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Friday, 29 April 2016

Remarkable rediscovery - Classical Opera showcase Niccolo Jommelli's dramatic opera Il Vologeso

Ian Page and Classical Opera at Cadogan Hall
Ian Page and Classical Opera at Cadogan Hall
Niccolo Jommelli Il Vologeso; Rachel Kelly, Gemma Summerfield, Stuart Jackson, Angela Simkin, Jennifer France, Tom Verney, Classical Opera, Ian Page; Classical Opera at Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 29 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Reform before Gluck, Classical Opera unearths Jommelli's remarkable 1766 opera

Often, the greatest art is made not by revolutionaries but by synthesizers, people who take remarkable developments and to create something really special. Monteverdi's L'orfeo was built on the foundations of the many lesser operas created in Florence from the 1590's, and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice was preceded by experiments from other composer interested in changing opera seria, and introducing French elements into Italian baroque opera. 

One such was the Neapolitan composer Niccolo Jommelli, who worked for the last 20 years of his life at the court of the Duke of Württemberg, giving him the score to experiment. Jommelli's operas are generally only experienced nowadays from recordings, if at all, so it was wonderful to find that as part of their Mozart 250 project, Ian Page and Classical Opera performed Jommelli's Il Vologeso at Cadogan Hall on Thursday 28 April 2016.

The young cast included Rachel Kelly as Vologeso, Gemma Summerfield as Berenice, Stuart Jackson as Lucio Vero, Angela Simkin as Lucilla, Jennifer France as Flavio and Tom Verney as Aniceto. Ian Page conducted the Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Il Vologeso was premiered in February 1766 in the brand new Schlosstheater at Ludwigsburg. The libretto was by Mattia Verazi, a long-time collaborator of Jommelli and someone whose texts could be a long way from the poised and cool classicism of Metastasio. The result sounded to me like Gluck at his most vigorous; in his article in the programme book Ian Page referred to the 'pungent dynamism' of Jommelli's music. Granted, secco recitative did tend to chug somewhat and Jommelli seemed to lack Handel's flair here but where Jommelli scores is in his use of accompanied recitative. In moments of stress, and there are many in the opera, the music breaks out into highly imaginative accompagnato. The other striking feature is that the first two acts each end in a remarkable vocal ensemble, and here you really do seem to feel Jommelli is looking forward.

Neither Jommelli nor Verazi seemed interested in preserving the conventions of opera seria in aspic, so that the exit aria convention (whereby a character leaves the stage after a major aria) is sometimes flouted, and Jommelli is not slavish in his use of full repeats in da capo arias. (Here I have to be a bit careful because in the version performed, Ian Page not only trimmed off three arias but another three lost their B sections and da capo repeats). That said, the plot seemed to be remarkably expeditious and almost dramatic.

Opera, Art and community singing: David Jones and World War I explored

In Parenthesis
On Friday 13 May 2016, Welsh National Opera gives the premiere of Iain Bell's opera In Parenthesis at the Wales Millennium Centre. Based on David Jones epic poem In Parenthesis the work is inspired by Jones' own experience as a soldier in World War I at the Battle of Mametz Wood. The opera will be directed by David Pountney and conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Alongside it, there are a number of other events which explore the work of David Jones and key into the themes of the Welsh soldiers in World War One.

On 30 April, an exhibition War Hell: The Battle of Mametz Wood in Art opens at the National Museum, Cardiff which commemorates the centenary of the Battle of Mametz Wood and will feature a number of works by David Jones. The traditional Welsh folk-song Sosban Fach was sung in the trenches and is referenced in Jones' poem. As well as featuring in the opera, WNO’s Youth and Community team will be working with local community groups, schools and youth opera members to teach participants the song and the associated history, including a number of come and sing events based around the folk song, at Wales Millennium Centre (13 May), National Museum, Cardiff (3 June) and London Welsh Centre (2 July).

Using In Parenthesis as inspiration, members of Welsh National Opera will work with communities from Wales & England at locations David Jones’ Division were based during WW1, to create their own mini opera based on research of their own WWI family history. Their work will culminate with a showcase of their Opera for friends and family.

There is also a dedicated website which takes you into the rehearsal room, and on 1 July, the opera will be streamed on The Opera Platform.

Opera Prelude's See Golden Days project

Callie Swarbrick
Callie Swarbrick
Opera Prelude is a charity which helps support and encourage young singers, providing experience via performances as well as opera into the community, accessible, affordable events. Their See Golden Days project brings professional young singers together with older people. Giving informal concerts in residential care homes, the project involves not only singing but the young performers socialise and interact with the older people. As well as increasing well-being music can stimulate through memory and have an important effect on people whose communication is limited.

Anna Harvey - photo Justin Kim
Anna Harvey - photo Justin Kim
Last night (27 April 2016) we heard a private recital by performers from Opera Prelude which showcased some of the repertoire they use and highlighted the importance of community projects like this. Soprano Callie Swarbrick, mezzo-soprano Anna Harvey and pianist Mark Austin performed a programme whose theme was the caprices of youth and the passing of years.

Callie Swarbrick sang arias from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Massenet's Manon and Rossini's Semiramide, plus songs by Schubert, Poulenc and Roussel as well as Faure's Poeme d'un jour, whilst Anna Harvey sang music from Bizet's Carmen and Berlioz's Les nuits d'ete, plus de Falla's Seven popular songs, and songs by Purcell, Duparc, Strauss and Debussy. Pianist Mark Austen contributed a solo of his own, Rachmaninov's Etude-tableau Op.35 No.5. At the end, they added a couple of lighter items, Gershwin's Summertime and Arlen's Somewhere over the Rainbow before finishing with their only duet, the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel.

