Saturday, 25 October 2014

Die Winterreise with Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax

Simon Keenlyside at the Wigmore Hall
Simon Keenlyside at the Wigmore Hall
Schubert Die Winterreise; Simon Keenlyside, Emanuel Ax; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 24 2014
Star rating: 5.0

A strong musical pairing take us on a very poignant journey

We were lucky enough to attend the second of Simon Keenlyside and Emanuel Ax's performances of Schubert's song-cycle Die Winterreise, setting poems by Wilhelm Müller at the Wigmore Hall on 24 October 2014. A packed house heard this distinguished pairing take us on a very vividly characterised journey, with Keenlyside giving a highly dramatically projected, yet mesmerising performance.

All performances of Die Winterreise require the performer to go on a journey, for some this is very external and dramatic, whilst for others it is highly internalised. Keenlyside, who has performed the work in a dramatic theatrical context, gave a very externalised performance, effectively creating the character of the slightly naive young man before our eyes. But this was not to say that he neglected the songs' inner drama too, and we saw the young man go on his journey and suffer internally and externally. Keenlyside moved around the platform a great deal, and it was clear that this was carefully thought out to a dramatic purpose, not simple pacing. The result, ultimately, was not the darkest performance of the work that I have heard but it was perhaps one of the most characterful and certainly the most poignant and richly textured.

Vocally Keenlyside was in superb form, singing with a lovely firm and resonant line, combining a richness of lower register to a nice freedom in the upper. (We were not told what keys he was performing in, or what edition). Throughout he sang within the music, never distorting the line or the words for dramatic effect. He put the colours in his voice to great use, sometimes providing extreme lyric beauty but also bleached, bleak tone. He had clearly formed a strong musical partnership with Emanuel Ax who throughout provided characterful yet self-effacing accompaniment. This was a very equal partnership, and the musicality came from both, but with Ax content to allow the singer the limelight. He never pulled focus.

Bringing the Jacobean bang up to date

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - photo credit Nick Gutteridge
Photo credit Nick Gutteridge
Jazz by Oak and Candlelight; Jacqui Dankworth, Brodsky Quartet; Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Oct 19 2014
Star rating: 4.0

A treat of jazz, blues, folk, and pop in a Jacobean theatre

'Jazz by oak and candlelight', an evening of music performed by the Brodsky Quartet and Jacqui Dankworth in the beautiful setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, was a treat of jazz, blues, folk, and pop – all rescored for this versatile ensemble.

A Jacobean theatre is not the most obvious of places in which to stage a jazz evening but the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse is an intimate and atmospheric venue, lit by candles and subtle lighting with a glorious black and gold back to the stage. The quartet entered the stage through a central door as though entering a private room while Jacqui Dankworth arrived from the back of the pit, climbing onto the stage via some stairs on its front edge.

Jacqui Dankworth - photo credit: John Kentish
Jacqui Dankworth
photo credit: John Kentish
Although it only opened in January this year the playhouse has been long envisioned. The shell was built at the same time as the main theatre but, due to lack of funds, the interior had to wait. It is based on plans found in the 1960's at Worcester College, Oxford which originally were thought to have been drawn by the 17th century London architect Inigo Jones, but were later attributed to John Webb (Jones' sometime assistant). These plans were realised by Jon Greenfield into an award winning, authentic structure. Its first production was John Webster's 1612–13 tragedy 'The Duchess of Malfi' on the 15th January (see Robert's review of the play on this blog).

The Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland, Ian Belton, Paul Cassidy, and Jacqueline Thomas) and Jacqui Dankworth have been working together for more than 15 years. Their first collaboration was as part of an education project for CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) working with teenagers. Two of the songs arising from this appeared on tonight's programme: 'Abyss' by Kate Curtiss and 'Happy Hat' by Victoria Parfitt.

For Jacqui this concert was also a family affair. Her parents Sir John Dankworth and the singer Dame Cleo Laine had been very involved in touring America to raise funds for the Globe project and some of the arrangements for the music performed tonight were written by her father, her brother Alec Dankworth, and her husband Charlie Wood. This included Alec Dankworth's arrangement of the Federico García Lorca poem 'Narciso', Jacqui's own 'Time takes it time' and 'Please Answer', and the instrumental 'Patience' by Charlie Wood, inspired by a poem Jacqui heard on the World Service when she could not sleep.

Brodsky Quartet - Photo credit: Eric Richmond
Brodsky Quartet
Photo credit: Eric Richmond
Jacqui's voice has great flexibility. From the spare and haunting folk of the opening number 'She moves through the Fair' (arranged by Paul Cassidy) to the final trip-hop 'Play Dead' (by Björk, Jah Wobble, and David Arnold arranged by the quartet) she approached each song afresh. Big band show tunes took over for 'Speak low', (Kurt Weill arranged John Dankworth) and the Frank Sinatra/ Hollywood String Quartet 'Close to You' (also arranged by the Quartet). But it was the blues number 'Sittin' On Top Of The World' by Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon where her voice really shone out, making the most of her range and vocal possibilities.

The different styles of arrangements kept the quartet on their toes - but this was nothing that they could not handle: performing with their customary skill and sensitivity. The vocal cello duet 'Like someone in Love' by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke (arranged by Jacqueline Thomas) was a lovely encore.

Finally,a set of Shakespearean poems - 'Shall I compare thee', 'Go lovely Rose', and 'The Triple Fool' (set by Harvey Brough - otherwise known as Harvey from Harvey and the Wallbangers) were included as a nod to the Globe.

Along with the plays and education events, the Globe have planned a series of candlelit musical evenings running through the winter of which this 'Jazz by oak and candlelight' was one of many. The next concert will be 'Judith Weir: Master of the Queen's Music' on the 27th October which includes 'King Harald's Saga', 'Blue-Green Hill', and 'Psalm 148', along with music by Sir Henry Walford Davies, Sir Arthur Bliss, Edward Elgar, Malcolm Williamson, Arnold Bax, and Peter Maxwell Davies.

