Monday, 16 October 2017

New recording of Populus Sion from Harmonia Sacra

Harmonia Sacra - Lux Memoriaque - Nimbus Alliance
Peter Leech and Harmonia Sacra's new disc from Nimbus Alliance, Lux memoriaque, is based around contemporary sacred music from Advent, much of it performed at the group's regular Advent Sunday concert at St Thomas the Martyr in Bristol. Amongst the works which the choir has performed over the years are a group of my Advent motets from Tempus per Annum, my cycle of 70 motets for the Church's year (all motets are available for free download on

Lux memoriaque includes one of these, Populus Sion, alongside music by Lawrence Whitehead, David Bednall, Jonathan Lee and Peter Leech.

Full details of the disc can be found on the Amazon website.

Little Venice Music Festival

The Berkeley Ensemble and James Baillieu
The Berkeley Ensemble and James Baillieu who open the
Little Venice Music Festival on 19 October.
The Little Venice Music Festival returns 19 October 2017, with the Berkeley Ensemble curating the festival for the second time, having taken over from the festival's founder Sylvia Rhys-Thomas in 2016. Based at St Saviour's Church, Warwick Avenue, the programme (which runs to 22 October) showcases chamber music and song with Schubert's Trout Quintet, Brahms String Sextet in G and Schumann's Dichterliebe alongside contemporary works by Thomas Ades, Michael Berkeley, Misha Mullov-Abbado and Rachel Stott

Pianist James Baillieu joins the ensemble to perform Schubert's Trout Quintet at the opening concert, and pianist Imogen Cooper performs Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A flat, Op.110 at the closing concert. Baritone Benedict Nelson with pianist Simon Over will be performing programme of Schumann song cycles.

BBC New Generation Artist Misha Mullov-Abbado is Artist-in-Residence this year and will be performing with his Misha Mullov-Abbado Group for the festival's first jazz event, as well as writing a new work to be premiered by the Berkeley Ensemble. A second world premiere is provided by Michael Berkeley who writes a piece for solo double bass in collaboration with the Berkeley Ensemble's double bassist Lachlan Radford. Other works in the festival include Thomas Ades' Darknesse Visible, Rachel Stott's Serendipity and Household Objects

Husband and wife actors, Edward Fox and Joanna David will be joined by their daughter Emilia and son Freddie to read a selection of Tales from Beatrix Potter, specially adapted by pianist Richard Sisson.

The Berkeley Ensemble was formed in 2008 from members of the Southbank Sinfonia, it is a flexible chamber ensemble based around Sophie Mather and Francesca Barritt, violins, Dan Shilliday, viola, Gemma Wareham, cello, Lachlan Radford, double bass, John Slack, clarinet, Andrew Watson, bassoon, and Paul Cott, horn.

 Full details from the festival website

A little bit of magic: Valery Gergiev conducts the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra

Valery Gergiev
Valery Gergiev
Rossini, Stravinsky, Mendelssohn; Roman Simovic, Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev; Oxford Town hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2017 Star rating: 4.5
The combination of Gergiev and the Oxford Philharmonic makes for interesting results

How much effect does a major conductor have on an orchestra with which they have not worked regularly; how much is skill of the moment and how much created over a period of time?

Roman Simovic
Roman Simovic
These were thoughts which occurred to me as I waited for the start of Valery Gergiev's concert with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra at Oxford Town Hall on Friday 13 October 2017, when they performed a programme consisting of the overture to Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Stravinsky's Violin Concerto  with Roman Simovic, Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 'Italian' and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919 version).

Valery Gergiev has conducted the orchestra once before, in 2013, and the Oxford Philharmonic is not a full time orchestra, the players all play in other ensembles as well. So could Gergiev make the magic happen?

Oxford Town Hall is not an idea concert venue. With no podium for the orchestra, sight-lines from the hall were not perfect, and the acoustic is moderately resonant (not to mention the distracting profusion of plasterwork), making me wonder whether the very present quality of the orchestral sound was a factor of venue or conductor. In fact, Oxford Town Hall is not the orchestra's regular home but the Sheldonian, where they give many of their concerts, was in use for the opening of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

The opening of Rossini's overture was striking for the strong, rich tone of the solo cellos and bass, though there were moments which made us realise how exposed the passage is. The storm was full of vivid drama and crisp excitement with very strong brass, whilst there was nice orchestral detail in the pastoral episode. The final galop started crisp, tight and fast, generating real excitement to the end. A striking and perhaps very particular reading of such a familiar piece.

Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages: Engaging, thoughtful and candid-seeming profile of the star tenor

Jonas Kaufmann © Gregor Hohenberg
Jonas Kaufmann © Gregor Hohenberg
John Bridcut's film Jonas Kaufmann, Tenor for the Ages was broadcast on BBC Four (available on BBC iPlayer) on 15 October 2017 as part of the BBC Opera season. In this engaging 90 minute film we follow star tenor Jonas Kaufmann across  two years of engagements and, thanks to a series of interviews with him, gain insight into his world and what it is like performing at the top level under such intense scrutiny. That the film has such fascination is partly due to serendipity, the engagements covered are Kaufmann's residency at the Barbican when he had just recovered from vocal problems, and then he went on to sing at the Last Night of the Proms and make his role debut as Otello in Verdi's Otello at Covent Garden (the production was broadcast on BBC Four the same evening and is also available on BBC iPlayer).

