Sunday, 25 June 2017

A remarkable ensemble: Janacek's Jenufa at Grange Park Opera's new home

Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock (Photo Robert Workman)
Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock (Photo Robert Workman)
Janacek Jenufa; Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock, Nicky Spence, Peter Hoare, dir: Katie Mitchell / Robin Tebbutt, cond: William Lacey; Grange Park Opera at West Horsley
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 23 2017
Star rating: 5.0

A quartet of strong performance illuminates a superb ensemble performance

Janacek: Jenufa - Peter Hoare, Natalya Romaniw - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Peter Hoare, Natalya Romaniw (Photo Robert Workman)
Everyone has been talking about the new opera house which Grange Park Opera has built in the grounds of West Horsley Place in Surrey. It is indeed a remarkable achievement, a functioning (if not quite complete) theatre built from scratch in a year, and even in its present state the acoustics are very fine indeed. But when we went along for our first visit on Friday 23 June 2017, the performance of Janacek's Jenufa was also very fine indeed, and had us really talking about the music too.

Robin Tebbutt revived Katie Mitchell's 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Jenufa, with designs based on Vicki Mortimer's originals. William Lacey conducted, with the BBC Concert Orchestra in the pit and a very strong and balanced cast; Natalya Romaniw as Jenufa, Susan Bullock as the Kostelnicka, Nicky Spence as Steva, Peter Hoare as Laca, plus Harry Thatcher as Starek, Jihoon Kim as the Mayor, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin as the Mayor's wife, Heather Ireson as Karolka, Alexandra Lowe and Eleanor Garside as mill workers and Jessica Robinson as Tetka. Original lighting by Nigel Edwards revived by Paul Keogan, original choreography by Struan Leslie revived by Lucy Cullingford.

Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Heather Ireson, Jihoon Kim, Nicky Spence, Natataly Romaniw, Alexandra Lowe, Peter Hoare, Harry Thatcher, Anne Marie Owens Susan Bullock, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin
Heather Ireson, Jihoon Kim, Nicky Spence, Natataly Romaniw,
Alexandra Lowe, Peter Hoare, Harry Thatcher, Anne Marie Owens
Susan Bullock, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin (photo Robert Workman)
Mortimer and Mitchell set the piece in the 1930s, a world of stripped back rather grey interiors with little colour and no folk-influence. The production is nearly 20 years old, and I have never seen it before but it was striking how many of Mitchell's ideas seem to have permeated more recent productions. Here naturalism and realism took a back seat to a concentration on the characters, with Mitchell and Tebbutt very much creating the family from hell, as each member seems flawed in some way. Grandmother, Anne Marie Owens, is over-indulgent to her favourite grandson, Steva, Nicky Spence, (there was a lovely moment in Act Three when the baby was discovered and Anne Marie Owens look across worriedly to Nicky Spence who furiously shook his head, denying responsibility for the death); Steva is a loutish drunk, getting by on a thread of charm; failed love for Jenufa has made Laca, Peter Hoare, turn vicious; Jenufa herself, Natalya Romaniw is so blinded by her love for Steva that she cannot see sense; the Kostelnicka, Susan Bullock, is so concerned to do right that she forgets to be human and comes across as angry and accusatory.

There has been a tendency in recent years to cast Jenufa with a sort of lyric soprano voice which has difficulty imposing itself on Janacek's rich orchestration. Here, Natalya Romaniw combined a vibrancy of tone with the right lyricism to ensure that Jenufa was a real character in her own right, yet with a voice which soared over the orchestra. She was able to combine the right amount of power and intensity with a poignant lyricism so that the big moments were vibrant, but for the quieter sections in Acts Two and Three she really pulled the heart strings. We have heard Romaniw in a sequence of complex heroines in the last few years and this was another one, she had the gift of making Jenufa interesting and intense even later sections of the opera where she is overlaid with lassitude and depression. Romaniw made Jenufa the centre of attention, without being attention seeking and the final scene with Peter Hoare's Laca was radiantly transformative and transcendent in just the right way.

Romaniw's strength meant that Susan Bullock's vivid and strongly etched Kostelnicka did not simply dominate the proceedings (as has happened in a number of performances recently), and instead this was a very strongly balanced performance. All the cast strongly etched but pulling together as an ensemble.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Someone once suggested she take a choral contraceptive: I chat to conductor Suzi Digby about her projects

Suzi Digby OBE
Suzi Digby OBE
The conductor Suzi Digby is known for a remarkable range of projects, she  has created a number of organisations many involved in working with young people including Voices Foundation, Voce, and London Youth Choirs, not to mention her work in California (where she is a visiting professor at the University of Southern California) with the Golden Bridge choir and most recently in the UK, the professional choir ORA with its remarkable programme of commissioning new music. I met up with Suzi to find out more.

When we met Suzi had just returned from a meeting with Harmonia Mundi where the release date was confirmed for ORA's next disc, Many are the Wonders (released 23 June 2017). The disc combines music by Thomas Tallis with contemporary reflections on Tallis's music commissioned for the choir (see my review of ORA's recent concert at the Cutty Sark, which included a lot of this music). Whilst enthusiastic about all the music on the disc, Suzi singles out the gospel-style reflection of Tallis's Loquebantur by Ken Burton. She feels that the different sectors of music are becoming increasingly siloed with little interaction between classical music and areas such as gospel, whereas in the 1990s there seemed to be more classical interest in gospel. She is excited that Burton's piece is cross-genre in a considered way. Doing gospel style music with classical singers needs to be carefully managed, and part of Burton's skill is that he understands the Anglican tradition and his new piece is intended to emerge from that tradition.

The disc is part of a wider project where Suzi and ORA are commissioning contemporary composers to re-imaging Renaissance music. For this to work Suzi considers that, like Ken Burton, the composers need the make the music their own and cites the example of Alexander L'Estrange whose Show me deare Christ not only re-worked the 'Credo' from Byrd's Mass for four voices but secularised it too. Suzi's enthusiasm for and commitment to this project is palpable, during our conversation she not only talks knowledgeable and enthusiastically, but positively vibrates with energy.