A quick note for those who might be worried – the playhouse is all seating, even in the pit – and unlike the Globe it is closed to the weather.

Elsewhere on this blog:

Friday, 24 October 2014

Recording Ethel Smyth's The Boatswain's Mate

Ethel Smyth's operatic career divides firmly into two halves. Leipzig trained herself, her first three operas, large scale romantic pieces (Fantasio, Der Wald, The Wreckers) were all performed on the continent in German speaking areas. But the First World War put paid to any further performances in this area. From that point, Smyth's musical career was firmly based in England and her later three operas (Entente Cordiale, The Boatswain's Mate and Fete galante) reflect this, being written on a smaller scale and in a more varied manner. The Boatswain's Mate is a relatively small-scale but delightful comedy based on a story by WW Jacobs. It is an unashamedly feminist piece, but shows a nice gift for comedy and is perhaps her most revived work. Rather surprisingly there is no recording of it. Now Retrospect Opera is planning to remedy that. They plan recording sessions in January 2015, with professional forces conducted by Odaline de la Martinez (who has recorded Smyth's The Wreckers).  The recording will use Smyth's own chamber version of the piece, made to help it gain greater currency.

I saw a company performing it in Cambridge in the 1980's and can testify to it being a delightful and ofte funny piece. Retrospect Opera is looking for support for the recording and they have a crowd-funding page to encourage people to contribute. All significant contributions will get a copy of the recording.

Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

The Tallis Scholars - photo credit Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars - photo credit Eric Richmond
Metamorphosis - Palestrina, Gibbons, Part, Sheppard, Tavener, Stravinsky, Gallus, Mouton, Holst; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 23 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Compare and contrast programme, with settings of the same text from different traditions

For their programme, Metamorphosis, at the Cadogan Hall on Thursday 23 October 2014, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars gave us an interesting mix and match programme in which the same text was performed in settings from the English, Latin, Russian and other traditions. We had settings of the Magnificat by Palestrina, Orlando Gibbons and Arvo Part, the Lord's Prayer from John Sheppard, John Tavener, Stravinsky, Palestrina and Jacobus Gallus, the Ave Maria by Jean Mouton, Stravinsky and Part, and the Nunc Dimittis by Gibbons, Part, Palestrina and Gustav Holst. The results made a satisfying programme and a very fascinating survey.

Second view: La Fanciulla del West at the London Coliseum

Leigh Melrose as Sonora and the cast of The Girl of the Golden West  © Robert Workman
Leigh Melrose and the cast of The Girl of the Golden West  © Robert Workman
Puccini La Fanciulla del West; Bullock, Auty, Colclough, English National Opera dir. Jones, cond. Wilson; London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Thrilling drama and fine ensemble in Puccini's gold-rush opera

We finally managed to catch up with English National Opera's first ever production of Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) at the London Coliseum on Wednesday 22 October 2014 (see Hilary's review on this blog). Susan Bullock was Minnie, Peter Auty was Dick Johnson, Craig Colclough was Jack Rance with Graham Clark as Nick and Leigh Melrose as Sonora. The production was directed by Richard Jones, with sets by Miriam Baethner, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and choreography by Lucy Burge. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducted.

Many of Puccini's operas are complex theatrical mechanisms which do not really respond to extreme tinkering. Richard Jones acknowledged this in an interview on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters. Jones's production gave us just about what the libretto and music ask for, albeit with a typical Jones spin.

The production is a co-production with Santa Fe Opera which means it must fit in with Santa Fe's limited stage facilities. We did have gold-rush miners, but the theatrical world was an hermetically sealed one. We saw little outside world, just the interiors of the Polka Saloon, and Minnie's cabin, plus the frontage of the Marshall's office. And all reflected Jones's liking for crowded theatrical spaces. In style the look was more 1950's than 1850's though the costumes were more in period.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Elina Garanca - Meditation

Elina Garanca
Meditation; Elina Garanca, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern, Karel Mark Chichon; Deutsche Gramophon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 30 2014
Star rating: 3.0

Quite personal selection of music, beautifully sung

This new disc from mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, Karel Mark Chichon and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern on Deutsche Grammophon is entitled Meditation and features a potentially interesting intersection between the operatic and the sacred, with music by Gounod, Mascagni, Mozart, Bizet, Puccini, Allegri and Adolphe Adam, with contemporary works by Ugis Praulins and Peteris Vasks.

In a sense the title of the disc is misleading, much of the music is not meditative but passionate and operatic. There are sacred works by operatic composers, Gounod's Sanctus from his St Cecilia Mass, and his sacred song Repentir, the Laudate Dominum from Mozart's Vesperae solennes de confessore, Adolphe Adam's Christmas song Cantique de Noel, and Puccini's Salve Regina, which is also strictly a sacred song. Added to these are works arranged from music by operatic composers, an Agnus Dei by Bizet, an Ave Maria arranged from the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Ave Maria.

Shortlist announced for British Composer Awards

Jon Opstad - photo Hannah Opstad
Jon Opstad (Stage Works category)
photo Hannah Opstad
The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) has published the 35 works shortlisted for the 2014 British Composer Awards. The winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Goldsmiths’ Hall, London on Tuesday 2 December 2014. There will be a chance to hear some of them when BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now broadcasts the event at 10pm on Saturday 6 December. The keynote speaker for the evening will be Dame Evelyn Glennie who will also present the Awards.

