Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Britten and Russia: Snape Maltings Britten Weekend 2019

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963 (Photo  © 2009 Irina Antonovna Shostakovich)
Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963
(Photo  © 2009 Irina Antonovna Shostakovich)
Each year, Snape Maltings holds a Britten Weekend which focuses on a particular aspect of Britten's life and career. This year the weekend (18 -20 October 2019) looks at Britten's relationship with Russia, notably his friendship with three Russian musical giants, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Politics prevent Britten's planned opera for Vishnevskaya, Anna Karenina, from coming about but his friendships with the three would have far reaching effects on Britten's musical output. For Vishnevskaya he would write the cycle of Pushkin settings, The Poet's Echo and for Rostropovich he would write the Cello Suites and the Cello Symphony. Britten dedicated The Prodigal Son to Shostakovich, whilst Shostakovich dedicated his Symphony No. 14 to Britten, a work which, with its settings of poems dealing with the theme of death, is considered a response to Britten's War Requiem (the soprano part of which was written for Vishnevskaya, but politics prevented her from taking part in the premiere though she was able to record the work with the composer).

At Snape, soprano Julia Sitkovetsky, cellist Alban Gerhardt and pianist Roger Vignoles will be performing Britten's The Poet's Echo, Shostakovich's Hebrew Songs, cellos sonatas by Briten and by Shostakovich, Britten's Cello Suites, Prokofiev's Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova and Rachmaninov  songs. Gerhardt is the soloist in Britten's Cello Symphony with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, condutor Jac van Steen, with Shostakovich's Symphony No 10.

The weekend concludes with a re-creation of the 1960 London concert at which Britten was first introduced to Rostropovich and Shostakovich - van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are joined by cellist Laura van der Heijden for Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Shostakovich's Cello Concerto and Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 3.

Full details from the Snape Maltings website.

The German men's choir Sonat Vox & founder conductor Justus Merkel make their London debut on their first International tour

Sonat Vox, Justus Merkel
Sonat Vox, Justus Merkel
The German men's choir Sonat Vox was formed in 2015 by the young conductor Justus Merkel, who continues to conduct them. The ensemble of over 20 altos, tenors and basses is made up of former members of the Windsbach Boys Choir (which was founded in 1946 in Windsbach, Bavaria, which is 29 km South-West of Nuremberg), where the young men have received a sound musical education since childhood. And Merkel is also a product of the same choir.

The choir performs a wide range of repertoire from Renaissance to Modern with an emphasis on a cappella music, and having altos as well as tenors and basses, means that they are able to move away from the traditional male voice choir repertoire.

The choir has been making its debut UK tour (and the choir's first international tour) and under Justus Merkel's direction arrives in London this week for two concerts which will combine sacred music with German folk-songs, at St James's Piccadilly (17 October 2019, see EventBrite) and The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) (18 October 2019, see EventBrite).

A work of scholarship and a fine performance: Academy of Ancient Music's new recording of Handel's Brockes Passion

George Frideric Handel Brockes Passion - Academy of Ancient Music
George Frideric Handel Brockes Passion; Elizabeth Watts, Robert Murray, Cody Wuattlebaum, Ruby Hughes, Rachael Lloyd, Tim Mead, Nicky Spence, Gwilym Bowen, Morgan Pearse, Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr; AAM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 October 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A striking combination of scholarship and performance, the Academy of Ancient Music's new recording of Handel's Brockes Passion complements a fine performance with elucidation of the work and the new edition

With period performance, scholarship has always gone hand in hand with singing and playing, performers often researching works and performance styles as part of the process of creating a particular performance. This is often noticeable on recordings which can be the vehicle for presenting new ideas and findings. John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, for instance, have produced a series of recordings of major works by Handel and by JS Bach which explore performance practices in the works, and the Dunedin Consort's recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion includes the possibility of downloading the sermon which came between parts one and parts two, thus giving the listener the opportunity to re-create as close as we can the experience of listening to the work in the Good Friday service in Leipzig.

Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music's new recording of Handel's Brockes Passion, on its own label, takes this to a rather new level, as the recording [based on performances in 2019, see my review] unveils a significant new edition of the work (created especially for the recording) and the CD set includes an impressive book which explores the new research in fascinating detail. The recording itself is similarly comprehensive, with the complete Brockes Passion in German over two CDs along with a third CD containing alternative versions of four items, and a recording Charles Jennens' unfinished English version of the work.

The recording features an impressive line of up soloists directed by Richard EgarrRobert Murray (Evangelist), Cody Quattlebaum (Jesus), Elizabeth Watts (Daughter of Zion), Ruby Hughes (Faithful Soul), Rachael Lloyd, Tim Mead (Judas), Gwilym Bowen (Peter), Nicky Spence (Faithful Soul) and Morgan Pearse, along with the Choir of Academy of Ancient Music.

Handel wrote his setting of the passion by Barthold Heinrich Brockes in 1716 and it was performed in Hamburg in 1719, under the direction of Handel's friend and erstwhile colleague at Hamburg Opera, Johannes Matheson. It proved popular and would have a number of performances in Hamburg, but Handel never kept a copy of the autograph manuscript (this has disappeared) and never performed the work in London. Almost certainly, he sent the manuscript to Matheson and he understood that a performance of the work in England was not possible.

In fact, he included music from a number of London and Italian period works in the piece and in turn would mine the Brockes Passion for music for his early oratorios. The surviving manuscripts of the work include one which was partially copied by J.S.Bach and this version was performed in Leipzig under Bach's direction, Handel's setting seems to have influenced Bach's St John Passion.

So why did Handel write the passion? We can never know for certain, but the uncertainty in England surrounding the 1715 Jacobite uprising and the Old Pretender's attempt to gain the throne must have given Handel cause for concern. His fortunes were firmly linked to the Hanoverian dynasty, and the Brockes Passion may have been something of an insurance policy, a work which would stand him in good stead if he had to return to Germany for work.

