Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Imagination and innovation from the Hermes Experiment.

The Hermes Experiment - photo Thursdan Redding
The Hermes Experiment
photo Thurstan Redding
The Hermes Experiment is a group of young performers who come together to perform contemporary music, much of it written for them. Their line-up is quite distinctive, using harp, clarinet, soprano and double-bass with performers Anne Denholm, Oliver Pashley, Heloise Werner and Marianne Schofield. Their 2014/15 season is a lively mixture of pieces, both new and old. 

Things kick off with them being joined by Ben Morris, organ, in preludes from Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier with new fugues by Michael Mofidian, Sasha Millwood and Stephen Williams (9/9, St John's Church, Notting Hill). Then on 15 November at Limewharf there is the combination of music by Debussy, Purcell and Rameau with new pieces by Aleksandr Brusentsev, Giles Swayne, Kim Ashton and Jeremy Thurlow

Their Christmas concert, A Christmas Experiment mixes a new commission from Graham Ross, Christmas Carols and a new piece by Jonathan Woolgar, with Britten's Ceremony of Carols (16/12, St John's Church, Notting Hill). Their season continues into the new year, with new commissions from Gareth Wood, James Brady, Misha Mullov-Abbado and many more, plus a collaboration with photographer Thurstan Redding.  Full information from ensemble's website.

Essential Listening - Arvo Part

Arvo Part - Polyphony  Layton
Arvo Part Berliner Messe, The Beatitudes, Annum per Annum, Magnificat, 7 Magnificat Antiphons, De Profundis; Polyphony, Stephen Layton; Hyperion Helios
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 28 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Superb performances of some of Arvo Part's finest and best known sacred music.

This 1998 disc is, I think, essential listening for anyone who wants to explore Arvo Part's music, and the recording would sit proudly on the shelves of any Part enthusiast. The disc contains an attractive and essential selection of Part's sacred music with Berliner Messe (in the version for choir and organ), The Beatitudes, Magnificat, Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen as well as Annum per annum for organ. The works date from the period 1980 to 1991 and encapsulate much that is typical of Part's style. Here they are sung by Polyphony conducted by Stephen Layton, with Andrew Lucas (organ). The disc has been re-issued on the Hyperion Helios label.

Part's vocal music, particularly that for unaccompanied choir, or choir and organ, can be deceptively simple. But it has a stripped back quality which gives the singers no room to manoeuvre. Just listen to the opening movement from Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen, O Weisheit. Here the soprano part is discontinuous, simply starting and stopping, and with very little variation in the note. What could be simpler, but the singers must sing high and quiet, and the line must have a sense of continuity as if, in the silent bars, they were still singing but we can't hear them. This means that the notes must start without any sort of accent or bump. It all starts to get very tricky, and each piece on this disc has its own collection of problems. Many require superb tuning, as Part places notes together based on his tintinabuli technique where he accompanies a plainchant-like melody with various notes/chords from a triad chord.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Gramophone Awards 2014

So, the Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2014 have been announced, and the winner of the Recording of the Year will be revealed at the awards ceremony on 17 September at St John's Smith Square. Schubert and CPE Bach are to the fore in the recordings. Jonas Kaufmann has won the Solo Vocal category for the second year running (this time with Schubert's Die Winterreise), the Pavel Haas Quartet won the Chamber Award (with Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet and String Quintet). Mahan Esfahani won the Baroque Instrumental category with CPE Bach sonatas and Hans Christoph Rademann's recording of CPE Bach's Magnificat with the RIAS Chamber Choir won the Baroque Vocal category.

Jonas Kaufmann - © Gregor Hohenberg / Sony Music
Jonas Kaufmann
© Gregor Hohenberg / Sony Music
George Benjamin's Written on Skin won the Contemporary category, though not the Opera category which went to the Ravel double bill from Glyndebourne. Choral category winners were the Dunedin consort in their reconstruction of Mozart's Requiem. And Iestyn Davies recital Arise my muse won Recital category.

But increasingly as I look at the shortlists for these awards I start to wonder how relevant they are to the modern recording industry. The Awards were founded in 1977, a period when there was a small number of large classical recording companies with a good roster of well known stars. Each company would produce their annual star recordings and these would, generally, compete for the awards. It was comparing like with like. Nowadays how on earth do you compare? There are few tenors in the world today to compare to Jonas Kaufmann. And you can't even listen to his recordings blind, because his voice is so distinctive. The structure of the seems to reflect our old way of thinking about classical recording production.

You have to start thinking: What is best? What makes a recording stand out? Does a super budget with imagination stand a chance? How can the awards reflect the real imagination and diversity of the records available to the public.

If you are interested in reading more of the background to this year's awards, then the original Gramphone reviews have been put together in an on-line edition.

Nico Muhly premiere at Rhinegold LIVE

Charles Owen - photo credit Jack Liebeck
Charles Owen
photo credit Jack Liebeck
Rhinegold LIVE is Rhinegold Publishing's series of free rush hour concerts. Pianist Charles Owen will be launching the new season of at Conway Hall on 9 September with a programme which will include the London premiere of Nico Muhly's Short Stuff. The event starts with a complimentary drinks reception, followed by Owen's recital which includes music by Mendelssohn, B ach and Debussy and then a Q&A with Owen and Claire Jackson, editor of International Piano magazine completes the evening.

Muhly's Short Stuff was premiered by Jeffrey Kahane in 2009 at the Lincoln Centre in New York. A review of the concert on ConcertoNet.com described the piece as 'a brilliant toccata—with a twist. That twist comes with sudden stops in the middle of the phrase or lines. Not so much Musical Chairs as speed-bumps for the Indianapolis 500.' Sounds fun!

