Saturday, 27 February 2010

A Different Drummer

I have recently finished reading Jann Parry's A Different Drummer, her biography of the choreographer Kenneth Macmillan. It is a mammoth book, perhaps too long, which goes into his career and life in full detail, with descriptions of all the ballets. I felt that in the life parts, Parry included rather too much detail, biography is after all the art of selection. But having summaries of all his ballets was useful as they are not all common currency nowadays and a reader cannot easily re-capture them in the way that you can find recordings of music or reproductions of pictures. Choreography is a fragile and dangerously transient art.

I first saw Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet around 1973, with Natalia Makarova making her debut as Juliet shortly after her defection and the late David Blair as Romeo. I went on to see Anastasia, with Lynn Seymour, Manon, with Anthony Dowell making his debut as Des Grieux, the premiere of Mayerling plus a variety of the one act ballets including such forgotten gems as The Four Seasons. The UK premieres of Requiem and Das Lied von der Erde were both highly anticipated events.

Parry's book helps to fill in the background to these events. Demonstrating how Macmillan's talent seemed to be fuelled by drugs and neuroses, and how the backdrop to the productions seems to have been one of almost constant in-fighting and back-biting at the Royal Opera.

Where I think Parry fails is in the treatment of Macmillan's troubled sexuality. Perhaps because many of the people mentioned in the book are still around, she seems to take what she has been told at face value and notably plays down any possible same-sex encounters that he had. I felt that there was far more going on under the surface which Parry didn't uncover. Though she does an excellent job in relating Macmillan's psychological troubles to the ballets he created.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Orpheus Down Under

Unexpected Opera are back with their production of Orpheus Down Under, an adaptation of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld which debuted at Weatherspoon's The Opera House Pub at Tunbridge Wells last month. Lynn Binstock's production involves a couple on the verge of divorce who become entangled with the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, who are themselves embroiled in competition as “Team Olympus”. You can see it on tour from March 6th, full dates here

Recent CD Reviews

My review of a re-issue of Pro Cantione Antiqua's recording of Palestrina including the Missa Papae Marcelli is here.
The performers wear their learning lightly and never has musical archaeology been produced with such intelligence ...

And another re-issue, the Harnoncourt/Dieskau recording of Handel's Saul is reviewed here.
For Harnoncourt and Fischer-Dieskau admirers only ...

Finally first recording of Carl Rutti's Requiem is reviewed here. All three reviews on MusicWeb International.

Approachable, beautiful contemporary sacred music ...

Thursday, 25 February 2010

To St. George's Church, Hanover Square on Tuesday for the opening concert of this year's London Handel Festival. We were treated to Belshazzar with Andrew Kennedy in the title role. As usual sitting on the hard pews for the length of an entire oratorio was a strain, even though we had a brilliant view perched in front of the organ.

Length considerations meant that we were given a version of the oratorio based on what Handel planned to perform in 1745. It struck me that it was a shame that the festival doesn't seem to perform these big works at weekends. Then we could hear oratorios in a more leisurely fashion without either having to cut them or to worry about getting to the start of the concert straight after work. Festival conditions should surely be the ideal time to experiment with performing everything that Handel wrote for the première of Belshazzar

Review of The Gambler

My review of Prokofiev's The Gambler at the Royal Opera House is here, on Music and Vision.

Review of La Traviata

My review of La Traviata from Chelsea Opera Group, with Nelly Miriocioiu in the title role is here, on Music and Vision.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Review of the Elixir of Love

My review of ENO's American Mid-West production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore is here, on Music and Vision. (Note the site is now a subscription one).
Miller and Bywater seem to have been so keen on ensuring the verity of their 1950s American vision that they succeeded in removing something of the charm of Donizetti's original.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Robin Blaze in Bach

To the Wigmore Hall, again, on Wednesday to see the Retrospect Ensemble, again, but this time in Bach. The programme consisted of two cantatas for alto solo with Robin Blaze, plus orchestral movements from other cantatas. Given that Bach only wrote 3 cantatas for alto solo alone, it was a shame that we could not hear all three.

The ensemble consisted of 5 strings, 3 oboists (playing a variety of oboi) and bassoon. The continuo was played on a large chamber organ by director Matthew Halls. A big feature of the alto cantatas and the other instrumental movements played was that they featured a major organ part rather than just continuo. Matthew Halls, in his spoken introduction in part 2, pointed out that the organ was all wrong. Bach wrote his cantatas for his church in Leipzig and he would have played the bravura organ part on the large organ there. In his recording of the Easter Oratorio and Magnificat, Paul McCreesh used a Saxon church with an organ by a pupil of Silberman with the strings (3.3.2.1) played to the left of the organ and the wind to the right. It is this arrangement that we must keep in mind when hearing these chamber versions of Bach's pieces.

The concert opened with a lovely account of Vernügte Ruh, BWV 170. The scarcity of the strings meaning that the oboe parts received a lovely prominence. This was followed by an organ concerto constructed by Halls from cantata movements, in fact the work mirrors the Harpsichord Concerto in E major BWV1053, but stays in the original key of D major and uses 2 oboes d'amore and a taille. This was charming enough, but somehow lacked body. The organ tinkled away neatly enough, under Halls dexterous fingers, but the work seemed to lack body, simply turning into an array of delicious sounds. Perhaps we need to hear it on a real Silbermann organ!

The 2nd half opened with the sinfonia from Cantata BWV42, Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, a charming and lively piece which made a lot of the 3 oboes. Then finally we had a second cantata for alto Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV35. This is a big work and I wish that I could say that it had a profound effect on me. Bach writes it in two parts, each introduced by an orchestra sinfonia with big organ part (these two also became an organ concerto) and there are 3 arias and two big recitatives. Unfortunately Blaze did not seem to be quite on form and in the final joyful aria he did not reach his usual fine form and the passage-work was a little more untidy than we had been led to expect from this fine singer. That said, there was a lot to appreciate.

