Sunday, 24 September 2017

Orchestra to the fore: Enescu's Oedipe from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

George Enescus's Oedipe - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall (Photo London Philharmonic Orchestra)
George Enescus's Oedipe - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall (Photo London Philharmonic Orchestra)
Enescu Oedipe; Paul Gay, Willard White, Christopher Purves, Graham Clark, Ruxandra Donose, Ildiko Komlosi, Felicity Palmer, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 24 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A stunning performance of Enescu's masterpiece which put the orchestra at the centre, without neglecting strong vocal contributions

George Enescu's only opera Oedipe (premiered in Paris in 1936) seems to be slowly making its way into the British operatic consciousness. The piece's UK premiere was in 2002 (in concert at the Edinburgh Festival), with the first UK staging coming last year at Covent Garden (see my review). Now the work has popped up again, in concert, at the Royal Festival Hall on 23 September 2017 as part of the Belief and Beyond Belief season. Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra with two Romanian choirs, the Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic and Romanian Radio Children's Choir. Paul Gay was Oedipe (a role he sang with the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski's baton in Bucharest earlier this month) with Willard White as Tiresias, Christopher Purves as Creon, Graham Clark as the Shepherd, Mischa Schelomianski as the High Priest, In Sung Sim as Phorbas, Maxim Mikhailov as the Watchman, Boris Pinkhasovich as Thesee, Marius Vlad Budoiu as Laios, Ruxandra Donose as Jocaste, Ildiko Komlosi as The Sphinx, Gabriela Istoc as Antigone and Felicity Palmer as Merope.

Enescu's opera, with a French libretto by Edmund Fleg, covers the whole of Oedipus' life. The first two acts are largely Fleg's invention, but the later parts of the opera follow Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus. The result is that the role of Oedipe is by far the biggest one, the mature character appears at the beginning of Act Two and remains the focus for the rest of the opera. The remaining characters come and go, providing a series of strongly etched cameos and character sketches, and essentially the story is told in a series of duets and interactions between Oedipe and the others.

What was noticeable about this performance was the sheer orchestral demands which Enescu makes. There was a huge orchestra lots of extra woodwind and brass, including alto flute, cor anglais, bass and E flat clarinets, saxophone, contra bassoon, and D trumpet, and there was a bass trombone, euphonium and two tubas, not to mention the extra timpani, percussion, two celestes, harmonium and piano, well over 100 players in all. And there was quite a lot of coming and going too, as Enescu uses quite a lot of off stage instruments too (and off-stage chorus), all beautifully realised here.

With the opera performed complete (it is often cut in the theatre), I was very much struck by its relationship to Richard Strauss's Salome, both pieces can be described as orchestral tone poems with voices. It is the orchestra which, for much of the time, is the dominant voice in the piece. Not because its sheer size give us loudness, quite the opposite as Enescu rarely uses all his instruments at once instead using a vast array of colours from his palette, but because there is so much for the orchestra. For much of the opera, the plot proceeds at a relatively leisurely pace with plenty of orchestral interludes and commentary. It is the orchestra which fills in the gaps, and gives us a richly coloured emotional background to the story unfolding before us.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Schumann, Schubert & more: Mark Padmore on his forthcoming highlights

Mark Padmore & Till Fellner (Photo by kind permission of Izumi Hall, Japan - photographer credit Satoaki Hikawa)
Mark Padmore & Till Fellner performing in Japan
(Photo by kind permission of Izumi Hall, Japan - photographer credit Satoaki Hikawa)
One of the highlights of this year's Tetbury Festival is a recital by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Till Fellner on 29 September combining songs by Schubert with Schumann's Dichterliebe (they are repeating the recital at the John Innes Centre in Norwich on 30 September). It comes at the beginning of a busy year for Mark as he is artist in residence with the Berlin Philharmonic and has already launched his programme there with Hadyn's The Creation. I spoke to Mark by telephone to find out more.

Mark Padmore (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Mark Padmore (Photo Marco Borggreve)
This year is the 14th Tetbury Festival (it was founded in 2013 by Graham Kean and its president, Elise Smith). Mark is familiar with the festival, having sung there three or four times before and he describes the parish church (the venue for his concert) as a very special building.

His recital at the festival is very much in two halves, in the first Schubert and in the second Schumann's Dichterliebe, a real stand-alone work. Mark describes Dichterliebe as one of the most extraordinary works of the repertoire, but he clearly has a very clear view of the piece as he goes on to describe it as a piano piece with vocal accompaniment. Schumann wrote Dichterliebe in 1840 as part of his astonishing year of lieder writing. Mark sees the songs as messages to Clara (whom Schumann married in 1840), and feels that you can tell that Schumann was writing them for a pianist (Clara Schumann was one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era). So whilst the vocal lines deliver the text, the piano carries the most important music particularly in the piano postludes.

For the first half of the concert Mark and Till are performing Schubert songs, a selection which mainly includes later songs including settings of Seidl and Leitner. Mark finds this later period of Schubert's song writing extraordinary rich, as in the last couple of years of his life he became a real master of the art form. Mark says that he finds songs from this period increasingly interesting to perform, especially the not so well known songs and feels that some are some of the greatest music for voice and piano. He adds that it is lovely to be able to explore music with interesting piano parts with Till Fellner, who is a distinguished pianist in his own right.

