Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Stephen Goss's Frozen Music is here on MusicWeb International.
Accessible but distinctively thought-provoking material ...

Monday, 28 April 2008

Review of MacMillan Passion

Last night's James MacMillan première at the Barbican was originally intended to be a 20 minute piece, commissioned to celebrate Sir Colin Davis's 80th birthday. Somehow, thanks to MacMillan's keenness to create a passion setting, this metamorphosed into a full length passion setting (nearly 2 hours of music) for large symphony orchestra (triple woodwind and brass, substantial percussion), large chorus, chamber choir and solo baritone (Christopher Maltman), all presided over with magesterian poise by Sir Colin himself.

MacMillan's take on the passion setting has to be understood in the context of the composer's regular participation in the Good Friday plainsong version of the Passion. This sense of a communal group event (rather than a solo narrator) gave rise to the chamber choir, (called the narrator choir) which takes the role of the evangelist. For this group (some 13 professional choral singers recruited specially), MacMillan writes in his familiar, mellifluous religious style. Often homophonic, with achingly beautiful harmonies, the narrator choir steadily works its way through the gospel narrative, often like a still small voice amidst the chaos. Only at the most dramatic points do the choir's contribution develop into something more complex. This was a profoundly moving device, but there were occasions when you could almost hear MacMillan cursing as he realised quite how much text he had to get through.

Apart from Christ (played by Christopher Maltman) all the other characters were sung by the large chorus. This meant that the sense of the gospel as personal drama was somewhat removed. Instead, the large choral interjections were treated as dramatic events, highly characterised episodes which contrasted greatly with the narrator choir. Around this swirled the orchestra. The results were not infrequently very loud. Contrast and gesture seemed to be an essential part of the work.

MacMillan's ear for orchestral sound was masterly. The narrator choir would be unaccompanied or have individual groups of instruments swirling around them but once quiet they orchestral trickle developed into a torrent.

Maltman's role as Christ was magnified in this version as MacMillan included the Good Friday Reproaches as the 8th part of the Passion (again harking back to his participation in the Good Friday liturgy). Maltman was masterly, delivering MacMillan's complex, melismatic lines with passion and intensity; this was certainly no tentative first performance.

The LSO chorus was highly taxed by MacMillan's complex and dramatic choral writing. They delivered everything with passion and commitment, though at times their response lacked the requisite sophistication. At the end of each part, MacMillan includes a relevant Latin text, set for the large chorus and orchestra. Some of these were truly magical, but a couple required the sort of complex modern polyphony which MacMillan is wont to write for choirs, but which is relatively unfamiliar territory for a large scale chorus. This is the sort of piece which the chorus will grow into I think. But, given the taxing nature of the writing and the sheer volume of the choral contribution, it is a tribute to the choir's energy and commitment that they gave such a fine performance.

The stage was very very full and there were times when this piece felt too big for the Barbican Hall. It was a shame that the narrator choir had to be tucked away at the side rather than taking centre stage as they ought to. In his programme note MacMillan talked about the austerity of the orchestral writing, just proving how bad a judge of their own works composers can be; if this was austere, I hesitate to consider what a more richly orchestrated version would contain.

This performance in which vivid and noisy violence contrasted with serenity, peace and aching beauty. For me the violent bits were just a bit too noisy too often, almost as if there was not middle way. Perhaps in a bigger hall this would change. I found the work fascinating and beautiful, awestruck at the composer's vision.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Review of Atalanta

My review of the London Handel Festival's production of Atalanta is here, on Music and Vision.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of the Naxos disc Callas: Puccini Heroines is here, on MusicWeb International.
Don’t be put off. If you can get beyond the infamous wobble there is much else in here as well

O Thou Transcendent

We finally watched Tony Palmer's RVW film, O Thou Transcendent last night. As a convinced RVW lover, I found much of the material fascinating, but other aspects of the film seemed less convincing. I was also unsure about how much of the film would appeal to a non RVW lover.The basic format of the film, which intercut extracts of his music with interviews and archive film, seemed a bit restless. Sometimes the musical extracts were profoundly apropos, but at other times they seemed to be mere padding. It does not help that I have a profound dislike of watching extremely composed and stylised views of orchestral players. But then we'd get a discussion of his work on the English Hymnal and would cut to Gloucester Cathedral choir singing one of the hymns, or discussion of folk song collecting would move on to a real folk singer singing one of them. At these times Palmer was doing exactly what should be done in a musical film biography.