So, all in all, not quite a perfect evening but there was much to admire. Note to self, I want to hear these alto cantatas in a real church, not too big, with a fine 18th century style organ!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the Mendelssohn and Bach Magnificats from Yale is here.
Buy it if you are interested in early Mendelssohn. His Magnificat is strongly performed ...

And my review of Handel operatic arias with oboe obbligato is here.
Successfully mixes familiar and unfamiliar and performed with style, charm and a nice poignancy. What more could you want? ...

And here is the review of Racines Sacrees, a fascinating modern take on Middle-eastern music.
Imaginatively mixes modern and ancient in a stylish synthesis ...

Finally my review of Bernstein's Mass is here. All the reviews are at MusicWeb International.
You can’t help but admire the commitment and intensity … a diverse but cohesive whole. … terrific value ...

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Kings Consort

I've had two separate emails informing me that the Kings Consort is alive and well. Their website gives full details. Forthcoming are performances of the Matthew Passion in Lucerne, Spain and the Netherlands. Their current diary page lists October as their next London gig, when they are bringing Bach's Lutheran Masses to the Wigmore Hall.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Toby Spence sings Jacques Brel

On Sunday we went to the Wigmore Hall to see Toby Spence and the Scottish Ensemble, director Jonathan Morton. The Scottish Ensemble is a small string group, numbering some dozen or so players and is currently celebrating their 40th anniversary.

The theme of this concert developed over casual discussions after Toby Spence last sang with the group. Discovering that Spence had a wish to sing the songs of Jacques Brel, Jonathan Morton put together a programmes centring on these. The first half consisted of two of Satie's Gnossienes, beautifully played on solo piano by Andy Massey. The strings played Morton's own arrangement of four movements from Debussy's Children's Corne. The results worked surprisingly well on strings, crisply played by the Scottish Ensemble. Then the group were joined by accordionist Ian Watson for Kurt Schwertsik. This was a striking suite for strings and accordion. Schwertsik was a sometime assistant to Stockhausen but Adieu Satie is most definitely tonal, and each movement is firmly in dance form. The results are engaging and lively, though I am not sure quite what the link to Satie might be.

In the second half, strings, piano, accordion and percussion came together to accompany Toby Spence in 9 songs by Jacques Brel. These worked surprisingly well. Spence sang, naturally, without a microphone so the projection of words suffered somewhat. But the gains were the way he shaped the songs with a full lyric voice. With 14 instrumentalists on stage, the noise was sometimes quite loud. But the results were striking and rather inspiring. Between each song, Spence talked about the songs, his delivery was a little stilted but it helped to create a more casual atmosphere, very unlike the traditional Wigmore Hall concert.

The concert was recorded for the hall's record label and I look forward immensely to the results.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Retrospect Ensemble - Rachmaninov Vespers

To the Cadogan Hall on Thursday to hear the choir of the Retrospect Ensemble, conducted by Matthew Halls, perform Rachmaninov's Vespers. The slightly dry acoustics of Cadogan Hall are not an obvious location for Rachmaninov's rich, dark orthodox inspired piece. But perhaps they formed a fitting backdrop to a performance which was in the lighter, brighter English tradition. There were basses who went down to the famous low notes, but their voices did not resonate with the dark brilliance of some Slav ones. The other singers were competent in their Russian but sang with a light, beautifully moulded sound which was some way from the sounds of Russian Orthodox Choirs. Halls brought out the Romantic feel of the music, pushing it and moulding it to show that this was music by the creator of the famous symphonies and piano concertos.

The choir numbered some 22 singers and was inevitably made up from London's pool of talented singers, I knew at least two, one of whom has recorded for me. But I felt that the singers had not quite sung enough together, there was a strong feeling of a group of individuals rather than an ensemble. There were too many moments when there was a lack of unanimity about when to come in on Halls beat; this was particularly noticeable in an unforgiving piece like P&aauml;rt's Totus Tuus. There was a great deal to admire in the concert and both singers and conductor treated Rachmaninov with utmost sincerity and great intelligence. There were fine solo performances from Ruth Massey and Mark Dobell.

Before the concert started Matthew Halls made a short speech asking people not to clap until the end of each half. But this effect was rather ruined by the very audible harmonica-like sound of his pitch pipe, as he re-tuned the choir between each movement. Also, he informed us that there was going to be a short break in the 2nd half, between parts 2 and 3 of the Rachmaninov. It would have been fine if he'd just said that, but it seemed odd to emphasise that the break was because he was concerned for the health of his singers voices. Each time I've sung in the Rachmaninov, we've sung it through without a break and included another work in the first half.

The biography of the Retrospect Ensemble in the programme now makes no mention of the Kings Consort which seems a great shame and gives me a feeling of history being airbrushed.

The hall was not full but the audience were rightly most enthusiastic about the performance.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Recent CD Reviews

My review of volume 1 of Veracini's Overtures and Concertos from L'Arte dell'Arco is here.

This disc makes a strong case for Veracini's music...

And my review of a recital of Baroque violin concertos from Concerto Italiano is here. Both reviews are at MusicWeb International.

Four 18th century Italians whose music is dazzling - buy it ...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Sun, Italian Lakes and Contemporary music

The 2010 SoundSCAPE festival takes place at Lake Maggiore in the Italian lakes from 14th to 24th July. The festival mixes young performers with up and coming composers to provide a rich mix of coaching and performance. They run courses for both composers and for performers, involving residences from established performers and composers. All taking place in beautiful surroundings, sounds the perfect mix.