Familiar and unfamiliar: Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars
Palestrina, Monteverdi, Allegri, Gesualdo, Lotti; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 22 2017 Star rating: 4.0
The Tallis Scholars open the 10th Choral at Cadogan series with Italian motets on the cusp of Renaissance and Baroque

The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips opened the 10th season of Choral at Cadogan on Friday 22 September 2017 with a programme of Italian motets at Cadogan Hall. The programme ranged from Palestrina, through Gesualdo and Monteverdi (including the Messa quattro voci da cappella) to Lotti, with Allegri's Miserere as a bon bouche.

The have been a few changes in the ensemble (Amy Haworth, Emma Walshe, Emily Atkinson, Charlotte Ashley, Caroline Trevor, Helen Charlston, Steven Harrold, Simon Wall, Simon Whitely, Greg Skidmore) with some regular members moving on, and the sound did not always feel completely bedded in, though perhaps that was the effect of the Summer holidays. The group started with Palestrina's Laudate pueri, in a strong, up-front performance where there was far more of a sense of individual voices than we are used to with this group. It was a large scale piece, and made a terrific concert opener. More intimate Palestrina followed with Virgo prudentissima, with some beautifully shaped phrasing, vibrant but controlled.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Composing thoughts

I have written an article for Parma Recordings with thoughts about composing, early influences and the songs on our CD, Quickening. You can find it on the Parma Recordings website, along with a whizzy new photo of me.

OOTS renews its partnership with the Stratford-on-Avon Music Festival

David Curtis and Orchesta of the Swan
David Curtis and Orchestra of the Swan
The Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) has renewed its partnership with Stratford-on-Avon Music Festival and from 26 September to 3 October, and OOTS will be presenting a programme at the festival featuring Roderick Williams, Leon McCawley, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Julian Bliss, alongside BBC New Generation Artists Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Annelien Van Wauwe (clarinet), the Van Kuijk String Quartet and the Amatis Piano Trio. BBC Radio 3 will be recording two lunchtime performances, and Classic FM will record the final concert where Julian Bliss joins David Curtis and OOTS for a programme which includes Weber's Clarinet Concerto and music by Rossini and Beethoven.

22 years ago the Stratford-on-Avon District English Music Festival (now the Stratford-on-Avon Music Festival) opened for the first time. It needed a conductor and an orchestra, and David Curtis, viola player with the Coull Quartet, was invited to form an orchestra for the festival and Stratford’s own Orchestra of the Swan was born. This year, the festival's new artistic director David Mills has re-focused the festival and it will be highlighting the wonderful repertoire of music for woodwinds amid an abundance of world class music making, with OOTS and David Curtis as key partner.

Full details of the festival from its website.

Charmingly inventive: Carolyn Sampson & Da Camera in Telemann trio sonatas & cantatas

Da Camera - Emma Murphy, Steven Devine, Susanna Pell
Da Camera - Emma Murphy, Steven Devine, Susanna Pell
Telemann, Bach, Alessandro Scarlatti; Carolyn Sampson, Da Camera; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Elegant and civilised, Telemann's trio sonatas and sacred solo cantatas

The chamber ensemble Da Camera (Emma Murphy, recorders, Susanna Pell, viols, Steven Devine, harpsichord) was joined by soprano Carolyn Sampson at Kings Place on Wednesday 20 September 2017 for a celebration of all things Telemann. Da Camera performed three of Telemann's trio sonatas, whilst Carolyn Sampson sang two of the cantatas from Telemann's Harmoniscer Gottes-Dienst, 'Lauter Wonne, lauter Freude' and 'Hemmet den Eifer, verbanet die Rache'. Da Camera also played their own arrangement of Bach's Trio Sonata in G from The Organ Sonatas, whilst Carolyn Sampson sang Alessandro Scarlatti's cantata Ardo e'ver per te d'amore.

Carolyn Sampson (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Carolyn Sampson (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Telemann's sheer productiveness can sometimes be a barrier to his work being better known, it is difficult to concentrate on one when you have so many. Da Camera's recent recording of Telemann trio sonatas was a lovely excuse for a concert which wove three of them into the programme, two from Essercizii Musici (1740), Trio Sonata No. 5 in A minor, TWV42:a4 and Trio Sonata No. 10 in D, TWV42:d9, and one from the Darmstadt Manuscript, Trio Sonata in G minor, TWV42:g9.

Essercizii Musici is the last of Telemann's 44 publications, and it combines 12 solo sonatas and 12 trio sonatas, with scoring for six different instruments, violin, flute, viola da gamba, recorder, oboe and harpsichord. Telemann clearly had an eye for the main chance, and published his works for violin, flute, recorder or oboe, to attract a wider market. So Da Camera followed this flexibility and adjusted Trio Sonatas No. 5 & 10 to be for recorder, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The Darmstadt Manuscript on the other hand, has his trio sonatas scored for recorder and treble viol and this is the combination Da Camera used in the Trio Sonata in G minor.