It is Otello which bookends the programme, it forms the core of the narrative as the cameras follow Kaufmann backstage, front stage and in rehearsal.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Historical context: Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera

Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera
Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera
Lucy Worsley's Nights at the Opera is a two part television series in which the historian takes a look at eight seminal moments in opera history. (Part One was shown on BBC 2 on Saturday 14 October 2017). Linked to the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, Worsley takes the same structure, looking at operas in the context of the city where they were premiered (except for Puccini's La Boheme where she considers the city where it is set). So eight operas and six cities: Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Venice), Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (Vienna), Beethoven's Fidelio (Vienna) and Verdi's Nabucco (Milan) in the first episode, Bizet's Carmen (Paris), Puccini's La Boheme (Paris), Wagner's Ring Cycle (Bayreuth) and Richard Strauss's Salome (Dresden) in the second.

Worsley is a cultural historian (but, as we found at  Q&A at the preview showing of the programme, she is also a musician), so this is opera from a cultural perspective with remarkable details of the society in which the operas were premiered. But music is not ignored, and Antonio Pappano takes the viewer through some key moments in the operas being considered, and why the pieces work as they do.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Violin Muse: Madeleine Mitchell the remarkable collection of music written for her

Madeleine Mitchell
Madeleine Mitchell
Violinist Madeleine Mitchell's new CD, Violin Muse, which comes out this month on the Divine Art, isn't just a disc of seven new works for violin by Guto Puw, Michael Nyman, David Matthews, Sadie Harrison, Geoffrey Poole, Judith Weir and Michael Berkeley. It is also a remarkable testament to Madeleine's interest in contemporary music with five of the works on the disc being written for her, and during her career she has had around 30 works written specifically for her. I recently met up with Madeleine to find out more.

The works on the disc represent a collection of pieces written for Madeleine which she has been building up over the last ten years. Some of the composers on the disc are old friends, the earliest is by Michael Nyman, a composer whom she knows well, and his Taking it as Read was written for Madeleine for her Red Violin Festival in Cardiff (the first international, eclectic celebration of the fiddle across the arts). She has known David Matthews for twenty five years, and knowing that he likes to write for strings she commissioned a piece from him. He warmed to the idea of writing a Romanza, and he wrote two versions one with piano accompaniment and one with string orchestra, and Madeleine premiered both.

Madeleine Mitchell & Michael Nyman
Madeleine Mitchell & Michael Nyman
Madeleine first met Guto Puw, whose violin concerto Soft Stillness appears on the disc, at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Puw had written an oboe concerto for BBC National Orchestra of Wales and he was keen to write a violin concerto. Madeleine premiered the work in 2014 at Bangor with the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor David Curtis. As it was a Shakespeare themed concert, Puw based the concerto on lines from The Merchant of Venice and called the piece, Soft Stillness. But the music that he first sent Madeleine was fast and furious, when she phoned him to find out more he explained that this was the wind in the trees. She explains that it is the second movement which evokes 'soft stillness in the night', and describes it as a wonderful moment with a soaring violin writing. Madeleine was invited to play the work with BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, and it was recorded live by the BBC. The performance went well and she is very grateful to the BBC for licensing the recording to be used on the disc. Adding the violin concerto into the mix on the disc seemed a good idea, so that it was not just works for violin and piano, and instead is an exploration of different timbres.

Premiere of Paul Barnes string quartet

Not every composer is lucky enough to be able to work at it full time, and most of us fit other things in as well; Paul Barnes was Professor of Physics and Chemistry at the University of London. 

Essentially self taught, he is launching a major new work on Sunday 15 October, his string quartet Layers of Life. The work will be performed by the Billroth Quartet at Platform in Islington, the former Hornsey Road Baths.

Further information from the composer's website.

My review Beethoven's Fidelio from Dresden in November issue of Opera magazine

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)
In June 2017, I was in Dresden for the 40th Dresden Music Festival, I caught the events of the closing weekend which also celebrated the reopening of Dresden's iconic Soviet-era Kulturpalast. My review of the closing concert, Beethoven's 1805 version of Fidelio, is in the November issue of Opera magazine

The performance featured Ivor Bolton conducting the Dresden Festival Orchestra, and 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.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Overture: Meet the National Opera Studio 2017/18 Young Artists

National Opera Studio 2017-18 Young Artists (C) NOS - Marc Gascoigne 2017
National Opera Studio 2017-18 Young Artists (C) NOS - Marc Gascoigne 2017
Three weeks after they started their training programme at the National Opera Studio (NOS) we had the chance to hear the 2017/18 cohort of singers and repetiteurs in action, in a concert at 22 Mansfield Street on 11 October 2017. We heard sopranos Carly Owen and Lorena Paz Nieto, mezzo-sopranos Bethan Langford, Polly Leech and Sinead O'Kelly, counter-tenor Feargal Mostyn-Williams (the first ever counter-tenor on the NOS’s main Exceptional Talent Training Programme), tenors Andrew Henley and Satriya Krisna, baritone Daniel Shelvey, bass-baritones Edmund Danon and Emyr Wyn Jones, and repetiteurs Erika Gundesen, Igor Horvat, Satoshi Kubo, and Florent Mourier, in music by Rossini, Mozart, Dvorak, Verdi, Gluck, Handel, Donizetti and Puccini as well as two more unusual items, an aria from the Spanish zarzuela El barbero de Sevilla by Geronimo Gimenez and Manuel Nieto, and the aria 'Questo amor' from Puccini's Edgar.

Each of the singers is part of the way along the long journey to develop voice and artistry, and what is fascinating about such occasions is the chance to see how the individual performers are developing, each voice at a different stage of development, the sense of an personal presence in the performer's artistry. Singing to patrons at a salon is as old as opera itself, and the skill of being able to do so, being able to sing an opera aria in a drawing room (albeit a grand Robert Adam designed one) with the audience only feet away is an important skill to learn.