Duarte's new edition makes significant changes to the version of the work known (via the last critical edition in the mid-1960s) including adding 63 extra bars! New scholarship has enabled us to revise opinions of the relative merits of the various manuscripts, and Duarte has taken advantage of this. The Academy of Ancient Music used quite a large ensemble for the piece, and the accompanying book includes a fascinating article about the logistical differences between the Hamburg performances and the sort of ensembles Handel was writing for in London at the period, and the one-to-a-part type ethos of Bach in Leipzig. So we have five oboes (lovely) and three bassoons in addition to a significant body of strings (17) and a choir of 20.

The work is the genre known as a Passion Oratorio, and was designed explicitly for concert use whereas Bach's Passions were designed for church use. The difference is that Bach's Passions use the Biblical narrative for the recitative with added arias whereas Brockes' text resets the entire story in his own, very clotted and emotional, verse. There is still an Evangelist (Robert Murray) and Jesus (Cody Quattlebaum), plus sundry disciples, Peter (Gwilym Bowen), Judas (Tim Mead), James (Cathy Bell) and John (Kate Symonds-Joy), who enact out the passion in direct dialogue and arias. But the largest single role (with a whopping 14 arias plus duets) is the Daughter of Zion (Elizabeth Watts), with another large role being the Faithful Soul (Ruby Hughes, with certain arias given to Nicky Spence and Morgan Pearse).

This results in quite a strange piece, the role of the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Soul is to comment, to apply the story to our situation and to express feelings about the Crucifixion narrative. It is from these arias that Bach selected his Brockes settings which he used for the arias in his own Passions, but Bach's balance between aria comment and Biblical narrative is completely different to Brockes's own (rather surprisingly Handel set Brockes text in full, without making any changes). In part two, the solo roles drop away and even Jesus falls silent (his last words being delivered as reported speech by the Evangelist!), and instead we have a long meditation from the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Souls. It turns the work from one of pure narrative into being about our reaction to it, Brockes spends a lot of time telling us what we should be feeling.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Darkness Illuminated: music by Alexei Stanchinsky at St John's Smith Square

Alexei Stanchinsky
Alexei Stanchinsky
The young Uzbek pianist Nafis Umerkulova has released a disc of solo piano music, Darkness Illuminated, on the Ulysses Arts record label, which combines music by Alexander Scriabin with that of his Russian contemporary Alexei Stanchinsky. On Wednesday 16 October 2019, Umerkulova will be launching the disc at a concert at St John's Smith Square with the Purcell School Chamber Orchestra, conductor Paul Hoskins. 

The programme combines solo piano items with orchestra music, with two Scriabin Etudes and Stanchinsky's Sonata in E flat minor, alongside Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 (with Umerkulova as soloist) including Clara Schumann's cadenza for the concerto (written in 1846).

Alexei Stanchinsky was born in 1888 and studied at Moscow Conservatory. Taught by Taneyev and recognised as a significant talent by Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner, his early death in 1914 has meant that his music has been all but forgotten. You can see Nafis Umerkulova's introduction to the music on the disc on YouTube.

Full details from the St John Smith Square website.

Blackpool's Grand Theatre to develop national Creative Learning programme with Children's Theatre Partnership

One of the workshops the Grand Theatre, Blackpool is putting on for other professionals/theatres in relation to the creative learning programme with the Children's Theatre Partnership
One of the workshops the Grand Theatre, Blackpool is putting on for other professionals/theatres in relation to the creative learning programme with the Children's Theatre Partnership
For those of us that associate Blackpool with the seaside, the illuminations and bawdy post cards, it is heartening to know that Blackpool's Grand Theatre is a hive of enlightened educational activities. The theatre's Creative Learning Department led by Celine Wyatt has been developing work for schools and the community for many years, including a partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company and their Associate Schools Programme.

Now this work has been further recognised, and the Children’s Theatre Partnership (CTP) has commissioned the Grand to develop and lead a national Creative Learning programme linked to new productions of Louis Sachar’s HOLES in 2020, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (2021), and Unexpected Twist by Michael Rosen (2022), working with venues including the Marlowe Theatre (Canterbury), the Theatre Royal (Norwich), the Theatre Royal (Newcastle), and the Belgrade Theatre (Coventry).

Each venue, including Blackpool’s Grand, will be funded to develop and deliver a creative project with schools and young people linked to each show. Over the three years they will develop this locally and work will be shared nationally. All venues on the tour will receive new educational resources produced by Blackpool’s Grand theatre including group work books to support their engagement with the shows.

Support also includes training for the artists, practitioners and teachers from the theatres, the first of these courses took place last week, on the 10 and 11 October 2019. Education Resources will be available online for all theatres on the tour and the resources will include filmed interviews with HOLES director Adam Penford and puppet maker Mathew Forbes as well as members of the creative and production teams. The interviews were conducted in London by two children from St John Vianny RC Primary, Blackpool. It is believed that over 250 children will take part in the project

A barren emotional landscape barely disguised by the production’s kitsch fairy-tale opulence: Turandot, Met Live in HD

Puccini: Turandot - Christina Goerke - Metropolitan Opera (Photo Marty Sohl )
Puccini: Turandot - Christina Goerke - Metropolitan Opera (Photo Marty Sohl )
Puccini Turandot; Christina Goerke, Yusif Eyvazov, Eleanora Buratto, James Morris, dir: Franco Zeffirelli, cond: Yannick Nezet Seguin; The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 12 October 2019 Star rating: 2.5 (★★★½)
A striking production with flashes of visual magic, in a visually diffuse broadcast, which fails to live up to the opera's interpretative challenge

Let me say from the outset, I love Turandot. There, I’ve said it. I’m out. But why not proud? Staring at the computer screen, I’m wondering what on earth to make of the Metropolitan Opera’s monumental Live in HD broadcast this Saturday 12 October (seen at the Barbican Cinema). So, let’s do the easy stuff first. This revival of the production, originally staged in 1987, was dedicated to the memory of Franco Zefferelli. Few artists have had a greater impact on Met. history than Maestro Zeffirelli, who died earlier this year, and his extravagant productions have delighted generations of opera goers. At Saturday’s performance Christine Goerke was the titular princess with Yusif Eyvazov as the self-destructive il principe ignoto. The Met. stalwart James Morris was Timur and Eleonora Buratto the lovelorn Liu. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted.

