Wednesday, 11 December 2019

O Magnum Mysterium: Christmas music old and new from Londinium



If you enjoy concerts which celebrate Christmas but want to avoid the standard carols and the usual Christmas repertoire, then Friday's concert from Londinium and conductor Andrew Griffiths might be for you. The choir is presenting O Magnum Mysterium at St John's Church, Waterloo on 13 December 2019, and it features a nice selection of seasonal music, old and new, with few if any hackneyed favourites.

The new music includes works by Matthew Martin, John McCabe, Morten Lauridsen (his O Magnum Mysterium which is now ubiquitous enough to be a modern classic), Cecilia McDowall, Frances Pott, Cheryl Frances Hoad, Gabriel Jackson and Giles Swayne. Not quite so modern, but certainly deserving of being better known are Kenneth Leighton's Three Carols (from 1948) and his Nativitie. Older composers in the mix include Sweelinck, Hieronymus Praetorius, Richard Dering, Palestrina, Byrd, Rachmaninov, and Lassus.

Full details from the Londinium website.

Reviving Ethel Smyth's dance dream: Fete Galante from Restrospect Opera

Ethel Smyth - Fete Galante - Retrospect Opera
Ethel Smyth Fete Galante, Liza Lehmann The Happy Prince; Charmian Bedford, Carolyn Dobbin, Felix Kemp, Simon Wallfisch, Mark Milhofer, Alessandro Fisher, Lontano Ensemble, Odaline de la Martinez, Felicity Lott, Valerie Langfield; Retrospect Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 December 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Perhaps Smyth's best opera, the intriguingly small-scale fruit of her post-World War I re-invention

The First World War had a devastating effect on Ethel Smyth's operatic career. Though English born (her father was a General), she was German trained and much of her musical career was focused on Europe, at the time hostilities were declared she had a number of major European performances lined up for her operas. These, of course, never happened. Smyth would continue to write operas, but her career refocused on Britain, and she never again returned to the large-scale romantic opera of The Wreckers (1902-4). In fact, she had already moved to other types of opera and in 1913 and 1914 had written a two-act comedy The Boatswain's Mate.

Whilst hardly well-known, Smyth's opera The Wreckers is available on disc and does achieve occasional performances, and chamber versions of The Boatswain's Mate are becoming increasingly common. But we have little knowledge of much else of Smyth's later, post-World War One output. Neither of her final operas Fete Galante (1921-22) and Entente Cordiale (1923) is well-known, nor is her oratorio The Prison (1929-30). But things are beginning to change, an American group has successfully crowdfunded a recording of The Prison, and now Retrospect Opera, having recorded The Boatswain's Mate [see my review], has committed Fete Galante to disc.


The new recording of Ethel Smyth's Fete Galante on Retrospect Opera features the Lontano Ensemble, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez with Charmian Bedford as Columbine, Carolyn Dobbin as The Queen, Felix Kemp as Pierrot, Simon Wallfisch as The King, Mark Milhofer as The Lover and Alessandro Fisher as Harlequin. The disc also features Liza Lehmann's The Happy Prince for reciter (Felicity Lott) and piano (Valerie Langfield), plus three short orchestral excerpts from Smyth's operas recorded in 1939 by Adrian Boult and the Light Orchestra.

Smyth called Fete Galante a Dance-Dream in One Act and it uses a libretto by Edward Shanks based on a tiny (seven pages) short story by Smyth's friend Maurice Baring. The work was premiered in 1923, with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting his recently formed (and short-lived) British National Opera Company. Smyth would create an orchestra suite from it in 1924, and expand it as a ballet (1932) with designs by Vanessa Bell!

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Spring at Conway Hall: pre-concert talks, Beethoven, premieres and more at the Sunday concert series

Robert Hugill's pre-concert talks as part of the Spring 2020 season at Conway Hall Sunday Concerts
The Spring 2020 Sunday concert series at Conway Hall has been launched, with an impressive array of concerts from 12 January to 7 June 2020. I will be giving four pre-concert talks during the season, Breaking new Ground looking at Beethoven's Violin Sonatas (19 January 2020), Cello sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich (23 February 2020), A tale of two friendships on the relationships between Brahms and the Schumanns, and Shostakovich and Weinberg (5 April 2020) and In search of Bach on Bach's cello suites (10 May 2020).

Beethoven is, of course, very much a focus of the concerts with the artistic director of the series Simon Callaghan performing Beethoven's complete Piano Trios with Ben Gilmore, and Ashok Klouda, and Simon will join the Galliard Ensemble to perform Beethoven's Quintet in E flat for piano and winds alongside music by Richard Strauss's pupil Ludwig Thuille and Poulenc's Sextet, and Simon will also join the United Strings of Europe, directed by Julian Azkoul, for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.

Besides the focus on core 19th century chamber music, there are some interesting forays into the 20th century with Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and Hindemith's Clarinet Quartet (one of the few works for the same line-up as the Messiaen), Webern's Langsamer Satz, Korngold's Trio in D, Ravel and Debussy's Quartets, Ravel's Trio in A minor, Stravinsky's Three pieces for Quartet, Shostakovich's Trio no. 1 and Weinberg's Trio Op.24.

The series includes premieres of works by Freya Waley Cohen (a new piece for soprano Heloise Werner and the Tippett Quartet), Camden Reeves (Quartet No. 5 from the Solem Quartet) and Jasmin Kent Rodgman (a new work for the United Strings of Europe).

The series opens with musicians from the Highgate Festival in a programme which includes Clara Schumann's masterpiece, her Piano Trio in G minor and the penultimate concert in the series concludes with Trio Sora playing Fanny Mendelssohn's Trio in D minor, a contemporary work to the Clara Schumann but one not so well known.

