The end of an era

Sadly, the decision has been taken to end the Lark Reviews website. The site was founded in 2012 by Dr Brian Hick, one time deputy editor of Musical Opinion, editor Emeritus of The Organ, regular columnist for the Hastings & St Leonards Observer and educational consultant for many years. The aim of the site was to post well informed and succinct reviews within 24 hours of musical performances across the country, with an added focus on the Hastings area. Regular CD and DVD reviews were also included for major labels and distributors as well as smaller scale productions.

Before Brian’s death in 2021 we had already discussed the changing context in which we were operating. When the site was founded there were relatively few sites doing the same. Now that is no longer the case.

Since taking on responsibility for Lark I have been ably assisted by Susan Elkin and more recently further reviewers have been working with us. With limited time and resources, however, and wishing to concentrate more on my own performance and teaching work it seems that the best thing now is to end the website. I feel sure that Brian would support this decision, bringing the site to a proper end, rather than letting it gradually wind down.

The site will be archived with all content available for the forseeable future.

Thank you for visiting and supporting Lark Reviews

With best wishes
Stephen Page

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra Short Ride in a Fast Machine 8th October 2023

Conductor: Clark Rundell
Pianist Joanna MacGregor

This all American programme began with A Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Familiar as it is from recordings, it doesn’t get too many live outings because of the huge forces it requires so it was a treat to hear it such an exhilarating concert opener. Played here with masses of rhythmic panache, Clark Rundell ensured that we all heard the excited terror which John Adams experienced when he went to the ride in his friend’s new Ferrari and got the idea for one of his best known pieces.

Personally I could do without the chat that MacGregor and Rundell treated us to before the concerto. We get too much of this on Radio 3 without having to endure it in concerts as well. Yes, I suppose it’s informative but we’ve all got (free) programme notes and I, for one, neither need nor want verbal entertainment as well.

The Piano Concerto in F is Gershwin showing us in 1925 that there were plenty more tools in the symphonic bag that had produced the previous year’s Rhapsody in Blue. Joanna MacGregor found smoky silkiness in the first movement as well as being every inch a “team player” in her support of other players – listening rapt, for example, to John Ellwood’s legato trumpet solo which opens the second movement before launching into her saucy little off-beat tune accompanied by pizz violins held horizontally. Yes, of course, it’s a piece full of moods and colours and this performance delivered them in spades. Moreover, it’s always a pleasure to watch MacGregor’s cool, slim-fingered elegance especially, on this occasion in the white heat of the third movement.

The second half began with smaller forces – strings with a wind quartet and one trumpet§§§ – to play Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question which dates from 1908. It’s a pity that audience bangs and coughs spoiled the pianissimo opening but, unfazed, players maintained their sostenuto softeness for the whole six minutes with admirable control. The piece is almost a mini trumpet concerto and placing Elwood at the back of the gallery added a sense of otherworldliness.

Then came Leonard Bernstein’s The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story which guaranteed that everyone went home singing. Six percussionists plus timps – “Lenny” didn’t do things by halves did he? What an orchestrator he was. And here, in the fine acoustic of Brighton Dome, Rundell ensured that we heard and noticed, for instance, the horn solo in the first adagio picking up from the string quartet, supported by harp and then passing it to trumpet – all played with delicacy and warmth. A programme piece like this must be tremendous fun to play and BPO certainly seemed to be having a grand afternoon, their tone as rich as I’ve ever heard it. The enormous tuba mute was my favourite moment.

Susan Elkin

Iolanthe English National Opera 5th October 2023

Cal McCrystal (Director)
Chris Hopkins (Conductor)
Lizzi Gee (Choreographer)

I had not had the opportunity to see ENO’s Iolanthe in its first run in 2018, so it was with a completely open mind that I entered The Coliseum to see what the company would make of it, a second tier G&S show in terms of popularity though regularly voted musically the best among online aficionados.