Despite my dogged determination not to give up on Turandot I read, a while back now, a particularly provocative piece by Michael Tanner in The Spectator 'Turandot is a disgusting opera that is beyond redemption'. As a result, a particular type of virulent weed planted itself in my operatic garden. I have been trying to prune it ever since. The failure or unwillingness of a slew of productions to address the difficulties inherent in the piece have fed the nagging doubt that my love for those synthetic chords, that percussive pulsing energy, its tunes from a tinkly rosewood music box wrapped in ritualistic splendour is a chimera devoid of any psychological verisimilitude.

Bringing a rarity alive: Verdi's Un giorno di regno from Chelsea Opera Group

Verdi: Un giorno di regno - Paula Sides, Luis Gomes, Sarah-Jane Lewis, Tom Seligman, Lindsay Bramley, George von Bergen, Nicholas Folwell, John Savournin, Aaron Godfrey-Mayes - Chelsea Opera Group
Verdi: Un giorno di regno - Paula Sides, Luis Gomes, Sarah-Jane Lewis, Tom Seligman, Lindsay Bramley (chorus director), George von Bergen, Nicholas Folwell, John Savournin, Aaron Godfrey-Mayes - Chelsea Opera Group
Verdi Un giorno di regno; George von Bergen, John Savournin, Sarah-Jane Lewis, Paula Sides, Luis Gomes, Nicholas Folwell, Chelsea Opera Group, Tom Seligman; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A strong cast brings Verdi's rare early comedy alive at Chelsea Opera Group

Verdi's second opera, Un giorno di regno remains a relative rarity in the UK, Covent Garden did it in concert in 1999 and the Buxton Festival staged it in 2001. Now the opera seems set for another flurry of performances, perhaps spurred on by a critical edition of the work from Francesco Izzo.  Garsington will be staging it in 2020, directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Tobias Ringborg. As something of a taster to this, Chelsea Opera Group gave a concert performance of Verdi's Un giorno di regno at the Cadogan Hall on Saturday 12 October 2019 conducted by Tom Seligman with George von Bergen as Belfiore, John Savournin as Kelbar, Sarah-Jane Lewis as La Marchesa del Poggio, Paula Sides as Giulietta, Luis Gomes as Edoardo, and Nicholas Folwell as La Rocca.

Verdi's early comedy is often compared, unfairly, to his only other essay in the comic genre, Falstaff, a masterpiece which he created some 50 years after Un giorno di regno, a period in which opera had changed radically (partly thanks to Verdi's own efforts). When the young Verdi produced his comedy for Milan in 1840, the dominant voice in opera buffa was still Rossini with elaborate solo arias and long sequences of secco recitative. Donizetti's Don Pasquale, which debuted in Paris three years after Un giorno di regno would go some way to breaking the mould and use orchestral accompaniment throughout, but then we don't get another major Italian comic opera until Falstaff!

So Un giorno di regno represents a road not travelled, in it Verdi is looking back to Rossini and the work responds to the lightness which you might bring to a Rossini opera. But also mixed in are fascinating pre-echoes of the Verdi to come. An important point is that we must listen to it with early Verdi ears, and not try to make it into Il trovatore and Rigoletto.

Whilst the piece is not a riot, it is definitely fun. There is a plot, of sorts, but the double wedding at Baron Kelbar's castle co-inciding with a visit from the future King of Poland, on his way to claim his throne, results in an awkward series of encounters and pairings, both romantic and comic. That Verdi and Temistocle Solera (with whom Verdi wrote Oberto and Nabucco) reshaped the libretto by cutting, only served to emphasise this, and the piece can sometimes seem like a semi-random series of arias and ensembles. The essential point of the piece is unclear, is it just fun or is the emphasis on money  significant? Kelbar's daughter Giulietta is to marry La Rocca who is elderly and rich, she doesn't want to and throughout the opera Kelbar and La Rocca argue furiously about money, honour and more, never worrying about what Giulietta actually wants.

Chelsea Opera Group had drawn together a strong cast, and from the opening notes of the overture it was clear that conductor Tom Seligman has a deep understand and love of the piece.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Voices in the Wilderness: cellist Raphael Wallfisch on his series of cello concertos by exiled Jewish composers

Raphael Wallfisch (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Raphael Wallfisch (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
When we meet up, cellist Raphael Wallfisch is in the middle of a very busy week, with the start of his Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch's residency at the Wigmore Hall (beginning their cycle Beethoven piano trios as part of the hall's Beethoven 250 celebrations) and performances of his programme which explores the music of Rebecca Clarke and Ernest Bloch. Whilst I am there to talk about another project, his cycle of recordings of neglected Jewish composers on the German record label cpo, of which four CDs have been issued and a fifth, devoted to the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, is due out later this year. Whilst these fascinating works are the focus of our conversation, though we also touch on Raphael's Rebecca Clarke / Ernest Bloch programme, the influence of Raphael's teacher the great Gregor Piatigorsky, and Raphael's own family.

Under the title Voices in the Wilderness: Cello Concertos by Exiled Jewish Composers, the cpo discs involve works by nine composers, all of whom fled the persecution of the Nazis in the 1930s:

Goldschmidt & Reizenstein - Raphael Wallfisch - CPO
  • Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984, German born, emigrated to Israel)
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957, Austrian born, moved to the USA)
  • Ernest Bloch (1880-1959, Swiss born, emigrated to USA)
  • Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco (1895-1968, Italian-born, emigrated to USA)
  • Hans Gal (1890-1987, Austrian-born, emigrated to UK)
  • Karl Weigl (1881-1949, Austrian-born, emigrated to USA)
  • Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996, German-born, emigrated to UK)
  • Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968, German born, emigrated to UK)
  • Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996, Polish born, emigrated to USSR)   
It is a remarkable project, recording a variety of works, many unknown, by composers who are not well known. In fact, Raphael dreamed it up in his bathroom and was lucky that everything just work. It has involved him in a huge amount of research, unearthing manuscripts and then editing them for performance.
The record company, cpo is based in Osnabrück in Germany and once when Raphael was playing there he visited a Osnabrück, The Felix Nussbaum House, which houses a collection of pictures by Felix Nussbaum. Raphael was struck by the paintings and they have been able to use them on the covers of all of the discs. Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944) was a German-Jewish surrealist painter, and he died in Auschwitz, whilst the composers on the disc are all ones who got out and survived.

