Sunday, 26 February 2017

Superb choral performances: Richard Harvey - Kyrie

Richard Harvey - Kyrie
Richard Harvey Kyrie; Latvian Radio Choir, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Altus Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2017
Star rating: 3.5

Film composer Richard Harvey's disc of highly evocative choral music in superb performances from two Baltic choirs

You have heard the music of Richard Harvey, even if the name does not mean anything to you. A British composer for film and TV, Harvey's credits include the Kyrie for the Magdalene which was used in the film of the Da Vinci Code and it is this work which forms the title track of Harvey's new disc of choral music, Kyrie on Altus Records. Recorded by the Latvian Radio Choir and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with musicians from the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Sinfonietta Riga conducted by Kaspars Putnins, Sigvards Klava, Tomasz Szymus and Richard Harvey.

The disc has eleven tracks and Harvey's texts vary from his own, to Psalm 100, 12th century Latin, Shelly (Mutability), George MacDonald and Henry Neele. As might be expected given the choral forces involved, the performances are superb. Both choirs exhibit their famous combination of control, focus, line and elegant purity. They bring to the music a wonderful clarity and finely honed feel for the elegant lines of Harvey's music.

Harvey's style is unashamedly tonal and lyrical, but that does not mean it is uncomplex and he generates his own particular contemporary feel. There are echoes here of some of the Baltic minimalists in the textures, but the harmonies often evoke Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen. So who is Richard Harvey.

He trained at the Royal College of Music (graduating in 1972) and joined the Early Music group Musica Reservata, and then founded the progressive rock/folk band Gryphon. He went on to become a session musician, and through this became involved in composing, first working on Tales of the Unexpected in 1978. His concert work has included a concerto Concerto Antico, for guitarist John Williams, with whom he has worked a lot, as well as a recorder concerto Concerto Incantofor Michaela Petri.

The music is frequently aetherial, with some finely honed musical textures and evocative harmonies. Lack of texts in the CD does make it difficult to dig deeper into the works, and it does not help that one of the few weaknesses of the performance is the rather occluded diction of the choirs. The performers clearly prize beauty of line over comprehensibility.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stage Festival 2017

Various Stages Festival
For its third Various Stages Festival at the ICA on Friday 24 February 2017, Mahogany Opera Group presented six different works in different stages of development. We generally heard a short extract from the work, followed by a discussion between creators and audience to provide feedback. The six works presented were The Finding (music by Richard Melkonian, words by Zoe Palmer), Palace of Junk (music by Oliver Brignall, words by Poppy Burton-Morgan), In a Grove (music by Christopher Cerrone, words by Stephanie Fleischmann), Mu'a (music Dai Fujikura and concept/choreographer/director Dam Van Huynh), Traffick (music by Emma-Ruth Richards, words Nic Chalmers), The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (music Gavin Bryars, words Jean Lacornerie).

Audience and chorus at Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stages
Audience and chorus at
Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stages
The Finding, music by Richard Melkonian, words by Zoe Palmer, was directed by Lucy Bradley and featured Elizabeth Laurence (mezzo-soprano), Laurens Price-Nowak (cello), Richard Melkonian (piano and electronics) and a choir of women and babies. The piece examines the many thousands of people who disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s from the point of view of a single desperate grandmother looking for her family. Melkonan's music combined mezzo-soprano with amplified cello, piano and electronics in a striking mix. A highly dramatic work, the chorus of women and babies, representing the disappeared, did rather steal the show somewhat.

Palace of Junk, music by Oliver Brignall, words by Poppy Burton-Morgan (who also directed) was presented by Metta Theatre with Peter Brathaite (baritone), Richard Burkhard (baritone) and the Riot Ensemble (trombone, accordion, cello, violin, percussion and electronics). We heard a single scene from a longer opera about a real life pair of brothers in the 1940s who hoarded to such an extent (12 pianos!) that they eventually died in the house. The final product will use video extensively, and we were given a taster with video projections during the scene. It proved a very powerful and imaginative work, particularly the sound world with its use of found-objects for percussion. The company is hoping to ultimately create a production which is immersive, and the electronics used in the performance were all reactive.

In a Grove, music by Christopher Cerrone, words by Stehanie Fleischmann, was directed by Brian Mertes, with Richard Burkhard (baritone), Abigail Kelly (soprano), Christopher Lemmings (tenor), Tom Verney (counter-tenor), the Riot Ensemble (vibraphone and percussion) and Christopher Cerrone (electronics). We saw a single scene from a larger work which is still in development, the opera is based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story In a Grove (1922) in which multiple characters tell the story of the same murder from their own point of view. The music we heard was completely mesmeric, with a beautifully calm hypnotic quality. 

Making the best use of his time: Leon Bosch on new music for double bass, conducting and more

Leon Bosch & I Musicanti at Kings Place, 1 May 2016
Leon Bosch & I Musicanti at Kings Place, 1 May 2016
The double-bass virtuoso Leon Bosch is a busy man. He no longer plays regularly in orchestras (he spent twenty years playing in the Academy of St Martin in the Fields) and instead concentrates on projects as varied as performing with his ensemble I Musicanti, commissioning and performing new music for double bass, as well as taking up a second career conducting. I met up with Leon to find out more.

Leon Bosch
Leon Bosch
Chatting to Leon I am immediately struck by his enthusiasm and energy. His projects would seem to take more than one lifetime to fulfil, and he has great concern to widen the repertoire, both by researching forgotten works as well as commissioning new ones. His 2009 CD The British Double Bass was a programme of 20th century British music for double bass; a remarkable tribute to Rodney Slatford of York Edition, who commissioned many of the pieces. Also on the disc is John McCabe's Pueblo which Leon commissioned.

But he feels there is still more to do in this area and plans to go back into the studio to record a disc of 21st century double bass pieces, many of which are, or are being, written for him by composers such as Roxanna Panufnik, Robin Walker (whose piece Leon describes as 'terrific') and John Woolrich. The disc, he feels, should encourage both the public and other double bass players to listen and explore.