The collection of distinguished figures who gave interviews were a mixed bag. Fascinating though it was to hear Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Neil Tennant and Anthony Turnage, their contributions paled into insignificance compared to the contributions from Roy Douglas (RVW's amanuensis) and RVW's niece Belinda (I am a little unclear whether she was RVW's niece or Adeline's). Tippett also managed to put RVW's neglect in the 50's neatly into perspective, comparing his initial reaction to RVW's music to his appreciation in later life of the profound shaping influence RVW had on his successors.

I was rather disturbed by the films intermittent device of having an uncredited voice providing the narrative. At times this was Stephen Johnson but at other times it was another voice speaking as RVW himself. I am unclear whether this was a real RVW interview (though there were some archive clips of him) but it felt like a construct taken from his writings (I recognized odd passages). Added to this there was the naming of Holst problem - RVW never called Gustav Holst by the name Holst, when they were students he called him Von Holst (Gustav's original surname) and then Gustav; it was only when they were on first name terms that Holst dropped the Von.

The film went to a great deal of trouble to establish that RVW's music was not easy stuff. Though they did not say so, they intercut the finale of Symphony No. 6 in a way which suggested it was a bleak prognosis on the world when RVW always insisted its origins lie in the phrase we are such stuff as dreams are made of. The whole Job sequence was a joke, there was footage of Margot Fonteyn dancing (not in Job) over layed with miscellaneous evocative dancers. Given that the Birmingham Royal Ballet have performed the ballet at Covent Garden in living memory, couldn't a little archive footage have been found.

It was seriously interesting to hear Michael Kennedy and others discussing RVW's relationship with Ursula and its sexual nature. Also Jerrold Northrop Moore touched on the point that Adeline's illness might have had a psychomatic/pyscho-sexual origin and said that he had exchanged letters with Kennedy on the subject, but Kennedy did not touch on the subject in his interview.

I understand that Palmer cut his film down from around 5 hours and I would love to see a version which included far more talking and far less music. I found the Ursula VW interview clips rather unhelpful and would have thought that they might have found room for a rather longer, more personal interview (assuming that such material exists).

All in all it was a wonderful experience, but not one which will appeal to everyone I think

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

On Monday we went to see Handel's Atalanta at the Royal College of Music, presented as part of the London Handel Festival. A review will appear in due course.

Atalanta is not a long opera (3 acts of 50 minutes) and the LHF performance started at 7pm and ended at 10pm. As with the recent Barbican performance of Flavio, two acts were compressed into one, so there was only 1 interval. With an opera of this length could we not have run to a 2nd interval and finished 15 minutes later!

On Saturday we're off to see the new production of The Merry Widow at the London Coliseum. Thankfully Jude Kelly's modern concept has not survived her departure from the production. Instead we'll get a carefully crafted, moderately traditional presentation from John Copley. One which will make sense of the music and give ENO a production which will eminently revivable.

I've not seen the piece since Catherine Wilson did it with Scottish Opera in the 1970's (or early 1980's)

Friday, 18 April 2008

Choruses from Passion 6

"Choruses from Passion" No.6 - It was for love I lived, FifteenB, conductor Paul Ayres, recorded live, February 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Victoria de Los Angeles's recording of Manon is here.
A precious record of a vanished performance style ...

My review of tuba virtuoso Oystein Baadsvik's latest CD is here.
A disc to enjoy and to challenge ...

And my review of the latest disc from the Quator de Guitar de Versailles is here.
Just sit back and enjoy ...

