Pappano finds the blazing drama in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, plus the best of January’s classical concerts

Thrilling: Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha with Antonio Pappano
Thrilling: Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha with Antonio Pappano - Mark Allan

London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican ★★★★☆

One hundred years ago an American critic, bored to death at a performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, described it as “hopelessly, awfully, irremediably mid-Victorian.”

We are less damning of things Victorian now. But there’s no doubt Mendelssohn’s portrayal of the Old Testament prophet who twice brings down God’s wrath on the errant Israelites and is carried off to a heaven in a fiery chariot can sometimes seem pious and over-sweet. The sturdy choruses can sound Victorian in a different way, whisking us disconcertingly from the burning hot Holy Land to a temperance society meeting somewhere in damp Bethnal Green. Alongside these are wonderful passages of Bach-like solemnity, Handelian grandeur, and even some moments of dramatic intensity which make this the closest Mendelssohn ever came to composing an opera. 

All these things – including the sweetness – came to life magnificently in this performance.  On the podium was Antonio Pappano, now in his final months as Music Director of the Royal Opera, and soon to be Chief Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Behind the LSO was the London Symphony Chorus (on good form for the furious dramatic choruses, but not so well sustained in the long Bach-like fugues), the eight student singers of the Guildhall Singers, and in front, the five soloists. Pappano seized every chance to make the drama blaze, particularly in the scene where Elijah brings back the Widow’s son from the dead.

The still, grave centre of all this was Gerald Finley as Elijah, frowning and weighed down with cares, only looking up to implore God’s help. Perhaps he wasn’t gravel-voiced enough for the moments when Elijah calls on the prophets of the false god Baal to be slain, but he summoned a beautifully moulded, tender tone, especially in his final aria For the Mountains shall Depart (entwined with the tender oboe of Juliana Koch, one of many moments when individual players of the LSO really shone).

At the opposite pole of impetuous energy was tenor Allan Clayton, who found an imploring tone for Elijah’s companion Obadiah, and a straightforwardly furious one for Ahab, the stubborn Israelite king who persists in the worship of Baal. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was the ministering Angel to Elijah when he flees into the desert, a role she fulfilled with just the thrilling, compassionately deep tone one expected.

However the singer who outshone almost everyone was the South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. She has a voice of pearly softness which seemed to glow more magnificently as the evening progressed, and she varied her sound tellingly. The new bright tone she found for the aria Be Not Afraid thrilled me to the marrow. It was the moment that made one think this is a masterpiece after all.

I say Rangwanasha almost outshone everyone, because the Guildhall Singers at the back were simply wonderful, and yielded nothing to the big name singers in terms of expressivity, full tone and perfect balance.  Their rendition of the Angel’s Chorus in Part 1 might actually have been the evening’s highlight. Ivan Hewett

Trombonist Jörgen van Rijen and conductor Jordan de Souza
Trombonist Jörgen van Rijen and conductor Jordan de Souza in rehearsal - Yusef Bastawy

BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Cardiff Millennium Centre ★★★★☆

Many composers nowadays feel the urge to grapple with big contemporary issues – climate change, racism, homelessness. But many are happy to find inspiration where composers have always found it: a poem, the thought of something ancient and mysterious, the sight of a sky turning from grey to vermilion at sunset.

BBC NOW offered all these, in a concert that included four premieres. The glow of a sunset was beautifully evoked in Anna Whitcombe’s And the Skies became Vermilion, the layered sounds of flutes and strings like layers of cloud parting and reforming.

Gavin Higgins’s Sarabande was, according to the composer, an evocation of the stately dance of the Baroque, and the more earthy Sarabande of the Renaissance. I couldn’t really hear those things, but as often happens with contemporary music once you freed your mind from the programme note and went with the flow, you could simply enjoy things for what they were: for instance, the way the opening web of mournful sounds almost yielded up a melody, like something half-remembered. Like everything else, it was played with expressive sensitivity by BBC NOW, conducted by Jordan de Souza.

