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Byline: Elmley de la Cour

CBSO Lichfield Cathedral Thursday's concert looked on paper a brilliant start to this year's Lichfield Festival, bringing an all-English programme to the heart of England, performed by a local orchestra which just happens to be one of the world's greatest.

And indeed the first half was a joy.

John Wilson, who happily seems a permanent fixture with the orchestra these days, conducted a fizzing, affectionate account of Vaughan Williams' Wasps Overture to open proceedings.

The strings sounded absolutely gorgeous in the idyllic pastoral interlude, and balances in the busy counterpoint were so well judged; the further back you sit in this west-facing concert-layout, the better the acoustic.

After a flowingly unsentimental Delius Summer Night on the River, Wilson presided over a simply tremendous Elgar In the South Overture, its grinding Roman section powerfully delivered, its Canzone Popolare sweetly sung by the un-named viola soloist.

But the second half disappointed.

For all the enthusiasm of the Lichfield Festival Chorus, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast took them a challenge too far. The malaise even spread to the orchestra (one false violin entry) and the otherwise commanding bassbaritone soloist Sir Willard White, whose premature "Praise Ye" cut off an important fanfare.

John Wilson achieved heroics in holding the thing together, and I heard him receiving plaudit after plaudit from orchestral players as we all left the cathedral lit by the setting sun.

Christopher Morley Rachmaninov Vespers Birmingham Bach Choir at The Oratory *****gley Road Oratory is the perfect venue for a performance of Rachmaninov's sublime, incense-laden All Night Vigiland Saturday's account of these Vespers from the Birmingham Bach Choir rolled majestically around the walls of this Byzantine building before the roof sent the sound back down to a rapt audience.

Paul Spicer's pacing of this enthralling score allowed all the detail to tell, all the harmonic textures (right down to cavernous basses) to come through, and the sheer swaying ecstasy of this music (all Rachmaninov-lovers must surely realise how close generally is his melodic inspiration to the stepwise movement of plainchant) to captivate us all.

What a pity, then, that every movement had to be preceded by retuning of the unaccompanied chorus by Spicer's pitch-pipe, and that a sit-down break for the singers had to be included midway through. The first half of this lovely concert brought motets by James MacMillan (testosterone-filled, compared to the wan sacred music of John Tavener) and Bach, of which Komm, Jesu, Komm! was delivered so gorgeously that I wished it never had to end.

Christopher Morley Joanna MacGregor Lichfield Cathedral's Lady Chapel was signed out of commission as a concert venue two years ago, with an extraordinary late-night improvisation by Fyfe Dangerfield.

With the early-evening sunlight streaming through the reglazed windows, we welcomed it back for a piano recital by Joanna MacGregor that shared many of the same qualities.

It's impossible to imagine MacGregor ever settling for a routine recital format, and the programme was typical: two Preludes and Fugues by Bach carefully sequenced with three by Shostakovich, five Chopin mazurkas, Samuel Barber's Excursions and a climactic sequence of MacGregor's own transcriptions of Piazzolla tangos. Like all the best recital programmes, it was both musical self-portrait and an intelligent and fresh piece of musical thinking - and that went for Mac-Gregor's playing, too.

She's such a charismatic presence on stage that her clear, unmannered playing of the Bach/Shostakovich sequence almost came as a surprise.

MacGregor was urgent, but never hurried; without any sense of her pushing the music for effect, an almost electrical energy pulsed through each bar.

Rhythm, you sensed, was the unshakable base of Mac-Gregor's interpretations; which gave her Chopin mazurkas an almost improvisatory feeling. She achieved exactly the fluidity of phrasing within a firmly-defined pulse which is said to have characterised Chopin's own playing: "Cannons buried in flowers", indeed.

The same combination of objectivity and imagination made a gloriously clear case for the Barber.

And finally, all the imagination, sensuality and sheer virtuoso power that MacGregor had placed so completely at the service of other composers was released to volcanic effect in her six Piazzolla transcriptions: a thrilling shared experience, made all the more powerful for feeling so thoroughly wellearned.

Richard Bratby Jonathan Lemalu St John's Church, Hagley Hall *****athan Lemalu's musical career were ever to collapse, he could well have a future in audio books, such is the New Zealand bass-baritone's ability to tell stories.

His evident knack for drama and delivery displayed itself throughout this programme of English and American song, in aid of the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal.

A selection of Copland's Old American Songs showed that Lemalu's bass baritone is just that: a lower register whose resonance borders on the cavernous, but one complemented by an upper range of great lightness and beauty.

The New Zealander enunciates wonderfully; his stylish savouring of the 'X' in William Bolcom's cabaret song, Black Max, produced a sound that seemed to traverse the ear and tickle the brain.

Lemalu was joined by compatriots Lindy Tennent-Brown and Ana James. Tennent-Brown was consistent in her well judged accompaniment and Soprano Ana James's clarity of tone and tightly controlled vibrato were well suited to Purcell's If Music be the Food of Love and Hark, the Echoing Air, although her Gershwin performances could have let in more sunshine.

Combining only for a poignant encore, Lemalu and James sang in Maori, closing this admirable fundraising concert in a heartfelt way.

Elmley de la Cour


Joanna MacGregor
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 14, 2011
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