Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Something Rich and Strange: Choral Settings of Shakespeare

Londinium chamber choir
To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the chamber choir Londinium (conductor Andrew Griffiths) presents a programme of choral music inspired by his work at the church of St. Sepulchre without Newgate on 13 February 2016. Alongside two modern classics from the 1950's Frank Martin's Songs of Ariel and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Three Shakespeare Songs, there will be some of the earliest surviving Shakespeare settings by Thomas Morley and Robert Johnson, and a selection of contemporary works by Judith Weir, Michael Berkeley, Huw Watkins and the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Tickets available in advance from the Londinium website.

Bach's French suites and Mozart's suite in C from Peter Hill

Peter Hill - Bach: French Suites
Bach French Suites, Mozart Suite in C; Peter Hill; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 3 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Bach played on a piano with finesse by Peter Hill

Bach is one of those composers who dazzle with the fecundity of their invention, and this new set from pianist Peter Hill gives us a chance to hear Bach's six French Suites (BWV812-817) played by one of the leading pianists of his generation. Best known for his playing of 20th century music and his relationship to Messiaen, Peter Hill has already released discs of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier on the Delphian label, and this new disc can be seen almost as a follow-up. Intriguingly Hill also includes his own completion of Mozart's Baroque-inspired Suite in C K399.

The first thing that fascinates about this disc is the sheer sound world which Hill conjures. His playing is wide ranging and full of interest but with a very specific timbre and style. Bach's music in these suites almost approaches the galant style which was becoming fashionable amongst his contemporaries and Hill responds by creating melody which has a lovely sense of line and almost legato, a profoundly expressive touch. This is supported by a rhythmic left hand, which stays within the timbral locus of the right hand, yet is incisive and vibrant.

Hill manages to avoid both an over romanticism and over emphasis. There are no rich legatos or soupy textures, nor is there any neo-HIP pecking. This is Bach played on a piano with finesse. Not everyone will like the rather magical, quite gentle atmosphere Hill conjures but I was very taken with it.

Italian sunshine and Mozartean perfection - the Nash Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall

Felix Mendelssohn - A View of Amalfi (detail)
Felix Mendelssohn - View of Amalfi (detail)
Donizetti String Quartet No. 13, Verdi String Quartet, Mozart Clarinet Quintet; Nash Ensemble; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Feb 6 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Musical cross pollinations North and South of the Alps in the Nash Ensemble's series Mozart, Mendelssohn and the Italians

This was the sixth concert in the Nash Ensemble's series Mozart, Mendelssohn and the Italians, celebrating musical cross-pollinations North and South of the Alps, at the Wigmore Hall on 6 February 2016. In this programme there was no Mendelssohn, apart from the image of his 1831 painting 'View of Amalfi' on the front of the printed programme booklet (and a few distant echoes in the Verdi quartet), but it certainly put us into a sunny frame of mind on yet another wet and windy Saturday. Instead we had Donizetti's String Quartet No. 13 in A major, Verdi's String Quartet in E minor and Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581.

The Nash Ensemble
The Nash Ensemble
The three composers on the programme were famed for their operatic output. Tonight all singing was done on the instruments by the glorious Nash Ensemble. We started with Donizetti's String Quartet no 13 in A. The young Donizetti was taken under the wing of Bavarian-born Simon Mayr who put on weekly string quartet evenings, and he was soon asked to write for the group. By the age of 24 he was on to his 13th quartet, though his first operatic success was yet to come. He went on to write a total of 18 quartets, but none were published until a century after his death.

'Haydnesque' is the adjective that first springs to mind. The first movement is gentle and easy-going, the cello providing the pulse while the first violin soars. By the second movement, the adagio, we had a strong sense that Donizetti's future would lie in writing for the voice: downward chromatic phrases anticipating one of his sad (but not unhinged) heroines. The larky minuet was followed by tuneful allegro finale; we were by now squarely in Italy rather than wind-swept London.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Guilty pleasures - Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini from Freiburg

Riccardo Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini
Zandonai Francesca da Rimini; Christina Vasileva, Martin Muhle, Juan Orazco, Adriano Graziani, Theater Freiburg, Fabrice Bollon; CPO
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 30 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Zandonai's highly perfumed hokum gets an impressive and highly seductive outing in Freiburg

Riccardo Zandonai is one of the nearly-men of 20th century Italian opera, his opera Francesca da Rimini has clung on to the edge of the repertoire, most notably in Italy though there was a production at the New York Met in the 1980's. This new disc comes not from Italy but from Germany and is based on performances at Theater Freiburg under the theatre's musical director Fabrice Bollon. The cast includes Christina Vasileva as Francesca, Martin Muhle as Paolo, Juan Orozco as Gianciotto and Adriano Graziani as Malatestino. With Fabrice Bollon conducting the Freiburger Kammerchor, Opern- und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg, Vokalensemble der Hochschule fur Musik Freiburg and Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg on the CPO label.

Zandonai is one of a group of post-Verismo composers in Italy searching for a 20th century style and the combination of orchestral writing and taxing vocal writing links the piece to Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re and La nave, and Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna. The eagle eyed will realise that this is pure Opera Holland Park territory, and in fact the company performed Zandonai's opera Francesca da Rimini in 2010.