Friday, 11 October 2019

The theatre at Nevill Holt, home to Nevill Holt Opera, wins the 2019 Stirling Prize People's Vote

Nevill Holt Theatre, photo Robert Workman
Nevill Holt Theatre, photo Robert Workman
The only theatre ever to be shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize, the theatre at Nevill Holt has won the 2019 Stirling Prize People’s Vote with an incredible 28.8%. This online poll has been open to the public since July when the Stirling Prize nominations were first announced.

Completed last year, the new theatre at Nevill Holt within the historic stables (replacing a temporary structure) is the home of Nevill Holt Opera, and the new building has transformed the potential of the young opera company [see my interview with Nicholas Chalmers, artistic director of Nevill Holt Opera, and my review of the production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte there this year].

The new theatre was designed by Stirling Prize winning architects Witherford Watson Mann and theatre designers Sound Space Vision, built by Messenger BCR and supported by the David Ross Foundation.

Nicholas Chalmers and Rosenna East (managing director of Nevill Holt Opera) commented 'We are thrilled to win the popular vote for the Stirling Prize 2019. Our new theatre by Witherford Watson Mann has enabled us to provide uplifting and inspiring musical experiences to thousands of audience and young people this year alone. While bringing new life to a historic building, the new facility has had real impact on all of the students, artists and audiences for whom it was designed.'

The young vocal ensemble echo invites us to meet them in the maze again

echo ensemble - meet me n the maze
echo
The fourteen singers of the vocal ensemble echo first presented their programme Meet Me in the Maze at the IKON Gallery in Birmingham in response to an exhibition by New York-based artist Polly Apfelbaum, and they are now repeating Meet Me in the Maze at the church of St Michael the Archangel, Southampton (Saturday 12 October) and at The Music Room, London (the afternoon of Sunday 13 October).

Meet Me in the Maze takes in nine centuries of music from Hildegard of Bingen to JS Bach to James Blake, Machaut to Meredith Month, exploring mazes, puzzles and the navigation of the unknown. Hildegard’s antiphon praising 'Wisdom' that 'circles all things' and Bach's setting of Paul Thymich’s poem describing Jesus as the 'right path, the truth and the life' sit alongside the playful music of Machaut, quasi improvisatory work from Meredith Monk, pieces from Kerry Andrew and Alec Roth, and an arrangement of James Blake's Meet You in the Maze

The singers of echo first performed together when they were on Genesis Sixteen, the young artists programme run by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen.

Full details from the echo ensemble website.

The Song of Love: songs & duets by Vaughan Williams from Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams, William Vann

The Song of Love - Vaughan Williams - Albion Records
Ralph Vaughan Williams The House of Life, songs and duets; Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams, William Vann; Albion Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The first modern recording of RVW's song cycle with a female voice, alongside first recordings of a selection of songs and arrangements all lovingly performed

I have to confess that, familiar though I am with RVW's song Silent Noon, the song cycle from which it comes, The House of Life, is far less familiar. This new disc from Albion Records presents us with The House of Life alongside a selection of RVW's songs and duets which have hitherto escaped being recorded. For the disc, pianist William Vann is joined by mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and baritone Roderick Williams.

RVW wrote The House of Life in 1903-04 (when he was in his early 30s) selecting the poems from Dante Gabriel Rosetti's 1881 collection of sonnets, The House of Life. The intriguing thing is that the cycle has been hitherto known on CD in versions for male voice (tenor and baritone), and admitedly two songs do address themselves to a female beloved, but RVW premiered it with a female singer (Edith Clegg accompanied by Hamilton Harty). In fact there is no case to be made for either version, the cycle works equally well, and is mesmerising here in Kitty Whately's superb performance. She has a wonderfully speaking tone, which is both sympathetic to the words and profoundly engaging. A very centred performance, beautifully accompanied by William Vann. I cannot imagine needing many other versions of the cycle.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Concerto, symphony, ballets, film music and more: the 14th Malcolm Arnold Festival

Sir Malcolm Arnold in 1958
Sir Malcolm Arnold in 1958
The 14th Malcolm Arnold Festival is next weekend (12-13 October 2019) in the composer's birthplace, Northampton, presenting a lively selection of live music, films and talks exploring the work of this multi-faceted composer. The theme of this year's festival is partnerships so that the performance at the opening concert of Shostakovich's Age of Gold Suite and Piano Concerto No. 2 by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Barry Wordsworth, soloist Rose McLachlan, highlights the links between the two composers. And another composer friend is Ruth Gipps and the Northampton Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons, will be performing Arnold's Variations on a theme of Ruth Gipps, whilst Alice Pinto will give a talk on Arnold's relationship with her.

But the festival is, of course, a prime chance to hear Arnold's music and there will be a suite from his 1953 ballet Homage to the Queen, Symphony No. 2, Savile Club Fanfare, second Sinfonietta, Clarinet Concerto and the world premiere of Arnold's 1963 one-act ballet score Electra plus music from the films Stolen Face, and Trapeze. 

Full details from the Royal and Derngate website.

Will put a smile on your face: Vivaldi's L'estro armonico in new versions from Armoniosa

Vivaldi: L'Estro Armonico - Armoniosa - Reddress
Antonio Vivaldi L'estro armonico, arr. Michele Marchi; Armoniosa; Reddress
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 October 2019
Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)

Lively and engaging new versions of Vivaldi's concertos re-worked for the Armoniosa ensemble

Antonio Vivaldi's L'estro armonico [The harmonic inspiration] is a set of 12 concertos for stringed instruments which Vivaldi published as his Opus 3 in 1711. His previous two publications, Opus 1, and 2, had been collections of sonatas which Vivaldi had published in Venice but for this new set, his first set of concertos to be published, he used an international publisher, Estienne Roger in Amsterdam. The result was to bring Vivaldi's concertos to the attention of a wider international readership. The popularity of the concertos meant that they spawned a wide variety of arrangements and transcriptions, notably those by JS Bach who made harpsichord versions of six of them whilst he was employed in Weimar (Bach would have been 26 when the set was published).

