Monday, 27 April 2015

RVW at the London English Song Festival

Ralph Vaughan Williams
William Vann's London English Song Festival is returning on 3 June 2015 with eight concerts which really live up to the festival's name as during these concerts all of RVW's original songs are being performed. Thus giving us a chance to assess the lesser known works alongside the better known ones. The festival starts on Wednesday 3 June 2015 and runs until Thursday 11 June and all concerts are at St George's Church, Hanover Square with a number of early evening concerts too. 

The opening concert is Vaughan Williams and Folk-Song with soprano Louise Kemeny, baritone Gareth John and William Vann. Then soprano Raphaela Papadakis and violinist Alessandro Ruisi explore the songs for voice and violin, with mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, baritone Johnny Herford and William Vann in RVW's Rossetti settings (both concerts 4 June). On 5 June baritone Roderick Williams joins mezzo-soprano Clare Presland and Iain Burnside for RVW's RL Stevenson settings Songs of Travel plus early songs and the wonderful Four Last Songs.

Soprano Eve Daniel, mezzo-soprano Marie Seidler, tenor John Porter, baritone Henry Neill and Frederick Brown give us songs from the operas, followed by mezzo-soprano Ciara Hendrick and baritone Jonathan McGovern with Vann in songs by RVW and his contemporaries (both concerts 9 June). Soprano Mary Bevan and tenor Alessandro Fisher are joined by Matthew Scott (clarinet) and James Turnbull (oboe) and Vann, for songs for voice and woodwind (10 June). The festival finale sees Vann, the Benyounes Quartet and tenor Nicky Spence in On Wenlock Edge (11 June).

Further information and booking from the Cadogan Hall website.

Sisters at the piano: The Labèque sisters ‘Round Moondog'

Philip Glass, Moondog, David Chalmin; Labèque Sisters, UBUNOIR; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Apr 17 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Exploring the music of Moondog and its influence on Minimalist composers

As part of Kings Place's ongoing series on minimalism the Labèque sisters and UBUNOIR performed a mixture of Philip Glass, David Chalmin, and works by the New York street artist Moondog.

Louis T. Hardin (1916-1999), better known as Moondog or 'the Viking of 6th Avenue', had been experimenting with the same minimalist techniques as Glass, Reich, Riley and Young – only he was doing it ten years earlier. He was quite a character. Opposed to capitalist exploitation he lived on the streets of Manhattan (despite owning property upstate and an apartment in Manhattan) and wrote all his music in Braille having been blinded as a teenager due to an accident with fireworks.

In 1974 he moved to Germany, leading many of his New York fans to believe that he had died. However while in Germany he continued to write music and many of his compositions were transcribed into sheet music by Ilona Sommer. His compositional style is characterised by his passion for Native American and world music and by his use of the ambient sounds around him such as cars, horns, and the subway, and by treating musical elements as though they were the repeated noises which fascinated him.

Minimalist composers like Philip Glass were strongly influenced by the work of Moondog. In 1989, during a rare visit to America, Glass asked Moondog to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra returning him to the public eye.

The International Opera Awards 2015

Sir Antonio Pappano receiving the Richard Strauss Anniversary Production award at the Opera Awards 2015, with Joyce Kennedy and Richard E Grant
Richard E Grant, Joyce Kennedy, Sir Antonio Pappano
Richard Strauss Anniversary Production Award
The International Opera Awards 2015; Savoy Theatre, London
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on April 26 2015
Live performance, and awards for achievement; the opera world rewards its own

Now in their third year, the Opera Awards looks set to be a fixture of operatic life, giving the opera world a chance to reward its own. This year the awards ceremony took place at the Savoy Theatre, which meant a rather better acoustic then previous years for the live performance element of the evening, though did necessitate climbing a remarkable number of stairs between the reception in the Savoy Hotel and the Savoy Theatre. The ceremony itself was hosted by the actor Richard E Grant, and we were treated to live performances from Carolyn Sampson, Justina Gringyte, Lawrence Brownlee and Aleksandra Kurzak. In a packed programme,  the awards for Male Singer went to Christian Gerhaher, Female Singer to Anja Harteros and Conductor Semyon Bychkov (none alas able to receive in person) and Director to Richard Jones, with a Lifetime Achievement going to Speight Jenkins.

The ceremony was pre-fixed by a reception in the ballroom at the Savoy Hotel, which was a chance for people to meet and congratulate, and catch up with old friends. I was able to catch up with a number of singers whom I normally only see across the footlights, and to chat about roles old and new.

The potential recipients for the awards are selected and judged by a jury of those working in opera, which this year consisted of Per Boye Hansen, Artistic Director of Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, John Allison, Editor of Opera, Nicholas Payne, Director of Opera Europa, Erna Metdepennighen, formerly of De  Standaard (Belgium), Hugh Canning, chief music critic of The Sunday Times, Kathryn Harries, Director of the National Opera Studio, Peter Alward, Intendant of the Salzburg Easter Festival, Hugo Shirley, Recordings Editor of Gramophone, Evans Mirageas Artistic Director of Cincinnati opera, and George Loomis, critic for International Herald Tribune.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Niobe, Regina di Tebe

Niobe, Regina di Tebe
Agostino Steffani Niobe, Regina di Tebe; Veronique Gens, Jacek Laszczkowski, Iestyn Davies, Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble, Thomas Hengelbrock
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Outing on disc of Covent Garden's 2010 unearthing of a 17th century opera for the Munich carnival

The 17th century was the period when Europe's rulers discovered opera. It fitted in with the theories about princely magnificence and so if you were in any way musically inclined you could have a court composer who set texts from the court poet, with elaborate sets and costumes too. The most theatrically inclined had theatres, the others used a temporary space. These were not public performances in our sense, they were displays of princely magnificence.