Rhinegold LIVE continues on 10 November with a recital by soprano Mary Bevan and pianist Richard Peirson.

Prom 59: Richard Strauss's Elektra

Johan Reuter, Felicity Palmer, Gun-Brit Barkmin and Christine Goerke, with BBC Symphony Orchestra at the end of Elektra at the Proms - photo credit BBC
Johan Reuter, Felicity Palmer, Gun-Brit Barkmin and Christine Goerke,
with BBC Symphony Orchestra - photo BBC
Richard Strauss Elektra; Christine Goerke, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Felicity Palmer, Johan Reuter, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 31 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Radiant, transfigured performance with the young American soprano Christine Goerke in the title role

The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role. Felicity Palmer was Clytemnestra, Gun-Brit Barkmin was Chrysothemis, Robert Kunzli was Aegisthus and Johan Reuter was Orestes. The concert staging was by Justin Way.

Another day, another Strauss opera; it made fascinating an illuminating listening and watching to be able to hear two remarkable performances of Salome (performed at the Proms on 30 August, see my review) and Elektra. Both have highly dramatic name parts, testing a soprano to the limits, both use large orchestras, but all to such very different effect. Whilst in Salome, Strauss takes eroticism and pushes it to limits which are intensely Freudian, if not positively pathological, in Elektra he makes grisly revenge the subject for a gloriously redemptive ending. In concert, with the orchestra to the fore, the ending of Elektra took on a new light and with the BBC Symphony Orchestra's playing under Bychkov the ending took on a remarkable positive and transfigurative radiance.

Writing the opera Strauss was building, in more ways than one, on the work of Richard Wagner. Not just in the way that the piece is constructed musically, but in the size of the orchestra and range of instruments (over 110 players with instruments including Wagner tubas, a heckelphone, basset horns, bass trumpet and contra-bass trombone), and in his use of voices. Writing the title role Strauss was relying on the development of a cadre of sopranos capable of singing the dramatic roles in Wagner's operas. But the role of Elektra pushes this voice to its ultimate limit and the opera is routinely cut. One of the small niggles about this glorious Proms performance was that, being a one-off festival occasion a way could not have been found to have opened up some of the cuts.

The performance was staged by Justin Way and unlike the Salome of the previous day, all the cast were off the book and we had a coherent yet simple production which rendered the performance highly effective and helped showcased the remarkable Elektra from Christine Goerke.

Christine Goerke © Arielle Doneson
Christine Goerke © Arielle Doneson
The American dramatic soprano, Christine Goerke sang the role of Elektra at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2013. I missed these performances so I was pleased to be able to catch up with Goerke's interpretation. Goerke has only started singing Elektra relatively recently (2011) and she is still relatively young for a dramatic soprano in this repertoire (born 1969 according to Wikipedia). All this contributes to an Elektra which is remarkable for its youth and radiance. She is not one of those Elektras who start the opera as demented and raddled. From the opening she projected youth and a certain rapture in the vocal line. Only gradually did you come to realise that this young woman was unhinged. Goerke had a way of smiling to herself which told volumes. What was refreshing about her performance was that, though certainly a very big sing, she did not seem to need to attack every single phrase. There was some profoundly poignant moments and this was one of the most sympathetic Elektras I have heard in a long time. If I have a worry, it was that her German seemed to lack the crispness I would have liked.

The recognition scene, with Johan Reuter's Orestes, was very touching and Goerke was just right in the way she suggested that even here, Elektra was still self absorbed. Not so much interacting with Orestes, but remembering him. Given the fine quality, it was a shame that we did not have the scene complete for once. In the final scenes, Goerke was not so much demented but transfigured. Her performance taking on a remarkable glow which reflected the glorious accompaniment from Bychkov and the orchestra.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Annie Krull, as Clytemnestra and Elektra in Strauss's Elektra in Dresden in 1909
Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Annie Krull, as Clytemnestra and Elektra
in Dresden in 1909
Felicity Palmer has been a remarkable Clytemnestra for many years and it was lovely to make the acquaintance again of her vivid characterisation. This was a traditional interpretation of Clytemnestra as neurotic and raddled old woman, wracked by dreams and desperate (the first Clytemnestra, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, was only 48 when she played the role). The way that Goerke's Elektra taunted Palmer's Clytemnestra was masterly and the scene between them fairly crackled. This scene is a gift to two strong singing actresses, and here Goerke and Palmer ran with it in spectacular fashion. We had no glitzy staging to get in the way, just a pair of musically dramatic performances.

The young German jugenddramatisch soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin made a stylish and elegant Chrysothemis. She sang with bright clear tones, and a strong sense of line. Whilst she was touching in the first scene, in the way that she talked about wanting children, she too seemed as touched as the rest of her family. The closing scenes pushed Barkmin's voice to its limits, but she threw herself into the role in an intensely physical way and matched Goerke in creating the scene of transfigured radiance as the closing scenes progressed.

Johan Reuter made a dignified, notable Orestes, his virile baritone giving a sense of the character's nobility and resolve. This was very much an action-man Orestes, silently incapable of understanding the neurotic world in which his sister lived.

The remainder of the cast were all very strong, and contributed to the highly characterful backdrop to the main action of the opera. Robert Kunzli was a suitably old-maid-ish Aegisthus. Miranda Keys was a fearsomely impressive Overseer, physically dominating the chattering Maids of Katarina Bradic, Zoryana Kushpler, Hanna Hipp, Marie-Eve Munger and Iris Kupke. Ivan Tursic was the Young Servant and Jongmin Park was Orestes tutor, whilst the Old Servant and six Maidservants were taken from the BBC Singers who also contributed the off-stage chorus at the end.

