).

Not so the programmes put together by the Brodsky quartet: in their Great Hall concert on 19 October, they rejected the obvious chronological order, opening their performance with a new work they had commissioned from the Japanese composer Karen Tanaka, born in 1961. This was followed by the 4th quartet by Shostakovich. Written in 1949, while Stalin was still in power, the quartet takes a considerable risk by including Jewish themes, or at least music that is Jewish in character. Shostakovich’s music had recently been denounced, and he had been dismissed from his post as professor at the Moscow Conservatory, so he was extremely hard up. Despite this, the quartet evokes the horrors experienced by the Jewish people during the Second World War. The players gave it their all, to the extent that the leader broke a string during the performance. He returned to the stage after an absence of less than a minute; remarkably, the players carried on as if nothing had happened. The quartet was not performed until 1953, after Stalin’s death.

In the second half of the concert the players focused on a particular musical form: the fugue. (For those unfamiliar with this form, a fugue is based on a simple theme – the subject (a single line of notes), which is played at the outset. This subject theme then enters successively at different pitches, and all are developed together with further entries, so that the whole becomes a fascinating and complex work.)

Towards the end of his life, J S Bach composed The Art of Fugue, demonstrating the range of possibilities of composing in this form, and also his own skill at composing in the genre. This is pure music, which can be performed on any instrument or group of instruments, provided it lies within their range of pitch. The Brodsky quartet played two pieces from The Art of Fugue in their concert, showing convincingly that the string quartet is an excellent medium for performing this music.

They followed this with a fugue for string quartet by Mendelssohn, a brilliant demonstration of his skill as a composer for this group of instruments.

They concluded their concert with a performance of the Grosse Fuge opus 133 by Beethoven, originally composed as the finale of his opus 130 quartet. As its title suggests, it is a massive work, taking some 17 minutes to play. The publisher persuaded Beethoven to compose a shorter and less demanding movement as the conclusion of this quartet, which was published as opus 130. But the original fugal movement, now known as opus 133, remains a towering achievement.

This concluded a fascinating concert: excellently played by the Brodsky quartet, and a great start to the 2017-18 Great Hall concert season.