But where did the idea of combining contemporary composers with the past come from?

Suzi Digby and ORA at the Cutty Sark in Feb. 2017
Suzi Digby and ORA at the Cutty Sark in Feb. 2017

Friday, 23 June 2017

A very complete Giovanni: Mozart's Don from Ashley Riches and Opera Holland Park Young Artists

OHP Young Artists with the Opera Holland Park Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Don Giovanni (Young Artists Performance 2017) © Alex Brenner
OHP Young Artists with the Opera Holland Park Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Don Giovanni (Young Artists Performance 2017) © Alex Brenner
Mozart Don Giovanni (Young Artists performance); Ashley Riches, Darwin Leonard Prakash, Julia Hamon, Joel Williams, Nardus Williams, Vedat Dalgiran, Eleanor Sanderson-Nash, Ricardo Panel, dir: Oliver Platt / Roxana Haines, cond: Harry Ogg; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 22 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Engaging and fully rounded performances from all concerned in the annual Young Artists performance at Opera Holland Park

Opera Holland Park - Mozart: Don Giovanni - Ashley Riches (Photo © Robert Workman)
Since it debuted in 2012, Opera Holland Park's Young Artists Scheme has gone on to create a remarkable stream of singers, directors and conductors many of whom have continued to be involved in the subsequent seasons (the 2017 Opera Holland Park season includes 14 alumni of the scheme). This year's Young Artists performance on Thursday 22 June 2017 was Oliver Platt's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, designed by Neil Irish. Ashley Riches, from the main cast, was Don Giovanni with young artists Darwin Leonard Prakash (Leporello), Julia Hamon (Donna Anna), Joel Williams (Don Ottavio), Vedat Dalgiran (Commendatore), Eleanor Sanderson-Nash (Zerlina) and Ricardo Panela (Masetto). The cast were rehearsed by Roxana Haines (associate director), and Harry Ogg (associate conductor) was in the pit.

Platt and Irish moved the setting to a 1930s liner, and whilst this does require a little suspension of disbelief it certainly helps to explain why everyone keeps popping up repeatedly. The costumes nicely delineated the different classes, though budget restrictions presumably meant that there seemed to be a remarkable amount of fraternisation between the upper classes and steerage. My main concern was that Irish's main set was a row of doors and port-holes, whilst this did create the necessary myriad comings and goings the main playing space was reduced to a rather intractable long corridor which emphasised the most problematic aspect of the Opera Holland Park stage (its sheer width), and caused a few problems with ensembles. Things improved vastly in the bigger set pieces when the centre section retreated up-stage to create a larger saloon-like playing area.

Opera Holland Park - Mozart: Don Giovanni - Julia Hamon, Joel Williams (Photo © Alex Brenner)
Julia Hamon, Joel Williams (Photo © Alex Brenner)
Irish and Platt had clearly thought about the class issues in the opera, and this was a production which did make the attempt to recreate Mozart and Da Ponte's complex class structures in modern terms. Something that many modern updatings rather neglect. Another enjoyable aspect to the production was that Platt had clearly thought about the mixture of comedy and tragedy which Mozart and Da Ponte intended. This was a very funny production, but one which made space for some real nastiness from Ashley Riches' Don Giovanni, and poised tragedy from Donna Anna (Julia Hamon). In line with most recent productions of the opera, Nardus Williams' Donna Elvira was also a tragic figure with none of the semi-seria elements which Mozart intended.

The young artists get a full rehearsal period with the associate director, Roxana Haines and the associate conductor, Harry Ogg, with the benefit of rehearsing in the same building as the main cast. They rehearsed with a stand-in Giovanni, but Ashley Riches and the young team built a superb relationship which belied the small amount of stage time they must have had together. There is just one young artists performance, and the impressive thing was how complete and well rounded the performances were. All the young singers are on a journey to their final mature destination, but these young artists showed a strong grasp of the essentials of performing Mozart.

PRS New Music Biennial in Hull, city of culture

King Billy - statue of King William III in Hull
King Billy - statue of King William III in Hull
When I was a boy, we used to take the ferry from New Holland in North Lincolnshire and travel to Hull, walking up from the docks and spending the day visiting shops, the Wilberforce Museum and perhaps the Ferens Art Gallery, none of which made as big an impression on me as the statue of King Billy (a large gilt statue of King William III which indicated that you had left the docks and were approaching the town). Hull was very badly bombed during the war, and the post-war re-invention was not the most successful and throughout my teens and young adult period, the association of Hull with culture was rather minimal. But the city has successfully re-invented itself in many ways, and this year is celebrating this as UK City of Culture.

Amongst the events for the City of Culture celebrations is the PRS for Music's New Music Biennial which takes place from 30 June to 1 July in Hull (to be repeated at London's Southbank Centre 7-9 July 2017) and, most importantly, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

If you can be in Hull, then you can catch Anna Meredith and the Southbank Sinfonia, Simon Holt and the BBC Philharmonic, Errolyn Wallen, Mark Simpson, Jocelyn Pook, Sam Lee and many, many more (see the Hull 2017 web page for details).

If you can't be in Hull then BBC Radio 3 is devoting Saturday 1 July 2017 to the New Music Biennial with Breakfast presented live from Hull, Anna Meredith, one of the composers taking part, making her Radio 3 live presenting debut from Hull in Saturday Classics with a 2pm live broadcast of Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River from Hull City Hall, and Here and Now is the first of two focussed on the Biennial, and is presented live from Fruit, a venue in Hull’s cultural quarter, introducing new music by GoGo Penguin, Gavin Bryars, Anna Meredith and Schlomo among others. Further details from the BBC Radio 3 website.