Each singer gave us a solo aria, a party piece which encapsulated the best in their voice, and then each participated in one of a group of ensembles. Rather delightfully, the evening finished with an encore, an arrangement of the septet (not actually by Offenbach) from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann for all eleven singers, a wonderful end to the evening, and very loud indeed.

We started with Sinead O'Kelly as Rosina from Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla, then came Daniel Shelvey as the Count in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Carly Owen in the 'Song to the Moon' from Dvorak's Rusalka, Emyr Wyn Jones as Mozart's Figaro, Satriya Krisna as Alfredo from Verdi's La traviata, Bethan Langford as Gluck's Orfeo, Feargal Mostyn-Williams as Bertarido from Handel's Rodelinda, Loren Paz Nieto in an aria from the zarzuela El barbero de Sevilla by Geronimo Gimenez and Manuel Nieto, Andrew Henley as Nemorino from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, Polly Leech as Sesto from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, and Edmund Danton as Frank from Puccini's Edgar. Along the way we also eard Niteo and Henley in the Act One duet from La traviata, Leech and Shelvey in Dorabella and Guglielmo's duet from Cosi fan tutte, Owen, Langford and Danon in trio from Cosi fan tutte, Jones and Krisna in the Act Three duet for Rodolfo and Marcello from Puccini's La boheme, and O'Kelly and Mostyn-Williams in The Cat Duet (an anonymous compilation based on material by Rossini).

The event marked the start of a busy, celebratory period for the National Opera Studio as it celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2018. To mark this, it has launched at 40th anniversary appeal, the 400 Appeal, inviting people to pledge £1 a day or £10 a day throughout the 400 days of celebration (for further information contact Development Manager Robert Moffat

Another celebratory event is the series of lunchtime recitals being given at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Thursdays, in association with the museum's new opera exhibition. The recitals will feature current young artists alongside distinguished alumni including Ronald Samm, Lesley Garrett, Linda Richardson, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Katherine Crompton and Nicky Spence. Full details from the studio's events page.

Review of Verdi's Un giorno di regno in November issue of Opera magazine.

Verdi: Un giorno di regno - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
Verdi: Un giorno di regno - Heidenheim Opera Festival (Photo Oliver Vogel)
In July we were in Heidenheim, Germany to attend the Heidenheim Opera Festival where we caught a performance of Verdi's rarely performed second opera Un giorno di regno. My review of the performance is in the November issue of Opera magazine.

You can also read more about our non-musical activities on our trip in my article on The Culture Trip website.

Leeds Lieder's 2017/18 concert season opens with Schubert

Leeds Lieder 2017/18
Leeds Lieder's 2017/18 concert season opens on Saturday 14 October 2017 with Nika Gorič (soprano), James Newby (baritone) and Joseph Middleton (piano) performing songs and duets by Schubert in settings from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. The concert is the first in a Schubert Series presenting young artists in association with the BBC New Generation Artists, Kathleen Ferrier Awards and Young Concert Artists Trust. All the concerts in the Schubert series are at the Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall. Further ahead there is soprano Mary Bevan (1 November) and bass-baritone Ashley Riches Joseph Middleton (3 March 2018) to be looked forward to.

Other events in the 2017/18 season include a pair of concerts at Opera North's Howard Assembly Room, baritone Benjamin Appl and Joseph Middleton in Schumann's Dichterliebe, Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte and settings of Yeats by Ivor Gurney and Marian Ingoldsby (22 November 2017), and soprano Christiane Karg with Joseph Middleton in Debussy's settings of Verlaine and Baudelaire, and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder (26 January 2018).

Tenor Toby Spence and Joseph Middleton will be performing Poulenc, Britten and Finzi at the University of Leeds (13 March 2018). The concert series is also going on tour, performing the three Schubert Series concerts at Sheffield University's Firth Hall.

The 2018 Leeds Lieder Festival runs from 19 to 22 April 2018.

Full details from the Leeds Lieder website.

Terrific show: Verdi's Les vêpres Siciliennes at Covent Garden

Erwin Schrott as Procida and dancers in Les Vêpres siciliennes © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013
Erwin Schrott as Procida and dancers in Les vêpres Siciliennes
© ROH / Bill Cooper 2013
Verdi Les vepres Siciliennes; Malin Bystrom, Bryan Hymel, Erwin Schrott, Michael Volle, dir: Stefan Herheim/Daniel Dooner, cond: Maurizio Benini; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 12 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Strong revival full of stage spectacle and intense performances

Stefan Herheim's spectacular 2013 production of Verdi's Les vepres Siciliennes returned to the Royal Opera House (seen 12 October 2017) for a revival (revival director Daniel Dooner) with a number of the original cast. Bryan Hymel, Michael Volle and Erwin Schrott returned as Henri, Guy de Montfort and Jean Procida, with Malin Bystrom as Helene, and Maurizio Benini conducted.

I still have my doubts about Herheim's production (see my review of the original performances) but there is no doubt that he and designers Philipp Furhofer and Gesine Vollm have created a terrific show which matches the grand sweep of the opera with suitably spectacular settings and stagings. This time round, the scenery did not creak so that the scene changes mid-aria worked well. I am still not certain what Herheim is trying to say, and don't feel that he has solved the work's problems. But the whole articulates the genre of French grand opera in a way which a lot of contemporary productions fail to do.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Hospital Passion Play: New opera for those recovering from life changing injuries and conditions

Orlando Gough's new opera Hospital Passion Play is being presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Saturday 14 October in a collaboration between Garsington Opera and Rosetta Life (note the event is sold out). The piece addresses issues of recovery from life changing injuries and conditions. It stories of rehabilitation, from those who have had a brain or spinal injury, into a new opera which is being performed by seventy performers, including a choir of twenty stroke survivors and the Garsington Adult Community Chorus plus films of intimate performances from the Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injuries Centre and hospitals from across London. 