Paul Patterson is writing a new concerto for Leon to be premiered in 2017/18. And Leon has lots of other projects going on, the composer Ian Morgan Williams wrote a piece for him when they were both students in Manchester and Ian Morgan Williams is revisiting the piece and revising it, whilst the Colombian composer Arturo Cuellar has is writing a new piece. And Leon will be premiering a new Wynton Marsalis concerto at the Southbank Centre in 2018.

Friday, 24 February 2017

An Equal Music: the enduring power of counterpoint at the Conway Hall

The Albion Quartet (Rosalind Ventris, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Emma Parker, Nathaniel Boyd)
The Albion Quartet (Rosalind Ventris, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Emma Parker, Nathaniel Boyd)
On Sunday 26 February 2017, the Albion Quartet is appearing at Conway Hall performing Bach, Haydn, Schumann and Walton, as part of the hall's regular Sunday concerts series. Entitled An Equal Music, the quartet's programme explores the role of counterpoint in three very different works from the quartet repertoire, Haydn's Quartet in C Op.20/2, Schumann's Quartet in A minor Op.41/1 and Walton's Quartet in A minor. Bach's The Art of Fugue frames them, and clarifies the references to Bach, the original master of the form, whose seminal work continues to fascinate and challenge composers to this day.

The Albion Quartet  was formed by four outstanding young string players, Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Emma Parker (violin), Rosalind Ventris (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello), all of whom share a belief in the communicative power of the string quartet.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

We're crowd-funding!

Johnny Herford, Rosalind Ventris, Robert Hugill, Anna Huntley and William Vann at Potton Hall (Photo: Andrew Walton)
Johnny Herford, Rosalind Ventris, Robert Hugill, Anna Huntley and William Vann at Potton Hall (Photo: Andrew Walton)
I am excited to announce that we have started crowd-funding for Quickening, a new CD of my songs to be issued on the Navona Records label. A talented group of young British artists, Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Rosalind Ventris (viola), Johnny Herford (baritone) and William Vann (piano) have recorded a disc of my settings of poems by Rowan Williams, AE Housman, Ivor Gurney and Christina Rossetti. We are very pleased indeed that Dr Rowan Williams gave us permission to record my setting of his powerful poem 'Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995'

Recording is an expensive business and the crowd-funding enables us to give that final push and have the record company issue the recording in September this year. So we are offering some tempting rewards including unique hand-written manuscripts of the songs and the ability to dedicate a selected track on the disc.

Please do visit the Crowd Funder page to find out more.

Please do share with your friends.

Everyone enjoyed recording the songs, and I feel sure that you will enjoy listening to them.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Korngold, Stravinsky, Stephenson and Rilke

Janus Ensemble
25 February 2017 sees a striking orchestral programme at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens, Paddington when Harry Ogg conducts the Janus Ensemble in Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Korngold's Violin Concerto and Josephine Stephenson's Abend. The soloist in the Korngold is the young Latvian violinist Kristina Balanas, whose repertoire seems to include an interesting array of 20th century concertos.

Erich Korngold retired from writing film music at the end of World War Two, and devoted himself to concert music. The Violin Concerto was written at the urging of the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman. Dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of the composer, the concerto was premiered in 1947 by Jascha Heifetz. It is a richly romantic piece which requires the soloist to really wear their heart on their sleeve.

Composer Josephine Stephenson wrote Abend in 2013 when it was performed by Harry Ogg and his Sinfonia d'Amici. The work is inspired by the poem of the same name by Rainer Maria Rilke from Das Buch der Bilder(1902): 'Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewänder, die ihm ein Rand von alten Bäumen hält' (The sky puts on the darkening blue coat held for it by a row of ancient trees; )

The Janus Ensemble was founded in January 2015 by Charlotte Amherst and its two resident conductors Michael Coleby and Davide Levi, with the aim of bringing together aspiring young professional musicians at the outset of their careers.

Further information from the Janus Ensemble website.

Looking ahead: JAM 2017, nine living composers

Paul Patterson
Paul Patterson
JAM kicks off its 2017 season with its annual contemporary showcase, as well as celebrating composer Paul Patterson's 70th birthday. As part of the Brandenburg Choral Festival on 23 March 2017 at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street, Dingle Yandell (baritone), the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Onyx Brass, Simon Hogan (organ) and Michael Bawtree (conductor) will perform music by nine living composers, Adam Gorb, Thomas LaVoy, Paul Patterson, Alison Willis, Jack Oades, Mark Cotham, Max Charles Davies, David Ho-Yi Chan and Mark Bowler.

Ten years ago JAM commissioned Adam Gorb's Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall, and the work will be the centre piece of the concert on 23 March. It is a powerful work evoking the experience of journalist John McCarthy who in the 1980s was held hostage in the Lebanon for five years. Another JAM commission, Thomas LaVoy's O Great Beyond, a setting of Rabindranath Tagore's The Gardner, will receive its London premiere, whilst Paul Patterson's 70th birthday will be celebrated with a performance of his When Music Sounds. Patterson's association with JAM dates back to 2005 when they commissioned The Fifth Continent.

Each year JAM has a call for scores and this year they are performing six pieces which came from the submissions last year (when they received their biggest number of submissions ever at 130), with pieces by Alison Willis, Jack Oakes, Mark Cotham, Max Charles Davies, David Ho-Yi Chan and Mark Bowler.

Further information from the JAM website.

Another string to his bow, Damian Thantrey announced as Lichfield Festival guest artistic director

Damian Thantrey
Damian Thantrey
The Lichfield Festival is a diverse, multi-arts festival which runs in July, in and around Lichfield. The festival has announced that for 2018, baritone Damian Thantrey will be guest artistic director whilst artistic director Sonia Stevenson is on maternity leave. 

Thantrey (who features on the recent recording of Erik Chisholm's opera Simoon, see my review) is a local boy, having been born in Burton-on-Trent, and has produced several shows for Lichfield including Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in 2016 in which he sang the role of Guglielmo. He also runs his own festival in the Northamptonshire village of Hargrave. Those with long memories will remember Damian sang the title role in the premiere of my opera Garrett in 2001.

This year's Lichfield Festival runs from 7-15 July, and includes the Halle Orchestra, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, the Sixteen and a celebration of the music of Richard Rogers, plus events celebrating the anniversaries of Jane Austen and of David Garrick (who was born in Lichfield).