The problem with these operas is that the works tend to combine rich orchestral writing which pays full allegiance to the 20th century developments in opera with lyrical dramatic Italianate writing for voices which results in taxing vocal parts. The leads in Zandonai's opera require sturdy spinto voices which are capable of great tenderness too, the sort of Italianate voice which does not grow on trees. (And any casting director's heart must sink at the requirement to find a tenor who can not only sing Paolo but be spectacularly beautiful on stage too!). It is to Theater Freiburg's credit that they have not only provided us with a good modern recording of Zandonai's opera uncut but that they have managed to cast such a fine quartet of voices in the leads, with not a weak link and a great deal of idiomatic singing.

Found in Translation - Club Inégales

Peter Wiegold and Notes Inégales by Frederique Bellec
Peter Wiegold and Notes Inégales by Frederique Bellec
Composer Peter Wiegold's Club Inégales is an intriguing place, existing in the fascinating limnal zone between jazz, new music, classical music and many other things. Wiegold himself directs the club's resident band, Notes Inégales and each evening combines music from these with music from guests. Their latest season is one of their most intriguing. 

Peter Wiegold by Frederique Bellec
Peter Wiegold by Frederique Bellec

The season opens on 11 February when early music specialists Paula Chateauneuf (theorbo) and Pavlo Beznosiuk (violin) will be performing. There will be a set from them but also they will be joining with the band to perform and as the Notes Inégales band consists of Max Baillie (violin), Robin Michael (cello), Hyelim Kim (Korean taegŭm flute), Joel Bell, (electric guitar) and Martin Butler (piano) we can expect some interesting mixes, with music ranging from early to contemporary, including pieces by Wiegold himself.

The season is called Found in Translation, and continues with further striking guests, countertenor Iestyn Morris (25th Feb), the Arabic kanun of Maya Youssef (10th March) and Scotland’s leading contemporary folk fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke (24th March). You can hear Peter Wiegold and his ensemble from the recent appearance on BBC Radio 3's In Tune on SoundCloud.

As Peter Wiegold says on the club's website, 'Inégales mean unequal. And we like to think we produce unequalled performances every week – but the concept goes deeper – into finding new angles, putting things in odd relationships, trying to provoke an unexpected chemistry so that the special can happen.'.

Full information from their website.

Chabrier's L'Etoile at Covent Garden

Chabrier L’Étoile at Royal Opera House © ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Chabrier's L’Étoile at Royal Opera House © ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Chabrier L'Etoile; Kate Lindsey, Christophe Mortagne, Simon Bailey, Francois Piolino, Aimery Lefèvre, Hélène Guilmette, Julie Boulianne, Chris Addison, Jean-Luc Vincent, dir: Mariame Clement, cond: Mark Elder; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 06 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Rare appearance of Chabrier's delightful opera in a production which tries a bit too hard

The problem with Chabrier's operas is that the two best ones (L'Etoile and Le Roi malgre lui) have superb music attached to frothy, almost inconsequential librettos, which leaves modern commentators and directors dissatisfied that the librettos do not match the quality of the plot. That this sees to have been deliberate on Chabrier's part is no help; he seems to have been interested in providing sophisticated music for the essentially boulevard theatre, Offenbach's Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, where L'Etoile was premiered.

Covent Garden's new production of Chabrier's L'Etoile (the house's first production of any Chabrier opera) premiered on Monday 1 February and we caught the performance on 5 February 2016. The production was directed by the French director, Mariame Clement, with designs by Julia Hansen, lighting by Jon Clark, and choreography by Mathieu Guilhaumon. Mark Elder conducted, with a cast including Christophe Mortagne, Simon Bailey, Francois Piolino, Aimery Lefèvre, Kate Lindsey, Hélène Guilmette, Julie Boulianne, Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent.

Kate Lindsey Chabrier L’Étoile at Royal Opera House © ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Kate Lindsey
© ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
In presenting  L'Etoile at Covent Garden, an element of transcription and translation was inevitable. An opera bouffe with significant amounts of comic French dialogue, designed for a tiny theatre can hardly be put on in a theatre the size of Covent Garden to a largely non-French-speaking audience without something being changed. That director Mariame Clement saw this as a problem is indicated by the fact that much of the original dialogue was removed, and replaced by extra dialogue (created by Mariame Clement, Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent) for two extra characters, an Englishman and a Frenchman (Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent) who formed an extra layer commentating on and getting involved with the opera (and at a couple of points stopping the action and stepping firmly out from behind the proscenium). I am not entirely sure that this was necessary, and I understand that when New Sussex Opera performed L'Etoile a few years ago they successfully did so without major interference with the text, but they perform in rather smaller venues.

Perhaps the solution might have been to perform the opera in English, but recent attempts to do this such as ENO's importation of Laurent Pelly's production of Offenbach La belle Helene, have not escaped the dead hand of G&S. Not that there is anything wrong with G&S, but it is simply the wrong model when trying to adapt French operetta to the English stage. As it was, Covent Garden had engaged an admirably Francophone cast and the results were incredibly stylish. Would that we could have such a sense of correct style in performances of Bizet's Carmen!

The plot is ludicrously inconsequential to the point of surrealism, and Clement and her designer Julia Hansen picked up on this to a large degree. The production was surrealistic in the extreme, with characters arriving by hot air balloon, a vast cutout of a 1950's style female face appearing from behind the mountains (also cut out) at key moments, and the famous duet about green Chartreuse taking place inside a bottle of the said liqueur. Over the top, yes, a bit too much, perhaps, but very funny and it never felt added on. The laughter always went with the flow of the performance, so that though I went prepared to get annoyed and dislike the liberties taken, I came away with a real smile on my face.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Vilde Frang, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo in Mozart Violin Concertos

Vilde Frang - © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Mozart Symphony No. 27, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 5, Haydn Symphony No. 47; Vilde Frang, Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo; St Johns Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 5 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Elegant and vividly engaging evening of Mozart concertos

Last year Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo recorded a disc of Mozart Violin Concertos with the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. On Friday 5 February 2016 at St John's Smith Square they gave us the chance to hear Frang in action live when she joined Cohen and his ensemble for a programme which included Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 1 in B flat, K207 and Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, KV219, Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major K207 and Haydn's Symphony No. 47 in G major, Hob.1:47.

