Friday, 16 November 2018

Even when he is Silent

CHamber Choir of London - Even When He Is Silent
The Chamber Choir of London and Dominic Ellis-Peckham have another CD single out, this time Even When He Is Silent by the Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen.

The anthem was commissioned in 2011 by the St Olaf Festival (Olavsfestdagene) in Trondheim, Norway and the text was written by a prisoner in Cologne, Germany, during World War 2.

I believe in the sun, even when it's not shining.
I believe in love, even when I feel it not.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

It is available now, on iTunes and Amazon, do give it a listen.

Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican

Martyn Brabbins & the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Photo BBC)
Martyn Brabbins & the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Photo BBC)
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (first revised version, 1879), Ethel Smyth Mass in D; Pavel Kolesnikov, Lucy Crowe, Catriona Morison, Ben Johnson, Duncan Rock, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; Barbican Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Smyth's large scale and rarely performed mass paired with a rare earlier version of the concerto by her contemporary Tchaikovsky

The BBC Symphony Orchestra's chief conductor Sakari Oramo planned to open the orchestra's 2018/19 season at the Barbican in style on 15 November 2018 with a concert which paired the 1879 version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor (as opposed to the better known 1894 version) with Ethel Smyth's Mass in D. It was not to be as illness forced Oramo to withdraw, thankfully Martyn Brabbins stood in at the last moment and, amazingly, conducted the programme unchanged (despite Brabbins being also engaged with the new production of Britten's War Requiem which debuts at English National Opera tonight, 16 November 2018).

So at the Barbican last night (15 November 2018), Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1879 version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor with soloist Pavel Kolesnikov, and Ethel Smyth's Mass in D with soloists Lucy Crowe, Catriona Morison, Ben Johnson and Duncan Rock, and the BBC Symphony Chorus, chorus master Neil Ferris. The BBC Symphony Chorus is currently celebrating its 90th birthday and Smyth's mass, with its huge chorus part, was a very apt way to begin the season.

Pavel Kolesnikov (Photo ©Eva Vermandel)
Pavel Kolesnikov (Photo ©Eva Vermandel)
Tchaikovsky wrote his first piano concerto in 1874-75, and when he played it to Nikolai Rubinstein, Rubinstein was famously rude about the piano writing. Tchaikovsky's piano playing was only adequate, he was not a piano virtuoso, and it is clear that the solo piano part was adjusted at various times. Tchaikovsky published the original version in 1875, and then a revised version in 1879. The well-known version of the concerto is based on the version published in 1894, after Tchaikovsky's death, and during Tchaikovsky's lifetime, it was the 1879 version which the composer performed. The 1894 revisions seem to have been the work of his pupil Alexander Siloti, and they are changes which moved the concerto closer to the big, bold combative model.

From the opening, the different between 1879 and 1894 was apparent as Pavel Kolesnikov rolled the opening piano chords in a very Schumanesque manner, rather than the familiar big, bold approach, though I felt that the orchestral contribution felt a bit matter of fact. But things gradually took off as the solo part became more bravura and the orchestral contributions followed suit. The changes, though, go beyond a few rolled piano chords and the way the piano kept holding things up for poetic meditations felt new. This was very much a sense of seeing the familiar work through a different lens, partly because of Kolesnikov's desire to give a non-hackneyed account of the solo part. His playing had a classical restraint, with moments of pure poetry yet the staggering bravura was there too. The slow movement opened with the lovely combination of pellucid flute and lilting piano, textures were transparent and rather spacious, with a wonderful skittishness in the faster sections. The finale (which includes significant passage, not in the later version), was all impulsive excitement, with crisp rhythms and dazzling fingerwork, and Brabbins and Kolesnikov really whipped up the excitement at the end.

This was a performance in which Kolesnikov really invested in the idea of re-inventing Tchaikovsky's concerto, making it more poetic and more quirkily idiomatic and less the standard piano virtuoso barn-stormer, and I think the work is rather better for it. Kolesnikov gave us an encore afterwards, and then in the second half slipped discreetly into the audience with friends to listen to the Smyth mass.

Endgame: György Kurtág's first opera premieres at La Scala

György Kurtág & Samuel Beckett: Fin de partie - La Scala, Milan (Photo Walz Ruth)
György Kurtág & Samuel Beckett: Fin de partie - La Scala, Milan (Photo Walz Ruth)
György Kurtág is now in his 90s, but not only is there no sense of his slowing down but his first opera has just debuted at La Scala, Milan. A co-production between La Scala and Dutch National Opera, directed by Pierre Audi and conducted by Markus Stenz, Fin de partie sets a text by Samuel Beckett, with a cast which includes Frode Olsen, Leigh Melrose, Hilary Summers and Leonardo Cortellazzi. The production runs at La Scala until 25 November 2018 (see website) and is performed in Amsterdam in March 2019 (see website).

As Pierre Audi's article of La Scala's website [PDF] demonstrates, Kurtág has been flirting with opera since the 1980s but constantly shying away from the idea, yet the result has finally come to fruition with a setting of Samuel Beckett, a very apt conjoining of artistic geniuses. Beckett was generally set against the idea of words from his plays being turned into opera, and Kurtág has taken the risk of setting Fin de partie complete and unedited. The result inevitably changes the rhythm of Beckett's spoken text, yet must be regarded as a most exciting operatic premiere.

Samuel Beckett originally wrote Fin de partie in French, subsequently translating it himself into English as Endgame. It was premiered at the Royal Court, in French, in 1957.

Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton from a different angle: arrangements for brass septet

Music for Brass Septet 6 - Septura - NAxos
Music for Brass Septet - Finzi, Elgar, Parry, Walton; Septura; Naxos Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Septura's new transcriptions reveal a subtly lyrical and autumnal side to this talented brass ensemble

I have to confess that when I first came across this new disc from the brass ensemble Septura on Naxos, I was both intrigued and dubious. It is a disc of music by Gerald Finzi, Edward Elgar, Hubert Parry and William Walton heard in new ways, with arrangements of pre-existing music. So was have Elgar's Serenade, four of Parry's Songs of Farewell, a motet and two string orchestra pieces by Finzi and Walton's late Sonata for String Orchestra.

In fact the results work very well and, as with the best transcriptions, the music is successfully re-invented in the new form. It is a credit to arrangers (Simon Cox and Matthew Knight) and performers that this actually sounds like brass music of the period, preserving something of the original too.