Opus Arte has given us an opportunity to hear one of these, Niobe, Regine di Tebe by Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) which was written for the Duke of Bavaria in Munich in 1688 and premiered during the carnival season. It is heard here in a performance from Covent Garden in 2010 which was actually a revival of a production originally seen in 2008 at Schwetzingen. Thomas Hengelbrock conduced his own Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble with Veronique Gens as Niobe, Jacek Laszczkowski as Anfione, Iestyn Davies as Creonte, Alastair Miles as Poliferno, Delphine Galou as Nerea, Lothar Odinius as Tiberino, Amanda Forsythe as Manto, Bruno Taddia as Tiresia and Tim Mead as Clearte.

The problem with 17th century operas is that they were often written for the greatest virtuosi of the day and modern revivals can sometimes be in the hands of small opera companies, where talent and enterprise do duty for the highest levels of technical virtuosity. This recording gives us a chance to hear a performance by a modern day cast of virtuosi and to appreciate fine music sun by great artists.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Guillaume Tell - more than complete

Guillaume Tell - Naxos
Rossini Guillaume Tell; Michael Spyres, Judith Howarth, Andrew Foster-Williams, Virtuosi Brunensis, Antonino Fogliani; Naxos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Striking new live version of Rossini's last opera, in its most complete format

I have long been looking for a recording of Rossini's Guillaume Tell to set beside the classic one from Lamberto Gardelli with Nicolai Gedda and Montserrat Caballe. I don't have huge requirements but it has to be in decent French, and be reasonably complete. The first requirement rules out a few and the second rules out the recent recording from Antonio Pappano with John Osborn and Malin Bystrom, because it uses the shortest and most unsatisfactory of Rossini's versions.

This new recording on Naxos, was made live at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival. It contains the first recording of the complete opera (quite what complete means I will come to later), in French with Andrew Foster-Williams in the title role, Michael Spyres as Arnold, Judith Howarth as Mathilde, Tara Stafford as Jemmy, Alessandra Volpe as Hedwige, plus Nahuel di Pierro, Raffaele Facciola, Giulio Pelligra, Artavazd Sargsyan, Marco Filippo Romano, with Camerata Bach Choir Poznan and Virtuosi Brunensis conducted by Antonino Fogliani.

When Rossini planned Guillaume Tell it was to prove rather expansive, so after he had written the skeleton score but before fleshing out he cut a few items. A few numbers were cut during rehearsals, and then after the premiere cuts were made and further cut were made after subsequent performances so that when Rossini left for Bologna we have the most compressed four-act version (the one recorded by Pappano). Rossini was a man of the theatre, he made the trimming because he wanted to be in charge of it and in the theatre this version (or one based on it with extra items) is understandable given the length of the piece and the stamina required. But on CD we need something closer to what Rossini intended.

On this new disc we get the work as close as possible to that originally conceived by Rossini, with items cut during rehearsals restored as well. There is also an appendix, with different versions of the items. The opera is spread out sensibly over four discs with one for each act (something which Naxos's pricing makes affordable).

Thinking and playing - My encounter with violinist Eric Silberger

Multi-layered Pagannini Caprices, playing in a volcano and writing modern baroque music, all this and Mozart with the Philharmonia Orchestra. My encounter with violinist Eric Silberger.

The young American violinist Eric Silberger has just made his debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra (18,19 April 2015) performing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Eric Silberger has been busy travelling recently; in Spain in March touring with the Berlin Konzerthausorchester and Dmitri Kitajenko in Brahms Violin Concerto, off to Denmark to play the Mozart again, with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Robin Ticciati, and Romania in June for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I met up with him, en route for rehearsals, to chat about his career so far, and his plans.

In any performing career there are things that the performer does which they enjoy and others less so, but which might seem necessary. In Eric's case, he has managed to catch the imagination with a couple of events out of the way of regular performances. One is his recording playing inside a volcano, and the other is the layering of all 24 of Pagannini's Caprices on top of each other (you can see this on YouTube).

'something of a history with volcanoes'

I am curious about the volcano stunt, and Eric says that he did it because it was on his bucket list. He has what he terms 'something of a history with volcanoes', the ash cloud prevented him from getting to Norway for a concert, but another ash cloud did not prevent him getting from New Zealand to Russia. So when the opportunity came to play in the volcano he took it. Eric is also interested in how you might reach more people by changing the context of the performance, so felt that this was a great idea of moving outside the regular concert hall.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Mazurkas from Chopin to Ades in a brilliant programme by young Kazakh pianist

Mazurkas from Chopin to Ades - Dina Duisen
Mazurkas from Chopin to Ades; Dina Duisen
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 8 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Imaginative disc showcasing the talents of a young Kazak pianist

Dina Duisen is a young pianist from Kazakhstan who has studied in her native country and America before coming to London and completing her studies at the Royal Academy of Music. On this disc, designed to showcase her talents, she has put together a rather imaginative programme which takes the Mazurka on a journey from Chopin to Thomas Ades, along the way we hear music by Liszt, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Lyadov, Albeniz, Arensky, Debussy, Delius, Sibelius, scriabin, Gliere, Szymanowski, Prokofief and Ades.

The mazurka was originally a Polish folk-dance in triple-time with the accent on the second or third beat. Whilst Chopin was inspired by November Uprising in Poland to use a traditional Polish form, in fact his mazurkas are his effectively his own, newly invented form. The fascinating thing about this disc is how we can watch different composers reacting differently to the genre. Some create a work which is clearly a study like Chopin's, others take a very rhythmic view clearly owing a lot to the work's folk origins and other simply write salon music. Not every composer's voice is recognisable in his work. some write generic salon pieces which charm or show off, whilst others bring their own distinctive voice directly to bear.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights
The choir Voxcetera and the Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra, with conductors Adam Johnson and Jane Hopkins, will be performing Vivaldi's perennial Gloria at St Martin in the Fields on 28 April 2015, but it is in the smaller work which are also in the programme that the concert's main interest lies. 

The Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra specialises in the music of Northern composers and this concert is no different. There will be two Icelandic works, Jón Leifs' Consolation, Intermezzo Op.66 for orchestra, and Sigurbjörnsson's simple, beautiful setting of the ancient Icelandic text Heyr Himna Smiður for a cappella choir, plus the Magnificat by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (who is 80 this year). Also in the programme are Gabriel Jackson's Salve Regina, Francis Poulenc's Exultate Deo and music by Morten Lauridsen.

Tickets and further information from the St Martin in the Fields website.

A Marriage of Science and Art - Three Tales at the Science Museum

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Three Tales at Science Museum IMAX
Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 22 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Reich and Korot's video opera, in an IMAX at the Science Museum

Three Tales (1998-2002) is one of Steve Reich's video operas created with the video artist Beryl Korot (the two are married). In form Three Tales echoes their first essay in the genre The Cave (1990-93). Three Tales made a reappearance in London at the hands of Ensemble BPM at the Science Museum's IMAX Cinema on 22 April 2015. The venue and the date are significant. 22 April is the centenary of the first use of nerve gas in World War One, a date which marks the commencement of our fascination with weapons of mass destruction and the subject of a conference whose delegates attended the performance of Three Tales.

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Three Tales
The piece was conducted by Nick Sutcliffe in a production directed by Matthew Eberhardt, designed by Gillean Denny with lighting by Stuart Webb.

Three Tales takes three episodes in 20th century history chosen as key moments, examining man's relationship to technology. The first, the Hindenberg Disaster, when the German passenger airship crashed in 1937 killing 36. The first disaster to be captured on cinema newsreels. The second, the bombing of Bikini atoll, as part of the USA's atomic tests in 1946-1958. The third, the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep which led to a greater consideration of man's relationship to technology.

Beryl Korot's video uses archive footage and interviews, intercut and re-purposed; though there is a documentary narrative element, this is combined with a thoroughgoing artistic viewpoint. The sound-track combines found sound, original sound-track and Steve Reich's music. Much of the music originated in Steve Reich's technique of shadowing the vocal inflections exactly, mimicking the person's intonations. All this combined with live musicians via a click track. Playing live Ensemble BPM consisted of two pianos, two vibraphones, two drum kits, the Ligeti String Quartet and Synergy Vocals. Laid out in front of us, they looked remarkably factory-like, a machine for creating music. All of course were miked.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The French Connection - Piotr Beczala in French 19th century opera

The French Connection - Piotra Beczala
Massenet, Berlioz, Verdi, Boieldieu, Gounod, Bizet; Piotr Beczala, Diana Damrau, Orchestre de l'opera national de Lyon, Alain Altinoglu; Deutsche Grammophon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 Mar 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Modified rapture for Piotr Beczela's all French album

I have to confess that my heart sinks when I see another CD of French 19th century operatic tenor arias. Styles of singing French operatic music have changed enormously in the last 100 years. The CD booklet for this new disc from Piotr Beczala talks about the negative reaction when Georges Thill sang Massenet's Werther at the New York Met and used a voix mixte rather than full chest for the climactic top C. So somewhere along the line we have lost a general feel for the style needed to sing this music. Not so much the lyric repertoire, but the more dramatic where Italianate technique with its open vowels and pushed-up Verismo inspired chest registers can significantly falsify the sound. Yes, a great tenor in the repertoire is always thrilling and illuminating, but I usually want something more.

That it can be done is shown by a small group of post-war artists who have responded to the challenge, the CD's booklet article talks about Piotr Beczala responding to performances by Nicolai Gedda. And it shows, Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Kraus were watchwords for style in this repertory, combining a modern technique with a feel for the style of the music which has to be based on a narrower focussed tone (none of those big wide-open top notes). More recently the tenor Ben Heppner released a disc of French arias in 2002 which showed exactly how a modern dramatic tenor can respond to these pieces.

The problem is that to make them work they often require a big voice, but rather different approach than Verdi's Otello. French composers expected their big voices to be narrow and to be able to move somewhat, and remain flexible. (If you want to hear what I am talking about, just listen to Aeneas's first entry in Berlioz's Les Troyens, it is high, loud and fast and can often come out like a shocked yelp). Another Polish tenor, the great Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) whose technique was largely French and who sang a lot of Meyerbeer, had the roles of Romeo in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette (Piotr Beczala sings Lever toi soleil on this disc) and Wagner's Siegfried and Tristan (roles of which Piotr Beczala would probably never dream) in his repertoire at the same time. It gives you a huge pause for thought, about how his ability to perform the one role might have reflected on the other.

Royal Ballet new season - Carmen, Frankenstein and a new conductor

Liam Scarlett (image credit Royal Opera House)
Liam Scarlett whose new Frankenstein premieres in 2016
(image credit Royal Opera House)
Like the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet's 2015/16 season is a balance between revivals of old warhorses and new work. There is an admirable support for continuing new three act ballets, and my only real grouse is that the revivals of core repertoire from Kenneth Macmillan and Frederick Ashton play it rather safe.  So the notable news is the new Frankenstein from Liam Scarlett and the revival of Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale. The season will also be the first with Koen Kessels as the music director of the Royal Ballet.