Jonathan Cohen © Pascal Gély
Jonathan Cohen © Pascal Gély
The works in the programme all dated from the early 1770s, years when Mozart was in Salzburg and rather chafing at the restrictions there. In fact his Symphony No. 29 in A major K207 was written in 1774 when he had just returned from Vienna where he had failed to get any sort of alternative permanent appointment. The symphony's scoring, with just strings, two oboes and two horns, fits the forces available from the Salzburg court orchestra and Mozart's violin concertos were probably all written for Antonio Brunetti the leader of the Salzburg orchestra.

The concert began with Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major a remarkably poised and intimate work, considering it was written for the orchestra of an employer for whom Mozart no longer wanted to work. Arcangelo fielded 20 strings, a group big enough to make a vividly present sound yet small enough it to be clear that each player was important in their own right. They are an engaging and involving group to listen to, and this concert was no different.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

All conductors are megalomaniacs! My encounter with conductor James Lowe

James Lowe by Trond Husebo
James Lowe by Trond Husebo

The young British conductor James Lowe is best known in the UK for his work with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and for his tenure as the Artistic Director of the Halle Harmony Youth Orchestra. Out of the UK his career as burgeoned and he now has not one, but two chief conductorships to his credit. James is chief conductor of the Prussian Chamber Orchestra (Preußiches Kammerorchester) in Germany and this week takes the post as the Chief Conductor of the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra (Vaasan kaupunginorkesteri). I caught up with him by telephone to find out more, and we had a lively conversation about James's career. He is clearly interested in more than the music, keen to explore what orchestra are for and what they mean to their communities. And has a nicely depreciating touch in conversation, at one point commenting that he hates the word maestro and later saying that all conductors are mmegalomaniacs at heart!
Vaasan kaupunginorkesteri
Vaasan kaupunginorkesteriin Finland. I recently interview James by telephone (he is based in Berlin) to chat about the developments in his career.

I was curious as to how his connection developed with Vaasa (a city on the West coast of Finland). He explained that like many young conductors of his generation, he studied conducting with the great Finnish conductor Jorma Panula, whom James describes as one of the great teachers of conducting. Panula runs a conducting competition in which James competed four or five years ago. The orchestra for the competition is the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra, and James won the orchestra prize (nominated by members of the orchestra), so he has been going back to work with them ever since.

James Lowe & the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra (Vaasan kaupunginorkesteri)
James Lowe & the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra (Vaasan kaupunginorkesteri)

an outside temperature of -25 degrees C. takes some getting used to

Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live

Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live
Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live
Brahms, Mozart, Paderewski, Chopin; Jonathan Plowright; Rhinegold Live at the Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 4 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Powerful and thoughtful playing this early evening recital

Rhinegold Live started 2016 with a concert by pianist Jonathan Plowright at the Conway Hall on Thursday 4 February 2016. The programme included Brahms Rhapsody in B minor, Op.79, No.1, and Ballade Op.10, No.4, Mozart's Variations on' Ah, vous dirai-je Maman', three of Paderewski''s Humoresques de Concert, Op.14 and Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op.31.

It is no surprise that the programme included two substantial pieces by Brahms. Plowright is in the middle of recording the complete Brahms piano music on the BIS label (three discs have been released, he has recorded a fourth and there is a fifth to come), and the event was the launch of the third disc. The Rhapsody in B minor is one of a pair of pieces Brahms wrote in 1879 (when the composer was 46) during a summer holiday. Dedicated to his friend, the composer Elisabeth von Herzogenberg she persuaded him to call them rhapsodies rather than simply klavierstücke.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice-As-Research Conference

The Konvalia Quartet playing on electric string instruments
The Konvalia Quartet playing on electric string instruments
On Sunday 31 January 2016 I took part in the Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice-As-Research Conference organised by the London College of Music at the University of West London. The first event was a pair of performances by the Konvalia Quartet (Dorottya Szabados-Drótos (violin I), Agata Kubiak (violin II), Marietta Szalóki (viola) and Andrea Derdak (cello)) of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8. Following lunch I took part in a panel discussion with Andrew Blake (Winchester University), Todd Landor (Musical Concepts and Alto Distribution) chaired by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on how the sound of the production affects the commercial prospects of a classical recording (a video of which is on Vimeo).

The first Shostakovich performance explored the interesting sonic world created when 20 guitar pedals are plugged into electric string instruments, with processing by Simon Zagorski-Thomas and Andrew Bourbon from the London College of Music. The second was an acoustic performance devised and directed by John Landor (music director of the London Musical Arts Orchestra) and Susan Kempster in collaboration with the Konvalia Quartet using an approach called Music In Motion. "This open performance space allows the musicians to move to interact more closely with each other. They can embody the music more fully with their presence which enables more effective communication of the content and meaning of the music".