All three are in four movements, slow, fast, slow, fast, and Telemann shows a maximum amount of inventiveness in the way he creates varied textures for the three instruments. One of the fascinating things was hearing the viola da gamba being used as a melody instrument, so that repeatedly we heard some delightful passages where recorder and viola da gamba were in dialogue, swapping musical material. Frequently melodically very appealing, we had perky fast movements and sweetly haunting slow ones, and I was especially struck by the final movement of the Trio Sonata in G minor, which seemed to have elements of a Scottish reel about it. The trio sonatas are also very challenging with all three players having to repeatedly demonstrate nimble fingers, and Da Camera combined dazzling technique with engaging playing.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Bach to the piano

Bach: Art of Fugue - Duo Stephanie and Saar - New Focus Recordings
Bach keyboard concertos, Italian Concerto, The Art of Fugue; Stephanie Ho, Saar Ahuvia, Sonya Bach, English Chamber Orchestra; New Focus Recordings, Rubicon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 13 2017
Different approaches to Bach, different problems to solve, Bach on the piano from three pianists

Whilst performing Bach on the piano is hardly controversial in our rather pluralist age, it is always intriguing to hear how different pianists tackle the challenge of transposing Bach to modern instruments, and particularly how they respond to the challenges and problems presented by Bach's works. Two new sets have recently come my way, the piano duo of Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia performing Bach's The Art of Fugue on one and two pianos from New Focus Recordings, and pianist Sonya Bach performing six of Bach's keyboard concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra, plus the Italian Concerto on Rubicon.

Bach: keyboard concertos - Sonya Bach - Rubicon
Bach's The Art of Fugue is a famous problem work, not only the challenge of deciding what instruments to use in performance given Bach's lack of specification, but the fact that the work is famously unfinished. Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia perform the work on two pianos, though their approach is quite eclectic, Contrapunctus 1 to 8, 10 and 11 are performed with two pianists at one piano, whilst Contrapunctus 9, 12 (recta & inversa), 13 (recta & inversa) are performed on two pianos. The canons are performed as solo piano pieces. The unfinished fugue is left unfinished, stopping mid air and the work finishes with a solo performance of the Canon per ugmentationem in Contrario Motu.

The two pianists have an admirable uniformity of touch so that it sounds like one four-handed player, and their approach blends period and modern. The essential touch is modern, but there is a nice clarity to it. There is pedalling, so the result is more romantic and not as austere as some performers of Bach on the modern piano. When it comes to fugue subjects they seem to like a uniformity of tone and articulation, so that the result can often seem quite a uniform texture rather than different elements of the fugue standing out. The first two piano piece of the sequence, Contrapunctus 9, really makes a glorious noise.

These are beautifully fluent performances, ideal for someone who likes quite a modern sound in their Bach, but I have to confess that I like a slightly more analytic approach to Bach on the piano with less of the modern romantic styling.

This issue of style re-occurs in Sonya Bach's performances of the keyboard concertos nos. 1-5, & 7 with the English Chamber Orchestra. Using a piano in these works solves the balance problems inherent in period performances with harpsichord; too often, especially in live performance, I find myself frustrated at the way the accompaniment can easily dominate the harpsichord and wonder what forces Bach actually used. Should we view these pieces really as chamber music?

Mozart vs Machine: An opera mashing-up Mozart, electronic sound and video projection

Dominic Robertson: Mozart vs Machine - Mahogany Opera Group
Dominic Robertson: Mozart vs Machine - Mahogany Opera Group
Dominic Robertson Mozart vs Machine; Frederic Wake-Walker, Mahogany Opera Group; Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Sep 17 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A zany, surreal, vaudeville-type show that puts Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on trial and firmly in the dock

Dominic Robertson: Mozart vs Machine - Mahogany Opera Group
Rebecca Bottone
Dominic Robertson: Mozart vs Machine - Mahogany Opera Group
A high-octane mash-up of Mozart opera, electronic sound and video projection, Mozart vs Machine (created by Dominic Robertson) puts the Mahogany Opera Group, under the artistic direction of Frederic Wake-Walker, a visionary, challenging and unfussy director, centre stage of creative thinking. The company is currently touring the work and we caught it on 17 September 2017 at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

Developed through Mahogany’s Various Stages programme, Mozart vs Machine received generous support from Sound and Music, the national charity for new music in the UK whose mission is to maximise the opportunities for people to create and enjoy new music, while Arts Council England and PRS for Music Foundation helped greatly, too.

Collectively, all of these financial contributions have helped tremendously towards the cost in bringing to the stage a totally-absorbing and totally-original work - but a totally mind-boggling one, too - that fitted perfectly the stage and ambience of Aldeburgh’s warm and intimate Jubilee Hall which, by the way, hosted the world premières of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Walton’s The Bear and Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy.

Wake-Walker and Mahogany are no strangers to Jubilee Hall either and triumphed here with Russian Tales (set to a score by Stravinsky/Walton) and Folie à Deux, a collaboration between British composer Emily Hall and Icelandic writer Sjón which brought classical, electronic and folk sounds together in a mesmerising and effective show. Now Mozart vs Machine - whose scenario focuses on the 20th-century American electronic-instrument inventor/composer, Raymond Scott and the 18th-century classical composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - is added to the growing list.

Dominic Robertson: Mozart vs Machine - Mahogany Opera Group
Dominic Robertson: Mozart vs Machine - Mahogany Opera Group
Currently, the trustees of Jubilee Hall hold exciting plans to bring the venue into the 21st century without losing its historical patina and Mozart vs Machine is the first time that they have promoted an event of this kind for a considerable number of years which was presented in association with the HighTide Festival celebrating this year its eleventh edition. Although presented and produced by an opera group, Mozart vs Machine is so far removed from the genre of opera. A ‘musical installation’ more like it but described by Wake-Walker as an ‘electronic essay collage opera’. That’s ok by me!

The brainchild of composer Dominic Robertson (formerly known as Ergo Phizmiz) he has created first hand a surrealist work which combines live and pre-recorded music, shadow puppetry and video images whilst gathering together some of history’s most iconic artists highlighting them within a theatrical sci-fi-game-show while forging together ideas and notes from across history into an irreverent collage of music, theatre or whatever, blurring the boundaries of opera and performance art. Only one musician appeared on stage, the musical director, Katherine Tinker, gracefully attired in 18th-century dress playing harpsichord.