So Finzi's motet God is gone up is successfully re-invented as a striking prelude, convincingly in period and taking up a process regularly used by Renaissance brass players [see my review of the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble's recent disc] whereby motets were re-used as purely instrumental pieces. With Elgar's Serenade the lyricism and autumnal tones of the brass playing really counts for a lot in this music, bringing out the elegiac tone that is implicit in much of Elgar's music. If you know the serenade well, then some of the detail seems a bit heavier when moved onto the brass but the end results are lovely, with a subtly impulsive opening movement, a lovely line and warm tones in the intimate slow movement and a surprisingly gentle final movement.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

REMA Early Music Awards at St John's Smith Square

European Union Baroque Orchestra
European Union Baroque Orchestra
The wonderful European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO) has a concert at St. John's Smith Square on 30 November 2018, Constellatio Felix: Sun, Stars and Planets, under its artistic director Lars Ulrik Mortensen, and as well as performing Lully, Zelenka, Handel, Muffat, Pisendel, Telemann and Rameau EUBO will be receiving as well as it is being presented with REMA Early Music Award, whilst Sigiswald Kuijken will receive the REMA Early Music Artist Award. 

The awards are presented by REMA/EEMN (the European Early Music Network), a Europe-wide network of organisations which programme Early Music concert (and St John's Smith Square is one of REMA's 85 members). Now celebrating their fourth year, the REMA Early Music Awards are presented annually and were established to recognise exceptional contributions made by artists, institutions and projects for the promotion of early music.

The EUBO, founded in 1985, enables young musicians from all over Europe who have recently completed their studies to acquire their first experience in a professional orchestra under the direction of eminent Baroque specialists. It used to be based in the UK, but with the changes in Britain's relationship to the EU, EUBO has moved its organisation out of the UK.

Highgate International Chamber Music Festival

Highgate International Chamber Music Festival
The Highgate International Chamber Music Festival opens this weekend, with a week of  chamber music from artists such as Alexander Sikovetsky, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Bartholomew LaFollette, Julian Bliss, Alina Ibragimova, Cedric Tiberghian and Simon Callaghan, with many artists performing at a number of concerts throughout the fetdival. Concerts takr place at St Anne's Church and St Michael's Church, Highgate and the festival opens on 17 November with a family concert from cellist and singer Matthew Sharp, Tommy Foggo - Superhero.

One nice feature of this year's festival is a series of late night concerts, at 10pm, Sonatas by Candlelight which features sonatas by Cesar Franck, Claude Debussy, Arnold Bax, Sergei Prokofiev, and Robert Schumann, there are also a pair of early evening concerts given by young ensembles from the festival's mentorship scheme, as well as the chance to hear the In Harmony Lambeth Cello Ensemble.

Full details from the festival website.

Love & Prayer: Nadine Benjamin's solo recital debut album

Nadine Benjamin - Love and Prayer
Love and Prayer Puccini, Bellini, Verdi, Mozart, Schubert; Nadine Benjamin, NB Opera Ensemble, Kamal Khan Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Nadine Benjamin's solo album debut, the first such from a Black British soprano and a milestone in many ways

The first solo album for any singer is important, but if you are an opera singer then it helps to show what roles are in your sights. Love and Prayer is the debut solo album from the lyric soprano Nadine Benjamin. A singer who is having something of a moment, she debuted as Clara in Gerswhin's Porgy and Bess last month [see Ruth's review] at English National Opera, where she plays Musetta in the revival of Jonathan Miller's production of Puccini's La Boheme later this month. She will be singing the title role in Puccini's Tosca on Friday 18 January St James's Church, Piccadilly. Love and Prayer will go on sale at the ENO shop from Saturday 17 November and she will be signing copies after the matinee performance of Porgy and Bess that day.

Recorded at Studio Two at Abbey Road Studios with Kamal Khan conducting the NB Opera Ensemble, it is the first such album recorded by a British Black soprano. The repertoire on the disc focuses on Italian opera, with Verdi at the core, with arias from Tosca, Norma, Il trovatore, La traviata, Un ballo in maschera, Aida, Otello, La boheme and Le nozze di Figaro, plus Schubert's Ave Maria.

The opera arias are accompanied by reduced orchestrations for 14 piece ensemble (with Kamal Khan accompanying Nadine Benjamin on the piano for the Schubert). This gives the disc quite an intimate feel, whilst giving us something more than arias with piano accompaniment. We must live in the real world, and not every singer can or wants to have to raise the cash to cover a full scale symphony orchestra and better a small ensemble well rehearsed, as this one, than a badly put together symphonic one.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Chiara Skerath, Gwilym Bowen and Ida Ränzlöv are the new Associate Artists of Classical Opera and The Mozartists

Chiara Skerath, Gwilym Bowen and Ida Ränzlöv are the new Associate Artists of Classical Opera and The Mozartists
Chiara Skerath, Gwilym Bowen and Ida Ränzlöv are the new Associate Artists of Classical Opera and The Mozartists
Swiss-Belgian soprano Chiara Skerath, British tenor Gwilym Bowen and Swedish mezzo-soprano Ida Ränzlöv [who we caught in the title role in Handel's Faramondo with the Royal College of Music last year] have been announced as the new Associate Artists of Classical Opera and The Mozartists, artistic director Ian Page, and all three will be joining the company during 2019 for its explorations of 1769 as part of the Mozart 250 project. 

Chiara Skerath, who made her UK début with Ian Page and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall in January 2018 [see my review], is joining them again for their annual Mozart 250 retrospective 1769: A Year in Music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29 January 2019. The three new Associate Artists will all feature in the UK première of Hasse’s Piramo e Tisbe at Cadogan Hall (28 March 2019).

Gwilym Bowen later joins Ian Page and the ensemble for two eagerly awaited performances of the UK première of Gluck's rarely performed 1769 version Orfeo ed Euridice, which gives the role of Orfeo to a soprano (originally a castrato), plus GLuck's Bauci e Filemone and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (29 & 31 May 2019).

Full details from The Mozartists website.

Cimarosa's The Secret Marriage

Sophia Baddeley, Robert Baddeley, Thomas King by Johan Zoffany in The Clandestine Marriage in 1769.
Sophia Baddeley, Robert Baddeley, Thomas King by Johan Zoffany
in The Clandestine Marriage in 1769.
The Neapolitan composer Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) probably wrote around 80 operas which were popular across Europe. As well as his native Naples, he worked all over Italy as well as at the court of Catherine the Great in St Petersburg and at the court of Emperor Leopold II (for whose coronation Mozart wrote La clemenza di Tito) in Vienna. His comic opera Il matrimonio segreto (written in Vienna in 1792) was regarded as an exemplar of the opera buffa style and admired by later composers such as Verdi. It was based on an English play, The Clandestine Marriage by George Colman the Elder and David Garrick which premiered in 1766 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (there is a Zoffany picture of a 1769 performance, see above).