In the salon of Mlle de Guise: Solomon's Knot take us to 17th century France with a pair of Christmas pastorals by Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Solmon's Knot (Photo Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit.)
Solmon's Knot (Photo Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit.)
Marc-Antoine Charpentier In nativitatem Domini canticum H.416 and Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ H.483; Solomon's Knot; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two rarely performed Christmas pieces evoke 17th century France in highly engaging performances

Marie of Lorraine, Duchess of Guise (Balthazar Moncornet)
Marie of Lorraine, Duchess of Guise,
Charpentier's patronness
(Balthazar Moncornet)
Having in previous year's explored Christmas in Leipzig via the music of J.S. Bach and his predecessors at St Thomas's Church, Solomon's Knot returned to St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival on Monday 9 December 2019 with a pair of Christmas pieces by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, In nativitatem Domini canticum H.416 and Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ H.483. The works were performed by the singers, Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Zoe Brookshaw, Kate Symonds-Joy, Peter Davoren, Thomas Herford, Marcus Farnsworth, Jonathan Sells & Alex Ashworth, with an instrumental ensemble of Eva Caballero and Marta Goncalves (flutes), Naomi Burrell and Beatrice Scaldini (violins), Joanna Miller (viola), Jonathan Rees (viola da gamba), Carina Cosgrave (violine), Jamie Akers (Theorbo/Lute), and William Whitehead (harpsichord/organ).

Famously Italian trained (he studied in Rome with Carissimi), Marc-Antoine Charpentier's style combined the French and the Italian rather too freely for the taste of some of his contemporaries. Coming up against the operatic monopoly of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Charpentier found a sympathetic home in the highly musical establishment of Mademoiselle de Guise, where even the servants sang and performed. And after her death, he moved to a nearby Jesuit Church.

In nativitatem Domini canticum is thought to date from this latter period of Charpentier's musical life. Setting various texts from the Bible in Latin, it starts by looking forward to Christ's birth with a group of voices imploring God to remembers his promise of salvation, an instrumental movement 'Nuit' follows invoking Christ's birth, and then the second part is devoted to the Shepherds and the Angels, whilst after a lively march for the Shepherds' journey to Jerusalem, the final part ends in general rejoicing.

From Dvorak to Reich: the Arcis Saxophone Quartet in American Dreams at Conway Hall

Arcis Saxophone Quartet (Jure Knez, Claus Hierluksch, Richarda Fuss, Edoardo Zotti) - Photo Harald Hoffmann
Arcis Saxophone Quartet
(Jure Knez, Claus Hierluksch, Richarda Fuss, Edoardo Zotti)
Photo Harald Hoffmann
American Dreams - Reich, Dvorak, Bernstein, Barber, Gershwin; Arcis Saxophone Quartet; Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A young saxophone quartet brings an engagingly fresh approach to a century of music written by composers in America

Compared to most of the other classical instruments, the saxophone is quite a young instrument with a fascinating history, and whilst it has become synonymous with jazz, a separate classical tradition has grown up during the 20th and 21st centuries. On Sunday 8 December 2019, the Arcis Saxophone Quartet gave a concert, American Dreams, as part of the Conway Hall's Sunday concerts and beforehand I gave a preconcert talk on the curious history of the saxophone.

The Arcis Saxophone Quartet is a young group, founded in 2009 at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Munich. We heard, Claus Hierluksch, soprano, Richarda Fuss, alto, Edoardo Zotti, tenor and Jure Knez, baritone in a programme which brought an interesting freshness to the idea of repertoire, with Steve Reich's New York Counterpoint (from 1985, originally for clarinet and tape or 11 clarinets and bass clarinet), Antonin Dvorak's String Quartet No. 12 'American' (from 1893, originally for string quartet), Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story Suite (originally from 1957, heard in the group's own arrangement for saxophone quartet), Samuel Barber's Adagio (from 1936, originally for string quartet) and George Gershwin' s Porgy and Bess Suite, arranged by Sylvain Dedenon.

For the Steve Reich, we had four saxophones and tape, with the live players stood in front of the stage and the speakers playing the pre-recorded sections on the stage. Sitting in the balcony of the Conway Hall it was at times difficult to tell what was live and what was recorded. The result started with a seductive throbbing, before moving into a series of interestingly rhythmically complex sections where the different lines interlaced with each other. This might not have been Reich's intended instrumental line-up for the piece, but in a performance as dramatic and as technically poised as this, the result was a very New York sort of sound.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Messiah round up

The Handel Festival at The Crystal Palace, 1857
The Handel Festival at The Crystal Palace, 1857
As ever, Handel's Messiah seems to be a Christmas essential for most concert hall and music venues. The work's ubiquity might not have surprised the composer, but its association with Christmas might have. When first performed, Messiah was a Lenten and Easter work and Charles Jennens' selection of texts from the Bible takes us from Christ's birth, through his Passion to his Resurrection. But nowadays, it seems to be Part One that sticks. So we have 10 or so performances of Messiah in an around London (that is not counting those which took place earlier in December or those I have missed).

Most performances look set to use a fairly standard version of the score, none this year seem to explore more rarefied versions, no-one offers five soloists and no-one promises a version based on a particular year. But there is plenty of variety. In terms of size, you can opt for the positively chamber-sized performances right up to a promised 350 choristers at the Royal Festival Hall and the full Philharmonia Chorus at the Royal Albert Hall. Large-scale performances of Handel are nothing new, they came in at the end of the 18th century (probably after the Handel commemoration performances at Westminster Abbey in 1784) and it is via large choral society performances in the 19th century that the work's popularity burgeoned.