Within his creative framework, Robertson has cleverly incorporated - with a little help from French illusionist and film pioneer Georges Méliès and Lewis Carroll’s Logic Game not forgetting composers John Cage and J S Bach - digital reconstructions which found space with scissors-and-glue edits and inversions of Mozart scores while music-box transcriptions were reversed and flipped and in doing so melodies and progressions are quoted and transformed along the way.

Central to the work is the question of how vital the march of technology is to the transformation of music. What happens, for instance, when someone like Mozart, a composer of paper and ink, is placed in theoretical space with a person such as Scott, an inventor of chance-generated loop machines?

Lucy Parham's Sunday Matinees

Lucy Parham - Beloved Clara
Lucy Parham is returning to St John's Smith Square on Sunday afternoons with a second series of her composer portraits featuring a spoken narrative from a series of distinguished actors, and piano music from Lucy. The series opens on Sunday 24 September with Beloved Clara which looks at the relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann and their close friendship with Brahms, and Lucy Parham is joined by Harriet Walter and Tim McInnerny.

Further ahead, on Sunday 29 October, the subject turns to Chopin with Nocturne: The Romantic Life of Chopin with Lucy joined by Patricia Hodge and Alex Jennings. Then on Sunday 28 January 2017 Lucy is joined by Simon Russell Beale to celebrate the centenary of Debussy's death with Reverie: The Life and Loves of Debussy. On 4 March 2018, Odyssey of Love: Liszt and his Women features Joanna David and Robert Glenister, whilst on 15 April 2018, Elegie: Rachmaninoffl a heart in exile features Henry Goodman. Each event is followed by a post-concert discussion.

Full details from the St John's Smith Square website.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Premiere of Sally Beamish's The Judas Passion

Sally Beamish
Sally Beamish
The Judas Passion, Sally Beamish's new piece to a libretto by David Harsent, premieres at the Saffron Hall on Sunday 24 September 2017. Nicholas McGegan conducts the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (OAE) with the Choir of the Enlightenment and soloists Julia Doyle (Mar), Brenden Gunnell (Judas) and James Newby (Christ).

The piece tells the story of the crucifixion from the point of view of Judas. The intriguing combination of contemporary composer and period instruments will echo Bach's passions in its exploration of the Last Supper and the events of Holy Week. Harsent's libretto asks us to reconsider Judas and poses some very different questions. Was what he did necessary? Could he have done any differently? And can he be forgiven?

The work is repeated at St John's Smith Square on Monday 25 September 2017.

Full details from the OAE website.

Far from dry: Vox Luminis in Bach's musical forbears

Vox Luminis
Vox Luminis
Johann Michael Bach, Johann Christoph Bach, Philipp Heinrich Erlebach, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach; Vox Luminis; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 19 2017 Star rating: 4.5
An exploration of the music of Bach's older contemporaries proves a vibrant evening's music making

Vox Luminis' visit to the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 19 September 2017 was intended to be an exploration of JS Bach's musical ancestry, a selection perhaps of his mental musical furniture with works by two of his relations of the previous generation, Johann Michael Bach and Johann Christoph Bach, plus older contemporaries Philipp Heinrich Erlebach and Dietrich Buxtehude, all finishing with one of JS Bach's earliest cantatas, Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV4.

In the event, things were a little more dramatic than that. Two days before the concert, the group's artistic director Lionel Meunier developed laryngitis and could not sing. As he directs from within the choir, this caused a problem. Meunier's place in the choir was taken by Jussi Lehtipuu, and the programme went on unchanged, unconducted.  To find that your group can manage without you might seem awkward, but it is perhaps the biggest compliment that could be paid to the work of the artistic directer and shows the real collaborative enterprise of the ensemble.

Much of the music was centred round Arnstadt in Thuringia, where JS Bach's first employment was and the area where his forbears were based. All the pieces in the programme were for small choir and ensemble, with Vox Luminis using between eight and ten singers from a pool of eleven, accompanied by a small ensemble of violins, violas, violone and organ.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Celebrating musical pilfering: Septura's Kleptomania at St John's Smith Square

The brass septet, Septura, has a new concert series at St John's Smith Square, London and West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. Called Kleptomania the series presents prize pickings of music that the group has "stolen" through transcription for brass septet: plunder from string ensembles, pianists, chamber orchestras and singers. 

They open with Stolen Strings at St John's Smith Square on 19 September 2017 with transcriptions of Elgar's Serenade,, Walton's Sonata, Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet. Future concerts include Pilfered Piano (Debussy Préludes, Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition), Borrowed Baroque (Rameau Dardanus, Handel Rinaldo, Stravinsky Pulcinella) and Song Swag (Ravel Mother Goose, Fauré Mélodies, Gershwin Piano Preludes and An American in Paris)

Septura is made up of Philip Cobb (Trumpet), Simon Cox (Trumpet & Artistic Director), Huw Morgan (Trumpet), Alan Thomas (Trumpet), Matthew Gee (Trombone), Matthew Knight (Trombone & Artistic Director), Daniel West (Bass Trombone), Sasha Koushk-Jalali (Tuba) and Peter Smith (Tuba). The group is recording a series of 10 discs for Naxos Records, each focused on a particular period, genre and set of composers, creating a ‘counter-factual history’ of brass chamber music.

Full details from the Septura website.