Hampstead Garden Opera (HGO) is giving us a chance to re-visit the sparkling wit of this comedy [I have very happy memories of British Youth Opera's staging in 2013, see my review]. HGO's staging is directed by Sinéad O’Neill and conducted by Chris Hopkins at Jacksons Lane Theatre, 269A Archway Rd, London N6, and opens on 16 November 2018, double cast with a talented team of young singers.

Further information from the Hampstead Garden Opera website.

A sense of subtext: Joe Cutler's Elsewhereness on NMC

Joe Cutler - Elsewhereness - NMC
Elsewhereness - Joe Cutler; NMC Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A mixed programme for varying ensembles, yet full of Cutler's combination of wit, character and intelligence

The music of Joe Cutler has such a vivid theatricality to it that, listening blind to this new disc Elsewhereness in the NMC label,  you feel that every item has a dramatic subtext and a theatrical setting no matter what the musical forces.

This disc contains six pieces for wildly varied groups of performers, Elsewhereness, McNulty, For Frederic Lagnau, Akhmatova Fragments, Sikorski B and Karembeu's Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder. The performers are varied, including full orchestra: the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (chief conductor of the CBSO), highlighting Cutler's Birmingham connections (he is head of composition at the conservatoire), piano trio: the Fidelio Trio, mixed trio: Noszferatu (Finn Peters - saxophone, Dave Price - percussion, Ivo de Greef -piano) and three different mixed ensembles, Workers Union Ensemble, soprano Sarah Leonard with Project Instrumental and Daniele Rosina (conductor), and Emulsion Sinfonietta.

The disc opens with an occasional piece, Elsewhereness written for the move to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's new home and performed by the conservatoire's orchestra conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, as such the piece explores the idea of moving elsewhere, dismantling and re-assembling. Yet the pice is full of fascinating textures and rhythms, is engaging and characterful and certainly sounds fun to play.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Otherwordly concerns: Marlis Petersen's Anderswelt

Dimensionen: Anderswelt - Marlis Petersen - Solo Musica
Anderswelt; Marlis Petersen, Camillo Radicke; Solo Musica Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Late Romantic lieder through the lens of the otherworldly

This is the second of a CD trilogy from soprano Marlis Petersen, Dimensionen (Dimensions), the first being Welt (World), the last being Innenwelt (Inner world) and so this CD is Anderswelt (Otherworld) on the Solo Musica label where Petersen is accompanied by pianist Camillo Radicke.

It is a journey through later Romantic lieder, mainly Austro-German composers with a group of Nordic ones. But it is certainly not a trawl through the standard repertoire. I understand that this is very much a personal project for Petersen, and the selection of songs has a quirkiness and a depth which makes it stand out. So whilst there is Brahms, Wolf, Zemlinsky, Reger, Schreker, Nielsen and Grieg here, there is also Hans Pfitzner, Hans Sommer, Hermann Reutter, Carl Loewe, Christian Sinding, Harald Genzmer, Bruno Walter, Nikolai Medtner, Julius Weismann, Wilhelm Stenhammer, Yrjo Henrik Kilpinen, Sigvaldi Kaldalons, Friedrich Gulda, and Herman Zumpe. Another interesting thing about the selection of composers is that a number of the lesser known ones are from the 20th century, representatives of a late-Romantic strand in 20th century music which is often over-looked as we concentrate on the major Expressionist and Modernist movements.

We start with Hans Pfitzner's rather romantic Lockung as a sort of prelude. Then we move into the first sections Nixen und Nock (Nixies and Water Nymphs) with songs by Hans Sommer (director of the first German Technical College, praised by Richard Strauss) composer of the opera Die Lorelei from which is taken the song Lore im Nachen (Lore in the boat) which perhaps does have hints of early Strauss, Edvard Grieg (in German), Hermann Reutter (1900-1985), Carl Loewe, Christian Sinding (in German) and Harald Genzner (1909-2007). The highlight of this group has to be a rare outing of Loewe's ballad Der Nock (the water sprite), lyrical yet full of characterful drama. A nice change from Tom der Rhymer.

Late genius and two sextets: Strauss, Haydn and Brahms at Conway Hall

Oculi Ensemble
R.Strauss, Haydn, Brahms; Oculi Ensemble; Conway Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 November 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Two late masterpieces and two sextets from this new ensemble

On Sunday 11 November 2018, I was giving the pre-concert talk at Conway Hall, in advance of the programme by the Oculi Ensemble, Haydn's Quartet in F Op. 77 No.2, Richard Strauss' String Sextet from Capriccio, and Johannes Brahms String Sextet in G op. 36 No.2, a programme which combined not only two sextets, but two composers' late works. The planned inclusion of Richard Strauss' early Quartetsatz in E flat did not happen as the music was not available in time, but the ensemble is planning to record Strauss' string chamber music including this and a number of early rarities.

The Oculi Ensemble is a newish group, a flexible ensemble based around the well established Badke Quartet. On Sunday we heard Charlotte Scott and Emma Parker violins, Jon Thorne and Simon Tandree violas and Nathaniel Boyd and Pau Codina cellos.

We started with the Richard Strauss sextet which comes from Capriccio, his last opera premiered when the composer was 78.

The orchestra that talks back!

OAE logo
Whilst everyone in the arts talks about the problems with the present concert format, in fact there has been very little change. True, there are a whole variety of performance strands which take music out of concert halls, giving the format something of a shake up, though too often this can feel like little more than putting the audience on bean bags and playing them the same music but with distracting background noise.

But if you go to a standard concert hall, then the chances are that you will hear a standard concert. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), though, have designs on this and at a recent pair of concerts introduced changes with a view to making the standard concert format more friendly.

So OAE performers and conductors will be coming to the front of the stage to give informal introductions to the music being played. At Saturday and Sunday's concerts (at the Anvil, Basingstoke on 10/11 and the Royal Festival Hall on 11/11) it was conductor Marin Alsop who introduced the music, Brahms' A German Requiem [you can here the concert on the BBC Sounds website].

