The Tallis Scholars triumphant, plus the best of December’s classical and jazz concerts

The Tallis Scholars triumphant, plus the best of December’s classical and jazz concerts

© Rodrigo Perez
Trail-blazing: The Tallis Scholars perform in 2019 – Rodrigo Perez

The Tallis Scholars, St John Smith’s Square ★★★★☆

What does a choir once described as “trail-blazing” do when it’s approaching its fiftieth birthday, and the world is full of younger choirs who want to steal its thunder?

The answer, as last night’s concert from the Tallis Scholars showed, is that you Keep Calm And Carry On. The choir’s founding director Peter Phillips realised all those years ago that the great church composers of the Renaissance were a neglected part of classical music, crying out to be revealed to the wider world. And the best way to reveal the music’s glowing beauty and expressive heat was with a smallish choir, no more than two singers to a part, striving always to achieve a perfect blend.

Phillips hasn’t wavered from those pioneering principles, but he’s been careful to constantly renew the brand with young singers, and last night the choir sounded as fresh and vibrant as I’ve ever heard it.  The tenors in particular sounded so exuberant they sometimes threatened the choir’s famed blend, though their sound was so thrilling in itself one could hardly complain. Though the concert formed part of Saint John’s Christmas Festival, it was more concerned with the Mother of Christ than Christ Himself. We heard pieces in her praise from the English composer Robert Fayrfax, the Flemish composer Nicolás Gombert and the crazed Italian wife-murderer Carlo Gesualdo, plus Gombert’s setting of Mary’s own prayer the Magnificat. Alongside these we heard William Byrd’s five-part setting of the main Catholic liturgical form, the Mass.

Phillips and his singers were super-alert to the telling differences between these composers and made them so vivid it seemed as if they belonged to different worlds. The endless cantilevered melodies of the sopranos in Fayrfax’s O Maria Deo Gratia and Tavener’s O Splendor Gloriae, floating high above the other voices, seemed as lofty and otherworldly as the vaulted ceiling of an English cathedral, and miles away from the anguish of Gesualdo’s Ave Dulcissima Maria. And both were hugely distant from the luxuriant richness and astounding ear-bending dissonance of Gombert. The serenely “classical” balance of Byrd’s Mass was sung with a glowingly beautiful tone, but thanks to Phillips’s way of responding to the words with subtle changes of speed, beauty was always animated with feeling. In Byrd’s Mass when the choir sang “on the third day He rose again”, even this confirmed agnostic couldn’t help but be thrilled. IH 

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William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants – Mark Allan

Les Arts Florissants, Barbican ★★★★★

Most Christmas music evokes the joyous daylight of redemption: it’s all blazing drums and trumpets and sturdy carols. Last night at the Barbican, however, the rapt audience was treated to a different sort of Christmas music: luxuriantly sensuous yet dimly lit, like a brocade of gold thread seen by candlelight, suffused with a sorrowful awareness of sin. The redemption of the new-born child is hoped for, but hasn’t yet arrived.

This was the world of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, the late 17th-century French composer who spent most of his life in the service of a melancholic and deeply pious Duchess who preferred to keep the rich drapes of her palace closed. It was brought to life by Les Arts Florissants, a 40-strong group of singers and instrumentalists who are so immersed in the droopingly melancholic and exaggeratedly artificial world of French Baroque music they can actually make it seem natural.

Presiding over all this was William Christie, the American-born conductor who founded Les Arts Florissants more than forty years ago, and who yesterday spent his 78th birthday immersed in the music he has done more to popularise than anyone else. Often he sat to one side, knowing the violins and soft-toned flutes and recorders could summon up the gently swaying pastoral interludes between the vocal numbers without his help. At other times he would take over as director, and we would become aware of the passion in that lean, dapper figure as he coaxed out a sweetly agonising “wrong” note from the singers. Sometimes he even used a nervily rotating-hand gesture – as if trying to turn a recalcitrant doorknob – to emphasise those “sighing” feminine endings that make French Baroque music so utterly different to Italian or English.

After the dark first half of the Antiphons O of Advent, with the hall lights down, things brightened literally and metaphorically in the second, with two cantatas on the Christmas story. The instrumental interludes became more sprightly, and there was even a touch of comedy between the two shepherdesses as they discussed the mystery of the Virgin birth – “Wasn’t Joseph jealous?” asked one – sung with tender yet lively grace by Emmanuelle de Negri and Julie Roset. But in the end, it was the way Christie and the performers caught the sense of quiet rapture at the Christmas miracle that really told. It was a joy to witness something so impossibly aristocratic and remote come so movingly to life. IH

Jason Moran, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

© Alamy
The American jazz pianist Jason Moran – Alamy

Most artists who appear at the Wigmore Hall betray some nerves, but last night, on strolled the American jazz pianist Jason Moran, supremely confident and relaxed, and chatted to the audience as if we were a bunch of friends he’d invited round for a jam session. “I’m going to play what the piano tells me,” he said, suggesting that the evening would be a freewheeling affair – yet, as soon became clear, it was anything but. Moran’s enthralling 90-minute set was a carefully laid-out sequence of eight numbers, artfully varied in mood and sound.