There are a number of period instrument performances, that at St John's Smith Square is a regular Christmas fixture, but this year we have a visit from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Trevor Pinnock which promises to be something of a breath of fresh air.

Soloists are similarly varied, with a selection of distinguished operatic singers including Natalya Romaniw, Sarah Tynan, Renata Pokupic and Katie Bray, right through to talented young professionals who are bound to bring an element of youth and freshness to their performances. And at Southwark Cathedral, there is the chance to hear Messiah sung by the boys and gentlemen of the cathedral choir.

Oh that all opera bouffe could be delivered with such panache: Offenbach's La Belle Hélène from New Sussex Opera

Offenbach: La belle Helene - Catherine Backhouse, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
Offenbach: La belle Helene - Catherine Backhouse, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera
Photo Robert Knights
Offenbach La Belle Hélène; Hannah Pedley, Anthony Flaum, Robert Gildon, Paul Featherstone, Charles Johnston, Jennifer Clark, Catherine Backhouse, dir: Jeff Clarke, cond: Toby Purser; New Sussex Opera
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 5 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The whole evening was a delight: Offenbach's operetta in a delightful new production

New Sussex Opera chose to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Offenbach’s birth with a production of La Belle Hélène and for the first time has collaborated with another company Opera della Luna, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary. Having begun its run in Lewes, on Thursday 5 December it rocked up at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. Hannah Pedley was the Queen of Sparta, she of the fatal beauty, and Anthony Flaum was Paris come to claim his prize. Paul Featherstone, Charles Johnston and Robert Gildon were Menelaus, Agamemnon and Calchas. Jennifer Clark was Helen’s attendant Bacchis and Catherine Backhouse, the son of Agamemnon, Orestes. Toby Purser conducted this new version that was arranged, translated and directed by Opera della Luna’s Artistic Director Jeff Clarke.

Offenbach: La belle Helene - Hannah Pedley, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
Offenbach: La belle Helene - Hannah Pedley, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
“My dream was always to found a mutual insurance society for the combating of boredom” - so said Offenbach, according to the blurb.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Creating a counter-factual history of brass chamber music: I chat to Simon Cox & Matthew Knight from the brass-septet Septura

Septura
Septura
I first became aware of the brass septet, Septura, when noting their 2017/18 concert series Kleptomania at St John's Smith Square, and I went on to review their 2018 disc of Finzi, Elgar, Parry and Walton on Naxos. The group has just released a disc of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi, and in February 2020 the group will be making its Wigmore Hall debut. I recently met up with Simon Cox and Matthew Knight from the Septura to find out more about their plans and to talk about their project to bring brass chamber music into the mainstream.

Simon Cox (trumpet) and Matthew Knight (trombone) are the artistic directors of Septura. The two do all of the group's arrangements, and they two feel that the new version of The Nutcracker has come out surprisingly well. Up until now, they have had a rule to not to do versions of orchestral scores, in fact with The Nutcracker they started with the piano duet version, but then added elements from the full score, and the piece changed their approach to arranging so that for Gershwin's An American in Paris, they have similarly used the piano version whilst taking bits of the full score.

Simon Cox
Simon Cox
They have been careful with their new transcriptions of pieces for the group because they do not want them to sound like arrangements, or reductions of an orchestral score. But lots of The Nutcracker fitted well, and they picked the suitable sections and omitted some movements which would not work. And they feel that it is possibly their most successful arrangement, so far.

The problem is that, if Septura performs a transcription of a piece that people know well, they can find it difficult to get used to the idea of the piece played by brass septet. For instance, the group plays a transcription of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, and one of their trombonists is married to a violinist who knew the original version and so took some time to accept the brass version. They admit that such transcriptions do not sound like the original, but the group brings their own qualities to the work. Simon and Matthew feel that this really does shine a light on the musical material.

The transcriptions are made for the full septet line-up, which helps to remove the stamina problems inherent in brass playing (the sheer amount of air needed to sustain the instrument). There would be such problem if a string quartet was arranged for brass quartet, having seven players means that the music can be spread around. Whilst the brass quintet line-up is ubiquitous, it can still be challenging playing complex arrangements with just five players.

Friday, 6 December 2019

2020 here we come: Sara Mohr-Pietsch's first programme for Dartington Music Summer School and Festival

A queue outside Dartington Hall 2 c Aubrey Simpson
A queue outside Dartington Hall 2 c Aubrey Simpson
The new artistic director of Dartington Music Summer School and Festival is Sara Mohr-Pietsch, perhaps best known for being one of the voices of classical music on BBC Radio 3 and BBC TV. Her 2020 programme, her first, includes a new strand of work, Future Sounds, brings writers and radio-makers together to open up a conversation about music, composition teaching is introduced in each of the four weeks of the festival whilst there are two major commissions for the community choir, and there is Dartington's first ever short course for parents and children, as well as a week-long children’s choir, and one-off music workshops for infants. There are more partnerships with external organisations, bringing the wider world in, with Café OTO, Royal Philharmonic Society, The Nest Collective, CoMA and Soundart Radio.

To mark the 400th anniversary of The Mayflower’s voyage, three American composers are at Dartington in 2020. Nico Muhly makes first visit to Dartington as composer-in-residence, Moira Smiley teaches Appalachian song, and Native American composer Raven Chacon leads outdoor performances. The second week features residences from conductor John Butt’s Dunedin Consort, and violinist Rachel Podger’s Brecon Baroque, whilst week three marks, of course, Beethoven's 250th anniversary including all the piano sonatas in 24 hours, and there will also be a a new commission from composer John Barber and writer Hazel Gould for massed voices. Week four will feature Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, led by jazz bandleader Peter Edwards and Nu Civilisation Orchestra, and a new strand of experimental music courses in partnership with London venue Café OTO, plus composers Cassandra Miller and Christopher Fox

Mohr-Pietsch describes her first experience of Dartington, 25 years ago, as 'life-changing', and 2020 seems all set to continue that.