Two of the pieces had a charming naive quality, which is not something most people would associate with scary “modern music”. The Australian composer Ross Edwards’s Chorale and Ecstatic Dances had an immediately appealing way of combining things you’d think couldn’t live together: Arvo Pärt’s stillness and Sibelius’s Nordic melodism in the Chorale, and bucolic jollity and the innocence of Balinese ceremonial music in the dances.

More rumbustious in its naivety was the trombone concerto by China’s most-famed living composer Tan Dun, entitled Three Muses in Video Game. The three muses were three ancient Chinese instruments, evoked in a deliberately cartoonish way inspired by video games. The exuberant Dutch trombone virtuoso Jörgen van Rijen whooped and soared, the three trombonists in the orchestra whooped right back at him, the percussion thundered, the violins played winsomely Chinese-sounding melodies. By the end, I was still trying to decide whether it was embarrassing or charming.

At the opposite pole to this was James MacMillan’s Her tears fell with the dews at even, inspired by Tennyson’s poem Mariana in which a lonely girl pines for her lover in an atmosphere of grey skies. Macmillan conjured from this an elaborate form which rose to a huge climax, which seemed out of kilter with the delicacy of the poem. It was the opening evocation of mildewed decay and hopelessness which really told, expressed through the most imaginative and poetically telling sounds of the evening. IH

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 later this year

Philharmonia, Southbank Centre ★★★★☆

Mitsuko Uchida
Mitsuko Uchida

Some might say the copper-bottomed mainstream programme the Philharmonia played last night was a cop-out, a symptom of the cautious approach to programming much of the orchestral world has adopted since the pandemic. On the other hand, performing three familiar masterworks from Beethoven and Sibelius one after another actually carries risks of its own. A premiere of a new piece which turns out to be a turkey can be shrugged off; a routine, lifeless performance of a masterpiece is somehow more upsetting.

But these performances were the invigorating kind that send you out into the winter dark with a spring in your step. Thomas Dausgaard stepped in at the last minute for the orchestra’s indisposed conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, but he was utterly decisive in the opening performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2, which squeezes the gloom, heroic rescue and final triumph of his opera Fidelio into 15 thrilling minutes. The fateful silences in the opening pages felt huge and oppressive, the ending had that combination of needle-sharp precision in the violins and wild energy in the whole which makes it most effective. Delirium needs to be controlled, to really sweep you off your feet.

Beethoven’s 2nd piano concerto was by contrast a step back into an orderliness not too far from Mozart. It seemed especially Mozart-like in this performance from star pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who made the opening phrases perfectly balanced, and also perfectly “turned” individually, as we knew she would. Seeing Uchida perform (and I mean “see” as well as hear because no pianist has a more expressive face) is like seeing pure musical intelligence in action. When the music shifted to an unexpected harmony her arrested hand-raised gesture fixed the radiance of the moment.

You could say Uchida missed Beethoven’s rough humour of the final movement, and in general her performance was a little underpowered. However, the beautiful inwardness of the slow movement, where she was both absolutely at one with the orchestra and Dausgaard, and in her own private world, was worth the ticket price on its own.

But there was more to come, with a performance of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite. The story, in which the Finnish folk-hero seduces 1,000 maidens, fails to kill the Swan of Tuonela, dies, is stitched back together by his mother, and returns home in triumph, sounds like the cue for something swashbuckling and romantic. As this tremendous performance from the Philharmonia and Dausgaard showed the music actually leads you into a deeply strange world. Glowing chords and pithy phrases keep returning, like a magic rune that must be repeated, and the whole piece is wrapped in an uncanny colour, fiery and icy at the same time. Even weirder is the way time seems to bend, suddenly looping back to a previous moment as if Lemminkäinen has stepped into a time machine. All this was surpassingly vivid in this performance, but what lingers in my mind is the inconsolable melody of the Swan of Tuonela, beautifully performed by cor anglais player Rebecca Kozam. IH

Hear the Philharmonia and Alice Sara Ott perform the new piano concerto by Bryce Dessner on February 15;

The London Sinfonietta and guests at the Purcell Room
The London Sinfonietta and guests at the Purcell Room - Julian Guidera

London Sinfonietta: Decades, Purcell Room ★★★★☆

Britain’s best-known contemporary music group, the London Sinfonietta, has been obeying Ezra Pound’s imperative to “make it new” for more than half-a-century. It has commissioned over 470 new pieces in that time, and given UK premieres of hundreds more, so there has been precious little time for the group to look back at past triumphs.