In the spirit of the tradition of transcribing and arranging Vivaldi's L'estro armonico, the Italian ensemble Armoniosa recorded all of them (on the Reddress label, distributed by Sony) in transcriptions by Michele Barchi made for Armoniosa's line up, Michele Barchi (harpsichord), Daniele Ferretti (organ), Francesco Cerrato (violin), Stefano Cerrato (five-string cello), Marco Demaria (cello).  One intriguing feature is that the ensemble play period instruments, at historic pitch (415 Hz, unequal temperament) and so give us a delightful taste of the sort of transcription and arrangement that Vivaldi's contemporaries might have done.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Beyond the Night Sky - A Choral Cosmos



The chamber choir Londinium and conductor Andrew Griffiths are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing on the moon with a programme of music inspired by the cosmos at St John's Church, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8TY on Friday 11 October 2019. An eclectic mix of pieces takes us from Victoria and Michael East through Schumann to contemporary pieces including the UK premiere of Steven Stucky's Winter Stars. Also in the mix is Cheryl Frances-Hoad's tribute to the late Stephen Hawking, Beyond the Night Sky, and music by Ben Parry, James MacMillan, Barnaby Martin, American composer Kirke Mechem, Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, and the late Steve Martland.

Full details from the Londinium website.

17th century Playlist: from toe-tapping to plangently melancholy, Ed Lyon & Theatre of the Ayre

17th Century Playlist - Ed Lyon - Delphian
17th Century Playlist - Francesco Cavalli, Stefano Landi, Pierre Guedron, Nicholas Lanier, Etienne Moulinie, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Michel Lambert, Antoine Boesset, Sebastien Le Camus, and John Dowland; Ed Lyon, Theatre of the Ayre; DELPHIAN
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 October 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A mixtape of 17th century ear-worms, from the toe-tapping to the plangently melancholy, in highly engaging performances

Tenor Ed Lyon is one of those performers who seem to pop up in a wide variety of music from 17th century opera [Cavalli's L'Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, see my review] to contemporary [Thomas Adès' The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House, see my review], Mozart singspiel [Die Entführung aus dem Serail at The Grange Festival, see my review] to Broadway musical [Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, with the full Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations, at the Chatelet Theatre, see my review], and Britten [Turn of the Screw at Garsington this Summer] and he is currently Orpheus in Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld at English National Opera [see my review]. Always musical and always interesting, he is a versatile performer always worth listening to.

Judging by this new disc, 17th Century Playlist on the Delphian label, it is in the earlier repertoire that his heart really lies. Along with Elizabeth Kenny's Theatre of the Ayre, Ed Lyon has devised a recital of 17th century song, Italian, French and English, which engages and delights, small scale pieces which are big on personality and style, by Francesco Cavalli, Stefano Landi, Pierre Guedron, Nicholas Lanier, Etienne Moulinie, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Michel Lambert, Antoine Boesset, Sebastien Le Camus, and John Dowland.

Despite the rather modish title, what we have here is an exploration of an art relatively under represented on disc, the intimate 17th century song. Most of these pieces were written for particular patrons, Kings, Cardinals and more, to be performed in saloons and chambers by a small group of musicians. The works represent personal taste, the taste of the patron, and it is not surprising that Lyon and Kenny have been able to put together such a toe tapping selection.

The thread running through these pieces is that most are 'ear worms', whether fast or slow they are based on motifs which holds us by the ears (to use a 17th century phrase which Elizabeth Kenny's lively and informative CD booklet essay elucidates for us). Nothing is sexed up or re-orchestrated for modern taste, it doesn't need to be.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Wimbledon Piano Classics

Anna Huntley
Anna Huntley
A new festival, Wimbledon Piano Classics, which runs at Trinity United Reform Church, Wimbledon from 10 to 12 October 2019, is a collaboration between Blüthner pianos and the Royal College of Music, featuring piano recitals, a song recital and a masterclass all played on a Blüthner. The festival opens with Russian pianist Sovya Gulyak in a programme which begins with the Bach/Busoni Chaconne and ends with Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7, and features Rachmaninov, Chopin and Brahms in the middle.

The Royal College of Music's head of keyboard, Professor Vanessa Latarche will be giving a masterclass, with an exciting insight into life at the college as well as giving practical advice on auditions, funding and career opportunities. Mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley and pianist Simon Lepper's song recital features women in love, ranging from Schubert's Dido and Schumann's Mary Queen of Scots, to Rossini's Joan of Arc, Kurt Weill's Jenny and Flanders & Swan's Warthog!

The festival concludes with a joint recital by Martin James Bartlett and George Harliono, with Bartlett performing Mozart, Schumann transcribed by Liszt, Ginastera, Dvorak and Gershwin, and Harliono performing Chopin, Liszt, Stravinsky, Piazzolla and Grieg.

Full details from the Blüthner website.

Magic realism, politics and terrific songs: Weill and Kaiser's Winter's Fairy Tale in an imaginative production from English Touring Opera

Weill: The Silverlake -  Ronald Samm, David Webb - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm, David Webb - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Kurt Weill & Georg Kaiser Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake) ; David Webb, Ronald Samm, Clarissa Meek, Luci Briginshaw, James Kryshak, Bernadetta Iglich, dir: James Conway, cond: James Holmes; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Daringly re-thought version of Weill and Kaiser's play with music which makes this a real Winter's Fairy Tale for our modern times

Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  Ronald Samm
English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Whilst Kurt Weill's collaboration with Bertolt Brecht gets star billing, that with the German playwright Georg Kaiser tends to be less well known. Yet, Weill and Kaiser would create three major works together, the operas Der Protagonist (1926) and Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (1928) and Der Silbersee: ein Wintermärchen (The Silver Lake: a Winter's Fairy Tale) (1933). This latter is a play with music and would be Weill's last major piece written in Germany. It premiered on 18 February 1933 simultaneously in Leipzig, Erfurt and Magdeburg, just three weeks after the Nazi Party's Machtergreifung on 30 January 1933. Kurt Weill, fled Nazi Germany in March 1933, and fragments of the music from Der Silbersee would find their way into his second symphony, written for the Princesse Edmond de Polignac (Wineretta Singer) in Paris.