Full details from the Dartington website.

Some where for the weekend: chamber music at the the quiestest place under the sun - Clun Valley Music

Clun valley
Clun Valley Music was founded by viola player Luba Tunnicliffe and cellist Richard Tunnicliffe to bring high-quality performances of classical chamber music by artists of international standing to Clun and the surrounding villages in Shropshire. Clun, of course, being one of the places featured in A.E.Housman's A Shropshire Lad, where:
 'Clunton and Clunbury, 
Clungunford and Clun, 
Are the quietest places 
Under the sun', 
though it turns out that Housman had no topgraphical knowledge of the area when writing the poems! And, as if to further prove him wrong, this weekend features a pair of concerts at St George's Church, Clun SY7 8JH.

On Saturday 7 December 2019, the Aurora Percussion Duo (Delia Stevens and Le Yu), a pair of young percussionists who describe their mission as 'to create virtuosic, physical and visual experiences which stimulate emotion, inspire imagination and bridge cultural divides'. Then on Sunday, Luba Tunnicliffe's own group, The Pelleas Ensemble (which includes flautist Henry Roberts, and harpist Oliver Wass, whom readers may remember was the harpist in my recent opera The Gardeners) are joined by friends, the Aurora Percussion Duo and Elizabeth Lynch (soprano), for a concert which features songs by Purcell (including Bess of Bedlam) and Berio's Folk Songs, plus music by Debussy, Jolivet and Benjamin Graves.

If you can't make this weekend, then make a note of the 2020 dates when Beethoven is the focus of a pair of concerts.

Full details from the Clun Valley Music website.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

New song cycle, new partnership: Marta Fontanals-Simmons and Christopher Glynn take Oxford Lieder to Birmingham

Marta Fontanals-Simmons & Christopher Glynn
Marta Fontanals-Simmons & Christopher Glynn
The concert tomorrow, 6 December 2019, at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, represents the start of a new partnership between Oxford Lieder and the University of Birmingham and Barber Lunchtime Concerts [see my interview with Sholto Kynoch, artistic director of the Oxford Lieder Festival, in which he talks about their developing new partnerships as a way of championing the genre all year round].

Friday's lunchtime recital is being given by mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons [see my interview with Marta] and pianist Christopher Glynn, and they will be performing Martin Suckling’s The Tuning, setting words by Michael Donaghy, which was commissioned by Oxford Lieder, and performed by them at this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival. Also in the programme is Joaquin Turina's Poema en forma de cancione and songs by Debussy and Brahms.

Scottish composer Martin Suckling studied music at Clare College Cambridge and King’s College London, and was Paul Mellon Fellow at Yale University, his teachers have included George Benjamin, Robin Holloway, Paul Patterson, Martin Bresnick, Ezra Laderman, and Simon Bainbridge. From 2013-18 Suckling was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Associate Composer, a partnership which resulted in Six Speechless Songs (premiered by Robin Ticciati and later revived by Oliver Knussen), a concerto for pianist Tom Poster, and Meditation (after Donne) for chamber orchestra and electronics.

Full details from the Barber Institute website.

Weber's Der Freischütz in a fine new modern recording with Lise Davidsen as Agathe

Weber Der Freischütz - Pentatone
Weber Der Freischütz; Lise Davidsen, Andreas Schager, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Marek Janowski; Pentatone
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new studio recording of Weber's opera for those wanting a modern orchestral version

Weber's opera Der Freischütz seems to be having something of a mini-moment. Laurence Equilbey, Insula Orchestra and Cie 14:20 had a run of performances of their new production at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris [see my review], which was a co-production between five European theatres, and a recording is in the offing. And now a new recording from Marek Janowski and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra with Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen as Agathe has just appeared on Pentatone.

This is welcome news, because when Laurence Equilbey & Insula performed Der Freischütz at the Barbican last month it was the opera's first major appearance in London in a long time and it has not appeared on the stage of one of the UK's major opera companies for a long time either. The problems with the work are two-fold, first it is a distinctive mixture of folksiness and the supernatural, and secondly there is the spoken dialogue issue.

German composers of the early 19th century used folk melody and folk influences to build towards a German operatic style. Before then, despite superb German operas from Mozart and Beethoven, little tradition had developed. Thanks to composers like Weber and Marschner, a genuine German vein of opera was created, and the folk-style was very popular with audiences. But what makes the work of Weber and Marschner interesting is their use of the supernatural to explore what we might nowadays call the human psyche. This was something that Wagner picked up on, and nowadays we tend to view the German operas pre-Wagner through his prism which can make them seem less innovative than they really are, especially as for us the folksiness can too often degenerate into triviality.

But the eternal struggle for those German composers in the early part of the 19th century was the libretto, finding a decent one was tricky. Der Freischütz is finely constructed but reliant on too much spoken dialogue so that nowadays we hear it with dialogue reduced, re-written or
removed entirely. I am still waiting to hear an English language production of Der Freischütz which uses a reasonable dramatic version of Kind's dialogue. In fact, I have heard few performances of Der Freischütz that use anything like Johann Kind's original dialogue, and on record and in concert it is usually replaced with something like a narration as it is on this new Pentatone set (of which more anon).

Spoken dialogue in opera remains something of which companies fight shy, yet removing it from an opera like Der Freischütz can have a fatal effect on the drama. Yet both Colin Davis (with the LSO in 2012) and Mark Elder (with the OAE in 2016) used spoken narration when performing the work.

