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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

A very Anglican fervour: Rachmaninov's Vesper's from John Scott and the choir of St Thomas, New York.

Rachmaninov - Vespers - John Scott, St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys - Resonus Classics
Sergei Rachmaninov All Night Vigil (Vespers); Orly Brown, David Vanderwal, Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, John Scott; Resonus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2016
Star rating: 4.5

First of a series of recordings by the late John Scott with his New York choir, this one a very special Rachmaninov Vespers

This is a first of a series of recordings made during John Scott's tenure as director of music at St Thomas's Church, New York, and being released commercially for the first time on the Resonus Classics label. This first disc is a 2008 recording of Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (Vespers) Op.37 on which Scott conducted the St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, with Ory Brown (mezzo-soprano), and David Vanderwal (tenor).

There has only been one other account of the Rachmaninov Vespers issued on disc with a choir of men and boys, that of Stephen Cleobury and the choir of King's College, Cambridge. The trebles of St Thomas's Church have a clearer brighter sound that the King's ones, and the style of the two conductors is markedly different.

The sound of the choir is quite light, with a very forward placement of the vowels so that the choir retains its distinctive Anglican sound, do not buy this disc if you want dark Russian vowels and swallowed consonants. Scott uses this sound to really shape the music, he takes quite an interventionist view of the music, you notice this from the opening chorus where he has the choir giving us some very pronounced and intense phrasing, shaping the music strongly.

Cue the new: London Sinfonietta's 2016/17 season full of 21st century highlights

Cue the New - London Sinfonietta 2016/17 season
The London Sinfonietta's 2016/17 season includes its regular residency at the South Bank Centre, as well as international touring. Highlights include performances of Beat Furrer’s FAMA, Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days and Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain, as well as world premieres of music by Salvatore Sciarrino, Simon Holt and Morgan Hayes. As part of the ensemble's Mix series, it will be collaborating with with Norwegian jazz virtuoso Marius Neset. And as part of the Blue Touch Paper strand of cross art form projects there will be performances of Mica Levi’s BAFTA nominated score Under the Skin live with the film, and Phil Venables’ Illusions made with performance artist David Hoyle.

The season opens with UK premieres of music by Salvatore Sciarrino and younger Italian composers Daniela Terranova and Francesco Filidei. After performing the concert at the Venice Biennale the ensemble will perform it at St John's Smith Square as part of the South Bank in exile season (whilst the Queen Elizabeth Hall is closed). Other highlights of the St John's season include Beat Furrer’s 2005 music theatre masterpiece FAMA performed by actress Isabelle Menke, Eva Furrer (contrabass flute) and conducted by Beat Furrer, which will also be performed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Hans Abrahamsen’s 2008 masterwork Schnee uses interlocking canons to create an aural image of snow, and will be performed at St John's alongside premieres of new works by Morgan Hayes and Simon Holt conducted by Thierry Fischer.

At the Royal Festival Hall London Sinfonietta performs In Seven Days by Thomas Adès, side-by-side with the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, and also at the RFH there is a film screening of Under the Skin which will be accompanied by the London Sinfonietta performing Mica Levi’s BAFTA- nominated soundtrack, as part of Southbank Centre’s Film Scores Live festival, then on tour around the UK, including to Hull University. Also at the Royal Festival Hall, it performs Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain, a work from 2000 which includes the extraordinary performance instruction that 20 minutes be performed in the pitch dark.

At Kings Place there will be Stockhausen’s Altered Sound in an immersive evening including pre and post-concert participation in Mikrophonie I, a main stage performance of Gesang der Junglinge and Kontakte presented by Jonathan Cross, and post-concert drinks with the players. The ensemble returns to Kings Place for Ligeti: Altered Time including pre-concert participation in Pòeme Symphonique (for 100 metronomes), followed by a main stage performance of Artikulation, 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet and Melodien presented by Jonathan Cross, as well as post-concert drinks with players.

Full details from the London Sinfonietta website.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

In case you missed it: July on Planet Hugill - the first Leonore, a brace of Rossinis and the last Tristan

Welcome to July on Planet Hugill, rather later than usual because we have been busy visiting Santa Fe, Iceland and Tallinn (of which more in next month's newsletter). If you would like to receive this newsletter in your inbox each month then sign up to our mailing list:

July saw the opera festival season continue in earnest and we opened with Glyndebourne, where we were at home with the beautiful people with Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, and we heard two role debuts with Joyce DiDonata and Vittorio Grigolo in Werther at Covent Garden. There was a remarkable swansong, with Tristan und Isolde, the last performance of Grange Park Opera at Northington Grange.
At Opera Holland Park there was sparkle and discipline in Strauss's Die Fledermaus with husband and wife team Ben Johnson and Susannah Hurrell, and there were sylvan delights in Gounod's La Colombe at West Green Opera.

At the Buxton Festival

Not just Fidelio-lite, we heard Beethoven's original Leonore, whilst Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi was classic yet modern, and there was a visual and aural feast in Handel's Tamerlano, plus Gemma Lois Summerfield in recital.