The opera is directed by Karen Gillingham, Creative Director of Garsington Opera Learning and Participation and led by Lucinda Jarrett. The concert is part of health charity Rosetta Life’s three-year arts-into-health intervention Stroke Odysseys. It is part of a series of opera performances at the V&A, designed to bring opera to a wider audience and to coincide with the V&A exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics (30 September 2017 – 25 February 2018).

Sesto as a tenor

Italian tenor Francesco Borosini
Italian tenor Francesco Borosini
When it came to Italian opera, there were effectively two Handels, the composer and the impresario. The first created the work in the first place, tailored to the voices of the first cast. The second endlessly re-worked the pieces to suit the casts of each revival. The rewrites and re-workings that the operas underwent were rarely improvements, and generally performers nowadays opt for Handel's original version of the opera. The biggest exception to this rule is Radamisto where the first revision is as important as the original, but there are others notably a little known re-working of Giulio Cesare that perhaps deserves wider currency.

Handel's Radamisto was premiered in April 1720 with the title role being sung soprano Margherita Durastantini (who had first worked with Handel in 1707 in Rome). But Handel may have known, or hoped, that the alto castrato Senesino was due in England later in the year. Winton Dean suggests Handel may have written music capable of being transposed down, so that in December 1720 a revised version of Radamisto was performed this time with Senesino as the (alto) hero and Margherita Durastantini as his (soprano) wife Zenobia (a contralto in April 1720).

This involved creating a major new version of an opera, transposing arias up (for Zenobia) and down (for Senesino), writing new arias and improving existing ones, not to mention adding a striking quartet. Often, Handel's process of adapting operas for new casts was to bring in arias from other operas, yet here he did not do that; as with many of Handel's operas, we have no ideas of his thought process, which he created such a considered new version.

Four years later, in February 1724, Handel premiered Giulio Cesare (with Margherita Durastantini playing the role of Sesto). Sesto is a youth, so having him played by a woman makes a lot of sense, but in the January 1725 revival Sesto was played by the tenor, Francesco Borosini.

Borosini was a major talent, and Handel wrote him two roles, Bajazet in Tamerlano and Grimoaldo in Rodelinda. By the conventions of the day, tenors and basses were never heroes, so Handel had to be innovative; Bajazet is the heroine's father but has a major role in the drama including the famous on-stage death scene, whilst Grimoaldo is the villain of the piece. Additionally, for Borosini Handel completely re-wrote the part of Sesto in Giulio Cesare, no-long a youth but a man of action.

Handel's process of creating a tenor version of Sesto gives us an interesting insight into his attitude to octave transposition of roles; though he transposed Sesto's recitative down an octave and he retained only two of Sesto's arias, removing the others as well as the duet with Cornelia. He compensated with three new arias, Winton Dean describes them as extended forceful pieces with virile coloratura. The arias transform the character of Sesto from an excitable boy into a mature and confident man of action, which is of course a dramatic weakness given Sesto's failure to actually act on his impulse to kill Tolomeo.

This re-casting of Sesto as a tenor is intriguing, especially with the three new arias which seem to be worth performing.  I do rather keep hoping that some enterprising company will do just that.

Post-minimal moods: Michael Vincent Waller's Trajectories

Michael Vincent Waller
Michael Vincent Waller Trajectories; R Andrew Lee, Seth Parker Woods; Recital Thirty Nine
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 27 2017 Star rating: 3.0
Thoughtful introspective music from the young American post-minimalist composer

This new disc from Recital Thirty Nine explores the music of Michael Vincent Waller, a young American composer whose work I have reviewed before (see my review). On this new disc pianist  R. Andrew Lee plays four piano works by Waller and is joined by cellist Seth Parker Woods for two work.

Michael Vincent Waller is a composer and visual artist who has an impressive avant-garde pedigree in his studies, having studied with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela (the light artist, designer, painter and musician who sang in La Monte Young's group Theatre of Eternal Music) and Bunita Marcus who is strongly associated with Morton Feldman. Michael Vincent Waller's early work was mainly avant-garde, using microtonality and alternative tunings. His recent work, which has been described as post-minimalist, still preserves the interest in tunings but using alternate scales and modes.

The works on this disc are very much quiet and contemplative, almost introspective. The opening  work on the disc by itself (2016) introduces us to the style with Lee placing down notes in a very considered and thoughtful way, creating harmonies by keeping the pedal down so that we get a whole variety of harmonics and overtones.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Club Inégales goes Off the Page

Peter Wiegold & Notes Inégales at Club Inégales
Peter Wiegold & Notes Inégales at Club Inégales
Peter Wiegold's Club Inégales begins its 18th season on Friday 13 October 2017 with a late night session at Kings Place celebrating Howard Skempton's 70th birthday. Skempton will be joining Wiegold and Notes Inégales to play, sing and improvise.

Entitled Off the Page the season features over 40 new scores. There are three collaborations with the London Jazz Festival, on 10 November at the Royal Academy, Wiegold and Notes Inégales will be joined by the young jazz composer Kim Macari and saxophonist Raymond MacDonald to discuss and perform new graphic scores, and to celebrate the festival's 25th anniversary there will be performances of 25 newly commissioned one page scores over two marathon performances on 12 & 19 November.

Further ahead, folk-singer Sam Lee will be launching his new album on 7 December.