Bach - The Four Orchestra Suites

Bach's autograph of the Traversière part of the second orchestral suite (BWV 1067)
Bach's autograph of the Traversière part of
the second orchestral suite (BWV 1067)
Bach orchestral suites; The King's Consort, Robert King; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Bach's orchestral suites in engaging performances from the large-scale to the intimate

On one of the hottest ever days in London, Robert King and the King's Consort still drew a good audience for their programme of Bach's orchestral suites at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 21 June 2017. There was a very full platform too, with the ensemble fielding a total of 24 performers on the crowded Wigmore Hall stage. They did not perform the suites in numerical order, instead King started and finished with suites with trumpets Ouverture 4 in D BWV 1069 first and Ouverture 3 in D BWV 1068 last. Ouverture 1 in C, BWV 1066 came second with Ouverture 2 in B minor after the interval, played just one to a part with Rachel Brown giving the solo flute.

Bach's four orchestral suites are his only surviving examples of large-scale orchestral pieces, though almost certainly he wrote more orchestral suites which have been lost. Traces these lost ones still survive because of Bach's habit of re-using material, and this applies to the four existing suites where a few movements crop up in other places. Chronology is still somewhat vague, though some almost certainly have their origins in music which Bach wrote at the court in Cöthen, but their present form owes a lot to Bach's taking over the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig in 1729, and thus having a good orchestral ensemble with which to perform his music. In form, the suites are all quite similar; each starts with a large-scale French-overture type movement (slow, fast, slow) followed by a suite of dance movements, often in pairs.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Multi-Story on the move

The Multi-Story Orchestra (Photo Sam Murray Sutton)
The Multi-Story Orchestra (Photo Sam Murray Sutton)
The Multi-Story Orchestra is having a (temporary) change of home, on 24 June 2017 moves from its regular Peckham car park to Blackfriars NCP multi-storey car park, Foundation Street, Ipswich for a concert as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. Christopher Stark conducts a programme which includes arias by Handel and Kate Whitley's I am, I say with soloists Raphaela Papadakis and Andrew Rupp. The orchestra will also be joined by children from Hillside Primary School and Sidegate Primary School in the Kate Whitley. The afternoon concert will be followed by one of the orchestra's Living Programme Notes featuring Mozart's Symphony No 41 (‘Jupiter’), with Christopher Stark conducting.

The orchestra returns to its regular home in Peckham in July, when performances include the living programme note on Mozart's Jupiter symphony, In Colour – a new work written by pupils from Kender, John Donne, Hollydale & Lyndhurst Primary Schools, Haydn's Symphony No 82 ‘The Bear’ and Bartok dances; at one of the performances these latter will be performed with players from St Thomas the Apostle College & Harris Academy Peckham alongside The Multi-Story Orchestra.

There is also a chamber music series in Peckham, with a programme curated by flautist Hannah Grayson which includes George Crumb's Vox Balaenae and the Trio for flute, piano and cello by the 19th century French composer Louise Farrenc, cellist Nathaniel Boyd in solo Bach and Kodaly, a programme of Rameau, Piazzola and Bach curated by cellist Abel Sealocoe, Kate Whitley & Richard Uttley in Stravinsky's piano duet version of The Rite of Spring and a programme curated by percussionist Jude Carlton which includes a new commission from Ruta Vitkauskaite.

Full details from the Multi-Story website.

From Border ballads to Carlyle's Centenary: Ronald Stevenson's piano music

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music: Volume Two
Ronald Stevenson Piano Music: Volume Two; Christopher Guild; Toccata Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 06 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A valuable addition to the growing repertoire of Stevenson's music available on disc

The composer / pianist Ronald Stevenson left a huge legacy of piano music, and the challenge for performers on CD is to make a coherent and satisfying programme. The pianist Christopher Guild is recording Stevenson's piano music for Toccata Classics, this is the second of his discs and on it Guild includes Stevenson's Hebridean Seascape (a transcription of a Frank Merrick piece), Three Scots Fairy Tales, A Carlyle Suite, Rory Dall Morrison's Harp Book, Three Scottish Ballads, and Lament for a Blind Harper.

It is the folk-song of Scotland (Stevenson's adopted country) which weaves its way through much of the material on the disc. Hebridean Seascape is an imaginative transcription of the slow movement of a piano concerto by the composer / pianist Frank Merrick, and the central section includes a Skye fisherwoman's chant. It is quite a virtuosic piece, designed for a pianist such as Stevenson was (he was no mean interpreter of his own music). The next piece is completely the opposite, Three Scots Fairy Tales was written for children but Stevenson certainly does not write down.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

St John's Smith Square 2017/18 season

St John's Smith Square (Photo Matthew Andrews)
St John's Smith Square has announced its 2017/18 programme with a mix of new and old, young artists and established favourites. The Christmas Festival returns for the 32nd festival which will include performances from Vox Luminis, Ex Cathedra, Solomon's Knot and many other favourites. David Titterington will be performing all of Bach's organ works, and there is a series of Bach in Advent free recitals at 6pm.

New in 2017, the Holy Week Festival returns in 2018 combining ticketed concerts with free events including Nigel Short and Tenebrae's series of late-night Tenebrae services. The London Festival of Baroque Music is the 34th festival and it will have a French theme celebrating the 350th anniversary of the birth of Couperin, with guest artistic director Sébastien Daucé who will be bringing his own Ensemble Correspondances for a staged setting of Charpentier’s Histoires sacrèes. The Brook Street Band lead a weekend Festival in February 2018 exploring the varied musical styles that informed and shaped the composer Georg Muffat, including chamber and orchestral music by Bach and Handel. Also in February, the Principal Sound Festival returns with a focus on the music of Luigi Nono alongside works by Rebecca Saunders, György Kurtág, Claudia Molitor and Morton Feldman.

Throughout 2018, Americana ’18 celebrates music from America in a series of concerts curated by the conductor David Wordsworth, including a celebration of Stephen Montague’s 75th birthday, there will be a whole day of events, stretching for 13 hours (to represent the 13 stripes of the Stars and Stripes flag) on Independence Day. Other events include the Carducci Quartet in Philip Glass and the complete chamber version of Copland's Appalachian Spring performed by Orchestra Nova.