Full details from the Lichfield Festival website.

Mieczyslav Weinberg - Chamber Symphonies

Weinberg - Chamber Symphonies - Kremerata Baltica - ECM
Mieczyslav Weinberg Chamber Symphonies, Piano Quintet; Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer; ECM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 17 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Terrific performances of Weinberg's powerful and personal chamber symphonies

The music of Mieczyslav Weinberg is beginning to gather pace in its rate of discovery on disc. His opera The Idiot has received its first recording (see my review), whilst The Passenger is available on DVD in David Pountney's much-travelled production,  and violinist Linus Roth has issued recordings of the violin concertante and chamber works (see my review). Violinist Gidon Kremer played Weinberg's Violin Concerto with Kristjan Järvi and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic in their tour last year (see my interview with Kristjan).

Now Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica have recorded Weinberg's chamber symphonies for ECM. On this double Cd set, Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica are joined by percussionist Andrei Pushkarev, pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, clarinettist Mate Bekavac and conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to perform Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op.145, Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op.147, Chamber Symphony No. 3, Op. 151, Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 153 and Piano Quintet Op.18 (in a new orchestration by Andrei Pushkarev and Gidon Kremer).

The chamber symphonies are predominantly written for string orchestra, but the second has a solo violin and timpani, whilst the fourth has clarinet and triangle and is the only one on the disc performed with a conductor (Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla).

Weinberg's chamber symphonies have an intriguing history. The first two were issued in 1986 and 1987, and in 1990 Weinberg was awarded the State Prize for the works. In fact two chamber symphonies were based on Weinberg's second and third string quartets which he wrote in the 1940s. The third chamber symphony followed in 1990, based on his fifth string quartet (from 1945). Only the fourth chamber symphony (1992) is not based directly on a previous work (though the music is very self referential). Weinberg kept the links between the works quiet, and the fact only came to light after his death. So it is not surprising that Gidon Kremer decided to add to these a new orchestration of Weinberg's Piano Quintet from 1945.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Something old, something new, something classic: Bury Court Opera's Spring season

Bury Court Opera - Cosi van Tutte
Bury Court Opera's Spring season starts on Saturday 25 February 2017 (and runs until 12 March), with Daisy Evans production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and the season continues with a double bill of the anonymous 18th century opera L'Ospedale (in the production by Solomon's Knot) and a brand new opera, Mad King Suibhne by Noah Mosley.

Daisy Evans' new production of Cosi fan tutte features Gemma Summerfield, Bethan Langford, Alexander Otterburn and David Shaw as the lovers, with Nina Lejderman and Eddie Wade. Paul Wingfield conducts Camerata Alma Viva.

L'Ospedale is an anonymous 18th century setting which Solomon's Knot revived in 2015 (see Ruth's review on this blog), and James Hurley's production will feature Rebecca Moon, Michal Czerniawski, Thomas Herford, Victor Sicard, Lucy Page and Jonathan Sells, with James Halliday conducting. Noah Mosley's new opera Mad King Suibhne is directed by Ella Marchment, with a cast including Dominic Bowe, Edward Hughes, Henry Grant Kerswell, Laura Woods, Isolde Roxby and Raphaela Papadakis.

Full details from the Bury Court Opera website.

English Fantasy: Emma Johnson in concertos by John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes and Will Todd

English Fantasy - John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes, Paul Reade, Will Todd
English Fantasy: Will Todd, Paul Reade, John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes; Emma Johnson, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Philip Ellis; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 16 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Four contrasting modern, lyrically melodic concertante works, from British composers

Clarinettist Emma Johnson's disc English Fantasy on Nimbus Alliance features four concertante works written for her between 1991 and 2015. The composers are all linked by writing melodically in what might be called an approachable style. Yet the resulting works are surprisingly diverse with a remarkable range. Emma Johnson and the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Philip Ellis, perform Will Todd's Concerto for Emma, Paul Reade's Suite from The Victorian Kitchen Garden, John Dankworth's Clarinet Concerto - The Woolwich, and Patrick Hawes Clarinet Concerto.

Will Todd's concerto was commissioned for Emma and she premiered it with the Brighton Philharmonic, conductor Barry Wordsworth, in 2009, though Todd has re-written the work subsequently. The opening Blues and Dance has the clarinet emerging gradually out of orchestral mists. As the music become more rhapsodic there are jazz hints which crystallise in the faster section with its jazzy rhythms making something both intriguing and toe-tapping. Ballad starts with a slow jazz muted trumpet, and the moody bluesy clarinet solo does not preclude an element of English rhapsody too. The finale, Funky Tunes, has a perky snap to the rhythm, though there are some down and dirty moments too.

Looking ahead: It's All About Piano celebrates five years

It's All About Piano
In 2013, to celebrate the restoration of its piano the Insitut francais in South Kensington, London organised the It's All About Piano festival. This year they are celebrating the fifth festival with artists including Melvyn Tan, Yaron Herrman, Tristran Pfaff, Ulrich Gerhartz, Cedric Pescia, Ivan Ilic, Barry Douglas, Ismael Margain & Guillaume Bellom, the Fidelio Trio, Marcela Roggeri & François Chaplin, in concerts ranging from classical to jazz, from films to family.

Highlights include Melvyn Tan in Beethoven, Jonathan Dove and Liszt, and he is also giving a masterclass, jazz improvisation from Yaron Hermann whose influences include traditional Israeli music, Ivan Ilic in music by Anton Reicha, Barry Douglas in Schubert, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and there is a talk from Steinway's master piano tuner, Ulrich Gerhartz, on the prepared piano whilst pianist Cedric Pescia will be performing some of John Cage's works for prepared piano.

The festival runs from 31 March to 2 April 2017 at Institut francais du Royaume-Uni,17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT, full details from the festival website.

Piano all-nighter at Birmingham Town Hall

All-Night Pianothon at Birmingham Town Hall
In the 1960s, Birmingham Town Hall played host to All-Night Jazz Festival gigs, and this has inspired John Thwaites, head of keyboard studies at Birmingham Conservatoire, to create an All-Night Pianothon at Birmingham Town Hall. 