Chatting about it afterwards the performers and Opera Prelude's director, Fiona Hamilton, talked about the remarkable effect this combination of music and memories can have, and how it was not uncommon for the audience to join in, even those who have limited communication.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Brave new season at Opera North

Aleksandr Markovic
Aleksandr Markovic
Having produced a Ring Cycle which is being performed on tour, Opera North seems re-invigorated and the 2016/17 season recently announced seems to be full of good things. Whilst the company's big brother in London (Opera North started out life as English National Opera North) struggles, Opera North has produced an exciting new season.

Their 2016/17 season starts with a new music director Aleksandar Markovic, and they will be recruiting 13 new choristers and restoring the chorus to its full strength of 36 under their new chorus master Oliver Rundell. On the production side there are a brave number of new productions (six new out of a total of eight) and some extremely tempting offerings.

Orpha Phelan directs a new production of Britten's Billy Budd with Roderick Williams in the title role, Alastair Miles as Claggart and Alan Oke as Captain Vere; Garry Walker, (Winner of the 1999 Leeds conducting competition) conducts.

Roderick Williams is certainly a tempting thought as Billy, but I think my own favourite amongst the new productions has to be John Fulljames production of Rimsky Korsakov's The Snow Maiden, an opera I have only ever seen in concert. Aoife Miskelly sings the title role with Bonaventura Bottone as Tsar Berendey, Yvonne Howard as Spring Beauty, James Crewell as Grandfather Frost and Heather Rodes as Lel.

Two other new productions, Rossini's La Cenerentola  directed by Aletta Collins and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel directed by Edward Dick will share the same basic set with The Snow Maiden. All three will use video projection to create the magic, fantasy and darkness inherent within traditional fairy tales. This set sharing is something that Welsh National Opera has been making a great success of recently.

In Hansel and Gretel Fflur Wyn sings Gretel with Katie Bray as Hansel, Stephen Gadd is Peter and Susan Bullock takes the double role of Gertrud and the Witch (I still remember another fine dramatic soprano, Pauline Tinsley, memorably taking both roles in David Poutney's production at ENO); the conductor is Christoph Altstaedt. In Cenerentola, Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta sings Angelina, with South African tenor Sunnyboy Dladla as Don Ramiro, Quirijn de Lang as Dandini and Henry Waddington as Don Magnifico.

David Pountney's production of Puccini's Il Tabarro will be returning, revived by Michael Barker-Cavan, in a double bill with Barker-Cavan's new production of Puccini's Suor Angelica. Anne Sophie Duprels plays Suor Angelica and Patricia Bardon is La Zia Principessa, whilst Giselle Allen and David Butt Philip are Giorgetta and Luigi in Il Tabarro. Jac van Steen conducts.

The 2016/17 season opens with the return of David McVicar's production of Der Rosenkavalier ith Ylva Kihlberg as the Marschallin, Helen Sherman as Octavian and Fflur Wyn as Sophie. Aleksandr Markovic will make his highly anticipated debut as musical director.

The only draw-back to the season is that the April/May season is reduced to just 6 performances of one opera. Puccini's Turandot is being given in a concert staging conducted by Aleksandr Markovic with Orla Boylan, Rafael Rojas, Alastair Miles, Bonaventura Bottone and Sunyoung Seo.

The Howard Assembly room continues to have a lively complementary programme.  The orchestra also has its own regular concert series, and Aleksandr Markovic will be conducting some of these as well. The Community Engagement Programme enters its fourth year, with 90 different community groups taking part, which turns into 6,400 attendances at performances and 2,325 attendances at special taster performances and workshops.

Passionate intensity - Schnittke's Penitential Psalms

Alfred Schnittke - Penitential Psalms - RIAS Kammerchor
Alfred Schnittke Penitential Psalms; RIAS Kammerchor, Hans-Christoph Rademann; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 22 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Passionate intensity and technical prowess in these dark psalms.

This new disc from the RIAS Kammerchor and conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann on Harmonia Mundi showcases Alfred Schnittke's sacred music. They perform Schnittke's Penitential Psalms and Three Sacred Hymns, two works which sit either side of Schnittke's great Choir Concerto and with it make a significant contribution to 20th century unaccompanied choral repertoire. Though when he came to write the works, Schnittke had become a Catholic, they retain a strong engagement with the Russian Orthodox Faith and Schnittke weaves Russian chant into his distinctively intense and knotted harmonies

Schnittke wrote his Choir Concerto in 1985 setting texts from the Book of Lamentations by the Armenian mystic, Gregory of Narek. Written three years later for the commemoration of the Christianisation of Russia (which started with the baptism of grand Prince Vladimir in Kievan Rus), the Penitential Psalms set anonymous Lenten poems from an anthology of 16th century Old Russian texts. The twelve psalms live in the same sound-world as the Choir Concerto, and the texts' obsessions with original sin, full of sorrow, and lamentation, calls for music of great austerity yet great intensity from Schnittke.

The vocal writing is often syllabic, highlighting the text, and Russian chant imbues the outlines of the melodies, but this is allied to a closely-knotted sense of harmony which, rather then giving a feeling of richness, creates a sort of dark austerity despite the clusters of notes. Schnittke's structures make great use of devices like canons, parallel movement of voices, and drones. Overall the psalms are darker, more austere and more hard edged than the Choir Concerto, but Schnittke also introduces moments of great radiance, as briefly he allows the clouds to lift.

Shakespeare in Song

Templar Scholars
Templar Scholars
Cecilia McDowall's When Time Broke is being performed at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens on 29 April 2016, a day after the work is premiered by the BBC Singers and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. McDowall's piece is being included in Shakespeare in Song, an evening of Shakespeare settings by RVW, Frank Martin, Kodaly and Pearsall interspersed with readings from Shakespeare. The performers are the Templar Scholars conducted by Victoria Longdon, who is a final year conducting student at the Royal Academy of Music, and the Reversed Shakespeare Company.