A brace of Rossinis

La Cenerentola was seriously comic at Opera Holland Park, whilst Rossini's Barber saw Glyndebourne at the BBC Proms.

Various Venues

Bringing music-making to Dartmoor and Exmoor: Two Moors Festival

St George's Church, Dunster
St George's Church, Dunster
Founded in 2001 out of the devastation caused by Foot and Mouth, the Two Moors Festival brings music making to the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks. This year the 16th festival runs from 22 to 26 October 2016. Peter Donohoe  and the Carducci Quartet open the festival and there are chamber music concerts and recitals from Alison Balsom, Mahan Esfahani, Lucy Crowe, John Mark Ainsley, Joseph Middleton, Anna Tilbrook, Tom Poster, Christoph Berner and Matthew Barley.

For 24 and 25 October there are are ‘Mix and Match’ events, here the Gildas Quartet, Harvey Davies (piano), Matthew Hunt (clarinet), Matthew Barley (cello), Caroline MacPhie (soprano), Yvonne Howard (mezzo soprano), and Jâms Coleman (piano) form various chamber combinations over two days of concerts and open rehearsals.

The festival culminates in a concert in Exeter Cathedral on 29 October which launches an appeal in the memory of the late John Adie (co-founder of the festival with his wife Penny who remains artistic director). The concert will be given by the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor David Curtis, with music by Sibelius plus Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Brahms Violin Concerto with young artists Jordan Black (clarinet) and Michael Barenboim (violin). For the Sibelius works the orchestra will be joined by young school-age performers.

In the run up to the festival on Fridays starting on 9 September, concerts at Tiverton Parkway ticket office, have a very specific remit to young artists to perform 29 minutes of music between the 11.38 and 12.09 trains.

Full information from the Two Moors Festival website.

Olympic Committee history as Estonia appoint first non-sport ambassador, Kristjan Jarvi

Kristjan Järvi - photo Peter Rigaud
Kristjan Järvi - photo Peter Rigaud
The Estonian Olympic Committee has appointed the conductor Kristjan Järvi to become a standing member of the national committee. This remarkable move makes history; Järvi is the first non-sporting person to be appointed to the committee.

Kristjan Järvi was born in Estonia but emigrated to the USA as a child. He is already highly involved in projects in Estonia and the Baltic region. He created the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic in 2008, and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra, in 2015. Both groups draw on players from all 10 Baltic countries. Järvi and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra will be touring the Baltic countries in September this year with violinist Gidon Kremer.

Järvi now is looking at ways to bring all types of music from classical to hip hop together in order to help the young especially get involved in sport and hopefully bring Olympic success to Estonia not just in the winter Olympics but the summer ones as well.

Cookery a la carte

Cookery a la Carte
Cookery a la carte; David Steadman, Melvyn Tarran; The Choir Press
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Anecdotes, pictures and recipes from members of the D'Oyly Carte opera

This delightful new book Cookery a la Carte, issued in a limited edition by the Choir Press, is a collection of recipes provided by members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company over the years. Based on a collection started by a former chorus member, the selection of recipes has been expanded and edited by David Steadman and Melvyn Tarran too over 100 entries.

But the book is much more than a recipe book. Presented very much as a scrap book with a page or two devoted to each person, there are biographical sketches, anecdotes and pictures (many of them historic) in addition to the recipes. You are warned that many of the older recipes have not been tested, and many are provided in facsimile of the original hand-written ones, which can make something of a challenge when trying to read them.

The book started out as a collection presented to D'Oyly Carte chorus member Joy Garland when she left to get married, a collection which she continued expand and this has been further expanded by the editors David Steadman and Melvyn Tarran into the present volume.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Help BREMF crowd-fund 'Gaia - three intermedi for a living planet'

Gaia - three intermedi for a living planet,
Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) has an exciting programme planned for this Autumn (see my preview). One of the highlights promises to be Gaia - three intermedi for a living planet, inspired by the festival's staging of the Florentine Intermedi of 1589 a few years ago, Gaia (devised and directed by Deborah Roberts) is very much a modern take on the 16th century intermedi and will be combining professional performers such as the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, Onde Sonore, and the Lacock Scholars with involves local singers from the BREMF Consort of Voices and the BREMF Community Choir. The Community Choir is a vibrant, non-auditioned choir in the best traditional of community music-making. 

To help fund this ambitious production, which uses film, projections, lighting effects, mime, yoga and dance to tell the story of our Earth and how humans have perceived it through the ages, the festival has launched a Crowd-funding page. Pledges range from £10 to £500 with all sorts of tempting rewards so there is plenty of scope to help.

Ades, Barry, Beethoven and more: Britten Sinfonia in 2016/17

Ades, Barry, Beethoven - Britten Sinfonia
The Britten Sinfonia's 2016/17 season includes regular concerts in Cambridge, Saffron Hall (where the ensemble has a residency), Norwich and the Barbican (where it is an associate ensemble). Highlights include Thomas Ades conducting Beethoven, Barry and Ades, the European premiere of Gerald Barry's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Mark Padmore in Bach's St John Passion and the premiere James MacMillan's Stabat Mater.

