Wednesday, 31 December 2008

La Cage aux Folles

On Monday we went to see La Cage aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre. Terry Johnson's production originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory, but most critics seemed to think that it had benefited from being moved to the bigger theatre, not that the Playhouse is huge.

I had never seen the musical live, but was familiar with the previous West End production where it was produced at the Palladium in 1986. This was a highly glamorous creation and I had always felt that this style was unsuitable for the musical, which could benefit from a slightly grittier edge.

The Menier production, being essentially small scale, has followed this line. The nightclub is a rather dowdy place and the dancers, though technically superb, definitely carry with them a whiff of drag troupes like Bloolips.

The night we went, everyone was ill, so that both Georges and Albin were played by covers and Robert Maskell, playing Albin, was announced as being ill. In fact Maskell was superb and the only sign of illness was that his voice sounded a little tired by the end.

Maskell's Albin was, of necessity, camp but not grotesquely so and Maskell generated an enormous amount of sympathy for the character. His delivery of I am what I am at the close of Act 1 was definitely no torch song and profoundly moving. Albin was presented as a drag entertainer like the old style drag artists such as the Trollettes. Maskell's Albin was javascript:void(0)certainly no Danny La Rue, but a more believable rather rumpled figure.

The musical has the profound virtue of putting two middle aged men at the centre of the show, and this production did not try to over glamorise them. Instead their relationship was rendered believable, touching and ultimately very moving.

The chorus, some 8 strong, were wonderful. All men, they danced, sang and managed to look funny, sexy and threatening.

We went to the show expecting a bit of frilly Christmas entertainment but found the show was much more than this. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Christmas Music

We spent Christmas in Canterbury and managed to attend a couple of services at the Cathedral. The cathedral choir does amazing work at this period, in the 25 hours from 3pm on Dec 24th to 4pm on Christmas day they sang a carol service, evensong, matins, sung eucharist and finally evensong again. An amazing tally.

For Christmas eve Evensong they did the Lloyd Responses (second set), the Nunc Dimittis from Wood in B flat and Praetorius's Omnis mundus jucundetur. The Magnificat was sung plainchant, preceded and followed by the Antiphon O Virgo virginum, the previous 10 days having been devoted to all the great O anthems. Wood in B flat was unfamiliar to me but proved to be sung in Latin and richly romantic.

On Christmas day we were treated to a crisp performance of Poulenc's Hodie Christus natus est, a wonderful account of RVW's Te Deum and Walton's Jubilate. This latter was striking and also unknown to me. The anthem was Britten's Sycamore Tree. All were given in strong performances which made due allowance for the cathedral's acoustic and formed a moving start to Christmas day.

We did not wait for Sung Eucharist (and hence missed the Archbishop's sermon). The setting for the service was Mozart's Spaurmesse.

Monday, 22 December 2008

La Chapelle du Roi at St. Johns Smith Square

On Saturday Chapelle du Roi, conductor Alistair Dixon, gave their programme The Marriage of England and Spain as part of the St. Johns Smith Square Christmas Festival. The centre-piece of the programme was the pair of motets by Philippe de Monte and William Byrd. De Monte set 4 verses from Psalm 137 (By the Rivers of Babylon) and sent the motet to Byrd. It was de Monte's way of commiserating with the suppression of Catholics in England. Byrd responded with his motet Quomodo cantabimus which set other verses from the same psalm. A wonderfully powerful pairing.

On the English side we also got Sheppard's lovely respond, Reges Tharsis and Tallis's Beati immaculati. On the Spanish side there was Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium, Guerrero's Alma Redemptoris and O Domine Jesu. The concert finished with Victoria's lovely 8-part Alam redemptoris mater.

The choir numbered only 8 singers, but managed to make a lovely rich sound, especially in the Spanish pieces.

But of course, there was one other item in the programme. My own Puer natus est nobis, the motet for the 3rd Mass on Christmas Day from Tempus per Annum. The work's style fitted in well with the programme (which also included medieval carols), and showed that the motets from the collection work beautifully when sung by singers used to polyphony and plainchant. Dixon's speeds in my motet were not what I had quite envisaged, but he managed to find something hauntingly beautiful in the piece.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Review of Hansel and Gretel

If it's Christmas it must be Hansel and Gretel, except that David Pountney's ENO production seems to have fallen out of use and Covent Garden, amazingly, have not performed the work since before the war. That has now changed and they have a new production directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. It has been double cast but we saw the first cast on Thursday (18th December).

Set Designer Christian Fenouillat has provided a neat single set. Basically a sloping sided box, so that the rear of the stage is a square raised above floor level. For act 1 the front space is taken by Hansel (Angelika Kirchschlager) and Gretel's (Diana Damrau) bedroom; we never see the kitchen where this act of the opera usually takes place. Then for act 2 this disappears and we learn that the box is covered with images of the wood. The rear 'wall' is in fact used to display a variety of effects, initially an non-threatening image of the wood which gradually changes to a threatening one. Then the Sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza) appears, using the raised level of the rear opening to make her body appear smaller than it is. Finally, the angels appear from the same opening, creating a fantasy fireside along with Mother (Elizabeth Connell) and Father (Thomas Allen).

Act 3 opens with the Dew Fairy (Anita Watson) appearing from the rear along with her cleaning trolley and she proceeds to clean up after the shenanigans at the end of Act 2. When the Witch's hut appears it is a small scale, edible cake in the shape of the hut. We glimpse the witch (Anja Silja) who, when not seen by the children, has exposed (false) breasts like a fertility image.

When Silja does appear she is the embodiment of a frightening old woman, albeit a slightly glamorous one. When the children try to flee the rear of the stage changes and their exit is cut of with a huge deep freeze containing the suspended bodies of dead children. Then the forest turns into the witch's kitchen, where she cooks the bodies of young children into gingerbread. The result is freaky rather than scary but the transformation is eminently theatrical.

Damrau and Kirschlager formed a wonderful team as the two kids and their hi-jinks seemed to make more sense in the context of them lazing in their bedroom. Connell and Allen also managed to develop a credible relationship in what is quite a short time. Once in the wood, Damrau and Kirschlager continued to entrance and develop distinctly separate personalities.

As the witch, Silja was scary without ever being hackneyed and her scream and laugh were wonderful. She is still a wonderful singing actor, but her voice now how so much vibrato that you are uncertain what note she is singing. This did matter, but given the strength of her characterisation, this mattered less than it might have.

The children from Tiffin were a little disappointing, but it seemed that Colin Davis did not allow them very much leeway both in terms of the volume of the orchestra and the amount of stage business they had been given.

Davis and the orchestra gave a lovingly rich account of the score. This is very much an orchestrally driven account of the piece. Davis's speeds were on the moderate side but it never felt slow, simply a gently rich interpretation.

The production had a number of quirky points and was most enjoyable. It does not say as much as Pountney did, but Leiser and Caurier have certainly provided a very revivable account of the opera.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Gleanings from this month's Opera Magazine

In the interview with Jonas Kaufman he is described as one of the world's leading lyric tenors, which seems strange for a man who has Florestan and Aeneas (Les Troyens) in his repertoire. It is interesting that Hugh Canning suggests that Wunderlich is a sing whose career Kaufman's resembles, so certainly a space to watch. And he's doing Don Carlos at Covent Garden next year; if only it was in French life would be complete!

A survey of lesser known tenors makes the interesting point that in the era of the 78, most singers with a certain degree of celebrity could be asked to make a few records. But nowadays this becomes increasingly unlikely and there are all sorts of people who have fallen through the cracks.

In Montpelier they have been digging up hidden gems again. First off Pizzetti's Fedra. Pizzetti is definitely a name rare on the London operatic stage; surely we ought to get a fresh look at his operatic version of Murder in the Cathedral?

The second Montpelier opera was La Esmeralda by Louise Bertin. Until Montpelier revived it the opera had last been performed in 1836, but Liszt had prepared the vocal score and Berlioz took the rehearsals. Sounds like another one for the lists of possibles.

Still in the neglected opera corner, over in Karlsruhe they have been trying out Alfanos' Cyrano de Bergerac.

In Dublin, Balfe's Falstaff has received a rare outing (and there is going to be a recording). If we can get decent new editions of the operas, let us hope that this is a promise of more Balfe operas to come. Perhaps singing them in Italian might get over the slight neo-G&S aura which hangs over his work.

And in Macerata they've presented Marco Tutino's opera The Servant based on the Robin Maugham short story (and Joseph Losey film). Sounds the sort of thing it would be interesting to present in the UK.

Drottningholm revived FLorian Gassman's 1769 opera buffa Opera Seria, which turns out to have a libretto by Calzabigi, librettist of Gluck's Reform operas.

And in Martina Franca they heard Mercadante's final opera, Pelagio. Mercadante's music has been heard at Wexford, but even they do not appear to have managed to conjure the composer out of Verdi's shadow, and performances of his operas are still rare.