That’s only what we should expect: like all his peers in contemporary American jazz, Moran is a long way from the streetwise popular artists who created the form. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music, he’s a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award, and has exhibited his own mixed-media artworks at galleries across America. His art is self-consciously sophisticated, and calls on all manner of things from jazz history. During a performance of an untitled number by his teacher Jaki Byard, a tentative, searching introduction led to a spry moment of stride piano, an antique style Moran recreated with superb stylishness but with harmonic kinks that set it at a distance.

That was one of few moments in the evening to say “jazz” loud and clear. More often, Moran’s art ranged far beyond the form, calling on a range of influences from classical music to the avant-garde, fused into a personal amalgam. One number began with a hectic hammering on just two notes, subtly changing in colour as Moran reached into the piano’s innards to muffle the strings. Soon this morphed into a vast, roaring sound that shifted slowly up the piano’s range – and unexpectedly melted into harmony. It recalled avant-garde improvisers such as Charlemagne Palestine and the repetitive patterns of Philip Glass, until at the end, in one of many subtle and touching endings we heard during the course of the evening, a gentle harmonic flourish gestured towards Ravel.

Described thus, it could all seem contrived, but the real delight of a Moran recital – and he uses that classical term himself – is that it never loses touch with the spontaneity and fun of early jazz. His pungent accents, louchely decorated melodies and ecstatic foot-stamps see to that.  At the end, he even persuaded the audience to sing one of his repeating harmonic patterns, and we were happy to oblige, because the act felt natural and true – like everything we’d just heard. IH

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Volkov, City Halls, Glasgow ★★★★☆

© Alan Peebles
Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – Alan Peebles

It might be the week before Christmas, but don’t expect an easy ride. That seemed to be the message behind conductor Ilan Volkov’s bracing, hardcore, all-20th-century programme with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. And while other Scottish ensembles are devoting their Christmas countdown concerts to snowmen and seasonal tunes, it was undeniably refreshing to encounter not a single Yuletide reference in this vibrant if uncompromising evening of Xenakis, Debussy, Ligeti and Bartok. 

Volkov threw us in at the deep end with Xenakis’s Atrees, which made for an ear-cleansing opener, all craggy textures and towering accumulations of sound, seemingly with a logic all its own (it’s actually the product of some of the composer’s early computer experiments). Atrees made for testing listening, but you couldn’t have asked for a more focused, committed account than that from the 10 BBCSSO soloists (with particularly vivid contributions from principal trumpeter Mark O’Keeffe). 

Volkov, too, approached the work with a cool, almost Boulez-like precision, but he traced its unpredictable trajectory expertly, even dwelling – almost imperceptibly – on the piece’s brief, fleeting moments of sonic beauty. It felt like a provocation, certainly a statement of intent, and it was all the better for that. 

Debussy’s Jeux might have occupied the other end of the artistic sensuality spectrum, but Volkov drew some interesting parallels with Xenakis in the earlier composer’s restless, ever-changing material, Jeux’s elusive sense of musical reason, its apparently perpetual state of moving towards something less ephemeral while never quite daring to make the jump. The BBC SSO players took a short while to properly occupy Debussy’s soundworld – one of the disadvantages of assembling pieces for drastically different line-ups (rather lengthy stage-shifting was another) – but it was a luminous, supple performance when they did. 

After the interval, Volkov delivered an equally light-suffused Ligeti Ramifications, which served as an upbeat to a hard-driven Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Ligeti’s compatriot Bartok. He wrung maximum intensity out of its opening movement’s endlessly intertwining lines, and played up the musical surrealism of the third movement’s ‘night music’ for all its worth, though there were a few moments in the two fast movements (taken very briskly) when the ensemble lacked a bit of crispness, despite the high spirits. 