Despite having some superb music, and terrific songs, Der Silbersee is rarely performed because the full version lasts around three hours with equal quantities of music and spoken drama, it requires singers who can act, and actors who can sing.


English Touring Opera (ETO) braved the conundrum, and staged Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser's Der Silbersee: ein Wintermärchen (The Silver Lake: a Winter's Fairy Tale) at the Hackney Empire (seen Monday 7 October 2019) as part of their Autumn tour. A modern German singspiel to complement Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail [see my review]. James Conway directed, with designs by Adam Wiltshire, lighting by David W Kidd and choreography by Bernadette Iglich. James Holmes conducted. David Webb was Severin, Ronald Samm was Olim, Clarissa Meek was Frau von Luber, Luci Briginshaw was Fennimore, James Kryshak was the Lottery Agent and Baron von Laur, and Bernadette iglich was the narrator. ETO's ensemble of nine singers (representing shopgirls, gravediggers and youths) was joined by a choir from the London hub of Streetwise Opera. At further performances in other towns and cities, ETO will be collaborating with other local choirs, including the Nottingham and Newcastle hubs of Streetwise Opera.

Weill: The Silver Lake -  David Horton, Jan Capinski, David Webb, Maciek O'Shea, Andrew Tipple  - English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Weill: The Silver Lake -  David Horton, Jan Capinski, David Webb, Maciek O'Shea, Andrew Tipple
English Touring Opera (photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Der Silbersee is a magical work, and by its sheer rarity every performance is an occasion, even though each company needs to make some sort of adaptation to cope with its distinctive performing requirements. Broomhill Opera performed it in 1999 at Wilton's Music Hall, in a translation by Rory Bremner, the first musical theatre event there in the modern era. But my abiding memory is of the performances given at the old Camden Festival in 1987, with a company of actors and singers in a production by, I think, David Pountney with Nigel Robson as Severin. This was perhaps the closest I am every likely to come to seeing the work as its creators intended.

For ETO, James Conway had come up with a relatively compact version of the work, suitable for touring.

Monday, 7 October 2019

London Mozart Players revives the Mozart Memorial Prize

Jinah Shim and Howard Shelley
In the 1960s, the London Mozart Players’ Mozart Memorial Prize launched the careers of many talented young musicians including Imogen Cooper, Stephen Kovacevich and Benjamin Frith. The prize stopped being awarded in 1982, but in its 70th anniversary year London Mozart Players has revived and revitalised the prize, including a major new partnership with Kent International Piano Courses.

This year's prize winner is pianist Jinah Shim, who will join with the London Mozart Players at the prize-winners concert on Friday 1 November 2019 at the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge. As part of an all-Mozart programme Shim will play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (better known as the Elvira Madigan theme), alongside Eine kleine Nachtmusik and the Jupiter Symphony.

The Mozart Memorial Prize winner will be chosen annually from participants in the Kent International Piano Courses, which have been running for 30 years. Every prize winner will enjoy a year’s relationship with the LMP. This will involve mentoring from pianist and LMP Conductor Laureate Howard Shelley OBE, as well as lessons, guidance and career and repertoire advice from him, and invitations to concerts with Howard and LMP at venues around the UK. A presentation skills coaching session is also included in the prize package to help with delivery of performance and audience relationship skills. The centrepiece of the prize is the opportunity to perform a piano concerto with the orchestra at a professional concert, and the young winner will enjoy the title of ‘Pianist in association’ for the duration of their winning year.

Full details from the London Mozart Players' website.

A Suitcase Full of Songs

The King's Singers
The King's Singers
On 10 October 2019 in Solihull and 11 October 2019 at Warwick Arts Centre, The King's Singers will be giving the premiere performances of Toby Young's A Suitcase Full of Songs. The song cycle, with a text by Jennifer Thorp, is dedicated to refugees and migrant communities everywhere. For the performances the King's Singers will be joined by 300 young singers from Armonico Consort’s in-school and after school AC Academy choirs and Voice Squad workplace choirs from Coventry City Council and University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire.

Toby Young is Armonico Consort’s composer-in-residence and A Suitcase Full of Songs was written especially for The King’s Singers and AC Academy choirs. Young and Thorp's work is about immigration, it follows a community through excitement, anxiety and homesickness before being welcomed into the local culture and, in turn, enriching it with their own traditions and customs.

The King’s Singers, featuring AC Academy & Voice Squad Choirs, is at Bushell Hall, Solihull (Thurs 10 October) and Warwick Arts Centre (Fri 11 October, 7pm). For details visit the Armonico Consort website.

Orpheus goes to Hell: Emma Rice's lively new production somewhat misses the point of Offenbach

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Mary Bevan, Alan Oke - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Mary Bevan, Alan Oke - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Jacques Offenbach Orpheus in the Underworld; Mary Bevan, Ed Lyon, Lucia Lucas, Alex Otterburn, dir: Emma Rice, cond: Sian Edwards; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 October 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Whilst musically full of good things, this heavy-handed re-working of Offenbach's operetta lacks the wit and pacing of the original

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Alex Otterburn, Keel Watson - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld
Alex Otterburn, Keel Watson
English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
English National Opera debuted the second of its Orpheus-themed operas at the London Coliseum on Saturday 5 October 2019, with Emma Rice making her operatic debut directing Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers), with Mary Bevan as Eurydice, Ed Lyon as Orpheus,  Lucia Lucas as Public Opinion, Willard White as Jupiter, Anne-Marie Owens as Juno, Ellie Laugharne as Cupid, Idunnu Munch as Diana, Judith Howarth as Venus, Keel Watson as Mars, Alan Oke as John Styx and Alex Otterburn as Pluto. Set design was by Lizzie Clachan, with costumes by Lez Brotherston, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth and choreography by Etta Murfitt. Sian Edwards conducted.

Offenbach wrote Orpheus in the Underworld in 1858. It was his first full length operetta, and written for his tiny Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. The theatre had around 900 seats, and whilst Offenbach did expand the operetta in 1874, it is the original which works best and in a small theatre. As English National Opera has found before, the London Coliseum is rather too large a space to perform operetta easily. Emma Rice's highly theatrical style of direction would have seemed an apt choice for this operetta. At the work's previous incarnation in St Martin's Lane, the scabrous designs were by Gerald Scarfe and Public Opinion was got up like Margaret Thatcher.