Rattle conducts Berlioz' La damnation de Faust

Sir Simon Rattle & the London Symphony Orchestra (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Sir Simon Rattle & the London Symphony Orchestra
(Photo Tristram Kenton)
Berlioz La damnation de Faust; Bryan Hymel, Karen Cargill, Christopher Purves, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Sep 17 2017 Star rating: 4.0
A beautiful ride to Hell, although at times I wanted to feel the words a little more keenly and have my roller-coaster ride a bit rougher

The fable of selling one’s soul to the devil for a dream is a tale as old as time. Our perpetual fascination with tales of Faust, in particular, have cemented him into our storytelling culture. Goethe’s tragedy alone has inspired more composers than you can shake a stick at. Sir Simon Rattle chose Berlioz's La damnation de Faust as part of his opening season of concerts at music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. On Sunday 17 September at the Barbican, Rattle conducted the LSO, London Symphony Chorus, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Tiffin Girls’ Choir, Tiffin Children’s Chorus and soloists Bryan Hymel (Faust), Karen Cargill (Marguerite), Christopher Purves (Mephistopheles) and Gabor Bretz (Brander)

Berlioz’s concert opera or dramatic legend, as Beecham pointed out, “has a bunch of the loveliest tunes in existence”. It’s a flamboyant and powerfully evocative work full of humour, beauty and violence. It’s a rollercoaster ride from the immensity of nature through to the pandemonium of damnation. Rattle and the LSO along with a precisely drilled chorus painted a nuanced and startling vivid portrait of an inexorable journey to perdition.

I confess to a somewhat factious relationship with Berlioz’s Faust. As with my emotional response to Proust, I recognise the beauty but the protagonists’ intellectual hubris and poetic ennui can all too easily make my teeth itch. For me personally it’s success as a whole depends on the vocal interpretations. The vocal writing is not just bel canto – expression and meaning need to come first.

Christopher Purves (Mephistopheles), standing in for an indisposed Gerald Finley, was charming, cynical and mockingly unctuous. If I missed anything it would be a certain orotund authority. Karen Cargill’s Marguerite was the very picture of naivety. Her ballad of faithfulness and “D’amour l’ardente flamme” were achingly poignant – Marguerite was a sitting duck. The American tenor Bryan Hymel was steely voiced, heroic of tone with a beautiful legato so much so I could quite happily have slapped him around the face with a wet kipper. His Faust gets what’s coming to him and his demise “c’est bien”. Caveat emptor. A beautiful ride to Hell then, although at times I wanted to feel the words a little more keenly and have my rollercoaster ride a bit rougher.
Reviewed by Anthony Evans

Elsewhere on this blog:

Subito! debut recital from Julia Hwang

Subito! Julia Hwang - Signum
Grieg, RVW, Lutoslawski, Wieniawski; Julia Hwang, Charles Matthews; St John's Cambridge/Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 13 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Maturity and charm shine out in this debut recital from the young violinist recently graduated from St John's College

This recording by the young violinist Julia Hwang was released concurrently with her graduation. Hwang studied at St John's College, Cambridge and this disc is the fist non-choral disc on St John's imprint (on Signum Classics). Accompanied by pianist Charles Matthews, Hwang plays an eclectic programme which she describes as a personal recital, the pieces reflecting, in some part, her journey with the violin through adolescence; Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor, Op.45, RVW's The Lark Ascending, Witold Lutoslawski's Subito and Henryk Wienawski's Fantaisie brillante sur des motifs de l'Opera 'Faust' de Gounod, Op. 20.

Grieg's third violin sonata dates from 1887, twenty years after his youthful first two sonatas, and the sonata may have been written for the young Italian violinist Teresina Tua, whom he referred to jokingly as 'the little fiddle-fairy on my troll hill'! In a conventional three movements, with the first in sonata form, at first the Norwegian lyric breeze seems far away as Hwang and Matthews start with Brahmsian passion. Hwang plays with an appealing, warm sound, with a nice depth to it. But though the work is classically structured, the Grieg of the Lyric Pieces is not far away and soon the mood gives way to the lyrical freshness, and this lyric melody continues into the second movement. The third movement is a vivid, yet sophisticated folk-dance, bright and breezy yet a long way from Grieg's Hardanger fiddle-inspired music.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Quickening on BBC In Tune - 25 September 2017

Baritone Johnny Herford, pianist William Vann and I will be on BBC Radio 3's In Tune on Monday September 2017.

We will be talking to Sean Rafferty about our new disc Quickening, and Johnny and Will will be performing songs from the album. Other guests on  the show include the Chelys Consort of Viols and Emma Kirkby.

Further information from the BBC Radio 3 website.

Lucy Goddard's American Songbook tour

Lucy Goddard's American Songbook tour
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Goddard and pianist Siwan Rhys have put together a fascinating combination of British and American contemporary song which reflects views of America from both sides of the Atlantic. American Songbook features new work by Laura Bowler and Christopher Mayo, plus music by Michael Finnissy, Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger, John Cage, Milton Babbitt and George Crumb, plus the UK premieres of three works by Morton Feldman.

The programme was previewed at an Open Session in Aldeburgh in August, and opens on 19 September at The Hurst Festival at Danny House, Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex, with further performances at The Brunel Tunnel Shaft, Rotherhithe, London (6 October), The MUSICON series in Durham University Music Department (17 October), The Performance Space, City University, London (31 October).