A difficult programme inevitably meant rather a thin crowd, but it was clear that everyone who was there was up for being prodded and challenged. Which is precisely what Volkov did in his appropriately serious-minded performances. DK

LSO/Rattle/Kissin, Barbican ★★★★☆

Simon Rattle and Evgeny Kissin at the Barbican – LSO

Let’s first dispatch the evening’s disappointment. The one-time wunderkind and now somewhat reclusive pianist Evgeny Kissin was meant to perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3, and it would probably have been tremendous. But illness prevented him from bringing this titanic piece up to scratch, so he had to substitute Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 – which was far from tremendous. It was strangely pedantic and sluggish, with not a trace of wit, and a slow movement that sounded as though it had lead weights tied around its feet. Only in the Chopin waltz he played as an encore did we catch a glimpse of the old Kissin.

Thankfully, it didn’t matter, because what followed was so enthralling. For a breathtaking hour, Sir Simon Rattle led the LSO and us through a Stravinsky journey of his own devising: fifteen short pieces, some fragments of larger pieces and some collections of miniatures, played without a break. The aim was to show the many sides of the most staggeringly protean composer in the history of music, though one could also detect the outlines of a life-story here, beginning with the brilliant student who composed an arrestingly sombre Funeral Song for his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov (only recently rediscovered) and an astonishingly lush setting of an unabashedly erotic poem.

Then, omitting the well-known ballet scores, came the Russian nonsense songs and miniatures of Stravinsky’s first exile in France and Switzerland, followed by a fragment of a Second World War film score and a ballet score for a troupe of young elephants from his second, American exile. Finally, we were given a glimpse of the diamond-hard modernist abstraction of his final years. Overall, it was a reminder that Stravinsky was a maker of divertimenti that dazzle, with their fractured, cubist reinventions of myriad styles from Bach to Offenbach.

They certainly dazzled in these wonderful performances from the LSO and Russian-born soprano Anna Lapkovskaja. And the prevailing tone of innocent delight meant the deep moments struck home: the ringing bell-sounds of Stravinsky’s final piece, Requiem Canticles, that sombre funeral song, and above all the Pas de deux from his ballet Apollon Musagète, which some would say is hardly deep at all, being a piece of perfumed French-flavoured neoclassicism.

But as this ravishing, fine-grained, tender performance reminded us, Stravinsky didn’t need to strike a solemn mood to touch the depths. It’s the mysterious appeal of his music, so aloof and yet so entrancing, which achieves that miracle. IH

The LSO and Simon Rattle perform their Stravinsky programme again tonight (Dec 15). Info:

Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists, St Martin-in-the-Fields ★★★★☆

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John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists at St Martin-in-the-Fields – Paul Marc Mitchell / St Martin-in-the-Fields

Handel for Christmas, Bach for Easter. That’s a rule-of-thumb many go by, as Bach was so good at striking an anguished penitential note, while Handel’s Messiah is the perfect expression of joy at the Christmas miracle.

On Tuesday night, veteran conductor John Eliot Gardiner, together with the two ensembles he founded, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, showed Bach could take on Handel and… well, not beat him exactly, because nothing beats the Hallelujah Chorus. But in his Christmas Oratorio, of which we heard the opening half, Bach showed he could certainly rival Handel in trumpets-and-drums glory, and in finding a whole range of emotions in the Christmas story, from awe to tenderness. And also that deeper, thoughtful note struck when the Evangelist (the singer who narrates the story) reminds us that the joyful beginning of Christ’s life will soon lead to sorrow.

All this flooded our hearts and minds with unusual force, because Gardiner is so alert to the meanings of the words, and urges the performers to make them shine out in such a way that they become pure music. At one point, the performers take up the Shepherds’ words “Let us See this thing which has come to pass”.  The scurrying of the sopranos and violins and the agile hopping of the cellos conjured a mental image of shepherds practically tripping over their own feet in their eagerness to see the Christ child. But the music itself never tripped. It was perfectly lucid, the chorus enunciating the syllables like a string of pearls, every note in the orchestra crystal clear.

Like Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s oratorio contains an orchestral Pastorale in honour of those shepherds, and the English Baroque Soloists’ quartet of soft-toned Baroque oboes and flutes turned this into a moment of gentle, drowsy magic. Tender reflectiveness was a note often struck in the chorales (those sturdy German hymn-tunes that punctuate the action), but some were rumbustiously cheerful. In their meditations on the story, the eight soloists drawn from the chorus showed the same virtues of musicality mingled with attention to the music’s meaning. Only once did I feel Gardiner’s determination to alert us to the words slightly hampered the music’s flow, and that was in the exultant opening chorus.

Apart from that, the evening was pure joy. The oratorio’s second half comes on Thursday; if you’re within reach of Trafalgar Square, drop everything and go. IH

Hear the second half of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Thurs Dec 15;

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Birmingham ★★★★☆

© Andrew Fox
Romanian violinist Eugene Tzikindelean leads the CBSO – Andrew Fox

The deepest musical experiences don’t always come on cue, when you’re listening with a solemn demeanour to a weighty masterpiece. Sometimes they come when you least expect them, during a piece that’s light and doesn’t claim to plumb any depths, and is even – heaven forbid – a bit showy.