All three are on MusicWeb Internatioanl

Review of Flavio at the Barbican

Handel seems to have had a fondness for librettos which originated in Venice in the late 17th, century. These librettos were often re-used and re-edited, so his knowledge of a 17th century libretto would have been based on a more recent outing. The typical Venetian format, which was going out of fashion by Handel's youth, mixed comic and serious scenes (think Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Handel's collaborators usually excised most of the comic characters, but sometimes some survived along with something else, a certain wryness, a slightly lighter, sideways attitude to opera and the plot. The results are not really comedies, Handel does not seem to have done out and out comedy, but in Flavio, Partenope and Serse the plots are just as convoluted as in, say, Radamisto but Handel's music lightens a little and allows us to smile at the situations rather than frown.

Flavio has had some success in London in recent years, having been performed here by both Christian Curnyn's Early Opera Company and the Opera Theatre Company (at the Covent Garden Festival). I think that directors must be attracted to the rather sarcastic way that Handel and his librettist (the original libretto by Matteo Noris was adapted by Nicola Haym) treat the King Flavio and his two senior courtiers, Ugone and Lotario. These latter two get involved in a ridiculous argument which would be completely laughable except that it involves their children in some pretty serious business - a duel and a cancelled marriage contract.

For their concert performance at the Barbican on Thursday, the Academy of Ancient Music had assembled a pretty strong cast. Iestyn Davies was King Flavio, James Gilchrist and James Rutherford were Ugone and Lotario, Robin Blaze was Ugone's son Guido, Karina Gauvin was Guido beloved Emilia, daughter of Lotario, Renata Pokupic was Teodata, Ugone's daughter in love with Vitige, Maite Beaumont.

Handel wrote the opera for a strong cast, Senesino was Guido, Francesca Cuzzoni was Emilia, Marherita Durastanti was Vitige and Anastasia Robinson was Teodata. This casting means that the leading couple, Guido and Emilia, are entirely serious (Senesino did NOT do comedy) and their troubles are musically very dramatically presented. (Guido kills Emilia's father and this rather messes up their betrothal, but all comes out happily in the end). Vitige and Teodata are equally seriously in love, but Teodata catches the eye of King Flavio and Teodata flirts with him, or pretends to, causing Vitige some pretty serious jealousy.

Add to this, the two comic characters, Lotario and Ugone each get a pretty serious, if over the top, aria and you have a really mix of styles.

The first act was relatively low key, amusing in the court scenes and pleasantly amorous in Guido and Emilia's. Handel seems to have found form in Emilia's arias and Karin Gauvin was superbly on form, giving a strong performance. But in Act 1, Guido is simply a man in love and Handel does not seem to have found this inspiring, his arias for Senesino are attractive but do not really hit hard. Robin Blaze did his best and sang at his most beauteous. Iestyn Davies had a great deal of fun as Flavio, being unreasonably imperious, Gilchrist and Rutherford managed to mix wry comedy with some pretty good singing. Maite Beaumont was entirely convincing as the love-lorn Vitige and Renata Pokupic simpered beautifully as Teodata. (Anastasia Robinson did not have the strongest of voices but she did have a very attractive manner; she went on to marry one of the aristocracy).

But in act 2, things get more serious. Guido and Emilia must go through trials and both Blaze and Gauvin responded superbly, both producing stunning held lines and dazzling coloratura by turns. Though this was a concert performance, sung from the score, the cast moved around, sang to each other and reacted, there was even a little comic business. The result was to engage our emotions and attentions even more so that both Blaze and Gauvin created characters with whom we emphasised. We didn't just admire their singing, we were really rooting for their characters.

Similarly Beaumont, with her beautifully plangent, laser sharp voice was superb as Vitige is required to woo Teodata for his master. Pokupic seems to have a nice line in wry comedy, she created a superb flirty character in Teodata, by the end of the opera she had you eating out of her hand, even though you were not sure whether Teodata was flirting in earnest or not. Pokupic's Teodata was well sung, and would be a real handful to any man.

The singers we well supported by the Academy of Ancient Music under Hogwood's excellent direction. The orchestration is relatively discreet, just flute, oboes and bassoons added to the strings, but Handel is never less than interesting and the Academy responded well.

This was an involving and engrossing evening, combining superb singing with some real drama. So engrossing was it that the decision to omit the 2nd interval (a bad habit of the Barbican's) went almost unnoticed.(Given that the opera finished by 10pm I fail to see why we could not have had our 2nd interval).