So from 7.30pm, Friday March 3, to 7.30am, Saturday March 4, 2017, the town hall will play host to a star galaxy of pianists including Gergely Bogányi, Alistair McGowan, Peter Donohoe, Mark Bebbington, Margaret Fingerhut, Daniel Browell, Pei-Chun Liao, Di Xiao, David Quigley, Julian Jacobson... Simon Callow will be giving a rare performance of Richard Strauss's Enoch Arden with John Thwaites, Dr Anna Scott takes a look at ‘Brahms as he might have heard it’, student Nafis Umerkulova plays Schumann’s First Piano Sonata on an historic instrument made by Clara Schumann’s cousin W Wieck, and prize-winning pianists and tutors from the Conservatoire’s own ranks are showcased throughout. Alistair MacGowan will be playing Satie, and Anthony Hewitt will be cycling through the night to arrive a dawn to play Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit.

To encourage young people and students, prices start at £1!

Full details from the Birmingham Conservatoire website.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The slave trade refracted through music: Thierry Pécou's Outre-mémoire

Thierry Pécou & Ensemble Variances
Thierry Pécou & Ensemble Variances
Outre-mémoire (beyond memory) by Thierry Pécou, a work which looks at aspects of the slave trade refracted through the medium of music, is being performed by Pécou and his Ensemble Variances at St John's Smith Square on Wednesday 22 February 2017. 

The work was originally written for pianist Alexandre Tharaud who premiered it in 2004. Pécou's own roots are in the Caribbean, so for the piece he took a more distant perspective on the slave trade and its effects, a painter who travelled around the world, visited the countries of origin and the final destinations of the slaves and made paintings along the way. And when exhibited together, the impressions form the story of 300 years of the slave trade. The result is harmonious and hypnotising like a ritual, alternating dark harmonies with violent rhythms, all written for piano, flute, clarinet and cello.

Major coup: premiere of Kemal Yusuf's first string quartet in Norwich

Kemal Yusuf
Kemal Yusuf
Kemal Yusuf, Haydn, Webern, Beethoven; Carducci Quartet; Norwich & Norfolk Chamber Music at the John Innes Centre
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Feb 18 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Premiere of a first quartet by the young composer of Turkish descent

Norfolk & Norwich Chamber Music pulled off a major coup by commissioning London-born composer, Kemal Yusuf, to write a piece for the Carducci Quartet. His first foray in the string-quartet genre. Yusuf's new quartet was performed alongside Haydn's Quartet in D major Op.20, no.4, Webern's Langsamer Satz and Beethoven Quartet in F minor Op. 95, at the John Innes Centre, Colney, Norwich on Saturday 18 February 2017.

A composer who possesses a unique ear, Yusuf (who is of Turkish descent) has a loose approach to music which has seen him highly active in the field of musical theatre while he also works as a jazz pianist and has written one or two film scores. His new piece, entitled ‘Oyun’ (meaning ‘Game’ in Turkish), is dedicated to his late mentor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whom, I’m sure, would have been immensely proud of his achievement. In fact, Max was the first to see Yusuf’s sketches and was instrumental in helping out the younger composer to formulate and nurture his initial ideas.

An exploration of the interplay of different musical materials, ‘Oyun’ - a single-movement work lasting about 18 minutes and influenced by Debussy’s ‘Jeux’ - is a piece the composer describes as being ‘misbehaving’. The only point of stability comes from a lush and quickly modulating chorale pitched in the higher register towards the end of the piece. It’s a great moment of strength and sturdiness in the work before it returns to its mischievous and carefree ways.

Striking trilogy: Snow, a new opera in three acts with three composers

Rick Zwart, Alice Privett - Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Rick Zwart, Alice Privett - Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Snow, JL Williams, Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher, Tom Floyd; Alice Privett, Rick Zwart, Polly Leech, Alison Langer, Cliff Zammit Stevens, dir: James Hurley, cond: Christopher Stark; The Opera Story at CLF Art Cafe
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Three contrasting young composers, one story; The Opera Story's impressive debut with a new opera

Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story
photo Nick Rutter
Snow is the first production from a new opera company, The Opera Story. With a libretto by JL Williams based on the Snow White story, the opera featured music by Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher and Tom Floyd (an act each). It was premiered on Monday 20 February 2017 at the CLF Art Cafe / Bussey Building in Peckham in a production directed by James Hurley with designs by Rachel Szmukler and lighting by Ben Pickersgill. Alice Privett was Snow White, with Rick Zwart as the King and Prince Raven, plus Polly Leech, Alison Langer and Cliff Zammit Stevens. Christopher Stark conducted an ensemble of 12 instrumentalists.

The Opera Story was founded by Manuel Fajardo and Hamish Mackay, and for their first production they decided upon a new opera based around the story of Snow White, not the tradition Disney version but one refracted through different European folk tales. JL Williams' poetic libretto took three episodes, and each of these acts was given music by a different composer.

Alice Privett - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Alice Privett - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story
photo Nick Rutter
To add to the feeling of differentiation, each act was performed in a different space in the Bussey Building so that we started on the third floor for act one, and worked our way down. The performance was given in the round, with the audience sitting and standing, very much an immersive experience. The organisation was impressive, getting the audience moved each time as well as moving the harp and the tuned percussion, no mean feat, but it meant that designer Rachel Szmukler could create three contrasting environments.

Because three different folk-traditions had been used, the narrative in the three acts was to a certain extent discontinuous and director James Hurley used this creatively by keeping Alice Privett's Snow White on stage all the time, an older woman remembering. It was Privett who was key to the performance, being the only character who appeared in all three acts and whose coherent characterisation through three very different operas gave us a thread to lead us through the piece.

Folk-tales are elliptical things, the very quality which makes them tricky to use yet tempting in opera. The tangential nature of the story telling, using archetypes rather than real people, leaves plenty of space for the music. James Hurley's production seemed rather too content to tell the story simply but effectively, leaving any psychological insights to the music. Fairy tales are full of Freudian suggestion. Sometimes directors rather go too overboard in this direction, but in Snow I rather wanted more psychological suggestion.