Under Semyon Bychkov the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed itself to be in peak form, bringing a sense of fluidity and flexibility to Strauss's mammoth score. There were some powerful moments, how could there not be, and there was a sense that this was an orchestral tone-poem with voices, so riveting and mesmerising did Bychkov and his players make the orchestral argument. With the orchestra ranged behind the singers, balance was always going to be a problem but the results worked surprisingly well and there was never a danger that the voices would be completely covered, despite the fact that at times there felt like a wall of sound coming from the stage; a tribute to the skills both of Strauss as an orchestrator and Bychkov and his players.  You kept noticing, that despite the complexities Strauss was essentially a lyric composer and Bychkov's ear for the details was masterly. The ending, as I have said, had a radiance and also a sense of dance, something the Bychkov brought at various points of the score.

This was a radiant and unforgettable evening, the neuroses of the drama were modified by the transfigured performance from Goerke and the warm glow which Bychkov and his players cast on the score, supporting a very fine cast indeed.

The review appears in OperaToday.com

Elsewhere on this blog:

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Prom 48: Ever Icelandic - Tectonics at the Royal Albert Hall

Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's Proms Debut - Photo Alistair Muir
Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra
at the BBC Proms - Photo Alistair Muir
Haukur Tómasson, Jón Leifs, Beethoven, Schumann; Jonathan Biss, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Aug 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Unstoppable forces: two Icelandic works in the Iceland orchestra Proms debu

Unstoppable forces of nature made their presence known at the Proms on Friday 22nd August. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov, curator of the ongoing Tectonics Festival - now in its third year, performed works by two Icelandic composers Haukur Tómasson (1960-) and Jón Leifs (1899-1968).

Inspired by the nature of his homeland Tómasson was commissioned to write 'Magma' ('Storka' in Icelandic) by the Warsaw Autumn music festival in 1998 and revised it a year later in 1999. Focussing on the number five - each of the five movements (floating, animated, cantabile, coagulating and rigorous) have five sections and five note motifs abound.

Prom 58: Richard Strauss's Salome

Nina Stemme
Nina Stemme
Richard Strauss Salome; Nina Stemme, Doris Soffel, Burkhard Ulrich, Samuel Youn, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 30 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Lithe, youthful and intensely dramatic performance of the title role, complemented by glorious orchestral playing

The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, performed the opera at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014; the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings. For Salome, Donald Runnicles conducted the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, with Nina Stemme as Salome, Burkhard Ulrich as Herod, Doris Soffel as Herodias, Samuel Youn as Jokanaan, Thomas Blondelle as Narraboth and Ronnita Miller as Herodias's page. The concert staging was directed by Justin Way.

Donald Runnicles - photo Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
photo Simon Pauly
Prior to the performance, I rather wondered why this particular opera and these performers. Salome is certainly not rare in London and the David McVicar production at Covent Garden gets regular outings. Nina Stemme has recently sung Salome in Stockholm and Zurich, but the opera does not seem to appear in the current roster of Deutsche Oper productions. We did not seem to be being given a glimpse of an existing production, and this seemed confirmed at the performance when the singers varied from being completely off the book, to standing resolutely behind music stands. There was a performing area in front of the orchestra, but only Nina Stemme's Salome and Doris Soffel's Herodias took real advantage of this. But all doubts were swept away by the performance, this was simply one of the finest performances of Salome that I have heard in a long time.

The problem with Salome (written in 1905), is that though premiered barely a century ago it dates from an era of different performing styles. Dramatic sopranos had voices which were more lithe, more narrow in focus. Orchestras were generally quieter, with narrower bore brass and gut strings, and the orchestral sound a lot less dense. And production values were more forgiving, it wasn't generally worried about whether the heroine looked 16. But early sopranos in the role would probably sound a lot younger, to our ears. Nowadays, both singers and directors frequently move the character into maturity. One of the few singers that I have heard who seemed able to capture the bright freshness and youth of Salome was Montserrat Caballe.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Choral at Cadogan - 2014/15 season launch

Last night, 28 August, Cadogan Hall launched the 2014/15 Choral at Cadogan series with a short taster from Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. The group performed three works from the Metamorphosis programme which they will be presenting at Cadogan Hall on 23 October 2014. 

We heard Palestrina's Magnificat for Double Choir, a glorious work in which Palestrina starts out traditionally using the two choirs alternately but eventually varies the groupings of voices to magical effect, Orlando Gibbons' Nunc dimittis from the 'Short' service which is a simple but very effective piece with a fabulous Amen, and finally Arvo Part's Nunc Dimittis, a quietly spare work where Part reserves the climaxes for key moments such as the word 'lumen'.

Coronation of Poppea at Grimeborn Festival

Rosie Aldridge and Elizabeth Holmes in Ryedale Festival Opera's Coronation of Poppea at Grimeborn Festival
Rosie Aldridge and Elizabeth Holmes
Monteverdi The Coronation of Poppea; Ryedale Festival Opera, director Nina Brazier, music director Christopher Glynn; Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 28 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Small scale, but entrancing and engrossing production of Monteverdi's final opera

Ryedale Festival Opera brought its production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre on 29 August 2014. Premiered earlier this year at the Ryedale Festival, the production was sung in a new English translation by John Warrack and directed by Nina Brazier with designs by Sophie Mosberger and lighting by Tom Boucher. Christopher Glynn (artistic director of the Ryedale Festival) was musical director (directing from the organ) with instrumental players from Eboracum Baroque. Soloists included Ben Williamson as Ottone, Elizabeth Holmes as Poppea, Stephanie Marshall as Nero, Maria Ostroukhova as Ottavia, Rosie Aldridge as Arnalta and Rebecca Van den Berg as Drusilla.