A slightly more worrying feel, is the sense that the number of performances in the house is not keeping pace with the number of opera performances, partly this is because Kasper Holten and his team have been very adept at using the Linbury for smaller performances which complement the main house season, and there are many new operas being performed there in 2015/16 (see my preview of the 2015/16 opera season). Though the new Royal Ballet season does something similar, with performances from company's such as Québécois company Cas Public, and Martha Clark, the numbers are far smaller. Not for the first time, you feel that ballet just isn't quite as important as opera. Still, there is much to look forward to.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Practising what she preaches - Nelly Miricioiu in recital

David Gowland and Nelly Miricioiu at St John's Smith Square
David Gowland and Nelly Miricioiu at St John's Smith Square
Ravel, Chausson, Viardot/Chopin, Brediceanu, Respighi, Bellini, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2015
Opera singer Nelly Miricioiu in a rare recital appearance

Time is not kind to the lyric soprano voice and most choose to either move into another fach, or to stop performing. Only a few decide to grow older disgracefully and continue, relying on strength of technique to replace to the natural flexibility of the voice. One such is the Romanian/British soprano, Nelly Miricioiu who, now in her 60's, continues to combine a performing career with extensive teaching. She made a rare recital appearance at St John's Smith Square, on Tuesday 21 April 2015 with David Gowland at the piano in a programme of songs by Ravel, Chausson, Chopin, Brediceanu and Respighi, and arias by Bellini, Rossini, Puccini and Verdi.

It wasn't an easy programme, and though in some ways the songs in the first half seemed to be more of a warming up for the main course of arias, even these required strong technique and sterling lungs. Nelly Miricioiu and David Gowland started with Ravel's Cinque melodies Populaire Grecques. Her voice seemed to take some time to warm up, but the plangent tones and slight edginess in the timbre suited the material very well and she finely matched tone and mood of the words to the colours in her voice.

Stuart Straftford appointed as Scottish Opera's music director

Stuart Stratford. Scottish Opera 2015. Credit James Glossop.
Stuart Stratford. Scottish Opera 2015
Credit James Glossop.
The British conductor Stuart Stratford has been appointed the new music director of Scottish Opera. He joins the company in June this year and his first performances as music director will be announced as part of the 2015/16 season launch in May. Stuart Stratford recently conducted critically lauded performances of Jancek's Jenufa with Scottish Opera (you can read review by Christopher Lambton over on The Arts Desk). The search ends something of a hiatus for the company after the precipitate departure of Emmanuel Joel-Hornak in April 2013, and will hopefully bring an element of stability to standards in the company at a time when it is much needed. 

Stuart Stratford was born in Preston, but his mother was from Clydebank. This will be his first music director post in an opera company, but he has been gaining plaudits for his thoughtful musical approach. We have seen him in the pit at Buxton with Gluck's Orfeo in 2014 (see my review) and the double bill in 2012 (see my review), at Opera Holland Park with La Fanciulla del West in 2014 (see my review), Cav and Pag in 2013 (see my review) and Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera Holland Park in 2012 (see my review) and he has worked regularly with Opera North.

Spanish baritone wins 2015 London Handel Singing Competition

Josep-Ramon Olivé, © Chris Christodoulou
Josep-Ramon Olivé,
© Chris Christodoulou
The 2015 London Handel Festival came to an end on Monday with the 14th London Handel Singing Competition at St George's Church, Hanover Square. Five finalists competed, soprano Ingrida Gápová, soprano Sarah Hayashi, baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé, mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova and soprano Alice Privett, before a distinguished jury consisting of (Ian Partridge, Edward Blakeman, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Catherine Denley and Michael George). The singers were accompanied by members of the London Handel Orchestra, directed by Laurence Cummings. 

The competition has a knack of choosing its winners well, past singers have included Andrew Kennedy, Elizabeth Atherton, Ruby Hughes, Sophie Junker and Nathan Vale. And winners have a welcome habit of returning in later festivals too. Rupert Charlesworth (who took first prize in 2013) sang Jove in this year's Semele alongside one of the 2014 winners.

The Handel repertoire does, of course, favour certain voice types though I remember the quality of Argentinian bass Lisandro Abadie who was a finalist in 2008. So it pleasing that this year Spanish baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé took first place, winning the Regina Etz Prize as well as winning the Michael Normington Audience Prize. Josep-Ramon Olivé is currently on the Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, currently studying under Professor Rudolf Piernay. At the final he sang a recitative and aria from Tamerlano, 'Vouchsafe, O Lord' from the Dettingen Te Deum and arias from Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Lotario. Russian mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova took second place, with the Michael Oliver Prize, singing aria from Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Giove in Argo. Josep-Ramon Olivé and Maria Ostroukhova each receive a cash prize and a performance at the 2016 London Handel Festival, and the other two performers will be offered a lunchtime recital.

Enescu, Chabrier, Gluck and Haas - Royal Opera new season

The Royal Opera House auditorium © ROH / Sim Canetty-Clarke
Covent Garden announced its 2015/2016 season last week and Kasper Holten's Royal Opera season has been eagerly picked over by everyone, itemising the amount of contemporary opera, the number of old war-horses making a reappearance and the paucity of Jonas Kaufmann showings. What is clear is that, whatever you think of Kasper Holten's extensions to the repertoire and introduction of more innovative productions, this is being paid for by a series of securely bankable revivals of core classics; a lesson which has not yet been quite learned over in St Martin's Lane.

So what is there to look forward to? Well, quite a lot actually; Kasper Holten and his team do seem to have a knack of identifying interesting areas for revival. Yes, there is a paucity of Britten, Janacek and such, but we do have Chabrier, Mussorgsky, Luigi Rossi, Enescu, Gluck and Georg Friedrich Haas.

Kasper Holten's own productions have so far, rather divided opinion and whilst his Yevgeny Onegin gets a revival, he is not at the helm of any of the new productions.

New productions include Gluck's Orphee et Eurydice (note the language) with Juan Diego Florez, Lucy Crowe and Amanda Forsythe. Choreographer Hofesh Schechter and John Fulljames jointly direct and John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Continuing the Orpheus theme, Luigi Rossi's Orpheus (the opera with which Cardinal Mazarin hoped to introduce Italian opera to France) is being directed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Keith Warner with Christian Curnyn and the orchestra of the Early Opera Company.