Following an entertaining on-stage introduction by Captain Shaw (Clive Mantle, playing a complete part manufactured from one passing reference) I was very impressed by the overture: it’s not often that Sullivan’s full score with all the doubled wind and two percussionists is heard. Under Chis Hopkins’ baton, the fine ENO orchestra held the whole audience in rapt attention as barely any noise was heard to disturb the mood-setting. Impressive stuff.

The first chorus of the fairies was a riot of colour and energy held together by choreographer Lizzi Gee’s robust choreography. On a few occasions that energy led to ragged entries and inaccurate rhythms which was unfortunate, though forgivable in the opening scene on an opening night. Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ Fairy Queen – paying more than a passing resemblance to Brunhilde, both in costuming and style – was a delight to hear.

Strong performances too, from Ellie Laugharne as Phyllis and Marcus Farnsworth as Strephon, whilst John Savournin’s delivery of the patter songs, particularly the Lord Chancellor’s notoriously wordy ‘Nightmare’ song was clear and with impeccable diction.

That said, whilst I’m all in favour of taking Sullivan’s music at a healthy pace, at times here I found it simply too rushed. Words were lost, tempos fluctuated between stage and pit with the occasional obvious anxious glance downwards. However all this is forgivable on an opening night.

What, I am afraid, I find totally unforgivable is the Director’s complete lack of trust in the material. Any additions to the score and libretto should be placed with care and thought – sadly lacking here.

For some reason Phyllis and Strephon’s first act love duet is upstaged by a person simulating a sex act with a sheep. The Fairy Queen is compelled to mistake Strephon’s name with a fake phallus. The second act quartet is interrupted by a not particularly topical Boris Johnson and Liz Truss reference. Private Willis’s shrewd observations on politics and politicians were accompanied by a defecating horse. And so it went on…. and on…. and on. Whilst this sort of thing might have worked in the privacy of a rehearsal room, they didn’t bring anything of any merit to the production, which was a great shame.

In summary, a slightly skittish opening night that will without doubt settle into something you can close your eyes and enjoy listening to. Preferable, anyway, to watching parts of it.

Lucas Elkin

Nicola Benedetti plays Brahms Royal Festival Hall Philharmonia Conductor: Cristian Macelaru 1st October 2023

The concert opener – One Line, Two Shapes by Nico Muhly – stems from Pandemic isolation and must be a very challenging piece to bring off from cold because it starts with the softest possible chorale played by two celli and two double basses. It then builds gradually before being interrupted with staccato string chords – played with commendable dramatic incisiveness. I rather enjoyed the bowed xylophone and the acoustic effect of placing a small group of lower strings behind the brass.

Then it was off to the familiar, beloved sound world of Brahms’s violin concerto – except that Nicola Benedetti, tall and elegant in her long black dress, made it seem completely fresh. Visibly and physically feeling her way into the music during the opening orchestral section, she attacked the first movement (Allegro non troppo) with warmth, energy and passion interspersed with a lot of sweetness and imaginative, dynamic colour in the cadenza. The adagio felt like a real oasis after the heat of the allegro. The oboe solo (Timothy Rundle) was almost painfully beautiful and nicely supported by the rest of the woodwind section especially the bassoons. And from the solo violin entry there was a strong sense of conversation and rapport between Benedetti and the string section principals. Finally Macleru, clearly very much at home with Benedetti, made sure that the Allegro giocoso danced to the end of the concerto with joyful exuberance. Benedetti’s slender fingers, incidentally, are fascinating to watch as she trills effortlessly on all four fingers – surely the envy of every amateur string player in the hall?

After the interval came Rachmaninov’s third symphony with its many sections and mood changes across the unusual three movement structure. And the performance was full of things to admire – the legato string playing over the wind cross rhythms in the first movement and impeccable solo work from leader Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay for example. In a work which changes direction so often it’s important to find plenty of tension and Macelaru certainly did that especially in the adagio in which he stressed the detail from, for instance, harps and celeste before reaching the busier central section with its sudden, trumpet fanfares. It’s a big work (five percussionists plus timps) and here it purred along joyfully with players appearing to enjoy it as much as the rapturous audience did.