Over 300 works were submitted by over 250 composers (either British or UK resident, except for the International category). The short list has 35 works by 32 composers from those in their twenties up to one centenarian (the late Elliot Carter in the International category). Three composers were shortlisted twice this year: Kerry Andrew, Harrison Birtwistle and John McCabe. Kerry Andrew for Woodwose: A Community Opera in the Community or Educational Project category (see our review) and Dart's Love in the Stage Works category (see my review from 2013). Harrison Birtwistle has been shortlisted Songs from the same Earth (Vocal category) and for The Moth Requiem (Choral category). John McCabe for his Sonata after William Byrd's Haec Dies (Instrumental Solo or Duo category) and Joybox (Orchestral category).

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

La Belle Excentrique

La Belle Excentrique - Patricia Petibon, Susan Manoff, Deutsche Grammophon
Le Belle Excentrique; Patricia Petibon, Susan Manoff; Deutsche Grammophon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Highly idiosyncratic performances of French melodies, full of delight, charm and wit

I last saw Patricia Petibon as Blanche in Olivier Py's production of Poulenc's Carmelites in Paris in 2013. For this new disc on Deutsche Grammophon the French soprano is exploring an altogether racketier world, though she is joined by Py for two items. The two open the disc with Leo Ferre's Jolie mome, first sung by Juliet Greco and from then on the disc is a fascinating mixture of French song from Gabriel Faure through to Leo Ferre, via Eric Satie, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Manuel Rosenthal, Reynaldo Hahn and Francine Cockenpot. That this is no ordinary song recital might be judged from its title, which comes from Eric Satie's work for piano duet La Belle Excentrique movements from which are also featured on the disc, as are other Satie piano pieces. And the Rosenthal songs have added percussion, from Francois Verly. The performers have also improvised short linking passages, named after well known 19th century danseuses at the Moulin Rouge. Petibon is accompanied by pianist Susan Manoff, and Manoff is joined by pianist David Levi for the Satie piano duets. Other instrumentalists featured on the disc include Christian Pierre LaMarca, Francois Verly,David Venitucci and Nenanja Radulovic

Many of the items on the disc are short, and the movements from the Satie pieces are scattered around as linking items. The recital is not so much a series of groupings of songs, as a single long span which takes the listener from the Parisian verve of the opening, through moods of reflection, tragi-comedy and love, to animal antics and a final series of farewells. The music hall is never far away. Satie's La Belle Excentrique, a serious fantasy for piano four hands, was written in 1900 for the dancer Caryathis whilst his song Allons-y-Chochotte was probably written for the music-hall performer Paulette Darty, as was the waltz Je te veux. And Manuel Rosenthal's Chansons du Monsieur Bleu, three of which Petibon sings, were first performed by the actress and music hall performer Marie Dubas.

Nathan Vale at Temple Music

Nathan Vale
Nathan Vale
Schubert, Wolf, folksongs; Nathan Vale, Audrey Hyland; Temple Music at Inner Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 21 2014
Poised and stylish performance from young tenor in a new Emerging Artists Series

Temple Music launched a new Emerging Artists Series with the recital by tenor Nathan Vale and pianist Audrey Hyland at Inner Temple Hall on Tuesday 21 October 2014. Vale started with a group of songs by Schubert all of which seemed to have as their theme love in its many guises and this continued with the group of Wolf songs. Finally Vale and Hyland closed with a varied group of folksongs from the British Isles.

I missed Vale's recent lunch time recital at the Royal Opera House, so was pleased to be able to catch up with his performance at Inner Temple Hall. Singing from memory throughout, and looking relaxed despite having the audience quite close to him, Vale was a poised and characterful recitalist. He has a naturally beautifully lyric tenor voice but clearly does not rest on his laurels and all the songs were given powerfully characterful performances.

In his Schubert songs, I loved the way he sang beautifully joined up phrases whilst still giving the words their full value. Im Fruhling was vibrant with a real sense of relaxed delight, whilst Fischerweise was characterfully carefree. Vor meine Weige had great lyric beauty but a sense of melancholy too. Wiedersehn was sung with burnished tone and a shapely long line. For Des Fischers Liebesgluck he gave us an evocative serenade-like piece, whilst in Geheimes he evoked the blissful delights to come in the beloved's arms. Finally in this group was the vivdly busy Versunken. Vale's performances here were all complemented by the vital and responsive playing of Hyland at the piano.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Vivaldi Opus 5 violin sonatas

Vivaldi Opus 5
Vivaldi Sonatas Opus 5; Baltic Baroque, Grigori Maltizov; ERP
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Vivaldi's opus 5 violin sonatas in fine performances from this Baltic group

This new disc from Baltic Baroque, director Grigori Maltizov, in the Estonian Record Productions (ERP) label presents the six sonatas from Antonio Vivaldi's Opus 5, sonatas for one and two violin with basso continuo here played by violinists Maria Krestinskaya, Evgeny Sviridov and Anfisa Kalina with Reinut Tepp and Imbi Tarum (harpsichord), and Sofia Maltizov (cello), directed by Grigori Maltizov.

Vivaldi's sonatas, written in 1716, were published in Amsterdam under the rather cumbersome title of VI Sonate, Quatro a Violino Solo e Basso e due a deu Violini e Basso Continuo di Antonio Vivaldi, Opera Quinta O vero Parte Seconda del Opera Seconda, which translates as six sonatas by Antonio Vivaldi, four for violin and basso, and two for two violins and basso continuo Op4 or the second part of the preceding Op.2. The sonatas come from a busy period in his life when he was producing operas in Venice as well as liturgical works for the Pieta. But such publications of sonatas was an important part of getting a composer's name known. Vivaldi's Opus 1, published in 1705 is a collection of 12 violin sonatas, with opus 2 following in 1709. Opus 3 and 4 were collections of violin concerti and represented an important break-through for Vivaldi. Opus 5 was a follow up to the Opus 2 sonatas, and in fact the numbering of the sonatas is continuous. Those on Opus 5 start at 13. Amsterdam, where the sonatas were published, was an important European centre for publishing.