Bampton Classical Opera returns with Salieri's The School of Jealousy, a work that almost certainly inspired Da Ponte and Mozart to create Cosi fan tutte. Bampton also give a programme illustrating the life of the legendary singer Nancy Storace marking the bicentenary of her death. In October St John’s Smith Square hosts the final of The Voice of Black Opera Competition featuring six young singers accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia , conducted by Kwamé Ryan. Irish Heritage Opera visit in April 2018 to celebrate 44 years of bringing Irish operatic talent to the stage.

La Nuova Musica perform Handel’s Orlando in February, the start of an annual cycle of Handel operas at St John’s Smith Square. In April, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company perform Handel's Giulio Cesare and during the London Festival of Baroque Music La Nuova Musica return with Iestyn Davies in the title role of Gluck’s Orfeo.

St John’s Smith Square's Young Artists’ Scheme at enters a fifth season with three extraordinary talents. The Bukolika Piano Trio present music by Boulanger, Hanna Kulenty, Messiaen, Górecki and Panufnik alongside more familiar works by Beethoven and Dvořák; the violinist Mathilde Milwidsky performs music by Arvo Pärt, Janáček, Clara Schumann, Grieg and Richard Strauss, while the piano and percussion duo of Siwan Rhys and George Barton offer programmes including music by Vinko Globokar, Kagel, Cage, Feldman and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. All three Young Artists will be showcased as part of a special concert within Open House London.

The Fallen Soldier

A new opera by Louis Mander is being given as part of a double bill presented by Belsize Opera on 23 and 24 June 2017 at St Peter's Church, Belsize Square, Belsize Park, London. Mander's The Fallen Soldier evokes the year 1917 in a passionate epistolary narrative set between two British soldiers in the midst of the Great War. The new opera is being paired with a dramatic realisation of Ivor Gurney's song cycle Ludlow and Teme. Both pieces are directed by Jack Cherry. The Fallen Soldier is also being performed at Cheltenham Playhouse on 12 July, full details of both performances from Louis Mander's website.

Further ahead, Surrey Opera will be premiered Mander's large scale opera The Life to Come based on a short story by E.M. Forster. The libretto for the piece is by Stephen Fry, and Jonathan Butcher conducts. Performances take place on 28 & 29 September 2017 at The Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, Surrey.

Bach Reimagines Bach: William Carter in Bach's lute works

Bach Reimagines Bach - William Carter (lute) - LINN
Bach Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, Suite in E major BWV 1006a, Suite in G minor BWV 995; William Carter; Linn Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 13 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Stylish, effortless and engaging, William Carter plays Bach's music for lute

Bach was a great re-imaginer and re-user of musical material, sometimes re-casting music in radically different forms and none more so when he took the music for unaccompanied violin or cello and re-cast it for the lute. On this disc from Linn Records lutenist William Carter plays Bach's Suite in E major, BWV 1006a and Suite in G minor, BWV 995 plus the Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001.

There is much discussion about Bach the composer for the lute and Bach the lutenist. He is never known to have played the lute but possessed a very valuable one (worth three times as much as his most valuable violin). But then, as William Carter in his booklet article points out, whilst Bach was known to play the violin the only record we have of him playing the solo violin music was on the harpsichord. As well as discussing the music itself, Carter lucidly talks about Bach's writing style for the lute which, as with much of Bach's writing elsewhere, takes little account of the fallibilities of the performer.

Bach almost certainly wrote a great deal for the lute, of which we only possess a fragment. In the 1761 Breitkopf Music Catalogue, Bach advertised 'Three Partitas for solo lute, volume 1', all lost alas.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

End of an era: the final Rosenblatt Recital at Wigmore Hall

Nahuel di Pierro (Photo Jonathan Rose)
Nahuel di Pierro (Photo Jonathan Rose)
Vivaldi, Handel, Rameau, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz; Nahuel Di Pierro and Alphonse Cemin; Rosenblatt Recitals at Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Jun 5 2017
Star rating: 3.5

A young Argentinian bass provides the very last recital in this long running series

The recital by Nahuel Di Pierro and Alphonse Cemin for Rosenblatt Recitals at Wigmore Hall on 5 June 2017 was the end of an era for the celebrity (and future-celebrity) recitals devised and promoted since 2000 by opera-mad solicitor Ian Rosenblatt (interviewed by Robert here). There are two memorable things for me: one was my only ever lottery win was tickets to one of the early recitals. The other was in 2001 when Plácido Domingo rocked up and sat in the row in front of me at St John’s Smith Square; he was coming to listen to an up-and-coming Peruvian tenor called Juan Diego Flórez. I thought I’d better pay attention. 
Flórez is one of many talents Rosenblatt has introduced to us. The series has evolved, but they have been predominantly solo recitals of operatic and oratorio arias and songs, with piano and occasionally small orchestra. He moved from St John’s to the Wigmore, but the Wig has increasingly gone down the route of curating its own seasons of late and it has felt to me the Rosenblatts don’t quite fit there these days.

The last recital was the Argentinian bass Nahuel Di Pierro. He has as many bass-baritone roles on his CV as bass roles and, to my ear, at modern pitch, he did seem more at ease in the middle and top of the range than at the bottom.

The programme started with two punchy, bloodthirsty arias from Vivaldi’s Tito Manlio.

