Monday, 29 February 2016

Musical Spring in Belgravia

St Peter's Church, Eaton Square
St Peter's Church, Eaton Square
St Peter's Church, Eaton Square is the venue for the Spring 2016 season of Eaton Square concerts. The season opens on 3 March 2016 with the Fitzroy Quartet performing Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bartók. The quartet is the 2016 winner of the St Peter’s Prize, which Eaton Square Concerts awards in partnership with the Royal Academy of Music to give young string quartets a much sought-after London performance platform. Other performers in the season include the London Bridge Trio (Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Kate Gould and Daniel Tong), and cellist Gemma Rosefield with pianist Tim Horton. 

The choir of Clare College, Cambridge, conductor Graham Ross will be performing a programme which includes Barber's Adagio and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms with music by Lauridsen and Howells. The season concludes with the pianist Peter Donohoe performing Scriabin, Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven.

The church was originally built in the 1820s with a fine portico fronting a rather severe building, this radically altered in the later 19th century to create an ornately Romanesque interior. This was all destroyed by arson in 1988 and the new church, which re-opened in 1991 preserves the original portico and exterior but with a new, stylish interior.

Full information from the Eaton Square Concerts website.

Dramatic involvement - Verdi's Il Trovatore from Chelsea Opera Group

Sally Silver, with Andrew Greenwood and Chelsea Opera Group in Verdi's Il Trovatore - photo Robert Workman
Sally Silver, with Andrew Greenwood and Chelsea Opera Group
in Verdi's Il Trovatore, photo Robert Workman
Verdi Il Trovatore; Sally Silver, Jonathan Stoughton, Marianne Cornetti, Roland Wood, Jihoon Kim, cond: Andrew Greenwood; Chelsea Opera Group at the Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 28 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Dramatic involvement and interesting role debuts in one of Verdi's best known operas

Chelsea Opera Group is known for its performances of more infrequently performed works, but occasionally the group turns its attention to the more well known repertoire. On Sunday 28 February 2016 at the Cadogan Hall, Andrew Greenwood conducted the Chelsea Opera Group in Verdi's Il Trovatore, with Sally Silver as Leonora, Jonathan Stoughton as Manrico, Roland Wood as il Conte di Luna and Marianne Cornetti as Azucena, plus Jihoon Kim as Ferrando, Natasha Jouhl as Ines and Samuel Smith as Ruiz. The interest of the performance lay partly in the fact that two of the principals, Sally Silver and Jonathan Stoughton, were new to their roles, whilst the two more, Roland Wood and Marianne Cornetti have stage experience of their roles.

Marianne Cornetti and Chelsea Opera Group in Verdi's Il Trovatore - photo Robert Workman
Marianne Cornetti & Chelsea Opera Group in Verdi's Il Trovatorephoto Robert Workman
Verdi's Il trovatore was written in 1853, just nine years after Donizetti's final opera for Italy, Caterina Cornaro, premiered. And whilst Verdi was interested in moving away from cavatinas and cabalettas, the libretto which Salvadore Cammarano delivered for Il trovatore was full of traditional construction, so that for all its intense, personal drama and harmonic complexity Verdi's music has something of a Donizettian cast. Whilst the soprano singing Leonora needs to sing with more bite than in a Donizetti role, a sympathy for that style of writing is necessary.

Sally Silver has sung lighter Verdi roles such as Gilda (Rigoletto) and the title role in La traviata, but she is also associated with singing the bel canto repertoire and sang Elisabetta in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda for Chelsea Opera Group. She does not have the sort of plush, well-upholstered voice of a Leontyne Price; instead she sings with a superb sense of line, great elegance and a fine grasp of the Donizettian cast of much of the fioriture. This meant that the Act One cavatina Tacea la notte placida  was expressively plangent, whilst the caballeta Di tale amore was finely accurate whilst giving the music a necessary heft. This latter was noticeable in the ensembles, where Silver was clearly no lightweight. Occasionally there was a sense perhaps that she pushed her top register a little to much, bringing on a hardness, but this could easily have been a touch of nerves and we certainly had some fine acuti. The overall cast of her performance was intense and plangent, with the sense of vibrant line bringing out the music's shape. The opening scene of Act Four, with the famous Miserere was strongly expressive, crowned with a fine death scene at the end of the act.

Youthful exuberance - Handel's Dixit Dominus at Saffron Hall

George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel
during his Italian sojurn
Handel Dixit Dominus, Chandos & Coronation anthems; The Sixteen choir and orchestra, Harry Christophers; Saffron Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 27 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Music by Handel from his entire career, showcasing the youthful exuberance of Dixit Dominus

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have been performing an all Handel programme at various venues and we caught up with them on the final date of the tour at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, on Saturday 27 February 2016. The programme started with the sinfonia from Act Three of Handel's Solomon, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, followed by Chandos Anthem No. 11 'Let God Arise', the Coronation Anthem 'Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened', with the overture to Handel's Jephtha and Dixit Dominus in the second half. The soloists, all drawn from the ranks of the choir, were Grace Davidson, Charlotte Mobbs, Katy Hill, Jeremy Budd, Simon Berridge and Eamonn Dougan.


The selection of Handel's works covered virtually his entire career, ranging from the early Dixit Dominus written in 1707 during Handel's Italian stay, through the early maturity of the Chandos Anthem written in 1717-18, to the Coronation Anthem from 1727 and the overture to his last oratorio, Jephtha from 1752. And interestingly, David Vickers' programme note pointed out that both the Chandos Anthems and the Coronation Anthems were mined for Handel's early oratorios Esther and Deborah in the 1730's.