Over three years, Thomas Ades will be conducting all of Beethoven's symphonies pairing them with music by Gerald Barry and by Ades himself. There was a fore-taste of this on August 15 when Ades and the orchestra performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 at the BBC Proms. As part of the orchestra's Barbican season it will give the European premiere of Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, co-commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia, the Barbican and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Other Barbican events include participation in the celebrations of Steve Reich's 80th birthday and John Adams' 70th.

The ensemble will join with Harry Christophers and the Sixteen to premiere James MacMillan's Stabat Mater, and it will be joined by Mark Padmore for performances of Bach's St John Passion at Easter 2017. Mahan Esfahani will be returning to perform a programme of keyboard works by Scarlatti and Falla, plus a new work by Francisco Coll.

The orchestra’s At Lunch concerts include new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Elena Langer, Brian Elias and the winner (from over 500 applicants) of Britten Sinfonia’s OPUS competition for unpublished composers, Sohrab Uduman.

From October 2016 the ensemble is resident at Saffron Hall where it will perform a series of concerts as well as developing with Saffron Hall a new model. Britten Sinfonia is throwing open the doors to rehearsals to the pupils of Saffron Hall County High School (home to Saffron Hall) and the Saffron Walden Centre for Young Musicians and providing opportunities for young musicians to work side-by-side with the orchestra, with further musical encounters planned throughout the season.

Full details from the Britten Sinfonia's website,  which has an all-new look.

Much that was superb musically: Eugene Onegin from Belarus at Birgitta Festival in Tallinn

Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin, Act 1 - National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus at Birgitta Festival
photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin; Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova, Vladimir Petrov, Yuri Gorodetsky, Andrei Valenty, dir: Valery Shishov/Alexander Prokhorenko, cond: Andrey Galanov
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Fine singing transforms a rather staid production from Belarus at the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn

Vladimir Petrov - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Vladimir Petrov - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
For my second visit to the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn, Estonia on 20 August 2016, I heard the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus (based in Minsk) perform Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The production, originally from 1986, was revised and refurbished in 2012. Valery Shishov directed the original production, with Alexander Prokhorenko being responsible for the 2012 revision, with designs by Dmitry Mokhov and choreography by Alexandra Tikhomirova. Andrey Galanov conducted, and the cast included Vladimir Petrov as Onegin, Anastasia Moskvina as Tatyana, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Yuri Gorodetsky as Lensky, and Andrey Valenty as Prince Gremin.

Overnight, since the ending of Requiem... and before the previous night (see my review), the temporary theatre within the ruined church of the Pirita Convent had been re-cast as a traditional proscenium theatre with pit. The production was relatively traditional even to using a painted back-drop and suspended flats in a style which has rather gone out of fashion in the UK. But the results had an effective charm, especially when combined with the traditional but well thought out costumes, with the ensembles in each act forming attractive stage pictures.

Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
There was an economy to the design, so the white drapes from the Act Two dance at Madam Larina's re-appeared for the Gremin's ball, and the duel was performed on a re-dressed set of the previous scene. The whole production was firmly set in Pushkin's era, and was a traditional narrative telling of the tale, without any major directorial interventions. The plot was very much taken at face value so any depth or interpretation depended on the individual singers.

That mounting the production in such a short time was a challenge was indicated by some haphazard moments in the lighting plot. And the depth of the stage was clearly less than that in Minsk, as there was some awkwardness in fitting the choreography of the polonaise in Act Three to the new layout.

The overall production style was traditional too, not to say rather staid and old-fashioned with none of the detailed naturalism and personen-regie that we have come to expect in the West. Anastasia Moskvina's impassiveness as Tatyana in the first two acts rather made the character seem dim, and only Yuri Gorodetsky as Lensky created a sense of visual character; with his long hair (his own) and slight frame he looked every inch the fragile poet.

This was a performance which was all about the voices and musically there was very much that was superb.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Mozartian music theatre: 'Requiem... and life before' in Tallinn

Mireille Mosse, Uku Uusberg - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Mireille Mosse, Uku Uusberg - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn
 photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Mozart, Joel Lauwers Requiem... and life before; Uku Uusberg, Yuka Yanagihara, Helen Lokuta, Thomas Volle, Simon Robinson, Latvian State Choir, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, dir: Joel Lauwers, cond: Mihhail Gerts; Birgitta Festival, Tallinn
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 19 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Music theatre piece based on Mozart's music and letters, performed in the ruins of an Estonian convent

Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn -  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Uku Uusberg and soloists
Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
The Birgitta Festival takes place annually in the ruins of the Pirita Convent in Tallinn. A temporary roof is placed over the ruins of the church and a theatre created, with bars and facilities in marquees dotted about the remaining ruins. The festival's artistic programme combines visiting companies with their own productions. The programme this year has included a flamenco version of Carmen, and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte performed by the UK-based Black Cat Opera Company with new designs by an Estonian designer.