Street piano inspires a new community piano academy

Herne Hill community piano
Herne Hill community piano
Anyone who has visited Herne Hill Station has probably noticed the piano which sits under the arch which forms a passage-way under the station. This street-piano, much loved and well maintained, has inspired a new community venture, the Herne Hill Piano Academy.

The aim of the academy is to offer piano lessons for those who may not otherwise be able to afford them, and to provide mentoring and experience for potential piano teachers. Having undertaken a successful crowd-funding, the project is preparing to launch and is interested in hearing from children wishing to learn the piano, and from intermediate/advanced pianists (16 and over) who are interested in teaching (and will receive payment for the teaching). They are also interested in hearing from professionals willing to volunteer as mentors.

The plan is to offer a mix of low price lessons and free scholarship lessons and the whole project is being overseen by the Herne Hill Forum.

Further information from the Herne Hill Forum website. Those interested should email

Monday, 20 February 2017

Romanticism and contrast: Parnassius Piano Duo in Parry, Copland and Rachmaninov

Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, the Parnassius Piano Duo - photo Benjamin Ealovega
Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, the Parnassius Piano Duo
photo Benjamin Ealovega
Parry, Copland/Bernstein, Rachmaninov; Parnassius Piano Duo (Simon Callaghan, Hiroaki Takenouchi); St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A new two-piano arrangement of Rachmaninov's richly romantic second symphony at the centre of a contrasting programme

Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, the Parnassius Piano Duo, brought a striking programme  of works for two pianos to St John's Smith Square for the Sunday afternoon concert, 19 February 2017. They opened with Hubert Parry's rarely performed Grosses Duo in E minor, following it with Leonard Bernstein's two-piano arrangement of Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico. The programme was completed with the premiere of the duo's own two-piano arrangement of Sergei Rachmaninov's mammoth Symphony No. 2.

Written in the mid-1870s when the composer was still in his 20s and had not yet full developed his recognised style, Parry's Grosses Duo is a large-scale and eminently serious work. Each of the three movements makes a rather Brahmsian exploration of Baroque counterpoint, but shot through with the sort of bravura which makes the whole invigorating listening. This was Bach's counterpoint viewed through a 19th century lens, and from the opening notes of the Allegro energico first movement we could appreciate the rich textures which Parry created with just four hands at two pianos. Of course it helped that we were listening to a well matched pair of huge Steinways played by such a long-established piano duo. The second movement was a gentle Siciliano which, for all the movement's gentle lilt, included some remarkably elaborate figuration and rich textures. The final movement started with a very impressive long crescendo which led to the concluding fugue, based on a very strikingly angular fugue subject. The sheer business of the fugue subject kept the movement bubbling along to a terrific climax.

This seems to have been something of a weekend for rare English piano duo works, having heard RVW's Introduction and Fugue on Friday (see my article), and I did wonder whether RVW knew the Parry work (RVW studied with Parry in the 1890s).

Hidden Lives: Secret Loves - Song in the City

LGBT History Month
Song in the City's Spring series starts today, 20 February 2017, at lunchtime in the hall of St Botolph without Bishopsgate. For today's event artistic director Gavin Robert's has curated a concert which explores the tragic life of the pianist Noel Mewton-Wood who was esteemed in the British Music establishment, yet sadly committed suicide in 1953, blaming himself for the death of his lover William Fedrick, with whom he lived. (Benjamin Britten wrote Canticle III: Still falls the rain for a concert in Mewton-Wood's memory).

The concert is one of a pair Song in the City is presenting for LGBT History Month, under the title Hidden Lives: Secret Loves. On Monday 27 February, 2017 the concert will tell the story of the poet AE Housman with settings of his poems including RVW's On Wenlock Edge. Further ahead the Young Artists in the City series presents programmes devised by piano accompaniment students and recent graduates, starting with a programme about strong female figures in the arts.

Full details from the Song in the City website.

Diverse and engaging: Alina Ibragimova and the Scottish Ensemble

Scottish Ensemble
Scottish Ensemble
Mendelssohn, Pärt, Hartmann, Vasks, Bach; Alina Ibragimova, Scottish Ensemble, Jonathan Morton; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Two contrasting violin concertos form the centrepiece of a fascinating programme

The Scottish Ensemble, artistic director Jonathan Morton, brought a diverse programme to the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 18 February 2017, centred on a pair of violin concertos played by Alina Ibragimova, Bach's Violin Concerto in E major, BWV1042 and Karl Amadeus Harmann's wartime masterpiece Concerto Funebre. The Scottish Ensemble played two of Mendelssohn's early string symphonies plus Arvo Pärt's Silouan's Song and Peteris Vasks' Viatore.

The Scottish Ensemble began each half with Mendelssohn, the three movement String Symphony No. 6 in E flat (from 1821 when Mendelssohn was 12), and No. 10 in B minor (from 1823). Though these are remarkable works for a teenager, once you have got over the composer's young age and spotted the influences, and traces of the mature Mendelssohn, the pieces very much rely on the performers to sell them. And this the Scottish Ensemble did, playing with vivid presence, great engagement and liveliness.

The contrast with Pärt's Silouan's Song, which followed in the first half, could not have been greater. Made from a few simple building blocks and a great deal of silence, the piece received a performance which was very intent even in the passages which were barely there. And the quality of the group's silences was amazing.

Looking ahead: WNO 2017/18 - Russian themes, new Verdi, Elena Langer and a Welsh suffragette

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina The Chorus of Welsh National Opera - credit Clive Barda
Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina - The Chorus of Welsh National Opera - credit Clive Barda
Welsh National Opera's 2017/18 season starts with a Russian-themed Autumn with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina and Janacek's From the House of the Dead (which is based on a book by Dostoyevsky), all part of R17, a cultural exploration of the centenary of the Russian Revolution involving arts organisations across Wales. The Spring 2018 season, Rabble Rousers includes Verdi's La forza del destino (the first in a planned new Verdi trilogy), Mozart's Don Giovanni and Puccini's Tosca. And in Summer 2018 there will be the premiere of a new work by Elena Langer a smaller-scale entertainment touring to venues across England and Wales.