New musical director for City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - photo Philipp Zinniker
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - photo Philipp Zinniker
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) has announced that its new music director, in successor to Andris Nelsons (who was in post from 2008 to 2015), will be the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. The orchestra's 12 music director, she will take up her position from September 2016. Gražinytė-Tyla made her debut with the orchestra in July 2015 and returned last month to conduct Debussy, Sibelius and Schumann. A native of of Vilnius, Lithuania, and only 29 her father is a choral conductor in Liithuania. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, eventually becoming Associate Conductor for the 2016-17 season. She won the the 2012 Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, and she her debut with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in a symphonic concert at the Salzburger Festspiele. Gražinytė-Tyla is serving as the Music Director of the Salzburg Landestheater from 2015 until 2017.

The CBSO has something of track record in spotting talented young conductors. Simon Rattle was only 25 when appointed, Sakari Oramo was 30 and Andris Nelsons 28. And by appointing a woman to the post of music director of a major UK orchestra goes a little way to showing that the glass ceiling can be breached. Her artistic plans with the CBSO will range widely from Mozart and Haydn to 20th century classics and works by living composers. Coming from the strong choral traditions of the Baltic states and following her role in Salzburg, she will also lead opera projects in Birmingham and will work closely with Simon Halsey, CBSO Chorus Director, on projects with the CBSO’s choruses. The full 2016/17 season will be announced in April.

Ealing Music & Film Festival

Ealing Music and Film Festival
Ealing Music and Film Valentine Festival takes place over the Valentine's Day weekend from 10 to 14 February 2016, and presents a mix of concerts and films at venues in and around Ealin. The English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Julian Gallant, perform a Mozart piano concert with the Egyptian soloist Ramzi Yassa, plus music Barber, Dvorak and David Osbon, and members of the orchestra also give a free lunchtime concert with Emilie Capulet performing Schubert's Trout Quintet. Members of the English Chamber Orchestra will also be joining with Ealing Youth Orchestra, the London Oriana Choir and LCM chorus to perform Walton's Belshazzar's Feast plus music by Sibelius and Mussorgsky, conducted by Leon Gee with baritone Toby Stafford-Allen.

Young musicians from the London College of Music will be performing chamber music by Elgar and Prokofiev. The Ealing Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons will be giving an evening of semi-stage operatic excerpts with Natasha Jouhl, Telman Guzhevsy and Keel Watson performing music by Mascagni and Puccini. There is also late night rock and blues at Ealing Club and a community choral concert. Films include Bride and Predjudice, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Proud Valley.

Full information from the Ealing Music and Film Festival website.

Stuart MacRae & Louise Walsh's The Devil Inside from Music Theatre Wales

The Devil Inside - Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt - photo Bill Cooper
The Devil Inside - Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt - photo Bill Cooper
Stuart MacRae & Louise Welsh The Devil Inside; Nicholas Sharratt, Ben McAteer, Steven Page, Rachel Kelly, dir: Matthew Richardson, cond: Michael Rafferty; Music Theatre Wales at the Peacock Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 3 2016
Star rating: 4.0

An evening of vividly gripping theatre in this new opera based on Robert Louis Stevenson's story

The route that Stuart MacRae and Louse Welsh have taken for their first full-length opera is reassuringly traditional in terms of getting experience of the genre, whilst the resulting work shows itself to be admirably anything but. The two started with two shorter works, the 15 minute Remembrance Day which was part of Scottish Opera's Five:15 - Operas Made in Scotland in 2009 and then the fifty minute Ghost Patrol in 2012 which was a Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales co-production. Their latest opera, The Devil Inside is again a co-production between Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales, with The Devil Inside being premiered by Scottish Opera in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and then touring England and Wales, with the same cast, with Music Theatre Wales.

The Devil Inside - Rachel Kelly - photo Bill Cooper
The Devil Inside - Rachel Kelly - photo Bill Cooper
We caught the London premiere of the opera on 3 February 2016 at the Peacock Theatre when Michael Rafferty conducted the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble with Nicholas Sharratt as Richard, Ben McAteer as James, Rachel Kelly as Catherine and Steven Page as the Old Man and a Vagrant. The director was Matthew Richardson with design by Samal Blak, and lighting by Ace McCarron.

It is clear from the programme notes that the opera is very much a collaboration and that Louise Welsh (best known for her novels) did not simply write a text and hand it over to Stuart MacRae. The piece they have crafted is wonderfully thrilling and gripping, with a plot updating Robert Louis Stevenson's story The Bottle Imp to the 21st century. Richard (Nicholas Sharratt) and James (Ben McAteer) are lost in the mountains, the come across a mansion owned by an old man (Steven Page). The man reveals the secret of his wealth, a magic bottle which contains an imp which will fulfil all your wishes. The only drawback, the owner's soul is damned to Hell if they own it when they die, and they can only get rid of the bottle by selling it for less than they paid for it. At Richard's urging, James buys the bottle.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Napoleon, Oedipus and Virtual Reality - the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2016/17 season

Philharmonia Orchestra new season
Virtual Reality comes to the Royal Festival Hall as the opening weekend of the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2016/17 season will see the orchestra presented in virtual reality to viewers outside the concert hall whilst the orchestra plays live inside. Elsewhere in the season there Stravinsky staged by Peter Sellars, Tansy Davies's new Concerto for Four Horns and Orchestra and the return of Abel Gance's Napoleon played live with Carl Davis's score.