In Munich they've just presented Robert Carsen's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos, not a rareity I grant you, but it was performed in the small(ish) but perfectly formed PrinzRegenten Theater, which has an auditorium shaped like Bayreuth's. Still in Munich, Agnes Baltsa appeared as Klytemnestra in Elektra. Baltsa is a singer who seemed something of a fixture at Covent Garden for a period before disappearing with remarkable rapidity.

Weimar's Ring has reached it's conclusion, but seems to provide no element of final redemption, which seems to negate Wagner's point. But trying to judge an opera performance based on what someone has written is always tricky, even though I end up doing it rather a lot. Over in Lisbon, Susan Bullock has been doing her duty as Brunnhilde in Graham Vick's Siegfried. We, of course, have to wait a few years yet to hear her in the role.

In the UK age is catching up on me and I marvel that ENO's Jonathan Miller Barber of Seville is currently 21 year's old and WNO's Giles Havergal Barber is 22 years old. In the former John Tessier sounds as if he was terrific, but its too much to hope that he got his final aria (the one Rossini re-used in La Cenerentola).

Opera North's Tosca starred Takesha Meshe Kizart who, it turns out, is the great-niece of Blues legend Muddy Waters.

Finally, in We hear that... It seems that Richard Bonynge is conducting Roberto Devereux at Holland Park next year. Rosemary Joshua is doing Despina at Covent Garden in 2011, I'd like to say that I wish it was something more exciting, but that would let me down by showing how low Cosi comes in my reckoning.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Recent book review

My review of Thomas E. Muir's Roman Catholic Church Music in England, 1791 - 1914: A Handmaid of the Liturgy is here, on MusicWeb International.

Essential reading for anyone with interest in music in the RC Church in England ...

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Gaudete!

If you are not doing anything this evening and are in London, then my motet Gaudete is being performed at Evensong at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, W1, the choir of All Saints being conducted by Paul Brough

Friday, 12 December 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Red Byrd's Elizabethan Christmas Album is here, on MusicWeb International.
Shows its age but a charming Christmas present ...

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Lully's Armide on Naxos is here.
A creditable and approachable Armide ...
And my review of Puccini's Il Tabarro with Tito Gobbi is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.
For dramatic truth this can hardly be bettered ...

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Friday, 5 December 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Thomas Linley's The Song of Moses on Hyperion Helios, is here.
Music which deserves to be better known ...

And my review of Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day from I Barocchisti is here. Both reviews are on Music and Vision.
Crisp and lively but does not quite live up to opening promise ...

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Review of Sancta Civitas

My review of the Bach choir's recent London concert, performing RVW's Sancta Civitas and Howells's Sir Patrick Spens is here, on Music and Vision.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Review of Rusalka

My review of ETO's final performance of Rusalka at the Cambridge Arts Theatre is here, on Music and Vision.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Review of Riders to the Sea

The short run of performances of Riders to the Sea at the London Coliseum were intended to be conducted by Richard Hickox. In the event they were performed as a memorial, conducted by Edward Gardner.

ENO and director Fiona Shaw, chose to perform opera alone with a short prologue, rather than trying to fit its austere perfection into a triple bill - something few opera companies have done successfully. ENO obviously miscalculated the demand for the opera as the run had to be extended by adding a further performance later on Friday evening. So that after we had attended the 7.15pm performance on Friday 28th November, the performers would have to do everything again at 9.30pm.

Shaw and her designers Dorothy Cross and Tom Pye used designs evoking the Aran Isles on the West Coast of Ireland. For the prologue Susan Gritton gave a powerful and moving performance in Finnish, Sibelius's Luonnotar, a setting of part of the Kalevala about the birth of the world. Luonnotar is a spirit of the air who drifts through the waves and Gritton had as her back drop evocative vidoes from Dorothy Cross. At the end of the piece we had a short atmospheric interlude from John Woolrich whilst 6 men helped the heavily pregnant Luonnotar out of her boat. These men then helped set up Maurya's house. In fact there was no house, just an austere rocky setting with the house invisible but assumed to be there, indicated by key props like a kettle and a chair.

The men occupied the house until the women, Nora (Claire Booth) and Cathleen (Kate Valentine) erupted into it. We began to understand that these were the ghost of Maurya's already dead sons and husband. The ghost of the recently dead Michael haunted the stage, watching much of the action.

RVW set the text of Synge's play almost complete and eschewed any sort of aria, instead providing the singers with an expressive arioso which reflected the speech rhythms of Synge's Irish inflected English. Shaw got the sort of naturalistic acting from the singers which made sense of this, for most of the opera. Booth and Valentine were strong in the important roles of the daughters. And Leigh Melrose made as much as he could of the short role of Bartley, the sole surviving son whose death triggers the final catharsis.

Patricia Bardon was almost unrecognisable as Maurya, the old woman who is mother to the family. Bardon was severe, but not overly grim and fierce as Maurya which made her more sympathetic than some interpreters.

Though Shaw paced the whole opera well, I felt that from Maurya's 'I seen the fearfullest vision', when she relates seeing the ghosts of her two most recently dead sons, the acting style could have become less naturalistic. The setting did so, as the ghosts of the dead husband and sons came on along with their now lost boats. But Bardon, Valentine and Booth were firmly entrenched in a naturalistic acting style. And I wanted something a little more transcendent, reflecting RVW's ending. I had the feeling that though Shaw was responsive to RVW's music, for her ending she was staging the words more than the music. RVW's music with the great scena at the end for Maurya, 'They're all gone now' helps transcend the bleakness of the action into something wonderful.

Luckily, Patricia Bardon's performance was everything that we could hope for. Here account of the ending was beautifully musical and profoundly moving.

I do hope that this production does not disappear, it proved to be a strong account of RVW's operatic masterpiece and deserves to be seen more.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Joyce di Donato's Handel recital is here.
An absorbing and brilliant recital ...

And my review of Kathleen Ferrier singing Bach and Handel is here. Both reviews on Music and Vision.
Profoundly moving performances, strong musicality and emotional truth ...

Friday, 28 November 2008

There's something about Mary

The Armonico Consort are a talented vocal ensemble, based in Warwick, whose range extends from 16th century polyphony to staged performances of Rossini's Barber of Seville. They made a rare London appearance on Tuesday (25th November) as part of the Choral at Cadogan series at the Cadogan Hall.

Entitled There's Something About Mary, the concert concentrated on polyphony written during the short reign of Mary Tudor, when elaborate Latinate music enjoyed a brief renaissance in England. The centre piece of the programme was Tallis's wonderful Missa Puer Natus est Nobis, with the choir performing all 3 surviving movements (Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei) interspersed with contemporary organ music by Tallis, John Bull, Antonio de Caezon and Francisco Correa de Arauxo, and polyphony from Guerrero, Lobo and Sheppard.

Tallis's mass was written for 7 part choir (AATTBaBB) but was performed transposed up by a 16 voiced ensemble which included 6 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors and 4 basses. I am entirely unclear quite how the parts were allocated but the general effect seemed to be a little weak on the inner parts. The choir made a fine rich sound, but it was most definitely soprano and bass led.

Cadogan Hall is a tricky place in which to sing polyphony and the group seem to take a little time to get used to it. The acoustic is rather dry for choral music and lacks the sort of resonance which adds lustre to this music. At first, the start of each movement was a little tentative but in the end they sang with a rich sound.

In fact the piece that worked the best was Guerroro's lovely Ave virgo sanctissima - a 5 part piece with 2 soprano parts. The resulting textures were rich and luscious, with better internal balance than in the Tallis. This is not a group where individual voices are massaged into uniformity, the singers all displayed lovely voices which blended whilst retaining their individuality.

The organ interludes were performed by Charles Matthews on a little chamber organ whose tones were delightful, but sounded a trifle quiet in the Caodgan Hall.

Though they performed Lobo's Versa est in luctum, they performed Vittoria's Versa from the Requiem in memory of Richard Hickox. The closing work from the printed programme was John Sheppard's Libera nos with its astonishing dissonances, you never wanted it to end.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

ETO Handel celebration

English Touring Opera have announced the dates for their ambitious Handel Celebration in Autumn 2009, part of the celebration's for the company's 30th birthday. They are reviving their productions of Tolomeo, Alcina, Ariodante and Teseo, and adding a new production of Flavio. The tour opens on 15th October 2009 at the Britten Theatre and then moves on to Exeter, Malvern, Buxton and Cambridge. It will come as a great relief to all ETO's Handel opera lovers that the London season is at the Britten Theatre rather than the Hackney Empire. Though the Britten Theatre is smaller, it has the advantage of better transport infrastructure; getting home to south London from Hackney after a 3 hour Handel opera is no fun at all, lovely though the Hackney Empire is as a theatre.