There’s life on the moon

Ronan Busfield (Cecco - disguised as Lunar Emperor), English Touring Opera // Haydn, Life on the Moon (Il mondo della luna). Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Ronan Busfield
Photo credit - Richard Hubert Smith
Haydn Life on the Moon; English Touring Opera, dir. McCrystal, cond. Bucknall; Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Oct 17 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Enjoyably funny performance of rarely performed Haydn opera

The English Touring Opera (ETO) have a comic hit on their hands with Haydn’s 'Life on the Moon’ seen last night (Friday 17 October) at Hackney Empire.

Sung tonight in English, 'Il mondo della luna’ was written by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni, for the wedding of his patron Nikolaus Esterházy’s second son in 1777. Its small scale of seven performers reflects the materials at Haydn’s disposal, an in-house orchestra of 14 plus whatever soloists he could persuade the Prince to procure.

A contemporary and friend of Mozart, Haydn is perhaps best known for his instrumental work and 'The Creation’. My ancient copy of David Boyden's An Introduction to Music describes Haydn as being "the father of the symphony and string quartet" but also waxes lyrical about Haydn’s good humour and love of a musical joke. It can be no surprise, therefore, to realise that of Haydn’s 16 operas, 12 were variants on opera buffa – most written for Prince Esterházy’s opera troupe in the twenty years between 1762 and 1783.

Monday, 20 October 2014

In support of the Malala Fund

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani teenager who came to world prominence when she was shot by a Taliban gunman on her school bus in 2012. She has become a campaigner for education for girls in her country and was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2014. Composer James McCarthy is writing a new work, Malala which has been commissioned by the Crouch End Festival Chorus and will be premiered by them, conducted by David Temple, at the Barbican on 28 October 2014 at a concert in support of The Malala Fund which supports education for girls all over the world.

McCarthy's new work a dramatic work written for choir, girl's choir, tenor soloist and orchestra with a text by Karachi-based novelist and journalist Bina Shah. Crouch End Festival Chorus will be performing it with Michael Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time, inspired by the assassination of a German official in 1938 by a young Polish Jew. Crouch End Festival Chorus is joined by the City of London Shjool for Girls Senior Choir, hornsey School for Girls Choir, St Michael's Catholic Grammar School Choir and the London Orchestra da Camera, conductor David Temple. The soloists are Erica Eloff (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Alan Oke (tenor) and Ashley Riches (baritone).

Launching new repertoire for trumpet

Simon Desbruslais - Psalm
Hummel's Trumpet Concerto was premiered in 1804 and the next major addition to the trumpet concerto repertoire did not come until 1906. It was partly to help remedy this lack of major concerto repertoire for the trumpet that trumpeter Simon Desbruslais's new recording on Signum Classics came about. At the CD launch at the Royal Academy of Music on Sunday 19 October 2014, Simon explained that when he was doing a doctorate at Oxford (which he completed in 2013), he made contact with the composer Robert Saxton who taught there and discovered Saxton had written a trumpet concerto, Psalm: A Song of Ascents (1992). A performance of this in Oxford in 2008 by Desbruslais and the Oxford Sinfonia led to the idea of Saxton writing a second piece and following on from this the concept of a recording. The young composer Deborah Pritchard, at the time studying with Saxton, was asked to write a concerto as was John McCabe, a friend of Saxton's. The three new pieces were performed by Desbruslais at a concert in 2012 and all four then recorded with the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by David Curtis and Kenneth Woods for the Signum disc Psalm: Contemporary British Trumpet Concertos.

With pianist Jakob Fichert, Simon Desbruslais gave us a taster of three of the concertos. At Simon's request, Pritchard's concerto provides a rare outing for the piccolo trumpet, and is inspired by James Turrell's skypaces. Whilst Saxton's new concerto Shakespeare Scenes takes Shakespeare as its theme, and McCabe combines ideas of Spring with the Olympics (which took place in 2012 when the concerto was being written).

Evidently Simon has further ideas for expanding the trumpet repertoire, so watch this space. Meanwhile, 
Psalm: Contemporary British Trumpet Concertos is available to pre-order from Amazon (the disc is released in early November).

Handel's Ottone at English Touring Opera

Louise Kemeny (Teofane), Gillian Webster (Gismonda), Rosie Aldridge (Matilda), Andrew Radley (Adelberto), Grant Doyle (Emireno), Clint van der Linde (Ottone), English Touring Opera // Handel, Ottone. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Louise Kemeny, Gillian Webster, Rosie Aldridge, Andrew Radley,
Grant Doyle, Clint van der Linde,Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Handel Ottone; English Touring Opera, dir. Conway, cond. Kenny; Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 18 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Stylish and convincing revival of a Handel rarity

For its Autumn 2014 tour, English Touring Opera (ETO) returned to the 18th century with operas by Handel and Haydn, and a programme of Bach cantatas. The Handel's opera, Ottone, was a real rarity, and we saw the opening of the production at the Hackney Empire on Saturday 18 October 2014 with Clint van der Linde as Ottone, Louise Kemeny as Teofane, Andrew Radley as Adalberto, Gillian Webster as Gismonda, Rosie Aldridge as Mathilde and Grant Doyle as Emireno. The production was directed by James Conway, artistic director of English Touring Opera, in designs by takis with lighting by Lee Curran. Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted the Old Street Band.

Handel wrote Ottone in 1723 for what was perhaps the finest cast yet assembled in England, the castrato Senesino, star soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, alto castrato Gaetano Berenstadt and soprano Margherita Durastantini. It was Cuzzoni's first opera for Handel and it was enormously successful, not only receiving a goodly number of performances but also being revived regularly and even being taken to Paris.