Weber's next opera Euryanthe removed spoken dialogue all together and was in many ways ground-breaking. But the librettist, Helmina von Chézy (author of the failed play Rosamunde for which Schubert wrote the incidental music) was inexperienced and the weakness of the libretto shows through. Ironically, text would remain a problem in Weber's final completed opera, Oberon. Written for Covent Garden with a libretto by the pantomime writer, James Robinson Planché, it is best understood in terms of the English tradition of semi-opera, rather than singspiel. Interestingly, John Eliot Gardiner, who has conducted Oberon in versions with full dialogue, narration and with sung recitatives provided by one of Weber's pupils, stated that for him the version with full dialogue worked best. Would the conductors would understand that about Der Freischütz.

With Der Freischütz there is also the problem in each performance of making the rest of the opera stand up to the remarkable Wolf's Glen Scene which comes at the end of Act Two. This can be the grand Romantic set piece, yet without a finely calibrated view of the whole work the scene can distort things somewhat.

The post-Wagner view of the opera also affects the music, as nowadays we cast Max and Agathe as jugend-dramatisch in the young Wagner mould (I saw the opera at Covent Garden with the distinguished helden-tenor Alberto Remedios as Max, and Colin Davis' LSO Live recording used Christine Brewer as Agathe). My own preference is for the more historically informed view of the work, and frankly I am looking forward to Laurence Equilbey's recording even though another critic viewed both her soloists as rather light for their roles!


There is no danger of that on this new recording from Pentatone where Marek Janowski conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra with Andreas Schager as Max and Lise Davidsen as Agathe. Schager is firmly in the helden-tenor category, singing Siegfried (he sang the title role in Parsifal at Bayreuth this year, see Tony's review), and Davidsen is the jugend-dramatisch du jour, she was Elisabeth in Tannhauser at Bayreuth this year (see Tony's review) and will be Sieglinde there next year.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Highlights and festival firsts: Aldeburgh Festival 2020 - four artists in residence, a first opera, the War Requiem at Snape and more

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker, whose songs are celebrated at the festival by artist-in-residence Julia Bullock
The 2020 Aldeburgh Festival features four artists in residence (two composers and two singers), the world premiere of a new opera, and a couple of festival firsts!

For the first time in over 50 years, the festival will open away from Snape and Aldeburgh, the opening concert is at St Edmundsbury Cathedral to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Bury St Edmunds Abbey and the concert features music by two of the artists in residence, Cassandra Miller and Mark-Anthony Turnage, plus a work by Tom Coult whose opera Violet is premiered at the festival and the posthumous premiere of a work by Sir John Tavener.

In another festival first, Britten's 1962 War Requiem will be performed at Snape Maltings with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and soloists including artist-in-residence Allan Clayton.

Paul Verlaine & Artur Rimbaud
Paul Verlaine, Artur Rimbaud: the latter's Les Illuminations
were written whilst the two were in London
The festival has four artists in residence, soprano Julia Bullock, tenor Allan Clayton, composer Cassandra Miller and composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. Julia Bullock will be giving the UK premiere of Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine an exploration of the songs of one of my heroines, the chanteuse Josephine Baker, and during her residency she will also explore the music of John Cage and Lukas Foss, as well as singing Britten's Les Illuminations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra [interesting historical pronunciation note: Rimbaud wrote his poems Les Illuminations in London with Verlaine and there is good evidence to believe that the two intended the word to be pronounced with an Engish diphthong, ie. Illumin-AY-tions]. Allan Clayton's residency intertwines with that of Mark-Anthony Turnage as Clayton will be giving the premiere of Turnage's new song cycle, as well as singing English song and exploring the work of Priaulx Rainier (1903-1986), a South-African/British composer whose work was championed by Peter Pears.

Canadian composer Cassandra Miller will be showcasing her new piece Tracery a multi- speaker, split-screen 60-minute installation made with soprano Juliet Fraser as a way to create an intimate space for deep listening, and there will also be a chance to hear her work performed by Fraser and the Bozzini Quartet, as well as the UK premiere of A Large House by Ilan Volkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Composer Mark-Anthony Turnage will be celebrating his 60th birthday at the festival. He first encountered the festival when, as a young 20-year-old composer he won the Britten Prize. As well as his song-cycle for Allan Clayton, the festival features Frieze with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Owl Songs and Slide Stride from the Nash Ensemble, and Quartet No.4 'Winter’s Edge' with the Piatti Quartet.

Tom Coult's new opera Violet, with a libretto by playwright Alice Birch, was developed at Snape Maltings as part of the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall, the work is co-commissioned by the festival, Music Theatre Wales and Theater Magdeburg. Tom studied at the University of Manchester with Camden Reeves and Philip Grange and at King’s College, London with George Benjamin. He is currently Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity College Cambridge.Violet is his first opera.

The full Aldeburgh Festival programme will be announced on 18 December 2020, full details from the Snape Maltings website.

Immersive Beethoven - The Little Orchestra begins its 2019/2020 season

The Little Orchestra - Nicholas Little
The Little Orchestra - Nicholas Little
The Little Orchestra begins its 2019/20 season this week with a pair of performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Royal Horticultural Halls on 6 & 7 December 2019 with soloists Susanna Hurrell, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Thomas Elwin, and Simon Shibambu, plus the Holst Singers, conducted by Nicholas Little.

Despite the orchestra's name, its ambitions are anything but small. Founded by conductor Nicholas Little, the aim of the group is to draw in people who feel they know very little, or nothing about classical music and send them away wanting to hear more. The orchestra provides immersive experiences, combining classical music in unique venues with drinks, themed food and a social atmosphere, akin to something like the Secret Cinema. Audience members can sit on sofas to watch the concert, and are encouraged to linger afterwards.