Next year the Academy will be doing Arianna in Creta, I can't wait

Thursday, 17 April 2008

ENO New Season

English National Opera have announced their new (2008/09) season with a total of 15 different production, 10 of them new to ENO. The season is a curious mixture of conservatism and daring.

Regarding repertoire, they include 2 contemporary operas but stick to well tried ones - Adams's Doctor Atomic and Saariaho's Amour de Loin. Though it will be good to see how Penny Woolcock (who directed the film of Death of Klinghofer) responds to Doctor Atomic as its libretto was very much the construction of its first directer, Peter Sellers. It will be the first major staging of Saariaho's popular work in London, though it has appeared in semi-staged concert at the Barbican. No details of the creative team or performers of the Saariaho have been released.

Katie Mitchell will also be creating a new piece of music theatre at the Young Vic based on Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, which might or might not come in to the contemporary category - we'll have to wait and see to be certain.

Regarding earlier repertoire, they are doing new productions of Handel's Partenope (ENO's first ever) and RVW's Riders to the Sea (ENO's first since 1953). But The remainder of the 18th/19th/early 20th century repertoire traverses familiar ground - Cav and Pag, Aida, Boris Goudonov, Magic Flute, La Boheme, Jenufa,Peter Grimes,Cosi fan tutte and Madam Butterfly. Though all these operas are well worth doing, it is a shame that they have not included at least something off the beaten track (Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, some Marschner or a rarer Verdi).

Another puzzling thing is that the La Boheme and Peter Grimes are both being done in new productions. Peter Grimes was last performed at the Coliseum in 1999 in the 1991 Tim Albery production. My memories of this are very positive and whilst David Alden's take on the opera will be fascinating, couldn't they have simply revived Tim Albery's production. Similarly Jonathan Miller is doing a new La Boheme (set in Paris in the 1930's), thus ditching Steven Pimlott's rather striking 1993 production. There might be good reasons for this but the management seem to be rather content to cycle round the same small group of operas, constantly re-inventing their attitudes to them.

The new production of Cav and Pag is welcome because it last appeared at the ENO in 1986 in a rather underwhelming production. It will be interesting to see what Richard Jones makes of it.

Anthony Minghella was meant to be doing Eugene Onegin but that has obviously been cancelled. Instead they are reviving his Madam Butterfly. The new Cosi van Tutte will be directed by the Iranian film director abbas Kiarostami.

Regarding casting, there is a good mixture of interesting young people and old stalwarts. Cav and Pag have a fine set of relatively young singers including Peter Auty and Mary Plazas. Partenope has Christian Curnyn as its musical director and starts Rosemary Joshua, John Mark Ainsley, Patricia Bardon and Iestyn Davies, with Christine Rice in the castrato role of Arsaces. Incidentally Christopher Alden's production is said to be inspired by Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando (why one wonders!).

Tim Albery's new Boris Godunov, in the 7 scene version, stars Peter Rose as Boris. Jonathan Veira makes one of a number of appearances this season as Varlaam.

RVW's Riders to the Sea has Patricia Bardon as Maurya. The opera will be directed by actress Fiona Shaw and will be presented with a new prologue. The opera will be performed on its own rather than as part of a triple bill, an interesting and daring idea.

La Boheme has a number of names that are new to me, but Alfie Boe continues his London stage appearances with a welcome return to Rudolfo.Doctor Atomic will have Gerald Finley reprising his rolde as Dr. Oppenheimer. Susan Bickley returns as Dido in Katie Mitchell's extravaganza at the Young Vic.

David Alden's Peter Grimes has a strong cast of returning singer; Amanda Roocroft will be Ellen Orford, with Gerald Finley as Balstrode, Stuart Skelton as Grimes, Della Jones as Auntie (her first appearance here since 1998) and Felicity Palmer as Mrs. Sedley. Interestingly both Skelton and Roocroft worked with David Alden on the recent Jenufa.

Susan Gritton and Fiona Murphy will be the sisters in Cosi van tutte.