Full details from the Club Inégales website.

Capturing our imagination: Felicity Palmer makes a welcome return to the song recital

Two Little Words - Felicity Palmer - Resonus Classics
Two Little Words; Felicity Palmer, Simon Lepper; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 4 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Eclectic charm from this recital by distinguished mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer

This delightfully eclectic recital on the Resonus Classics sees Dame Felicity Palmer returning to song recitals after a gap of some years. Accompanied by Simon Lepper, Felicity Palmer performs songs by Michael Head, Marshall Palmer (her father), Alan Murray, Joseph Horovitz, Benjamin Britten, Manuel de Falla, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Madlein Dring, Stephen Sondheim, John Pritchett and May H. Brahe

Palmer, who is 73 (the recital was recorded in early 2015), still has a lively operatic career with performances of roles like Klytemnestra in Strauss's Elektra ahead. This disc seems to have been the result of a serendipitous collaboration with pianist Simon Lepper. Palmer's article in the CD booklet talks about the way they 'clicked', and it is clear that we have Lepper's encouragement partly to thank for this disc.

Many of the songs are included because they have personal links to Palmer and her career including songs by her father, though some of the repertoire is new such as Joseph Horovitz's scena Lady Macbeth. And there is only a limited amount of the classic song repertoire by Schubert and Brahms; Palmer admits that Schubert has always daunted her. But there is plenty of Russian song and she is clearly in sympathy with the style and the language, singing with a remarkable richness, depth and firmness.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Re-Sung: Dylan Perez introduces his new concert series in Bloomsbury

Creating your own opportunities is very much something that has become increasingly common with young artists and performers, happy to combine artistic and entrepreneurial skills. Re-Sung, a new song-recital series opens on Wednesday 11 October 2017 at Bloomsbury Baptist Church and will be running throughout the year with four Autumn concerts already announced. The series is the brain-child of accompanist Dylan Perez, who is currently just finishing his studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The concerts take place at 6pm, and last for around 50 minutes, and Dylan wants them to provide a new look at both the song recital repertoire and format, both of which can often be pretty traditional.

Dylan John Perez (Photo Bertie Watson Photography)
Dylan John Perez (Photo Bertie Watson Photography)
Dylan wants to try and break down the barriers between the audience and performers, and the church is set up so that both can mingle and give the performers chance to talk to people. The series came about because Dylan was keen to create more performance opportunities for himself and was offered a slot at the Bloomsbury Baptist Church by his sponsors. He asked if it was possible to do more than one concert a year, and was presented with 12!

Dylan is keen to improve the audience's knowledge of the songs beforehand, so that during the performance the singers are not presented with a sea of heads reading their song translations, not to mention the rustling of papers. He plans to put full translations up on the Re-Sung website before- hand, along with further information and essays. On the day, the audience will get just sentence or two, summarising the song.

Tenor Nicky Spence is one of the singers performing at the first concert, and what attracted him to Re-Sung was partly this idea of presenting the songs in a way which gives the audience a simple key, a paraphrase to help the audience. Whilst full translations are wonderful, Nicky feels that for the audience to be able to pay attention to the performance, they need something a bit more straightforward.

Nicky Spence (Photo David Bebber)
Nicky Spence (Photo David Bebber)
Given Re-Sung's rush-hour time slot and more casual presentation, Dylan is hoping to attract new audiences, and feels that this simpler presentation will help engage them. Nicky emphasises that they are not trying to re-invent the wheel, but simply to give singers the opportunity to really own something, to be in their moment. Dylan thinks that it is important for a young performer to have a forum in which they feel safe enough to be able to take risks and to feel liberated enough to try things. He points out that once you get out of college, it is a relief that you don't have to impress people and juries.

The first concert, on Wednesday 11 October, will be a song sampler with all different kinds of songs, languages and genres, very much an introduction to song. After that, each concert will delve into more specific topics such as sonnets or fables, and of course there will be a Schubertiade. The venue is known for other concerts, and Dylan has already been doing other things there. If people miss the rush hour and take a later train home, then they will be able to catch 50 minutes of song, and there is a good pub across the road for carrying discussions on afterwards, providing space for performers and audience members to talk about the songs with the feeling of being grilled. And Dylan is keen to talk to the audience after events, to find out what worked and what people did not like.

Nicky feels that performers sometimes have to work quite hard to keep song alive, and the number of singers who have purely song recital careers is quite small. But there is a lot of enthusiasm for song from song performers and Nicky finds it nice to work in a small direct way. Despite the enthusiasm from performers, there are not actually that may opportunities to do recitals and doing a full recital can be quite overwhelming for a young performer, and something of a labour of love with all those texts to learn. Re-Sung will be using a group of singers for each concert, so that each gets a chance to shine.

The recitals will be free, Dylan doesn't feel that students and young artists can charge a huge amount for tickets, and if you want to attract a young audience you have to have pricing accordingly. Nicky feels that the Wigmore Hall's £5 tickets for the under 35s is just right.

Dylan Perez and Robert Hugill chatting about Re-Sung (photo Nicky Spence)
Dylan Perez and Robert Hugill chatting
about Re-Sung (photo Nicky Spence
Dylan admits that it is an ambitious series, and he does not know if it will work. He has a lot of ideas and needs to see what works. Dylan has programmed the Autumn season, and is just about to organise the Winter series. One of the areas that Dylan is interested in is programming new music, but he feels it needs to be things with melodies, that the audiences can grasp. And there is so much possible repertoire, that he is aware of the need for balance. As an American, he hopes to present more American music and thinks that there are some amazing songs. Once composers he mentions is William Bolcom, and his cabaret songs. Bolcom used to teach at the University of Michigan where Dylan first studied.