During 2020 the orchestra will be exploring Beethoven's music with a series of events covering a period or an aspect of Beethoven's life and music with titles such as Early Years in Vienna, Patronage or Immortal Beloved, including all nine symphonies as well as interludes examining the chamber music and piano sonatas, all at venues such as the Royal Horticultural Halls, Porchester Halls, Battersea Arts Centre, Alexandra Palace, and York Hall.

Full details from the Little Orchestra's website.

Westminster Cathedral Choir at Choral at Cadogan

Westminster Cathedral Choir
Westminster Cathedral Choir
O magnum mysterium - songs of the Incarnation; Westminster Cathedral Choir, Peter Stevens; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 December 2019
An imaginative programme brings Westminster Cathedral Choir out of its usual habitat

Hearing performing group's outside their regular habitat can sometimes be illuminating, but not necessarily so. Last night (3 December 2019) the choir of Westminster Cathedral swapped the gloriously atmospheric cathedral (where the choir sings daily services from the apse behind the high altar), for the rather dryer acoustic of Cadogan Hall. The concert, an imaginative programme of music for Advent centred round the O Magnum mysterium text, was supposed to be conducted by master of music, Martin Baker, but illness meant that his place was taken by Peter Stevens, assistant master of music, thus adding an additional layer of disturbance to the proceedings.

The programme moved fluidly between the Renaissance and the present day, with settings of the O Magnum mysterium text by Victoria, Poulenc, Morten Lauridsen and Joanna Marsh, alongside Tallis' Videte Miraculum and O nata lux, and motets by Palestrina and Victoria, plus Bruckner's Ave Maria, Eric Whitacre's Lux aurumque and James MacMillan's O radiant dawn. Plainsong, of course, threaded its way through a lot of the Renaissance pieces and was explicitly in Tallis' Respond, Videte Miraculum, but the choir also included three pieces of plainsong which provided fine linkages.  There were two concessions to the more popular conception of the season, Howells' A spotless rose and Warlock's Bethlehem Down.

The choir fielded some 16 or so trebles, with eight adult singing men on the back row as tenors and basses, and a mix of two adult counter-tenors and two boys as altos. Some of the boys looked alarmingly young, one tiny boy seemed completely dominated by his huge black folder yet was clearly singing lustily. One of the eternal miracles of boys choirs is that the boys can seem to spend the entire concert not concentrating and not singing, yet producing a miraculous sound. Here there was a wonderful unselfconsciousness about them, they did not seem to be particularly fazed by being plonked on the Cadogan Hall stage.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

A Riot at Kings Place: Riot Ensemble's RE[NEW]

Aaron Holloway-Nahum & The Riot Ensemble in Elliott Carter's Double Concerto at LSO St Lukes (Photo Ben Clube)
Aaron Holloway-Nahum & The Riot Ensemble in Elliott Carter's Double Concerto at LSO St Lukes (Photo Ben Clube)
The Riot Ensemble has started a new relationship with Kings Place, and will be presenting three concerts there next year (2020) under the series title RE[NEW], featuring new works alongside recent classics of the international contemporary repertoire, and two of the concerts will be part of Kings Place's 2020 Nature Unwrapped series.

Extinction Events, on Friday 14 February 2020, takes its name from a recent work by the Australian composer Liza Lim which aspires to ‘make a music out of relics of the past’, here ranging from Janacek’s ‘overgrown path’ to the last-ever heard mating call of the now-extinct Kauai O’o bird. Aaron Holloway-Nahum’s Like a memory of birds (ii) is also about degradation and loss, filtering a familiar melodic line through an alien soundscape until it disintegrates and disappears. The final piece in the programme, Laurence Osborn’s Ctrl, commissioned by The Riot Ensemble in 2017, examines themes of masculinity and violence, and features a virtuoso performance by soprano Sarah Dacey.

On Friday 19 June 2020, the ensemble will perform Georg Friedrich Haas' Solstices which is performed entirely from memory in darkness, requiring a process of deep listening from both musicians and audience. It is The Riot Ensemble’s most ambitious commission to date, co-commissioned with partner festivals Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, the Dutch November Music Festival and Reykjavík Dark Music Days. Solstices is prefaced by a tribute to Oliver Knussen in his short, early and infrequently-performed Océan de Terre, which echoes Haas’ work in its dedication to long harmonic notes - and which Knussen described as ‘closing imperceptibly, like a fan.’

Then in September the ensemble returns with a programme which sets works by established masters Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey alongside bracing recent works by some of the most original voices of the current generation, Nicole Lizée, Laura Bowler and Brigitta Muntendorf.

Full details from the Riot Ensemble's website.

The Oxford connection: Elgar's Dream of Gerontius based on the writings of the recently canonised John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman in May 1890
John Henry Newman in May 1890
John Henry Newman was canonised by Pope Francis on 13 October 2019. An important, and controversial, figure in the religious history of England in the 19th century, he is best known to musicians because his 1865 poem The Dream of Gerontius formed the basis for Edward Elgar's 1900 oratorio of the same name. And in fact, I suspect that far more people know Newman's text via Elgar than those who have read the full text. 

Intriguingly Dvorak had considered using Newman's text for an oratorio 15 years earlier, one wonders what that might have been like.

Rather appropriately, Oxford Bach Choir is beginning its 2019/20 season on Sunday 8 December 2019 with a performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius in the Sheldonian Theatre, conducted by Benjamin Nicholas with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and soloists Kathryn Rudge, Ed Lyon and Roderick Williams.

Newman had strong links with Oxford, he was ordained an Anglican priest there, becoming Vicar of St Mary's University Church, as well as helping found the Oxford Movement which radically transformed the High Anglican Church. On his conversion to Roman Catholicism and being ordained a Roman Catholic priest, Newman founded the Birmingham Oratory and lived there for nearly 40 years. Thus providing an interesting link to the orchestra for Sunday's performance.