Saffron Hall with its intimate but warm acoustic is a nice size for music of this period. The Sixteen fielded 19 singers (though 20 were named in the programme) and an orchestra of over 20 (led by Sarah Sexton, including harp, theorbo and organ) which varied in size according to Handel's scorings as works like the Chandos Anthem were written for the relatively small forces available to Handel when writing for the Duke of Chandos' household.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Michael Csányi-Wills - songs with orchestra

Michael Csanyi-Wills - Songs with Orchestra
Michael Csányi-Wills Songs with Orchestra; Ilona Domnich, Nicky Spence, Jacques Imbrailo, Londamis Ensemble, Mark Eager; Toccata Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 25 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Mining his own family history, Michael Csányi-Wills produces songs of remarkable lyric power and intensity

This disc from Toccata Classics presents first recordings of new work by the British composer Michael Csányi-Wills, works in a form which is relatively unpopular nowadays, the song with orchestral accompaniment. Soprano Ilona Domnich, tenor Nicky Spence and baritone Jacques Imbrailo are accompanied by the Londamis Ensemble, conductor Mark Eager, in Three Songs: Budapest 1944, Six AE Housman Songs and Elegy for Our Time. Three Songs: Budapest 1944 mines Csányi-Wills own family history (his grandmother left Hungary just before the Second World War) with texts written by Hungarian Jews in 1944, sung by Ilona Domnich. Six AE Housman Songs uses six poems from Housman's A Shropshire Lad with the songs divided between Nicky Spence and Jacques Imbrailo. Elegy for Our Time sets a poem by Jessica d'Este, sung by Ilona Domnich.

Michael Csányi-Wills trained at the Royal Academy of Music, but listening to the songs in Three Songs: Budapest 1944 I was struck by the European influences finding traces of Mahler and Kurt Weill in the writing. Csányi-Wills also writes for films and his orchestral writing has a wonderful immediacy, fluency and complexity. Three Songs: Budapest 1944 set texts written by those persecuted by the Nazi supported regime in Hungary. The "Waldsee" Postcard is a text from a postcard written by someone who was held in a concentration camp, the card send back to relatives to convince that the sender is well. The Siege is the extract from a diary written during the latter days of the war when Budapest was besieged by the Russians. The final song The Last Letter, is the last letter Csányi-Wills' great-grandmother wrote before she disappeared.

Csányi-Wills writes tonal, lyrical vocal lines which soprano Ilona Domnich sings in a powerfully expressive manner, bringing her beautiful distinctive voice to bear on music which is both attractive and powerfully intense. The final song, with its cries of 'vergesst mich nicht' (don't forget me) is particularly striking with its almost Mahlerian bleakness. The songs set German texts (two were originally in Hungarian, but Csányi-Wills felt German was more singer friendly whilst being the official language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and this only goes to highlight the links between Csányi-Wills expressive and darkly emotional music and that of previous generations.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Susanna, dyslexia and a year of Handel - my encounter with soprano Anna Devin

Anna Devin as Semele with Lawrence Cummings and the London Handel Festival
Anna Devin in the title role of Handel's Semele with Lawrence Cummings and the London Handel Festival
with Rupert Charlesworth, Louise Innes, Ewa Gubanska & Maria Valdmaa
The Irish soprano Anna Devin has been making something of a name for herself in the lyric soprano repertoire. 2015 saw her performing a number of Handel roles including Clotilde in Faramondo at the Gottingen Festival and the title role in Handel's Semele at the London Handel Festival. She has recently opened in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Tobias Richter's new production at Welsh National Opera, returning to the role of Susanna which she first sang with Glyndebourne on Tour. Anna is also dyslexic and is something of an ambassador having been interviewed by Woman's Hour on the topic last year. I chatted to Anna on the phone to catch up with her recent activities. We spoke on the morning of the first night of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Cardiff, where Anna informed me it was a beautiful day and she was planning to take advantage of this and go for a walk after our chat.


Mozart Marriage of Figare - Anna Devin, Naomi O'Connell - WNO - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Anna Devin, Naomi O'Connell
WNO - photo Richard Hubert Smith
This won't be Anna's first time as Susanna, but it is the first time she has taken part in a production 'in her own right' as she put it. In 2012 she sang in the second cast with Glyndebourne on Tour, there were 29 performances of Le nozze di Figaro and three Susannas so there was not much rehearsal time with the rest of the cast. This time with WNO, though, she is the only Susanna and has a full rehearsal schedule.

But WNO is rehearsing a trio of Figaro operas (Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigila, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Elena Langer's Figaro gets a divorce) and some of the cast members are in the Mozart and the Langer so that rehearsal schedules are complex. But Anna has been putting these complications into the character of Susanna, who is equally busy in the opera. Anna enjoys the role from an acting perspective, Anna sees the challenges as being the ensembles, and acting, the need to be inventive and of course the stamina. You have to work hard and only get an aria in Act Four when Susanna sings 'Deh vieni' which Anna calls 'an incredible big aria'.

Michel van der Aa's new work demonstrates the power of the imagination in Elephant and Castle

Samuel West - Michel van der Aa 'The Book of Disquiet' - photo London Sinfonietta
Samuel West - Michel van der Aa The Book of Disquiet - photo London Sinfonietta
Michel van der Aa The Book of Disquiet (UK premiere); Samuel West, London Sinfonietta, cond: Joana Carneiro, dir: Michel van der Aa
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Feb 24 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Coronet Cinema, Elephant and Castle

During the two-year closure of parts of the Southbank Centre for renovations, its QEH-resident ensemble the London Sinfonietta are touring to new venues including the Southwark Playhouse, the Victoria Line and the Coronet in Elephant & Castle. On 24 February 2016 at the Coronet, the London Sinfonietta, conductor Joana Carneiro, gave the UK premiere of Michel van der Aa's The Book of Disquiet in a production directed by Michel van der Aa, with actor Samuel West and sound projection by Sound Intermedia.

The Coronet has had a varied history since it opened in the 1870s as the Theatre Royal, evolved via a cinema and air-raid shelter to one of the largest night clubs in London with a capacity of 5,000 (we were told), an army of bouncers and a comprehensive drugs and weapons policy. Its future is uncertain because it is in the way of the E&C’s extensive and controversial regeneration (and social-cleansing) activity, but one would hope that the thousands of incoming skyscraper-dwelling residents would be in favour of an arts venue on their doorstep.