I was reminded of that fact during the CBSO’s lunchtime concert yesterday, when the light and showy Violin Concerto by Carl Nielsen was sandwiched between two works which wore their serious intentions on their sleeves: Brahms’s Tragic Overture and Shostakovich’s bleak and terrifying Fifth Symphony. Nielsen’s concerto is a rarity on concert programmes for reasons that quickly became clear: it’s hugely challenging for everyone, above all the soloist, who has to negotiate not one but three cadenzas (solo spots of impressive finger-twisting difficulty). And the piece is an odd shape, cast in two movements which both take a while to find themselves, and then having finally hit on an ear-catching tune drop it like a hot potato and go scampering off in a new direction.

It can be a puzzling journey, but not on this occasion. The springy and alert accompaniment from the orchestra under conductor Alpesh Chauhan was a factor, but there’s no doubt most of the magic emanated from Eugene Tzikindelean, the dapper Romanian violinist who is also the orchestra’s leader. He has an effortlessly huge, burnished tone, as was demonstrated in the first two seconds of Nielsen’s concerto when the orchestra flung a massive chord at him, which Tzikindelean easily trumped with a different chord. He characterised the ensuing series of feints and false starts with such pert wit, and so convincingly stage-managed the emergence of the ear-catching tune, that puzzlement was very soon transformed into charm and delight.

The rest of the programme wasn’t always on such a high level. Brahms’s Tragic Overture quickly imposed its gravity on us, unfolding with an iron-grey spaciousness like the sea at dawn. In Shostakovich’s symphony the players responded to Chauhan’s very slow tempi with heroically sustained playing, and the bleached-out slow movement left an aftertaste of infinite sadness. But the piece’s overall narrative felt compromised, and the grim, agonised “heroic” ending was not as shattering as it can be. Chauhan’s epic approach was surely prompted by a sincere wish to explore Shostakovich’s tragic depths, but it robbed the piece of the vital energy which even the darkest music needs. IH

Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience, Theatre Royal Drury Lane ★★★☆☆

© Craig Fuller
Danielle de Niese in Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience – Craig Fuller

At first glance this could have been a “normal” performance of the world’s most popular oratorio, apart from the fact that it was taking place in the gilded splendour of a West End theatre. Packed onto the stage was the English Chamber Orchestra, and behind them rising up in serried ranks was the London Symphony Chorus, all in black.

But as the lights came down and the urgent, darkly serious overture began, normality disappeared. A tall screen placed squarely centre stage glowed with an image of a burning sun, soon obscured by threatening black asteroids, while three dancers flitted down the aisles. Normality seemed to return when tenor Nicky Spence appeared on the narrow strip of bare stage at the front to sing the beautifully consoling aria “Comfort Ye”. But the dancers soon reappeared, followed by two actors (Martina Laird and Arthur Darvill) dressed like refugees from a militaristic dystopia. Between the musical numbers they conversed in a poetic dialogue which suggested they were mother and child, separated by a malign fate.

This dramatised version of the Messiah was the brainchild of Classical Everywhere, dedicated to creating classical “experiences, not concerts” as its founder and the evening’s conductor Gregory Batsleer puts it. Working with him on this show was a whole army of video and lighting technicians, a choreographer, and a spoken-word poet (P Burton-Morgan), all brought together by Immersive Everywhere, the team behind hit immersive theatre shows such as Peaky Blinders: The Rise.

You might think a multimedia enhancing of the Messiah would clarify the work’s religious narrative, but the creators chose to avoid the Christian specifics and instead teased out their underlying themes. The dancers acted out little scenes of struggle, oppression and joyful release, strikingly choreographed by Tom Jackson Greaves, that you could just about link to the Biblical narrative of Christ’s sacrifice and miraculous resurrection. And it became clear that Christ’s relationship to his mother was being evoked by those dystopian figures.  

As for the musicians, they were driven hard by Batsleer, which was sometimes thrillingly expressive but just as often felt exaggerated, and the choral singers occasionally struggled with his fast speeds. Soprano Danielle de Niese was in very uncertain voice, but Spence, mezzo-soprano Idunnu Münch and baritone Cody Quattlebaum were stronger. Like everyone else they threw themselves with maximum commitment into this spectacle which, despite its obscurities and ragged edges, was always thought-provoking, and at times even moving. IH

Sinfonia of London, Barbican ★★★★★

© Chris Christodoulou
Telling elegance: John Wilson conducts the Sinfonia of London at the Barbican – Chris Christodoulou

Some orchestras want to edify us, or challenge us, or give us a political lesson. The Sinfonia of London only wants to give us a roaring good time, and if we’re edified along the way, well so much the better. That’s why this one-time humble studio orchestra, which numbers the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo among its recording credits, is set fair to become Britain’s favourite orchestra.