Founded in 1896, and with some of its origins traceable back to 1819, Oxford Bach Choir has Benjamin Nicholas, director of music of Merton College, as its musical director. The choir's 2019/20 season also includes a contribution to Beethoven 250 with a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in March 2020.

There is an intriguing LGBT link to Newman's life, albeit one which causes a degree of controversy. For much of his life, Newman had a passionate friendship with Ambrose St John, the two were fellow Anglican priests, fellow converts and fellow Oratorians in Birmingham. When Newman died he specified that he was to be buried in St John's grave. The two men have a joint memorial stone inscribed with the motto Newman had chosen, Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem ("Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth").

Full details from the Oxford Bach Choir's website.

Serenata Mexicana: engaging new music from Mexico

Serenata Mexicana - Toccata Next
Serenata Mexicana - Alejandro Basulto, Arturo Marquez; Morgan Szymanski, Jamie MacDougall, Gabriella Dall'Olio, Shakespeare Sinfonia, David Curtis; Toccata Next
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 December 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An engaging selection of contemporary Mexican works, celebrating recent commissions by the Anglo Mexican Foundation

This disc, first on the Toccata Next label, was released earlier this year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Anglo-Mexican Foundation. The disc features three recent commissions by Mexican composers, Alejandro Basulto and Arturo Marquez, performed by the Shakespeare Sinfonia, conductor David Curtis, Morgan Szymanski (guitar), Jamie MacDougall (tenor), and Gabriella Dall'Olio (harp).

The programme on the disc is closely linked to Anglo Arts, the cultural programme of The Anglo Mexican Foundation, which commissioned Dibujos sobre un Puerto from Arturo Marquez for tenor Jamie MacDougall, and in 2015 commissioned the young composer Alejandro Basulto, and the resulting piece, Jig variation, was performed in Mexico by David Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan as part of the official activities to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and resulted in a second commission for Basulto specifically for this recording, Pequena Serenata ranchera.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Jennifer Pike and Martin Roscoe at Stoller Hall

Jennifer Pike
Jennifer Pike
Violinist Jennifer Pike will be in recital at Chetham's School of Music's Stoller Hall in Manchester on Tuesday 3 December 2019 with pianist Martin Roscoe, in a programme which combines the personal, in the form of her father Jeremy Pike's Violin Sonata (a 60th birthday present to himself), and Jennifer Pike's continued exploration of her own Polish heritage (her mother is Polish, see my interview with Jennifer), with more well-known repertoire.

Composer Jeremy Pike studied composition with Bryan Kelley, Sir Lennox Berkeley, Gordon Cross, Paul Patterson and Henryk Górecki (in Katwice in Poland, where he met his wife Teresa). He premiered his Violin Sonata in 2016 accompanying Jennifer Pike.

The recital includes music by the Polish composer and violinist Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), whose music is continuing to be explored more and more, and by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) the Hungarian-American composer best known for his films but with a substantial concert output too. The centrepiece of the programme is Edward Elgar's 1918 Violin Sonata.



Full details from the Stoller Hall website.

Leaving us wanting more: Jamie Barton has the audience on the palm of her hand in this finely sung recital at Wigmore Hall

Jamie Barton (Photo Bree Anne Clowdus)
Jamie Barton (Photo Bree Anne Clowdus)
Warren, Boulanger, Beach, Haydn, Larsen, Ravel, Duparc, Strauss; Jamie Barton, Kathleen Kelley; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 November 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Women composers to the fore in Jamie Barton's finely sung recital

Not every opera singer is able to transfer their art to the recital room, communicating directly with a visible audience and fining their voice down. But on Saturday 30 November 2019, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton showed that she could capture the audience of the Wigmore Hall as successfully as that of Covent Garden, the Met (or the Royal Albert Hall, where she sang the Last Night of the Proms in 2019).

On Saturday 30 November 2019, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was joined by pianist Kathleen Kelly at the Wigmore Hall for a programme by and inspired by women. There were songs by Elinor Remick Warren, Lili Boulanger, Amy Beach and Nadia Boulanger, plus Maurice Ravel, Hentri Duparc & Richard Strauss, plus Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos and Libby Larsen's song cycle Love after 1950.

We began with a group of songs by women composers from the early 20th century. Elinor Remick Warren (1900-1991) was a name that was new to me. She studied composition privately in the USA and was also in demand as an accompanist. Her song Heather was written in the 1930s and made famous by the soprano Jeanette MacDonald (famous for her films with Nelson Eddy). Not surprisingly for music from a professional accompanist, the song was beautifully put together and sung very communicatively. It was old-fashioned for its period yet with lovely hints of Debussy in the piano offsetting a slightly parlour-ballad-ish air to the song. Jamie Barton paid the song the compliment of believing in it, displaying superb control of the vocal line and giving his highly communicative words.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Handel and the Hanoverians: 2020 London Handel Festival

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner
George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner
The London Handel Festival (musical director Laurence Cummings, associate director Adrian Butterfield, festival director Samir Savant), now in its 42nd year, returns in 2020 with five weeks of concerts (5 March - 10 April 2020) under the theme of Handel and the Hanoverians. This year there is a chance to see a staging of a charming and under appreciated oratorio, an occasional piece written for a Royal wedding, his final oratorio, and a tantalising unfinished operatic fragment, not to mention the original version of Rule Britannia.