The venue is huge inside, and unbelievably draughty. For this event the audience were seated in long rows on the dance floor, with others in the galleries around the sides. The orchestra was on the flat, with a raised stage behind ( and impressive Art-Deco features visible behind and above the set). The set consisted of four large circles, one acting as a backdrop and soundboard for the actor, two as projection screens for the film and one hollow metal one downstage left that turned into a massive, rotating, resonant percussion instrument at the climax of the piece.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Song in the City celebrates LGBT History Month

Girls who like girls who like boys who like boys; Anna Pool, Emily Onsloe, erika Gundesen; Song in the City at St Botolph without Bishopsgate Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 13 2016
The last in the LGBT History Month series looks at musical theatre from a woman's point of view

Song in the City's lunchtime recital on Thursday 25 February 2015, in St Botolph without Bishopsgate's hall, was part of their series Somewhere over the Rainbow celebrating LGBT History Month 2016. For this recital artistic director Gavin Roberts took a back seat, and director Anna Pool was joined by soprano Emily Onsloe and pianist Erika Gundesen for the programme Girls who like Girls who like Boys who like Boys with songs by Andrew Lippa (from The Wild Party), Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron (from Fun Home), Brenda Russell, Allee Willis & Stephen Barry (from The Colour Purple), Leonard Bernstein (from West Side Story), William Finn (from Falsettos), Janet Hood (from Elegies for Angles, Punks and Raging Queens), Jason Robert Brown (from Songs for New World), and Jonathan Larson (from Rent).

There were intended to be three singers, but Joanne Evans was ill, so Emily Onsloe and Anna Pool divided the programme between them (with pianist Erika Gundesen helping out at one point) so that we only lost one song (Mischa Spoliansky's Es liegt in der Luft).

The programme was intended to look at lesbians in musical theatre, but there are relatively few such roles written (Fun Home based on Alison Bechdel's novel being a notable exception), so the programme creatively re-imagined a number of standards as well as bringing in songs about homosexuality from a woman's perspective.

Aleksandar Marković named as new music director of Opera North

Aleksandar Marković
Opera North has announced that 40-year-old Serbian conductor, Aleksandar Marković will become their next music director. The current music director Richard Farnes leaves in July 2016 following the completion of Opera North's Ring Cycle. Aleksandar Marković was last seen with Opera North in Autumn 2015 when he conducted a fine account of Janaceck's Jenufa (see my review). He will launch Opera North's 2016/17 season conducting Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier.

Born in Belgrade, Marković studied in Leopold Hager’s conducting class at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien, and he also attended masterclasses at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena. Marković was music director and principal conductor of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra from 2009 to 2015, and chief conductor of the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck from 2005 to 2008.

Heroique flashes - Bryan Hymel, Irene Roberts & Julius Drake at Rosenblatt Recitals

Irene Roberts and Bryan Hymel in the final scene of Bizet's 'Carmen' at Rosenblatt Recitals - photo Jonathan Rose
Irene Roberts and Bryan Hymel in the final scene of Bizet's Carmen at Rosenblatt Recitals - photo Jonathan Rose
RVW, Wagner, Gounod, Berlioz, Bizet; Bryan Hymel, Irene Roberts, Krzysztof Chorzelski, Julius Drake; Rosenblatt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 25 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Gounod's Romeo and a scenes from Carmen burn brightly in a somewhat mixed recital

Last night's Rosenblatt Recital (25 February 2016) at the Wigmore Hall was shared by the American tenor Bryan Hymel (known for his performances as Aeneas in Berlioz' Les Troyens at Covent Garden and his disc Heroique of French 19th century heroic opera arias, see my review), and the young American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (who will be singing the title role in Bizet's Carmen with San Francisco Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin this year). The two singers were accompanied in a programme of RVW, Wagner, Gounod, Mascagni, Berlioz and Bizet by pianist Julius Drake. The programme opened with Bryan Hymel singing RVW's Four Hymns for Tenor, when he and Drake were joined by viola player Krzysztof Chorzelski, then Irene Roberts sang four of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder. Bryan Hymel then gave us Ah! leve-toi, soleil! from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Mamma, quel vino e generoso from Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, with two excerpts from Bizet's Carmen to conclude the programme.

One of the fascinating things about Rosenblatt Recitals is the way the series places opera singers in a concert context, and showcases their repertoire choices when moving away from operatic drama. Bryan Hymel's choice of RVW's Four Hymns for Tenor was an intriguing choice indeed. The work is an early one, written in 1911 shortly after the Five Mystical Songs and partaking of the same aura of mystical rapture. We are used to hearing the work sung by classic English lyric tenor voices but Hymel has shown that his voice has the refreshingly old-fashion combination of narrow-focus power with remarkable flexibility. For all the big bright sound in at the opening, Hymel was able to bring his tone down and give us moments of lower key intimacy. This was quite a big boned performance, and Hymel was finely matched by viola player Krzysztof Chorzelski and pianist Julius Drake. However Hymel's performance seemed a little constrained and score-bound (it was the only work of the evening where he sang from the score), and it perhaps was not the ideal work to open the programme. For all the inward quality which he brought to it, the performance did rather miss the sense of mysticism that these songs need. However Hymel did give the music a very intense presence.

Next, Irene Roberts sang four of Wagner's Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Wesendonck Lieder); she missed off Im Treibhaus, one of the two songs which Wagner labelled 'Studie zu Tristan und Isolde' (studies for Tristan and Isolde). The five songs should probably not be regarded as a song cycle, Wagner wrote them over the period of a year (1857-1858) and the present order of the songs was only fixed by the publishers, Schott, in 1862. However it was a shame that we missed the perfumed Tristan-esque exoticism of Im Treibhaus, and thankfully we were treated to it as an encore at the end of the recital.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Glass and Rope Between Us – Pepys visits Pepys

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution
During the Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. The choir Reverie, artistic director Robbie Jacobs, composer Freya Waley-Cohen and poet Caleb Klaces are presenting a new immersive installation, The Glass and Rope Between Us – Pepys visits Pepys. Using the medium of song to represent the thoughts of Samuel Pepys the installation asks the question How would Samuel Pepys respond to seeing the details of his life and diary displayed in public for all to see?

