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.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Away for the weekend, we managed to catch Evensong in St. Edmundsbury Cathedral on Saturday. It must be confessed that our reasons for visiting were mainly architectural as the cathedral have recently finished their architectural improvements following on from the creation of the new tower. The service sung by the Prebendal Singers who gave us Philip Moore's Responses and his Second Service along with an anthem by Paul Trepte. It was my first acquaintance with Moore's useful, practical but imaginative settings. The choir had a rather distinctive line-up with counter-tenors apparently outnumbering women and featuring on both the soprano and alto lines. The result was attractive and distinctive but not necessarily what the composer had in mind. The resulting performances were convincing but the ensemble seemed not quite to have taken all of the quirks of Moore's writing on board.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Further expansion

The four Advent Motets from Tempus per Annum and the motet Nunc Dimittis are now available from Choirworks.com. Nunc Dimittis is here and the Advent Motets are here.

You can view PDF's of the music before you buy and also buy a licence to re-print copies for the choir. Do check the site out.javascript:void(0)

Friday, 19 September 2008

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Hurrah! The Proms have ended.

I know it seems an awful thing to say, but by the time we come to the end of 2 months worth of of Proms, I am starting to feel rather glad its over. Not that the festival did not include some wonderful gems. But the Festival covers every night from mid-July to mid-September, and every concert is broadcast on Radio 3. So this means that we miss out on Live broadcasts from events such as the Bayreuth Festival and the Edinburgh Festival. I know that these sort of broadcasts are saved up and given out later in the year, but it would be nice once in a while to hear a broadcast from Bayreuth during the summmer.

But I have another, even more venal reason for disliking the festival. Radio 3 uses it as an excuse to take CD Review off the air and replace it by Summer CD Review. I love CD Review and have been listening to it, in all its vicissitudes, since it was called Record Review. It is one of the few essential regular parts of my weekly listening, and I miss it dreadfully during the summer. Saturday mornings are just not the same without Building a Library, even when its a work I don't like or a review with whom I disagree!

Monday, 15 September 2008

Emmanuel Despax

On Friday we went to the Wigmore Hall for Emmanuel Despax's recital. Despax won the Jacques Samuel competition in 2005 and made is debut at the Wigmore Hall as a result. For his latest recital he provided a substantial and taxing recital, giving a profoundly satisfying performance. Opening with Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, Despax demonstrated his technical mastery. But beyond that he displayed great emotional commitment to the music. Despax is still young (he's only 25) but his performances have great maturity and go far beyond mere showing off. As on previous visits to the Wigmore Hall, I rather found the tone quality of the piano a little glassy at the top end, despite Despax's fine technique. The Ravel was followed by Debussy's Children's Corner, almost a piece of light relaxation following the harrowing depths of the Ravel.

There was a single work in the 2nd half, Schumann's Etudes Symphoniques. Despax played these as a continuous whole, rather than a series of separate movements, and his speeds varied greatly thus contributing to the feeling of development. Again this is a taxing work, one that was designed to be so, and Despax was its equal, using his formidable technique at the service of the music.

Following some well deserved applause, Despax gave us two encores. The first, a short movement from Schumann's Kinderscenen. The second, a dazzlingly bravura account of Liszt's Mazeppa. Despite his playing such a long programme, this last piece seemed imbued with energy and virtuosic fire. A brilliant way to conclude a fine recital.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Review of "Flight"

My review of British Youth Opera's production of Jonathan Dove's Flight is here on Music and Vision.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Vernon Handley (1930 - 2008)

There is a good obit. of Tod Handley here. And an interesting interview, on the subject of his Bax series, here.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Expanding Availability

Some of my motets, notably ones from my Tempus per Annum sequence will be appearing on the ChoirWorks.com web site. You can see the catalogue listing here and buy a PDF, with a licence to print, if you wish.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the disc of Requiem masses by Campra and Michael Haydn is here.
New light shed on Haydn’s Requiem ...

And my review of Surprised by Beauty a disc of contemporary choral music from Boston Secession is here.
Strong performances …. if the mix of works appeals look no further ...

My review of the re-issue of Berstein's Serenade and William Schuman's Violin Concerto is here.
Poised and lyrical, capable and musical, without quite setting me afire ...

All reviews are on MusicWeb International.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Beyond Authenticity (3)

The final area of authenticity I'd like to consider is the issue of castrato voices. This is an area where we can never hope to recapture anything like the original aural experience. Castrati manage to combine the power of a male voice with the tessitura of a male one and perhaps elements of the purity of a boy's voice.

Though they were often great virtuosi, not all of them had huge ranges. Senesino was a relatively low contralto with a fairly narrow range. His technical forte was not fast passage work but vocal control (the messa di voce). Whereas the singer who created Ariodante specialised in fast, instrumental-like passage work, so Handel wrote this role rather differently than those written for Senesino.

Last year the BBC broadcast a programme about the castrato voice in which scientists attempted to create an electronically synthesized version of the voice. The result was fascinating and the more that we learn about castrato voices, the more we can educate both the public and operatic managements in the type of voices suitable for castrato parts.

Handel did not always have 2 castratos available to him so that one of his male roles would be sung be a female contralto who specialised in travesty roles. Unfortunately nowadays what can happen is that the castrato part is sung by a woman and the travesty part a counter tenor, owing to the differences in tessitura. But new generations of counter-tenors are proving that they are well able to cope with the higher castrato parts. For me, the variety of voice types in Handel is important, so that when casting we still need to provide a variety of different voices, male and female. If we can have the primo uomo sung by a counter-tenor then we should if possible preserve Handel's vocal dispositions and assign the second'uomo to a woman if that is what he desired (Of course, with Handel, he often broke his own rules when mounting later performances of the operas, but we must differentiate between Handel the composer and Handel the impresario).

We're never going to know what Senesino actually sounded like, but working towards a greater understanding of his vocal technique and sound is a great help towards greater authenticity in baroque opera

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Proms Chamber Music

On Monday we went to Cadogan Hall to hear the penultimate Proms Chamber Music concert. The Nash Ensemble with tenor Mark Padmore gave Samuel Taylor-Coleridge's Clarinet Quintet and Ralph Vaughan William's On Wenlock Edge in the version for tenor, piano and string quartet.

Taylor-Coleridge was only 20, and still studying with Stanford, when he wrote the Clarinet Quintet. It is a beautifully melodic and precocious work. Supremely confident in its handling of the medium and material with the later movements not a little indebted to Dvorak. Rather than being an undiscovered masterpiece the work displays charm and promise. The Nash ensemble gave a fine performance but at the end we came away feeling that the piece was melodic but somehow insubstantial.

RVW's song cycle was shorter than the Taylor-Coleridge but far more substantial Mark Padmore gave a finely honed account, paying close attention to the meaning of the text with his usual superb diction. Some of the most haunting moments were the quieter ones; Padmore's voice seemed slightly uncomfortable when under high pressure at the top. A small price to pay for his intense communicability.

I applaud the BBC for giving the Taylor-Coleridge and an outing but at nearly 40 minutes duration it seemed a little too long for the concert. I would love to have heard some more from Padmore, preferably in works as substantial as the RVW

Recent CD Review

My review of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia, from the 2007 Pesaro Festival, is here on MusicWeb International.

Live … a capable but not inspirational cast ...