This success has puzzled many commentators. The opera's libretto is based on one by Pallavicino written for Dresden and set by Antonio Lotti in 1719. But it was subjected to some severe compression by Handel and his librettist Nicola Haym. The final act in particular seems, on paper, to not make sense. Another problem with the opera is that the title role, Ottone, is so wet and passive as to be almost a dim-wit. Senesino, who sang Ottone, specialised in pathetic roles (in the 18th century in the sense 'affecting the emotions') but Ottone seems to us pathetic in the modern sense.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Bach cello suites

Bach Cello Suites - Viola de Hoog - Vivat
Bach The Six Cello Suites; Viola de Hoog; Vivat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 29 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Bach's cello suites played period style on two lovely cellos

The Vivat label continues its interesting journey through exploration of period practice, with a disc of Bach's cello suites played by the Dutch cellist Viola de Hoog.

What sound quality comes into your mind when you think of the Bach suites for solo cello? Probably, like me, the performances you heard first were ones either by Pablo Casals, or someone influenced by him; which means a richly expressive, dark, chocolatey sound with a very romantic use of vibrato and late-romantic style playing. But the cello has changed a remarkable amount in the period of its development. It is entirely possible that the ordinary cello during Bach's life-time could have been played standing up, like a modern double bass, and that is not to mention the small-scale cellos which were played on the arm like a fiddle and used for the more virtuoso pieces. Then there is the fact that strings were gut, lower tension than today with lower bridges and softer bows. All this makes for a difference in sound quality as the notes die away quicker after a hard attack, the sound is less dense. And the lower bridge and softer bow means that spread chords are less dramatic.

In the video (see below) she made about the recording, Viola de Hoog talks about being inspired to make the recording by the instrument that the plays, on this disc she uses a Guadagnini cello of around 1750 for suites 1 to 5, but she uses a five string cello built in Bohemia in 1730 for the sixth suite. Unusually the Bohemian five-string cello is bigger than the four-string Guadagnini whereas they are usually smaller.  Her bows are both modern copies of baroque bows and she uses gut strings (the lower two silver wound). The extra string (a high E string) means that polyphonic writing is easier, as does the scordatura in the fifth suite (the A string is tuned down a tone to G). But in fact, in the cello suites Bach uses far less polyphonic writing than in the solo violin works. Instead he relies in implied polyphony with the lowest note touched in as part of a single line, spreading the chord and relying on the sonorousness of the cello's lower register to count.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Chetham's Symphony Orchestra

Thursday 23 and Friday 24 October 2014 bring the chance to hear the wonderful Chetham's Symphony Orchestra in action. Conducted by Paul Mann the orchestra is performing Bernstein, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky at the Royal Northern College of Music (23/10) and the Guildhall School's new Milton Court Concert Hall (24/10) 

They will perform Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 'Pathétique' , Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto and the Symphonic Suite from Leonard Bernstein’s score to the 1954 film On the Waterfront. The violin soloist is Elizaveta Saul, a Chetham’s student from Belarus who was the winner of Chetham’s 2013 Concerto Competition.

Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra is formed of students from Manchester's Chetham's School of Music, aged 14-18. Judging by previous performances of theirs that I have heard, we can expect a performance close to that of the professional ensembles.

Further information and tickets from the Barbican website.

Miracle in the Gorbals

Miracle in the Gorbals - Birmingham Royal Ballet - photo Bill Cooper
Miracle in the Gorbals - photo Bill Cooper
Flowers of the Forest triple bill; Birmingham Royal Ballet; Sadler's Wells Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 17 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Thrilling revival of the Helpmann/Bliss/Burra Miracle in the Gorbals at centre of an imaginative evening of dance.

Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) brought its latest triple bill to London, at Sadler's Wells Theatre on 17 October 2014. Shadows of War featured three ballets, each with its own echo of war. Kenneth MacMillan's La Fin du Jour to Ravel's Piano Concerto, with designs by Ian Spurling depicted the bright young things of the 30's just before war started. David Bintley's Flowers of the Forest to Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances and Benjamin Britten's Scottish Ballad, with designs by Jan Blake and John Goodwin, contrasted a post-card view of Scotland with a darker reality. The centrepiece of the programme, and the source of great interest, was Gillian Lynne's revival/re-creation of Robert Helpmann's Miracle in the Gorbals to designs by Adam Wilshire after the original Edward Burra designs, with an original score by Arthur Bliss was a war-time ballet having been first conceived and performed by the Royal Ballet in 1944. Paul Murphy conducted the Royal Ballet Sinfonia with Jonathan Higgins as solo in the Ravel, and Higgins and Ross Williams as soloists in the Britten.

Sir Robert Helpmann was one of the main-stays of the Royal Ballet (then the Sadler's Wells Ballet) during the Second World War, because as an Australian he was not eligible for military service. A talented dancer and actor, his presence as the ballet's leading man and the shortage of choreographers led him into choreography as well and he produced a group of major works during the war. Of these only Hamlet, to music by Liszt, seems to have survived in the repertoire (I saw it at its revival in 1981). Unfortunately Miracle in the Gorbals did not (it seems to have last been performed in 1958). Rather bravely Birmingham Royal Ballet invited the choreographer Gillian Lynne, who had danced in the ballet under Helpmann, to re-create it. Lynne (who is now 88) admits in a note in the programme book that none of those survivors who danced in the original could remember a step, so she had to start from scratch. Neither do Edward Burra's designs survive, we just have black and white photographs, and Adam Wilshire had to do some similar archaeology, including sourcing 1940's street clothes from vintage shops.