The OAE already has its casual strand, The Night Shift (next one on 27 November at Camden Assembly) which takes place non-traditional venues, and they have also introduced Bach, the Universe and Everything on Sunday mornings at Kings Place where a Bach cantata is combined with a science lecture in an informal setting (next one Sunday 25 November)

But this new move is an attempt to bring some of that casual element and informality into the concert hall by way of having a sort of spoken programme notes (I know from personal experience that audience enjoy this type of thing, having given spoken introductions to choral concerts that I participate in). The other big advantage of this is that it makes the conductors and players seem a bit more human.

Of course, it is not a new idea, but it is an interesting development to introduce it across a whole range of concerts.

Full details from the OAE's website.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Releasing The Prison: a project to record Ethel Smyth's last major work

Henry Brewster from the frontispiece of Ethel Smyth's 1930 edition of his 'The Prison: A diagloue'
Henry Brewster from the frontispiece of Ethel Smyth's
1930 edition of his The Prison: A dialogue
Dame Ethel Smyth is quite in the news at the moment thanks to the fact that she was both a composer and a Sufragette. Her music has been cropping up this year, and in the UK we have the chance to hear her mass and her opera The Wreckers, as well as a crop of recordings. Thoughts of Smyth's mass, her first major piece, let me to thinking about her final work for chorus and orchestra, The Prison.

The Prison is a large scale piece for soloists, choir and orchestra setting words by Henry Brewster (H.B.), the American philosopher and poet with whom Smyth had an intense and passionate relationship, both personal and professional. He wrote the libretto to Smyth's opera The Wreckers and she remained devoted to his memory, so that The Prison (written in 1929/30) is one of her last pieces and must have come at a time when deafness was troubling her. She uses one of Brewster's philosophical works as the basis for the text, which she created herself. The text describes the writing of a man in a solitary cell and his reflections on his past life and his preparations for death. But the text is poetic and reflective, with layers of meaning and metaphor. Thus the “prison” is both an actual jail, and a philosophical representation of the “shackles of self,”

Smyth published Brewster's original philsophical work The Prison  - A Dialogue in 1930 and the book includes a memoir of Brewster (who died in 1908) by Smyth which is still the major source of biographical information about the poet/philsopher.

Despite the vocal score of The Prison being published by the Carnegie Trust, it is a much neglected work and thankfully is starting to have its day. It received its USA premiere earlier this year, with performances conducted by James Blachly and by Mark Shapiro.

Now there is a Kickstarter project to enable James Blachly the Clarion Choir and the Experiential Orchestra to record the work with soloists Sarah Brailey and Dashon Burton. I wish the project every success and do hope that we soon get to hear The Prison in a recording worthy of it.

Full details from the Kickstarter page.

Tchaikovsky: Notes & Letters

Tchaikovsky: Notes & Letters
Three of the City Music Foundation's (CMF) patrons, actor Simon Callow, soprano Joan Rodgers, and pianist Roger Vignoles, are presenting Tchaikovsky: Notes & Letters on 16 November 2018 at Guildhall Art Gallery, an evening of music and words including extracts from Tchaikovsky's letters, his Souvenir de Florence performed by an ensemble of City Music Foundation Artists and songs from Helen Charlston (2018 CMF Artist) and Roger Vignoles.

Souvenir de Florence will be performed by an ensemble of CMF Artists: violinists Emily Sun (2018 CMF Artist) and Christopher Jones (Gildas Quartet, 2015 CMF Artist), violists Kay Stephen (Gildas Quartet, 2015 CMF Artist) and Lucy Nolan (Eblana String Trio, 2017 CMF Artist), and cellists Ariana Kashefi (2018 CMF Artist) and Peggy Nolan (Eblana String Trio, 2017 CMF Artist)

The money raised from the event will support the work of City Music Foundation, whose mission is to turn exceptional musical talent into professional success by equipping outstanding musicians with the tools, skills, experience, and networks they need to build and sustain rewarding and profitable careers.

Full details from the City Music Foundation website.

Iconic but flawed: La Bayadère the Royal Ballet

Artists of The Royal Ballet in La Bayadère © 2018 ROH. Photographed by Bill Cooper
La Bayadère: Kingdom of the Shades scene Artists of The Royal Ballet © 2018 ROH. Photographed by Bill Cooper
Petipa/Makarova/Minkus/Lanchbery La Bayadère; Royal Ballet Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 November 2018
Revival of Petipa's Orientalist fantasy with its iconic 'Kingdom of the Shades' scene

Ballet is a curious art-form, with few other genres would we accept as standard that what we see is the work of a number of different hands, based on the choreographer's original (just think how art historians obsess over whether a painting is by an artist, attributed or studio, though the process is accept to a limited extent in music, just think Cherubini's Medea). The fact is that until the invention of accurate choreographic notation, productions relied on memory and it was accepted that new generations would change and improve.

These thoughts occurred to me as we watched the recent revival of the 19th century Russian ballet La Bayadère by the Royal Ballet (seen 9 November 2018) at the Royal Opera House. The production is billed as conceived and directed by Natalia Makarova, with choreography by Natalia Makarova after Marius Petipa, with music by Ludwig Minkus orchestrated by John Lanchbery, though the work's actual heritage is even more complicated than that. We saw Sarah Lamb as the heroine, the temple dance of the title, Nikiya with Ryoichi Hirano as the hero Solor, Claire Calvert as Gamzatti, Thomas Whitehead as the High Brahmin, Bennet Gartside as the Rajah and Tristan Dyer as the head fakir. conducted by Boris Gruzin, who joined the Mariinsky Theatre in 1992 so presumably has this ballet in his blood.

Petipa first mounted La Bayadère in 1877 and the final production that he supervised was in 1900, which was notated in the Stepanov notation (a 19th century choreographic notation system which, if imperfect, allows us access to some of the choreographer's original thoughts). But all modern productions of the ballet derive from the Kirov Ballet's 1941 staging which severely trimmed the balled and reduced it to three acts from four, re-purposing Petipa's Grand pas d'action from the last act (of which he was very proud) to earlier on in the ballet. And even before 1941, details were changed by great dancers associated with the roles, and some of these changes became accepted as writ, a part of the standard ballet.

Natalia Makarova danced in the Kirov version as a young dancer, and so based her version on it. Similarly Rudolf Nureyev mounted a version of La Bayadère for the Paris Opera in 1991, and his has similar origins.

So why bother with the ballet at all?

Well, La Bayadère contains one of the great ballet scenes of 19th century Russian ballet, the 'Kingdom of the Shades' scene, a scene so influential that it was often given alone, and before the Royal Ballet took Natalia Makarova's production in 1989 it played Nureyev's version of the 'Kingdom of the Shades' scene as a stand alone ballet (first mounted  in 1963 and last given in 1985 when I saw it).