Their spring 2009 tour includes Mozart's Magic Flute and Janacek's Katya Kabanova, plus concert performances of Bellini's Norma.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Richard Hickox (1948 - 2008)

I first saw Richard Hickox conduct in Manchester in the mid 1970's (probably 1974). He was the conductor in the Royal Northern College of Music's production of Aida. I don't recall that any of the production's singers went on to be famous but it was conducted by Hickox who would have been in his late 20's. Looking back on it, it was an incredible achievement for a young conductor. [Having done a little research it turns out that John Rawnsley was, I think, the Amonasro in that production]

He came back into my purview in the 1980's when I came to live in London. Initially I sang with the London Philharmonic Choir and Hickox was known because he conducted the LSO Chorus. He used to conduct large scale choral works with them on Sunday evenings at LSO concerts. My main feelings about his conducting was that he was more than competent but rather uninteresting; the most interesting thing was his repertoire.

Hickox remained on the radar and cropped up periodically. He did one or two very good things at the Spitalfields Festival, especially the 1985 Handel Alcina with Arleen Auger (which was subsequently recorded). Out of this, there were attempts to form an opera company. They subsequently did Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, again with Auger and Della Jones, but this was not so successful. I also remember an interesting take on Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Hickox's recordings usually came to my attention because of their interesting repertoire, though I must confess that I don't have that many on my shelves. In areas of interest such as RVW, I tended to prefer other conductors. But somewhere along the way he grew into a conductor of stature, giving performances of interest. I am not quite sure when this happened. The Barbican performance of RVW's Pilgrim's Progress was very notable (it was subsequently recorded) but I felt that the performance this summer at Sadler's Wells had far greater stature, no matter what you thought about the relative merits of Gerald Finley and Roderick Williams as Pilgrim. But where I was most impressed was with the sequence of RVW symphonies that Hickox did with the Philharmonia. These were all revelations and I now deeply regret that we could not make the first in the series which included the Sea Symphony.

Some conductors only really develop into interesting personalities in old age; Mackerras is a prime example. I began to feel that this was what was happening to Hickox and that he had the most interesting 20 years of his career ahead of him. I never had any really idea of his age, except to know that he must have been around 5 years older than me (in fact 8). He never seemed to age and even in his 40's looked like the same little boy of 20 years earlier. Unfortunately we'll never know what sort of conductor he would have developed into, but at least we have his astounding catalogue of recordings to listen to.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Review of Bellini's 'I Capuletti e i Montecchi'

Orpha Phelan's production of Bellini's I Capuletti e i Montecchi for Opera North[Nottingham Theatre Royal, 22nd November] opened with a drop, curtain apparently of metal, inscribed with a huge target and pockmarked with bullet holes. During the overture, the chorus, in contemporary costume, assembled slowly and passed through a secret door in the drop curtain.

When the overture finished and the drop curtain rose we were in a space. The opera's setting remained stylishly unspecific, almost abstract. For Act 1 the playing area was a triangle of parquet flooring, surrounded by dark. For the first scene a chandelier was added.

It was apparent that this was to be a contemporary version of the opera. Capellio (Nikolay Didenko) was some sort of gang leader, perhaps Mafia, perhaps Irish. Didenko had the physique for the role but I felt that Opera North could have found a more subtle singer closer to home. His supporters, both male and female, were all be-suited thuggish types. Lorenzo (Henry Waddington) was the decent doctor, ministering to Capellio's clan.

Edgaras Montvidas as Tebaldo stood out in his leather overcoat; he stood out also because he is tall and slim, relatively rare for a tenor. Montvidas, a Lithuanian, was a Young Artist at Covent Garden and is now at Frankfurt Opera. He is a Pollione rather than Nemorino and should easily encompass the Duke in Rigoletto. As Tebaldo he was, perhaps, a little more vigorous than was desirable, nudging the role closer to Verdi than was perhaps desirable. But he looked so good, sounded good and shaped the role so well that it hardly seemed to matter.

Sarah Connolly's Romeo, when he arrived, was dressed in a white linen suit. Women are tricky to dress in men's suits and, frankly, designer Leslie Travers attempt for Connolly wasn't flattering. As in her recent Octavian for ENO, Connolly looked a little too mature but sounded fabulous. She captured something of Romeo's impetuousness and youthful ardour.

For Giulietta's first scene a matching triangular glass and metal structure descended, to create a very striking stage image. Reflected in the glass could be seen vague images of Capellio's guards, guarding Giulietta. Marie Arnet's Giulietta was discovered lying on the floor. I gradually warmed to Arnet's Giulietta, but initially her voice seemed a little uncertain. In the upper register it's vibrato gave it a quavery feeling, rendering the voice fragile and uncertain. To a certain extend this could have been to give the character naivety and uncertainty. But fioriture in music of this period needs to be sung with a firmness of voice that Arnet seemed to lack. This was a shame as she beautifully conveyed Giuletta's fragility and her toughness. She was especially good in the scene where Giulietta refuses to flee with Romeo because of her family honour.

Just before Giulietta was due to be married to Tebaldo, Phelan turned the chorus into Giulietta's dream/nightmare - a Giulietta double was manhandled by her father's men and by Tebaldo. In some ways this was an apposite touch, but unfortunately Phelan's drama seemed to find more violence in the piece than was portrayed in Bellini's music. But for much of Act 1, the violence jarred with the music; the people described in Bellini's music are not as rough and uncouth as those that Phelan and her cast created. This was a shame, because much of the staging was thoughtful and effective. For the quartet, Phelan had the chorus act in tableaux, the soloists moving to interact with them as in a dream, then returning to their places at the front of the stage.

But in Act 2 something happened to Bellini's music and to Phelan's production. For much of Act 1 Bellini had raided earlier operas with the result that the piece is fluent but not always striking or moving. Act 2 he wrote from scratch in his new flexible style. Phelan's production similarly transformed itself. The act opened in the aftermath between the two sides. Travers's barely representational set from Act 1 had been transformed into a stunning abstract frozen explosion. Violence behind her, Phelan's production flowed effortlessly and beautifully. Her staging of the final scene was simple and moving, supporting strong performances from the principals.

Marie Arnet's Giulietta will never be my favourite; one or two fluffed notes indicated that she might not have been on the best form. But her Giulietta was touching and moving, fragile and tough. Her singing was nicely phrased and, whilst I found her vocal quality a little too fluttery, she displayed a good feel for Bellini's touching music.

She was ably complemented by Sarah Connolly's stunning Romeo. Connolly combined Romeo's youthful posturing and impetuousness with a seriousness of purpose (both dramatic and musical) with a lovely feeling for Bellini's musical line. The feeling for line which she brings to Handel, helped transform her shaping of Bellini's romantic arioso into something special. How about a Chandos Opera in English recording of this opera.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Review of "Boris Godunov"

When I first saw Boris Godunov in the original version (at Munich's Staatsoper in the '90s) it seemed like abbreviated highlights of the full opera. But then I was used to the very full version done at ENO (with John Tomlinson as a memorable Boris) and at Covent Garden (in the Tarkovsky production, originally with Robert Lloyd).

Both of these, it should be remembered, used David Lloyd Jones's edition and performed everything Mussorgsky wrote including the St. Basil's Cathedral scene from version 1 which did not make it into version 2. In Mussorgsky's 2nd version, the Simpleton sings only in the final Kromy forest scene, whereas in the versions I am talking about he appears twice, both outside St. Basil's Cathedral and in the final scene.

Thus performed, the opera is a long rambling piece, where the chorus features as the protagonist. The original version is more concentrated and Boris emerges more as the lead character. Frankly this shorter version came as something of a relief on a busy weekday evening, when the longer, more leisurely version could have been a bit of a trial.

We saw the new ENO production on Wed. 19th November. Tim Albery's production, in a setting by Tobias Hoheisel, used a fixed set, a wooden barn-like structure with an uneven floor and great doors which could open to disclose events happening behind. The result was apposite for the rougher scenes but less so for those in Boris's apartments.

The feeling was that both set and version of the opera were chosen for reasons of economy; this seemed to be confirmed in scene 3 when the inn consisted of simply a mobile drinks cart and a couple of stools. No Matter. What was important was the performance.

The opening scene sounded as glorious as ever, though the decision to place some percussion in the balcony meant that those of us in the upper reaches of the theatre (we were in the front Upper Circle) got a rather distorted aural experience. The sounds of a struck metal plate dominated. Peter Rose's Boris sounded mellifluous and thoughtful with beautifully shaped melodic lines, meditative rather than deeply troubled.

Brindley Sherratt's Pimen was truly impressive, with Gregory Turay providing able support. Such was Turay's appeal that I rather regretted not having the Polish act so I could hear more of him. Sometimes Pimen comes over as a boring old fart (the Gurnemanz of Russian opera) but not here where Sherratt was vivid and enlivening.

By contrast the Inn Scene was a bit subdued. Yvonne Howard did her best as the hostess but Albery seemed to take the humour rather seriously and little of the rumbustiousness of other productions came through. I have vivid memories of Haakon Hagegaard proving himself a fine comedian at the Royal Opera House.

Boris's scene with his children is shorter in this version though Sophie Bevan and Anna Grevelius proved very apt as the children. But here the limitations of Rose's Boris came through as he only seemed mildly troubled rather than haunted. But I hoped things would improve.