Beethoven's 'Leonore' brings the 40th Dresden Music Festival to a thrilling conclusion

Beethoven: Leonore - Dresden Music Festival - Ivor Bolton, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Ann Kern, Dresden Festival Orchestra (photo Oliver Killig)
Beethoven: Leonore - Dresden Music Festival - Ivor Bolton, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Ann Kern, Dresden Festival Orchestra (photo Oliver Killig)
Beethoven Leonore; Miriam Clark, Eric Cutler, Christina Gansch, Martin Mitterutzner, Peter Rose, Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

The original version of Beethoven's opera in a thrilling performance which combined period instruments with modern interventions

Beethoven: Leonore - Dresden Music Festival - Miriam Clark (photo Oliver Killig)
Miriam Clark (photo Oliver Killig)
The 40th Dresden Music Festival (Dresdner Musikfestspiele) concluded with a concert performance of Beethoven's Leonore (the original 1805 version of Fidelio) performed in the Kulturpalast, the new concert hall (opened April 2017) created within the shell of the old Soviet era Kulturpalast. Ivor Bolton conducted the period instrument Dresden Festival Orchestra, with soloists Miriam Clark, Eric Cutler, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Christina Gansch, Martin Mitterrutzner, Peter Rose and Tareq Nazmi. Also taking part with the festival's young artists, Bohème 2020, Joscha Baltes, Maja Blomstrand, Danae Dörken, Anne Kern, Romain Rios, and Robin Thomson.

Beethoven's opera was given without dialogue, but with a series of interventions from the artists of Bohème 2020, these ranged from dance episodes to video projections, with a substantial dance episode between Acts Two and Three performed to the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op.26.

Beethoven's 1805 version of the opera can come as a bit of a shock if you only know Fidelio. Leonore is longer, with more background to the Marzelline, Jacquino, Rocco, Leonore relationships. Closer to Singspiel than Fidelio, it requires two leads who have the right combination of spinto power, flexibility and stamina. I have to confess that having seen the opera staged at Buxton last year (see my review) I rather missed the dialogue, but the acute performances form the singers meant that we lost nothing of the emotional trajectory of the characters.

Beethoven: Leonore - Dresden Music Festival - Romain Rios (photo Oliver Killig)
Romain Rios (photo Oliver Killig)
The new concert hall is an attractive combination of white, pale wood and vermilion, the irregular polygon-shaped auditorium provides good sight-lines and an acoustic which seems to combine clarity with a long-ish reverberation time. We certainly heard a wonderful amount of colour and detail from the Dresden Festival Orchestra, whilst the responsive acoustic never overwhelmed the singers. There were one or two balance issues, with the orchestra being a little too present, but that is something which familiarity will iron out.

Miriam Clark made a radiant Leonore, singing with bright flexible tone and displaying a real jugend-dramatisch voice. She had a vivid way of conveying Leonore's emotions both visually and musically; this was a very complete performance. It was the combination of her sheer engagement, with a cleanness of articulation in the more ornamental passages which really impressed. In 'Komm Hoffnung' she was complemented by some wonderfully pungent wind solos.

Eric Cutler made an admirable Florestan, youthful and heroic. This version of the role requires less heroic heft and more flexibility, which Cutler provided. His opening solo, following by a thrilling orchestra prelude, combined Cutler's noble, yet plangent tone with orchestral colour which made something both gripping and moving. This scene is far more conventionally operatic than in Fidelio, with Cutler, Clark and Peter Rose (Rocco) giving us a vivid sense of the dramatic narrative. In 'Namenlose Freude' (longer and more complex than in Fidelio), Cutler and Clark complemented each other admirably two lither voices moving together conveying a real sense of joy.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Magic Butterfly: WNO launches virtual reality experience

WNO's Magic Butterfly
Welsh National Opera is combining opera with virtual reality (VR) in an installation which opens on 14 July 2017. Magic Butterfly, a re-imagining of scenes from Madama Butterfly and The Magic Flute, will be presented inside a shipping container and will allow visitors to use Google Daydream technology – a mobile VR platform - to engage with the re-imagined world around them. The first time an opera company has used VR in this way.

Magic Butterfly features a WNO recording of 'Un bel di' with soprano Karah Son who recently sang the role of Cio Cio San in WNO’s production of Madam Butterfly. Audiences will also be able to experience lion taming to a recording of 'How soft, how strong your magic sound’ from The Magic Flute. Combining motion capture, animation, music and technology, Magic Butterfly, will create an immersive experience using responsive animation and sound.

Magic Butterfly opens outside Wales Millennium Centre on 14 July and will run for four weeks before touring to Llandudno, Birmingham and Liverpool during WNO’s Autumn season. Booking is not required, and the experience is free to visitors. The experience will also be presented in London at the V&A Museum in January 2018 as part of the V&A and Royal Opera’s Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition. Further information from the WNO website.

V is for… VOOTS!

Orchestra of the Swan logo
Like many organisations, the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) relies on volunteers. On the morning of Tuesday 20 June, OOTS Learning & Participation Manager, Sue Pope, is inviting anyone interested in finding out more about OOTS' volunteering opportunities to drop into Stratford Artshouse, 14 Rother Street, Stratford-Upon-Avon any time between 10am-1pm. There will be tea, cake, information about OOTS and its volunteering opportunities plus access to an open rehearsal in readiness for the concert that evening.

Volunteering with any organisation is a great way to make new friends and provide much needed support for your local community, with the added bonus of meeting people that share your passion for music.

Further information from the OOTS website.

A satisfying evening: Verdi's Nabucco from Chelsea Opera Group

Verdi Nabucco; David Kempster, David Soar, Helena Dix, Peter Auty, Chelsea Opera Group, Gianluca Marciano; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Jun 17 2017
Star rating: 3.5

Verdi's first big success in a concert performance from Chelsea Opera Grouop

"With this opera, it can be truly said that my artistic career began". So wrote Verdi after Nabucco’s triumphant reception. Solera’s libretto is very loosely based on the books of Jeremiah and Daniel; all of the characters other than Nabucco himself are inventions. The rousing score, full of biblical grandeur, is an epic tale of love, jealousy and the pursuit of power - isn’t it always. Set against the oppression and subsequent exile of the Jews, it’s now best known for the chorus “Va pensiero” which, stoked by Verdi himself, has attained a certain mythos.

Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance of Nabucco at Cadogan Hall on Saturday 17 June 2017 was conducted by Gianluca Marciano with David Kempster (Nabucco), Helena Dix (Abigaille), Peter Auty (Ismaele), David Soar (Zaccaria), and Clare Presland (Fenena).