Cecilia McDowall's new work is a large-scale choral piece settings words by Shakespeare, and the concert contrasts this not only with RVW's Three Shakespeare Songs, but RVW's setting of Sonnet 71 and Frank Martin's Songs for Ariel as well as giving us the chance to hear Kodaly's An Ode for Music.

Full information from the event's Concert Diary webpage.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

Katya Apekisheva, Charles Owen
Katya Apekisheva & Charles Owen
Stravinsky Rite of Spring, Poulenc, Rachmaninov; Katya Apekisheva, Charles Owen; Rhinegold Live at the Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 26 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Brilliant pianism and physical dexterity in Stravinsky's piano duo version of his ballet

Pianists Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva, established duo partners, launched their new CD of Stravinsky's piano duo versions of this ballets with a concert at Rhinegold Live, Rhinegold's free rush-hour concert on Tuesday 26 April 2016 at the Conway Hall. They played Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Piano Four Hands and three of Rachmaninov's Six Morceaux, Op 11. The evening was rounded off with a short Q&A with Owen Mortimer, editor of Classical Piano magazine

Poulenc's Sonata for Piano Four Hands is an early work, written in 1918, revised in 1939 and not to be confused with his later Sonata for Two Pianos. In three movements, Prelude - Moderé, Rustique - Naif et Lent and Final - Très vite, the piano duet sonata seems to have been written under the influence of Stravinsky's harmonies and rhythms but the work is clearly Poulenc's own. Owen and Apeksheva made the opening movement full of energy and colour, all the familiar Poulenc tropes writ large. The work flowed easily from one idea to the next, with some finely bravura rhythms. The middle movement was poised and stylish, and we could admire the pianists sensitivity of touch, but also their brilliant attack too. The final movement was all perky animation.

Part cabaret, part concert club

The Arensky Chamber Orchestra, Will Kunhardt
The Arensky Chamber Orchestra, Will Kunhardt
The Arensky Chamber Orchestra (ACO) Spring season at the Hospital Club opens on Thursday 28 April 2016. Under artistic director Will Kunhardt the chamber orchestra returns to the Hospital Club for a pair of concerts which are intended to be more immersive theatrical event than concert.  Part cabaret club, part classical concert you can drink cocktails and eat themed food, sit on sofas and listen to the programme.

The music certainly doesn't pull any punches, 28 April will see chamber arrangements of Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin and Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, whilst on 2 June we will be plunged into the world of Wagner's Ring Cycle with the Siegfried Idyll and Gotterdammerung suite. And each evening promises more casual pre- and post-concert music too.

Full details from the orchestra's website.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

On Eagles Wings - the choral music of Alexander L'Estrange

Alexander L'Estrange - On Eagles Wings - Signum
Alexander L'Estrange New College Service and other works; Tenebrae, James Sherlock, Nigel Short; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2016
Star rating: 3.5

The magical choral music of Alexander L'Estrange showcased

This new disc from Nigel Short and Tenebrae, On Eagles' Wings, showcases the music of Alexander L'Estrange, a composer whose work crosses the boundaries between classical and jazz. Coming from a choral background (he spent five years as a chorister at New College, Oxford) L'Estrange manages to combine a finely crafted English late-Romantic style with some luscious harmonies which reflect his jazz interests, though none of the music on this disc gets close to out and out jazz. The centrepiece of the disc is the New College Service written in 2014 for Edward Higginbottom and the choir of New College, Oxford. There are a couple of other larger scale works, the anthems My Song is Love Unknown and Tune Me, O Lord alongside a number of smaller items.

The disc opens with the New College Service, a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for choir and organ which, like most 20th century music of this style, makes a great deal of use of unison or near unison in the choir with a rich organ accompaniment (here played by James Sherlock). Harmonies are rich and lush reminding us of Howells on stereoids, with a vibrant sound from the choir. The two works make a striking pairing and must work well in the context of Evening Service.

No words - Physical theatre, mime, sound, illusion and a live score

Blind Man's Song
Blind Man's Song is a new theatre piece from Theatre Re which runs at the Pleasance Theatre from 27 April to 15 May 2016 before going on tour. The work is a wordless piece which uses physical theatre, mime, sound, illusion and a live score to tell a tale about a blind man's rage against his world of darkness. The score by Alex Judd combines amplified on-stage noises, fed through a loop-pedal and combined with violin and keyboard with music inspired by figures as diverse as Ravel, Stravinsky, John Adams and Philip Glass. The piece was conceived and directed by Guillaume Pigé and will be performed by Pigé, Alex Judd and Sarah Roth.

BLind Man's Song debuted last year at the 2015 London International Mime Festival, and this year after the run at the Pleasance Theatre in London the work will be touring to Hereford, Oxford, Chippenham, Liverpool, as well as travelling to the Ruhrfestspiele, Recklinghausen (Germany) and L'Odyssée Scène Conventionée (France). Full tour information from the Theatre Re website.



A Sonic Journey from Goole to Hull

Goole Railway Swing Bridge
Goole Railway Swing Bridge
The train journey from Goole to Hull is not the most classic of rail journeys, but it has inspired composer Gavin Bryars and poet Blake Morrison to create a new work which is designed to be experience on the train journey which inspired it. Part of Sonic Journeys, a collection of aural landscapes commissioned from artists in response to particular journeys. 

Gavin Bryars was in fact born in Goole (and Blake Morrison is also a Yorkshireman), and the new sonic journey created by Bryars and Morrison was a co-commission from Sound UK and the Yorkshire Festival which runs from 16 June to 3 July. In creating the piece, Bryars was inspired by Glenn Gould's radio documentary The Idea of the North, as well as the train-related pieces by the Canadian composer Eldon Rathburn who made the final realisation of Percy Grainger's Train Music.