In the revivals, Judith Howarth is Cio Cio San, Amanda Roocroft returns as Jenufa with Robert Brubaker as Laca and Tom Randle as Steva, Robert Lloyd sings Sarastro.

Edward Gardner is conducting 3 new productions and 1 revival (Madam Butterfly). The 7 other conductors are all young and talented, interesting names but the roster lacks a sprinkling of major names from the older generation - surely someone like Mark Elder could have been tempted back.
All in all an interesting season, but one which raises many questions.

Noodling along

I've just been listening to a disc of a new piece which includes quite a number of tunes. The composer has included familiar hymn tunes but also mixed in some of his own tunes to create an accessible mix. Not everyone can write tunes, reportedly Michael Tippett was at one point interested in writing a full blown musical but was put off by the fact that he would have to write tunes. One of the criticisms levelled at Stephen Sondheim's musicals is that he does not write tunes (or not many of them). I happen to think he does and am very fond of his music. But it must be admitted that his music is rather more complex than that of Lloyd Webber or Richard Rogers.

Somehow, this ability to write tunes is something that is no-longer a prerequisite of a composer, it is something that we lost during the 20th century. Partly this is the influence of serialism, but even non serialist composers suffer from it. After all, Britten wrote beautifully for the voice, but his operas contain very few BIG tunes; somehow he manages to be vocally expressive whilst retaining complexity and still create an approachable result. The problem comes when composers are not geniuses and the results start to sound like semi-atonal noodling.

This is something that instrumentally trained composers often lapse into when writing opera, the results are undeniably effective as a totallity but the individual vocal lines are often uninteresting and can be unnecessarily difficult. At its worst this style sounds like a radio play with backing music rather than a music drama where the drama develops through the music AND the voices.

Of course, what constitutes a tune is also a moot point. I have always been able to write tunes, but it is not something that I can necessarily do to order. Particularly, the desire to write long breathed melodies is frustrated by the music's need to keep fragmenting into smaller components. But even when I think I am being tuneful, there is a danger that others think otherwise. I have long been influenced by gregorian chant and this influence finds its way into much of my vocal writing, even when it is not sacred. The result is that I can happily noodle along with just 3 or 4 different but adjacent pitches. I usually think the results tuneful and expressive. Those of my friends who similarly respond to chant are positive, but
others feel that the results are not particularly tunes, even if the music itself is not difficult.

That is another interesting thing about the multiplicity of styles in today's musical world; to write with recognisable tunes does not necessarily mean that your music is difficult. The converse is also true, but there are few composers working in complex styles who write melodically with tunes. Perhaps that is what we should be aiming for.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Handel at Home

On Friday, the London Handel Festival migrated from its usual venue (St. George's Church, Hanover Square) to the Wigmore Hall for a concert entitled Handel at Home given by the London Handel Players. Flautist Rachel Brown, a string quartet led by Adrian Butterfield with Laurence Cummings on harpsichord, played a programme of Handel's chamber music and music arranged for chamber forces. The programme included the Flute concerto in G minor, HWV 287 (originally thought to have been an oboe concerto), the Violin sonata in D major, two trio sonatas and a selection of arrangements of arias from Solomon, Semele and Alcina.

The arias were all based on the arrangements published by Walsh during Handel's lifetime, but Brown had made adjustments to these adding extra parts and details from other, later arrangements. Of course, Handel's large scale pieces were not far away in the other items in the programme. The fugue theme in the 2nd movement of the Violin sonata was borrowed from Solomon, the first 3 movements of trio sonata Opus 2, No. 3, are related to the overture to Esther and the trio sonata Opus 5, no. 4 includes a Passacaille which was originally intended for Radamisto.

This was an evening of charming and relaxed music making; the players are obviously all familiar with each other and their interplay was natural and musical. Perhaps the only problem was that the aria arrangements did not quite work as the centre piece of the programme. The transcriptions seemed to be only 2nd best, you longed for the real thing.