For the first of my two visits to this year's festival on Friday 19 August 2016 I saw Requiem... and life before a music theatre piece by Joel Lauwers based on Mozart's Requiem and texts from his letters. Joel Lauwers designed and directed, Mihhail Gerts conducted the Latvian State Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Actor Uku Uusberg played the protagonist Eugene Trazom, soprano Yuka Yanagihara played Aileen, Trazom's wife, mezzo-soprano Helen Lokuta played Marianne, Trazom's sister, tenor Thomas Volle played Emanuel, Trazom's friend and bass Simon Robinson played Trazom's father, with actors Andri Luup, Tiia als, Kaja Plovits, Elisabeth Peterson, and Kaido Kelder. The French actress Mireille Mosse played Mrs Death.

Latvian State Choir - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  - photo  Heiti Kruusmaa
Latvian State Choir photo  Heiti Kruusmaa
The first half consisted of spoken text, taken from Mozart's letters and given to the actor Uku Uusberg who played not a composer but a contemporary photographer. The rest of the cast were mute, acting around him. The drama played out the usual round of births, marriages and deaths, with Uusberg producing a veritable torrent of words speaking so fast that at times it was difficult to read the surtitles.

The set had a large lozenge shaped pit in the middle (for the orchestra), with the fore-stage thus divided into two main acting areas, stage left was the Trazom's home, and stage right was the domain of Mireille Mosse's Mrs Death. Here was an open grave, and here she summoned people to die. At the rear of the stage was a screen on which projections changed, varying from the Pirita ruins themselves to city scenes. The screen could open to reveal a tableau often involving the chorus, these were not always silent and would sometimes invade the stage making random noises.

The result was striking and intriguing, though we gained only a little sense of the protagonist's inner life. At the moment of his unexpected death, the Requiem started with his wife (soprano Yuka Yanagihara) singing the soprano solo in the opening movement at the funeral obsequies. The movements of the Requiem proceeded through the various mourning rituals for the protagonist, but in fact he had refused to die and formed a spectator at these with a constant, silent duel being fought between Uku Uusberg's Trazom and Mireille Mosse's Mrs Death. Much was made of their physicality, Mosse is diminutive (Wikipedia states that she is only 120cm tall and Uusberg is more than twice that). Finally, at the end of the Requiem, Trazom descended.

It was an intriguing prospect, and formed a striking dramatic complement to the sung Requiem.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Funny, lively and vivid: Le nozze di Figaro at Grimeborn

Heather Caddick, Cheyney Kent and ensemble - Mozart Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Heather Caddick, Cheyney Kent and ensemble - Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Mozart Le nozze di Figaro; Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick, Dario Dugandzic, Sofia Troncoso, Katie Slater, dir: Lewis Reynolds, cond: John Jansson; Grimeborn Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Lively small-scale production of Mozart's opera which brings out the funny side

Sofia Troncoso, Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick - Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Sofia Troncoso, Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick
photo Nick Rutter
The Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre has developed a reputation for presenting innovative small-scale productions of established classics. This year's festival included Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Cav and Pag and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We caught Mozart's opera on 16 August 2016 in a production by Opera 24 and Darker Purpose. John Jansson conducted his own orchestration for an ensemble of eight, and Lewis Reynolds directed a cast which included Cheyney Kent as the Count, Heather Caddick as the Countess, Dario Dugandzic as Figaro, Sofia Troncoso as Susanna, Katie Slater as Cherubino, Esther Mallett as Barbarina, Elizabeth Graham as Marcellina, Simon Masterton-Smith as Bartolo and Antonio, Edward Saklatvala as Basilio and Don Curzio. Designs were by Alexander McPherson and lighting by Davy Cunningham.

Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro is a big ask of any company, the opera's very perfection demands similar perfection from its performers, even before thinking about staging and dramaturgy. The production at Grimeborn was played in the round, in a studio theatre which put an even bigger onus on the singers. Lewis Reynolds' production used a simple square of parquet flooring as playing area, with lighting to delineate areas and rooms. This was particularly effective in creating multiple playing areas, such as corridors next to rooms, and for Act Two we were able to see both the Countess's room and inside the closet next door. There were a minimum of props and just two chairs, the result was admirably unfussy and focussed in terms of visuals.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A pilgrimage to Santiago: To the Field of Stars

To the Field of Stars - Nonsuch Singers - Convivium Records
To the Field of Stars, Jackson, Victoria, Pärt, Byrd, Dove; Nonsuch Singers, Kate Gould, Tom Bullard, Convivium Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 25 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Gabriel Jackson's cantata for Victoria and Pilgrimage Trail to Santiago de Compostela recorded by the choir which gave the work's UK premiere

The main work on this new disc from Convivium Records is Gabriel Jackson's cantata for choir, cello and percussion, To the Field of Stars, recorded by the choir which gave the work's UK premiere, the Nonsuch Singers, conducted by Tom Bullard, with cellist Kate Gould and percussionists George Barton and Stefan Beckett. The programme is completed by Arvo Pärt's O Morgenstern (from Sieben Marian Antiphonen), Victoria's Vidi Speciosam, Jackson's Creator of the Stars of the Night, Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis and Jonathan Dove's Seek him that Maketh the Seven Stars.