On 27 February, ten singers will be in the exhibition singing new music which responds to the content of the gallery. The work intends to ask questions like, 'What did Pepys feel as his home was destroyed by fire?' and 'How would the ubiquitously unfaithful Pepys respond to the portrait of his wife Elizabeth?'. The singers will interact with the audience as they explore the gallery, sometimes taking them by surprise, and revealing some of the unexpected aspects of Pepys’ character from the funny to the crude.

Primary school children from the area will visit the exhibition to learn about Samuel Pepys, and then through workshops with Reverie’s practitioners, the children will write poems and songs based on the gallery content. These will be performed in the Samuel Ofer Wing at 16:30 on Friday 26 February.

Full information from Reverie's website.

Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Guildhall School

Christopher Cull, Miljan Siljanov, Daniel Shelvey, Thomas Atkins - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Christopher Cull, Miljan Siljanov, Daniel Shelvey, Thomas Atkins
Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Britten The Rape of Lucretia; Katarzyna Baljeko, Thomas Atkins, Elizabeth Karani, Christopher Cull, dir: Martin Lloyd Evans, cond: Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Intense and strong account of Britten's disturbing chamber opera

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama's operatic offering this term was Benjamin Britten's small scale but intensely challenging The Rape of Lucretia. We caught the second performance on Wednesday 24 February 2016, with the alternative cast. The production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, designed by Jamie Vartan with lighting by Mark Jonathan and video by Dan Shorten. Katarzyna Balejko was Lucretia, with Milan Siljanov as Collatinus and Christopher Cull as Tarquinius, Thomas Atkins and Elizabeth Karani as the Male and Female chorus, plus Daniel Shelvey, Jennifer Witton and Elizabeth Lynch. The 13 piece instrumental ensemble was led by Amarins Wierdsma with Matteo Oberto on piano.

Elizabeth Karani, Karzyna Baljeko, Thomas Atkins - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Elizabeth Karani, Katarzyna Balejko, Thomas Atkins - photo Clive Barda
Britten's opera is a short, concentrated work written for a small group of performers. Martin Lloyd-Evans and Jamie Vartan chose to heighten the works immediacy by reconfiguring the Guildhall School's Silk Street Theatre so that the audience was on three sides of a thrust stage playing area, with the main stage to the rear used sparingly. The orchestra was not in a pit but to one side of the playing area.

This provided a number of challenges for the singers, not only being so close to the audience but never being able to face all at the same time. And when standing to the rear of the thrust stage, performers were quite a distance from some of the audience members. Add to this the notoriously wordy opening of Britten's opera (with its libretto by playwright Ronald Duncan) and you have some real challenges.

The Male and Female chorus, Thomas Atkins and Elizabeth Karani (in formally dressed in modern business suits) coped admirably and really took ownership of the music and the text. Inevitably there were moments when textual clarity was compromised because of the staging, and it did not help that the band was not in a pit and so balance could be tricky. And it is a testament to both Atkins and Karani that the first act receive such an involving exposition.

Miljan Siljanov, Karzyna Baljeko - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Milan Siljanov, Katarzyna Balejko - Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda

Richness of sound and fullness of tone - new chamber choir Sonoro debuts in Baroque classics.

Sonoro Choir & Baroque Ensemble, conductor Neil Ferris at St Martin in the Fields
Sonoro Choir & Baroque Ensemble, conductor Neil Ferris at St Martin in the Fields
Vivaldi, Handel, Bach; Sonoro, Neil Ferris; Church of St. Martin in the Fields
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 23 2016
Star rating: 3.5

New chamber choir revels in the richness of a full and vibrant sound

Sonoro is a new professional choir set up by Neil Ferris and Michael Higgins, designed to create a sound which is rich and full. Conducted by Neil Ferris the choir made its debut at St Martin in the Fields on 23 February 2016 with the Sonoro Baroque Ensemble, led by Simon Standage in a programme of Baroque classics by candlelight, Handel’s Zadok the Priest and the Sinfonia from Solomon 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba', Vivaldi’s Gloria RV589 and Bach’s Magnificat in D BWV 243.

Neil Ferris & Sonoro Baroque Ensemble
Neil Ferris & Sonoro Baroque Ensemble
The choir numbered 17 singers, with women on the alto line and the line-up featured a number of singers who are soloists in their own right. Neil Ferris’s intention is to create a more European sound for the choir by allowing the singers to be free to use all of their voice. This produced a remarkably strong and exciting sound from just 17 singers, with a significant amount of vibrato but with the individuals blended into a unified vibrant sound. Throughout the evening Ferris’s speeds were often on the brisk side and it was impressive how even and uniform the passagework was.

The concert opened with Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest. Ferris drew quite a smooth texture from his instrumentalists, rather favouring the fine oboe playing from Anthony Robson and Hilary Stock. The choral contribution was impressively vibrant and remarkably strong, so that here and elsewhere during the evening I felt that a slightly larger band would have supported the voices even more.

Vivaldi’s Gloria was the raison d’etre of the concert as it was part of St Martin in the Field’s Vivaldi by Candlelight series. The work opened with brisk, classy playing from the orchestra and a big firm sound from the choir. In the more sustained passages such as Et in terra pax the singers brought out a fine legato, warmed with a strong vibrato, whilst movements like Propter magnam gloriam tuam were vividly exciting. Domine Fili, unigenite introduced a nice contrast between the strong sense of line and well pointed accompanying rhythms.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Vibrant Mendelssohn from Pablo Heras-Casado & the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Mendelssohn Symphonies 3 & 4 - Pablo Heras-Casado
Mendelssohn Scottish and Italian Symphonies; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Casado; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 18 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Removing the varnish from Mendelssohn's music to reveal the brilliant young man underneath

The latest disc in Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado's series of romantic classics, Die neue Romantik: The 19th century collection with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi covers Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A minor, 'Scottish' and Symphony No. 4 in A major 'Italian'.