John Graham Hall was an impressive Shuisky, well in control, firm of voice and deeply untrustworthy. Hall's voice was strong and robust, not quite suggesting the oiliness which Robert Tear brought vocally to the role.

By the time of the scene outside St. Basil's Cathedral, we were resigned to the fact that the setting would not make any attempt to evoke the cathedral. The chorus continued to impress and Robert Murray stood out as a very pitiful (in the best sense) Simpleton.

By the closing council chamber scene it was apparent that Rose's Boris was one of the most beautifully sung accounts of the role that I have ever heard. Each phrase was carefully shaped. The only person to come close was Robert Lloyd when he first sang the role, but Lloyd's performance changed over the years as his delivery got closer to Chaliapin's bark.

Because Rose's delivery was totally unlike Chaliapin's bark does not mean it was wrong. In most ways it was a joy to hear the role so gloriously sung. Unfortunately Rose seemed unable to imbue his voice with the troubles that Boris feels. Rose's Boris never seemed more than mildly perturbed and in the final scene, never seemed ill. Boris should feel as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, his eyes are haunted from the first moment we see him. But Rose did not achieve this. Perhaps he needs to sacrifice some of the perfection of his performance.

Rose's Boris was a magnificent achievement, but very much a work in progress. As a result the ENO chorus emerged as one of the principal protagonists of the opera. Which made it regrettable that we lacked the Kromy Forest scene.

It is ironic that the very virtues of this production (strong supporting roles,strong chorus) and the weakness of the central character made me long for the longer version of the opera.

Edward Gardner and the orchestra played the score with a fine sweep. I hope that ENO allow Albery, Rose and Gardner to revisit this work and strengthen it, turning a promising performance into a powerful.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Naxos's 3rd volume of Vivaldi's sacred music is here, on MusicWeb International.
Mallon’s soloists are capable but they don’t quite thrill me ...

Friday, 21 November 2008

Gaudete!

My motet Gaudete in Domino semper, from Tempus per Annum will receive its first liturgical performance on Sunday 14th December 2008 at 6.00pm at the church of All Saints', Margaret Street, London. Where the choir of All Saints, conductor Paul Brough, will be performing it at Evensong.

The motet sets the text of the Latin Introit for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (which is the day when the motet will be performed). The motet was recorded by the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble, conductor Paul Brough, as part of their Testament of Dr. Cranmer CD.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of the Brook Street Band's disc of Handel's English Cantatas is here, on MusicWeb International.
A most welcome addition ...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

An eagle eyed reader has spotted an inaccuracy in my Wigmore Hall season preview. I referred to a recital in January by Jonas Kaufmann, but when you check the site there isn't one. In fact, going back to their original season brochure, Kaufmann's recital was announced for Jan 11 2009, but now seems to have been replaced by one from Patricia Rozario

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of a live recording of Don Giovanni from the Met. is here, on Music Web International.
Historical curiosity only ...

Friday, 14 November 2008

1001 and counting

The previous post was my 1000th. Amazing!

Gleanings from this month's Opera magazine

The interview is with Patricia Bardon, who is singing Maurya in the new ENO Riders to the Sea, something I'm looking forward to immensely. Evidently as a child she wanted to be Tina Turner or Aretha Franklin. She is someone who you associate with Handel, but evidently she waited 10 years before her first major Handel role. The interview was done before the ENO Partenope, but she talks about a previous production which was played for laughs and wonder's whether the work is a comedy. Quite. Interestingly she's performing it again in a production by Pierre Audi, now that won't be comedy! Apart from Handel I still remember her striking performance in Bizet's Djamileh.

The previous issue's article about musical criticism and current standards seems to have created quite a heated correspondence. It is an interesting point about what qualifies a critic to be a critic; I suppose my view would be that it takes someone who has ears to listen and who can write comprehensibly about what they've heard - something that is not always as easy as it sounds.

Some interesting comments about the initial critical reception of Donizetti's Parisina d'Este. Evidently the critics found it noisy and shouted, comments that today seem quite unbelievable. It makes you realise that earlier critical views are always so difficult to assess and to place in context.

Scottish Opera's 15 minutes operas are back next year. Maybe this time I'll get to hear some of them.

Evidently Opus Arte have recorded Jonathan Dove's Pinnochio, I can't wait.

Obits for Peter Glossop, a singer whom I never got to hear live alas, but I still treasure his recording of Verdi's Macbeth in concert with Rita Hunter, doing the original version.

I Masnadieri in Australia - evidently the critic Chorley, after hearing the opera in 1845 in London he described it as the worst opera Verdi ever wrote! Still in Australia, a new Orlando had a theme running through it, sheep! It was also so cut that it lasted under 3 hours.

Over in Austria they performed Karl V by Karl Krenek, as it is 12 tone its rather a different style to his Johnny spielt auf.

Over in Brazil, Ariadne auf Naxos was staged for the first time since the 1980's, with Zerbinetta and her ensemble as a rock group.

And in Paris they did the 4 Act Italian version of Don Carlo, is nothing sacred.

And in Berlin Il Turco in Italia appeared set in Fellini's film era, sound familiar. ENO did a similar thing some years ago, and it didn't work then.

Mozart's Idomeneo in the tiny Cuvillies Theatre in Munich. Hugh Canning raises the problem of doing Idamante as a tenor; having too many tenors in the cast. You wonder what Mozart might have made of the opera had he lived. Still it did have John Mark Ainsley as Idomeneo.

In Venice, Death in Venice made an appearance, 35 years after it was first performed there in 1973. Evidently this was a production which takes the erotic relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio seriously.

At Fort Worth, Of Mice and Men opened in a new production, with the 89 year old Carlisle Floyd in attendance. They also performed Angels in America, Peter Eotvos's operatic version. The reviewer comments, quite rightly, the problems of trying to boil a 7 hour play down to an opera lasting less than 3 hours. You wonder why people try in the first place.

Is it me, or does the best bit of the new operatic version of David Cronenberg's The Fly seem to be the pictures of a naked Seth Brundle. And in San Francisco the imported production of Handel's Ariodante was so bad the review says it makes a good case for opera in concert! More cuts in the Santa Fe Radamisto, which ran for under 3 hours. Still the designs looked fab.

Finally, in We hear that...
Mary Plazas is doing Lucrezia Borgia in Buxton.
Covent Garden are doing a new production of Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki next year.
Nina Stemme is doing Isolde at Covent Garden in 2009-10, I hope they are doing a new production for her!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Schnittke Choir Concerto performance


On Saturday 15th November, London Concord Singers are performing Schnittke's Choir Concerto at the church of St. Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London. The concert begins at 7.30pm and also includes 6 movements from Tchaikovsky's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. If you are around, do come, you'll get to hear one of the choral masterworks of the 20th century and also hear yours truly singing, as I'm a member of the choir. The work divides the choir into 16 parts and at the end goes into 26 parts, so we'll be singing with a few extra singers than usual.

Interestingly both works in the concert date from times of stress in their respective composers lives. Tchaikovsky wrote the Liturgy around the time of his abortive marriage; a time which was very productive musically for him. Schnittke had a heart attack during the composition of the concerto and was pronounced clinically dead.

Premiere of Gabriel Jackson's Requiem

My review of the Vasari Singers concert, which included the premiere of Gabriel Jackson's Requiem, is here, on Music and Vision.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A few months ago I reviewed a CD of Finzi's music with James Gilchrist as the tenor soloist. Gilchrist's voice sounded alarmingly stressed at the top, so much so that I did wonder about his vocal health. But shortly afterwards we heard him live and he sounded his usual mellifluous self. Gilchrist was the soloist on Sunday on the Radio 3 programme about RVW's On Wenlock Edge. Again Gilchrist's voice sounded stressed. I can only put this down to a tendency for recording engineers to place the microphones too close, so that his voice does not have time to settle.

This is a problem which can occur most frequently with big voices. Many years ago Jane Eaglen, in interview, said that at that time she was happy with only one of her recordings, the Chandos Tosca. She explained how big voices were difficult to record and this was born out by her Chandos Aida and Turandot, where the Turandot was superb but the Aida gave her a significant beat in her voice.

We have recently acquired the new Halle Dream of Gerontius, here is its Bryn Terfel's voice which causes concern. Though he is admirably firm of tone and with superb diction, the recording captures an exceptional beat in the voice. I suspect that if you heard him live, this would not be a problem as the voice would have had time to settle in the distance between him and you in the concert hall. Obviously the decision taken on the recording was that immediacy was more important than avoiding the beat in Terfel's voice.

Perhaps it is me, perhaps I'm a little to allergic to excessive beat in voices. But I am becoming increasingly aware that our recorded experience can entirely fail to reflect the reality.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Gabriel Jackson Requiem

Tonight we are off to St. Martin in the Fields (now beautifully restored) to hear the Vasari Singers, conductor Jeremy Backhouse, perform Gabriel Jackson's new Requiem, a 30 minute unaccompanied setting of the Latin text interleaved with other poetry. I have sung in a number of Jackson's smaller pieces and was on the judging panel the year he won the Liturgical category of the British Composer Awards. I very much look forward to hearing one of his larger scale choral pieces.