The audience seemed to be mainly composed of London Handel Festival regulars, all knowledgeable, they responded with delight to the programme. A response that was rather too audible in the case of my neighbours, who laughed audibly at various points in the proceedings, interrupting the flow of the music for me.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Choruses from Passion 5

"Choruses from Passion" No.5 - Travel Lightly, FifteenB, conductor Paul Ayres, recorded live, February 2008

Next Premiere

Tomorrow, my new verse anthem God be merciful unto us, will be premièred tomorrow. The anthem is a commission for the wedding of a friend and will be performed at the wedding in the church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate tomorrow. The anthem is written for choir, organ and two soprano soloists and is slightly closer to a strict verse anthem form than my previous anthem. I hope to arrange a public performance of the anthem at a later date.

Oh, do keep up!

About the same time as I found out that we would be missing Thomas Quasthoff at the all Bach concert at the Barbican last week (with Bernarda Fink and the Freiburg Baroque Ensemble), I learned that Sandrine Piau would not be appearing in the forthcoming concert performance of Handel's Flavio (with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music).

Somehow or other this fact has escaped the notice of the Independent and Michael Church's preview of the Flavio performance at Symphony Hall on Birmingham (on April 15th) is mainly devoted to an interview with Sandrine Piau. Anyone who goes to Birmingham expecting to see her will be disappointed, though the opera still has a very, very good cast.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

The Proms!

So the new Proms season has been announced, the first one in which Roger Wright has had some hand. I don't know whether it is because of Wright's involvement or simply because of a happy confluence of anniversaries, but I find that there is much to look forward to in the season.

As might be expected, there is a lot of Vaughan Williams and a lot of Messiaen; in itself a slightly strange confluence, but Wright has not gone all the way and programmed an RVW/Messiaen concert! We are getting 5 RVW symphonies, plus Job and the Piano Concerto (with the wonderful Ashley Wass), in total some 15 works. Andrew Davis is doing the 9th Symphony and A Serenade to Music with an exciting young cast which includes Sarah Tynan as Isabel Baillie (a role taken many years ago by Amanda Roocroft). But we get none of the operas and none of the major choral works; surely the Proms is the ideal place to do Sancta Civitas. Given that other orchestras are doing quite a few RVW symphonies this year, we are getting full exposure to this output without much balancing work.

The Messiaen includes some 17 works including St. Francois d'Assise from Netherlands Opera with Rodney Gilfrey in the title role. Also in the commemoration spot is a goodly handful of music by Stockhausen, just what the proms should be doing. Also, slipped discreetly in to Prom 24 is Dame Ethel Smyth's Concerto for violin and french horn; not, perhaps, her greatest work but nice to have as she was born in 1858.

Rachmaninov and Beethoven seem to be the other composers who get a significant look in this year. Handel is represented by a single work, but it is Belshazzar with Sir Charles Mackerras conduction the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Opera is a strong feature this year. We get Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione de Poppea from Glyndebourne, the aforementioned St. Francis, Rimsky Korsakov's Kaschey the immortal (twinned neatly with Firebird from Jurowoski and the LPO, and Janacek's Osud.

Other stray works of interest include Stanford's 2nd Piano concerto from the Ulster Orchestra, Janacek's Glagolitic Mass in Paul Wingfield's reconstruction of his original version with BBC forces conducted by Boulez. And Grace Williams makes a rare Proms performance with her Sea Sketches. Vernon Handley is conducting Nigel Kennedy in the Elgar Violin Concerto, paired with Bax's The Garden of Fand and Andrew Kennedy in Finzi's Intimations of Immortality (one of the essential concerts that one).

The first Sunday is a Folk day, mixing RVW's folk inspired music with much, much else.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

In Transposition

Recently I've been listening to a disc of songs where the vocal line is transposed an octave (downwards) from what we normally are used to. Listening to Konrad Jarnot singing Elgar's Sea Pictures made me think, over again, about song in transposition.

If a male singer appropriates female repertoire, or vice versa, the critical comment seems to mainly be about how suitable the appropriation is and how convincing the singer. It is now relatively common place to hear female singers in Schubert's big song cycles and we have even had a man singing Schumann's Frauen Liebe und Leben.