Friday, 17 October 2014

George Benjamin wins 2014 Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Musician

George Benjamin
George Benjamin
Composer George Benjamin has won the Award for Outstanding Musician in the 2014 Critics' Circle Awards. In presenting the award, Chair of the Critics’ Circle’s Music Section, Guy Dammann, referred to Benjamin's 'beautifully crafted work', and how his opera Written on Skin 'seems to have awakened a new force in the composer and opened up deeper reaches in his musical imagination'. Also receiving awards were soprano Mary Bevan, composer Charlotte Bray and pianist Igor Levit, each being awarded in the Critics’ Circle Awards for Exceptional Young Talent in music, which go to performers under 35

Benjamin's opera Written on Skin was premiered in 2013, and he and Martin Crimp are working on a new opera to be premiered at Covent Garden in 2018. Mary Bevan is currently singing Susanna in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at the London Coliseum, and will be performing in the Royal Opera's production of L'Orfeo at the Roundhouse. Charlotte Bray's debut disc is being released this month by NMC Records with Sir Mark Elder conductor the Aldeburgh World Orchestra. Igor Levit's recording of Bach's six keyboard partitas, was named Gramophone Magazine's recording of the month for October 2014.

Founded in 1913, the Critics’ Circle is the professional association of British and Britain-based critics; each section of the Critics’ Circle has its own Awards. The Music Section awards were reinstated in 2011 and are now in their fourth year. The Critics’ Circle Awards are voted for by the 89 members of the Critics’ Circle’s Music Section, in recognition of musical activities in the United Kingdom during the previous calendar year.

Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake

Angelika Kirchschlager - copyright Nikolaus Karlinsky
Angelika Kirchschlager
copyright Nikolaus Karlinsky
Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt; Angelika Kirchschlager, Julius Drake; Temple Song
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 15 2014
Star rating: 5.0

19th century lieder from four masters in highly involving performances

Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager and pianist Julius Drake gave a lieder recital at Middle Temple Hall on Wednesday 15 October 2014 as part of the Temple Song series. Kirchschlager and Drake's programme concentrated on four composers, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and Liszt with a mixture of well known and lesser known songs. Many of the songs were relatively short, though Kirchschlager also included Schubert's Der Erlkönig and Schumann's Die Löwenbraut.

Kirchschlager and Drake started with the group of Brahms songs. Meine Liebe ist grun set a text by Robert and Clara Schumann's 16 year old son, Felix (already suffering from the TB which would kill him at 25). The song is lyrically impassioned and impulsive, a very suitable response to what is a young man's poem. Kirchschlager gave it a vibrant and free performance, her voice beautifully well modulated and with a superb feel for the words. Throughout the recital she was a vibrantly communicative performer, making the lieder seem like sung poetry, as it should be, but never distorting the music.

Salomon Orchestra in Suk's Asrael Symphony

Guy Johnston - photo Ben Wright
Guy Johnston
photo Ben Wright
The Salomon Orchestra's concert on Tuesday 14 October 2014 at St John's Smith Square, had an all Czech flavour. Conducted by Philip Hesketh, the first half consisted of Dvorak's Cello Concerto with Guy Johnston as the soloist, and in the second half the massive Asrael Symphony by Josef Suk,  Dvorak's pupil and son-in-law. Suk's music is infrequently performed nowadays and the Salomon Orchestra performance was a welcome opportunity to make the piece's acquaintance.

Dvorak's Cello Concerto was written in 1894-95 and he commenced writing it when he was still in the USA but the work is tinged with home-sickness as well as a tribute to the memory of his recently deceased sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova, née Čermakova with whom Dvorak had been in love. (See my review of the film Dvorak in Love).  The piece is one of the composer's best known works though it does not always get the stylistic attention that it deserves in performance, with performers veering towards Bad Brahms.

Guy Johnston, Philip Hesketh and the orchestra were full alert to the work's Czech feel, with a lovely combination of lyrical melody and crisply infectious rhythms. Before the concert started one of my companions had asked, half jokingly, whether you could dance to it! All the performers ensured that you certainly could. Rhythms were sprung and crisp, combined with a lovely lyrical flexibility. Johnston gave a poised and lyrical performance. As a performer he was passionate without overdoing the romanticism of the part or stretching the phrases too much, Dvorak's classical lines were always present.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

London Song Festival

Richard and Pauline Strauss
Richard and Pauline Strauss
Pianist Nigel Foster's London Song Festival starts its autumn run on 21 October 2014 when he is joined by soprano Ailish Tynan and baritone Simon Wallfisch for Music of a Foreign Land. The festival this year takes place at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, London NW3 1NG and runs until 27 November with concerts marking the anniversaries of Richard Strauss, Joseph Marx and Isaac Nathan.

In Music of Foreign Land in 21 October, Tynan, Wallfisch and Foster will be performing songs inspired by foreign countries with music by Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Hahn and Ravel, along with Bantock, Holst and Howells plus settings of Byron by the Anglo-Australian composer Isaac Nathan (1790-1864). In fact for Nathan's Hebrew Melodies it was the composer who persuaded Lord Byron to provide words to use for Nathan's arrangements of tunes used in synagogue services.

On 30 October, soprano Ilona Domnich will be performing Richard Strauss's Brentano Lieder along with music by Russian composer and poet Alexander Blok (1880-1921), Vicktor Ullman (1898-1944) the Austrian composer who died in Auschwitx and the young composer Michael Csanyi-Wills.

Soprano Regina Nathan and Foster will be re-creating a recital that Richard Strauss gave in 1903 with his wife Pauline de Ahna, and Jacqueline Straubinger-Bremar will talk about her father's friendship with the composer (11 /11). Then on 18 November the music of the Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964) will be explored as Sinead O'Kelly and Dominic Sedgwick join Foster to perform Marx's Italienisches Liederbuch, plus music by Schumann and Strauss.  The final recital in the series, Entartete Musick, is on 27 November when Foster and baritone Peter Braithwaite perform a music linked to the 1938 Nazi exhibition of degenerate art, with music by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eister.

Distinguished tenor Ian Partridge will be giving a masterclass on 8 November 2014.