As an accompanist, Dylan has quite an impressive pedigree. He completes his studies at the Guildhall School in 2018, and prizes have included the Gerald Moore Prize for accompanists, and the Paul Hamburger Prize for Accompaniment as well as being a a finalist in the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier awards at Wigmore Hall where he, along with his duo partner mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew, received the Loveday Song Prize, and was a finalist in the competition again in 2017. Along with duo partner Iúnó Connolly, Dylan was a semi-finalist in the 2017 Das Lied International Song Competition in Heidelberg, Germany.

Wednesday's concert will be performed by three singers, Nicky Spence, Frances Chiejina (currently a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at Covent Garden) and Julien van Mellaerts (winner of the 2017 Wigmore Hall / Kohn Foundation International Song Competition and the 2017 Kathleen Ferrier Awards), with a repertoire including Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Wolf, Faure, Ravel, Britten, and Quilter. Nicky will be performing the Richard Strauss songs; he has recently start performing songs by this composer having been asked by Roger Vignoles to sing on the eighth (and final) volume of Roger Vignoles' complete Richard Strauss song series for Hyperion Records. Nicky comments wryly that he was effectively assigned all the songs that people had said not to earlier on in the series, citing one which has both a top C and a bottom A in it. But they found it an interesting challenge to make the songs lyrical, and not just sounding difficult. But Nicky is also keen to perform them, finding it a very different sensation to sing a song live than to record it.

Full information about the new concert series from the Re-Sung website.

Elsewhere on this blog:

Listening after Pauline Oliveros - A Meditation

Pauline Oliveros
American artist, performer and composer Pauline Oliveros, who died last year, was a central figure in the development of experimental music in the USA as she investigated new ways for both audience and performer to focus attention on music, developing her concepts of 'deep listening' and 'sonic awareness'. Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has joined forces with Third Ear, Field Studies, Leeds University, Leeds College of Music, and Opera North to present Listening after Pauline Oliveros, a four-day conference and programme of performances, meditations, workshops, talks, screenings, exhibition, and discussion on listening and the future. The event takes place at venues throughout Leeds, including the School of Fine Art, the University of Leeds and Leeds College of Music from 12 October to 15 October.

The conference features contributions from writer, director, performer, improvisational text and sound artist IONE, Pauline Oliveros’s widow and long-time collaborator, including Listening in Dreams Meditation, a unique practice she has created, and IONE will be interviewed by the festival's artistic director Graham MacKenzie.

Amongst events open to the public is a festival commission, Listening Walk, from composer and sound artist Claudia Molitor whose work draws on traditions of music and sound art but also extends to video, performance and fine art.

Full details of the conference and associated programme from the Field Studies website. There will be significant focus on Pauline Oliveros' work at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival which runs from 27 to 26 November 2017.

Rich rewards: Kurtág complete from Asko|Schönberg & Reinbert de Leeuw

György Kurtág complete music for ensemble and choir - ECM
György Kurtág complete works for choir and ensemble; Reinbert de Leeuw, Asko|Schönberg, Netherlands Radio Choir; ECM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 03 2017 Star rating: 5.0
Often challenging, frequently fascinating, a brilliant survey of music by the great Hungarian composer

György Kurtág is a composer whose works continue to fascinate and challenge, with their very distinct and often distinctive sound world. On this valuable new three disc set from ECM New Series we have Kurtág's complete works for ensemble and choir. Reinbert de Leeuw conducts the Dutch new music ensemble Asko|Schönberg, which is joined by the Netherlands Radio Choir, Natalia Zagorinskaya (soprano), Gerrie de Vries (mezzo-soprano), Yves Saelens (tenor), Harry van der Kamp (bass), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Elliot Simpson (guitar), Tamara Stefanovich (piano) and Csaba Kiraly (pianino, spoken word).

György Kurtág
György Kurtág
The works on the disc are rarely for straightforward groups of performers, Kurtág seems to have been particularly attracted to mixed ensembles. So we have Four Capriccios for soprano and ensemble, For Songs to Poems by Janos Pilinsky for baritone and chamber ensemble, Messages of the Late Miss R Troussova for soprano and chamber ensemble, Grabstein fur Stephan for guitar and groups of instruments grouped in space,  ...quasi una fantasia for piano and groups of instruments dispersed in space, Op.27 No2 Double Concerto for piano, cello and two chamber ensembles dispersed in space, Samuel Beckett: What is the Word for alto solo, voices and chamber ensembles dispersed in space, Songs of Despair and Sorrow for double mixed choir and instruments, Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova for soprano solo and instruments, Colinda-Balada for tenor solo, chorus and chamber ensemble and Brefs Messages for small ensemble.

One of the more frustrating aspects of this excellent release is that the CD booklet does not provide an easy digest of who is playing what in each of the above, to find out what the various ensembles consist of you have to read through Paul Griffiths' extensive booklet essay.

Kurtág's mature style seems to have come quite late in his career, most of the works on the disc date from the 1970s and later, and even the Four Capriccios (written 1959 to 1970) was revised in 1993. His international reputation very much dates from the 1980s, after the premiere of Messages of the Late Miss R Troussova at IRCAM in Paris in 1981. The most recent work on the disc seems to be Brefs Messages from 2011, and one of the fascinating things about the three discs is that though arranged semi-thematically, there is an historical timeline too so we can hear the changes and developments in Kurtág's style, but also the commonality, the thread which runs through all the works.