Jackson's To the Field of Stars was premiered in 2011 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Victoria's death and the Pilgrimage Trail to Santiago de Compostela. The work has already been recorded by the St Jacob's Chamber Choir from Stockholm, one of the work's co-commissioners. The present disc represents the debut recording of the Nonsuch Singers, a non-professional choir based in London.

The work is in seven movements separated by refrains setting texts taken from a medieval pilgrims' hymn. In addition to the medieval texts, Jackson also mixes in texts by John Adams (the second President of the USA), William Cowper, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson. The piece contemplates the idea of pilgrimage in the wider sense and in  his booklet note Jackson says he wanted to avoid a more literal approach.  The work's title comes from the possibly etymological origin of Compostela as 'campus stellae' (field of stars), and the seventh movement of the work includes a list of star names. The final movement ends with Jackson's re-working and expansion of Victoria's motet O Quam Gloriosum, so it is appropriate that the choir begin the disc with this motet.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Why not an afternoon at the opera?

West Green Opera
The gardens of West Green House, setting for West Green Opera
Last month we attended a performance of Gounod's La Colombe (see my review) at West Green House as part of the annual West Green Opera season. The performance was a matinee, so we arrived early enough to have a delightful lunch, followed by a walk round the garden. After the opera there was time for a further perambulation and afternoon tea. Altogether a lovely way to attend the opera. All this set me thinking, why is opera-going so resolutely an evening activity.

Perhaps it is all Wagner's fault, with his insistence that audiences should sit in the dark? Or perhaps it is the association of opera going with aristocratic social activity. The Grand Seasons at Covent Garden happened during the Season and were part of the aristocratic social round.

But many operas do not easily fit into this mould. Witness the fact that baroque opera has to be routinely cut to fit the evening time slot, or suffer the indignity of having the act structure re-shaped with just a single interval.

Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano - Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano
Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Covent Garden does offer matinee performances of operas occasionally, and for the longer works these prove to be very popular indeed when booking opens for members of the Friends of Covent Garden. But there will be, at most, a single matinee during the run of an opera. Yet attending a matinee starting at 3pm and finishing at 8pm is attractive to many, and would seem to make a great deal of sense for a longer opera.

I have never understood why more summer festivals do not embrace this model. Do we really need a 90 minute dinner interval inserted into an opera, thus unbalancing the act structure considerably. At Buxton this summer, Handel's Tamerlano (see my review) was performed cut, with just one interval, so it fitted into a three hour time slot. A significant number of the attendees were in Buxton for a few days, so how much more civilised to offer performances relatively uncut with two intervals, running from 3pm to 8pm.

Like baroque opera, Wagner is a particular problem and performances in the theatre have to start very early or finish very late. It has always struck me that it would seem to be far more civilised to start Gotterdämmerung after lunch and run on into the evening.

As society becomes far more varied, with the standard nine to five job replaced by more flexibly working, surely it is time for opera companies to experiment with opera presentation. But audiences need to get out of the mind set that opera must be an evening out.

Monday, 15 August 2016

A day at Harpa in Reykjavik - Ponce, Piazzolla and Icelandic song

Harpa - the atrium inside
Harpa - the atrium inside
For the visitor to Reykjavik in Iceland, Harpa the concert hall on the harbour, is a striking sight, consisting of two uneven rhomboids covered in a cellular structure made of glass, and containing a concert hall and two smaller halls, two restaurants and much more. For those wanting to experience the fine concert halls, there is a regular programme of shorter classical concerts during the summer. Whilst we were in Iceland on holiday we caught a pair of concerts on 13 August 2016 (we could also have seen How to be a Viking, or dropped into some of the events of the Reykjavik Jazz Festival). Guitarist Svanur Vilbergsson and pianist Nina Margret Grimsdottir performed music by Manuel Ponce and Astor Piazzolla as part of the Reykjavik Classics lunchtime series, and then in an early evening concert we heard soprano Heiðdis Hanna Sigurdarðottir, baritone Kristjan Johannesson and pianist Astridur Alda Sigurðardottir in a programme of Icelandic songs as part of the Pearls of Icelandic Song series.

Harpa is the sort of pace where people come and simply hang about, chat, have coffee and use the wifi. The interior is a very stylish combination of black and yellow, with two excellent restaurants to feed the inner concert goer (and we managed to try both during our visit).