Marius Petipa's final revival of La Bayadère, with the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre shown in the scene The Kingdom of the Shades. In the center is Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Nikiya, Pavel Gerdt as Solor and the Corps de ballet.
Marius Petipa's final revival of La Bayadère, with the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre shown in the scene The Kingdom of the Shades. In the center is Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Nikiya, Pavel Gerdt as Solor and the Corps de ballet.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Reformation Remainers: Musicians, zealots and loyalists in Tudor England

St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton
St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton
Tavener, Tallis, Byrd; BREMF Consort of Voices, Deborah Roberts; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 November 2018
A hugel ambitious programme full of striking polyphony taking England from pre-Reformation Catholicism and post-Reformation Anglicanism

This year's Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) has Europe as its theme, 700 years of music from 17 European countries. Deborah Roberts and the BREMF Consort of Voices brought out the striking parallels between the English Reformation and BREXIT in their concert Reformation Remainers: Musicians, zealots and loyalists in Tudor England at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton on Saturday 10 November 2018.

Deborah Roberts' lucid and informative programme note summarized the musical and political events which took Britain from King Henry VIII's Roman Catholic kingdom to Queen Elizabeth I's non-aligned Protestant kingdom, whilst bringing the striking parallels to the present BREXIT process. The programme, started with English church music in pre-Reformation England under King Henry VIII, with Sarum chant, John Tavener's O Wilhelme pastor bone, Leroy Kyrie, the 'Sanctus' from Missa Corona Spinea, and Quemadmodum, and Thomas Tallis' early Salve intemerata virgo. For the second half, we had music after the break with Rome. Musical austerity, but a Catholice writes beautiful music for the new Anglican rite gave us three of Tallis' psalms from Archbishop Parker's Psalter and the anthem Verily I say unto you. Catholic remainers: coded messages in music gave us music written by Britains two major Catholic composers who remained in England and whose music discreetly referenced the sufferings of proscribed Catholics by analogy with the Israelites, with Tallis' The Lamentations of Jeremiah, Parts I & II, and When shall my sorowful sighing slack,  and William Byrd's Vigilate and Ne irascaris Domine. And finally Affirming what is universal: The Trinity with Byrd's Tribue Domine.

The BREMF Consort of Voices is a non-professional group made up of amateurs and students, here fielding 26 singers in a hugely ambitious programme which included two very substantial motets (Tallis' Salve intemerata virgo lasts around 15 minutes and Byrd's Tribue Domine is not that far behind), not to mention Tavener's challenging polyphony. And the end result was a huge achievement, not withstanding the fact that the programme felt slightly too long. What came over was a real sense of achievement, when the singers relaxed into the music and gave us some superbly crafted polyphony. This did not have the polished perfection of a group like the Tallis Scholars, perhaps it was more fallible but it was more personal and wonderfully characterful, and by using a larger group of non-professional voices Deborah Roberts drew some very different sound qualities into the music. Though there were the inevitable wobbles, the overall sound was quite soft grained with, at its best, an admirable flexibility.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

In Remembrance - choral discs commemorating the centenary of the Armistice

In Remembrance - Royal Hospital Chelsea - SOMM
For The Fallen, Lest We Forget, In Remembrance; The Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea/William Vann, The Choir of Chichester Cathedral/Charles Harrison, Pegasus/Matthew Althm; SOMM, SIGNUM Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2018
Three imaginative programmes of choral music commemorating the centenary of the Armistice

The centenary of the Armistice has inevitably called forth musical responses, and the centenary of Hubert Parry's death has meant that that composer's work features heavily. If we move away from recordings of Parry's Songs of Farewell, then choirs have given some interestingly imaginative ideas on disc. 

In Remembrance on SOMM sees William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea combining a chamber version of Faure's Requiem with a programme of anthems by Ireland, Parry, Guest, Harris, Holst, Stanford and a new piece by Ian Venables. On Signum Classics there are programmes from both Chichester Cathedral and Pegasus. Charles Harrison and the choir of Chichester Cathedral in Lest we Forget give us a programme of British music from the period with anthems by Stanford, Bainton, Parry, Ireland, Howells, Scholefield, Elgar, Holst and Peter Aston, whilst the choir Pegasus, conductor Matthew Altham, casts its net across the combatants, so as well as Douglas Guest, Charles Wood, Walford Davies, Holst, Gurney, Stanford and Dyson, there is Reger, Ravel, Rachmaninov, and Clytus Gottwald's arrangement of Mahler.

Lest We Forget - Chichester Cathedral Choir - Signum
William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, bring two secret weapons into play on their disc In Remembrance. Firstly they are joined by a choir of Chelsea Pensioners for three hymns (albeit ones of distinguished pedigree), Parry's Jerusalem, Charles Harris' O Valiant Hearts and I Vow to Thee, My Country which is adapted from a melody by Gustav Holst (who hated the hymn!). This gives the music a real presence that simply having it sung by a choir never has and does lift the programme. The other secret weapon is Iain Farrington who has done new versions of Gustav Holst's Ode to Death  and Faure's Requiem. Holst's Walt Whitman setting was very much his response to the First War (in which he served), and it is good to see this large scale and sophisticated work being performed and Farrington's imaginative re-working of the orchestral score for organ should win it many devotees, especially in this fine performance. Why another new version of Faure you ask yourself, well Farrington has arranged Faure's orchestral score for organ, rather than simply relying on the hack piano reduction from the vocal score. Vann and his forces take advantage of the smaller scale to give a reading of concentrated intimacy.

For the Fallen - Pegasus - Signum ClassicsOver at Chichester, Charles Harrison and his choir give us a programme of music by British composers who lived through the war, with the addition of an anthem by Peter Aston (1938-2013). The disc commemorates the choristers who died in the First World War. The whole disc is released in support of the charity Combat Stress, which was set up at the end of the First World War to support the mental health of those who were affected by conflict. They open their disc with a terrific account of Stanford's For lo, I raise up, a remarkably direct response to the war with a setting of a vivid text from Habbakuk which receives a virtuoso performance. Later on the disc Harrison gives us a movement from Stanford's Sonata No. 2 'Eroica' which was dedicated to Widor. Also on the disc is Parry's Tennyson setting, Crossing the Bar, and There is an old belief from Songs of Farewell; Stanford and Parry's problem was, of course, that their music was rooted in the culture of Germany and the war hit them in multiple ways, both culturally as well as the loss of so many of their students.