The operetta satirises Gluck's Orpheus opera and the general tendency to treat mythological subjects seriously, by having the gods behaving badly and by asking the question what happens if Orpheus and Eurydice can't stand each other? What if Orpheus does not want his wife back, and Eurydice finds Hell rather fun? Offenbach and his librettists satirise this with wit and gaiety, sending up the terrible behaviour in delightful ways.

Unfortunately, Emma Rice seems to have missed the point that operetta needs to be fun, and that in Offenbach the music and drama have to satirise and make fun of something. Perhaps it would be difficult to bring off the 1858 operetta with its original book, but Rice's solution was to take the plot seriously. She removes the twist. In her version, Orpheus and Eurydice are a nice couple in love who lose a baby (during the truncated overture), he does want her back, Hell is hell, in fact it is a rather dirty peep show and Jupiter and Pluto's treatment of Eurydice is simply horrible. When do we laugh please?

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld - Mount Olympus - English National Opera 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
It doesn't help that the pacing of the piece is terribly slow. Emma Rice has re-written the English book whilst Tom Morris has produced some witty, if overly contemporary sounding, lyrics. But it does not help if the dialogue is leadenly delivered; Act One seemed endless despite some musical delights. The Gods themselves are sometimes fun, and their opening scene (they are living on a what seems to be a celestial cruise ship) was full of good moments. But the second half goes badly awry, as Rice's polemical plot and Offenbach's music increasingly diverge.

Eurydice is being sexually assaulted by a series of older men, can-can anyone?

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Thought provoking and engaging: Mozart's The Seraglio at English Touring Opera

Mozart: The Seraglio - Nazan Fikret; Matthew Stiff - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Mozart: The Seraglio - Nazan Fikret; Matthew Stiff - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail; Lucy Hall, Nazan Fikret, John-Colyn Gyeantey, Richard Pinkstone, Matthew Stiff, Alex Andreou, dir: Stephen Medcalf, cond: John Andrews; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Mozart's singspiel in an engaging production which did not ignore the work's complexity

Mozart's first singspiel, Die Entführung aus dem Serail used to be a relatively regular visitor to London stages but Covent Garden has not performed the opera since the 2001 revival of Elijah Moshinsky's production with its Sidney Nolan designs, and I am not sure the last time ENO performed it. Which means we have to travel, Glyndebourne performed the work in 2015 and last year The Grange Festival unveiled a new production by John Copley [see my review]. So thank goodness for English Touring Opera who opened their Autumn 2019 season with a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail in English as The Seraglio, teamed up with another work combining words and music Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser's Silverlake.

English Touring Opera opened at the Hackney Empire on Friday 4 October 2019, with Stephen Medcalf's new production of Mozart's The Seraglion (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) with Lucy Hall as Konstanze, Nazan Fikret as Blonde, John-Colyn Gyeantey as Belmonte, Richard Pinkstone as Pedrillo, Matthew Stiff as Osmin and Alex Andreou as Pasha Selim. Designs were by Adam Wiltshire with lighting by David W Kidd, and John Andrews conducted. The work was performed in Andrew Porter's English translation.

Mozart: The Seraglio - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Mozart: The Seraglio - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
The production opted for a traditional setting, with 17th century costumes, allowing us to make our own connections between the opera and contemporary events. Adam Wiltshire's imaginative set consisted of an architectural box with a central feature which rotated to provide a variety of settings, a workshop for Osmin and Pedrillo, the harem for Konstanze and the concubines. Medcalf was interested in the way the harem featured both luxury and confinement, it looked lovely but was a gilded cage and needed a guard with a key to let the women out.

Not letting the audience off the hook: I talk to Simon Wallfisch & Edward Rushton about performing Lieder, & about their new album

Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton
Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton
The baritone Simon Wallfisch has a new album out on the Resonus label, Songs of Love and Death, a disc of Schumann songs with Simon's regular duo partner, pianist Edward Rushton. It is the pair's fifth disc together, and very much a joint creation. Simon was keen for me to talk to both of them about the disc, but as Edward lives in Switzerland this caused logistical issues and whilst my chat with Simon was face to face, Edward joined us via Skype for a surprisingly relaxed and wide-ranging conversation about how the two make song together.

Simon Wallfisch
Simon Wallfisch
I was curious as to why they chose Schumann's songs. For Edward, Schumann is always modern and to perform his songs is to try to get under the skin of what it means to be Robert Schumann, what it means to be human. The songs ask questions which are timeless. The two also worked on the CD's booklet notes together, a enjoyable process requiring an immense amount of back-and-forth to boil 4000 words down to 1000. So the disc is very much a joint enterprise, and their thoughts on the songs are equally linked. At one point the connection to Edward cuts out, and when he re-joined the conversation it was to find him echoing Simon's thoughts expressed to me when Edward was not listening.

This is dangerous music, not every day listening 


Schumann's Kerner Lieder sets poems by Julius Kerner who was a doctor. Simon points out that Kerner was obsessed with the connection between nature and physical health, so a song like 'Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend' with its longing for the forest, expresses the thought that without nature we can only half sing and towards the end the piano part fizzles out. It is this connection between the music and the poetry in a master song writer like Schumann which is important to both Simon and Edward.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Up Close and Orchestral: BBC NOW's Classical Playlist: LIVE

Classical Playlist: LIVE
Another orchestra trying out a different concert experience (see my post below about the City of London Sinfonia) it the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Tomorrow (Saturday 5 October 2019) the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales presents Classical Playlist:LIVE at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, that aims to deliver an accessible, enveloping experience that showcases a wide variety of music in a relaxed listening environment.