Harpa, Reykjavik, Iceland
The lunchtime recital took place in the largest concert hall, Eldborg. Perhaps too big for recital by guitar and piano, but it gave us a chance to experience the strikingly dramatic dark red auditorium. Vilbergsson and Grimsdottir opened with Manuel Ponce's Sonata for Guitar and Piano (the Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord in another guise). A striking, highly neoclassical piece, the lively first movement was followed by a striking Andantino where both guitar and piano developed a rather folk-like melody. The perky final Allegro had hints of Poulenc in it. Using piano rather than harpsichord gave the piece some lovely textures and made for an interesting approach to guitar music, though the balance sometimes favoured the piano somewhat.

Vilbergsson followed this with a guitar solo, La muerte del angelo. Surprisingly romantic for Piazolla, but a beautifully varied piece superbly played. We were treated to two encores, Ponce's Estrellita which was very much a song without words, and Morning Dance by the Serbian composer Dusan Bogdanovic.

The day was somewhat a Harpa day for us, as after the concert we had a lovely lunch and then explored the building with its superb views across Reykjavik and over the harbour from the upper levels.

Mendelssohnian charm: Sir Arthur Sullivan's Macbeth and The Tempest

Sullivan - Macbeth, Tempest - Dutton Epoch Sullivan Macbeth (Incidental music), Marmion Overture, The Tempest (Incidental music); Mary Bevan, Fflur Wyn, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews, Simon Callow; Dutton Epoch
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Sullivan's music for two Shakespeare plays on disc complete for the first time

That this disc from Dutton Epoch contains three first recordings is quite surprising when the composer of the works is Sir Arthur Sullivan. But John Andrews and the BBC Concert Orchestra give first recording of the incidental music to Shakespeare's Macbeth, the first complete recording of the incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest, and the first complete recording of the Marmion Overture. The orchestra is joined by the BBC Singers, sopranos Mary Bevan and Fflur Wyn, and the actor Simon Callow reads selections from the plays between the movements.

I have always been fascinated by Sir Henry Irving's Shakespeare productions. Lavish in scale and luxurious of setting, they are a far cry from modern attitudes to stage production. Sullivan's music for Macbeth was written for Irving's production of the play in 1888. It featured Irving as Macbeth and Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. The play was cut and re-arranged, but there was a chorus of 60 and an orchestra of 46 players.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth - John Singer Sargent
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
John Singer Sargent
It was, of course, for this production of Macbeth that Ellen Terry wore the famous beetle-wing dress, which is preserved by the National Trust at Smallhythe Place, and captured by John Singer Sargent in his portrait of Terry. You can see images of the dress and read about its recent conservation at The Glass of Fashion website, and there is an engraving of the production on the V&A website, The dress also gave rise to Oscar Wilde's famous quip 'Lady Macbeth seems to be an economical housekeeper and evidently patronises local industries for her husband's clothes and servant's liveries, but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium.'

Sullivan's orchestral suite is known but this is the first time that the complete incidental music has appeared on disc. There are some 13 numbers, performed here with selections of the play spoken by Simon Callow. What is immediately obvious, looking at the contents of the disc, is that much of the play is missing. Sullivan wrote hardly any music for Lady Macbeth and virtually nothing for the second half of the play. The climax of the incidental music is the Act Four scene between Macbeth and the witches.

We know that some music has been lost, chorus and melodramas probably written during rehearsals and never copied into the autograph score; the fire at the Lyceum Theatre in 1898 destroyed much. But what we have is a finely atmospheric sequence, music by Sullivan at his peak. The play came between The Yeomen of the Guard and The Gondoliers, and represented Sullivan's biggest stage success without Gilbert.

The witches are given much music and the rest is highly atmospheric scene painting. This receives a lovely performance from John Andrews and the BBC Concert Orchestra with Andrews bringing out the fine-grained Mendelssohnian cast of Sullivan's music. They shape each of the movements into a beautiful miniature. The prelude to Act Two, with its two harps, is just one example. The music for the witches is brilliantly atmospheric, though perhaps politer than we might expect. You have to put out of mind later styles of theatrical representation, Sullivan was completely attuned to Irving's requirements.

Regarding Simon Callow's spoken passages I am more conflicted.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Somewhere for the weekend: Rye Arts Festival

You never really need an excuse to visit Rye, but the Rye Arts Festival (17 September to 1 October 2016) just makes the prospect more tempting. Euphonia (which we saw recently in Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride) are performing Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Rather aptly The Turn of the Screw is based on the story by Henry James, who lived in Rye. ( And this year is the centenary of Henry James' death. Plus Myfanwy Piper, who wrote the libretto, was married to John Piper, who also lived in Rye for a spell - see comments)

Other events include light opera, comedy and song from Perfect Fifth (Harriet Jones (soprano), Caroline Jones (Alto), Greg Tassell (tenor) and Rupert Reid (baritone)), accompanied by Belinda Jones (piano)) including songs by local composer George Newson, Kaleidescope Saxophone Quartet, plus recitals from Polish soprano Anna Szalucka, the Busch Trio (Anthony Marwood (violin) and Aleksandar Madžar (piano)), Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima, Tzu-Yin Huang (piano), and the Wihan Strng Quartet.