It says much for Parry and Stanford's teaching that they raised generations of composers who clearly identified as British without the link to German culture. On the disc we have Bainton, Ireland, and Holst, alongside the older generation, Clement C Scholefield and Edward Elgar. The programme mixes the well known and the lesser known, anthems, hymns and more, and ends with Howell's Te Deum.

Chichester Chorister Memorial 1914-19
Chichester Chorister Memorial 1914-19
Under conductor Matthew Altham, Pegasus choir eschews the nationalist route and also avoids hymns, instead giving us a thoughtful programme of music from across the Continent by composers who lived through the First War, with the exception of Gustav Mahler. The disc opens with a profoundly concentrated and intimate performance of For the Fallen  by Douglas Guest (1916-1996), and throughout the programme it is the sense of intimacy and concentration which strikes. The material is largely unusual, taking in Max Reger's surprisingly simple Nachtlied, Ravel's strikingly austere and elegant Trois beaux osiseau du Paradis, Walford Davies' A Short Requiem which was published in 1915. The movements from Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil are the best known pieces on the disc, but these too date from 1915. There are two Gurney pieces, choral music from a composer best known for his songs, and again Stanford's For Lo! I raise Up, and an anthem by George Dyson who served in the war and was sent home with shell-shock. The last item is one of Clytus Gottwald's virtuoso arrangements, of Mahler's Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommon.

In Remembrance - Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, William Vann, Katy Hill (soprano), Leah Jackson (soprano), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), James Orford (organ), Hugh Rowlands (organ) - available from Amazon
Lest We Forget - The Choir of Chichester Cathedral, Charles Harrison (conductor & organ), Timothy Ravalde (organ) - available from Amazon
For The Fallen - Pegasus, Matthew Altham (director) - available from Amazon and from Presto Classical.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Haydn, Brahms and Strauss

I will be doing the pre-concert talk at the Conway Hall on Sunday (11 November 2018) when I will be talking about the music from the evening's concert, last works from Haydn and Richard Strauss, plus Brahms. The Oculi Ensemble will be performing Haydn's Quartet in F Op.77 No.2, Richard Strauss's Sextet from Capriccio and Brahms' String Sextet in G Op. 36 No. 2, along with a couple of early works by Strauss.

Do come along, if you are free, to what promises to be an interesting and intriguing programme, full details from the Conway Hall website.

Thank you for the service

Barrow Hall Primary School, Warrington is on the site of the old Burtonwood Airbase which was the the largest US Airbase outside America. So when x service men and women who were stationed at RAF Burtonwood the children wrote a song in their song writing club, with a little guidance from David A Jones from Presto Music. The song, Thank you for the service went down so well that the Head of Music for the RAF, Wing Commander Piers Morrell, has inducted it into the official RAF100 Years legacy material to celebrate and mark the event, and he aims to use it in the RAF Youth Outreach Program.

The song is available for download from CDBaby, and all profits to to Help for Heroes.

Marina Rebeka: Spirito

Bellini, Donizetti, Spontini; Marina Rebeka, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Jader Bignamini; Prima Classic
Bellini, Donizetti, Spontini; Marina Rebeka, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Jader Bignamini; Prima Classic Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 November 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
An engaging combination of drama and technique in these five scenes from bel canto classics

I caught the Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust in Riga in 2017 [see my review], and she was Vitellia in the new recording Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito from Deutsche Grammophon, with Rolando Villazon as Tito [see my review]. For this solo disc she is joined by the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, conducted by Jader Bignamini for a recital of bel canto arias on her own new record label Prima Classic. The disc includes substantial scenes from Bellini's Norma and Il pirata, Donizetti Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda and Spontini's La Vestale  (sung in the original French).

Rebeka explains in the booklet note that the programme arose partly through her engagement with the music and partly through her fascination for manuscripts, so that the editions created for this programme (by Rebeka herself along with Marija Beate Straujupe, music librarian at Latvian National Opera) are based on the composer's autographs rather than later traditional versions.

The big advantage of this disc is not so much the editions themselves, as the willingness to think about what is being presented. And that extends to the excerpts themselves, where we have a sequence of scenes, so cavatinas are followed by tempo di mezzos and then by caballetas. There is a large supporting cast, the chorus of the Teatro Massimo, tenor Marco Ciaponi, baritones Francesco Paolo Vultaggio and Gianluca Marheri, mezzo-soprano Irene Savignano, who enable Rebeka to give us scenes with linking dialogues which make the necessary change of mood between cavatina and caballetta.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

A Mahler Piano Series: Echoes of the East

Gustav Mahler in 1892
Gustav Mahler in 1892
A Mahler Piano Series: Echoes of the East; Iain Farrington, Stephanie Marshall, Richard Dowling; 1901 Arts Club Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 6 November 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Mahler's symphonic song-cycle in a version for piano alongside music which influence him.

The 1901 Arts Club is housed in a converted schoolmaster's residence hidden away on Exton Street, Waterloo. Inspired by Europe's salon culture this elegant little venue is currently the location for a Mahler piano series. Pianist and composer Iain Farrington’s concert series explores the bulk of Mahler’s symphonic music arranged for solo piano and a selection of contemporary musical styles that influenced him.

On Tuesday 6 November 2018, concert number nine showcased music inspired by the exoticism of Asia. The first half explored how the exotic tonality of the East influenced Mahler’s contemporaries which ranged from the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, with Iain Farrington being joined by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Marshall and tenor Richard Dowling.

Iain Farrington opened with a supple and sparkling performance of Arensky’s Etude on a Chinese theme, which uses a pentatonic figure shared by Puccini’s Turandot, followed by a delicately dreamlike performance of Satie’s evergreen Trois Gnossiennes. Debussy’s sound world is altogether more impressionistic. A fan of Gamelan music, Pagodes was full of colour and texture. It conjured up images redolent of oriental landscapes. Picking up the pentatonic baton Ravel’s enchanting childhood world of Laideronnette beguiled with its airy lightness. The stand out was the immersive Gamelan by Leopold Godowsky. Gamelan, part of Godowsky’s first “phonorama” languidly pulled me into its smooth and elegant musical landscape. Its repeated cycles acted with hypnotic effect, rising to a peak of operatic grandeur and on to a tranquil and ethereal end.

Richard Harvey's The Unknown Soldier

Film composer Richard Harvey has released a single, The Unknown Soldier, to co-incide with the 100th anniversary of the Armistice [available from Amazon]. Written for wordless solo soprano, trumpet, choir and orchestra, the piece is an imaginative re-working of The Last Post and Abide with me, combined together in a set of variations which bring both military and religious connotations into view. On the single, Richard Harvey conducts Amy Howarth (soprano), Billy Cooper (trumpet), the Latvian Radio Choir and the Hungarian Film Orchestra.