For the opening weekend of the 2016/17 season, principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra will be performing the third movement of Sibelius's Third Symphony on stage whilst viewers will be able to experience a 360° 3D video & audio performance via Virtual Reality headsets, available to view for free in the foyer spaces. Another hi-tech innovation, the orchestra's award-winning walk-through installation of Holst's The Planets, Universe of Sound, will come to the Clore Ballroom Floor in the Royal Festival Hall for two weeks (see my review of it at the Science Museum).

Dvorak, Brahms, Shostakovich from Robin O'Neill and the Salomon Orchestra

Robin O'Neill and the Salomon Orchestra at St John's Smith Square
Robin O'Neill and the Salomon Orchestra at St John's Smith Square
Dvorak, Brahms, Shostakovich; Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Timothy Walden, Salomon Orchestra, Robin O'Neill; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 02 2016
Invigorating performances in three large scale works from the Salomon Orchestra

As one of London’s premiere non-professional orchestras, the Salomon Orchestra’s concerts are always an event and their recent concert at St Johns Smith Square on 3 February 2016 was no exception. Conducted by Robin O’Neill the orchestra played a challenging programme which included Dvorak’s rarely performed tone-poem The Noonday Witch, Brahms’ Double Concerto with Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, violin, and Timothy Walden, cello, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The result was typical Salomon performance in which the large orchestra filled St Johns with vibrant sounds, and the players enthusiasm really communicating itself to the capacity audience.

Dvorak’s The Noonday Witch was one of a group of tone poems written by the composer in 1896 after the Cello Concerto. Based on a poem by Karel Jaromír Erben, the work is a rare excursion by the composer into narrative orchestral music. The work is full of imaginative colours and tonal combinations as the composer tells the story of the impatient mother who threatens her fractious child (a nice oboe solo here) with the noonday witch only for the witch to appear and kill the child. Whilst Dvorak does use folk-type melodies these are woven fluidly into the drama giving the orchestra the chance to give the music an engagingly lively rhythmic lift. Perhaps the most striking moment is witch’s appearance, with the combination of bass clarinet and eerie strings. For all the orchestra’s big vibrant sound at key moments, there were some lovely subtle (and eerie) ones too with a great sense of the colourful narrative.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Nature, Society & Humanity - the Beethoven Orchestra for Humanity

The Beethoven Orchestra for Humanity is a new orchestra with a twist. Funded after a Kickstarter campaign, the orchestra fuses music with topical talk for what they describe as 'entertainment with impact'. On 8 February 2016 the orchestra makes its debut at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Conducted by Michael Young they perform Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, and will be joined by soprano April Frederick for Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and the second movement of Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.

Also part of the programme is comedian, activist and writer Francesca Martinez, who will be speaking about climate change and social responsibility which is intended to create links to the music with themes of nature (Beethoven), society (Górecki ) and humanity (Villa-Lobos ).

Rather impressively, most of the tickets have been sold via the Kickstarter campaign but you can find out more from the event's Facebook Page.

Garsington Opera season - role debuts and notable casts

Garsington Opera's 2016 season this year encompasses Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Mozart's Idomeneo and Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri with some notable casts including role debuts from Toby Spence, Roderick Williams, and Natalya Romaniw.

There are two notable role debuts in Eugene Onegin making the production rather intriguing, Roderick Williams in the title role and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana. Cardiff Singer of the World 2015 finalist Ukrainian tenor Oleksiy Palchykov is Lensky, and Brindley Sherratt is Gremin. To add to this, Michael Boyd (who only made his operatic debut last year with the Royal Opera House's striking Orfeo at the Roundhouse last year) directs and he has the advantage of being a fluent Russian speaker. Douglas Boyd, Garsington Opera's artistic director, conducts.

Toby Spence will be making his role debut in the title role of Idomeneo, with Caitlin Hulcup as Idamante (hurrah, the Munich version rather than the Vienna one), with Louise Alder as Ilia, and Rebecca von Lipinski as Elettra. Tim Albery directs and Tobias Ringborg conducts.

The choreographer Will Tuckett, who recently directed the Royal Opera's Elizabeth, will be directing L'italiana in Algeri, with the young Turkish mezzo-soprano Ezgi Kutlu as Isabella, Mary Bevan as Elvira, Luciano Botelho as Lindoro, Geoffrey Dolton as Taddeo and Quirijn de Lang as Mustafa. David Parry conducts, his thirteenth Rossini opera for Garsington. As this is an opera where Isabella is often played by a mature singer and Mustafa is similarly mature, it will be interesting to see it with a cast of predominantly young singers under Will Tuckett's lively direction.

The final stage offering involves a collaboration with Mark Baldwin, Choreographer and Artistic Director of Rambert, to bring a realisation of Haydn's The Creation through music and dance, with 40 dancers from Rambert and the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance joined on stage by Garsington Opera’s orchestra and chorus with soloists Sarah Tynan (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Neal Davies (bass). Designs are by renowned visual artist Pablo Bronstein, whose site specific work for the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain opens in April, will add a spectacular visual dimension to Haydn’s music.

Full details from the Garsington Opera website.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Complete Tippett quartets recorded live by the Heath Quartet

Heath Quartet - Tippett Quartet - Wigmore Hall Live
Tippett String Quartets; The Heath Quartet; Wigmore Hall Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 25 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Dazzling rhythms, complex textures and surprising lyricism in these live performances of Tippett's complete quartets

Sir Michael Tippett's string quartets don't so much form a thread running through his career as a series of snapshots across a 50 year period, with a 30 year gap between the third and fourth quartets. The quartets remain a remarkable and challenging piece of 20th century repertoire and in this new disc from the Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath, Cerys Jones, Gary Pomeroy and Christopher Murray), all five quartets are recorded live at the Wigmore Hall as part of the hall's Wigmore Hall Live label.