The new sonic journey will be available for download from the Sonic Journeys website from 16 June 2016.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Show, don't tell - Clocks 1888: the greener

Keisha Atwell and Patricia Rozario, Clocks 1888 the greener - Hackney Empire  - photographer Ed Sunman
Keisha Atwell and Patricia Rozario, Clocks 1888 the greener - photographer Ed Sunman
Martin Ward Clocks 1888: the greener; Keisha Atwell, Patricia Rozario, Dickon Gough, Adam Temple Smith; Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 22 2016
Star rating: 3.0

Intriguing new opera marred by over amplification and tendency to over-explain

Keisha Atwell - Clocks 1888 the greener - Hackney Empire  - photographer Ed Sunman.jpg
Keisha Atwell - photographer Ed Sunman
Clocks 1888: the greener at the Hackney Empire, 22nd April 2016, created and produced by Brolly, Rachana Jadhav & Dominic Hingorani, with music by Martin Ward with Keisha Atwell, Patricia Rozario, Dickon Gough, Adam Temple Smith.

A 'greener', according to the publicity for this sort-of opera that has been playing at CAST in Doncaster and the Hackney Empire, is "a slang term for a newly arrived foreign immigrant often perceived as heathen and ignorant". The Greener in this show was a mixed-race Londoner, not a recent arrival, who has operated a clock in the East End for many years. This was the feisty teenager character. The other three characters were an older, world-weary Indian woman (Ma), an idealistic, upper-class romantic tenor lead (the Author) and a hectoring bass-baritone (the Coster) à-la Scarpia or Iago. I wouldn’t exactly call them stereotypes, but they did spend most of the show declaiming their world-view at the audience and barely interacted with each other.

The situation is full of contemporary resonances: a young man sets out to understand why the workers are unhappy, and falls in love with an East Ender who is more interested in science than politics or tenors from the West End. Two other characters have been trying to educate the ingénue in their view of the status quo, but she decides to stay put and make her own way, rather than go off to a better life with the son of capitalists. It was all about class and Empire, and the impossibility of understanding how the other half lives.

Yet as an evening out, it was strangely unengaging.

In lieblicher Bläue - new orchestral works by Julian Anderson

Julian Anderson In lieblicher Bläue, Alleluia, Stations of the Sun; Carolin Widmann, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski; LPO Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Live recordings of three of Julian Anderson's large-scale works, testament to his relationship with the LPO

The composer Julian Anderson was composer in residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 2010 to 2014 and this disc on the LPO's own label is testament to that relationship. All three works, In lieblicher Bläue, Alleluia and The Stations of the Sun were recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Carolin Widmann the soloist in In lieblicher Bläue, and the orchestra is joined by the London Philharmonic Choir for Alleluia.

Julian Anderson studied with John Lambert, Alexander Goehr and Tristan Murail and there is often a sensuously tactile quality to his orchestral writing which the French connection with Murail highlights.

In lieblicher Bläue was co-commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and premiered by them, with Carolin Widmann as soloist, in 2015. The work, which Anderson describes as a poem for violin and orchestra, is a violin concerto in all but name, based in a Hölderlin poem. Though Anderson refers to the poem in his booklet note, the poem itself is rather frustratingly absent.

Mindstream - O/MODERNT returns to Kings Place

Hugo Ticciati
Hugo Ticciati
British violinist Hugo Ticciati brings his Swedish contemporary music ensemble O/MODERNT to Kings Place on Wednesday 27 April 2016 for a programme entitled Mindstream. They will be performing music which is designed to take the listener on a journey 'inspired by the hope to live in the moment, as the flow of music carries us out into the waters of the present impermanent'. The ensemble is conducted by David Lundblad and will be joined by percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

The programme includes the UK premiere of Mindstream, a double concerto for violin, marimba/vibraphone and orchestra by the composer and jazz-pianist Jill Jarman. Also in the programme is Icelandic composer Askell Masson's Prim Orchestral Improvisation,  and the intriguingly named Having Never Written a Note for Percussion by American composer James Tenney as well as Tchaikovsky's Serenade.

Full information from the Kings Place website.



'We should learn how to look at life as streams of being, and not as separate entities. You of this moment are no longer you of a minute ago. There is no permanent entity within us, there is only a stream of being.'
Thich Nhat Hanh Buddhist monk, teacher, writer, peace campaigner

Sir Mark Elder scheduled to open Chetham's School new hall in 2017

Cheetham's School
Cheetham's School
Manchester is getting a new concert hall. The 500-seater Stoller Hall is being built as part of the new development at Chetham's School, the specialist music school in Manchester. The new hall will be the latest addition to the school whose buildings date back to the 15th century. The site was originally a college housing priests for the collegiate church (now Manchester Cathedral), it was turned into a school in the 17th century. Originally formed as Chetham's Hospital School, in 1969 the boy's grammar school was changed into a co-educational school specialising in music.

The hall opens in almost exactly a year's time and it has already been confirmed that Sir Mark Elder, music director of the Halle, will be conducting at the opening gala with a line-up of distinguished guest artists. The new hall will combine performances from leading artists and ensembles, with being a home for Chetham's own ensembles. Manchester is not over endowed with recital halls, and the new hall should make a fine addition.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Archduke and the Gypsy

Gypsy musicians outside Esterhazy Palace in 1791
Gypsy musicians outside Esterhazy Palace in 1791
Looking forward to exploring the history of the piano trio tonight (26 April 2016) in my pre-concert talk at Conway Hall, before the concert from Trio Fibonacci performing Haydn's Gypsy Rondo, Beethoven's Archduke and Mendelssohn. Perhaps I should have called the lecture 'The Archduke and the Gypsy' rather than 'From accompanied sonata to three equal parts: a brief history of the piano trio'!
 