Laura Bowler's A Damned Mob of Scribbling Women uses texts by Louise May Alcott, Gertrude Stein, Kate Chopin and Patti Smith to create a collage picture of American society. Christopher Mayo’s work promises to provide an evocative and thought-provoking reflection of Mina Loy’s Tuning in on the Atomic Bomb. Goddard and Siwan will be performing extracts from Michael Finnissy's song cycle Whitman, having worked with the composer during a Snape Malting's residency in August. The cycle takes its text principally from Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Full details from Lucy Goddard's American Songbook website.

The Hampshire connection: Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in Jonathan Dove's operatic version at the Grange

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Emily Vine, Sarah Pring, Martha Jones, Oliver Johnston, Angharad Lyddon, Henry Neill, Jeni Bern (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Emily Vine, Sarah Pring, Martha Jones, Oliver Johnston, Angharad Lyddon, Henry Neill, Jeni Bern (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove, Alasdair Middleton Mansfield Park; Martha Jones, Henry Neill, Nick Pritchard, Shelley Jackson, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, cond: David Parry; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 17 2017 Star rating: 4.5
An engaging and moving account of Jonathan Dove's opera based on the Jane Austen novel

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Shelley Jackson, Henry Neill, Martha Jones (Photo Robert Workman)
Shelley Jackson, Henry Neill, Martha Jones (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove's opera Mansfield Park, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton based on Jane Austen's novel, has had long genesis. Dove first had the idea for the opera 30 years ago, it was originally premiered in 2011 in the version for singers and piano duet. Dove's new version with orchestral accompaniment was commissioned by The Grange Festival, and we caught the second performance on Sunday 17 September 2017 at the festival's Autumn season. The new production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans with designs by Dick Bird, with Martha Jones as Fanny Price and Henry Neill as Edmund Bertram, plus Sarah Pring, Jeni Bern, Grant Doyle, Shelley Jackson, Emily Vine, Nick Pritchard, Angharad Lyddon and Oliver Johnston. David Parry conducted an ensemble of players from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire.

I had never managed to catch the opera in its original guise, so this was my first experience of it. The piece is somewhat stylised, with the work divided into two books and each book into chapters, and the cast introduce each chapter by reciting the chapter number and title. Alasdiar Middleton's book is a miracle of compression, he has cut out a lot of inessentials such as minor characters and even the scenes in Portsmouth. But the great surprise was how much of the book's atmosphere had been retained, and the opera manages the difficult feat of retaining something of the feel of Austen's original.

Leaving you an emotional wreck: La Boheme at Covent Garden

La bohème, The Royal Opera - Simona Mihai, Michael Fabbiano, Nicole Car, Marius Kwiecien, Florian Sempey - © ROH 2017. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.
La bohème, The Royal Opera - Simona Mihai, Michael Fabbiano, Nicole Car, Marius Kwiecien, Florian Sempey © ROH 2017. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.   
Puccini La Boheme; Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car, Mariusz Kwiecien, Simona Mihai, Luca Tittoto, Florian Sempey, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Sep 16 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A beautiful, collaborative work; Richard Jones new production of La Boheme,

La bohème, The Royal Opera - © ROH 2017. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.
La bohème, The Royal Opera
© ROH 2017. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore.   
You can understand the temptation to keep reviving John Copley’s cherished and long-lasting production of La Boheme at Covent Garden but everything has it’s day and at some point you have to bite the bullet. Even opera luddites who might have assumed that the artistic trajectory would inevitably turn downwards would have been relieved at the outcome this Saturday, 16 September 2017 when the Royal Opera performed Richard Jones' new production of Puccini's La Boheme. Antonio Pappano conducted, with Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo, Nicole Car as Mimi, Mariusz Kwiecien as Marcello, Simona Mihai as Musetta, Luca Tittoto as Colline, and Florian Sempey as Schaunard.

Visually this is a steady as she goes production, the sets a little less romanticized than Julia Trevelyan Oman’s. No artists’ studio for our young Bohemians, the garret is claustrophobic and shorn of all but the basics for survival. A few fewer rafters might have been preferable as it can become irksome, from upstairs, to see so many de-capitated singers and the youthful horseplay in act 1 seemed a tad choreographed given that there’s little enough room to swing a cat. Act two in contrast is expansive and lavish with shopping arcade trucks gliding into place and a very grand Café Momus.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

In the Top 20

Top 50 Music Blogs Planet Hugill has made it into the Top 20 of the Top 50 Music Blogs on ScoreBig, the on-line ticket sales website.

What Would Bach Have Done?

Belle Chen
Belle Chen
In this guest posting Belle Chen, the Australian-Taiwanese pianist, sound artist, and producer, looks at the interface between classical music and electronics, and wonders what Bach would have done if presented with the possibilities of electronic music.

In 1920s, something incredible happened that expedited the diversification of music genres. The recording industry went into what is retrospectively known as the electrical age, and a flourish of musicians and composers had begun recording music and sounds, and experimenting with electronic instruments – giving birth to the beginning of electronic music.

The impact of this technology is first heard amongst the western art musicians, and when the Allies gained access to magnetic tape, a German invention that had been kept secret during the war, a whole group of classically trained composers began to use recorded music as compositional material. From musique concrete, avant-garde, to minimalism, composers such as Herbert Eimert, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Karlheinz Stockhausen came to experiment with the new tape technology. Today, the process is known as sampling.

The result that came from experimentations with tape was profound – and with the concurrent development of electronic instruments and synthesizers, electronic music would explode into dub, ambient, hip hop, and its kaleidoscopic fusions and sub-genres that range from techno, house, jungle, nu jazz, to downtempo.