Christoph Loy's unlovely production of Lucia di Lammermoor is being replaced by a new one from Katie Mitchell. Daniel Oren conducts with Diana Damrau and Aleksandra Kurzak sharing the title role, Charles Castronovo and Stephen Costello sharing Edgardo and Ludovic Tezier and Artur Rucinski sharing Enrico. The combination of Katie Mitchell and Lucia is an interesting one and I can't wait to see what effect her detailed style of production will have on the work, though I do wish they had chosen a conductor more in the Charles Mackerras mould to bring the same new ears to the orchestral sound.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Avi Avital - Rock and roll Vivaldi

Avi Avital - Vivaldi - Deutsche Grammophon
Vivaldi concertos;
Avi Avital, Venice Baroque Orchestra; Deutsche Gramophon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 8 2015
Star rating: 3.0

Superstar mandolin playing Avital re-creates Vivaldi's music in his own image

For this new disc on Deutsche Grammophon label the mandolin player Avi Avital is joined by the Venice Baroque Orchestra for a variety of works by Vivaldi including the Mandolin Concerto in C major RV 425. To the concerto designed for the instrument Avital adds three more which are arrangements, the Violin Concerto in A minor RV 356 the Lute Concerto in D major RV 93 and the Violin Concerto in G minor RV 315 (aka Summer from The Four Seasons). Avital also plays the Trio Sonata in C major RV 82 with Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Ophira Zakai (lute), and Patrick Sepec (cello) and as a bon bouche at the end, we get tenor Juan Diego Florez singing the traditional Venetian song La biondina in gondoletta. All are performed in Avital's own arrangements.

Though the performers all work in the historically informed area, the works on this disc are anything but po-faced historical recreations. Avital is clearly a force of nature and everything on this disc is re-thought and re-created. All performers seem to have been given a freedom to experiment and see what works. Tempi are generally on the upbeat side, with a crispness to articulation but also a delicacy. The mandolin sound works well in the works lovely slow movements, whilst preserving a brightness which enables it to stand out from the other performers.

Three Tales at the Science Museum IMAX

Image by Beryl Korot
Image by Beryl Korot
Three Tales, the video opera by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot was premiered at the Vienna Festival in 2002 and broadcast by the BBC that year. The piece, which is similar in construction to Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's The Cave (1990-1993), is written for two sopranos, three tenors, string quartet, percussion, keyboards, and pre-recorded audio, with visuals by Beryl Korot. 

There is a chance to experience it in an IMAX Cinema as this week, on 22 and 24 April 2015, the Ensemble BPM will be performing the work at the Science Museum (a very appropriate location given the work's examination of technology in human history). The production will be presented in association with the Institute of Historical Research’s conference: Being Modern: Science and Culture in the early Twentieth Century. The first performance will mark the centenary of the first use of chemical weapons in warfare 22 April 1915.

Ensemble BPM is only the second group to perform the work since its 2002 premiere. They will be joined in performance by Synergy Vocals, led by former Swingle Singer Micaela Haslam. The production is conducted by Ensemble BPM's artistic director Nick Sutcliffe and directed by Matthew Eberhardt. Further information and tickets from the Science Museum website.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Take your hankies with you - ETO's ‘La Boheme’ is a real tear jerker

La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
Puccini La Boheme; Ilona Domnich, David Butt Philip, dir: James Conway, cond: Michael Roswall; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on March 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Sensitive performances in Puccini's classic tale

The English Touring Opera's (ETO) current season includes the beautifully enacted 'La Boheme'. Performed at Hackney Empire, directed by James Conway, and conducted by Michael Rosewell, (13 March 2015) this Puccini classic kept a traditional feel with its classic costuming, yet was enhanced by its clever and quite modern multifunctional staging designed by Florence de Maré. The crowd scenes and the children added to atmosphere of 19th century Europe, and the main roles were sensitively performed – necessitating discreet use of hankies.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), born in Tuscany to a musical family, was expected to continue the long tradition of becoming the maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca. However after studying at the conservatory in Milan he was persuaded to write his first opera 'Le Villi' in 1883. By 1893, with 'Manon Lescaut', his skill at opera was renowned worldwide. 'Manon' had its share of troubles including several false starts with different librettists. The final pair, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, became long term collaborators - working with Puccini on his next opera project 'La Boheme'.

Lucy Parham explores Liszt's many lives and loves

Lucy Parham © Sven Arnstein
Lucy Parham © Sven Arnstein
Liszt seems to have lived multiple lives in the space of his 75 years, moving from a child prodigy, to a superstar virtuoso who virtually invented the public piano recital, but encompassing some late mysticism and remarkable experiments in music and tonality. 
Liszt photographed by Nadar in 1886And of course, there were all the women too, including Countess Marie d'Agoult (who was Cosima Wagner's mother) and Princesse Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (who helped persuade Berlioz to write Les Troyens).

Pianist Lucy Parham will be exploring Liszt's lives in her Odyssey of Love in which Lucy Parham interleaves Liszt's music with his words and letters, read by Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman. Odyssey of Love is being performed at Middle Temple Hall on  Tuesday 5 May 2015. Tickets and further information from the Temple Music website.

I heard Lucy Parham's Frederick Chopin programme in 2013 (see my review) and if that is anything to go by, Odyssey of Love promises to be something striking.

Chamber music by Howard Blake at Milton Court

Howard Blake and Bendict Kloeckner
Howard Blake and Benedict Kloeckner
performing together in 2013
Chamber music by Howard Blake; Madeleine Mitchell, Rivka Golani, Benedict Kloeckner, Sasha Grynyuk
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 17 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Old fashioned musical virtues and strong chamber interaction

The concert at Milton Court Concert Hall on Friday 17 April 2015 was a showcase for the chamber music of Howard Blake (born 1938). The group of musicians consisted of the young German cellist Benedict Kloeckner, who has developed something of a name for himself playing Howard Blake's music, with violinist Madeleine Mitchell, viola player Rivka Golani, and pianist Sasha Grynyuk. The pianist was supposed to be Howard Blake himself, but in the event a broken arm prevent his playing, and we were lucky enough to get Sasha Grynyuk, who learned the taxing programme specially. The musicians came together in various combinations, with the Prelude for solo viola, Diversions and The Enchantment of Venus both for cello and piano, Piano Trio No. 3 Elegia Stravagante and Piano Quartet.