The idea of a budget production of Monteverdi's final opera has the potential to make the heart sink, the piece is so long and complex with a huge cast of characters (Ryedale Festival Opera fielded over two dozen different roles), and requires a certain quality to the delivery of the vocal lines. There are few arias, few big moments and it is in the dialogue and drama that the interest lies. All of which needs time (and money) spending on valuable rehearsal time.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Peter Maxwell Davies birthday concert

Scottish Chamber Orchestra - photo Marco Borggreve
Scottish Chamber Orchestra - photo Marco Borggreve
The late night Prom on Monday 8 September 2014, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra will be giving a concert to celebrate the birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. In fact, 8 September is his actual birthday. Conducted by Ben Gernon, the orchestra will be joined by clarinettist Dimitri Ashkenazy and bagpiper Robert Jordan for an all Maxwell Davies programme. The concert also showcases the long relationship between Maxwell Davies and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxwell Davies having composed music for the orchestra over a 30 year period including the sequence of Straclyde Concertos for the orchestra's principals.

The Proms concert starts with the London premiere Ebb of Winter, which the orchestra commissioned to mark its 40th anniversary last year. The concert also includes the Fourth Strathclyde Concerto (written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's principal clarinettist) and the widely performed An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise.

B Tommy Andersson - new BBC NOW composer-in-association

B Tommy Anderson - Photo: Jan-Olav Wedin
B Tommy Andersson
Photo: Jan-Olav Wedin
The Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson has been appointed the composer-in-association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Their first joint event will be the orchestra's concert on October 3, when the programme will include Andersson's Garden of Delights. Andersson is not a particularly well known composer in the UK and I spoke to him by phone to find out more about the residency and his work.

My first question was how a Swedish composer came to be composer-in-association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (previous incumbents included Michael Berkeley and Simon Holt). The answer to the question is Thomas Søndergård, the orchestra's Danish Principal Conductor. Søndergård likes Andersson's music a lot, and the residency was his idea.

During the year that Andersson will be with them, the orchestra will be performing seven of Andersson's orchestra works plus a new piece. The works to be performed will include Garden of Delights (which Andersson premiered with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2009), his large scale piece Satyricon (premiered 20014) as well as a composer portrait concert. During Summer 2015 there will be the first performance of a new work to round things off. Whilst Andersson is in Wales he will also be doing workshops and masterclasses with composition students in Cardiff.

Introducing the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung
On Wednesday 27 August 2014, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra made its BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall under the orchestra's musical director Myung-Whun Chung in a programme which included music by Debussy and Tchaikovsky, plus Korean composer Unsuk Chin's Su for sheng and orchestra, a remarkable concerto for the sheng, an ancient oriental instrument which is played by Wu Wei. The morning of the concert there was a press conference, with Myung-Whun Chung, Unsuk Chin and Wu Wei to introduce the orchestra and the programme, as well as confirming the remarkable achievement that the appearance at the BBC Proms confirms.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in its present form is the product of an idea. Ten years ago the then Mayor of Seoul persuaded Myung-Whun Chung to come back to Korea and create a world class orchestra from the existing regional orchestra (in fact Chung played a solo with the orchestra when he was 7!). Though born in Korea and held in high esteem in the country, Chung has spent most of his life abroad. Chung talked about how he was born during the last year of the Korean war, but that when he went to the USA the only thing people knew about Korea was that there had been a war. You sense that, for Chung, the orchestra is a way of presenting modern Korea to the world and he is concerned that the musicians reflect the best in Korea.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Concerts by Candlelight at the Sam Wanamaker Playouse

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Last Winter the Sam Wanamaker P layhouse opened at the Globe Theatre and it has proved one of London's most fascinating theatrical spaces. Not just for plays, but for opera (see our review of Cavalli's L'Ormindo, concerts and other events. The programme of events for the first part of the 2014/15 season promises all sorts of good things, all by candlelight on Sunday afternoons and Monday evenings. Music ranges from 17th century to contemporary, with excursions into jazz and further afield. There are also spoken word events from poetry to short stories.

Dvorak in Love

Dvorak in Love
Tony Palmer's film Dvorak in Love was made for Czech Television in the 1980's. It was intended simply to be an account of the recording of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in the Prague with Julian Lloyd-Webber, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Vaclav Neumann. By interweaving the documentary footage with readings from Dvorak's letters the result, given Dvorak's generally presumed lack of involvement in politics, proved surprisingly political and the resulting film was not shown on Czech TV. It was premiered in the UK on the South Bank Show in 1988, and was the first documentary film to be shown on Czech TV after the fall of communism.

Palmer takes a comparatively sober documentary view of the proceedings. The main body of the film consists of eavesdropping on the recording sessions for Dvorak's Cello Concerto in the Rudolfinum in Prague. These in themselves make fascinating listening, as we see and hear the interaction between the venerable conductor and the young cellist with Neumann showing himself surprisingly flexible when it came to accommodating Lloyd-Webber's interpretation of the concerto. The footage runs through the concerto in order so that we get to hear a complete performance, albeit in pieces, with the final footage being of the conclusion of the associated concert. Perhaps the most revealing part of this is where they repeat sections and we get to hear the performers running a section of the concerto more than once.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Prom 50: Beethoven Missa Solemnis

John Eliot Gardiner
Beethoven Missa Solemnis; Lucy Crowe, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Spyres, Matthew Rose, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 26 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Transcendent performance of Beethoven's masterpiece, the first time John Eliot Gardiner has conducted it at the Proms

John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique brought Beethoven's Missa Solemnis to the BBC Proms in a much anticipated late night concert on Tuesday 26 August 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall. The soloists were Lucy Crowe, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Spyres and Matthew Rose.