I wouldn’t pretend that I am an expert on electronic music; the curiosity to look into the history of electronic music were sparked mainly by two events – a need for a deeper understanding of techno and EDM required for the Amsterdam episode of my podcast series, and coming across Jeremy Deller’s intriguing The History of the World installation that marked the intertwined genres and cultures connected to acid house and brass bands between 1997-2004 at Tate Britain.

But there is something very comforting in knowing that early pioneers of electronic music went to conservatoires and would have studied the works of Beethoven, Liszt, and Bach. In my mind, it feels like the blood lineage of classical music is alive and boiling through more mainstream musical genres. Of course, the music sounds absolutely different – Aphex Twin sounds nothing like J.S. Bach, and the approach to composition has also changed. But the emotions are still there, the sensitivities to timbres and textures, the tension and release, and the curiosity to experiment are there.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The first Englishwoman to sing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth: Catherine Foster on singing Wagner

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Wagner: Götterdämmerung - Bayreuth Festival 2017
(©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Opera aficionado and Wagnermaniac, Tony Cooper, meets Nottingham-born Wagner singer, Catherine Ann Foster, the Bayreuth Festival’s Brünnhilde.

I’m sitting in the shadow of Bayreuth’s iconic Festspielhaus situated at the top of Siegfried Wagner Allee commonly known as the Gruener Huegel (Green Hill) overlooking the lovely Upper Franconian town of Bayreuth. Here I’m enjoying the company and catching up on the news of Nottingham-born Wagner singer, Catherine Ann Foster, Bayreuth Festival’s Brünnhilde, the heroine of Wagner’s epic four-work cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, comprising Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

Catherine Foster (Photo Stephan Ernst)
Catherine Foster (Photo Stephan Ernst)
The story is loosely based on characters from Norse folklore and the epic German poem, Nibelungenlied, which chronicles the life of the dragon-slayer Siegfried at the court of the Burgundians, how he was murdered and his wife Kriemhild’s revenge.

The Ring, though, is a work not like any other to be found in the 19th-century operatic repertoire and the drama unfolds over 16/17 intensive and dramatic hours. It’s a long haul! But it was a long haul for Wagner, too. It took him the best part of 26 years to complete starting in 1848 but that included an interval of eight years when he took time off for a breather. In that time he knocked out Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Some breather, eh!

Catherine relishes the work and was with Frank Castorf’s production for the full five-year term starting in 2013 when it was staged to celebrate the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth (see Tony's review of this year's performances). Russian-born conductor (and another Bayreuth newcomer) Kirill Petrenko - who takes over the baton from Sir Simon Rattle as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra next year - was in the pit.

Catherine, it seems, was a girl born to sing. ‘I have always loved singing,’ she exclaimed. ‘My mother told me that as soon as I could talk I was singing to my heart’s content. My singing career actually started in my local village church where I graduated to be leading chorister by the time I was 15.'

‘I have a textbook my mother found in the loft from my primary school days and the title of one of my essays was ‘‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’’ And I wrote: ‘‘Since I was about three years old I’ve always known I shall be a nurse and a singer - and that’s what I shall be!’’ followed by a picture of me as a nurse and one as a singer.’

Therefore, from small acorns mighty oak trees grow! And for Catherine, they grew fast. From church choir to grand opera, Catherine’s voice matured and blossomed to a wonderfully-dramatic, rich-sounding, high-soprano voice. And that high-soprano voice is absolutely perfect for Wagner and very much needed when singing in the vast confines of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus which is used only for the sole purpose of staging Wagner’s Teutonic masterpieces. And none comes bigger and better than the Ring.

The Festspielhaus is, without doubt, a masterpiece of grand 19th-century theatre design and the architect, Otto Brückwald, worked to a precise specification by Wagner. It was inaugurated and launched in 1876 with a gala performance of Das Rheingold in the company of such distinguished composers as Bruckner, Grieg and Tchaikovsky as well as Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt.

So many famous singers have graced the Festspielhaus’ immortal stage, the most famous Wagner stage in the world. Now the lass from Nottinghamshire, Catherine Ann Foster, can add her name to the illustrious list.

There’s no doubt whatsoever, Catherine set the Green Hill alight over the past five years delivering a masterful and powerful performance as Brünnhilde. And she has carried the flame, passion and loyalty of this great and imposing Germanic mythological character all over the show appearing in Ring cycles at such well-appointed houses as the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin with Daniel Barenboim and the Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona with Josep Pons as well as at the Budapest Wagner Festival with Adam Fischer while not forgetting Pierre Audi’s breathtaking production in Amsterdam conducted by Hartmut Haenchen. Wotan would have surely been impressed!

Friday, 15 September 2017

Lativan review in Opera Magazine

Review in Opera Magazine
Earlier this year, I was in Riga, Latvia for the Riga Opera Festival and caught Aik Karapetian's new production of Gounod's Faust and Rezija Kalnina's production of Eugene Onegin at Latvian National Theatre. My reviews of the two productions are in the October issue of Opera Magazine.

Getting your chamber-music fix: Conway Hall Sunday Concerts

Conway Hall
Last Sunday (10 September 2017) the Conway Hall Sunday Concerts, director of music Simon Callaghan, started the 2017/18, providing chamber music lovers with their weekly fix. Sunday's opening concert was the Tippett Quartet with pianist Emma Abbate in Schumann and Dvorak's quintets. On Sunday 17 September the series continues with the Brownell Trio in Beethoven's Archduke Trio and trios by Hummel and Franck, with the Zelkova Quartet in Haydn, Beethoven and Debussy the week afterwards.