Further information from the Conway Hall website.

An appealing & definite voice - clarinet music by Carl Vollrath

Lingering Longings - Carl Vollrath
Carl Vollrath Lingering Longing, Music for Clarinet and Piano vol.2; Michael Norsworthy, Yoko Hagino; Navona Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 18 2016
Star rating: 3.5

A very distinct voice from American composer Carl Vollrath

Carl Vollrath is an American composer of German parentage. He studied with Ernst von Dohnanyi, Carlisle Floyd and John Boda. This disc from Navona Records, Lingering Longings, is volume two of Vollrath's music for clarinet and piano. On this disc Michael Norsworthy (clarinet) and Yoko Hagino (piano) perform Tim and Tina's Ball, The Odd Pieces, Trina's Path, Once in a bygone time, Lingering Longings and Evan's Haven.

Vollrath's music includes six symphonies for ban, an opera The Quest, and a substantial body of chamber music. I have to confess that this is the first time I have come across Vollrath's music. He was a very definite voice, tonal but rather expressionist, able to write memorable melodies yet not do the obvious. Jazz and blues seem to thread their way through the disc, as do hints of Shostakovich and Hindemith, and more than once I head echoes of Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew themes. But none of this is pastiche, Vollrath's personal voice blends them all.

All the music on the disc is testament to Vollrath's friendship with Tom and Trina Phillips (both clarinettists) and many of the movements are character pieces evoking moments from this friendships. Tim and Trina's Ball is four short pieces depicting early moments from the friendship. Christmas Time is touching and rather wistful, Wedding Waltz is faster yet evocative, Kaspar on parade is spiky and its edgier moments hint at Shostakovich. The last movement, Thanksgiven is thoughtful and elegiac, with the intensity towards the end evoking the music of Gerald Finzi.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

In its 68th year - Bath International Music Festival

Edward Gardner - © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega
The Bath International Music Festival, which runs from 20 to 28 May 2016, is in its 68th year which is something really to be celebrated in the current climate which has seen festivals like the City of London Festival fall by the wayside.

The Bath International Music Festival is a mix of classical programming with world music, jazz and folk, plus a range of free events including the Party in the City on opening night. Classical events include Edward Gardner conducting the Philharmonia in Elgar and Sibelius, Schubert from tenor Nicholas Mulroy and from pianist Richard Goode, Schubert's quintet from the Navarra Quartet and Philip Higham, and all of Bach's cello suites.

Under artistic directors David Jones and James Waters the classical programme opens and closes with the Navarra Quartet in repertoire which mixes Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert with Ravel and Peteris Vasks. For their final concert they are joined by cellist Philip Higham for Schubert's quintet.
Continuing the Schubert mood, tenor Nicholas Mulroy and pianist Alistair Hogarth will be giving two recitals, each devoted to a major Schubert song cycle, Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise. And pianist Richard Goode is performing Schubert's last three piano sonatas.

Cellist Philip Higham is also playing Bach's cello suites over three lunchtime recitals. BBC new Generation Artist, guitarist Sean Shibe has his own lunchtime recital playing Britten, Dowland and Walton. Other lunchtime recitals include Isabel Villnueva (viola) and Charles Wiffen (piano) in Schubert, Prokofiev, and Martinu. Pianist Kenneth Hamilton will be recreating the repertoire of Liszt's tour of Britain in the 1840's.

Alistair Hogarth and jazz pianist Jason Rebello join forces with Nicholas Mulroy and mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley to perform Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Brahms and Gershwin with improvisations between the songs performed by Jason Rebello.

Bath Camerata will be performing Rachmaninov's Vespers (All Night Vigil) conducted by Benjamin Goodson, and Tenebrae, conductor Nigel Short, will perform Bruckner and Brahms at Bath Abbey. Mexican tenor Hector Sandoval performs arias by Verdi, Bizet, Giordano and Puccini with Bath Philharmonia and Jason Thornton. Whilst Edward Gardner conducts the Philharmonic in Elgar's Second Symphony and Sibelius' Violin Concerto (soloist Valeriy Sokolov).

The jazz and world music programme includes such names as Jay Rayner and Branford Marsalis alongside Ranjana Ghatak who has created her own distinctive style out of her background in Indian Classical Music, and singer song-writer Teddy Thompson who is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson.

The whole thing kicks off with Party in the City with 1000s of performers in the city's venues, museums, churches and parks - all free!


Surprising combination: Bruckner Orchestra Linz in Beethoven and Philip Glass

Buckner Orchestra Linz
Buckner Orchestra Linz
Beethoven, Philip Glass; Melvyn Tan, Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Dennis Russell Davies; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Spanning 200 years, symphonic music by Beethoven and Philip Glass from this distinguished Austrian orchestra

For their second appearance at the Cadogan Hall on 22 April 2016, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and their chief conductor Dennis Russell Davies, combined Beethoven's Overture to King Stephen and Piano Concerto No. 4 with Philip Glass's Symphony No. 9. The soloist in the concerto was to have been the young Austrian pianist Ingolf Wunder, but illness meant he was replaced at the last minute by Melvyn Tan who had been the soloist in the orchestra's concert the previous night. Philip Glass's symphony was commissioned by Dennis Russell Davies in 2011 and is one of a number of Glass's orchestral works which they have commissioned (and their recordings of Glass's ten symphonies have been released in an 11 CD box set).

Beethoven was commissioned to write music for König Stephen (King Stephen) in 1811, the work was a play written to celebrate the opening of the new German theatre in Pest (King Stephen was the first Hungarian ruler to adopt Christianity). Beethoven wrote an overture and nine other numbers, the overture is rarely performed and the other incidental music almost never.