The revival of Eugene Onegin is conducted by Latvian Ainars Rubikis with Nicholas Lester (whom we last saw as Dandini in Opera Holland Parks 2016 La Cenerentola) in the title role and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana (a role she sang at Garsington last year, see my review). The revivals of From the House of the Dead and Khovanshchina will be directed by David Pountney and conducted by WNO's music director Tomas Hanus and the casts will feature a number of singers appearing in both productions including Robert Hayward, Mark Le Brocq and Adrian Thompson. From the House of the Dead will be the premiere of a new critical edition by John Tyrrell.

Also in Autumn 2017, WNO will give the premiere of Tom Green's The World's Wife a piece for soprano and string quartet with a libretto by Carol Ann Duffy which looks at the men of history from the perspective of their better halves.

2018 marks the start of a new trilogy of Verdi operas which WNO is producing in collaboration with Oper der Stadt Bonn. Verdi's La forza del destino premieres in Spring 2018, with Un ballo in maschera in Spring 2019 and Les Vepres Sicilienne in 2020. The operas will all be conducted by Carlo Rizzi and directed by David Pountney. The design team, Raimond Bauer, Marie-Jeanne Lecca and Fabrice Kebour, will be creating a 'design machine' common to all three opera but capable of making each look different.

The cast for La forza del destino includes Gwyn Hughes Jones as Don Alvaro, Mary Elizabeth Williams as Leonora and Luis Cansino as Don Carlo, plus Mikos Sebestyen, Justina Gringyte, and Donald Maxwell. Kerem Hasan joins WNO as associate conductor, initially assisting Carlo Rizzi on La forza del destino.

The Spring season is completed by a revival of John Caird's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni which includes Elizabeth Watts as Elvira and David Stout as Leporello, and Puccini's Tosca conducted by Carlo Rizzi with Claire Rutter and Mary Elizabeth Williams in the title role, Hector Sandoval and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi and Mark Doss as Scarpia.

Summer 2018 sees the world premiere of Rhondda Rips is up! a new entertainment by Elena Langer. The composer describes it as a vaudeville or cabaret. It has a libretto by Emma Jenkins in which an all female cast, including soprano Lesley Garrett, tells the story of the Welsh suffragette Margaret Haig Thomas. The production's small scale will enable it to tour to venues across England and Wales including the Hackney Empire. Elena Langer's previous opera Figaro gets a divorce was a great success as part of WNO's 2015/16 season.

Music director Tomas Hanus will conduct the WNO orchestra in three concerts at St David's Hall, Cardiff with programme complementary to the opera seasons so in November 2017 they will be performing a Russian programme including Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 'Leningrad'

New educational initiative during the season include the first concert from the newly formed WNO Community Chorus North, which takes place at North Wales International Music Festival, and the 2017/18 season sees the launch of a fully integrated international opera school at the Royal Welsh College of Music an Darma

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Discovering the music beneath: Janusz Wawrowski's Sequenza on Warner Classics

Janusz Wawrowski - Sequenza - Warner Classics
Berio, Ysaye, Brustad, Bacewicz, Pendercki, Opalka, Przybylski; Janusz Wawrowski; Warner Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 12 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A fearless account of Berio's solo violin piece the centre-piece of this stunning recital of modern music for unaccompanied violin

Luciano Berio's Sequenza VIII per violino solo forms the centrepiece of Sequenza a recital of 20th and 21st century music for solo violin from the Polish violinist Janusz Wawrowski on Warner Classics.  Wawrowski's recital moves from Eugene Ysaye's Violin Sonata in E major, Op.27 no. 8 through Bjarne Brustad's Eventyrsuite for violin solo to Grazyna Bacewicz's II Sonata per violino solo and Krzysztof Penderecki's Cadenza for violin solo. Following Berio's piece we hear two by Polish contemporaries of Wawrowski, Tomasz Jakub Opalka's Fil d'araignee pour violon and Dariusz Przybylski's Up for violin solo.

As a student Janusz Wawrowski performed all of Paganini's 24 Caprices in a single evening, a feat which found its way onto Wawrowski's first recording (available from Amazon). So it should come as no surprise that Berio's fearsome Sequenza should hold no terrors for him, and he surrounds Berio's work with an invigorating survey of mainly 20th century music for violin solo.

He starts with one of Eugene Ysaye's sonatas for solo violin from 1924, the last sonata in the group dedicated to the Spanish violinist Manuel Quiroga. From the first Wawrowski displays a lovely sweet tone allied to a superb technique. The sonata is stylistically diverse, Ysaye regarded it as a sort of portrait of Quiroga, but Wawrowski throws off the sheaves of notes with aplomb and plays in a manner which shows he really believes in the music.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Introduction and fugue: CD launch with RVW rarity

Mark Bebbington & Rebeca Omordia at Schott Music
Mark Bebbington & Rebeca Omordia at Schott Music
Mark Bebbington's new disc of piano music by RVW on SOMM contains something of a surprise, the Introduction and Fugue for two pianos. Not yet another early work being rediscovered, but prime RVW dating from 1949 yet the work has only ever appeared on disc once before and this is its first CD outing. Last night, 17 February 2017, Mark Bebbington and his piano duo partner Rebeca Omordia played the work at the launch of the CD in the recital room at Schott Music in Great Marlborough Street. Bebbington and Omordia also gave us another rarity from the disc, RVW and Maurice Jacobson's two piano arrangement of the Tallis Fantasia which also dates from the 1940s.

The Introduction and Fugue was written for piano duo team of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith, the couple had given the first performance of RVW's Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (the 1946 revision to the Piano Concerto) and they premiered the Introduction and Fugue in 1949. There is an interesting link between Sellick and Smith and the SOMM recording. Siva Oke, who runs SOMM, was a pupil of Cyril Smith, whilst pianist Mark Bebbington was a pupil of Phyllis Sellick.