Tippett's first three quartets were written in the 1940's. Intended to be a group of four, the impetus was partly the Four Quartets of TS Eliot, whom Tippett had asked to write the libretto for A Child of Our Time. But another overarching influence was of course Beethoven, a composer whose music loomed large in the composer's iconography at the time.

The Heath Quartet
The Heath Quartet
The first quartet was premiered in 1935, but the composer substantially revised it, replacing the first two movements with a long single movement and the work was re-premiered in 1943. The opening movement is Tippett in his complex lyrical-pastoral vein from that period, the lyrical melodic material being subject to some serious polyphonic processes. The Heath Quartet capture the sense of four equal voices, and the lines are beautifully sprung with a sense of constant energy and poly-rhythms enlivening the complex textures. The second movement Lento cantabile is magically sung, but again the way the quartet brings out the complexity of the harmonic texture balances the sweetness in just the right way. The finale is a fugue, but one which mixes in influences of jazz and uses Tippett's familiar rhythmic complexity and love of combining different rhythmic figures. The Heath Quartet brings a fabulous tight intensity to the rhythms, making the music vibrantly intense yet full of clarity of texture; dazzling.

Amour: An evening of French Baroque music by candlelight in Oxford

The International Rameau Ensemble, with soprano Katherine Blumenthal and haute-contre Lawrence Olsworth-Peter, is giving a concert in the Ante-Chapel at New College, Oxford on Saturday 6 February 2016. An early Valentine's Day programme, the event will be performed by candle-light and be semi-staged by Dionysios Kyropoulos. Playing on period instruments, the group will excerpts from Rameau's Dardanus, and Les Indes Galantes plus some of his Pieces de clavecin en concert, as well as music from Rebel's Violin Sonata in D minor, and Leclair's Le deuxieme recreation de musiques, and works by Lambert and Charpentier.

Further information and tickets from TicketSource.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Andriessen: M is for Man, Music & Mystery

Louis Andriessen
From 9 to 13 February 2016, the Barbican Centre is presenting Andriessen: M is for Man, Music & Mystery, celebrating composer Louis Andriessen's six decades at the cutting edge of contemporary music. The events begin with Andriessen's song cycle 2002 La Passione plus music by Steve Martland (a pupil of Andriessen) and Steve Reich, with Clark Rundell conducting the Britten Sinfonia with singer Cristina Zavalloni (for whom it was written) and violinist Frederieke Saeijs. The work sets poems from Canti Orfici (Orphic Songs) by the poet Dino Campana (1885 – 1932), who struggled with mental illness throughout his life. Friday 12 February 2016, the BBC Symphony Orchestra conductor Martyn Brabbins give the UK premiere of Andriessen’s Dante-inspired opera La Commedia with members of the original Amsterdam cast, including Claron McFaddon and Cristina Zavalloni plus Synergy Vocals.

Saturday 13 February is a BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion Day devoted to Andriessen. The events begin a lunchtime with a conversation with Andriessen, and the Guildhall New Music Ensemble performing a selection of his works. In the afternoon the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Gourlay with soprano Alison Bell explore the composer's love of jazz with his ...miserere... and Dances. The evening concert sees the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Clark Rundell, perform a programme including De stijl from Andriessen's opera De Materie, and the UK premiere of Mysterien. Also during the day Fraser Trainer leads a learning project with young people aged 12 to 18, based on Andriessen's music.

Full information from the Barbican Centre website.

Tudor music edit-a-thon

Tudor music
This Friday, 5 February 2016 the Faculty of Music at Oxford University is hosting an edit-a-thon to update and improve Wikipedia entries related to Tudor Music. The edit-a-thon is being coordinated by the Tudor Partbooks project at the faculty. People can join in person (at IT Services on Banbury Road, Oxford) or do so remotely. No Wiki editing experience is necessary (though experienced editors are very welcome!) as tutorials will be provided for Wikipedia newcomers by the Bodleian Library's Wikimedian-in-Residence, Martin Poulter.

Work required includes writing articles on composers such as John Baldwin and John Sadler, as well as writing about the various partbooks which have been so important to our discoveries of music of this period, also a number of existing articles such as the biography of Robert Fayrfax need expansion. Full information from the Wikipedia page, including a list of possible articles.

To reserve a place you need to contact Dr Katherine Butler at the Faculty of Music, her email address is on the edit-a-thon's Wikipedia page.

Beyond Arcady and Bethlehem - music by Michael Head for female choir

Only a Singing Bird - Signum Classics
Michael Head Snowbirds & other songs, Ken Johnston, Gary Carpenter, Stephen Deazley; National Youth Choirs of Scotland Chamber Choir, Christopher Bell, Philip Moore; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 29 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Rarely performed Michael Head cantata shows the youth choir on great form

Michael Head is best known, perhaps only known, for his songs The Little Road to Bethlehem and The Ships of Arcady (in fact he wrote over 120 songs). But this album on Signum Classics, Only a Singing Bird, showcases another side to Head, his music for female choir. The National Youth Choirs of Scotland's National Girls Choir, conducted by Christopher Bell with pianist Philip Moore, sing a selection of Head's music for female choir and piano, including arrangements of his best known songs, and the ensemble is joined by mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill for the first recording of Head's cantata Snowbirds setting poetry by Sri Ananda Acharya. The disc is rounded off with pieces by Gary Carpenter, Ken Johnston and Stephen Deazley.