Susan Elkin

Daisy Noton (Flute) and Milo Harper (Harp) Christchurch St Leonards on Sea 24th September 2023

Music by Faure, CPE Bach, Telemann, Debussy, Elgar, Bizet, Boulanger, Tournier, Piazzola, Ibert

The flute and the harp have, in the past, had their critics. Mozart apparently had an aversion to the flute, writing to his father in 1778: ” You know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear ” while one book on music described a harp recital as the ‘nadir of ineptitude’. More recently, popular figures such as James Galway and Marisa Robles have raised the profile of both instruments, encouraging the sort of enthusiasm generated among young cellists of my generation by Jacqueline du Pre. Moreover composers – even Mozart – have produced for the two instruments together music of sublime beauty, profound emotion and intimate charm: 19th and 20th century French composers have found the combination particularly alluring – works by Ravel (especially the ravishing Introduction and Allegro) and Poulenc come to mind.

The first of the eighth season of concerts organised under the auspices of the Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra served to dispel utterly any apprehensions about the way in which both flute and harp can encompass an extraordinary, even unexpected, variety of expression, either as solo instruments or when playing together, and the two young performers clearly have distinguished careers ahead of them. Flautist Daisy Noton, a former woodwind finalist in the BBC Young Musician Competition, is still studying at the Royal Academy, while harpist Milo Harper, also a product of the Academy, has already won a number of prizes and has had extensive professional experience: he is keen to broaden the harp repertoire. Both developed their skills in national and international youth orchestras, those essential cradles for the nurturing of musical talent.

Through a varied programme of relatively short pieces including solos for each instrument and works for both, Daisy and Milo were able to demonstrate both their own exquisite musicianship and the full range of what their respective instruments can achieve. Arrangements of some well-known music also gave one new insights, like a seeing a close friend in an unfamiliar context, particularly true of the Elgar Salut d’amour. Even though they had apparently only met for the first time a few days before the concert, Daisy and Milo played with great sensitivity to each other and had a real rapport, producing a wonderful balance, each letting the other shine when required while providing sympathetic support.

Daisy consistently produced a warm, firm tone with little vibrato to distract from its purity and some beautiful legato playing. In faster passages her articulation was precise with subtle phrasing, lightness and agility: at no point was musicality sacrificed to bravura performance, and if anything, she played with understatement. She took on board the demands of the solo Telemann G minor Fantasia in which she brilliantly brought out both the melodic content and implied harmony through clever differentiation in tone, while her performance of the Debussy Syrnix was movingly plaintiff and evocative. Indeed, in almost all pieces, her playing produced an underlying poignancy while interspersed with bouts of dramatic energy.

Milo showed everything of which the harp is capable in his solos, particularly the Tournier Danse de Moujik, designed to showcase what is distinctive about the harp through marvellously different textures and varieties of tone, from lush glissandi to isolated, echoing harmonics. He has an extraordinary ability to bring out a melody while providing a full accompaniment, and his performance of the Debussy Clair de Lune made one think the work had been written for the harp. Technically , his mastery of the harp is superb and he manages to produce a variety of expression from the instrument which I would have considered impossible

The works performed together were positively inspirational, with both drama and intimacy and, in many cases, a sense of wistfulness which the combination perhaps naturally generates. In the CPE Bach Sonata in G minor, both played with great precision, exchanging dominant roles and answering motifs, and producing a perfect ensemble. In all pieces, there was just the right level of rubato and each player recognised when the other had to come to the fore. In Nadia Boulanger’s Nocturne, I really sensed two performers playing as one, such was their sensitivity to each other, a deeply moving experience overall in a piece which gets to the essence of each instrument: the gradations in volume were simply thrilling. This sense of unity was also reflected in the Piazzola Café 30 and the Ibert Entr’acte, where some delicate and skilful playing from both performers matched each other, reflecting the somewhat melancholy nature of each work.

This was quite simply a wonderfully uplifting evening, in which two young performers showed their ability to play with enormous sensitivity and skill in a varied and demanding programme of considerable emotional content. I feel sure we will hear much of both Daisy and Milo as time goes on and they are to be congratulated on their fine performances.