Mendelssohn disliked the terms 'Scottish' and 'Italian' when applied to his symphonies. Both had their origins in his grand tours but the Symphony No. 3, though based on ideas which occurred to him in 1830 when visiting Scotland, had to wait until 1841 to be completed. It was his last symphony, but because of the vagaries of numbering by his publishers ended up as number three! The Symphony No. 4 was inspired by Mendelssohn's Italian trip in 1830 and this time the symphony surfaced much quicker, in 1833.

This is young man's music, Mendelssohn was between 20 and 21 when he made the grand tours and when Symphony No. 3 was finally completed, Mendelssohn was still only 32. The great virtue of these performances from Pablo Heras-Casado and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is that by stripping the varnish of these symphonies, they allow us not only to hear timbres closer what Mendelssohn might have done, but they bring out the youthful vigour of the music. These are performances full of dramatic contrasts and romantic ethos, with lots of vivid accents and articulation. Gone is the rather smooth, young-fogey-ish image which the symphonies can sometimes have.

Centenary Menuhin and vintage Blomstedt - Philharmonia Spring season

Herbert Blomstedt
The 88 year old Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt will be returning to conduct the Philharmonia in Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 (24 April) at the Royal Festival Hall. The orchestra's Spring season also includes Edward Gardner (a mere stripling at 41) conducting Elgar's Symphony No. 2 (5 May), and Vladimir Ashkenazy (78 years old) continues his Rachmaninov Project with Symphony No. 3 (3 March) and Symphonic Dances (14 April). Jonathan Biss, who is is part of the way through recording Beethoven’s piano sonatas, will perform Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Jakub Hrůša conducting.

The orchestra will be opening and closing the Yehudi Menuhin competition which, in Menuhin's centenary year, takes place in London. The Philharmonia opens the Competition on 7 April with former winners Tasmin Little, Jiafeng Chen, Rennosuke Fukuda and Ray Chen performing works connected with Menuhin , and the orchestra joins the Junior and Senior Competition winners for their debut concert performances in the closing Gala Concert on 17 April, with the 1995 winner Julia Fischer performing Bartók’s First Violin Concerto.

The music of German composer Friedrich Goldmann (1941-2009) features in the next concert in the Philharmonia's Music of Today series of free concerts of contemporary music. Tito Ceccherini conducts  Philharmonia players in Linie/Splitter 2 for clarinet, horn, accordion, violin, cello and piano, and Fast Erstarrte Unruhe 3 for ensemble.

Full information from the South Bank Centre website.

Royal College of Music celebrates International Women's Day

Amaryllis Fleming
Amaryllis Fleming
The Royal College of Music (RCM) will be celebrating International Women's Day (8 March 2016) with a diverse programme of events including the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of a lunchtime concert from the college including the premiere of a new work by Judith Bingham. There will also be a public masterclass from Imogen Cooper, student workshops with percussionist Genevieve Wilkins and composer Anna Meredith. College alumnae Amy Green and Charlotte Harding present Over 100 years of Women and the Saxophone, which celebrates the pioneering female saxophonists, composers and bandleaders who were integral to the development and promotion of this instrument.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the day’s lunchtime concert live from the college. The Albany Trio, former RCM Junior Fellows, will perform music by Rebecca Clarke and Judith Weir, plus the world premiere of Judith Bingham’s The Orchid and its Hunters. Bingham’s work was commissioned for the Albany Trio. The concert is part of a day of programming on BBC Radio 3 reflecting International Women’s Day by celebrating women in music and exploring the work of female composers, along the theme of Inspiring Women.

Throughout the day an interactive exhibition looks at RCM Women in Music from the last 100 years. Female musicians are firmly rooted in the RCM’s history, from the mill girl and brick maker’s daughter among the first twenty five female RCM scholars in 1883, through the many illustrious alumnae that have studied at the College, including soprano Dame Joan Sutherland, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, cellist Natalie Clein and cellist Amaryllis Fleming after whom the RCM's concert hall is named. Today, women comprise over 50% of the RCM’s student body.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

A powerful torso - Donizetti's Le Duc d'Albe

Donizetti - Le Duc d'Albe
Donizetti Le duc d'Albe; Michael Spyres, Angela Meade, Laurent Naouri, Gianluca Buratto, Halle, Mark Elder; Opera Rara
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 23 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Donizetti's unfinished French opera revealed as a powerful torso

Opera Rara continues its exploration of Donizetti's late French operas with a recording of Le Duc d'Albe. A studio recording made in Manchester with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Halle, the recording features Michael Spyres as Henri de Bruges, Angela Meade as Helene d'Egmont, Laurent Naouri as le Duc d'Albe, Gianluca Buratto as Daniel Brauer with David Stout, Trystan Llyr Griffiths, Robin Tritschler and Dawid Kimberg and the Opera Rara chorus.

In fact only half the opera has been recorded. Donizetti started it in 1839 but delays at the Paris Opera meant that other works interceded with Donizetti converting his abandoned L'ange de Nisida into La Favorite for the Paris Opera. Donizetti always intended to complete Le Duc d'Albe but his final illness intervened. When he died he left the first two acts substantially complete but only around 30% of the material for the final two acts. It was only in the 1880s that a composer called Matteo Salvi dared to complete the opera, in a very different style and it is in this form, translated into Italian that the opera is known, if at all. Opera Rara has chosen to record only the first two acts, thus giving us all of Donizetti's performable music with a minimum of intervention by Martin Fitzpatrick.

The plot will be familiar because the librettist Eugene Scribe (who co-wrote the original libretto with Chrles Duveryrier) would re-cycle the text, moved from Brussels to Palermo to become Verdi's Les Vepres Sicilienne. It is a typical French grand opera, with a doomed love affair set against a grand historical sweep with great scope for large scale set pieces. Set in Brussels in the 16th century the action takes place the day after the Count of Egmont has been beheaded on the orders of the Duke of Alba who rules the Low Countries for Spain.