Sri Ananda Acharya's poetry (published in 1919) shares with that of Rabindranath Tagore an interesting combination of religious intent with an imagery and specificness which provides an interesting otherness to Western ears. Snowbirds started with Michael Head's setting of two poems for SSA choir and piano in 1953, and he later added further movements to create this choral cantata.

Turandot - Metropolitan Opera HD Live at the Chelsea Cinema

Puccini Turandot - Metropolitan Opera New York
Puccini Turandot closing scene - Metropolitan Opera New York
Puccini Turandot; Nina Stemme, Marco Berti, Anita Hartig, dir: Franco Zeffirelli, cond: Paolo Carignani; The Metropolitan Opera HD Live at the Chelsea Cinema
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 30 2016
Star rating: 3.5
Zefferelli's over the top Chinese extravaganza live in HD from the Met

Franco Zeffirelli's 1987 production of Puccini's Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, is the sort of highly detailed, large scale production for which a film can give the viewer a better sense of the detail than someone sitting in the vast expanse of the Metropolitan Opera itself. It is not a production that I have seen live (though I have seen other Zeffirelli productions including La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera), so the Met HD Live broadcast was a good opportunity to experience the production in the comfort of the Chelsea Cinema, and was made particularly tempting by the presence of Nina Stemme as Turandot. (This revival of the production has run since September 2015 and the role of Turandot was shared between four sopranos.)

Nina Stemme - Puccini Turandot - Metropolitan Opera, New York
Nina Stemme
The opera was conducted by Paolo Carignani, with Marco Berti as Calaf, Anita Hartig as Liu, Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Timur, and Ronald Naldi as Altoum, Ping, Pong and Pang were Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes. A curiosity of the Met programming and billing is that the names of the singers performing Ping, Pong and Pang were not listed either in the printed handbill given us or in the pre-opera credits. (In the UK these roles tend to get equal billing with the rest of the cast).

The production was originally directed by Franco Zefferelli, who designed the sets, with costumes by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri, choreography by Chiang Ching and the stage director was David Kneuss and the film director was Barbara Willis Sweete. It is a huge production, not just in the number of performers and the elaboration of the sets but in the way each set (one different for each act) is built out of myriad pieces (part of the film programme included footage of the stage hands striking and building the sets and I would have happily watched this for the whole interval).

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Magnificent Feast - Mozart's birthday at the Wigmore Hall

Michael Collins
Michael Collins
Mozart Serenade in B flat major 'Gran Partita', La clemenza di Tito'Parto parto ma tu ben mio', Clarinet Concerto in A major; Michael Collins, Christine Rice, London Winds, City of London Sinfonia; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Jan 27 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Mozart's 260th birthday celebrated in fine style at the Wigmore Hall

The versatile Michael Collins and friends celebrated Mozart's 260th birthday in style to a capacity Wigmore Hall audience on 27 January 2016. The stage was just as full as the auditorium too. We weren't just celebrating a birthday, we were also feasting on the fruits of Mozart's partnership with virtuoso clarinettist and basset-horn player Anton Stadler, with Serenade in B flat major for 13 wind instruments K361 'Gran Partita', 'Parto parto ma tu ben mio' from La clemenza di Tito K621 and the Clarinet Concerto in A major K622 performed with mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, London Winds and the City of London Sinfonia.

Christine Rice - © Patricia Taylor
Christine Rice
© Patricia Taylor
First came the Serenade in B flat for 13 instruments, the 'Gran Partita'. Rather than the double bassoon we hear more often, tonight's ensemble included a double bass. This was probably Mozart's intended scoring. Once the symphony of hearing aids in all keys expect B flat major had died down in the auditorium (perhaps time to consider a reminder along with the mobile-phone message?), the sound world was deliciously velvety, and the fact there was so little elbow-room on the stage meant that there was an intensity and a tightness to the ensemble, whatever the scoring of a particular movement. The portentous Largo opening gave way to the delicate clarinet and bluesy basset horns. The third movement, the Adagio, was achingly beautiful, the four horns brooding in the back row while the oboe sang an aria. The sixth movement, Tema con variazioni, gave lots of chances for showcases of each of the instruments, as well as some opportunities for ad-hoc DIY on stage. The piece lasts about three-quarters of an hour and the scoring is very efficient in that it gives the players chances to catch their breath, sort out reeds and so on. It also contributed to the freshness of the piece.

The finale is a Molto allegro that gave us the impression the town band had come on stage. Raucous and playful, it sent us all off to the bar with huge smiles on our faces.

Beyond Belief - London Philharmonic Orchestra's exciting 2016-2017 season

Vladimir Jurowski  & London Philharmonic Orchestra - credit Drew Kelley
Vladimir Jurowski  & London Philharmonic Orchestra - credit Drew Kelley
The London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) participated in the South Bank Centre's year long The Rest is Noise festival which brought a welcome lift to the orchestra's programming, giving us the chance to hear it in works which sometimes moved away from the rather fixed core repertoire. The LPO's recently announced 2016/17 season is very much dominated by the orchestra's participation in another South Bank Centre year festival in 2017, the multi-artform Belief and Beyond Belief with 15 concerts built around five specially themed weekends, 'Meaning', 'Science', 'Death', 'Ideology' and 'Society' with works ranging from Krzysztof Penderecki's St Luke Passion and Beethoven's Fidelio to John Adams Harmonielehre and to Haydn's Creation, with a bit of 2001 A Space Odyssey thrown in, with many concerts conducted by principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski. Elsewhere in the season Osmo Vänskä conducts a complete Sibelius symphony cycle in four consecutive concerts alongside renowned British concertos of the period. The season will also be celebrating the London Philharmonic Choir, as well as featuring seminal works by Gavin Bryars.