Verdi’s interest in power and the relationships between father and daughter makes for a curiously lop-sided drama; the young lovers Fenena and Ismaele the catalyst for the subsequent power play are merely a side show. All the heavy lifting is done by Abigaille, Nabucco, Zaccaria and the chorus.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Edge of Time: exploring historic bone flutes

TheEdge of Time - Delphian
This is the latest in Delphian's fascinating series exploring instruments of the past as part of the European Music Archaeology Project. On this disc Anna Friederike Potengowski plays pre-historic bone flutes, and she is joined by percussionist Georg Wieland Wagner. Potengowski is playing four reconstructions of bone flutes which are based on flutes found in archaeological excavations. These represent some of the earliest known evidence of musical creation.

Inevitably, the music on the disc is speculative. Not just the music, few of the bone flutes survive complete so there is an element of speculation in the reconstructions too. Both Pontengowski and Wagner have written pieces which explore what is possible with the flutes and percussion, and to these are added a piece by Rupert Till and John Cage's Ryoanji. Pontengowski is wonderfully adept at getting a range of colours and styles from the instruments.

The results are intriguing and atmospheric, though I have to confess that quite often the music reminds me of background music to films. It seems to evoke the sort of sound-tracks that come with film journeys up the Amazon..

The Edge of Time
Anna Friederike Potengowski (bone flutes)
Georg Wieland Wagner (percussions)
DELPHIAN DCD34185 1CD [64.32]
Available from Amazon.

From Brexit, the opera, to an albatross task force: Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival returns

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Tête à Tête is 20 years old, and Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is 10 years old, so there is lots to celebrate as the festival returns to Kings Cross this Summer (25 July to 13 August, at The Place, Lewis Cubitt Square, RADA Studios & King’s Cross Academy). But of course, being Tête à Tête there will be much more than just celebration.

There will be debate
  • a weekend of Devoted & Disgruntled, in partnership with Improbable, to encourage conversation & debate for those involved in and / or passionate about the opera community
  • reality television in opera-form, an albatross task force, a robot conductor, opera in the form of a podcast
  • child-friendly operas
Giving voices to those who need it
  • themes that include isolation, self-expression & identity, artificial intelligence, women’s rights
And of course contemporary politics & current affairs
  • the world's first Brexit opera; an opera set in airport immigration, whose composer couldn’t make the first workshop due to Trump’s travel ban; a tale of an African slave whose story was used by William Wilberforce

Just drop in or spend an entire week, there will be lots happening, and the much-loved Cubitt Sessions will be returning to the Lewis Cubitt Square.

Full information from the festival website.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Recorders and vibraphone: Martin Luther - Prediger, Politiker, Privatmensch

Dresden Music Festival at Palais im Grossen Garten
Dresden Music Festival at Palais im Grossen Garten
Martin Luther: Prediger, Politiker, Privatmensch, Stefan Bauer, Diego Ortiz, Marco Uccellini, Orlando di Lasso, Michael Praetorius, Sweelinck, Ludwig Senfl; Flautando Köln, Stefan Bauer, Torsten Müller, Martin Brambach; Dresden Music Festival at Palais im Grossen Garten
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 16 2017
Star rating: 3.5

Martin Luther explored in words and music, with work from his own time contrasted with contemporary pieces by Stefan Bauer

One of the joys of the Dresden Music Festival is its use of Dresden's many historic buildings as venues for festival events. Each visit to the festival (this year is my 3rd visit) has taken me to a different selection of places. On Friday 16 June 2017 the festival was presenting a programme celebrating Martin Luther at the Palais im Grossen Garten. The festival's theme this year is Licht (Light), and events have incorporated celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther: Prediger, Politiker, Privatmensch (Pastor, Politician, Private-man) featured the recorder ensemble Flautando Köln (Susan Hochscheid, Katrin Krauss, Ursula Thelen, Kersin de Witt) playing a wide variety of recorders, plus Torsten Müller (percussion), Stefan Bauer (vibraphone) and actor Martin Brambach.

Stage all set for a performance by Flautando Köln at Dresden Music Festival
Stage all set for a performance by Flautando Köln at Dresden Music Festival
Dating from around 1680, the Palais im Grossen Garten is one of the earliest examples baroque architecture in Dresden, and the first important building in Saxony build after the 30 Years War. Badly damaged in World War Two, the ground floor features an atmospheric vault which houses a collection of 17th century stone sculptures brought indoors for their protection. The piano nobile is essentially a roofed ruin, providing an atmospheric venue for concerts.

The concert combined Martin Luther's own words taken from letters and sermons, spoken by Martin Brambach, with music both of Martin Luther's time (Diego Ortiz, Marco Uccellini, Orlando di Lasso, Michael Praetorius, Sweelinck, Ludwig Senfl) with contemporary pieces by the vibraphone player Stefan Bauer.

The first half included two substantial works by Bauer, Nun freuet euch lieben Christen g'mein and Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich. These combined Brambach's recitation with music, sometimes as melodrama and sometimes alternating the two.

Rossini's best comedy: I talk to conductor David Parry about Rossini's Il turco in Italia

Rossini: Il Turco in Italia at Garsington Opera in 2011 (Photo Mike Hoban)
Rossini: Il Turco in Italia at Garsington Opera in 2011 (Photo Mike Hoban)
The conductor David Parry has conducted a remarkable sequence of Rossini operas at Garsington Opera, and this year he and director Martin Duncan return to their 2011 production of Rossini's comedy Il turco in Italia. Of course David conducts far more than just Rossini, but thanks to his work at Garsington and with Opera Rara, it is bel canto with which he is most associated. I met up with David, in a break between rehearsals for Il turco in Italia to talk about Rossini's comedies, his serious operas and what makes bel canto tick.

David Parry (Photo Marco-Borrelli)
David Parry (Photo Marco-Borrelli)
David thinks that Il turco in Italia is Rossini's best comedy (though La Cenerentola comes close), partly because the standard of the music in Il turco in Italia is so very high, 'as long as you only do the music which Rossini wrote'. As ever Rossini was in a hurry and some items are by another hand; unfortunately Rossini didn't finish the finale so that you have to perform the replacement.