The concert opened with Howard Blake's Piano Trio No. 3, Elegia Stravagante which was written in 2014 and premiered by Howard Blake and Benedict Kloeckner, with Linus Roth, in Koblenz. In seven movements, the work is based on a melody which is first stated in the opening Andante (rapsodico) movement. It is a wistful, elegant and rather thoughtful melody, by turns dramatic and elegiac, which Howard Blake subjected to a variety of treatments including elements of jazz/blues, and a big solo moment for the cello. Despite the romantic textures of the work there was a clarity and elegance to the performance.

Sasha Grynyuk
Sasha Grynyuk
Benedict Kloeckner won the 2010 European Broadcasting Union competition playing Howard Blake's Diversions for cello and piano, and he and the composer have played it on subsequent occasions and recorded it. The work was originally written in 1983 and Howard Blake developed the cello part in conjunction with the French cellist Maurice Gendron, so it is a bravura and challenging work. It is an eight-movement suite which starts with a Prelude with a long-breathed and elegant melody which was given an intense, sung performance from Benedict Kloeckner, who played the piece from memory. A jazz-like, skittering Scherzo followed, then a darkly dramatic March with a big tragic cello tune. The Waltz had jazz-like hints too, and despite the technical challenges it was clear that Benedict Kloeckner was enjoying himself. The slow moving, elegiac Aria was followed by a rhythmically catchy Serenade which circled round endlessly, followed by a Cadenza which was full of brilliant details, and thoughtful moments. The Finale was very up tempo with fast and furious passage-work. Benedict Kloeckner played with concentration, depth and intensity, and a remarkable maturity, giving a performance which was deeply felt. He was finely supported by pianist Sasha Grynuk, in a piano part which perhaps less bravura than the cello part, but no less challenging.

Rivka Golani
Rivka Golank
After the interval the distinguished viola player, Rivka Golani, played Prelude for Solo Viola, which was written by Howard Blake as a prelude to his oratorio Benedictus in 1980 and it was prepared as a solo concert piece in 1989 by the viola player Frederick Riddle. It was a rhapsodic, rather darkly lyrical work using lots of strenuous string crossing and double stopping. Not an easy piece by any means, and it got remarkably violent at times.

The Enchantment of Venus was originally written in 2006 for basset clarinet and piano, for Colin Lawson who gave the work's premiere. The version for cello and piano was premiered in 2014 by Benedict Klockner and Howard Blake in 2014. The work has a mythological narrative, which Howard Blake bases around a lyrical, melancholic melody which he subjects to some strenuous dramatic development and turmoil, before finishing with beautifully simple, elegant melody. As before Benedict Kloeckner played from memory and gave a deeply felt performance, singing the final melody with great beauty.

Madeleine Mitchell - photo Suzie Maeder
Madeleine Mitchell
photo Suzie Maeder
The last work in the programme was the earliest, the Piano Quartet (for piano, violin, viola, cello) which was written in 1974 and premiered in 1975. The opening Allegro con anima was a long, complex and highly structured movement which felt very impulsively romantic and based round an animated, long-breathed melody. The whole movement had the feeling of being inspired by Dvorak's piano-based chamber music, and this carried over into the second movement, Presto (Scherzo). This was fast and furious, with fragments of melody being passed around. There were a pair of trios, the first lyrical relaxed, the second quieter and darker and more off-beat. The third, slow movement, Lento espressivo had long intertwining lines for the strings over repeated piano chords, with a magical end. The finale, Allegro robusto started out robust and carefree, almost a country gardens feel, but then the composer moved us rapidly through a variety of moods by turns darkly dramatic and slow, before a conclusion which seemed to evoke the material from the opening.

The four performers, combing together in various combinations throughout the evening, all played with a strong commitment and feel for Howard Blake's music, often with some quite challenging writing. And throughout, there was a lovely feeling of chamber interaction and collegiality. In style the music was varied, but always complex and full of interest; Howard Blake's music might be tonal, but it is never simple. And as a treat at the end, the four performers came together to play and arrangement of the composer's best known tune.

Howard Blake and Benedict Kloekner's new disc is now available from Genuin and the disc was featured on Deutschlandfunk radio in Berlin last night.

Elsewhere on this blog:

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Debussy: Songs for His Muse - Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper

Debussy: Songs for his muse
Debussy - Songs for his muse: Gillian Keith, Simon Lepper; Deux Elles
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 04 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Debussy's exotic, neglected songs for his first muse

Debussy's early songs are only just starting to get greater currency, and in fact some have only recently made it into print (Nigel Foster's first published edition of Caprice, Rondel chinois, La fille au cheveux de lin was only recently issued). This disc Debussy:Songs for his muse, on Deux-Elles, from soprano Gillian Keith and pianist Simon Lepper, explores some of Debussy's early songs and provides an interesting element of contrast too. So we have Fleur des bles, Jane, Caprice, Rondel chinois, Les papillons, Rondeau, La fille au cheveux de Lin, Romance (Non, les baisers d'amour), L'archet, 'Flots, palmes, sables', Le matelot qui dombe a l'eau, Les elfes and Sequidille all of which date from the years 1880 to 1883, plus Beau Soir and Ariettes Oubliees which are later. It proves and enlightening and entrancing disc, as Keith and Lepper reveal sides to Debussy of which we might not have dreamed. And the contrast? Well Ariettes Oubliees were originally written in the later 1880's and the original songs still breathed a similar world to the earlier ones, but in 1903 Debussy revised them and re-published them as a group, Ariettes Oubliees allowing us to experience how the older Debussy re-worked his early songs.