For Belief and Beyond Belief, the 'Meaning' weekend includes Vladimir Jurowski conducting both Beethoven's Fidelio with Anja Kampa and Michael König, and Kancheli’s Mourned by the Wind with Kim Kashkashian, Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice and RVW's Symphony No. 9. 'Science' includes Roger Norrington conducting Haydn's The Creation and Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting music by Ligeti and Strauss associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Ives's The Unanswered Question, John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, and Philip Glass's first work for full symphony orchestra The Light, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Michelson-Morley experiment on the properties of light.

'Death' begins with Jurowski conducting Shostakovich's final symphony, the darkly comic no. 15, and a highly anticipated performance of Penderecki's St Luke Passion. Music by Gavin Bryars and Magnus Lindberg also features, plus Natalie Stutzman conducting Richard Strauss and Mozart. 'Ideology' includes Jurowski conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 8 and Tallis's Spem in Alium in the same concert! The final weekend in the 2016/17 season, 'Society' includes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Enescu and Silverstri at the Romanian Cultural Institute

Mihai Ritivoiu and Evegeny Genchev
Mixing music by Romanian composers Constantin Silvestri and Georges Enescu, the concert by Romanian pianist Mihai Ritivoiu and Bulgarian pianist Evgeny Genchev on Thursday 4 February at 7pm at the Romanian Cultural Institute, 1 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X8PH is presented by the The Romanian Cultural Institute and The Enescu Society and organised in partnership with The Keyboard Charitable Trust. The programme concludes with Six folk dances from Transylvania Op. 4 No. 1 for piano duet by the Romanian conductor and composer Constantin Silvestri (1913-1969) who left Romania in 1959. For the first half of the concert Ritivoiu and Genchev share the honours in a series of solo piano works which mix Bach, Liszt and Chopin with music by the Australian composer Carl Vine and the great Romanian composer Georges Enescu (1881-1955).

Ticket are free, but allocated on a first come first served basis via the Eventbrite website.

Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars - Tenebrae's Bob Chilcott celebration opens London A Cappella Festival

Bob Chilcott - photo Vicky Alhadeff
Bob Chilcott - photo Vicky Alhadeff
Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars, music by Bob Chilcott; The Tenebrae Consort, Nigel Short; London A Cappella Festival at King Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 28 2016
Star rating: 3.5

A celebration of Bob Chilcott's art opens the London A Cappella Festival

On 28 January 2016, Nigel Short and the Tenebrae Consort opened the 2016 London A Cappella Festival at Kings Place with a concert launching their new CD, Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars, a disc which celebrates the music of Bob Chilcott, both his recent work for choir and his arrangements for the Kings Singers. For much of the concert, the performers were just six singers, Grace Davidson, Joanna Forbes-Lestrange,  Nicholas Madden, Stephen Kennedy, and Nicholas Garrett, with Nigel Short singing baritone. For some items other members of the group came on-stage to make 10 or 11 singes and at the end of part two they were joined as well by the London Youth Chamber Choir (director Rachel Staunton).

The consort of six singers opened with three French folk-songs arranged by Bob Chilcott some 30 years ago for a group call the Light Blues. Charming and effective close harmony arrangements, but perhaps not the best way to open the concert. It was only with the next group of world folk songs, in arrangements originally made for the Kings Singers, that the real magic of Chilcott's arrangements could be heard. These had an easy naturalness and charm, with jazz-based close-harmony being the default setting, but within this a lot a variations and an appreciation of the sheer dexterity that his singers could bring off. An arrangement of a piece by Juan de Anchieta was quite straight, but the Japanese children's songs had a different texture  with a lovely transparent quality (and they were sung in Japanese too). The Latin American number was, of course, sheer delight with a lovely solo from Grace Davidson and Nicholas Garrett providing spectacular vocal percussion. The Finnish song was, rather remarkably, given a laid-back jazz feel whilst Greensleeves was married to mobile jazz harmonies.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Barbican artist focus - Renee Fleming

Renée Fleming. Photo: Decca/Andrew Eccles
Renée Fleming. Photo: Decca/Andrew Eccles
Following hot on the heels of the Barbican Centre's 2016/17 season announcement (featuring Jonas Kaufmann) the centre's 2015/16 Artist Spotlight features the soprano Renee Fleming in a series of concert and events starting on 3 February 2016. 

Concerts include Fleming performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and conductor Jiri Belohlavek in two UK premieres, both written for Fleming; Robin Holloway's orchestral arrangement of ten of Debussy's Verlaine settings C'est l'extase and Swedish composer Anders Hillborg's The Strand Settings based on text by the Canadian poet Mark Strand. The premieres are framed by orchestral music by Debussy and Ravel. Fleming will also be giving a recital with pianist Hartmut Holl in a programme of songs by Schumann and Richard Strauss.

Other events include a panel discussion The 21st Century Singer chaired by Renee Fleming, and she will also be giving public masterclasses with students from the Guildhall School of Music. There are two film events, a documentary about the 2013 American Voices Festival which was hosted by Fleming, and the 2008 Metropolitan Opera Opening Night Gala. Both films will be introduced by the soprano.

Full information about the events from the Barbican website.