This was Gardiner's 30th live performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. In 2012 he performed the work with virtually the same forces in a series of concerts, including one at the Barbican, which were recorded live and issued on disc (see my review). Performing in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, Gardiner's speeds hardly relaxed but seemed to take account of the acoustic and allow the work to blossom. There were moments when he seemed to have all the time in the world, but the music still kept its vibrancy and urgency.

Gardiner clearly revels in the possibilities that the period instruments give him, with hard accents and strong dying away causing heightened contrasts. The whole performance had a transparency and clarity which is somewhat surprising given the work's reputation for massiveness. There was also the fact that the balance between strings, wind and singers is completely re-set when played on such forces, which meant that there were lots of wonderful moments when you came to appreciate details in the orchestra.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields 2014/15 season

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
This year the Academy of St Martin in the Fields has been celebrating the 90th birthday of its founder, Sir Neville Marriner. The Academy's 2014/15 season under their current musical director, violinist Joshua Bell, is full of interest, with concerts which vary from chamber music to larger scale works. Neville Marriner conducts an all Howard Blake programme, Joshua Bell directs two concerts and guests include Martin Frost, Julia Denk and Julia Fisher.

Joshua Bell has been music director of the ensemble for three years, and Bell has recently renewed his contract for another three years, until summer 2017. The forthcoming season includes the London concerts plus tours to Germany and South America. (A video introduction to the season from Joshua Bell follows after the break.)

Unsuk Chin Concertos

Unsuk Chin - concertos - Decca
Unsuk Chin Piano Concerto, Cello Concerto, Su for Sheng and Orchestra; Sunwook Kim, Alban Gerhardt, Wu Wei, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 23 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Three contrasting concertos from the Korean composer Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin as a composer is associated very much with her opera Alice in Wonderland which premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. This new disc showcases other sides to the Korean composer, her relationship with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (where she has been composer in residence since 2006) and her sequence of concertos spanning 13 years, with the Piano Concerto of 1996/7, Cello Concerto of 2008/9, revised 2013 and Su for sheng and orchestra (2009) a concerto for the sheng, an ancient oriental mouth-organ with a 3000 year history.

This recording on Deutsche Grammophon features the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, with Sunwook Kim (piano), Alban Gerhardt (cello) and Wu Wei (sheng).

Unsuk Chin's Piano Concerto was commissioned by the BBC for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The work is in four movements and to the standard orchestra Unsuk Chin adds two dozen percussion instruments and a celeste. The result is to provide a varied sound world, in which the percussive piano sound can be emulated by these extra instruments so that instead of being spotlit, the piano becomes part of the texture. Texture is important in all three concertos and Usuk Chin's writing is clearly an exploration of the possibility of texture rather than pure melody and harmony. In the piano concerto there is a sense, during the movements, of the piano gradually emerging from the orchestral texture and becoming more spotlit.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Madrigal Transformed

The Monteverdi String Band at the Echi Lontani
The Monteverdi String Band at the Echi Lontani
The development of the Italian Madrigal in the 16th century took place at a time of great artistic ferment when artists of all kinds were making discoveries. Old classical texts were re-examined, re-translated and re-discovered, whole continents were being discovered and a new way of looking at the world. Music was no different and there was a lot of philosophical discussion about the role of words and music. 'Writers like Vincenzo Galilei (father of the famously persecuted astronomer, Galileo) espoused the increasingly common view that the words should be served by the music - "prima la parola" – and that composers should use whatever means at their disposal to ensure this.'

This last quotation is from Oliver Webber's programme note for a fascinating concert, The Madrigal Transformed, which Webber's group The Monteverdi String Band performed at the Echi Lontani Festival in Cagliari in Sardinia on 30 May 2014, in which the group explored the influence of ornamentation and the seconda pratica on contemporary madrigals. The performers were Oliver Webber (violin), Teresa Caudle (violin), Wendi Kelly (contralto viola), David Brooker (tenor viola) and Christopher Suckling (bass violin).

This list of performers might, at first, cause a slight jolt. If this is a programme of madrigals, where were the singers? Well, there weren't any. The 16th century had a far more flexible attitude to music than we do, and the mixing of vocal and instrumental forces was far more common than now. The style of the four or five part madrigal lent itself to performance by a consort of string instruments, and the various bowing techniques can be used to emulate the vocal effects, dynamic shapes, articulation and phrasing.

Donizetti to the fore - Gyndebourne 2015

Michael Fabiano who starts in the title role in Donizetti's Polyeucte at Glyndebourne in 2015 - photo Arielle Doneson
Michael Fabiano who stars in the title role on Donizetti's
Polyeucte at Glyndebourne -  - photo Arielle Doneson

There is going to be a fine selection of rare Donizetti opera in the UK next year, thanks to the Peter Moores Foundation. Not only is English Touring Opera performing L'assedio di Calais and Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo, but it has now been announced that Glyndebourne will be starting their 2015 season with Donizetti's Poliuto with Michael Fabiano and Ana-Maria Martinez in the lead roles. The Glyndebourne season will be also include new productions of Handel's Saul and Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, plus revivals of Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole and L'Enfant et les Sortileges, Bizet's Carmen and Britten's Rape of Lucretia, plus a new opera from composer-in-residence Luke Styles.