Jonathan Watts

BBC Proms 69: Mozart’s Requiem. Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon; 7 September 2023.


Since quite a lot of Mozart’s Requiem was written by someone else, it has attracted a long series of musicologists and conductors convinced that they could do a better job of completing it than Franz Xaver Süssmayr. I rather feared when Raphaël Pichon and his ensemble Pygmalion promised “an alternative vision of Mozart’s Requiem” that we were in for yet another alternative completion. In fact this was altogether more interesting, interspersing the movements of the Requiem with much lesser-known pieces from earlier in Mozart’s career, often lovely and striking in their own right, and foreshadowing ideas from his great final work.

Thus before the first movement we had a sequence of minor pieces: a choral canon, an early version of the Masonic Funeral Music and a re-texted Kyrie in D minor, throughout which it seemed as though the Introit and Kyrie of the Requiem was gradually taking shape in our mind’s ear. The Dies Irae was preceded by a movement from the incidental music to Thanos, King of Egypt, fitted with religious words, occupying a middle ground between the Last Day and the arrival of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni. Before the Hostias we had a contrafactum of the Adagio from the Gran Partita with an added choral part, its “rusty squeezebox” accompaniment leading smoothly into that of the ensuing Requiem movement. Most evocative of all was what followed the Lacrimosa: the fragmentary fugal Amen which Mozart probably intended for this position but of which he only wrote a few bars. The silence which followed its abrupt fade-out was infinitely more powerful than the laboured completions which feature in some alternative realizations.

With the exception of the Lacrimosa itself, of which the opening eight bars were given in the form in which Mozart left them without Süssmayr’s accompaniment, this was otherwise the familiar version of the Requiem. The performance style was anything but familiar though, emphasizing Mozart the operatic composer, with extreme tempi and dynamics bringing the drama vividly to life. I have always thought that it was Verdi who came closest to evoking the idea of the Last Judgement; after this performance I may have to revise my opinion. In other hands the crescendi and ritardandi might have seemed overdone and mannered, here they seemed all of a piece with the concept as a whole, Pichon making a virtue of the brevity of Süssmayr’s Hosanna with a swift and agile reading. The period instruments of the Pygmalion ensemble brought an added immediacy to the sound with raw and muscular tones, matched throughout by incisive and committed singing from a superb chorus of around 35 voices.

Of the soloists, Alex Rosen brought clarity and sonority to his Requiem numbers and drama to the motet Ne pulvis and cinis which preceded the Dies Irae. Beth Taylor channelled her inner Kathleen Ferrier for the beautiful Kirchenlied “O Gottes Lamm”, which really should be in every hymnbook. Sandrine Piau (standing in at short notice) and Laurence Kilsby completed a well-balanced vocal quartet. And boy-treble-of-the-moment Malakai Bayoh sang the second of the Five Solfeggios (in fact the Christe Eleison of the C Minor Mass up a tone and minus the words) with admirable assurance and smoothness of line. It fell to him to open and close the concert with In Paradisum, sung unaccompanied to the traditional plainsong, and at its second appearance echoed in Tavener-like canon by the sopranos of the chorus, making the whole evening seem like a requiem for Mozart himself.

William Hale.

BBC Proms 2023 – PROM 70. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Domingo Hindoyan (conductor) Nobuyuki Tsujii (piano) 8th September 2023

Nobuyuki Tsujii.jpegThe centrepiece in this penultimate night in the 2023 Prom season was Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto. Almost a series of fiendishly difficult cadenzas linked by orchestral interludes it’s one of the most notoriously challenging concertos in the repertoire.

And Nobuyuki’s rendering of it was utterly remarkable on every level. He played the very long first movement cadenza – all those crazy chords – with hunched intensity and passion. I admired the beautifully delicate, almost tentative pianissimo in the final recap too. Then he sailed into the wide vistas of the adagio and gave us a nicely negotiated transition into the finale. It was a terrific performance.