Beethoven starts the overture with strong opening chords followed by dancing Mozartian music, this alternation repeated in striking fashion before the music worked up into a vibrant whole. The stage was very full, with a string body numbering around four dozen, and the orchestra made a strong, firm sound. Not HIP, but very stylish in sound and I was impressed by the balance between wind and strings, without the strings being over dominant.

Despite his last minute substitution, there was certainly nothing last minute about Melvyn Tan's performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 and he played from memory. The work was written in 1807 (four years before the overture) and premiered in the mammoth concert which Beethoven gave including both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy and parts of the Mass in C.

Buckner Orchestra Linz
Buckner Orchestra Linz
The work opens in striking fashion with Beethoven effectively re-shaping the relationship between soloist and orchestra.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Benjamin Grosvenor - directing from the piano for the first time

Benjamin Grosvenor
Benjamin Grosvenor
The pianist Benjamin Grosvenor will make his debut directing a work from the piano on Saturday 23 April 2016 when he performs Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 with the Britten Sinfonia at Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford-upon-Avon. The programme also includes Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen and a new work by Elena Langer, both of which will be directed by the Britten Sinfonia's leader, Jacqueline Shave.

Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 is the composer's last piano concerto. The work was premiered in 1791, though Mozart may not have been the pianist. Commentators have varying ideas about when the work was written and it may date from as early as 1788/89. Elena Langer's new work, Story of an Impossible Love is a William Alwyn Foundation commission and features prominent roles for solo violin and oboe as Langer's music imagines a love-story between the two instrument.

After Bradford-upon-Avon the orchestra is presenting the programme at West Road Concert Hall,, Cambridge (27 April), St Andrew's Hall, Norwich (29 April) and Milton Court Concert Hall, London (1 May).

Bringing the vibrant Americas to rush hour Waterloo - the Southbank Sinfonia

Southbank Sinfonia
Southbank Sinfonia
Bryce Dessner, Osvaldo Golijov, John Adams; Southbank Sinfonia, Holly Mathieson; Rush Hour concert at St John's Church, Waterloo
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2016
Star rating: 4.0

High energy and strong technique from these young players in contemporary music from the Americas

As part of its mission to prepare young music graduates for the professional life of a musician, the Southbank Sinfonia gives regular Rush Hour concerts at St John's Church, Waterloo. The concerts are free, and there is a glass of wine before hand, with the audience asked to give what they can afterwards. I went along on Thursday 21 April 2016 to hear the musicians perform a programme of contemporary music from the Americas, with Bryce Dessner's Aheyem, Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round and John Adams' Chamber Symphony, with the last work being conducted by Holly Mathieson.

Each work was introduced by one of the musicians, each putting a personal slant on the presentation and thus giving a lively and informative feel to the concerts. The audience of around 150 people was enthusiastic and receptive, many seemed to be regulars and a number round me were clearly hearing this music for the first time.

Bryce Dessner is a guitarist with the American band, The National, but he also writes music which bridges the popular/classical gap. His work for string quartet, Aheyem (which means home in Yiddish) was written for the Kronos Quartet. In her introduction the violinist Kalliopi pointed out that the four players (Essi Kiiski, Kalliopi Mitropoullou, Ralitsa Naydenova and Zoe Saubat) each came from a different country so the word home meant something very different to each of them. The work is intended to be played by amplified instruments, but here the quartet played acoustically and allowed the lively acoustic at St John's Church to do its work. Dessner uses a number of different playing techniques besides simple bowing and Kalliopi got the players to demonstrate to the audience before hand.

Viri Galilaei - favourite anthems from Merton

Jonathan Dove, Thomas Tallis, Edward Elgar, Thomas Morley, John Rutter, Hubert Parry, William Byrd, Roger Quilter, Gerald Finzi, William Harris, Patrick Gowers; Choir of Merton College, Oxford, Benjamin Nicholas, Peter Phillips; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

16th century polyphony and 20th century classics showcased in this new collection from Merton

Themed collection of motets and anthems seem all the rage at the moment for CDs from choirs such as those of the Oxbridge Colleges. For the latest disc from the choir of Merton College, Oxford, entitled Viri Galilaei, we get a collection of what are described as Favourite Anthems and indeed the collection does include some of the most beloved anthems along with a couple of more unusual contemporary pieces. Conducting honours are shared between Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips with a selection of pieces by Jonathan Dove, Thomas Tallis, Edward Elgar, Thomas Morley, John Rutter, Hubert Parry, William Byrd, Roger Quilter, Gerald Finzi, William Harris and Patrick Gowers. Organ duties are shared between Charles Warren and Peter Shepherd.

Jonathan Dove's Te Deum is relatively new, it was commissioned for the new Merton Choirbook, but it seems set to become a modern classic. Starting from a virile choral unison, Dove uses the combination of a choir building from unison with rich organ accompaniment which is beloved of composers for the Anglican liturgy. Here Dove's lyrical music over the pulsating organ gives some lovely textures full of a clear sense of Dove's musical personality, and the texture magically thins towards the end.

With one except, Peter Phillips conducts all the 16th century items. He and the choir give a simple but effective account of Tallis's If ye love me with a great sense of flowing line.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Getting beyond the 4% - London Oriana Choir's five15 project

Cheryl Frances Hoad
Cheryl Frances Hoad
The London Oriana Choir, music director Dominic Peckham, is launching a striking new project, five15, which aims to raise the profile of classical music written by women across the UK. In a survey conducted for the choir, only 4% of those questioned could name a woman composer. 

At the core of the project is the commissioning from five women composers of a total of 15 choral works across the next five years. This starts with the appointment of Cheryl Frances-Hoad as the choir's composer in residence.

five15 starts with a concert at the Cutty Sark on 6 July 2016, which will feature music from the first commission. The concert is part of a programme of events marking the re-opening of the Queen's House in Greenwich, and marks the beginning of a longer term collaboration between the London Oriana Choir and the Royal Museums of Greenwich with the choir becoming choir-in-residence for three years.