St. Cecilia's Day

If you feel like celebrating St. Cecilia's Day this year then wander along to St. John's Smith Square, where La Nuova Musica are presenting a programme which includes Purcell's 1683 St. Cecilia's Day Ode Welcome all the Pleasures. Along side this they present the 1684 Ode by Purcell's teacher, John Blow, Begin the Song. Blow is currently still a little under appreciated I think. Not only did he teach Purcell, but they were friends and Blow replaced Purcell at Westminster Abbey on Purcell's sudden death. Blow's one act opera Venus and Adonis (written in 1685) was an important precursor to and influence on Dido and Aeneas

Also featured in La Nuova Musica's programme is Handel's Gloria and Laudate Pueri with the ever wonderful soprano of Lucy Crowe.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of the recital of songs by Argentinian composers Carlos Guastavino is here, on MusicWeb International.
A lovely recital ...

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican

For their latest visit to the Barbican, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants gave us 3 acts from Rameau's comedie ballet Les Indes Galantes.

This was Rameau's 2nd major operatic work, coming just after the tragedie lyrique Hippolyte et Aricie. The new work was a vastly different style, lighter with more emphasis on dance and with a different plot for each act. One of the features of the genre was that each act was separate. Rameau expanded and revised the work over the years so that at its first showing there were fewer acts than now. So Christie's decision to present just 3 acts made perfect sense. Without dancers, sets or costumes, the work could never have quite the same impact. Though the women's dresses were all designed by Christian Lacroix, which added a strong element of style to the proceedings.

The young cast were a wide variety of nationalities with only Stephane Degout being a native French speaker. Though their diction was excellent, Degout's was noticeably more idiomatic than the rest. Ed Lyons started off sounding a little too English but by his 2nd appearance in the final act, he was far more convincing.

We were presented with the acts set in Turkey, Peru and America; each dealt with a love triangle in some way and love always triumphed. Though the large cast (6 singers) were spread across the 3 acts, the show was something of a showcase for Portugese bass Joao Fernandes who was the only singer to appear in all 3 acts.

Musically the evening was triumph with all the singers displaying a good feeling for Rameau's style. We also had some lovely voices and some fine musicality. Sometimes with shows by Les Arts Florissants you get the feeling that with the voices, style triumphs over substance and voice quality, but not here. I felt sorry not to hear more of Spanish tenor Juan Sancho who only appeared in the Peruvian act. Similarly mezzo Juliette Glastian impressed in the Turkish act; but Sony Yoncheva was able to display her winning personality and pert stage manner in both the Turkish and American acts.

The singers performed off the book, moved around and generally 'acted' their roles. No producer was credited. I felt that a slightly stronger hand was needed on the directorial side. Some singers, like Stephane Degout, rightly felt that less was more and he impressed with his stage performance. But Fernandes did rather over-do the dramatics some times and rather needed reining in; this was particularly true in the American act where Rameau's characterisation verges on cariacature; Fernandes came dangerously close to giving a Mr. Bean impression ('Mr. Bean goes to the Opera' perhaps?).

The chorus started out placed behind the orchestra but they too sang without scores and moved about, making entrances and exists. This was inevitably a little distracting, but did add to the general aura of it being a real dramatic event. The only miscalculation was in having them sing from the front of the stage, placed either side of the orchestra. Communication seemed less than perfect and there were occasional moments when the two wings of the chorus got a little out of synch.

Naturally, musician ship was perfect and in the best possible taste. This was a lovely evening of Rameau, beautifully performed and thoughtfully presented.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

RVW Symphonies on the SouthBank

On Sunday the Philharmonia Orchestra, under Richard Hickox, did a 3-part programme at the Royal Festival Hall, performing 3 Vaughan Williams Symphonies. It was the penultimate offering in their RVW series this year, the final one is tomorrow (6th November). On Sunday we got the Tallis Fantasia and Symphony no. 9 in the first part, the 3 Shakespeare Songs sung by Philharmonia Voices and Symphony No. 6 in part 2 and then the concert concluded with Symphony No. 5. The subtitle of the concert was Vaughan Williams the Visionary.

By offering the Tallis Fantasia and the 9th Symphony, as in the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at the Proms this year, we heard what was essentially the first and last of RVW. Hearing it in the improved Festival Hall was a treat, rather than the vast spaces of the Albert Hall. Whilst these spaces can be effective, having the Tallis Fantasia close up, especially with the luxurious string sound of the Philharmonia, was a real treat. In the 9th Symphony the saxophones seemed to be play with slightly less vibrato than their BBC colleagues, which was a great improvement. Hickox has developed into a fine RVW conductor and his account of the visionary 9th was engrossing.

When asked about the final movement of the 6th Symphony, RVW quoted Prospero 'We are such stuff as dreams are made of' so it seemed entirely appropriate to pre-fix the symphony with the Shakespeare songs, perfectly sung by Philharmonia Voices (interestingly with 3 counter-tenors and 1 mezzo-soprano on the alto line). The symphony itself was perhaps not quite as engrossing as No. 9, but still a fine performance. As usual with the final movement, I felt that everything could have been even quieter, though the orchestra showed fine control. Hickox's reading made the movement seem a little warmer than usual; more Prospero's dreams than a vision of the cold war about to engulf Europe.

Then finally the 5th symphony, always a moving piece with its echoes of The Pilgrims Progress. There were a couple of moments when I did wonder whether the players were getting a little tired (the concert had around 150 minutes of music in it). But as ever, the 5th Symphony with its glorious cor anglais solo worked its magic.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Review of Mathilde de Shabran

My review of Covent Garden's new production of Rossini's Mathilde de Shabran is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the first volume of Weinberg's songs from Toccata is here.
Should win many converts for an alternative view of Soviet modernism ...

And my review of Vivaldi's Gloria and Bach's Magnificat from the Academy of St. Martin in the Field is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Stylish and done with clarity and great warmth ...

Monday, 27 October 2008

Not quite famous

The first bit of the new CD to be broadcast; it seems that my string orchestra version of Faith, Hope and Charity made it onto Radio 3, on the Sunday requests programme a couple of weeks ago. And I missed it! Here's hoping its not the last.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Bigger and better?

It is all change on the promotion of new music scene in London as the BMIC (British Music Information Centre), Contemporary Music Network, SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music) and Sonic Arts Network are merging into a single entity - SAM (Sound and Music).

The impetus for the change seems to have come, partly, from the creation of the new Kings Place concert hall complex in the Kings Cross area. The possibility of a close collaboration there was raised (this has since been diluted to a weekly evening curated by SPNM). This let to the organisations deciding to come together as a single entity.

Obviously the idea is that bigger is better. The BMIC promotes information about British Music and has a stable of young composers whose work it makes available. SPNM does something a little similar, by creating events which promote new music and providing opportunities for composers. One of the SPNM's notable annual events it the call for scores where anyone can send scores in with the possibility of them being accepted for performance in the next year's programme. The SPNM has a rotating artistic director rather than a single person for a long period. Contemporary Music Network and Sonic Arts Network are more performance let, concert promotion organisations.

In the current climate, where the arts are not always appreciated as they should be in official government circles, creating an organisation with a larger footprint is probably a good idea. The drawback, from my point of view, is a worry that bigger is not necessarily better, that the personal nature of some of these organisations will disappear. We can only wish them well, and hope.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Kathleen Ferrier in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is here, on MusicWeb International.
Ferrier brings real passion, classical purity and strength of line ...

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

On Saturday we went to see the ENO production of Handel's Partenope and a review of that will appear in due course.

Owing to work surrounding the publicising my new volume of motets from Tempus per Annum and the start of the London Film Festival (5 films so far), one or two things have fallen through the cracks; for which apologies.

The most important item to escape posting was the Salomon Orchestra's concert last Tuesday, 14th October 2008, at St. Johns Smith Square. Nicholas Collon (Principal Conductor of the Aurora Orchestra) conducted the orchestra in a challenging programme of Shostakovich's Festival Overture, Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto with oboist Tamas Balla, and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

It was a bold programme, moving from the bright large scale Shostakovich, with off stage brass band at the end, through Strauss's chamber scale concerto to the mammoth forces of the Stravinsky.

Tamas Balla played superbly in the Strauss. His breath control was phenomenal, giving him a wonderful evenness and mellifluousness of tone. It was a performance which led you to wonder why on earth the oboe did not feature more often in Romantic concertos. He was ably supported by the reduced size orchestra with the various wind instruments, notably the cor anglais, providing some lovely solo moments in dialogue with the soloist.

But inevitably, what everyone was waiting for was the Stravinsky. On a packed stage the orchestra gave a truly committed and forthright performance; rarely have I heard such loud playing in St. Johns. But The Rite of Spring is not really about large, noisy gestures. It is full of small, awkward moments; in fact part of the work's amazing power is the way that Stravinsky builds up his music from a myriad of smaller gestures. The devil is in the detail and much of the detail was spot on here. No, the performance was not quite perfect, but it was pretty stunning and full of lovely moments. Conductor Nicholas Collon not only kept a close eye on detail but ensured that the larger paragraphs were well constructed so that the work seemed natural and inevitable. The performance seemed to fly by and one really longed to hear it all again.