Blind from birth, Tsujii had to be led on and off the platform by Domingo Hindoyan. I have absolutely no idea how you would even begin to study “Rack 3” (or any other concerto for that matter) if you can’t see the music and then, in performance can’t see the conductor. But Tsujii has clearly found a way because he carries it off magnificently. No wonder the audience was rapturous at the end. Every single hand clap was richly deserved because it felt as if we’d witnessed a miracle.

The other high spot in the concert came after the interval in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story complete with six percussionists plus timps, extra wind, hand clicks and shouts. I haven’t seen this played live since, years ago Kent County Youth Orchestra did it and, of course, it’s an excellent choice for a youth orchestra because its exuberance is great fun and they have all those extra players freely available. I suspect it’s too costly to get many professional outings. RLPO, though, is evidently now very strong and ambitious under its new conductor, Hindoyan who carefully brought out every rhythm and melody in this ultra-dramatic music and everyone left the hall humming.

The evening had begun with Honneger’s tone poem Rugby which was played with lots of incisive jollity and colourful work especially from trombones and tuba. And the second half opened with the UK premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s Clara which is a homage to Clara Schumann in five movements. The fourth movement which depicts Robert’s state of mind was especially evocative with mysterious, troubled string work with tam-tam and other percussion interjections.

It was, however, the Rachmaninov which moved me most – an extraordinary performance by an extraordinary man.

Susan Elkin




(Photo – R Carter)

Over recent years the breadth of music included throughout each season has greatly expanded. As part of the ongoing mission of the Proms, to make quality music available to a large cross section of society this is to be applauded. The capacity audience, including the number of true promenaders, was testament to that.

This was the first half of a double bill presenting the two “Want” albums (originally released 2003/4) by the combined forces of the acclaimed singer-songwriter (and multi-instrumentalist) and the BBC Concert Orchestra under Sarah Hicks’ brilliant direction.

Rufus seemed very much at ease as he presented each song, sometimes with humorous introduction, sometimes seamlessly moving from one song to another. This evening, for too short a time I was allowed to enter into Rufus’ world. His voice is remarkable. Unusually operatic for someone operating in the world of popular music, his wide range and ability to project and sustain brings an unusual depth to the music. His music encompasses a range of popular styles with influences from the classic musicals to blues and jazz. Beautiful and often unpredictable melodies are employed as well as sometimes hard to define rhythms. Instruments are employed to maximum effect, from the stripped back piano or guitar only accompaniments or the addition of delicate, shimmering strings, isolated tuned percussion or strident brass.

Songs ranged from the heartfelt Natasha to the gently satirical Oh what a world. A variety of topics and extremely varied styles sit together on this album.

For me there was a notable interplay between the magic – moments like the shift from monochrome to colour in The Wizard of Oz – and the humanity of the songs. Some were poignant, many asked questions, but my overall impression was that they are a celebration of life.

Orchestra and singer worked so well together. RW made much of the importance of Sarah Hicks’ direction and also paid tribute to the players and the arrangers. This was a wonderful showcase for the Proms and for the power of music and its ability to connect and to transport.

Stephen Page

BBC Proms 63, Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon, September 2023

The Rite by Heart
– A dramatic exploration of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
– Igor Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (from memory)

A packed Royal Albert Hall greeted me for this evening’s Prom, and in a very different style from the usual fare. The stage had been painted white and was dotted with boxes of various sizes whilst not a single music stand was to be seen – the latter, part of Aurora Orchestra’s trademark approach of performing from memory – and what a piece to attempt the feat.

The first half was dedicated to a theatrical interpretation of the genesis and creation of the work with actors Karl Queenborough and Charlotte Ritchie in turn taking the parts of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Nicholas Roerich (the original production designer) and Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer. Using excerpts from extant correspondence between them and with conductor Nicholas Collon acting partly as a narrator, partly as musical director, this cleverly weaved together the various branches and personalities in the story. I was particularly impressed by the seamless choreography from various members of the Aurora orchestra, moving about the stage in different combinations and forces, playing various illustrative passages. Coupled with projections and lighting for further effect, this was a fascinating introduction to the piece, pitched perfectly for everyone from the non-musician through to those who have made the subject their life’s study.