To celebrate the orchestra’s 56th birthday, conductor Geoffrey Paterson decided it was finally time to revive some particularly striking works from that immense back catalogue. We heard one commission from each of the orchestra’s five full decades of existence, and, to remind us this group never rests on its laurels, there were also three brand-new pieces.

One was a birthday salute to the Sinfonietta from a grey-haired master, the American George Lewis. His Celebration was a madly entertaining and piercingly high dance for solo piccolo that gave the Sinfonietta’s long-serving flautist Michael Cox a prolonged and clearly enjoyable workout. The other two were from fresh-faced youth; very youthful in the case of Autumn for solo harp, composed by eight-year-old Lenny, one of the pupils at Alderwood Primary School in south-east London, where the Sinfonietta is active in music education. Sensitively played by Helen Tunstall, it was beautifully evocative of falling leaves, summoned a huge range of colours, and had an energising conciseness that some rather older composers could learn from.

Before that, a dozen pupils from another school where the Sinfonietta is active, St Ignatius College in Enfield came on stage to sing a protest song of their own creation. Prefaced by tense atmospheric sounds from a handful of Sinfonietta players, it was more an honest expression of hope and puzzlement at the world’s perfidy than a rousing call to action, tinged at the end with an affecting sadness.

Compared with the frank directness of those pieces, most of the older pieces we heard had a typical modernist virtuoso brilliance, harnessed to a lurid emotional world in which things can change in an instant from floating shadowy beauty to speed-of-thought blizzards of notes. Tansy Davies’s Iris added magic both beautiful and sinister to the mix to evoke the Greek goddess Iris, while Oliver Knussen’s Coursing traced a single trajectory from mad high capering down to dark quiescence.

Verdala by Guyanese-British composer Hannah Kendall had a more sombre cast, in keeping with its theme of colonial exploitation. Most intimidatingly brilliant of all was Thomas Adès’s Living Toys, which summoned up a child’s dream of battles with bulls and soldiers and his eventual imagined funeral, complete with thudding drums and a three-gun shrieking “salute” at the end.

One had to admire the virtuosity of the Sinfonietta’s musicians, but to have so much music in this hyper-intense, hyperactive vein was perhaps a bit much. It fell to that master of exquisite gentleness Toru Takemitsu to soothe our souls with his Tree Line, an evocation in deliciously Debussy-like harmonies of a line of trees near the composer’s home in Japan. It was a welcome reminder that modern music can be touching as well as thrilling. IH

The London Sinfonietta returns to the Purcell Room on Feb 22;

CBSO/Kazuki Yamada, Symphony Hall, Birmingham ★★★★☆

Eugene Tzikindelean of the CBSO
Eugene Tzikindelean of the CBSO - Beki Smith

Creation myths have inspired some haunting musical images. Think of Wagner’s huge Ring cycle, where the whole world seems to emerge out of watery depths. Or the grandeur of Haydn’s Creation, where Chaos yearns for the illuminating touch of the Almighty.

At Wednesday night’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, attended by the orchestra’s patron the Duke of Edinburgh, we were offered a new musical vision of divine creation. Wavering World by 40-something Japanese-born composer Dai Fujikura was actually meant to be a homage to Sibelius, and, although his influence could be heard here and there, the piece turned into something very different: an evocation of a Japanese myth about heaven and earth splitting, and forming themselves into three new worlds. In the world above live the gods, in the underworld are the dead, and in between lies the human world.