Their next concert is on March 3rd when the programme will include Britten's Violin Concerto, Dvorak's Othello and Martinu's 6th Symphony. Put the date in your diaries now.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Triple bill

There's a fascinating operatic triple bill on at Hoxton Hall this week, presented by a group called Second Movement. They are doing Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, a new opera by Stefan Weisman and Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge. They are a young group who give young singers a chance, and here have come up with an interesting and challenging trio of works

Alas, we're going to miss it because this week is devoted to the London Film Festival!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

If at first you don't succeed

What we seem to have lost, somewhere in the last 70 or so years is the ability of an opera composer to fail, learn and come back for more. Operatic commissions are usually high profile things and and false step in such a spot light is liable to be rather over magnified. I must admit that, when it comes to contemporary opera, I have frequently found myself out of step with many critics. I can think of quite a few dreadful evenings which, when it came to the printed reviews, garnered praise. But as an opera composer myself, it is difficult to be overly critical without implying that you think you could do better.

So when I read the criticism of Dominique Le Gendre's new piece Burial at Thebes premiered at the Globe, I have no idea what really happened on stage there. It would be easy to simply dismiss the new opera as a disaster because of the critical reaction. But critics are not always right. An equally important reaction is that of the audience, but that is rather difficult to gauge. So what do you do? Well generally, I suspect, rely on the judgement of your peers and fellow musicians, which is a comforting way of going on. But not necessarily the best way forward. Opera, after all, is about the art of communication and if the work fails to communicate to the audience then you are stumped.

It is a worrying tendency of modern operas to concentrate on what the composer and librettist mean and want, rather than what the audience want. To give the audience everything they might want is, of course, to risk talking down to them and producing music which challenges no-one. But say simply 'this is what I want, take it or leave it' is foolish as the audience may simply leave it.

What it needs, as I have said before, is some sort of commercial space for composers to try things out without too much pressure. Note the word commercial, I am not sure that workshops and such can ever quite prove the right testing ground. There is too much judgement by your peers and not enough testing in the crucible of audience reaction.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries composers had too cope with pleasing audience and critics. But they were allowed to fail and come back again. Few contemporary composers have the opportunity, or the stomach, to face highly public criticism and simply come back again. I really hope that Dominque Le Gendre does. After all, to get a 2nd opera on at all is a brilliant achievement, and she deserves the opportunity to try again. Don't forget that Richard Strauss's first 2 operas were hardly a success and he was, by then, an experienced composer of concert music.

But there does seem to be slightly odd attitude in the operatic establishment regarding the type of composer needed for a contemporary commission. Sometimes I have heard works by composers who write 'dramatic music', but who do not seem to have the slightest idea about writing for the voice. And composers like Jonathan Dove, who have an extremely interesting body of work behind them, are relatively ignored by mainstream establishment. Having written Flight for Glyndebourne, you would have expected him to get the opportunity write another, bigger work for a main house. Instead he has operated on the fringes, honing his talent and producing fascinating, audience friendly work. Perhaps Dove has risked pleasing the audience a little too much, but his works always challenge on some level or other.

I don't really have a conclusion to this. Its just a musing on an on-going problem

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Recent CD review

My review of the Maria Callas sings bel canto disc from alto is here, on MusicWeb International.
Interesting but not essential ...

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Recent activity

Last night we went to see the last night of La Calisto at Covent Garden and a review will appear in due course.

On Thursday night we saw the Tallis Scholars, conductor Peter Phillips, at Cadogan Hall in a programme of music for Double Choir. The choir numbered just 10 singers (4 sopranos, 1 contralto, 1 counter-tenor, 2 tenors and 2 basses) and they covered a wide range of music in a number of different multi-choir combinations. Inevitably they included Allegri's Miserere, but unfortunately used the traditional version (with high C and incorrect modulation in the solo parts). This version is an effective piece, though not real Allegri. It helps if it has a generous acoustic; whereas here the group performed in a rather dry hall and seemed to thing they were doing real 17th century music. Still the audience loved it.

I was far more taken with the remainder of the programme. Two stunning pieces from Peter Philips (no relation), Ecce vicit leo and Ave Maria opened the evening. For all the pieces, except the Allegri, the choristers sang in a single arc across the stage. This was effective enough, but did not make anything of the spatial separations which these pieces seem to need.

On disc, the choir are notable for the perfection of tone and beauty of blend, sometimes to the detriment of other musical characteristics. Heard live, in a slightly dry acoustic, they presented a far more characterful ensemble. Blended yes, but with individual voices each having their own distinct character. And of course displaying their usual superb musicianship.

The 1st half continued with Andrea Gabrieli's Benedictus dominus and Lassus's double choir mass, Missa Bel'amfitrit'altera. Here the lack of words and movement information in the programme was something of a handicap, I am not sure I liked the audience applauding after the Gloria and the Credo, brilliant though they were.

The revelation of the 2nd half was the Lamentations by Daniel Phinot (1510 - 1556). Phinot was a name new to me and his lamentations were a superb find. One of the stand-out moments was the section sung just by the 4 lower male voices (2 tenors, 2 basses). In completion we had Palestrina's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Double Choir.

This was a brilliant programme and a fine start to Cadogan Hall's first Choral series. To come are programmes from I Fagiolini, The Armonico Consort and another programme from The Tallis Scholars, this latter includes Mundy's Vox Patris Coelestis, so is a must.

The evening had me cycling home vowing to try and acquire some of this music so that we can perform it ourselves, which surely shows what a success the concert was.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The Young Ones

BBC Radio 3 has announced its new clutch of Young Artists. The list has grown from 6 to 8 and, for the first time, includes a period performance practice artist, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. The others are violinists Jennifer Pike (a former BBC Young Musician of the Year) and Tai Murray; cellist Andreas Brantelid, winner of the 2006 Eurovision Young Musician Competition; jazz trumpeter Tom Arthurs; principal trumpeter of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Giuliano Sommerhalder; mezzo-soprano Daniela Lehner (winner of the Marilyn Horne Competition in 2004) and Finnish string quartet Meta4.

Of course, this list raises another clutch of interesting issues. Should the UK tax-payer be funding a scheme (admirable though it is) which includes so many non-UK nationals? Just who is the scheme aimed at and is the principal trumpeter of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra really in need of help and encouragement with his career?

Of course everyone has such young artists schemes nowadays. In the case of the Royal Opera House and the ENO, in the old days they didn't need young artists schemes because the kept roster of young singer on the books. Singers whose careers were nurtured and cared for; I believe Yvonne Kenny was such an artist in her early days.

Now at the Royal Opera House they have the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme, which supports a group of singers, conductors, directors and repetiteurs. This young people (of a variety of nationalities) crop up in small to medium roles in a variety of ROH productions over the year. But next week is Meet the Young Artists Week at the Royal Opera House.

The week contains a number of free events, but the centre piece (for which you'll have to pay) is a double bill of Walton's Facade and The Bear. Young artist Thomas Guthrie is staging The Bear and acting as the male reciter in Facade. In The Bear, all three singers are Young Artists as is Guthrie, the director, and Stephen Moore, the conductor. In the cast is South African bass Vuyani Mlinde who made an extremely big impression when he sang in Grange Park Opera's Thais last year.

Other events include a series of recitals. There are 4 recitals during the week at various times, listed here. There's also an interesting multi-part event on Saturday which seems to be trying to involve the audience in planning the evening's recital - just the sort of thing which will either be exciting or embarrassing, but probably worth the effort of getting a free ticket.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of the King's Consort's recording of Handel's Parnasso in Festa is here, on Music and Vision.
'... some truly superb Handel singing (and playing) ...'

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Nimbus's 2 CD set of opera arias sung by Nicolai Gedda is here, on MusicWeb International.
A vivid glimpse of one of the 20th century’s most versatile tenors ...

Monday, 6 October 2008

In this month's Opera

Gleanings from this month's Opera magazine.

It shouldn't matter, of course, but I couldn't noticing the mention of John Mark Ainsley's civil partnership in his interview. Many gay singers still seem to live in a glass closet, with all mention of partners omitted from interviews. It would be nice to see more of Ainsley in London, he is a sing whom I have always admired. And, for the record, I find his way with Handel as seductive, if not more so, than anything Mark Padmore or Ian Bostridge can conjure up.

There was also an interesting article by Brian Kellow on the decline of writing about voices in musical criticism. The problem, of course, is that it requires time and space to adequately write about differences in voices. You need to keep a register in your head of the different singers and their performances. It is far easier, and quicker, to simply comment on what is happening on stage. I have been to a number of performances where, when reading the reviews, I couldn't believe how some critics seemed to ignore the apparent vocal difficulties or deficiencies of particular singers.