That style is characterised by a clarity of writing, a spareness which combines with brilliance and a sense that the whole is made up of tiny gestures, each of which matter intensely. Many of the works on the disc are made up of numerous small movements, each highly coloured, brilliant and intense. The edges are frequently jagged and Kurtág clearly likes taking things to extremes.

Monday, 9 October 2017

From Mozart to Nina Simone: Jeremy Denk starts his Milton Court residency

Jeremy Denk (Photo Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Jeremy Denk (Photo Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
American pianist Jeremy Denk begins his residency at Milton Court on 12 October, only the second ever Milton Court Artist in Residence following violinist Richard Tognetti last year. Denk's season at the Barbican will be showcasing the pianists versatility, and in his first two concerts he moves from Mozart's late sonatas to a day celebrating variation form.

On Thursday 12 October 2017, Jeremy Denk will be playing the last five of Mozart's eighteen piano sonatas, as well as the Rondo in A minor, K. 511, works which demonstrate the fullest expression of the composer’s creativity, while remaining economical, polished and elegant.

Then on Sunday 15 October comes Infinite Variety, a three-part day of music celebrating the infinite variety of the variation form. The day is structured in three parts:
  • Variations on Death (for piano solo,11am) looks at premonitions of the grave, farewells, and intimations of mortality, with works by Bach, Liszt, Schumann, and Denk’s own variations on death music from video games. 
  • Variations on Virtuosity (3pm), Denk and instrumentalist friends explore displays of virtuosic exuberance: salon variations by Viennese classical composers alongside some of the more eccentric 19th-century manifestations of the form (Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques and the Variations on Yankee Doodle by Vieuxtemps), and finally the musical Everest of Schumann’s Symphonic Variations.  
  • Variations on Heartbreak . . . and Hope (7pm), looks at the way the variation has been used to express themes of heartbreak and regret, including an eclectic range of variation-based works by Monteverdi, Brahms, Verdi (filtered through Nina Simone) and John Adams (a European premiere), culminating in Beethoven’s final piano sonata

Further information from the Barbican website.
The advert for our new disc Quickening: songs by Robert Hugill to texts by English and Welsh poets is in the November 2017 issue of Gramophone magazine.

Songs from the disc are being broadcast on WMBR 88.8 FM this afternoon from 4 to 5.30pm ET. As the radio station is based on Connecticut you will be able to listen afterwards on-line.

Quickening contains my songs, setting texts by A.E. Houseman, Christina Rosetti, Ivor Gurney and Rowan Williams performed by Anna Huntley, Johnny Herford, Rosalind Ventris and William Vann and is available from Navona Records.

Baffling and emotionally constipated: Bellini's Norma from the Met in HD

Bellini: Norma - Metropolitan Opera, New York
Bellini: Norma - Metropolitan Opera, New York
Bellini Norma; Sondra Radvanovsky, Joyce DiDonato, Joseph Calleja, dir: David McVicar, cond: Carlo Rizzi: Met Live in HD
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Oct 7 2017 Star rating: 3.0
Good on paper, a strong cast gives uneven results in Bellini's classic

On paper the Metropolitan Opera’s starry Norma with Sonya Radvanovsky as the titular heroine, Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Calleja as Adalgisa and Pollione directed by David McVicar & conducted by Carlo Rizzi, should have been an opera junkie’s heaven - the subterranean denizens of Screen One at the Barbican (7 October 2017) were all a twitter.

Norma is a psychologically complex and, dare I say, implausible story of a druid high priestess who has risen to the very top of society. Her awe inspiring authority spawning loyalty and devotion but she is caught between the competing desires of fidelity to her oath or to the father of her children. In general, operatic plausibility is an oxymoron but pragmatically speaking we still need to be convinced of a story’s dramatic verisimilitude however improbable and David McVicar’s interpretation just didn’t do it for me.

There was plenty to admire in this patchy interpretation, just not enough to make a dramatically satisfying whole. As a corollary this was not, at least in part, down to the production. For the large part of Act 1 the singers were over mic’d which mitigated any vocal nuance there might have been. The dynamic contrast in the cinema ran the complete gamut from forte to fortissimo and at points reduced the orchestra to little more than a metronome. This is all the more aggravating as Carlo Rizzi’s potent and elegant reading of the Sinfonia held so much promise. That aside, visually the austere naturalistic aesthetic looked handsome and atmospheric.

A feast of piano teamwork: Two Piano Marathon at London Piano Festival

Charles Owen & Katya Apekisheva giving the premiere of Elena Langer's RedMare at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place ©ICA Media
Charles Owen & Katya Apekisheva giving the premiere of Elena Langer's RedMare
at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place ©ICA Media
Adams, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Elena Langer, Ravel, Schumann, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski; Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva, Danny Driver, Melvyn Tan, Ilya Nitin, Lisa Smirnova; London Piano Festival at Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 7 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A celebration of piano teamwork and terrific pianism

The centre-piece of the second London Piano Festival at Kings Place on 7 October 2017 was a Two-Piano marathon featuring pianists Charles Owen & Katya Apekisheva (the festival's artistic directors), Danny Driver, Melvyn Tan, Ilya Itin and Lisa Smirnova in an eclectic programme of music for two pianos, John Adams' Hallelujah Junction, Mozart's Sonata in D for two pianos, K448, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances Op.45, Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole, Schumann's Andante and Variations Op.46, Shostakovich's Concertino Op.94, Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme by Paganini and the world premiere of Elena Langer's RedMare commissioned for the festival. The result was a great celebration of piano teamwork, as four different pairings of pianists gave us some tremendously vital and really engaging playing, along with moments of great virtuosity.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Rare opportunity: Rameau's Dardanus at ETO