Last month, Harvey released a full CD of his music as well, Scenarios, a striking collection of piano miniatures played by John Lenahan, on Altus Records. As a composer Harvey moves between the classical world and his work for film and TV, and in Scenarios these intertwine somewhat as Harvey writes shorter classically inspired pieces which have the melodic concentration of shorter popular pieces. The material comes from a variety of sources, with Harvey drawing from his notebooks dating back to his student days. Pianist John Lenahan is a friend of Harvey's and this intimate connection comes over in the music.

Richard Harvey's Scenarios is available from Amazon.

Chamber Music on the Mind

The Ligeti Quartet (photo Kayleigh Allenby)
The Ligeti Quartet (photo Kayleigh Allenby)
We tend to take listening to music for granted, and concert experiences tend to follow a fixed path with no encouragement for audiences to experiment with listening in different ways. In 2017 I attended an event at the Estonian Music Days in Tallinn where audiences were blindfolded and then led through a complex sonic experience, including listening to two world premieres [see my article]. It was a fascinating and intriguing experience, making you think about how the mind listens to music and how much the role of sight plays. 

The Ligeti Quartet is aiming to make us think further about these relationships in their new concert series Chamber Music on the Mind in which they will explore the relationship between music and the brain, encouraging audiences to think about how the brain reacts to music and to listen to music in new ways

For the first concert in the series SENSE, the quartet explores how limiting our senses can change how we experience music, so there is the experience of music in the dark, the challenge of listening to music when suffering from tinnitus and from hearing loss, and the sheer challenge of experiencing string instruments in new ways.

The Ligeti Quartet - Mandhira de Saram (violin), Patrick Dawkins (violin), Richard Jones (viola) and Val Welbanks (cello) - is performing three contrasting and challenging works. Helmut Lachenmann's String Quartet No. 1, ‘Gran Torso’ (1971), Kerry Andrew's tInNiTuS sOnGs (World Premiere) and Georg Friedrich Haas's String Quartet No. 3, ‘In iij Noct’ (2001). The programme debuts at Sheffield University tonight (8/11) and then at Kings Place (10/11) and West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (13/11).

For Haas' quartet, the audience (and players) are plunged into darkness, it has been described as an extreme listening experience and offers the rare experience of being able to hear music without being able to see.

Kerry Andrew's new work, written for the Ligeti Quartet, tInNiTuS sOnGs explores the anxiety for any composer, hearing loss (something which Smetana explored in his Quartet No. 1 'From my Life' which memorably dramatises the tinnitus that the composer experience).

Kerry Andrews' quartet is written for string quartet and recorded voice, the work offers deeply personal dialogues between the composer and her experience with hearing loss and tinnitus. For Lachenman's quartet, the players have to create a new, tactile approach to their instruments, reducing them simply to wood, metal, string and hair.

Full details from the Ligeti Quartet's website.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

All he wanted to do was make people cry

Puccini: Le Villi - Original 1884 advertisement in Gazzetta Musicale di Milano
Puccini: Le Villi - Original 1884 advertisement
in Gazzetta Musicale di Milano
In the early days of the unified Italy there were three big publishers of operas: Ricordi had the Italian operas, Lucca had the French operas and Wagner, Sonzogno had the one-act operas, and in late 1883 ran a competition for a new work.

A 20-year-old Puccini submitted Le Villi, meeting the deadline by the skin of his teeth but didn’t even get a mention in dispatches – possibly because his handwriting was illegible, the judges may not have given it a second look. But Ricordi noticed Puccini and encouraged him to expand the one-acter into a two-act opera with showpiece arias for the soprano and tenor, before going on to commission Edgar with the same librettist, Ferdinando Fontana.

Opera Rara, who have built their reputation on unearthing the bel canto repertoire, are currently recording the original one-act version then putting on a concert version in the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 21st November. The first half of the evening will feature Bizet and Verdi (the Witch ballet from Macbeth). On 5t November, Sir Mark Elder and Roger Parker gave an Insight Evening which focused on Puccini's Le Villi.

Le Villi are fairies or witches – spirits of young girls who have died before their wedding night. They have a long heritage in central European mythology, with Lehár’s Vilja and Alphonse Adam’s Giselle among the more famous uses. In Puccini’s opera, they are the ghosts of Anna, in love with and loved by the tenor Roberto until he goes off to Mainz in search of adventure, having been seduced by a siren. Anna dies of a broken heart and then comes back to haunt the irresponsible tenor.

At 20 years old, Puccini already had his own voice. There is no Verdi in there. By now Verdi was out of fashion anyway. There is French influence rather than Italian, and of course there is some Wagner in there too. Even if you have never heard a note of Le Villi you will know at once that it is Puccini. At the Insight evening we were treated to Sir Mark Elder octave-surfing to demonstrate the gorgeous arias and the thick (overly thick?) orchestration which, he says, represents a challenge in a live performance. Mics and balancers can work miracles but live Italian opera requires a dry acoustic so you can hear the words.

We have the spookiness of the Black Forest, the newly minted tunes that, by the time they become an aria, feel as though we have known them for ever. Even at the 20, Puccini is the master of manipulation: “all he ever wanted to do was make people cry”. With a cast that includes Ermonela Jaho on 21st November, it will be hard not to.
By Ruth Hansford

Opera Rara presents Puccini's Le Villi at the Royal Festival Hall on 21 November 2018, Sir Mark Elder conducts the Opera Rara Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra with soloists Ermonela Jaho, Brian Mulligan, and Arsen Soghomonyan. Full details from the Southbank Centre website.

Insight, opera, performance, and dinner too

Julian Hubbard
Julian Hubbard
Lucy Woodruff's Divas and Scholars runs regular opera insight evenings at The Club at The Ivy, 9 West St, London WC2H 9NE, where attendees are treated to a talk from an opera professional and a performance, to provide insight into a particular opera, and then there is the chance to meet the performers over a drink and even have dinner.

The next event is on 12 November 2018 when the focus will be Richard Wagner's Die Walküre when Richard Peirson, repetiteur at English National Opera, will be joined by tenor Julian Hubbard. And then on 10 December 2018 there is a chance to learn more about Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro when Richard Peirson is joined by soprano Sky Ingram.

Full details from the Divas and Scholars website.