A cosmos opening and giving birth to a new universe sounds like a cue for a noisy musical apocalypse, but in Fujikura’s vision it was a gentle sundering, a single note from which the stringed instruments pealed up and down in layers, like a flower unfolding. Into the space thus opened up translucent chords appeared, alongside huge brass notes approaching and fading away. One felt a sense of waiting, things floating without any purpose, the harmonies rich and almost-familiar, suggestive of something not quite formed.

The arrival of the kettle-drums, played with ceremonial eloquence by Matthew Hardy, seemed like a call to order, which made the glowing aqueous chords first stop dead in their tracks, and then reassemble. One felt a new energy emerging in a rising tide of woodwind flurries, which gathered in intensity until at the end four massive chords clinched everything, as if this new mythic world had finally taken shape. One could feel the ghost of the similarly emphatic ending of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony some way in the distance, but that didn’t in any way compromise the beauty and poetic suggestiveness of Fujikura’s vision.

After that, we returned to the human world, with a performance of the violin concerto by William Walton. Rather than booking a glamorous soloist, the CBSO invited its leader Eugene Tzikindelean to play the solo part, and once again he proved more than equal to the task. He soared above the orchestra through a sweet fieriness of tone rather than sheer force, and the orchestra under the guiding hand of conductor Kazuki Yamada produced a richly “filmic” glamour of sound that complemented the soloist perfectly.

With the closing piece, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Yamada was back on his favourite territory of French music, but the piece took a while to find its stride. The introduction seemed just too long-drawn-out and hesitant.  But the scene at the Ball had a delicious swaying grace, and the melancholy of the Scene in the Country, with the sad timpani rolls answering the eloquent cor anglais solo of Rachel Pankhurst, was beautifully caught. The evening’s new piece had given us some extraordinary sounds, but for sheer poetic strangeness Berlioz’s immortal masterwork topped everything. Ivan Hewett

Details of the CBSO’s future concerts at

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Jonathon Heyward with the LPO
Anne-Sophie Mutter and Jonathon Heyward with the LPO - LPO

John Williams, LPO/Anne-Sophie Mutter ★★★☆☆

Most hugely successful composers in a popular genre are content to be widely loved. For some, however, that’s not enough. They feel the urge to make a Big Statement, and that means going full classical. Think of Paul McCartney and his Liverpool Oratorio, or jazz musician Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto.

In last night’s concert from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, we had the latest Big Statement from John Williams, the beloved film composer who has just announced his retirement from that medium at the age of 91. We heard the UK premiere of his Violin Concerto No 2, alongside numerous excerpts from his film scores, performed in new arrangements with a virtuoso solo violin part woven into the music. On stage to perform all this was the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who clearly has an old-fashioned reverence for elderly genius. In her onstage chats, she referred to Williams constantly as The Great Master, without irony.

Was the concerto masterly? It was certainly a terrific show-piece for Mutter, who was called on to be heroic and lyrical by turns, and fling off numerous cadenzas full of virtuoso fireworks. And it reminded us how many iridescent colours Williams can conjure from an orchestra. But the musical material was dispiritingly unfocused. For Williams, being Serious means summoning up the ear-crunching, somewhat dour modernism of America back in the 1950s.

True, there were little hints of jazzy “blue notes”, and the prevailing dark, searching harmonies were illumined here and there by Benjamin Britten-ish repeated harp patterns, or a sudden blaze of stark percussion straight out of late Stravinsky. And everything was beautifully shaped by the players of the LPO – all praise to harpist Sue Blair – and conductor Jonathon Heyward. But though there was, at times, an appealing film noir-ish tinge to the modernist anguish, anyone hoping for a hint of the familiar heart-on-sleeve Williams would have been disappointed.

All this could, nonetheless, have added up to something intriguing, had Williams given the material a cogent form. Mostly, however, the concerto seemed to be moving in circles, constantly launching off on a promising new development, only to peter out in yet another angular lament or burst of strenuous virtuosity. It would have made twice the impact at half the length.