There will be three different stages, enabling a wide range of music to be performed from full orchestra, to solos, chamber and unaccompanied choral. Most of the seats will be removed, so the audience can walk around, sit or lie on the floor during the performance, and enjoy a drink alongside the music, and audiences will be able to keep their phones on and share on social media. The programme is full of well known music by Elgar, Wagner, Prokofiev, Orff, Bruckner, Copland, Mozart, Ravel, Sir Karl Jenkins and Huw Watkins (BBC NOW's composer-in-association). Featured soloists will include saxophonist Amy Dickson, Huw Watkins (wearing his pianist hat as well as his composer one) and Huw Williams (director of music at Bath Abbey and a Swansea native), and there will be special appearance from young string musicians from Six Counties Music playing Sir Karl Jenkins' Palladio.

Classical Playlist: LIVE forms part of Swansea Fringe Festival 3-6 October. For more information visit theswanseafringe.com or the BBC NOW website.

The Fruit of Silence

City of London Sinfonia - The Fruit of Silence
The City of London Sinfonia has just started a month-long tour of cathedrals of England and Wales (Worcester last night, Exeter tonight 4/10/2019, Bristol tomorrow night 5/10/201 ending at Lichfield on 23/10/219) with a programme entitled The Fruit of Silence which offers an informal and immersive concert experience where the audience members are free to wander round the building whilst listening to meditative works by Arvo Pärt, Dobrinka Tabakova and Pēteris Vasks, interspersed with contemporary choral music performed by the cathedral's choir.

The orchestral part of the programme includes two versions of Pēteris Vasks's The Fruit of Silence, one with piano and strings the other with piano and choir, plus Arvo Pärt's Summa and Fratres, and two pieces by the contemporary British/Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova Organum Light and Centuries of Meditations for strings, harp and choir. Centuries of Meditations is one of 11 British classical pieces supported by the PRS Foundation's Resonate programme in the 2019-20 Season. The work celebrates cathedrals in all their splendour through four movements inspired by four stained glass windows in Hereford Cathedral, setting texts by philosopher Thomas Traherne (c.1637 1674).

Thursday 3 October, 19:30 - Worcester Cathedral, Friday 4 October, 19:30 - Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 5 October, 19:30 - Bristol Cathedral, Wednesday 9 October, 19:00 - Liverpool Cathedral, Friday 11 October, 19:30 - Sheffield Cathedral, Saturday 12 October, 19:00 - Bradford Cathedral, Thursday 17 October, 19:30 - Truro Cathedral, Friday 18 October, 19:00 - Llandaff Cathedral, Wednesday 23 October, 19:30 - Lichfield Cathedral.

Full details from the City of London Sinfonia website.

Listening with new ears: Masaaki Suzuki conducts Mendelssohn's Elijah

Brmingham Town Hall as it appeared during the performance of 'Elijah', August 26th 1846, London Illustrated News
Brmingham Town Hall as it appeared during the performance of Elijah, August 26th 1846, London Illustrated News
Felix Mendelssohn Elijah; Christian Immler, Carolyn Sampson, Anna Stéphany, Robert Murray,
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 October 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Bach-specialist Masaaki Suzuki's lithe and re-focused account makes us listen to Mendelssohn's choral spectacular with new ears

Mendelssohn's Elijah never really went away, but there was a period post-war when the work was not taken as seriously as it should have been perhaps because it became such a popular choral society war-horse. Deeply embedded in the Northern choral tradition, Elijah was performed by the Halle in the 1970s when I was a student (with Benjamin Luxon as Elijah, I think), and I saw it again in Scotland with the Scottish National Orchestra in the early 1980s (with Norman Bailey in the title role). Yet when Raymond Leppard conducted Elijah with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in London in the late 1980s, the work was seen as deeply unfashionable. The London Philharmonic Choir had not sung the work in recent memory, and quite a number of the singers were entirely unfamiliar with it. Thankfully, organisations now are not only performing the work but exploring it, and looking beyond the immediate facade of grand choral splendour that the work projects.

So it was a stroke of imagination for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to bring Masaaki Suzuki to conduct the work, a conductor steeped in the works of Mendelssohn's great idol and influence, J.S. Bach.


At the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 3 October 2019, Masaaki Suzuki conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Choir of the Enlightenment in Mendelssohn's Elijah, with soloists Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor, replacing an ailing Brenden Gunnell), and baritone Christian Immler as Elijah.

Whilst the text of Mendelssohn's 1846 oratorio is fixed, the composer did leave us with some interesting performance issues. Language for a start, English or German? It was written in German, with a parallel English translation and both languages have some sort of primacy. And then there is the question of the soloists, how many? At the premiere in Birmingham, Mendelssohn had ten soloists! The work veers away from traditional Handelian oratorio in its use of vocal ensembles (there is a trio, three quartets and a double quartet), along with eight main roles (the child, the Widow, soprano and mezzo Angels, Jezebel, Obadiah, Ahab and Elijah). By the 20th century it had become common to perform the work with four soloists and use a chamber choir for all the rest. There have been occasional explorations of Mendelssohn's original conception with eight soloists (Wolfgang Sawallisch's recording of the German version, and Paul Daniel's 1996 recording with the OAE and Bryn Terfel in the title role), but more recent performances have seen the development of the use of choral soloists. So that the seven main roles are still shared between four main soloists, and all the ensembles sung by professional soloists drawn from the choir, and this is what Suzuki did.

The Choir of the Enlightenment numbered a little over 30, and of these Alice Gribbin, Sofia Larsson, Emma Walshe, Sarah Denbee, Bethany Horak-Hallett, Rory Carvery, Laurence Kilsby, Jonathan Brown, and Malacy Frame stepped out to perform the vocal ensembles with only the final quartet being performed by the main soloists.

Given the forces, this was a very lithe performance of the work. Massive and loud when it needed to be, but the orchestra lacked the all-enveloping sound of modern strings, and the choir similarly had a narrower, leaner more focussed sound coming from 30 something young professional voices. This revealed colours and textures in the work which are not always apparent. Mendelssohn's orchestral writing really came over, we noticed his use of choirs of instruments, and the presence of natural horns, narrow-bore trombones and an ophicleide, ensured some wonderful sounds. Suzuki emphasised this litheness and encouraged both choir and orchestra to articulate and bring out the rhythms. It is worth remembering that Mendelssohn was still only in his mid-30s when he wrote it, this is vivid, young man's music and this performance really brought this over.

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