Glyndebourne's production of Poliuto will be directed by Mariame Clement (who directed Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne in 2011) and conducted by Enrique Mazzola, with Michael Fabiano (who sang Alfredo in this year's La Traviata) and Ana-Maria Martinez (who made her debut as Rusalka in 2009). It will be the first professional staging of the opera in the UK The opera is based on Corneille's drama Polyeucte which looks at the early Christian martyr Saint Polyeuctus, a Roman army officer who converted to Christianity and was martyred. Donizetti wrote the opera in 1838 for the San Carlo in Naples, but it was rejected because the subject matter dealt with the death of a Christian martyr on stage. Instead he revised the work in French, expanding it into four acts as Les Martyrs, for the Paris Opera. Only in 1848 was the original Italian three-act version given. Whilst not common, the opera has a distinguished 20th century history with performances including those in Milan in 1960 with Callas.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The influence of recordings.

Maria Calla as Norma in 1954
Maria Calla as Norma in 1954
Before the invention of the recording, the only way to experience an artist performing was to go to hear or see them. Just imagine what it would be like only ever knowing an artist like Maria Callas by reputation. We are so used to living with recordings that we forget about what might be the effect on performers. A singer nowadays might not learn a new piece by listening to other singers, but they cannot help but be aware of them and of the way that they performed in a way which would be alien to a 19th century performer.

Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction of La Sylphide - photo Christian Leiber
Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction of La Sylphide
photo Christian Leiber
One thing that we have lost, with our culture of complete and eternal record, is the extraordinary complexity of our memories. Humans are capable of remarkable feats and in an age without recording equipment, people would be able to remember in far greater detail. An example of this from the parallel world of ballet is Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction in 1972 of Filippo Taglioni's ballet La Sylphide from the Paris Opera of 1832. On approaching older ballet dancers Lacotte found many remarkable repertoires of steps in their memories, taught them by their teachers. These were dancers from an age when recording ballet was impossible and a dancer could rely solely on their memory.

In such circumstances teachers become highly important, repositories for knowledge which is then passed on to pupils. The 19th century in particular can be traced through families of teachers so-and-so was a pupil of Tausig who was a pupil of Liszt. And whilst Liszt's pupils were a diverse bunch (there are recordings from 21 of them), the pupils of a teacher like Clara Schumann form quite a coherent group (we have recordings from five of them including Fanny Davies's recording of the Schumann piano concerto).

Manual Garcia the Younger, by John Singer Sargent
Manual Garcia the Younger
by John Singer Sargent
Liszt and Clara Schumann were teachers because they were famous performers, but a vocal teacher like Manuel Garcia the Younger (1805 - 1906), who was responsible for influencing whole generations of 19th century singers, was a teacher because of his great pedagogical skills. He was taught by his father, Manuel Garcia senior, and his sisters were the singers Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. Some of Manuel Garcia the Younger's pupils became teachers. Mathilde Marchesi for instance went on to teach Nellie Melba, Emma Calve, Sibyl Sanderson and Emma Eames. And Jenny Lind, Christina Nilsson and Henry Wood were among Garcia's important pupils, in fact Wood became his accompanist. Again though, if we try to gain an insight into his methods by listening to surviving recordings they are so diverse that it is difficult to gain any firm impression.

But such lineages would have been important not only for pedagogy, but for information about other performers both past and present. An example of this is the soprano Adelina Patti. Born 1843, she came out of retirement in 1905 to make recordings, so that we can hear for ourselves what a late 19th century diva sounded like. Patti was managed from a young age by her sister's husband, Maurice Strakosch who was a pupil of Giuditta Pasta and also her accompanist. Strakosch trained Patti the way he had learned from Pasta. And Patti had created roles for Donizetti and Bellini, and had sung Zerlina in London within 25 years of Mozart's death. Now, we can make too much of such links, especially as Patti's recordings are of a style and freedom which is alien to today's performers. But it is well worth bearing in mind. (You can hear hear slightly alarming Casta Diva from Norma on YouTube, and her performance of Voi che sapete from Mozart Le nozze di Figaro is below).

I got much of the above information from John Potter and Neil Sorrell's invaluable book, A History of Singing, and they also illuminate another point. The way recordings themselves have changed the way we sing. For much of the 19th century, despite the rise in the amount of control composers had, performers retained a rather flexible attitude to the notes themselves. In a society without a fixed record, aural transmission was important which brings us back to the chains of information through teachers. Only in the 20th century was it possible to put on a recording and hear how so-and-so performed the music. This has had the effect of rather fixing the music. Notes have become settled and singers less inclined to sing with a freedom.

But whilst notes have become fixed, performing styles have I suspect rather widened. If a performer can hear a wide variety of other performers, then there is greater freedom to choose. Perhaps this isn't a big point but it seems one which might benefit from further research, are the performers of today more or less diverse in style than those 150 years ago?

Elsewhere on this blog:

Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Proms

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
This year's BBC Proms is including quite a number of orchestra's from around the world which have not appeared at the Proms before. Amongst these is the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Directed by Lan Shui since 1997, the orchestra earned plaudits when they made their debut at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010. For their Proms debut, Lan Shui and the orchestra are combining two Russian masterworks, Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla and Rachmaninov's Second Symphony with the European premiere of a new piano concerto by Zhou Long with Andreas Haefliger as the soloist. The same forces gave the work's premiere on 4 July in Singapore.