After the interval, the main event: The Rite of Spring from memory. Here Collon took a more traditional approach: players in the usual orchestral positions, conductor on a podium – and with no distractions from additional effects, complete trust was placed in the material and the players’ ability to perform it – and my word, they delivered.

Freed from the constraints of seating and uncluttered by music stands I was immediately struck by an alertness and clarity I have never heard before from such a large ensemble. The removal of the safety net of having the music in sight gave a sense of an edgy danger, heightening the impact of the ferocious attacks, complex rhythms, searing solos and taut pianissimos – exactly the right feeling for the piece.

Standing ovations, in my opinion, are given out far too freely but tonight’s performance deserved it in abundance – I have never heard so raucous and rapturous a reception at the conclusion of a concert, increased further after the encores of two sections with the players coming into the audience space, positioning themselves at random in the aisles and promenading space, giving the audience a flavour of being in the midst of the orchestra, ‘the best place in the world’ as Collon put it.

There is much hand-wringing and many column inches expended on the future of classical music. If this is one of the forward directions, that future is in very good hands.

Lucas Elkin

BBC Proms 59,Tonhalle-orchester Zurich, Paavo Jarvi, Augustin Hadelich 30th August 2023


You can rely on Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak to sell seats. Royal Albert Hall was as full as I’ve ever seen it and there was quite a queue for returns when I collected my programme from the press desk. And all these 5,000 or so concert goers were in for a terrific treat – not just the enjoyment of dear old favourites but hearing them played by this crack Swiss orchestra with all the immaculate precision of a Swiss clock.

Paavo Jarvi’s approach to very familiar music is to present it in a new way but without ever resorting to gimmickry. Thus Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 in E Minor, “From the New World” came packed with beautifully balanced contrasts in the opening Adagio-Allegro Molto. We heard every brass and woodwind detail but never did it overpower the strings who were unusually seated with cellos between first violins and violas. Seven double basses (upstage right) were noteworthy too for striking sectional unity, their sound impeccably blended. The adagio was played with loving tender warmth – every cadence delivered compellingly – and the yearning, soulful timbre of the cor anglais solo in this performance will stay with me for a long time. This is, of course, a Big Symphony, and I liked the way Jarvi let all the brass interjections, especially the tuba, bite though the texture in the final movement which came at a cracking pace.

Before the interval Augustin Hadelich gave us a memorable account of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and is clearly at one with Jarvi on wanting us to hear its joyful majesty afresh. I especially liked, for instance, the unusual speed of the crescendo leading up to the cadenza which Hadelich then played with such contrasting measured deliberation that you could hear, and waited for, every single harmonic which meant that you could also “hear” a very attentive audience listening too which was quite special. The trills with the flute after the cadenza were another high spot in a performance which brought masses colour and warmth along with bravura.

And Hadelich’s sparky rendering of his own arrangement of Howdy Forrester’s Appalachian Tune, a series of ever more complex variations with lots of short glissandi rather neatly took us across the Atlantic in preparation for Dvorak.

The concert had opened with Beethoven’s 1822 overture The Consecration of the House – the least familiar item on the programme. Although I don’t think this is Beethoven at his most inspired (written to commission in a hurry for the opening of a theatre when he was rather busy with the late quartets and the Missa Solemnis) it was an appropriate choice for an orchestra whose history is associated with a concert hall. Moreover, it incisively set the tone for the evening. Anyone who wasn’t initially paying attention certainly would have been the moment s/he heard the dramatic timing of the opening chords, the crispness reinforced by the hard sticks on the timps.

At the very end of the concert after the Dvorak, the orchestra played The Herd-Maid’s Dance from Hugo Alfven’s The Mountain King to ensure that the delighted audience went home with dance in their feet and tunes in their heads. I heard more than one person singing snatches of Dvorak at South Kensington Underground Station afterwards.

Susan Elkin