Further ahead, there is the final of Fulham Opera's Robert Presley Memorial Prize with a group of young singers singing arias by Verd in front of a jury which includes Sir Thomas Allen,  David Syrus and Pamela Kuhn. And Music in Motion returns with John Landor directing the Gildas Quartet in an intriguing programme of chamber music with movement.

The Monte Piano Trio's concert will give us a chance to hear Amy Beach's Trio Op.150 alongside trios by Beethoven and Dvorak, whilst the Nous Quartet brings an Italian themed concert with quartets by Boccherini, Verdi and Respighi. The Odysseus Trio is performing Bloch's Three Nocturnes alongside trios by Mozart and Brahms, and the Ligeti Quartet is combining Purcell, Stravinsky, Haydn, Ligeti and Bartok.

From unusual repertoire to unusual instrumental combinations, violinist Harriet Mackenzie is joining guitarist Morgan Szymanski for a programme which mixes baroque music with De Falla, Sarasate and Piazolla.

On November 26, Julian Perkins and Sounds Baroque are giving a programme which combines songs by Purcell with music by Draghi and Corbetta, and a contemporary piece by Stephen Dodgson. I will be giving the pre-concert talk to the programme. And in December, the series artistic director Simon Callaghan joins the Jubilee Quartet for Schnittke's Piano Quintet in a programme which includes music by Haydn, Stravinsky & Beethoven.

In addition to pre-concert talks, this season some concerts have pre-concert recitals, with short recitals from young artists at 5.30pm.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

Late flowering: John Joubert's St Mark Passion & Missa Wellensis

John Joubert - Missa Wellensis, St Mark Passion - Resonus
John Joubert Missa Wellensis, St Mark Passion; Peter Auty, Benjamin Bevan, Wells Cathedral Choir, Matthew Owens; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 12 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Three late sacred works from the pen of John Joubert, striking pieces in fine performances from Wells

John Joubert, who was 90 this year, seems to be undergoing something of a revival. His opera Jane Eyre has just received its first recording (see my review), and now this disc from Resonus Classics of Joubert's sacred music from Wells Cathedral Choir. It is all recent, the Missa Wellensis and Locus Iste from 2013 and St Mark Passion from 2015, performed by Peter Auty (tenor), Benjamin Bevan (baritone), Richard May (cello), David Bednall (organ), and Wells Cathedral Choir, conductor Matthew Owens.

During June 2013, Joubert led a master-class in composition at Wells Cathedral School, and had the Missa Wellensis, Op.174 and Locus Iste Op.175 premiered in the cathedral as part of the festival, new music wells, where he was composer in residence. His relationship with Wells continued, and on Palm Sunday 2016, his 89th birthday, Matthew Owens and the choir gave the premiere of the St Mark Passion in a liturgical context, and repeated the work on Psalm Sunday 2017.

The 'Kyrie' of the Missa Wellensis plunges right in, with a strong and distinctive sense of Joubert's voice. The work has rather an austere feel, and the music develops harmonic rather than polyphonic interest, and there is a touching treble solo in the 'Christe'. The 'Gloria' is robust and vigorous, again with some solo contributions to 'Domine Deus'. The 'Sanctus' starts of rich in harmony and rather mystical, but develops into a thrilling 'Dominus Deus', with voices entering one by one in the 'Pleni sunt coeli' leading to a shattering 'Hosanna'. The 'Benedictus' uses solos over held chords, quiet and intense though perhaps the soloists do not quite achieve the rapture intended, and the concluding 'Hosanna' is similarly quiet. The 'Agnus Dei' has an effective and appealing simplicity, building in intensity with each repeat, leading to a final fugue. A complex and striking work.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

New music for choir and ancient instruments

Set upon the Rood, Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Delphian
James McMillan, John Kenny, Stuart MacRae, Bill Taylor, Francis Grier, Stevie Wishart, Stephen Bick; Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Geoffrey Webber
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 12 2017 Star rating: 5.0
The imaginative combination of choir, contemporary composers and reconstructed ancient instruments creates a terrific disc

This disc is the intriguing confluence of two different series of discs, Geoffrey Webber and the choir of Gonville and Caius College's explorations of the choral repertoire including bringing to light music of the early Celtic church (see my review), and the European Music Archaeology Project's discs showcasing ancient instruments in modern performances. So here, on Delphian we have  Geoffrey Webber and the choir of Gonville and Caius College in contemporary music for choir and ancient instruments. New pieces by James MacMillan, John Kenny, Stuart Macrae, Bill Taylor, Francis Grier, Stevie Wishart and Stephen Bick using triplepipe, aulos, Loughnashade horn, chimes, carnyx, lyre, crotales and organ, played by Barnaby Brown, John Kenny, Patrick Kenny, Bill Taylor, James Leitch and Michael How.

James MacMillan's Noli Pater was a joint commission between Gonville and Caius College and the St Albans International Organ Festival and the work was premiered at the festival in 2015. It uses choir, organ and triplepipe (played by Barnaby Brown). The work starts from a low rumble in the organ, with the men singing a chant-esque melody, which MacMillan develops into something rather dramatic, and then suddenly the triplepipe appears, this provides as much texture as melody, particularly when combined with voices or organ. MacMillan then thrillingly develops the music using his varied forces, to illuminate the text. The work's thrilling climax leads to a final solo for the triplepipe. A highly dramatic piece, it certainly makes me want to hear it live.

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