Now my objections, my questioning do not relate to sex but to vocal tessitura, (I'd be quite happy to hear a counter-tenor in Frauen Liebe und Leben or a low contralto/tenor singing Schubert at pitch). My question is related to what the composer actually wrote. When writing songs myself, I have always been concerned about the piano part obscuring the voice, or vice versa, and also it supporting the voice as necessary. I find that when you simply transpose the vocal part up (or down) you completely alter the relationship between the vocal line and the piano part.

Perhaps Schubert or Schumann did not mind this, after all Schubert sang his own songs to his friends. But most song writers take a great deal of care with their songs and I feel that we transpose the vocal parts in a willy-nilly fashion which may not always be suitable. There are moments in the new Sea Pictures where the voice descends to depths which mean that he is barely supported by the piano; a distinctive effect which may not have been what Elgar wanted.

Now most composers are keen to encourage performance so Schumann, Schubert et all might have been entirely happy for this process to happen, if it brought more performances. But surely there is a beau ideal at which we ought to be aiming and that when commentating on a performance which alters the balance between vocal line and piano, we ought to at least comment that this may not be what the composer ideally wanted.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Bernada Fink and Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Is it the Barbican which has bad luck, or is it me? Thomas Quasthoff was ill, so Saturday's concert at the Barbican had to be re-designed. In the event Bernada Fink sang 2 Bach cantatas and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra played Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe and his Suite No. 2

Fink and the ensemble opened with the cantata "Geist und Seele wird verwirret" BWV 35. Bach's cantatas make slightly odd concert works. They are, admittedly, wonderful works but they are designed for liturgical use. Handel's cantatas were generally written for concert performance and as such have a structural design which reflects this, including usually some sort of rousing finale. Bach has no need, nor interest, in rousing finales as his aims are all related to the sacred aspects of the text. This means that with BWV 35 and with BWV 170, the conclusion of the cantata was a little down beat.

Fink was an admirable soloist, firm of voice, generous and warm of tone, clear expressive German and she was accompanied sympathetically by the conductorless Freiburg group.

The group make a virtue of collegiality, but this does not always pay complete dividends. The performance of Bach's Suite No. 2 included some lovely sprung rhythms and infectious tempi; but I would have liked the flute to be a little more spot-lit. Too often he shadowed the 1st violins in a way which was rather too discreet for my taste. Only in the final movement, the Badinerie, did he come into the spotlight.

The second half opened with the Sinfonia from BWV 209. This was followed by the Concerto for Violin and Oboe with Anne Katharina Schreiber violin and Katharina Arfken oboe, both regular members of the ensemble. Again the issues of collegiality came to the fore. Schreiber's solo violin line, though supremely played, was just a little too discreet. Arfken's admirable oboe tone cut through the textures and was radiantly in charge, but Schreiber seem to play 2nd fiddle rather than the pair being equals. Perhaps I am too attuned to hearing this music on modern instruments and the fault lies not with the players but with my ears.

Fink returned for the final scheduled item, Cantata BWV 170, in another fine performance. Such was the audience enthusiasm that she returned for an encore.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Choruses from Passion 4

"Choruses from Passion" No.4 - If you should die, FifteenB, conductor Paul Ayres, recorded live, February 2008

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Choruses from Passion 3

"Choruses from Passion" No.3 - This was the night, FifteenB, conductor Paul Ayres, recorded live, February 2008

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

April Fool

Music Web International always does a number of spoof reviews for April Fools Day, mine was one of them this year, (link)

Review of Macbeth

My review of Chelsea Opera Group's performance of Verdi's original, 1847 version of Macbeth is here, on Music and Vision.

Choruses from Passion 2

"Choruses from Passion" No.2 - If this were your final day on earth, FifteenB, conductor Paul Ayres, recorded live, February 2008

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Choruses from Passion 1

"Choruses from Passion" No.1 - Let us Prepare for Death, FifteenB, conductor Paul Ayres, recorded live, February 2008

The first of my posts from February's FifteenB concert at St. Peter's Eaton Square.

Recent CD Review

My review of the Choir of the 21st Century's striking new version of Philip Glass's Another Look at Harmony, Part 3 is here, on MusicWeb International.
A striking new sound to Glass’s familiar world ...