If nothing else, at least, the concerto whetted our appetite for the lyrical warmth of Williams’s film scores. Excerpts from four were promised, but Mutter, generous as always, gave us four more as encores. Some, such as Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter, were familiar; others, from The Adventures of Tintin and The Long Goodbye, less so. When Williams’s newly composed arrangements called on Mutter to be simply lyrical, the music’s beauty shone out; when he asked her to gild the lily with virtuoso complexity, it was often obscured. The closing performance of Leonard Bernstein’s brilliantly concise and cogent score for the 1954 film On the Waterfront surely wasn’t intended as a rebuke to Williams’s garrulousness and lack of focus – but it was hard not to hear it that way. Ivan Hewett

No further performances

Simon Rattle conducting the LSO and chorus at the Barbican
Simon Rattle conducting the LSO and chorus at the Barbican - Mark Allan

Jenůfa, LSO/ Rattle, Barbican ★★★★☆

One of the projects that could have been lost to London when Simon Rattle moved from his too-short time as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was his characterful series of Janáček operas in concert performances. This has already produced a winning recording of a semi-staged The Cunning Little Vixen and a performance of Katya Kabanova (shortly to be released).

Fortunately the annual project is continuing in the new era, now with Rattle returning as Conductor Emeritus, and this spectacular, committed account of Janáček’s great opera drew a packed hall which hung on every note of the superb score. The cast was not quite as originally planned: the Jenůfa of the moment, Asmik Grigorian, who sang in Covent Garden’s recent production, had withdrawn; we thus had the benefit of a less familiar voice, Agneta Eichenholz, as the tortured central character of Janáček’s tale of an oppressive society who will condemn her for conceiving a child outside marriage.

Tense, unsurprisingly nervy at the start, Eichenholz blossomed with a shining, clear top range that rang out in her Act Two prayer, though she always seemed slightly more deliberate than Rattle wanted. She is at the mercy of disapproval from her stepmother the Kostelnička. In this fiercely demanding role, Katarina Karnéus was, like several of the cast, firmly bound to reading the score, but managed some electrifying climaxes of rage and self-loathing as she takes Jenůfa’s new-born child, drowns it, and finally admits to the murder.

Rampaging on stage with total confidence, Nicky Spence as her boorish husband-to-be Števa was gripping and vividly projected. He has sung both this role and that of Laca, the ardent, awkward tenor who uneasily ends up with Jenůfa. As it happens the Laca in this performance, the excellent Czech tenor Aleš Briscein, has also sung Števa. But here they were ideally suited to their roles, though restricted by the very narrow platform on which all had to make their entrances and exits: when Laca brutally slashes Jenůfa’s face with a knife in a moment of fury at the climax of Act One, they were on opposite sides of the stage. Carole Wilson as the grandmother and Claire Barnett-Jones as the herdswoman and Barena offered solid support, and there was a sharp-etched, bright cameo from Erika Baikof as Jano.

Janáček wrote the opera over a long period of time between 1894 and 1903, revising it later in the decade, and it’s often been observed that the first act, with its cheerful folk-inspired choruses, is in a different idiom from the second and third acts. But here it was woven into the same cloth; the generously over-large London Symphony Chorus (with Simon Halsey returning as chorus master) complementing the orchestra. Rattle left nothing to chance, cueing the singers constantly, moving the music on, and creating a shifting tapestry of rhapsodic haze from the strings combined with fierce impact from wind and brass. The London Symphony Orchestra, led by Benjamin Gilmore, was on absolutely impeccable top form, with him all the way. Nicholas Kenyon

Again on Jan 14. Recorded for future broadcast on Marquee TV from Feb 8

Pavel Kolesnikov with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Pavel Kolesnikov with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra - Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Lighthouse, Poole ★★★★☆

Musical romanticism comes in many shades, as this stirring concert from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra reminded us. First, we were offered the picturesque variety in Elgar’s overture In the South, where wild Italian landscapes and scenes of derring-do from long ago are evoked. Then came the sort where whiffs of sulphur are mingled with martial valour and dreamy reverie, courtesy of Liszt in his Second Piano Concerto. Finally came Brahms’s Second Symphony, described by some as sunny, by others as autumnal, and by Brahms himself as so sad the pages of the score should be lined in black.