But it isn't just the music which raises the comedy up, it is the drama too with its meta-theatrical device of a poet creating the drama and manipulating it so that it becomes the plot of the opera that he is writing. David finds this an incredibly modern idea, and inside this device the characters are more rounded than some of Rossini's other comedies. David points to the moments of real depth in the opera, such as Fiorilla's Act Two aria when she is divorced and poverty-stricken. Like most good comedies, the work is a near tragedy. Add to this that David calls the orchestral writing brilliant.

David rates Il turco in Italia far higher than L'Italiana in Algeri, though everyone in Rossini's day simply assumed that when he wrote Il turco in Italia he was just regurgitating ideas from the earlier opera. This isn't true, and David talks about the far bigger canvas that Rossini used in Il turco in Italia. But this idea of Il turco in Italia copying L'Italiana in Algeri is still around today and it is one of the reasons to which David attributes the opera's relative lack of performances, though the relative paucity of arias probably does not help either (in Act One Fiorilla has just one short cavatina).

In fact, it is very much an ensemble piece and even moments like Selim's entrance turn into ensembles; so much so that David feels that this is something Rossini was experimenting with.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Karol Szymanowski: Stabat Mater & more from Warsaw

Szymanowski - Warner Classics - Warsaw Philharmonic
Karol Szymanowski Litany to the Virgin Mary, Stabat Mater, Symphony No. 3; Aleksandra Kurzak, Agnieszka Rehlis, Dmitry Korchak, Artur Rucinski, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Jacek Kaspszyk; Warner Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Gorgeous textures, and wonderful style

This disc of music by Karol Szymanowski is in reverse date order, so that we start with the late Litany to the Virgin Mary which shares elements of its sound-world with the Stabat Mater, and then we finish with the earlier Symphony No. 3 where the elegance of Szymanowski's late style gives way to luxuriant elegance. Jacek Kaspszyk directs the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir with soloists Aleksandra Kurzak, Agnieszka Rehlis, Dmitry Korchak and Artur Rucinski on Warner Classics.

Written in 1933, Karol Szymanowski's Litany to the Virgin Mary was intended to be a setting of a seven-stanza poem by Jerzy Liebert (1904-1931) for soprano and orchestra. But illness prevented him from setting the full poem and he left only stanzas three and six, to form a short (a little over eight minutes) but powerful work. Aleksandra Kurzak sings with a gorgeous sense of line, supported by Kaspszyk and the orchestra, to bring out the richness and elegance of Szymanowski's late style, economical, melancholy and very powerful.

The larger scale Stabat Mater from 1926 lives in the same sound-world.

Primephonic launches its classical music streaming service

Primephonic streaming service
If you have ever tried to find a particular classical music recording on one of the standard streaming services, you will know how frustrating the process is because search facilities designed for popular songs are rarely suitable for classical music. This has now been remedied, and Primephonic has launched a streaming service specifically dedicated to classical music.

Primephonic has an existing download platform, and to this the company has now added a streaming service. The streaming service is starting with over 100,000 classical music tracks with many being added every day, and lots of labels including Sony Classical and Warner Classics. All the tracks will be available as CD quality (16-bit FLAC file format). Perhaps as important, the search facility will allow you to search by composer, work, artist, ensemble, historical period and genre thus making it easier to find that specific recording. Unlike other streaming services, Primephonic offers the possibility of coping with the fact that in classical music, there are often hundreds of recordings of the same piece of music.

Primephonic is a Dutch company, which has the record label Pentatone as a sister company. They feel that so far, classical music has not really found a place in the streaming world, and hope that Primephonic's platform is the answer. Certainly the classical music world is relatively small, so let us hope that the classical music streaming consumers (around 3% of the total streaming market) get on board. The company is offering a different royalty payment model to standard streaming services, with Primephonic offering payment based on the time spent listening (rather than the number of tracks).

The service had a launch event in London on Wednesday (14 June 2017) when we got a chance to hear about the new service, meet the people responsible for it and try listening, there was also live music too with a harpist, Melissa Parmar, and a trio of brass players from the London Philharmonic Orchestra who played Poulenc's trio for trumpet, horn and trombone. Another visitor was a violin maker, Ballard Violins, and it was fascinating chatting to him about his methods, and seeing his tools (see above) and the half-built instruments.

The site offers a 30 day free trial, and subscriptions then cost £14.99 per month in the UK ($14.99 in the USA). Full details from the Primephonic website.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Top 50 Classical Music Blogs award

Feedspot Top 50 Classical Music Blog award
I am pleased to say that Planet Hugill has been named as one of Feedspot Blog Reader's Top 50 Classical Music Blogs on the web. 

This award is in addition to our being named as one of the Top 25 Opera Blogs & Websites.

Slow burn opera: Saint-Saens Proserpine revived by Palazzetto Bru Zane

Saint-Saens - Prosperpine
Saint-Saens Proserpine; Veronique Gens, Frederic Antoun, Jean Teitgen, Andrew Foster Williams, Marie-Adeline Henry, Munchener Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schimer; Palazzetto Bru Zane / Ediciones Singulares
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 10 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Saint-Saens' opera has a fascinating Reniassance courtesan at its centre

Camille Saint-Saens never seems to have had much luck with his sixth opera, Proserpine. Premiered in 1887, Saint-Saens was accused both of Wagnerisme and of taking too symphonic an attitude to opera (his Symphony No. 3 had just been premiered). By the time of the opera's revival in Paris in 1899, the Parisian public had heard real Wagner operas and tastes had changed. Unfortunately the opera's rather fustian libretto and plot seemed old fashioned.

The piece has now been revived by Palazzetto Bru Zane and the recording issued in one of its admirable books published by Ediciones Singulares. Veronique Gens sings the title role (a Renaissance courtesan), with Marie-Adeline Henry, Frederic Antoun, Andrew Foster-Williams and Jean Teitgen, the Flemish Radio Choir and Munchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer.