Zhou Long is an American-based Chinese composer who was, in fact, at the Beijing Convervatoire at the same time as Lan Shui and during the last decade the orchestra has performed a number of Zhou Long's work. Zhou Long and Andreas Haefliger have been talking about a Zhou Long writing piano concerto for the pianist since 2010 and the project was re-vitalised by the decision of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to commission a work from Zhou Long to celebrate the orchestra's Proms debut. Zhou Long's work first featured in the Proms in 2004.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Wagner in Berwick-upon-Tweed

The Maltings, Berwick-on-Tweed
Berwick-upon-Tweed seems an unlikely  place to go for Wagner but if you visit The Maltings this weekend (23 & 24 August 2014), then Wagner is just what you will find. And not Wagner on the big screen, though The Maltings has an admirable programme of telecasts from Covent Garden. They are performing Act one of Wagner's The Valkyrie, preceded by the Siegried Idyll. The opera will be performed in Jonathan Doves's reduction,  originally made for Graham Vick's City of Birmingham Opera.  Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers is Sieglinde, Ronald Samm is Siegmund and Stuart Pendred is Hagen, with the instrumental ensemble formed from the Hebrides Ensemble and advanced players from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, conducted by Peter Selwyn.

It all seems rather wonderful and rather unlikely. In fact The Maltings is the largest auditorium between Edinburgh and Newcastle. A 311 seat theatre along with studio theatre. The venue's CEO and Artistic Director, Matthew Rooke hopes to capitalise on the venue's remote geographical location and allow artists to experiment a bit. He also feels that there are a number of venues in the UK which could never host a full scale opera but which deserve something more than a piano accompanied production and that there is a danger of audiences only having telecasts in cinema.

The Maltings is already something of a success story; in a town of around 14,000 people they manage to sell over 50,000 tickets a year. Rooke's goal is to establish The Maltings as a showcase for presenting works in the opera canon in especially re-conceived orchestral/instrumental reductions. Under the banner of Berwick Festival Opera they are already planning on launching a Ring cycle in 2016.

Handel's Acis and Galatea

Cast of Eboracum Baroque's Acis and Galatea at the Grimeborn Festival - Photo Hannah Taylor
Chris Parsons with the cast and chorus
Photo Hannah Taylor
Handel Acis and Galatea; Eboracum Baroque, dir Jennifer Bakst, cond. Chris Parsons; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Lively small scale production of Handel's pastoral serenata

Eboracum Baroque returned to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre with a production of Handel's pastoral serenata Acis and Galatea (seen 22 August 2014) directed by Jennifer Bakst, with Gareth Edmunds as Acis, Naomi Sturges as Galatea and Charlie Murray as Polyphemus. Music director Chris Parsons conducted a five-piece instrumental ensemble.

It was frankly amazing quite how much Eboracum Baroque managed to cram into the tiny studio two at the Arcola Theatre. The period instrumental ensemble (Katie Stevens and Mark Seow, violins, George Pasca, cello, Ellie Robertson, oboe/recorder and Tom Nichol, spinet) was placed to one side, behind one row of the audience, leaving the central area for the staging. The stage set was imaginatively constructed from logs and pallets and during the overture the chorus dressed it for the wedding of Acis (Gareth Edmunds) and Galatea (Naomi Sturges). There was a chorus of eight, with Damon (Nils Greenhow) and Coridon (Angela Hicks) part of the chorus.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Summer listening - Summer Guitar

Craig Ogden - Summer Guitar
Summer Guitar; Craig Ogden; Classic FM / Decca
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 21 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Intelligent easy listening in attractive arrangements from guitarist Craig Ogden and guests

Australian guitarist Craig Ogden's latest disc, Summer Listening on Classic FM / Decca, follows on from his previous albums in being what one might term intelligent easy listening. The disc contains a selection of sixteen arrangements, some solo some with instrumental ensembles, of a variety of songs ranging from the Habanera from Carmen and the Cancion from Falla's Seven Popular Songs to George Harrison's Here Comes the Sung and Stanley Myers' Cavatina (used in the film The Deer Hunter). Ogden is joined by a wide variety of guests, the Tippett Quartet, the Pavao String Quartet, Howard Goodall Chamber Orchestra, and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

The disc opens with George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun, arranged by the Swedish guitarist Goran Sollscher;  an attractive busy arrangement with the tune subsumed in a lovely texture.  Ogden is joined by the Tippett Quartet for Stanley Myers' Cavatina (arranged James Morgan and Juliette Pochin) with Odgen providing a lovely singing vocal line here.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Iceland Symphony Orchestra - Proms debut

Ilan Volkov
Ilan Volkov
Tonight (22 August 2014) the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ilan Volkov, makes its first performance at the Proms in a programme which combines contemporary Icelandic music by Haukur Tómasson and music by Jon Leifs (1899 - 1968), Iceland's premier 20th century composer, with music by Schumann and Beethoven. (Hilary Glover will be attending the concert to review it for this blog). To celebrate the orchestra's debut,there was a reception at the Icelandic Embassy to enable us to meet members of the orchestra and those involved in the concert.

The orchestra was founded in 1950, only 6 year's after Iceland's independence and culture played an important part in strengthening the Icelandic identity. For much of the orchestra's life, its home was in the University Cinema but in 2011 it moved into the new concert hall in Reykjavik, Harpa. This hall has been something of a miracle as it was planned before the financial collapse and work came to a standstill. Thanks to the then Minister of Culture and the Mayor of Reykjavik, the hall was completed. Its name has various meanings, but in ancient Icelandic it is the first month of summer.