Girl of the Golden West

The cast and ENO chorus in The Girl of the Golden West - © Robert Workman
The cast and ENO chorus in The Girl of the Golden West - © Robert Workman
Puccini The Girl of the Golden West; Bullock, Auty, English National Opera, dir. Jones, cond. Wilson; London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Oct 10 2014
Star rating: 3.5

First production at ENO of Puccini's American opera

This is first new production of 'Girl of the Golden West' ('La fanciulla del west') by the ENO in 50 years. Directed by Richard Jones it was an entertaining little opera, but also a bit of a mixed bag - superb playing by the orchestra sometimes drowned out the singers, odd American(ish) accents came and went, and although the costuming was a little strange, the scenery was neatly done and atmospheric.

Written by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) 'La fanciulla del west' was his first opera after the troubles and rewrites of 'Madam Butterfly'. Based on a play (1905, published as a story in 1911) by American David Belasco (1853-1931) who had also been responsible for 'Butterfly', the libretto was written by Guelfo Civinini (this translation back into English by Kelley Rourke) – a new departure for Puccini whose long time collaborator Giuseppe Giacosa had recently died.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Desperate Heroines

Mozart Desperate Heroines; Sandrine Piau, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Ivor Bolton; Naive
Mozart Desperate Heroines; Sandrine Piau, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Ivor Bolton; Naive
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 8 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Poised and technically fine account of soprano arias from Mozart operas

For this disc, French soprano Sandrine Piau returns to Mozart for a recital disc for the first time in 13 years. She is joined on this disc on Naive, by Ivor Bolton and the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg in arias from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, La finta giardiniera, Mitridate re di Ponto, Idomeneo, Lucio Silla and Il re pastore.

The disc is entitled Desperate Heroines and whilst some of the women are more desperate than others, there is no doubting the rather fascinating selection that Piau has come up. Her voice retains the light flexibility which it had 13 years ago and on the disc she veers generally towards the lighter roles, Susanna rather than the Countess, Illia rather than Elettra.

War and Peace in Wimbledon

Artists appearing at the 2014 Wimbledon International Music Festival
This year's Wimbledon International Music Festival takes as its theme, War and Peace. Running from 8 to 23 November 2014 in various venues in and around Wimbledon the festival will be kicking off with the Academy Choir and Baroque Players performing Haydn's Nelson Mass, whilst the final concert sees the Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor Robin O'Neill, performing Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen his response to the destruction of Munich and Dresden in 1945.

In between, artistic director Anthony Wilkinson (see my interview with Anthony) has put together a programme which explores all sorts of aspects of war. There is Spanish Civil War with Hungarian duo the Katona Twins performing guitar music, the young British artists of the Myrthen Ensemble in Anthems for Doomed Youth with music by Schubert, Wolf, Mahler and many others, Russian pianist Denis Kozhukin performs Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, his war sonata. Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale will be given a staged performance at Wimbledon College of Art.

Away from war, the distinguished Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair sings Schubert's Die Winterreise, the Borodin Quartet is joined by Michael Collins for Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, and York2 play the piano four hands versions of Holst's The Planets, Debussy's La Mer and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the Fibonacci Sequence performs a pair of concerts exploring Schubert's chamber music.

On a lighter note, the Musicians of the Globe explore penny broad-sheet ballads in Death by Custard. And the festival ends not only with the Philharmonia Orchestra in concert, but with Jessica Duchen's Alicia's Gift at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Full information from the Wimbledon International Music Festival website.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Resurrecting a Caldara rarity

La concordia de'pianeti
Antonio Caldara La concordia de'pianeti; La Cetra; Andrea Marcon; Archiv
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 23 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Engaging performance of Caldara's rediscovered, grand out-door serenata

Antonio Caldara (1670 - 1736) isn't a familiar name. Born 14 years before Handel and Bach, he trained at St. Mark's Venice. He had a rather varied career, taking service with the French client Duke of Mantua, and the pretender to the Spanish throne before reaching Venice and Francesco Ruspoli, Prince of Cerveteri. Finally, in 1716 he took a position at the Viennese court and remained there for the rest of his life.

Caldara's employer in Venice, Emperor Charles VI was fond of opera and was a composer himself. Charles had strong views on music and liked an opulent sound. Caldara's music from Vienna eschewed the airy Italianate sound of his early works, and used large scale forces to create a richness of tone. Caldara wrote an extensive sequence of operas and oratorios in Vienna. This new disc from Archiv gives us the first recording of his serenata La concordia de'pianeti with Andrea Marcon conducting La Cetra barockorchester & Vokalensemble Basel with soloists Delphine Galou, Veronica Cangemi, Ruxandra Donose, Franco Fagioli, Carlos Mena, Daniel Behle and Luca Tittoto. The work was recorded in conjunction with the work's first modern performance.

Whilst it might be called a serenata, La concordia de'pianeti is a large scale work lasting 108 minutes and requiring seven strong soloists. It was designed for display, but written for out of doors. It was premiered in 1723 when Emperor Charles and his wife, Empress Elisabeth, visited Znojmo Castle after Charles had been crowned King of Bohemia in Prague. Elisabeth was pregnant and the plot, such as it is, has the Gods on Olympus celebrating this event. The original performers were costumed and on two grand 'cars'; it was described not as an opera but a theatrical composition. The original cast included the castrato Carestini (who would create the title role in Ariodante for Handel) as Apollo (here sung by Franco Fagioli).