And Robin Holloway describes his sojourn on the green hill of Bayreuth, having never been there before. Neither have I, and its starting to look as if this is one thing that we'll never do. Perhaps I should have made more effort to get tickets when the Chereau ticket was young!

A couple of venerable names in the obits: Nicola Rescigno and Grace Hoffmann. Both blasts from the past whom I was surprised to encounter again.

In Chile, they've just had their first staging of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle amazingly enough, given in a double bill with Suor Angelica. Now there's a new combination, passing strange as well.

And in Bologna, they've done Samson et Dalila for the first time since 1951, and prior to that they'd only done it in 1899. The opera is so ubiquitous here that you forget this isn't true everywhere. And Seattle Opera have just done done I Puritani for the first time in their 45 years of existence. And they had Lawrence Brownlee as an Arturo complete with the high F!

And in Sussex, New Sussex Opera are doing RVW's opera/operetta The Poisoned Kiss in early November. Alas, I'm going to miss it.

In Madrid, they've done a series on Orpheus including a concert performance of the Paris version of Gluck's opera. The event gets just a throw away line at the end of the review, rather frustrating as the haut-contre part was sung by Juan Diego Florez. Now that's something I would like to hear.

In Lyon, Jose Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu who were responsible for the version of Rameau's La Paladins which I disliked, have been let loose on Porgy and Bess.

And in Erfurt, Leoncavallo's La reginetta delle rose received an outing. One of his Italian language, Viennese style, operettas (written as money spinners I believe), it would be interesting to encounter one.

In Stuttgart they've just done Halevy's La Juive in a relatively complete edition which meant that it lasted nearly 6 hours. They obviously had more time to go to the opera in the old days.

An interesting comment on the new Don Giovanni in Chicago. John von Rhein comments on how the director ignored the class distinction which drives the action. How true, this is something that often annoys me in new productions.

Roger Parker's review of Monkey at Covent Garden is interesting for the intelligent way he attacks the problem of what is an opera, and what do we expect to hear in an opera house. Parker, again, gives a thoughtful review of Eotvos's Love and Other Demons at Glyndebourne and gives the lie to the suggestions that Eotvos had mellowed his style.

Age seems to crop up in various places. Rodney Milnes, in his review of the Rudolph Kempe Ring from Covent Garden, admits that he was there for the original Ring Cycles in 1957. And then, I learn that Soile Ioskoski is 51, and I still think of her as a young singer!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Tempus Per Annum volume 2


Further info on the new volume, this time an image of the contents page. You can get a full listing along with the texts here.

Tempus per Annum volume 2


Volume 2 of Tempus per Annum will be out on 15th October and the first copies have come from the press. The volume contains 22 motets covering the period from Lent to Trinity Sunday. I'm very pleased with it.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Recent CD and DVD Reviews

My review of Jennifer Larmore's Royal Mezzo recital (Queens from Britten, Barber, Berlioz) is here.
Will not disappoint even if they don’t quite inspire ...

And my review of a re-issue of a disc of Bach and Handel transcriptions for two trumpets is here.
Superb trumpet playing but unsatisfactory accompaniment ...

And my review of the DVD of Tony Britten's adaptation of Verdi's Falstaff, set in a modern-day Windsor golf club, is here. All three are on MusicWeb International.
Much is lost and not a lot is gained ...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Review of "The Rest is Noise"

My review of Alex Ross's book The Rest is Noise has appeared in the current issue of the Salisbury Review magazine. So I'm afraid that if you want to read the review, you'll have to buy the magazine.

English Touring Opera

English Touring Opera start their Autumn tour next week with performances of Carmen and Rusalka at the Hackney Empire, before visiting 9 other venues.

Rusalka will be given using Iain Farrington's chamber orchestra version which he created for the 2005 Iford Festival. Rusalka seems to be having something of a Fringe revival because it was done at Grange Park this summer. For the ETO production, director James Conway is setting it in Haiti with Jezibaba as a Voodoo Priestess. As locale's go, it is certainly an interesting solution to the problem of realism v. fairy tale in the opera. Jezibaba will be Fiona Kimm with Donna Bateman as Rusalka.

For Carmen ETO have turned to Peter Brook's derangement of the opera, which concentrates on just the 4 principals. I've never seen this live, so I am looking forward to it with interest (and a health degree of scepticism, I must admit).

Monday, 29 September 2008

Continuo questions

When you listen to many recordings of Rossini's Il Barbieri di Siviglia you probably never really think too much about the instruments which make up the continuo group. Until relatively recently it was completely standard to use a harpsichord in this function, even with modern instruments.

I have always been curious about how this anachronism came about. After all Mozart often directed his operas from the piano and Rossini would have done likewise. In the later part of the 19th century, when operas requiring continuo rather died out, some steyed in the repertoire. Il Barbieri di Siviglia was one, which raises the interesting question: when Dame Nellie Melba sang the role of Rosina in the opera, what instrument was used for continuo. Presumably a modern piano.

I have so far been unable to dig up and concrete information on this matter. The only vaguely relevant point that I can come up with was that Vaughan Williams always performed the St. Matthew Passion at the Leith Hill festival with a piano accompaniment, he disliked the 'modern' fad for using a harpsichord. And it was during his lifetime that the harpsichord sprang back into consciousness. Wanda Landowska played it incessantly, Poulenc and De Falla wrote music for her. Though it is worth bearing in mind that her harpsichord was a far bigger, brasher instrument than the modern authentic ones.

So presumably it was this instrument that someone had the idea of bringing into the opera house to make continuo more 'authentic'.

I had hoped that this post would be a fund of concrete information about the use of continuo in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it seems that the information is slightly better hidden than I had anticipated. I will report back when I have dug around some more.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Regis's Renata Tebaldi recital disc is here on MusicWeb International.
Ideal for anyone unfamiliar with Tebaldi in all her youthful prime ...

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Review of Handel's Israel in Egypt

As performed today, Handel's Israel in Egypt is pretty much a tour-de-force for the chorus. In its original version it was even more so, stretching to some 40 choruses. Handel seems to have written it piecemeal. He started with the last movement, the song of Moses, then at some point decided to start with piece with a similar balancing movement by re-cycling the Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline. In between he wrote a description of the plagues of Egypt and the escape of the Israelites. Despite the glories of the choral writing, the work did not go down well with Handel's audience. Even when he created a new version which intermixed lots of solos, the punters still stayed away.

This means that the version of the oratorio which has come down to us is curious. The first movement, the re-worked funeral ode, has failed to stick and as published it now starts with a tenor recitative. There would be some benefit in attempting to re-construct Handel's original 3 act version, but this would give us a very substantial work, one that would be very taxing chorally. Instead, for their performance at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday, the London Chorus under Ronald Corp chose to start the concert with Handel's organ concerto The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. This was a curious choice as the organ concerto entirely fails to set the sombre tone needed for the oratorio. Added to this, the solo organ part was played on a small portative organ which seemed entirely too underpowered for its solo role, especially when accompanied by modern instruments.

The question of balance had worried me with regard to the choral movements, being as the London Chorus numbered some 80 singers and the orchestra were only 23. But as it turned out Ronald Corp managed to keep balance admirably between the two groups. My main cause for complaint in this area was that the chamber organ was too small as a continuo instrument with such a large chorus and the choral movements sounded entirely continuo free.

Ronald Corp favoured quite steady speeds, perhaps to help his chorus. The singers responded admirably to Handel's challenging vocal writing. They displayed all the virtues (and faults) of the traditional amateur choral society. On the plus side they showed vigorous attack, a lively narrative sense, superb commitment, good diction and attentiveness to their conductor. On the negative side, the tricky passage-work was sometimes smudgy, some difficult entries were faulty, the soprano led sound tended to get hard under stress and the choir seemed rather taxed by the difficult double chorus movements.

That Handel would have intended his soloists to sing with the choir is probably indicated by his vocal dispositions. The work requires 6 soloists (2 sopranos, 1 alto, 1 tenor, 2 basses) and few of the singers get more than a single movement in the spot light. Here the London Chorus chose a group of talented young singers who brought great lustre to the proceedings.

Tenor Ben Johnson was a committed narrator and sang his solo aria deftly and dramatically. Alto Magid El-Bushra had rather a subdued stage presence but he has a lovely warm counter-tenor voice which he used musically. Sopranos Mary Bevan and Sophie Bevan delivered their duet ravishingly, I thought it was the best item in the performance until I heard Ben Davies and Sam Evans sing the bass duet, The Lord is a man of war. Rarely have I heard such beautifully shaped and balanced bass singing, certainly no bluster here.

The choir were well supported by the New London Orchestra, though they rarely got moments to shine, Handel keeps them pretty much in a supporting role.

This was by no means a perfect performance but overall the impression was one of supreme committment, vivid story telling and great energy.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Kings Place

To Kings Place last night for the opening party (concerts start in earnest next week with a 5 day festival). It is a truly amazing place. The entrance leads into a large atrium, the ground floor is devoted to box off and restaurants (overlooking the canal) and the upper floors are offices. The arts centre is housed in 2 lower floors, so that the 2 recital halls are underground. A long escalator leads you right down to the concert hall level. Hall 1 is an attractive, wood lined space with the walls designed to give a feeling of openness, you don't feel that you are 2 stories under ground.