At the CD launch Mark Bebbington talked about his time with Phyllis Sellick. She was a lively 91 year old at the time, and over lunch after his lessons he persuaded her to talk about the past and working with some of the great British composers. Mark thought that whilst RVW was a great friend, the music of RVW that Smith and Sellick loved was the RVW of The Lark Ascending and Tallis Fantasia rather than the tougher RVW of the Symphony No. 4. And he felt that Sellick had reservations about the Introduction and Fugue. Though she and Smith played it, they did not do so extensively, and Sellick does not seem to have recommended the work to any of her students.

The result is that no major UK piano duo team has performed the work, and despite being published in 1949 it has seemed to languish. When the SOMM disc was being planned, it was thought that the recording of the Introduction and Fugue would be the first recording, though in fact it was issued on vinyl many year ago. It is a very sophisticated work, lasting well over 15 minutes and the fugue develops into a double fugue (thus giving the lie to RVW's protective covering as an 'amateurish composer').

That Maurice Jacobson and RVW's arrangement of the Tallis Fantasia dates from the same period is very telling. In some ways it is an unlikely transcription, but the result brings remarkable clarity and insight into the piece.

The Piano Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams - Mark bebbington and Rebeca Omordia - SOMM, available from

First UK appearance for 15 years: conductor Peter Dijkstra talks about the Netherlands Chamber Choir

Peter Dijkstra and Netherlands Chamber Choir ©FoppeSchut
Peter Dijkstra and Netherlands Chamber Choir ©FoppeSchut
On 8 March 2017, the Netherlands Chamber Choir (Nederlands Kamerkoor) and its chief conductor Peter Dijkstra, will be performing at Cadogan Hall, the choir's first UK appearance for 15 years. Their programme consists of music by Britten (Hymn to St Cecilia, Sacred and Profane), Gabriel Jackson, Luciano Berio and the Swedish composer Lars Johan Werle. I caught up with Peter via Skype to find out more about the programme.

Peter DIjkstra - photo Wiebrig Krakau
Peter DIjkstra - photo Wiebrig Krakau
His starting point was Benjamin Britten's Sacred and Profane, a cycle of eight pieces from the end of Britten's life (1975), Peter describes it as demanding for the vocal ensemble. Britten set a mix of sacred and profane ancient texts, so Peter wanted to pair the work with music which had a similar combination of the sacred and the profane. For us in life, do we turn to the sacred or are we more interested in the temptations of profane things, these are questions which Peter wanted to ask in the programme. In fact, when we spoke Peter and the choir were immersed in an entirely different programme, performing minimalism with music by Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass.

For the Sacred and Profane programme, Peter also wanted to find texts which worked well together. Peter describes Gabriel Jackson's Ave Regina coelorum as a very pure setting of a Marian antiphon, yet it is accompanied by electric guitar, one of the most profane instruments you could image. Jackson's treatment of the guitar is very diverse, so the twangy sounds of the guitar work well and there is even an aria for soprano and guitar. Peter calls it 'a wonderful thing'.

Lars Johan Werle is, for Peter, a dear composer from the Swedish choral tradition. Peter feels that when the listener starts listening to Werle's Canzone 126 di Francesco Petrarca they might think they were listening to an ordinary Monteverdi madrigal, but then it takes flight into an extraordinary contemporary piece with note clusters and spoken passages, a madrigal in a new guise. So the work picks up on another theme of the programme, 'old texts with new music'.

The choir has a very broad range in its programming, from Renaissance, through oratorios by Bach and Handel, to new music and commissions. In every programme they have a new aim regarding the sound the choir makes, depending on what the music asks for. For the Sacred and Profane programme, Peter will be searching for an expressive sound from the singers which will work well with the texts. Berio's Cries of London is very soloistic for the singers, yet more experimental in style and asks for straight tone. Whereas the works of Lars Johan Werle will need more expressive sound.

Peter Dijkstra, Netherlands Chamber Choir - photo Martina Simkovicova
Peter Dijkstra, Netherlands Chamber Choir - photo Martina Simkovicova
To sing a programme based around English texts to an English audience was not in fact the choir's specific choice, they simply presented a selection of possible programmes to Cadogan Hall and it was Sacred and Profane which was chosen. It reflects a level of curiosity, about a Dutch choir singing English music, which Peter finds wonderful.

Friday, 17 February 2017

An immersive experience: Even You Song at Peterborough Cathedral

Even You Song at Peterborough Cathedral (Photo: Benedict Johnson)
Even You Song at Peterborough Cathedral (Photo: Benedict Johnson)
Bettina Furnée, Lucy Sheerman, Cheryl Frances Hoad Even You Song; Peterborough Cathedral Choir, choir of schoolchildren, David Humphreys, James Bowstead, Steven Grahl; Peterborough Cathedral
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 16 2017
Star rating: 4.5

An immersive experience in Peterborough Cathedral based on Evensong and benefiting from a striking core by Cheryl Frances Hoad

An experience combining text, visual images and music, which referenced the structure of Evensong yet integrated interviews with Peterborough residents about a trip to the moon along with images of their houses, combined with a heavy dose of community involvement. Even You Song sounds like the sort of immersive experience which you might get in an art gallery, and in fact it arose our of the residency of artist Bettina Furnée and writer Lucy Sheerman at Metal Peterborough (Metal Peterborough is a community cultural hub housed in a gatehouse at the entrance to Peterborough Cathedral). 

Even You Song proved substantial and striking; partly because the community involved was that of Peterborough Cathedral so that the immersive experience took place within the cathedral, and the music performed by the cathedral choir along with a choir of school children was a substantial score by Cheryl Frances Hoad.

Even You Song was performed at Peterborough Cathedral on Thursday 16 February 2017, where a huge audience filled the nave and the chancel, whilst the choir of Peterborough Cathedral, children from St Augustine's CE (V) Junior School, Bishop Creighton Academy, West Town primary Avademy and William Law CE Primary School, organist David Humphreys, James Bowstead (conductor of the children's choir), and conductor Steven Grahl (director of music at Peterborough Cathedral), plus Reverend Canon Bruce Ruddock (cantor), Reverend Canon Jonathan Baker (welcome and reflections) and Sue Baker & Keely Mills (readings), performed something which was structured like Evensong, yet had a new text by Lucy Sheerman, and music by Cheryl Frances Hoad.