Over the next five years the choir plans include a programme of new performances, educational projects, recordings and other initiatives to raise the profile of classical music written by women across the UK, as well as helping to encourage and develop the talents of new young writers. The choir will be publishing an anthology of work by British women composers, including the works commissioned by the choir, and there will also be an album recording of all the commissioned works.

Ipsos MORI carried out a survey on behalf of the London Oriana Choir between 26th February and 1st March 2016 amongst a representative quota sample of 981 adults aged 16-75 in Great Britain. Survey data were weighted according to the known population profile of GB for age, gender, region, social grade and working status.
  • Only 3% of respondents named a woman composer when asked to name any composer of symphonic or choral music
  • When asked specifically to name a woman composer, only 4% of adults could name a woman composer
  • Most named female composers – Clara Schumann (12 mentions), Hildegard of Bingen (5 mentions), Fanny Mendelssohn (4 mentions) and Judith Weir (4 mentions)
  • About 3 in 5 adults (57%) can name at least one composer Beethoven was the most commonly named (33%), followed by Mozart (29%), Bach (24%), Handel (15%) and Tchaikovsky (11%)

The Dark Lady and the Tender Churl - the Fourth Choir at Middle Temple Hall

Tobias Menzies
Tobias Menzies
The Fourth Choir, artistic director Dominic Peckham, is presenting an intriguing celebration of the Shakespeare anniversary. On 23 April 2016 in Middle Temple Hall (the only surviving venue where Shakespeare actually performed), they are presenting The Dark Lady and the Tender Churl which explores Shakespeare's relationship, as portrayed in the sonnets, with the Dark Lady and the handsome younger man referred to in the first Sonnet as the Tender Churl.

Choral music from Shakespeare's own time to the present day will be interspersed with readings of the sonnets given by the actor Tobias Menzies. A highlight of the concert is the first performance of the winning entry in the Fourth Choir's composition competition to set one of the sonnets. The winning entry is by Ian Lawson, a composer of animation theme songs, orchestral works, jazz, music-theatre and rock music; his most well-known composition is Fireman Sam - the theme song for a favourite children's animation series.

Full information from the Fourth Choir's website.

O Death, come close mine eyes - the Tallis Scholars at the Cadogan Hall

The Tallis Scholars - Photo © Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars - photo © Eric Richmond
Arvo Pärt, Sebastian de Vivanco, Nico Mulhy, Matthew Martin, Orlando Gibbons, Dominique Phinot, William Cornysh; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Some lovely moments in an eclectic programme which mixed familiar repertoire with newly commissioned works

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars returned to the Cadogan Hall for their second Choral at Cadogan appearance on Wednesday 20 April 2016 in an eclectic programme entitled O Death, come close mine eyes, which mixed contemporary music with the group's more familiar repertoire. Threading their way through the programme were four different Lamentations, Thomas Tallis's well known setting, the less well known version by Dominque Phinot. a brand new work by Matthew Martin, commissioned by the Tallis Scholars, and Nico Muhly's Recordare, domine (Lamentations) which the group commissioned in 2013. We also heard Martin's take on Orlando Gibbon's The Silver Swan and Orlando Gibbons' O Lord, in thy wrath. The programme opened with Arvo Pärt's Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen followed by Vivanco's Magnificat (a 8) and concluded with William Cornysh's Magnificat.

Though there were indeed some fine items in the programme, the different pieces did not quite coalesce into a satisfying whole. And it was only at the very end, after all the contemporary and unusual repertoire was out of the way, that the group seemed to really relax. The performance of William Cornysh's Magnificat (very much core repertory for this group) was electric and showed us what we had been missing.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Private tragedy played out in public - Donizetti's Roberto Devereux - Met Live in HD

Mariusz Kwiecien & Sondra Radvanovsky - Donizetti Roberto Devereux - Met Opera Live in HD
Mariusz Kwiecien & Sondra Radvanovsky - Donizetti Roberto Devereux - Met Opera Live in HD
Donizetti Roberto Devereux; Sondra Radvanovsky, Elīna Garanča, Mariusz Kwiecien, Matthew Polenzani, dir: David McVicar, cond: Maurizio Benini; Met Live in HD at Clapham Picture House
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 16 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Stunning, simple and clear production experience in HD video transmission

Donizetti Roberto Devereux - Met Opera Live in HD
Donizetti Roberto Devereux - Met Opera Live in HD
Until last Saturday (16 April 2016) I had seen opera at the cinema only a couple of times: Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni at the Minema, Knightsbridge, and the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera. I have been to the Met in the pre-Gelb days and listen to the broadcasts in FM on Radio 3. But this was my first experience of the Met Live in HD. Peter Gelb has, since 2006, expanded the reach of these so that they are now available in around 2,000 venues in 70 countries. At Clapham Picture House we saw the Metropolitan Opera's production of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux with Sondra Radvanovsky, Elīna Garanča, Mariusz Kwiecien, Matthew Polenzani, the stage director was David McVicar and Maurizio Benini conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

This is a High-Definition video transmission, rather than a film, with 5.1 digital surround sound – I imagine a different audio feed from the radio set-up, and designed for a range of technical specs in the cinemas where the screenings take place. At Clapham Picture House sound levels were set very high, and somewhere along the line the audio signal was compressed, presumably with the assumption that our eyes would do the work our ears have to do in the real world or when listening to a radio.

Before the show started the cameras were on the audience and orchestra. One member of the audience held up a placard saying “Hi, Ruth!” to the camera. What we saw was an audience of ordinary folk, not particularly dressed-up, and the older members of the orchestra, tuning and chatting before the show. This meant that viewers in 70 countries can see for themselves that this is not an esoteric, inaccessible art form (and in fact the opera itself portrays situations and emotions that we can relate to – albeit on a grand scale here).