Another draw was conductor John Wilson, who relaunched the orchestra in 2018 and before that created the John Wilson Orchestra, whose annual Proms performances of musical and film scores are invariably a season highlight. He has an unfussy but telling elegance of gesture – no sweaty “conductor’s ecstasy” for him – which had surprisingly huge effects, like throwing the stage light-switches in a theatre; a single flick of that forefinger, and we were flooded in aural dazzlement and colour and magic.

First up was the overture Scapino by William Walton. The title refers to the Italian stock comedy character Scapino, from whose name we get our word “escapade”. The piece capered and glittered brilliantly, though there were moments of calm when the sweetly lyrical violas suggested Scapino’s escapades were turning amorous.

Then came Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade, one of those pieces that will probably be banned soon as the text is a shamelessly “orientalist” picture of the mystic East, complete with smiling assassins, princesses with slender hands, and “pot-bellied mandarins”. But any qualms were instantly quelled by Alice Coote’s fervent performance. The way she made the heart-stricken disappointment of the final song melt into sensuous languor was a lesson in how a great performance can turn copper into gold.

Nothing else made the heart melt quite like that, but there was plenty to make it expand joyously, including a performance of George Gershwin’s American in Paris which seemed bigger and more sassy than ever – and also more musically interesting. This was partly because Wilson had laboured to restore the cuts and fix the errors imposed on the piece by an unscrupulous publisher, partly because trumpeter James Fountain gave such a sexy sway to that immortal trumpet melody.

What with all that, plus the mystery and drama of the ballet score Le Loup by the young Henri Dutilleux – a real rarity which sounded like a long-lost film score from the 1950s – the concert was already a triumph. We didn’t really need Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, that weird aberration of a normally wonderful composer, but it was performed with such irresistible swelling grandeur one could hardly mind.

Hear the Sinfonia of London at Royal Concert Hall Nottingham on 4 December  

LPO/Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆

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Hugely intelligent: Robin Ticciati conducts the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall – London Philharmonic Orchestra

It’s often said the symphonies of great 19th-century composer Anton Bruckner are “cathedrals in sound”, huge in effect and lofty in aspiration, and that creates a problem for programmers of symphony concerts. What short programme-filler can you put next to a cathedral that won’t seem small and insignificant?

The LPO solved the problem brilliantly by prefacing Bruckner’s Ninth and final Symphony with the Five Mystical Songs of Vaughan Williams, which as well as being a nod to “VW” in his 150 anniversary year also lifted us into the right contemplative frame of mind. As for Bruckner’s symphony, it was performed not in the unfinished three-movement form we normally hear but as a complete four-movement symphony, with a conjectural finale brilliantly stitched together from the composer’s sketches by a team of musical scholars.  

So potentially much to savour and be inspired by, but the reality didn’t quite live up to expectations. The Five Mystical Songs were sung by baritone Simon Keenlyside, who makes a splendidly vengeful Italian count on the operatic stage (he recently played Count Almaviva) and was impressive in the more ecstatic moments, but completely missed the hushed rapt tenderness of “Love bade me Welcome”, the emotional heart of the songs.

By comparison with VW’s songs, so simple and lucid in their transcendentalism, Bruckner’s symphony is all restless searching, with a Scherzo that sounds positively demonic, and a slow third movement that leads from anguish to glowing stillness. In this new version of the symphony that glowing moment was no longer the ending; the finale launched off on a whole new journey, full of sudden emotional switchbacks and disconcerting references to the earlier movements.

British conductor Robin Ticciati reminded us what a hugely intelligent musician he is by giving shape and coherence to this inspired but frequently confounding piece. Urgency mingled with sensitivity were the key moments; this was a cathedral made of malleable feelings, not massive stone. But the huge agonised melody that begins the third movement lacked the intensity one expects, and there were some moments in the first movement when the violins seemed not quite sure of Ticciati’s aspiring but somewhat eccentric beat. It was hard to know whether my lingering feelings of puzzlement were due to the unfamiliarity of this new version of Bruckner’s last work, or whether the performers really needed another rehearsal to pull this vast structure together and make sure all the details were in place. IH

The LPO and Vladimir Jurowski perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall on Dec 3. Tickets: 020 7840 4242;

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