Michael Spyres helps launch Opera Rara's recording of Donizetti's Le duc d'Albe & an ambitious three year programme

Michael Spyres at the Opera Rara launch at the London Coliseum - photo by Russell Duncan
Michael Spyres at the Opera Rara launch at the London Coliseum
photo by Russell Duncan
Opera Rara's recording of Donizetti's Le duc d'Albe is released this week, so to celebrate the fact and to launch the company's plans for the next three years, they held an event at the London Coliseum on Friday 19 February 2016. Artistic director Mark Elder, repertoire consultant Roger Parker and chief executive Henry Little all talked about the company's plans with the exciting prospect of Bellini's Adelson e Salvini, Rossini's Semiramide, Gounod's Le Medecin malgre lui, Offenbach's La Princesse de Trebizonde and Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida to come. Tenor Michael Spyres who features on both the recording of Donizetti's Le duc d'Albe and the recently released Les Martyrs sang and aria from Donizetti's Le Martyrs.

Mark Elder said that the company had been around for 45 years, producing recordings and new editions, and that there was still plenty of music which needed performing. The works they record are the ones that excite people; for an opera to be included it wasn't enough to say 'I hadn't heard of that', it had to both 'terrific opera, and terrifically rara'. These are works which Mark Elder feels have a flame inside them and come alive in performance. He commented about their recording Offenbach's Fantasio (which was released in 2014, see my review), that such works challenged what everybody thinks about Offenbach and that the recording has inspired a new production of the opera in Europe.

Donizetti - Le duc d'Albe
Opera Rara's summer 2016 opera recording will be Rossini's Semiramide which Mark Elder said at first sight does not seem terribly rare, but the classic recording with Joan Sutherland in the title role is 50 years old and Opera Rara's recording will not only be a new studio recording (rare in itself) but will use a period instrument orchestra and they will be recording every note that Rossini wrote. In this way Mark Elder hopes to bring out the brilliance and transparency of Rossini's writing, informed as it was by the classical style.

Roger Parker started by first commenting that opera does not come off the page easily, so is a tricky medium in which to select unperformed, neglected works. He then introduced the pieces selected for the next few years. 2016 will see Rossini's Semiramide and Bellini's first opera Adelson e Salvini (written for the conservatoire in Naples, with men singing the female roles) in a new critical edition. 2017 sees Opera Rara going to France, and Parker commented that there are a lot more forgotten masterpieces in the French repertoire. I do hope that one day they reach Meyerbeer, whose French operas are crying out for the Opera Rara touch, but 2017 sees rare operas by Gounod and Offenbach. Gounod's Le medecin malgre lui (written for the Theatre Lyrique in 1858) is Gounod in La Colombe vein (see my review), a different kind of Gounod to Faust (written in 1856 but not performed until 1859). Le medecin malgre lui is very light, and Berlioz actually said he like it. Offenbach's La princesse de Trebizonde, written in 1869 the year after La Perichole, is another of the works which are more serious, showing Offenbach moving from the frothy to the world of Les Contes d'Hoffmann.


In 2018 the company returns to Donizetti with L'ange de Nisida. This was written in Paris in 1839 but never performed (the theatre went bankrupt) and Donizetti adapted part of the music for La favorite. Around 50% of the music of L'ange de Nisida has never been performed and a recent new edition has reconstructed the original opera thus giving us another view of Donizetti's late French period. With this recording, all of Donizetti's French grand operas will have made it to disc thus giving us a wonderful overview of this fascinating late period in the composer's career.

Of course, all this has to be paid for! Henry Little, who informed us that he was in just his seventh week as chief executive of Opera Rara, said that the exciting plans for the next three years were full of ground breaking projects. They are ambitious plans, and need substantial resources and all the money comes from Opera Rara's supporters. Their business plan for the next three years needs £2million, of which 20% has already been committed by the trustees. Opera Rara is launching an appeal which is supported by Opera Rara's artistic patrons Juan Diego Florez and Renee Fleming, and the Patrons of the Appeal include Vernon Ellis.

The latest issue from this artistic programme is the recording of Donizetti's Le duc d'Albe, released on 26 February 2016, which is the company's 54th studio recording. Only 50% of the opera exists, Donizetti failed to finish it because of his illness and so the company has recorded just the first two acts which are 95% by Donizetti. Mark Elder recorded it with the Halle at their new Halle St Peter's venue. The opera is Donizetti in large scale serious mode, the style which they wanted in Paris.

Michael Spyres had travelled from Paris for the event (he is currently appearing in Mozart's Mitridate Re di Ponto). He commented that all of his favourite tenors recorded with Opera Rara in the 1980s and 1990s and that growing up in the American mid-West it had been the Opera Rara recordings which attracted him. As a young tenor he had had little success in the USA performing Puccini and Verdi, but coming to Europe had had a success performing this more obscure repertoire. He commented that without the work of Opera Rara (in both recording this repertoire and making the music more available) it would be unthinkable to have the type of career that he and colleagues have.

The event concluded with Michael Spyres singing the cavatina Mon seul tresor (from Donizetti's Les Martyrs) followed by the cabaletta which concluded with a spectacular top E!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Aldeburgh Festival 2016 - Messiaen's birds, Bartok's Mikrocosmos and circus Illuminations

This year's Aldeburgh Festival is Pierre-Laurent Aimard's last as artistic director. He will be playing Messiaen's complete Catalogue d'Oiseaux over four concerts from sunrise to midnight at Snape Maltings and RSPB Minismere. Another major work is Illuminations a new staging by Struan Leslie which mixes music and contemporary circus performance, with Sarah Tyanan, the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon performing Britten's Les Illuminations, Young Apollo and music by Debussy and John Adams. For the final day of the festival Bartok's complete Mikrocosmos will be played, six volumes, 153 pieces, performed by pianists ranging from Young Suffolk pianists, Aldeburgh Young Musicians to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Hakon Astbo, Emanuel Ax, Lorenzo Soules and Tamara Stefanovich.

The featured composers this year are Julian Anderson (who also gives the Hesse Lecture on The Courage of our Convictions: self-belief in modern music), Benedict Mason and Rebecca Saunders. And there is a residency from French ensemble Les Siecles and their conductor Francois-Xavier Roth, playing music from Bach and Rameau to Berg and Steve Reich. Three concerts juxtapose music by Britten and Tippett, with performers including tenors Ian Bostridge, Toby Spence and Robert Murray, pianists Julius Drake, Julian Milfor and Stephen Osborne, guitarist Sean Shibe, the Arcadia Quartet, the Heath Quartet.