Choral events include evensong in St Mary's Church, Rye, sung by Chichester Cathedral Choir and Peter Philips conducting a choir made of performers from The Cantate Choir, Straight 8 and Tongswood Chamber Choir in large scale polyphonic music including Tallis's Spem in alium

Non-musical events include a tour of churches in Romney Marsh, a tour of cellars in Winchelsea and a walk through World War II Rye

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Towards a more historically informed view of performances of Bellini's Norma

Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn in 'Norma' - Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn in Norma - Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
The two most influential female singers in early 19th century Italian opera were perhaps Rossini's muse (and later wife) Isabella Colbran for whom Rossini wrote a series of roles including Desdemona in Otello, and the title roles in La donna del Lago, Armida, and Semiramide, and Giuditta Pasta, who inspired Bellini's Norma and La sonnambula and Donizetti's Anna Bolena. what the two have in common is our uncertainty about what their voices sounded like, what vocal category we would place them in nowadays.

Our view of the roles they inspired has been coloured by the 20th century experience of the works. So that the relative neglect of Rossini's serious operas has allowed both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos to explore Isabella Colbran's roles, and for performers to look at at period practice in these operas without the weight of history behind them. Joyce DiDonato has sung the title role in Rossini's La donna del Lago, and Opera Rara is recording Semiramide with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment this summer.

But Giuditta Pasta's roles have entered the operatic canon, and any performance of Bellini's Norma gets judged by the standards of Callas, Caballe and Sutherland. The problem is, of course, that these three performed Bellini in the way he has come to be performed in the 20th century with larger, heavier voices and louder orchestras. And the towering achievement of iconic performances such as Callas's Norma, makes it difficult for other performance ideas to take root.

Giuditta Pasta as Norma
Giuditta Pasta as Norma
These thoughts were prompted by some of the critical reaction to Cecilia Bartoli's recent performances in Norma at the Edinburgh International Festival in the Salzburg Whitsun Festival production with John Osborn as Pollione, and Gianluca Capuano conducting the period instrument ensemble I Barocchisti. I did not attend the performances, I was in Santa Fe, but read the critics views of the performance with great interest.

Some of the critical comment seems to have concentrated on the 20th century perception of the role, comparing the relatively modest size of Bartoli's voice to those of Callas, Caballe and Sutherland, and paying mere lip service to Bartoli's interest in exploring different ways of performing Norma. One critic mentions the idea that at the period women's voices were not classified, before making it clear that their critical yardstick was still Callas et al. Other comments included the relative lightness of the performance, the lack of weight in tenor John Osborn's Pollione. These are comments which prompt me to want to respond, 'well of course, given what we know of early 19th century Italian operatic performance practice.'

For all the possible faults with the performance, there as been insufficient engagement in a critical discussion about how the music sounded in the early 19th century and how this might inform our performances. Undoubtedly Callas's performance in Norma is an immeasurably great one, but it does not tell us much about what Bellini heard when Giuditta Pasta performed, and that is surely something worth exploring.

Giuditta Pasta undoubtedly had a 'dramatic' voice, and famously found 'Casta Diva' almost impossible to perform in its original high key. But this is dramatic in a world before Wagner's Brunnhilde, Puccini's Turandot and Ponchielli's La Gioconda. If you perform Bellini's Norma with gut strings, early 19th century bows and lower bridges, and with brass using narrow bore instruments, then the resulting orchestral sound is inevitably lighter, more transparent and a modern highly dramatic sounding soprano would be out of place. (You can hear Bartoli singing 'Casta Diva' on YouTube, and you can get her recording from

What we need when talking about this type of performance is consideration of what, if anything, the performance can tell us about re-discovering alternative performance practices where it is successful in its own terms.

The period instrument and HIP movements have often been very much instrument led, but early 19th century opera with its emphasis on the voice does not lend itself to this approach. If we are to bring to Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the sort of revelation which Roger Norrington brought to his performances of Beethoven symphonies, then we need more singers to experiment, and for critical comment which takes an historically informed view of the results.

Update: Correspondents have been generating some interesting information around this subject. The theatre at La Scala, Milan, where Bellini's Norma was premiered, is essentially the same auditorium as today. When built in the late 18th century it was a large theatre, holding 3000 people! But, the performances were different to those given today, the downstage area would be outside of the stage box (in front of the proscenium) where we have the pit today, and the orchestra would be where the first two rows of the stalls are. So the effect of the singers, far more forward into the auditorium, would be very different and more immediate, requiring less heavy voices. And the singer who premiered Pollione was famous for his Almaviva and Ramiro, so a far lighter voice than we consider nowadays.