During the opening party, there were Royal Academy of Music students playing all over so that in the main hall we heard music for 2 pianos. On this showing, it has fine acoustics and I look forward to hearing a full concert there. Though I am still curious about what it will be like for vocal music. The smaller hall is more of a studio and there was a jazz group playing there.

The only worry about the centre is whether they will be able to attract a new audience to make the journey up York Way. Whilst not being that far from the tube, York Way has in the past had rather a bad reputation. Now that regeneration has started, things are on the up; but the immediate area around the arts centre is still a little odd. Still, the programme for the next 3 months is attractive and the festival next week should go a long way towards attracting people.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust with Janet Baker and Nicolai Gedda is here.
Made doubly tempting by Baker's wonderful Cléopatre ...

My review of Handel's Semele from Naxos is here.
Not an ideal recording ...

My review of the Holst Singers recent disc of music by Veljo Tormis is here. All reviews are on MusicWeb International.
An excellent introduction to Tormis’s art ...

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

This month's Opera

Rather later than usual, here are some gleaning from this month's Opera magazine.


The interview is with Lucio Gallo who, remarkably, started out as a professional pop singer; he sang on cruise ships and even sang Sinatra songs. Quite a training for a distinguished baritone. He then went on to train as a carabiniere and did his first operatic role whilst still doing his carabiniere training.

It is interesting to see that Gallo sings a reasonable amount of Wagner, something which is still relatively rare with Italian singers; Wagner performances in Italy are often cast from non-Italians. Over in Austria, John Treleaven has made his belated role debut as Parsifal. And Ben Heppner has sung his first Siegfried in Aix en Provence. Both are roles I'd like to see the singers in, but as usual I'm not holding my breath for London performances.

In Paris, Anna Netrebko sang Juliet in I Capuletti e I Montecchi before going off to have her (and Erwin Schrott's) baby. I trust that she was not showing too much, as the thought of a pregnant Juliet lends an entirely new premise to the opera. (I saw Rossini's Italiana in Algeri at Buxton with a very pregnant Jean Rigby, which did make sense in terms of the plot). Hugh Canning's review of the Netrebko/Joyce di Donato pairing likened it to the stellar performances by Gruberova and Baltsa at Covent Garden in 1981.

In Strasbourg, Nicholas Snowman has been doing something I've always wanted to do, if I ran an opera house. He's themed the last 2 seasons around the Trojans so that earlier this year you could compare and contrast Elektra with Iphigenie en Aulide.

Stewart Wallace is best known to me for his Harvey Milk opera. His new piece is The Bonesetter's Daughter based on Amy Tan's book. Remarkably the principals consist of mezzos and baritones, no sopranos and no tenors. I'll be interested to find out what the piece sounds like, but it's premièring in San Francisco and the new generation American operas are not making their way across the Atlantic very often.

Frederica von Stade will close her career in 2010, which will mark her 40th anniversary in the business - it hardly seems possible. And in another impossible date, it seems that Dame Joan Sutherland is 81. It seems like yesterday that I saw her in concert in Manchester when I was a student (in the late 1970's), when she seemed to be dressed in a lime green dressing gown.

Further distinguished older singers appeared in Henze's The Bassarids in Munich, where Reiner Goldberg and Hanna Schwarz defied the years to evidently give strong performances.

Then in Houston, 70 year old Gwynne Howell made his role debut (!) as Benoit in La Boheme.

Interesting fact, Puccini's Il Trittico had not been given in its entirety at La Scala since 1983. The new production there in March sounded unconvincing, alas. Lorin Maazel's 1984 finally fetched up at La Scala, but does not seem to have been any better received there than it was in London.

In Turin, they've been digging even further back; their first performance of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia since 1919. They've also just done Salome (the link in my mind between the two being, of course, Caballe who was strong in both operas). Robert Carsen set the action in a Las Vegas night club. Hmmm.

Michael Berkeley's new opera For You, having been cancelled for its Welsh premiere will now be given by Music Theatre Wales in the Linbury Studio in Covent Garden in May. Next year looks like a good time for new UK opera as David Sawyer's new piece will receive its London premiere at Sadlers Wells. Both pieces use well known writers, Berkeley working with Ian McEwan and Sawyer with comic writer Armando Ianucci. Not surprisingly Sawyer and Ianucci's new piece is that rare thing, a comedy!

St. Louis have done Walton's Troilus and Cressia and like Opera North they have given the role to a soprano. But, also like Opera North, they more or less adhere to the cuts Walton made when staging the opera for Janet Baker. I'd love, just the once, to hear the original longer version of the opera. This sounds an ideal scheme for an opera festival or even a concert performance.

Patrick O'Connor's review of ENO's recent Candide makes a similar plea for Lillian Helman's orginal libretto for Candide. O'Connor implies that it might be just as stageable as the more recent cut and paste jobs. Lets try it!

Finally, some juicy morsels from the We Hear That... column.
William Christie and Jonathan Kent are doing a new Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne next year. One wonders what, if anything, they are using for the book?
Divine Joyce (DiDonato) is doing Cendrillon at Covent Garden in 2011
Jonas Kauffman will be singing with Angela Georghiu in Adriana Lecouvreur at Covent Garden in 2009/10. I first heard the opera at the San Carlo in Naples with Marid Chiara and look forward to the London outing with bated breath.
Stephen Medcalf is reported to be directing Capriccio with Susan Gritton at Grange Park next year. I think they've got the year wrong as next year's GPO programme has no Capriccio in it. Perhaps we have that to look forward to in 2010.
ENO are doing L'Amour du Loin in July with Joan Rodgers.
And Covent Garden are getting rid of their dodgy Tristan und Isolde to replace it with one by Christoph Loy. No, I'm not holding my breath either, but if it has the right Isolde.... The production, new next season, will include Matti Salminen as King Marke appearing at Covent Garden for the first time in 30 years.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

New venue

Next week sees the opening of another new concert venue in London. Kings Place is a new building on York Way, next to the Regent's Canal. The building houses a pair of concert halls as well as an Art Gallery. This is London's first purpose built concert hall since the Barbican opened. And before you start quibbling Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square, admirable though it is, isn't purpose built, it started out life as a Christian Scientist Church.

Kings Place houses not only the concert hall and art gallery but is home to the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

You might consider whether London needs another concert hall, but Kings Place seems to be firmly geared towards the chamber music side of things. The larger hall seats some 400 people (for comparison the Wigmore Hall seats 537 people). The introduction of the Barbican and the Cadogan Halls has shown that London seems to be able to support multiple halls. If King's Place's lively opening programme is anything to go by, they should have an interesting time of it.

There is an opening Festival from 1st to 5th October with the various venues in the centre resounding to multiple concerts each day. Their programme for the next 3 months has been published. It is arranged around themes for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings. Mondays are devoted to Spoken Word, Tuesdays to experimental music curated by a variety of musicians such as Graham Fitkin and the spnm. Sundays are their regular chamber music evenings where the London Chamber Music Society's long running concert series comes to rest (having been at Conway Hall since 1929).

Another strand is a series of festivals such as Beethoven Unwrapped, which features the Orion String Quartet, Jean Bernard Pommier (playing all the Sonatas in chronological order) and films of major performances. There is also the London Guitar Festival with a bewildering 20 events. The Aldeburgh Festival are bringing a small selection from this year's festival including a concert performance of The Rape of Lucretia and a concert of music for violin and piano by Stravinsky given by Anthony Marwood and Thomas Ades.

Then in November their is a festival celebrating Norwegian Jazz. Further on in December, Ian Page's Classical Opera Company take residence for a week, giving us a series of Mozart based events including his fifth opera, Ascanio in Alba. Rather more interesting than this (sorry, I've never found Ascanio very interesting), is a programme exploring Mozart's childhood links to London. We also get Haydn in London with another mini-festival exploring the chamber music Haydn wrote for London. The festival is directed by Peter Cropper, formerly in the Lindsay Quartet. Here he plays piano trios with Moray Welsh and Martin Roscoe, as well as the Chilingirian Quartet giving us the late quartets.

This first programme finishes with a Roald Dahl festival, involving a variety of childhood themed works.

One noticeable absentee from this season is choral and vocal music. I know you can probably find vocal events in the brochure but the emphasis does seem to be on chamber music, perhaps in deference to the way that the Wigmore Hall rather defines itself by its song recitals. One area they might like to explore is the possibility of redefining the song recital, rather than ignoring it or simply cloning them.

To a certain extend this first quarter's concerts feel like someone putting as much together as possible and seeing what sticks. The themed days of the week are a good idea if they can attract a regular following. As there is an art gallery on site, it will be interesting to see if some synergy can be created here.

I must admit that the programme has a little too much main stream classical chamber music for my taste, but then I'm rather heretical when it comes to Mozart and Beethoven piano sonatas. Still there is much of interest and I have managed to circle a few events which look outstanding.

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