Debussy was accepted for the Paris Conservatoire from the age of 10, he was clearly a prodigy but initially it was not clear whether he would be a pianist; in fact composing won out. From 1880 the 18 year old Debussy got a job as an accompanist in the studio of Madame Victorine Moreau-Sainti, and there encountered one of her students, Madame Marie Vasnier. It developed into a real education sentimentale as not only did Debussy dedicate 29 of his early songs to her (the Vasnier Songbook, 7 of which are on this disc), but they moved to a full blown love affair, despite Madame Vasnier being married. But he was a frequent guest at the Vasnier's home, enjoyed their intellectual friendship and run of their library and enjoyed family life with them. His time with the Vasnier's, including travel with them, remedied the cultural gaps and helped him learn more about literature and start exploring poetry. Many of the poets that he set in this period would be ones to which he returned.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Nearly there - motet for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Dicit Dominus - Robert Hugill
The Lord saith: I think thoughts of peace,
and not of affliction: you shall call upon Me, and I will hear you;
and I will bring back your captivity from all places.
Lord, thou hast blessed Thy land; Thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob.
 (Jer 29:11,12,14)
Hot off the press! I have just finished the setting of Dixit Dominus, my setting of the Latin Introit for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. This is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, and I have only got the Introits for the Feast of Christ the King, and the Feast of All Saints to set and then my collection Tempus per Annum of motets for the church's year will be complete, 72 motets in all.

Resurrexi, the Introit for Easter Day, was premiered on Easter Saturday by Ben Woodward and the Choir of St John's Church in Fulham, and there have been a number of other performances and premieres, and Peter Leech and Harmonia Sacra will be recording one this year. The completed motets are now available for free download from CPDL where you can find the motets for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension and much of Ordinary Time. I am hoping that the collection will be complete in a few months time. A nice 60th birthday present to myself.

Who are we writing for? My article in the journal of the Institute of Composing

My article Who are we writing for? has just been published in Issue 3 of the journal of the Institute of Composing. The article examines the contemporary composer's relationship with the audience and whether composers should be more aware of a potential audience when writing their music. 

The current issue includes not only my article, but Tansy Davies on creating her new opera Between Two Worlds, Susanna Eastburn on giving creative artists a chance, folk music as a contemporary art form and a thoughtful article by Alwynne Pritchard which encompasses the writings of Foucault and the marketplace. Head over to Issue 3 of the journal of the Institute of Composing for an intriguing read.

Paying for our Entertainment - Power, Patronage and Sponsorship

Winaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac
Winaretta Singer
Princesse Edmond de Polignac
Opera has always been expensive and required backers, but with the money and support comes power and the ability to control. In the past this has ranged from influencing who performs and what is performed to selecting where it is put on. In the modern world sponsorship and patronage rarely comes without strings even though the power or influence exerted may be less than obvious, and it may manifest itself in the nicest and discreetest of ways. But at its best this sort of relationship can be creative, and many of the great works of the past owe their existence to the enlightened patronage of great figures such as Winaretta Singer (Princesse Edmond de Polignac) who spent her share of her father's Singer Sewing Machine fortune on matters artistic including commissioning artists as diverse as Francis Poulenc, Manuel de Falla, Kurt Weill, Igor Stravinsky.

But, it has to be admitted that patronage and sponsorship are rarely entirely disinterested, the person or body receiving money has to providing something in return, or satisfy certain criteria. This is as much true of public bodies as private patronage; even the Arts Council at its most expansive provided money with strings; opera companies had to satisfy the opera panel, and the council was famous for turning on clients and dropping groups like D'Oyly Carte Opera and Kent Opera. And the modern day Arts Council England has very much its own agenda, involving access, youth, education and diversity. But however admirable these requirements may be, they have to be satisfied by potential clients before any support can be considered.

All public patronage is like this in the current economic climate. With a shortage of available money, public bodies have to prioritise their own concerns. Perhaps when the Arts Council was first founded it had the aim of providing disinterested art, but shortage of money supply brings power. So that opera's sheer expense makes it vulnerable. Some fringe companies work outside the system, taking no external monies and working from hand to mouth in a way which can seem like hard work to the outsider. But in fact this means that they are also free from outside interference; they can spend their limited income without any artistic influence.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Royal College of Music - a dramatic new development

Artists Impression: New quad viewed from cafe in foyer at RCM - John Simpson architects
Artists Impression: New quad viewed from cafe in foyer at RCM
John Simpson architects
The composer George Dyson is famous for the fact that, when he became principal of the Royal College of Music one of his first acts was to re-organise the Ladies' lavatories! Dyson devoted a great deal of his energies to the college plant at a time when the student body was expanding and money was tight. This was because he understood the importance of surroundings on doing good work. 

This week the Royal College of Music (RCM) announced a spectacular new plan to further enhance the plant. As anyone who has visited the college's Britten Theatre (see my review of the recent performance of Adriano in Siria there), the imposing college building hides a welter of buildings arranged round courtyards. Now the college has commissioned John Simpson architects to open up on of the courtyards to provide improved facilities and better circulation. The image to the right is the artist's impression of the new courtyard.

RCM courtyards today from the air - photo Google Earth
RCM courtyards today from the air - photo Google Earth
Britten Theatre to the left, new courtyard space to right
Prince Consort Road at top of picture

The project is planned to start in 2016, and will take two years and cost £25 million. The resulting works will give the students, and us:-
  • Two new performance spaces (of 150+ and 90+ seats) with the latest technology in acoustics and lighting.
  • Additional music practice rooms.
  • A permanent and accessible home for the RCM’s Museum of Music to display the RCM’s Special Collections in an interactive context.
  • Additional recording and broadcasting capability.
  • Improved access and circulation around the site, connecting together the RCM’s key spaces; the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, the Britten Theatre, the Library and the Museum of Music.
  • An enriched experience for the general public to include new foyer and meeting spaces for visitors, participants on RCM’s community learning programmes, students and RCM professors, a new café/restaurant area, a theatre bar and additional visitor facilities.
  • Increased step-free access to the RCM’s facilities.
It is an impressive and much needed project. As anyone who has ventured beyond the concert hall or the theatre will testify, the RCM is a positive rabbit warren and needs a strong hand to create order out of the chaos of over 100 years of expansion on a limited site.