The rather old fashioned cast to the plot arises because Saint-Saens conceived an opera based on August Vacquerie's 1838 play Proserpine. The resulting four act opera underwent some changes from the play (the second act is entirely new and the number of deaths at the end caused problems). Saint-Saens wrote a work where each act has a very different character, and it is only on the final two that the drama really catches fire.

Unseen Diasporas: Yiddish Summer Weimar

Yiddish Summer Weimar - Caravan Orchestra Project
Since 1999, the Yiddish Summer Weimar has been presenting the varied aspects of Yiddish culture as part of the Summer festival in Weimar. This year, from 15 July to 12 August 2017, under the title The Other Israel: "Seeing Unseen Diasporas", the festival will be exploring the shared heritages and fundamental differences between the various Diasporas which make up Israel today, Moroccan Jews, Iraqi Jews, Ethiopian Jews and several other national and ethnic communities and traditions which operate as minorities within the skein of contemporary Israeli society.

As part of a youth exchange program, Yiddish Summer Weimar 2017, he Arab-Jewish Orchestra from Haifa will forces with European instrumentalists whose programs will offer works of the European, Arabic and Jewish musical styles and genres. Voices of Peace, the Arab-Jewish choir from Jaffa will collaborate with Weimar's Schola Cantorum in Dr. Alan Bern’s musical settings of children’s poems by the Polish-Yiddish author Kadya Molodowsky (1894-1975). The poetry of Molodowsky, who was a Yiddish schoolteacher in Warsaw during the 1930s, is now required reading in Israeli schools – in Hebrew translation. This project will introduce the young singers to the Yiddish originals, in addition to versions in their own languages.

Full information from the Yiddish Summer Weimar website.

Looking Ahead: Cambridge Summer Music

Cambridge Summer Music logo
Cambridge Summer Music presents the chance to hear fine music in some of Cambridge's iconic venues. The festival opens on 13 July 2017 with Stephen Cleobury conducting Mozart's Requiem in King's College Chapel. Between 12 and 29 July there are concerts in a wide range of college chapels, the Divinity School and West Road Concert Hall.

In what promises to be a memorable encounter between two much-loved Cambridge figures, Dr Rowan Williams and Dr John Rutter will share their love of music and recall the musical experiences that have shaped their lives. Words and Music: Dr Rowan Williams & Dr John Rutter in conversation, at the Riley Auditorium, Clare College, will combine their conversations with readings and recordings of some of their favourite pieces in a pre-festival event on 24 June 2017.

Pianist Freddy Kempf and the Wiener Kammersymphonie will perform an all-Beethoven programme including Piano Concertos nos. 4 & 5, whilst the Aurora Orchestra will be bringing its performance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony performed from memory. The Martinů Quartet is giving a pair of programmes of Czech music including Schulhoff, Dvorak's Piano Quintet Op.81 (with Tom Poster), Svoboda and Janacek alongside Beethoven, and Schubert.

French pianist Patrick Hemmerlé will be performing Bach's complete Well-tempered Clavier over two concerts, and the young pianist Ivana Gavrić gives pair of programmes including Grieg, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, and Schumann's Piano Concerto with the Outcry Ensemble.

Tenebrae, director Nigel Short, will be performing Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles and will be joined by the Children’s Choirs of St John the Divine, Kennington to perform a new work by Owain Park.

Full details from the festival website.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Exploring early Mozart: Classical Opera in Grabmusik and Apollo et Hyacinthus

Mozart: Grabmusik - Benjamin Appl (Photo Classical Opera)
Mozart: Grabmusik - Benjamin Appl (Photo Classical Opera)
Mozart Symphony No.45a, Grabmusik, Apollo et Hyacinthus; Gemma Summerfield, Benjamin Appl, Benjamin Hulett, Klara Ek, Tim Mead, James Hall, dir: Thomas Guthrie, Classical Opera, cond: Ian Page; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Three early works by Mozart show his remarkable emotional range

For their final exploration of Mozart's 11th year, Ian Page and Classical Opera presented a triple bill of works which included Mozart's first opera. At St John's Smith Square on 13 June 2017, they presented Mozart's Symphony No. 45a, Grabmusik and Apollo et Hyacinthus with Gemma Summerfield, Benjamin Appl, Benjamin Hulett, Klara Ek, Tim Mead, and James Hall, in productions directed by Thomas Guthrie, and designed by Rhiannon Newman Brown.

Mozart: Grabmusik - Gemma Summerfield (Photo Classical Opera)
Mozart: Grabmusik - Gemma Summerfield (Photo Classical Opera)
St John's Smith Square does not lend itself ideally to staging, and Guthrie's production was simple and generally effective, with Rhiannon Newman Brown opting for stylish yet neutral modernism in the costumes.

We opened with the early Symphony No. 45a, a short but charming piece which was full of vigour and life. The characteristic slow movement showed the young Mozart's way with expressive melody, though it did slightly out-stay its welcome. The piece effectively formed an overture, and during the latter part of the symphony, Guthrie started to introduce people onto the stage, and this moved directly into the Grabmusik.

Together to the Workhouse Door

Together to the Workhouse Door
Together to the Workhouse Door was a major musical project which took place at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. A partnership between Orchestras Live, Broadland District Council, Norfolk Arts Services and Norfolk Music Education Hub, along with Sinfonia Viva and Writers Centre Norwich, brought composer James Redwood, poet Lucy Sheerman and Orchestra Viva together with local communities to create an oratorio inspired by those whose lives where shaped by the Workhouse.

As a result of an inspiration day, held at the Workhouse earlier this year, different groups both adults and school children chose to explore different themes arising from their visits. On the day, groups of singers joined together to animate different spaces inside the Grade II listed workhouse (one of the most important and best preserved workhouses in the UK) with all performers coming together for an open air performance in the workhouse courtyard for an inspiring and atmospheric event celebrating the re-opening of the Workhouse as a museum (further information from the Gressenhall website).

Further information from the Orchestras Live website.

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