Cecilia Bartoli in St Petersburg

Cecilia Bartoli - St Petersburg
Araia, Raupach, Dall'Oglio, Madonis, Manfredini, Cimarosa; Cecilia Bartoli, I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis; DECCA
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 25 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Bartoli's latest exploration, rare and fascinating arias from 18th century St Petersburg

This latest disc from mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is full of arias you have never heard from unknown operas by obscure composers, but that is nothing new. In her recent discs, Bartoli has showed a knack for discovering and re-animating forgotten repertoire. On this disc from Decca, recorded with Diego Fasolis and I Barocchisti, investigates the music written for the opera in St Petersburg in the 18th century. During this period the Russian Court relied on foreign models for much of its high culture and for opera they looked to Italy. On this disc there are arias from operas by Francesco Araia, Hermann Friedrich Raupach, Vincenzo Manfredini, Domenico Dall'Oglio and Luigi Madonis, and Domenico Cimarosa. This latter being the best known of the group. The music is all taken from manuscripts houses in St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre Library, coming from the Italian Collection.

Neapolitan composer Francesco Araia was in Russia from 1735 to 1759, under Empresses Anna Ioannovna (Peter the Great's niece) and Elizabeth (Peter the Great's daughter by his second wife). Araia was the first composer to have an opera performed in Russia and the first to set a Russian libretto. Appropriately enough Bartoli opens with the aria Vado a morir from La forza dell'amore e dell'odio, that first opera performed in Russia which received its premiere in 1736 at the Winter Palace. This is a graceful piece with a melancholy lyric vocal line which shows off Bartoli's voice to the best.

Die Fledermaus

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
Opera Danube is a new operetta company aiming to give a platform for young singers. On 17 and 18 October at St John's Smith Square they will be performing Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus. They will be joined by the Orpheus Sinfonia, the orchestra which aims to give young professional instrumentalists a chance, with a group of fine young singers including Alberto Sousa (whom we saw in Grange Park Opera's La Traviata), Lauren Zolezzi (whom we saw in the Guildhall Schooll's Pinocchio), Dominic Sedgwick (seen recently in recital), Eli Rolfe Johnson (whom we saw in Opera Lyrica's Cosi fan Tutte), Thomas Herford, Robert Gildon and Kate Symmonds Joy. They will be conducted by Oliver Gooch. There is no dialogue alas, but there is a spoken narration being provided by Simon Butteriss.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Blogger in action - Verismo: Puccini and his contemporaries

Rosalind Plowright
Rosalind Plowright
I am lecturing on Verismo: Puccini and his contemporaries on Wednesday 15 October as part of a Divas and Scholars study day at the Cadogan Hall in which the mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright will be conducting a masterclass and singing, and I will be lecturing. 

All the music being performed, by Rosalind and by the young singers, will be coming from Verismo operas. Further information from the Cadogan Hall website.

Peer Gynt: a man of mourning

Peer Gynt with the Troll’s daughter/Solveig. Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Peer Gynt with the Troll’s daughter/Solveig.
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Ibsen Peer Gynt; Théâtre National de Nice; Barbican Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 8 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Modern fusion - Ibsen's anti-hero re-invented as a modern pop-star

Théâtre National de Nice's interpretation of 'Peer Gynt', based on the play by Henrik Ibsen, at the Barbican centre revamps this timeless Norwegian story of procrastination and remorse. Irina Brook's 21st century vision for Peer (now PG the rock star) includes new poetry by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Sam Shepard, and songs by Iggy Pop.

The stars of the show were Icelandic Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson (PG), Indian born dancer Shantala Shivalingappa (Solveig) and the very good Mireille Maalouf (as Peer's long suffering mother) around whom the other characters and musicians revolve. Each of the other characters plays more than one part, or is a musician as well as an actor, depending on the scene's requirements.

Handel's Alcina with DiDonato and Coote

Joyce DiDonato in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina at the Barbican with the English Concert - photo credit MARK ALLAN/BARBICAN
Joyce Di Donato in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina
with Harry Bicket and the English Concert
photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Handel Alcina; DiDonato, Coote, English Concert, Bickett; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 10 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Full of stars and hot on drama, finely involving account of Handel's masterpiece

To say that the English Concert's performance of Handel's Alcina at the Barbican on 10 October 2014 was hotly anticipated would be an understatement. Sold out for weeks, the performance capitalised on the draw of its two principals Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote and generated the sort of buzz which the work did at its premiere. This, and the strength of  the casting, reflected the distance we have travelled in the last 30 years in making Handel opera mainstream. The casting also recognised that Alcina isn't strictly a star vehicle, the performance only works if all the principals are strong. And what was impressive was that we had a strong team, none of whom was a baroque music specialist. Alcina was sung by Joyce DiDonato, Ruggiero by Alice Coote, Morgana by Anna Christy, Bradamante by Christine Rice, Oronte by Ben Johnson, Melisso by Wojtek Gierlach and Oberto by Anna Devin, with the English Concert directed from the harpsichord by Harry Bicket.

This was a concert performance and the singers were using scores, but it certainly wasn't a score bound performance, all the singers projected drama as if they were in the opera house. Someone had thought about the dramaturgy, there were entrances and exits and more importantly the performers reacted to each other. Baroque opera does not need a lot of staging to make it work, and here Alcina received just enough. It helped that the cast were all extremely vivid performers; it wasn't just Joyce DiDonato's Alcina who prowled round the stage, and she and Alice Coote made their first entrance entwined like the lovers that their characters are.

Bicket and the English Concert gave a sparking account of the overture, brisk but not too rushed with a nice crispness. My main gripe was that there was only one harpsichord, played by Bicket himself, along with a theorbo and for me the continuo just wasn't strong enough.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have spotted that I have not mentioned any chorus. Handel wrote Alcina in 1735 for the theatre at Covent Garden where his rather reduced company had moved after the creation of the rival Opera of the Nobility. To the not-inconsiderable draw of the castrato Carestini, Handel was able to add a dance troupe and a small chorus. Alcina has short choruses and dances woven into its texture in a way which few other Handel operas have. Here, the choruses were sung by four of the soloists (Anna Devin, Christine Rice, Ben Johnson and Wojtek Gierlach), with the entire cast singing the very final sequence when Alcina's victims come alive again.