ETO - Dardanus - Edward Jowle, Alessandro Fisher, Timothy Nelson, Katy Thomson, Eleanor Penfold, Mikel Uskola, Edward Jowle (Photo Jane Hobson)
ETO - Dardanus - Edward Jowle, Alessandro Fisher, Timothy Nelson, Katy Thomson, Grant Doyle, Mikel Uskola
(Photo Jane Hobson)
Rameau Dardanus; Galina Averina, Anthony Gregory, Timothy Nelson, Grant Doyle, Frederick Long, dir: Douglas Rintoul, cond: Jonathan Williams; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 6 2017 Star rating: 3.5
A rare outing for Rameau's opera gives much to celebrate, with intense performances from the principals

ETO - Dardanus - Galina Averina (Photo Jane Hobson)
Galina Averina (Photo Jane Hobson)
Whilst Handel's Italian operas have almost become mainstream with UK opera companies, staged performances of operas by his French contemporary Rameau are still rare, so congratulations to English Touring Opera (ETO) for boldly going... 

Theatre director Douglas Rintoul's new production of Rameau's Dardanus debuted at the Hackney Empire on 6 October 2017 in tandem with ETO's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare (see my review). Galina Averina sang Iphise with Anthony Gregory as Dardanus, plus Grant Doyle as Teucer, Timothy Nelson as Antenor, Alessandro Fisher as Arcas, and Frederick Long as Ismenor. Jonathan Williams conducted the Old Street Band.

Like many Rameau operas, Dardanus has a complex textual history. The legendary Dardanus, son Jupiter, is credited with the founding of Troy with the aid of Teucer, King of the Phyrgians. Rameau and his librettist Charles-Antoine Leclerc de La Bruere concocted a back story with Dardanus and Teucer at war and Dardanus and Teucer's daughter Iphise in love with each other. The first version, premiered in 1739 had lots of extraneous spectacle including a sea monster which gave weakness to the plot. Revisions in 1744 and 1760 removed most of these and Rameau seemed to be pushing the piece into the direction of Gluck's concentrated French operas. ETO performed the work in a new edition (based on the 1744 and 1760 revision) by Gilles Rico, and this was the first UK staging of the 1744 version.

ETO - Dardanus - Anthony Gregory (Photo Jane Hobson)
Anthony Gregory (Photo Jane Hobson)
The problem with Rameau's operas, and French tragedie lyrique in general, is the dramaturgical difficulty presented by the combination of aria, chorus and dance. Whether period or modern, productions need to find a way of making dance an essential part of the drama (something which was done well in David McVicar's 2013 production of Charpentier's Medee at ENO, see my review). For this new production Douglas Rintoul and Jonathan Williams seem to have decided to ignore the problem entirely, some dance movements were cut, others were used as scene change entractes and what remained (including the long concluding divertissements) used as back drop for hi-jinks and ceremony from the chorus. There was no dance, crucially no choreographer involved, and these scenes seemed less a part of the drama and more a case of find something to do on stage whilst Rameau's lovely music played.

Perhaps the problem was the setting. Whilst Cordelia Chisholm's set is common to both the Rameau and Handel productions, here the setting was a modern conflict, with a large gravel pit at its centre making stage action tricky. Now Rameau's operas were written at a time when war did not preclude dance and entertainment, when the French royal court could go on progress to see the war effort. The opera is not about war, the conflict is more a device to keep Dardanus and Iphise apart for nearly five acts. But Rintoul set the piece in the context of a modern conflict, total war, everyone wore fatigues so the presence of dance here would be jejeune.

Thankfully we had performances from the principals full of concentrated intensity and passion.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Infectious charm: Rossini's Barber of Seville at ENO

ENO - Rossini: Barber of Seville - Sarah Tynan, Eleazar Rodriguez, Alan Opie, Morgan Pearse, Yvonne Howard, Alastair Miles (c) Robbie Jack
ENO - Rossini: The Barber of Seville
Sarah Tynan, Eleazar Rodriguez, Alan Opie, Morgan Pearse, Yvonne Howard, Alastair Miles (c) Robbie Jack
Rossini The Barber of Seville; Morgan Pearse, Sarah Tynan, Eleazar Rodriguez, Alan Opie, Alastair Miles, Yvonne Howard, dir: Jonathan Miller/Peter Relton, cond: Hilary Griffiths: English National Opera
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Oct 5 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Sparkling 30th anniversary revival of Jonathan Miller's classic production

ENO - Rossini: Barber of Seville - Alan Opie, Eleazar Rodriguez, Sarah Tynan, (c) Robbie Jack
Alan Opie, Eleazar Rodriguez, Sarah Tynan, (c) Robbie Jack
After thirty years, Jonathan Miller’s production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville returns to the English National Opera at the London Coliseum for it’s thirteen outing. Revived by Peter Relton, the Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodriguez and Australian baritone Morgan Pearse return as Count Almaviva and Figaro, conducted by Hilary Griffiths. Sarah Tynan, last seen in ENO’s Partenope (see our review), and Alan Opie, having been the production’s original Figaro (captured on disc for Chandos) make their role debuts as Rosina and Dr. Bartolo. They are joined by British bass Alastair Miles as Don Basilio and English mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard as Berta.

The plot, as described by Beaumarchais, is pretty ordinary. “An amorous old man means to marry his ward the following day: her young lover, cleverer than he is, prevents him from doing so, and that same day makes her his wife, under her guardian’s nose and in his house”. The delight of Rossini’s absurd and subversive opera buffa is the self-conscious complicity of both performers and characters in the unfolding drama. Theatre as theatre if you like – I never tire of it.

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