Prom 47: Britten War Requiem

Andris Nelsons - photo Marco Borgreve
Andris Nelsons - photo Marco Borgreve
Britten War Requiem: Toby Spence, Hanno Muller-Brachmann, Susan Gritton, BBC Proms Youth Choir, CBSO Children's Chorus, CBSO, Andris Nelsons; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 21 2014
Star rating: 5.0
Youthful singers to the fore in this performance of Britten's great choral work

For the performance of Britten's War Requiem at this year's Proms on Thursday 21 August 2014, conductor Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were joined by soloists Susan Gritton, Toby Spence and Hanno Muller-Brachmann with the BBC Proms Youth Choir and CBSO Children's Chorus.

 Since it was founded in 2012, the BBC Proms Youth Choir (chorus master Simon Halsey) has made an annual appearance at the Proms. This year the choir fielded some 250 young singers from the CBSO Youth  Chorus, London Youth Choir, National Youth Choir of Wales, Ulster Youth Choir and University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir.

Massenet's Werther at Grimeborn

Katie Bray as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther at the Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Katie Bray as Charlotte
Massenet Werther; Adam Tunnifliffe, Katie Bray, dir. Aylin Bozok; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 20 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Stylish and imaginative chamber version of Massenet's romantic drama

Aylin Bozok's new production of Massenet's Werther at the Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival was inevitably something of a chamber affair (Seen 20 August 2014). Performed in the larger of the theatre's two studios, with just piano accompaniment Bozok's production lost some of the larger scale grandeur (and smaller roles) and focussed on the main principals, Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther, Katie Bray as Charlotte, Lucy Knight as Sophie, Simon Wallfisch as Albert and Thomas Faulkner as Le Bailli. The gloriously romantic costumes were by the London-based Turkish fashion designer Bora Aksu.

Lucy Knight as Sophie and Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther in Massenet's Werther at the Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Lucy Knight as Sophie and Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther
Bozok used a cut version of the score, gone were the younger children and the whole of the first scene where Le Bailli rehearses them in the Christmas song was excised (though we did get the off-stage reprise of the song at the very end of the opera). Also missing from the first act were the extra personnel, no friends for Werther and Charlotte, no drinking companions for Le Bailli. This had various dramaturgical effects. The role of Le Bailli was reduced to almost an irrelevancy, and he came across as something of a sad, lone drunkard. Without the scenes of family life in act one, Charlotte's reliance on her mother's memory was placed without a context. I have seen a number of very effective productions in which Werther makes his first entrance silently, watching Charlotte with the children. In the full version, the origin of Charlotte's very clearly defined sense of duty is made manifest. In Bozok's production we had to take much of this on trust, and with no larger scale scenes the drama tended to concentrate on the principals. To give more of a dramatic thrust, Bozok introduced the ghost of Charlotte's mother who loomed ominously at key moments,. This made for a rather different emphasis on the plot.

There was minimal set, but Aksu's evocative costumes highlighted the heavy Romantic atmosphere, with the women's outfits in particular rather suggesting the work of artist Paula Rego.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Princely Splendour - Sacred music from 18th century Rome

Princely Splendour - Harmonia Sacra, Peter Leech - Nimbus Alliance
Princely Splendour - Sacred music from 18th century Rome; Harmonia Sacra, Peter Leech; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 15 2014
Star rating: 4.0

A fascinating survey of sacred music from 18th century Rome, much of it with Royal connections

This disc from Peter Leech and Harmonia Sacra on Nimbus Alliance presents a selection of sacred choral works from an era which is still relatively neglected, 18th century Rome. The music on this disc was all written for Rome, and that means that it can be seen as stylistically conservative. All the composers on this disc wrote sacred music in the expected stile antico emulating Palestrina, whose music was still a strong influence in Rome. But there is still much to enjoy, especially as Peter Leech has selected a variety of works which have surprising Royal connections, to the exiled House of Stuart. The composers on the disc include Alessandro Scarlatti, Giovanni Battista Costanzi, Guiseppe Ottavio Pitoni, Tommaso Bai, Giovanni Giorgi, Giovanni Battista Casali and Sebastiano Bolis. Apart from Scarlatti, none of them names well known now but whose work is certainly worth exploring.

The disc opens with Exsurge Domine by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 - 1725), who became senior maestro at Santa Maria Maggiore in 1707 A date which probably reflects the group of unaccompanied masses and motets that Scarlatti wrote at this time. Exsurge Domine is a lively piece with a slower chromatic second park and displays the choir's bright forward tone and clean lines. Scarlatti's Ad Dominum cum tribularer appears later on the disc.

Autumn season at the Handel House Museum

Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian
Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian
The autumn season at the Handel House Museum includes not only music by the master, but a series of concerts with a French theme as well as a contemporary series curated by the the current composer in residence, Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian and of course a selection of baroque Christmas music. There is still time to catch the exhibition about Susannah Cibber, before the new one celebrates the year 1738 in Handel's life.

Harpsichordist Rebecca Pechefsky is performing by Nicolas Siret and Johann Ludwig Krebs. You might not have heard of them, but Siret was a friend and colleague of Francois Couperin, and Krebs as JS Bach's star pupil (9/9). Also in French mode, harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander celebrates Francois Couperin himself (21/9), Yair Avidor plays theorbo music written by Robert de Visee, lutenist at the court of Louis XIV, and the British Harpsichord Society commemorates the 250th anniversary of Rameau's death (13/9). Le Jardin Secret (Elizabeth Dobbin, Romiher Lischtea and David Blunden) perform  vocal and instrumental from 17th century Paris (6/11)

Rather more unusually, Chris Christodoulou and Anne Marshall are performing a programme of music for bouzouki and harpsichord. The bouzouki is an instrument which actually dates from the Byzantine era, and Christodoulou will be playing everything from Baroque to Beethoven (9/10).