Sheerman's text was based on interviews done with Peterborough couples about going to the moon; this might sound gimmicky, but it was a neutral way of getting people to talk about the unknown and the resulting text was surprisingly thoughtful and poetic. During the performance, images were projected created by artists Bettina Furnée, who had taken pictures in the interviewees homes. Sometimes these were illustrative of the text being sung or spoken and sometimes they were profoundly abstract details.

Cheryl Frances Hoad's score was large scale, she had set the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, along with the Preces and Responses, created psalms and settings for the new collects, plus a long anthem, a hymn along with organ voluntaries. A striking and substantial achievement,

What lies beneath: welcome development plans at St George's Hanover Square

St George's Hanover Square
St George's Hanover Square
The last few years or so have seen a great deal of activity at St George's Church, Hanover Square, as the PCC has substantially re-furbished the historic interior and commissioned a brand new Richards, Fowkes & Co organ. Now there are plans afoot to remedy a significant lack in the church facilities, decent loos and somewhere casual for parishioners and concert goers to gather. Lack of space is a familiar reason why historic churches have difficulty fitting in facilities, but St George's has a secret weapon.

As Handel's parish church, St George's Hanover Square is the home to the London Handel Festival and, as concert goers and artists all know, the church's historic interior and fine acoustic are not matched by the back stage and front of house facilities. But when the church was built it was with a significant undercroft. Never, apparently, used for burials this may have been intended as a school but seems to have spent most of its life as storage, perhaps most memorably by a wine merchant.

I visited the church recently when the parish administrator Stephen Wikner kindly took me down to the undercroft. There are still remains from previous existences, with the hoist for the wine, and brick partitions vaults. These latter are not structural and the plan is to remove them to reveal a handsome vaulted space. This will be multi-functional, with a commercial restaurant Monday to Friday, and availability for weddings at weekends. It will provide handsome facilities for concert goers, and a new meeting room (available for hire) which will double as a green room (no more using the church vestry).

The undercroft extends into the area under the portico, and this will house the handsome new toilets. The existing toilets and access staircase are 20th century and can be stripped out to provide space for a fine staircase linking to the grand stair upstairs.

Of course restaurants need kitchens and facilities, and these will be created by excavating the courtyard south of the church. When complete, the courtyard will return to use, providing external access to the new restaurant, as well as housing the new disable access lift (something that St George's sorely lacks).

The undercroft plan is an imaginative solution to a tricky problem, and the restaurant should provide a welcome income stream for the church (which will be funding the changes partly using its own investments). Concert goers and artists at the London Handel Festival will certainly be grateful. The new undercroft development will also provide welcome facilities for those who attend St George's services. And perhaps the development will encourage more people to take advantage of the church's fine acoustic to mount concerts there.

Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman at the Wigmore Hall

Louise Alder - photo William Alder
Louise Alder
photo William Alder
Soprano Louise Alder and pianist Gary Matthewman are giving a recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 19 February 2017, at 3pm. They will be performing Huw Watkins' Five Larkin Songs (which were premiered by Carolyn Sampson in 2010 and won the vocal category of the 2011 British Composer Awards), plus a group of songs by Sibelius (Kyssens hopp Op. 13 No. 2, Vilse Op. 17 No. 4, Säv, säv, susa Op. 36 No. 4, Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte Op. 37 No. 5) and songs by Puccini and Verdi.

Louise Alder's recent roles have included Ilia in Mozart's Idomeneo at Garsington (see my review), and Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni with Glyndebourne on Tour (see my review) and she will be making her Welsh National Opera debut as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier later this year.

The concert is part of the Wigmore Hall's Chamber Zone, the free ticket scheme for 8-25 year olds, and tickets for those under 35 are £5. Full details from the Wigmore Hall website.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Food of Love: settings of the Song of Songs from Ensemble Plus Ultra

Illustration for the first verse of the Song of Songs, a minstrel playing before Solomon (15th century Rothschild Mahzor)
Illustration for the 1st verse of the Song of Songs,
a minstrel playing before Solomon
(15th century Rothschild Mahzor)
The Food of Love - Song of Songs Victoria, Palestrina, Lassus, Ceballos; Ensemble Plus Ultra; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 16 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Beautifully realised vocal ensemble performances of texts which hover between sacred and secular

Ensemble Plus Ultra made its Cadogan Hall debut as part of the Choral at Cadogan series on Wednesday 15 February 2017, with a programme of settings of the Song of Songs by Victoria, Palestrina, Lassus, and Ceballos, interleaved with readings of Shakespeare's sonnets. The ensemble, soprano Grace Davidson, mezzo-soprano Martha McLorinan, counter-tenor David Martin, tenors William Balkwill and Simon Wall and bass Jimmy Holliday, makes something of a speciality of music from the Spanish Golden Age but in this programme they also visited Rome for the music of Palestrina and Munich for the music of Lassus.

Liturgically the text of the Song of Songs was taken to refer to the Church as the bride of Christ, though not all settings of the texts from the Song of Songs were written to be used liturgically. Palestrina's 29 settings may well have been designed for private performance, we don't really know. And some of the texts get a bit near the knuckle for liturgical use. Composers responses to the texts varied, with settings ranging from the positively madrigalian with lots of word colouring, to the simple pure lines of classic Palestrina.

The programme opened with three settings of Nigra sum sed formosa, by Victoria and by Palestrina with chant in the middle. In Victoria's setting the group brought out a real sense of the word play, with some vivid interaction between different groupings, whereas Palestrina's response was much more smooth lines and nice blend. In between we had the poised chant sung by the two women in the group.

The ensemble consists of some of the most experienced consort singers around, and this shows in the group's combination of blend and character; individual lines were characterised but the whole was highly responsive. I felt that they took some time to quite get the measure of the tricky acoustic of the Cadogan Hall and balance in some of the early items in the programme was not ideal.

I felt that the group did not always get beyond the calm beauty of Palestrina's music. Their performance of his four-part Surge propera was perfectly done but it was the more extrovert, madrigalian five-part setting which came alive. The same was true of Trahe me post where they really brought out Palestrina's mobile lines, whereas his Osculetur me was perfectly poised and controlled.

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