Intimate grandeur: Fulham Opera in Verdi's five-act version of Don Carlo

Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi Don Carlo; Albero Sousa, Philippa Boyle, Keel Watson, Andrew Mayor, Siv Iren Misund, dir: Lewis Reynolds, cond Ben Woodward; Fulham Opera at St John's Church, Waterloo Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Vivid drama and grandeur in an intimate account of Verdi's large-scale opera

Staging Verdi's Don Carlo, his longest and most complex opera, is a big stretch for any opera company and might seem over ambitious for an opera company staging works on a small scale in a church. But Fulham Opera, which presents staged productions with chamber orchestra accompaniment in St John's Church in Fulham, is no stranger to large-scale challenges having presented Wagner's entire Ring Cycle.

Don Carlo was given in the 1886 five-act version (Verdi's revised four-act Modena version of the opera with the original Fontainebleau act restored), shorter than Verdi's 1867 original but still a long stretch. The work was sung in the Italian translation, rather than the French original. Fulham Opera double cast the piece, and on Tuesday 6 November 2018, we saw Alberto Sousa as Don Carlo, Keel Watson as Philip, Philippa Boyle as Elisabeth, Andrew Mayor as Rodrigo, Siv Iren Misund as Eboli, Gerard Delrez as the Grand Inquisitor and Hannah Macaulay as Tebaldo. The production was directed by Lewis Reynolds, with designs by Alexander McPherson and lighting by Davy Cunningham. Ben Woodward conducted with an orchestra of eleven.

It might seem fool-hardy, trying to boil Verdi's grandest of grand operas down to a chamber size, but in fact, much of the action lies in a series of tense encounters between just two or three people. Lewis Reynolds sensibly concentrated on these scenes and encouraged his principals to bring out a real truthfulness in their performances. The setting was more installation than set, the presence of the altar of St John's Church was not disguised and it was brought into play in a number of imaginative ways. The claustrophobic inner scenes worked very well, though we had to take a lot for granted when presented with the forest of Fontainebleau or the palace gardens.

The production was intelligently modern dress, set in some sort of neo-Fascist state with close integration of church and state. There were some nice details in the settings, I particularly liked the fact that the women wore mantillas for the visit to the monastery, and manners were suitably formal. Design wise it was all black and white, with just touches of red, and there was a central role for the relic of a crowned skull in a perspex box which became a striking feature of later scenes.

But it is simply not possible to shirk the larger scale scenes, and the Auto-da-Fe scene at the end of Act Three was somewhat of a stretch for the company, requiring the personnel of the men's chorus to be spread rather thinly and showing up the budget limitations of the production. Reynolds attempted to do everything required of the libretto, including burning the victim, and I feel that something more abstract might have worked better. Similarly, the prison scene in Act Four might have been more effective without the rather simplistic cage.

That the production worked and remained engrossing was thanks to some superb performances from the principals, we were presented with real characters who engaged us and kept us hooked.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Celebrating 10 years - Wimbledon International Music Festival

Wimbledon International Music Festival 2018 logo
This year's Wimbledon International Music Festival celebrates the festival's 10th anniversary. Running from 10-25 November 2018, the festival includes visits from Imogen Cooper, the Takacs Quartet, the Brodsky Quartet, Williard White and Peter Donohoe. The festival was founded, and is still directed by Anthony Wilkinson and this year they will be presenting one of the films which Anthony directed, The Music of Exile, on the life and music of Martinu with a narration written by writer and composer Anthony Burgess.

Chamber music is a strong feature of this year's festival. Things open with the Brodsky Quartet in Haydn's Seven Last Words, inerwoven with sitar and tabla meditations from Roppa Panesar (sitar) and Gurdain Rayatt (tabla), and Gesualdo's Responsories sung by Tenebrae Consort. The Chineke! Ensemble will be bringing a programme of chamber music which includes works by two black musicians, the 18th century Guadaloupe-born French composer Chevalier de Saint-George and the English composer (and pupil of Stanford) Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, alongside Beethoven's Septet, whilst the Takacs Quartet brings a programme of Mozart' Bartok and Brahms. The Dante Quartet will be performing four Beethoven late quartetes and the Grosse Fuge across two concerts in one day.

Willard White will be joining the Brodsky Quartete for a programme which includes songs by Gershwin, Copland, Britten, Kern, Johnny Mercer and Frank Sinatra. And Matthew Best conducts the Academy Choir and Baroque Players in Handel's Messiah with Rowan Pierce, David Alsopp, James Gilchrist and James Newby. The festival ends with Robin O'Neill conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in a programme of Webern, Schumann and Beethoven.

Full details from the Wimbledon International Music Festival website.

Telling tales - Cheryl Frances Hoad's Magic Lantern Tales from Champs Hill

Cheryl Frances Hoad - Magic Lantern Tales
Cheryl Frances Hoad Magic Lantern Tales; Champs Hill Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Engagingly diverse selection of songs from Cheryl Frances Hoad, showcasing some powerful emotions and striking textures

This new disc, on the Champs Hill label, gives us a selection of entrancing songs by Cheryl Frances Hoad performed by tenor Nicky Spence, pianist Sholto Kynoch, soprano Verity Wingate, mezzo-soprano Sinead O'Kelly, counter-tenor Collin Shay, Philip Smith baritone, Beth Higham-Edwards vibraphone, Anna Menzies cello, Anna Huntley mezzo-soprano, Alisdair Hogarth piano, Sophie Daneman soprano, Mark Stone piano, Edward Nieland treble, Natalie Raybould soprano, George Jackson conductor. Between them these performers give us Magic Lantern Tales, Star Falling, Blurry Bagatelle, A song incomplete, Love Bytes, Lament, Invoke now the Angles, The Thought Machine and Scenes from Autistic Bedtimes.

We start with songs based on Ian McMillan's poems which were written in response to interviews and documentary photographs by Ian Beesley, who was Artist-in-Residence at the Moor Psychiatric Hospital in Lancaster. The poems tell the stories of three elderly people interviewed by Beesley, telling the stories from the First World War. We start and finish with a poem about the stories, and then have three narratives, three very different points of view. Nicky Spence gives a terrific performance, really bringing the songs and the people alive, making the words very powerful. Frances Hoad's opening song (repeated in the closing) is rather folk-ish in feel with the spare piano part evoking the pipes. Then the three tales are beautifully told, strong story-telling with a spare piano accompaniment, folk and World War One songs being influences. Such was the enchantment worked by Spence, Kynoch and Frances Hoad, that I did not want the piece to end.

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