John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists will be performing Bach's St Matthew Passion.


Lully's Armide staged by Music at Woodhouse

Thalie Knights - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse - 'Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Thalie Knights - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse
Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Lully Armide; Thalie Knights, Kieran White, Gheorghe Palcu, Marcio da Silva, Stephanie Gurga; Music at Woodhouse
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 21 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Lully's tragedie lyrique staged on a small scale with a sense style with a young cast.

Woodhouse Copse is an Arts and Crafts cottage orné in the Surrey Hills designed by Oliver Hill with a garden by Gertrude Jekyll, originally owned by the daughter of the playwright Brandon Thomas (who wrote Charley's Aunt). 

Woodhouse Copse is now the home to Music at Woodhouse, artistic director Monika Saunders, which puts on staged opera productions with young singers. On Sunday 21 February 2016 we caught the second of two performances of Lully's Armide performed as the culmination of a week long Baroque Academy. Under music director Marcio da Silva (who also staged the opera and sang) a small but hard-working cast performed Lully's 1686 tragedie lyrique, with the OrQuesta baroque ensemble directed from the harpsichord by Stephanie Gurga. Some roles were double cast, and we saw Thalie Knights as Armide with Kieran White as Renaud, Gheorghe Palcu as Hidraot and Ubalde, Marcio da Silva as Aronte and La Haine (Hatred), Emma Newman-Young as Siodonie, plus Hiroshi Kanazawa, Jessica Ng, and Helen May. Stacey Mastrian, who was due to sing the role of Phoenice was ill so she acted the role whilst Stephanie Gurga sang from the harpsichord.

Kieran White - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse - Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Kieran White - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse
Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Woodhouse Copse has two performing spaces, an outdoor theatre where large-scale opera is performed in the Summer (they present Puccini's La Boheme in September 2016) and an indoor Baroque theatre created out of an indoor swimming pool (the pool remains under the wooden floor thus giving the space a greater resonance than might first appear). In fact, the opera was rather bravely presented almost in the round with the audience on three sides of the acting area. This worked well because Armide is relatively unusual in tragedie lyrique in that it concentrates quite closely on the central relationship between Armide and Renaud with few of the side diversions and sub-plots that often occur in the genre.

The draw back, was of course, the difficulty of getting perfect ensemble. Logistically is made sense for the chorus (sung off stage by members of the cast) to be place away from the instrumental ensemble, but this did lead to moments of imperfect ensemble. But when just the soloists were singing they and the six instrumentalists seemed to have moments of almost telepathic agreement.

Marcio da Silva's production was simple and stylised, based around a central dais with much by-play with candles and some lovely rich costumes. There were some cuts, some of the smaller roles had been lost and we did not get all of the ballet but overall the production was remarkably true to the original's intentions and it helped that Da Silva had got a pair of extremely powerful performances from the lead roles, Thalie Knight and Kieran White, as Armide and Renaud with neither singer, apparently, being phased by the extreme closeness of the audience.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Getting closer to Art for Art's sake in Shoreditch with the City of London Sinfonia

CLoSer at the Village Underground - photo James Berry
CLoSer at the Village Underground
photo James Berry
Strauss Rosen Aus Dem Süden
Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565
Mahler Das Lied von der Erde
Gwilym Bowen, Anna Huntley, Michael Collins, 
City of London Sinfonia, Rachel Rose Reid; 
CLoSer at the Village Underground
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Feb 17 2016
Star rating: 4.0

The City of London Sinfonia evoking the 1920's Vienna of Schoenberg in a Shoreditch club

The City of London Sinfonia (CLS) puts on concerts that 'promise to surprise us'. The first surprise was how easy it is to get lost in Shoreditch in the dark and the rain. Village Underground, as most people probably know, is a 'found space' around an abandoned railway viaduct; this contributed to the secret, club-like character of the event, with its bouncers and CCTV at the door and, once inside, cushions on the floor and bar drinks in huge plastic cups.

The main space is a T-shape, the band positioned with a flat brick wall behind and audience seats (and cushions) on three sides. We were invited to leave our phones on, take photos, tweet, wander around, drink, chat, but not clap between the Mahler songs. It felt like a late-night Prom (including the whooping from the audience) – a classical concert minus the printed programme. Michael Collins & members of the City of London Sinfonia were joined by tenor Gwilym Bowen, mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley and story-teller Rachel Rose Reid for chamber versions of Strauss's Rosen Aus Dem Süden, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565, and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.

The first and last pieces in the concert were arranged by Schoenberg for the Society for Private Musical Performances which, in post-First World War Austerity Vienna, brought salon-scale versions of larger works to an audience of enthusiasts, who were not allowed to clap (or whoop, presumably), or boo, and the press were banned. Art for art's sake. Something we forget to enjoy these days?

Johann Strauss' (yes, Johann's) Rosen aus dem Süden was given the Schoenberg treatment for string quartet, piano and harmonium, and wonderfully kitsch it sounded too, with its dirty low rumble and its full stops so that anyone trying to waltz to it would be guaranteed to trip over. Matthew Swann had introduced it as 'the equivalent of Quentin Tarantino sitting down with a tub of popcorn and a box set of Sex and the City'.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Overture transcriptions from Rochdale Town Hall

Overture transcriptions from Rochdale Town Hall
Nicolai, Spohr, Bach, Handel, Verdi, Weber, Tchaikovsky; Timothy Byram-Wigfield; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A delightful demonstration of capabilities of the Rochdale Town Hall organ in a range of symphonic organ transcriptions

In the late 1970's I often used to visit the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow. One of the delights was if your visit coincided with a recital on the gallery's organ. This was an entirely different style of recital to one in a church; the organ was massive with a multicoloured array of stops and repertoire which veered towards transcriptions of popular classics. Timothy Byram-Wigfield recorded a recital on that organ for his first volume of his Overture Transcriptions series on Delphian, and this new disc, which is recorded on the organ of Rochdale Town Hall, he plays a second volume of Overture Transcriptions giving us a further glimpse into the half forgotten world of the symphonic organ.