Our host for the evening (afternoon in New York) was soprano Deborah Voigt. She likened Donizetti’s opera to Verdi’s Il Trovatore, needing four of the best singers in the world to pull it off. The four main roles are certainly very demanding, with Sondra Radvanovsky completing the set of three Donizetti queens in one season (Mary Stuart, Anne Boleyn and now Elizabeth I).

Legend - Arsis Handbell Ensemble

Legend Albeniz, Tchaikovsky, Handel, Khachaturian, Brahms and Albinoni; Arsis Youth Handbell Ensembles; ERP
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 3.5

The magical timbres of an Estonian hand-bell ensemble

What comes into your mind when you think of handbell playing? A group of middle aged people practising change ringing, or perhaps the rather rude sketch on The Two Ronnies (available on YouTube)?

This disc, Legend from the Arsis Youth Handbell Ensemble is nothing like either of those. There are seventeen tracks by composers such as Albeniz, Tchaikovsky, Handel, Khachaturian, Brahms and Albinoni played by both the youth and senior ensembles conducted by Aivar Mäe.

Handbell music in Estonia seems to be a relatively young culture, having been introduced in 1993 when the Arsis Handbell Ensemble was founded by conductor and artistic director Aivar Mäe. Today Arsis comprises and eight-member professional ensemble, four youth ensembles with 48 members and two schools. This disc showcases two of the youth ensembles. The bells that they play cover a wide range, with two sets of seven octaves from the biggest to the smallest.

Playing music with a set of hand-bells requires a very particular technique as each note is formed from an individual bell thus requiring co-ordination between the players. Bells have a number of significant characteristics, their distinctive combination of harmonics and overtones and the relatively long reverberation. This means that the music has a lovely aura about it from the vibrating bells, and for really long notes the bells have to be re-struck thus giving a more pulsing feel. A feature of the fact that each note comes from a different bell as the the overall timbre and texture changes with pitch, this enables the composer or arranger to bring a remarkably variety into the sound world.

Reconstructing Garrick's Shakespeare Ode

Mr Garrick reciting the Ode in honour of Shakespeare at the Jubilee at Stratford [London, 1769]. From the collections of the Lewis Walpole Library,
Mr Garrick reciting the Ode in honour of Shakespeare at the Jubilee at Stratford
In 1769 David Garrick organised a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon, and event which went a long way towards cementing Shakespeare's reputation in the national consciousness. The centrepiece of Garrick's festival was his own Shakespeare Ode with music by Thomas Arne, a work which survives incomplete. For their contribution to the 2016 Shakespeare celebrations, the choir Ex Cathedra and conductor Jeffrey Skidmore are performing a re-construction of the Arne/Garrick Shakespeare Ode at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon on 22 April 2016.

The missing choruses from the work have been composed by Sally Beamish. Beamish has collaborated with poet Carol Ann Duffy to produce the second work in Ex Cathedra's programme, A Shakespeare Masque. Ex Cathedra’s chamber choir and Ex Cathedra’s Academy will be joined by local school children, and accompanied by a consort of period instruments directed by Jeffrey Skidmore. Members of Ex Cathedra’s Consort will take the solo roles in Garrick's Shakespeare Ode which will be narrated by Samuel West, and both works will be semi-staged.

The event will be repeated at Birmingham Town Hall (24/4), Hereford Cathedral (6/5), St. Peter's Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton (7/5), Milton Court Concert Hall, London (12/5), Southwell Minster (28/5). Full information from the Ex Cathedral website.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Celebrating the 1050th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland with 16th century poly-choral music

King Sigismund III of Poland
King Sigismund III of Poland
In 966 the reigning Duke in Poland accepted Christianity and was baptised. This date has remained important in Poland as the event became entwined in Poland's sense of nationhood. On Monday 18 April 2016, the Polish Embassy in London hosted an event celebrating the anniversary. The evening also celebrated the release of the fourth volume of The Sixteen's ongoing series of CDs exploring music in Poland from the Renaissance and Baroque. After speeches from the Polish Ambassador, Witold Sobkow, and Anna Godlewska, director of the Polish Cultural Institute, we heard a short recital of music from the Polish Baroque given by Eamonn Dougan and eight members of The Sixteen.

In his entertaining and informative introduction Eamonn Dougan explained that King Sigismund III of Poland had been keen to improve music at court and had asked the Pope for help. The Pope had 'encouraged' a number of Italian musicians to settle in Poland, some spent a long time there and native composers took inspiration.

The names of the Italian composers who worked in Poland are not all familiar, only Luca Marenzio is well known, and some seemed to get a taste for travel as Bertolusi went from Poland to Denmark. The Sixteen performed motets by these Italian visitors, Pacelli's Veni sponsa Christi, Bertolusi's Regina Coeli and Timor Domini, alongside music by later Polish composers, Gorczycki's O rex gloriae and Sepulto Domine, and Pekiel's Resonent in Laudibus and Ave Maria. This is all music which deserves to be better known. The Sixteen's recordings build on scholarship being done in Poland and we can hope that other groups follow suit.

King Sigismund III was very fond of poly-choral music, and the recital ended with a double choir mass by Luca Marenzio, a composer best known for his madrigals. Marenzio's Missa super Iniquos odio habui was premiered in Warsaw in 1596. Though the records of the performance survive, the only complete copy of the mass seemed to have disappeared in World War II, but thankfully was recently rediscovered (having been moved to East Berlin by the Soviet regime). We heard Marenzio's motet Iniquos odio habui and the Gloria from the mass based on it, and I look forward to hearing the whole piece on The Sixteen's forthcoming disc, Helper and Protector: Italian Maestri in Poland.

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