All this needed a conductor able to persuade an orchestra to conjure all these different shades, and fortunately the BSO had one in the shape of young Briton Alpesh Chauhan. He launched Elgar’s piece with exactly the breathless excitement it needs, and his intelligent way of pacing the music made one super-aware of a wonderful paradoxical quality about the piece. When it evokes the Italian landscape Elgar had in front of him while composing, the music is filled with nostalgia. When it evokes battles from long ago, the music jumps into the present tense. The battles seem to be happening now, right in front of us.

Then on to the stage for Liszt’s concerto came the elfin, bespectacled figure of pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. You’d expect such a figure to produce a perfect limpid tone in the lyrical passages, and so he did, making the melody float out effortlessly from the left-hand accompaniment like a ripple on a lake. What was startling was the way Liszt’s virtuoso octaves emerged so thunderously from under his figures, and with so little appearance of effort.

Part of the fascination of this piece is that you’re never sure whether the hellfire moments are serious or ironic, and that uncertainty was especially acute in Kolesnikov’s sly, knowing performance. At one point, he thundered up the keyboard and suddenly stopped dead – but with a nicely judged pause, hand thrown up in a fine imperious gesture. If you have to go down to Hell, go down in style.

After all this brimstone, Brahms’s symphony was bound to appear a little muted. But Chauhan wasn’t content to let us slip into autumnal regret; he wanted to show that the music is in its way as turbulent as the other two pieces. He achieved it with a much more marked tempo flexibility than one normally hears in this piece.

Often, this paid dividends, especially in the first movement where the unexpected yearning horn solo seemed especially inconsolable. Sometimes, as in the innocent country dance of the third movement (the lilting melody beautifully played by oboist Edward Kay), it got in the way of the music’s natural flow.

But he handled the subtly graded acceleration towards the final joyous peroration brilliantly. Chauhan is determined to take nothing for granted, which is a great thing, but he could leave more to the musicians’ own musicality. Ivan Hewett

Hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 on Friday March 1 at 7.30pm

Ian Bostridge performs Schubert's Schwanengesang with pianist Saskia Giorgini at London's Wigmore Hall
As if he'd just run a marathon: Ian Bostridge performs Schubert's Schwanengesang with pianist Saskia Giorgini at London's Wigmore Hall - The Wigmore Hall Trust

Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall, London W1 ★★★☆☆

Britain’s favourite tenor is now nudging 60 but the packed Wigmore Hall and the tingle of anticipation for this recital showed his fans are still as adoring as ever. Bostridge was on his favourite musical territory: he offered the final song-set by Franz Schubert, composed shortly before the composer’s death in 1828, Schwanengesang (Swansong) is hard to bring off because it is divided disconcertingly between songs of terrifying supernatural depth, and others of charming yet heartbreaking simplicity, with no interlinking narrative to ease the transition between the two.

Conditions weren’t ideal: the scheduled accompanist, Alexander Melnikov, had pulled out at very short notice; and Bostridge seemed to have a cold. But the pianist Saskia Giorgini was a more than adequate replacement, and as we soon discovered Bostridge’s special appeal remains as potent as ever. In the second song, a warrior dreams of his distant beloved and at the end has a presentiment of his own death. Bostridge filled the last words “Gute Nacht!” with an extraordinary quality – bitter, regretful and resigned all at once. Later came Resting Place, where the singer seems to be in a wild landscape of thundering rivers and raging storms. But Bostridge’s strange gauzy tone, as if his voice were cloaked, told us the truth the song only reveals later — that the resting place for this incurable wanderer isn’t a rock, it’s an immovable sense of grief.