Timothy Byram-Wigfield
Timothy Byram-Wigfield
The organ in Rochdale Town Hall is a magnificent beast, built originally in 1913 had restoration work done in 1979 and 2013. Timothy Byram-Wigfield showcases it with a sequence of overtures by Otto Nicolai, Louis Spohr, Handel, Verdi and Tchaikovsky, plus music by Bach, in arrangement from the great age of British symphonic organ music.

Timothy Byram-Wigfield explains in his note in the CD booklet that large scale metropolitan town halls developed partly as a result of the choral society movement, with choirs needing larger places to perform and as a result, larger organs to fill the new halls. Thus the development of the British symphonic organ tradition. And arrangers and composers developed a wide range of skills to show off the instruments in transcriptions of orchestral music. In an era without broadcasting this was a way of widening access to this type of music.

Varying editions, the importance of recitative and events beyond Mozart - the second part of my encounter with Ian Page from Classical Opera

Ian Page and Classical Opera
Ian Page and Classical Opera
Ian Page and Classical Opera have just started their second year of their 27 year project, Mozart 250, exploring Mozart's life year by year, starting last year, with 1765 which was the year Mozart visited London. In the the first part of our interview we talked about plans for this year's festival along with exciting plans for future festivals, and in this second part of the interview we discuss Mozart's operas and the problems of which edition to record, the importance of recitative and devoting rehearsal time to it, as well as the company's continuing non-Mozart related activities.


Ian's instinct is to present the opera as it was originally performed 


Ian and Classical Opera will be performing all of Mozart's operas over the years as part of the festival, and all of the concert arias. He also hopes to perform most of the symphonies. Running in parallel to this is Classical Opera's project to record all of Mozart's operas. These are not being recorded in chronological order, partly because in order to tempt people some of the better known operas have to be included early on (La Clemenza di Tito will be recorded quite soon). But in 2018, Mozart's La Finta Semplice comes up in the festival and this has not been recorded by Classical Opera yet so in all probability performance and recording will be linked. But Ian sees this as a tricky issue, because it also makes sense to have their recording out in time for the performance.

Regarding the edition which they record, Ian's instinct is to present the opera as it was originally performed and add any extra music in appendices; this is what was done with Mitridate Re di Ponto where the extra material was particularly substantial (see my review). So for Don Giovanni they will perform and record the Prague version. This means that the Zerlina Leporello duet, written for Vienna, will be relegated to an appendix but unfortunately so will Mi Tradi and Dalla sua pace. With Idomeneo they will record the version Mozart seems to have intended in Munich, before the cuts applied simply because of its length. Ian does not think they will record the Vienna version (which uses a tenor Idamante rather than a mezzo-soprano), but the festival will enable them to perform both operas in the respective years 1781 (in 2031) and 1786 (in 2036), thus giving people the opportunity to compare and contrast.

He was extremely surprised at how little time was given to the recitative


Friday, 19 February 2016

Mahan Esfahani and Avi Avital at the Wigmore Hall

Avi Avital & Mahan Esfahani - photo Wigmore Hall/Simon Jay Price
Avi Avital & Mahan Esfahani - photo Wigmore Hall/Simon Jay Price
Antonio Vivaldi, Domenico Scarlatti, Yasuo Kuwahara, JS Bach, Mel Powell, Paul Ben-Haim; Avi Avital, Mahan Esfahani, Sean Shibe; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 19 2016
Star rating: 5.0

From classical to neo-classical, a recital which spanned 18th and 20th centuries with vivid music making

Avi Avital and Mahan Esfahani's recital of music for mandolin and harpsichord at the Wigmore Hall on 18 February 2016 was remarkably wide ranging. Not only was there music by Vivaldi (his Trio Sonata in G minor RV85 and Esfahani's arrangement of the Concerto for two violins in A minor, Op3 No. 8 RV522) and Bach (Violin Sonata No. 6 in G BWV1019), but there was Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in G K91, as well as the Improvised Poem for solo mandolin by the Japanese composer Yasu Kuwahara, Recitative and Toccata Percossa for solo harpsichord by the American composer Mel Powell, and Sonata a tre for mandolin, guitar and harpsichord by the Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim, for which Avital and Esfahani were joined by the guitarist Sean Shibe.

Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in G minor RV85 was originally written for violin, lute and basso continuo, with the violin and lute parts shadowing each other an octave apart. Here the sonata was played by mandolin (Avi Avital) and harpsichord (Mahan Esfahani) demonstrating the interesting combinations of timbres and textures which the two instruments can create. The opening Andante molto was elegant yet vivacious, with some nifty finger-work from Avital. The lovely Larghetto surprised with the amount of lyricism achievable by two instruments without a natural legato. The two performers took the final Allegro at quite a lick, making it lively with some bravura mandolin playing from Avital.

Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in G K91 was written for an instrument and basso continuo, and Avital feels that the instrumental writing suits the mandolin exactly. It is from a group of sonatas originally thought to be for solo harpsichord. The opening Grave was elegant with a rich harmonic texture, whilst the following Allegro was crisp and lively with some nice rhythmic pointing. The second Grave was a gentle piece, and the Allegro finale was very busy, with a strong sense of Spanish dance rhythms. A movement recognisable from its solo harpsichord incarnation, Avital and Esfahani made it great fun.

Reading the programme notes it came as a surprise that the mandolin was so popular in Japan. In the early 20th century a group of mandolin virtuosi from Italy travelled to Japan and the instrument really took off. There are now 150 mandolin orchestras in Tokyo (!), and a flourishing local tradition of composing fusing Western and Japanese ideas. Yasu Kuwahara (1946-2003) led a mandolin orchestra in Kobe, his Improvised poem really pushed the envelope with the instrument as it mixed jagged chords with fast repeated notes in a high energy mix which was non-Western in its tonality. Eventually the music calmed down, to create something evocative and rather intriguing. And Avital's playing was simply brilliant.

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