Friday, 12 August 2016

WAM - music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy

Michael Finnissy, Michael Norsworthy - WAM
Michael Finnissy Clarinet Sonata, L'Union Libre, Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats, WAM, Giant Abstract Samba; Michael Norsworthy, Michael Finnissy, William Fedkenheuer, New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, Charles Peltz; New Focus Recordings
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 29 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Intriguing and absorbing music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy, a reflection of a 20 year friendship and a continuous dialogue with musical culture

This disc, on New Focus Recordings, of music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy performed by clarinettist Michael Norsworthy includes three piece specifically written for Norsworthy. Michael Norsworthy (clarinets and percussion) and Michael Finnissy (piano and percussion) perform Finnissy's Clarinet Sonata, L'Union Libre and Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats and are joined by violinist William Fedkenheuer for WAM. Finally Norsworthy is joined by the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, conductor Charles Peltz for Giant Abstract Samba.

The Clarinet Sonata is one of four sonatas that Finnissy wrote in 2006/2007, each taking a different historical model. For the Clarinet Sonata Finnissy used Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op.110. The right-hand line of Beethoven's sonata appears bar for bar in the piano part of Finnissy's sonata, but each bar is reversed, occasionally with edits and substitutions. Finnissy's own note on the piece refers to the clarinet surfing across the top of the piano part. The sonata is in one movement but its different sections reflect the markings of Beethoven's sonata.

The clarinet part is lyrically expressionist but with some jagged edges, and it intertwines with the piano to create a rather absorbing, almost dialectical, discourse. On first listening the differentiation between the different sections was not always obvious, but the latter part of the piece is rather intense leading to a quiet ending.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Bringing a touch of Brazil to Europe - the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra

Marin Alsop - Photo: Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop - Photo: Grant Leighton
To keep us in the mood, following the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, another Brazilian city will be sending its orchestra over to Europe. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP), under conductor Marin Alsop, will be returning to Europe to give concerts at the Edinburgh Festival (22 August), the BBC Proms (24 August) and the Lucerne Festival. In 2012 the orchestra became the first Brazilian orchestra to play at the BBC Proms.

In Edinburgh the orchestra plays a programme combining Villa-Lobos' Choros No. 10 with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. At the Proms the orchestra gives two concerts. The first features music by Villa-Lobos and Rachmaninov, with the UK premiere of Kabbalah by the Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre, and Grieg's Piano Concerto with the Venezualan pianist Gabriela Montero. The second, late-night prom, members of the orchestra join the São Paulo Jazz Symphony Orchestra for a celebration of Brazilian music. The orchestra's programme in Lucerne repeats its prom concert.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

World premiere of John Joubert's Jane Eyre

John Joubert - Jane EyreKenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth in 2016 and the 90th birthday of composer John Joubert in 2017 with the world premiere of Joubert's opera Jane Eyre, based on Charlotte Brontë's novel. The performance takes place on 25 October 2016 at the Ruddock Performing Arts Centre in Birmingham. The cast includes Katherine Manley as Jane and David Stout as Rochester, with Clare McCaldin as Mrs Fairfax, and Mark Milhofer as Revd. St John Rivers. The performance is being recorded for release on the SOMM label.

Jane Eyre is John Joubert's eighth and final opera which was completed in 1988. A number of Joubert's other operas have literary origins, and Joubert's engagement with the work of the Brontë sisters includes a song-cycle based on Emily's poems.

The novels of the Brontë sisters seem to be a popular source of material for opera composers, Michael Berkeley's opera Jane Eyre was premiered by Music Theatre Wales in 2000, whilst Carlisle Floyd's 1958 opera on Wuthering Heights has just received its first recording (see my review) and film composer Bernard Hermann's Wuthering Heights was written in 1951 but had to wait until 2011 for a complete staged performance.

Full details from the English Symphony Orchestra website.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Signs, Games & Messages

Signs, Games & Messages - Resonus
Kurtág Signs, Games & Messages, Bartók Sonata for Solo Violin; Simon Smith; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Virtuosic works for unaccompanied violin by two Hungarian composers, in striking new performances

This new recital disc from violinist Simon Smith on the Resonus Classics label pairs works for unaccompanied violin by two major 20th century Hungarian composers. Smith plays Bela Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz 117 and György Kurtág's Signs Games and Messages.

Kurtág's music is known for its concision, tendency to aphorism and concentration on small gestures. Starting from the 1970s he wrote a series of short pieces, collectively called Jatekok (Games), for a variety of instruments. From the 1980s onwards he wrote Signs, Games and Messages for solo violin. The 18 short pieces (the shortest lasting around 45 seconds, the longest nearly 5 minutes with the majority at around a minute) provide a remarkable digest of Kurtág's art.

Though short, each is concentrated and Smith's performances bring out the intensity of the gestures. The opening Perpetuum mobile (one of three in the set) does wonders with the violin's opening strings, whilst the second movement builds something striking from a simple sequence of semi-tones.

Many of the works have personal connections or other links. Hommage a J.S.B is notable for the elegance and clarity of Kurtág's inspiration based on Bach, whilst Hommage a John Cage is austere and rather equivocal, the violin seemingly unsure or unable to achieve its goal. In memoriam Blum Tamas is notable for its slow intensity and anguished harmony.

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