Moments like this reminded us what an intelligent singer Bostridge is. The problem is that these flashes of illumination were dwarfed by an overall feeling of difficulty and oppression. Yes, art-song is a cruelly difficult form and even its greatest interpreters reveal a sense of strain at times. But with Bostridge, that strain is almost all one feels. Pure enjoyment in the act of singing, which ought to be at the root of any recital, is missing. That, as much as the romantic sentiments of the songs, explains his anguished stage presence, constantly turning from us to gaze at the piano’s innards, or gripping its sides as if he’d just run a marathon.

Not once did Bostridge smile — neither literally or vocally — which felt odd in the more innocent, charming songs. His absorption in the struggle meant that Bostridge’s eye-contact with his pianist was also minimal; unsurprisingly, she too seemed somewhat on edge.

Musically more rewarding was Saskia Giorgini’s performance of Liszt’s six Consolations, which came as something of a relief. It glowed with an easy, natural musicality that elsewhere was in far too short supply. IH

William Christie (at the harpsichord) with members of his ensemble Les Arts Florissants
William Christie (at the harpsichord) with members of his ensemble Les Arts Florissants - The Wigmore Hall Trust, 2023

Les Arts Florissants, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

In many major cities, music is synonymous with New Year celebrations. The most famous of these festivities must be Vienna’s great institution of the Neujahrskonzert, where waltzes flow from the Vienna Philharmonic like Sekt from popping bottles. New York’s Metropolitan Opera has taken to opening a major new production on New Year’s Eve, this season Carmen directed by Carrie Cracknell. Berlin boasts enough concerts during these days to fill a month in many other cities. But London is lagging behind, a reminder of its dwindling status as one of the world’s musical capitals.

Thank heavens, then, for the Wigmore Hall, which stayed open between Christmas and New Year, offering a typically serious and sober programme of chamber-sized events. This compact New Year’s Eve concert with members of Les Arts Florissants drew a capacity audience, disproving again what Britain’s cultural apparatchiks would have us believe about demand for classical music.

As a musical state-of-the-nation snapshot, it was also telling that where Vienna and New York saw their most celebrated ensembles in action at New Year, London got two countertenors, a pair of violinists, a cellist and a harpsichordist (also playing the organ). Not just any harpsichordist, mind you: this was William Christie, the American-born, French- domiciled doyen of period performance, who’ll turn 80 in December. But big international ensembles such as the full complement of Christie’s Les Arts Florissants (not to mention international symphony orchestras) think twice these days before coming to Britain.

A waltz- and habanera-free zone, this was hardly an upbeat celebration, yet in the circumstances that was maybe fitting. Medea’s plight formed the centrepiece of the Italian Baroque programme, and the countertenor Carlo Vistoli brought Antonio Caldara’s multi-movement cantata Medea in Corinto to vivid life. Supplying almost expressionistic intensity at times, even in the “rage aria” and blood-curdling conclusion Vistoli never lost sight of the musical shape, although more verbal relish would have been welcome. Christie provided harpsichord flourishes to evoke the scattering of limbs, but this was a tour de force from everyone.

Hugh Cutting brought his slightly more resinous countertenor to Vivaldi’s cantata Cessate, omai cessate (“Cease, now cease”), another tale of unhappy love. A mix of bowed and pizzicato string-playing lends a halo to its extraordinarily beautiful central aria, and the musicians and singer alike were virtuosic in its finale.

With Vistoli’s voice slightly purer in tone, the two countertenors blended ideally in a series of duets by Agostino Steffani, Giovanni Bononcini and Handel. Cue more grief, though there was welcome respite in the interspersed instrumental pieces, of which Giovanni Battista Fontana’s Sonata settima a doi violini was a highlight, its uncoiling melodies and organ accompaniment supplying balm. To open, there had also been the delicious, syncopated lightness of Monteverdi’s Damigella tutta bella; and at the end of the concert the duet In braccio dei contenti (“In contenment’s embrace”) from Vivaldi’s wedding serenade Gloria e Imeneo lifted the spirits. John Allison

The Wigmore Hall’s season continues;

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