Dramatic revival - JC Bach's Adriano in Siria

Ellie Laugharne and Erica Eloff  in Adriano in Siria - Classical Opera
Ellie Laugharne and Erica Eloff
JC Bach Adriano in Siria; Erica Eloff, Ellie Laugharne, Rowan Hellier, Filipa van Eck, Stuart Jackson, Nick Pritchard, dir: Thomas Guthrie, cond: Ian Page; Classical Opera at the Britten theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on April 16 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Mozartian pre-echoes in this opera receiving its first performance in 250 years

Ian Page and Classical Opera kicked off their mammoth Mozart 250 celebration which for now until 2041 will be exploring the music of Mozart year by year, 250 years after he wrote it. The festival started this year with the seven year old composer visiting London. As Mozart wasn't writing operas (though it would only be a few years before he did), the main work for the launch was an opera which was premiered in London during Mozart's visit, by a composer that Mozart revered, JC Bach.

JC Bach's Adriano in Siria, setting a libretto by Metastasio, was premiered in London at the Kings Theatre in 1765. Classical Opera is giving the work's probably modern premiere at the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music this week. We caught the second performance, on Thursday 16 April 2015, in a production directed by Thomas Guthrie and designed by Rhys Jarman with lighting by Katharine Williams. Rowan Hellier played Adriano, with Stuart Jackson as Osroa, Ellie Laugharne as Emirena, Erica Eloff as Farnaspe, Filipa van Eck as Sabina, Nick Pritchard as Aquilo. Ian Page conducted the orchestra of Classical Opera.

The libretto by Metastasio had been originally written for a setting by Caldara in 1732 in Vienna, but would go on to achieve great popularity and JC Bach's setting was preceded by 40 more that we know about. The libretto was adjusted for London, and anyone who knows Handel's later operas will recognise the principles with a drastic reduction in the amount of recitative, a re-balancing against recitative in favour of arias and a tendency to prune sub-plots to the point of nonsense. Plot-wise, JC Bach's opera had a number of glaring gaps and it was almost a 'highlights' opera. Classical Opera performed a version with around 2 hours of music and had only omitted a couple of minor arias and made small cuts to the recitative. I imagine that Hasse's 1752 setting lasted far longer. Hasse was famous for being true to his friend Metastasio's libretti and setting the full recitative uncut, whereas JC Bach seems to have had more modern impulse.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio

Antonio Salieri
You have probably never heard of Salieri's opera La grotta di Trofonio, I certainly hadn't. Surprisingly, for a composer best known for not poisoning Mozart, it is a comic opera written in 1785 whilst Salieri was the director of the Italian opera in Vienna. It was premiered at the Burgtheater and the plot is reckoned to have influenced Lorenzo da Ponte when writing the libretto of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte (which was premiered at the Burgtheater in 1790).  The Trofonio of the title is a magician whose cave can change people's personalities, two couples have this happen to them with the usual consequences.

The opera is being revived by the ever enterprising Bampton Classical Opera with a cast which includes Matthew Stiff in the title role and Anna Starushkevych, Aoife O'Sullivan, Christopher Turner and Nicholas Merryweather as the young lovers. There are performances at the Deanery Garden, Bampton (17, 18 July 2015), Westonbirt, Gloucestershire (31 August) and St John's Smith Square (15 September). The opera will be directed by Jeremy Gray and conducted by Paul Wingfield who was a Jette Parker Young Artist at Covent Garden from 2012-2014.

Joyce DiDonato in Camille Claudel: Into the Fire

Camille Claudel in her studio
Camille Claudel in her studio
Reynaldo Hahn, Claude Debussy, Jake Heggie; Joyce DiDonato, Brentano String Quartet, Jake Heggie; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 4 2015
Star rating: 4.0

European premiere of Jake Heggie's song cycle based on Camille Claudel

Jake Heggie's song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire was written for Joyce DiDonato and she gave the work's European premiere at a concert at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Milton Court Concert Hall on Tuesday 4 April 2015 as part of her residency at the Barbican. Accompanied by Jake Heggie, Joyce DiDonato performed Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia, then the Brentano String Quartet performed Debussy's String Quartet, finally in the second half Joyce DiDonato was accompanied by the Brentano String Quartet in Jake Heggie's song cycle.

The programme was put together by Joyce DiDonato and Jake Heggie, based around the new work. Debussy's string quartet was included because Jake Heggie had been so influenced by the piece when writing Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. But it was not entirely clear why a group of songs to Italian texts which were written in Venice in 1900 by the Venezuelan born (but Parisian by adoption) Reynaldo Hahn. But no matter, the songs are lovely and make a seductive start to the concert.

Resplendent in a multi-coloured dress, but in mismatched shoes and having to sit (because of a sprained ankle), Joyce DiDonato showed herself to be at her most artful in these finely crafted performances. The six songs all set 17th and 18th century poetry about love, gondolas and water. In each, Joyce DiDonato created a vibrant character. To Sopra l'acqua indormenzada she brought a rich dark, vibrant voice but each phrase was carefully caressed and shaped, with a richly vivid language. La barchetta (in which the poet describes exactly what he is doing to Nineta she sleeps) was more plangent and the vocalise at the end of each verse simply made you tingle with delight.
L'avertimento was vividly sung with a very up-front chest voice and drama, here Joyce DiDonato was clearly channelling her experience playing trouser roles. La biondina in gondoleta and Che peca as similarly strong, and full of character, finally La primavera was all lightness and air.