The headline event is a new production of Handel's oratorio Susanna which is a co-production between the festival and the Royal Opera at the Linbury Theatre, both director Isabelle Kettle and conductor Patrick Milne are Jette Parker Young Artists as are a number of the cast including Masabene Cecilia Rangwanasha in the title role and Patrick Terry (2nd Prize winner of the 2019 Handel Singing Competition). Based on the story of Susanna in chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel, Handel's oratorio was presented at Covent Garden in February 1749, and the work includes elements of pastoral comedy alongside the more serious vein.

Other dramatic works in the festival include Parnasso in Festa, a serenata written for the celebrations of the wedding of Anne, the Princess Royal, to Prince William IV of Orange in 1734. An occasional work in which Handel re-used a lot of material from his oratorio Athalia. Adrian Butterfield conducts a cast including Katie Bray as Apollo. Handel's final oratorio, The Triumph of Time and Truth, was created whilst he was struggling with failing eyesight and is a re-working of his Italian oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e disinganno. The performance is conducted by Laurence Cummings and features three past winners of the Handel Singing Competition.

Handel's Italian opera is represented at this year's festival by Serse, from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company with a cast including Anna Stephany, Mary Bevan and Anna Devin, and Fernando, from Leo Duarte and Opera Settecento. Handel started Fernando, re di Castiglia in 1731, but the plot with its father and son conflict in Portugal was a bit too close to the problems that the House of Hanover were having, so the opera was re-worked and completed as Sosarme, Re di Media. Fernando is thus incomplete, and Opera Settecento will be performing it in a new edition, and with a cast featuring a number of former Handel Singing Competition winners. There will also be a chance to explore Handel's Heroines in a concert from sopranos Mary Bevan and Jennifer France with Laurence Cummings conducting the Academy of Ancient Music.

The Handel Singing Competition takes place during the festival, with the final on 26 March 2020, and there is a chance to hear alumni of the competition, Erica Eloff, Caitlin Hulcup, Alexander Sprague and Lisandro Abadie, in concert with Laurence Cummmings and the London Handel Orchestra.

The festival theme pops up in a further pair of concerts with the Brook Street Band. They will be performing chamber music written by composers supported by the Royal family, and a pairing of Handel's Ode to St Cecilia and Arne's Alfred, with John Andrews conducting. Alfred was premiered at Cliveden, then the home of the Prince of Wales, and features that well known piece 'Rule Britannia'.

As something of a change from the festival's regular programming, Festival Voices return with Handel Remixed: Volume II at the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham, featuring well-known arias and choruses remixed live with electronic music.

Full details from the London Handel Festival website.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

As a young singer you have to give yourself to patience: I chat to counter-tenor James Hall, currently in Handel's Rinaldo & looking forward to Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream

James Hall as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Montpellier Opera (Photo Mark Ginot)
James Hall as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream
at Montpellier Opera (Photo Mark Ginot)
The young counter-tenor James Hall is having a busy time at the moment. He is currently coming to the end of a run of Handel's Rinaldo with Glyndebourne on Tour, playing Goffredo, and in the New Year will be Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. This is in Ted Huffman's production which debuted in Montpellier earlier this year, also with James as Oberon. At the same time, Elegy, his disc on Vivat of counter-tenor duets by John Blow and Henry Purcell, recorded with Iestyn Davies, the King's Consort and Robert King has recently been released [see my review]. 

I recently met up with James to chat about these in a lively conversation which also covered such issues as the differences between performing in concert and in opera, and the challenges facing young singers trying to build a career.

Rinaldo was at Glyndebourne this Summer, where James was covering the role of Goffredo, which was played by Tim Mead. James found covering the role incredibly useful, it was a real learning curve for him, particularly following an artist like Tim Mead who, having performed the role in an earlier revival at Glyndebourne, gave a really solid performance. With such a small cast, each revival of the opera is different and James has found the atmosphere on the tour different again, as a change of cast bring new perspectives on ideas about the opera. When we spoke, he had just two performances of Rinaldo to go and was just back from performing it in Liverpool, where James commented on the sheer number of record stores!

James Hall
James Hall
Then, in January he moves on to Berlin where Ted Huffman's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream opens at the Deutsche Oper on 26 January2020, conducted by Donald Runnicles. Having performed the role in the production when it was at Montpellier Opera in May, James is already familiar with the production. Though Montpelier was, in fact, his stage debut as Oberon, prior to that he had performed it once during the 2013 centenary year at a garden party. He enjoyed returning to the role in Montpelier, in is looking forward to going back to it again.

When I ask about the production, which he later describes as very imaginative, his first comment is that he hopes he fits into the corset better in January!

Friday, 29 November 2019

Gaudete!

London Concord Singers & Jessica Norton in rehearsal (Photo © Alejandro Tamagno)
London Concord Singers & Jessica Norton in rehearsal (Photo © Alejandro Tamagno)
Britten's youthful brilliance in A Boy Was Born, Arvo Pärt's stripped back intensity in Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen and Palestrina's luscious double-choir Missa Hodie Christus Natus Est

I will be singing with London Concord Singers, conductor Jessica Norton at the Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street, Mayfair on Thursday 5 December 2019

Full details from EventBrite.

The curious history of the saxophone

The Darling Saxophone Four in the 1920s
The Darling Saxophone Four in the 1920s
On Sunday 8 December, I will be talking at Conway Hall about the development of the saxophone, from its invention by Adolphe Sax, the importance of the work of Theobald Boehm and Hyacinthe Klosé, and its move from classical to jazz via ragtime, in my pre-concert talk at for Conway Hall Sunday Concerts. 

This is in advance of the concert by the Arcis Saxophon Quartett with music by Steve Reich, Dvorak, Bernstein, Barber and Gershwin.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

Grace Williams' Violin Concerto

Grace Williams in the 1940s
The music of Grace Williams (1906-1977) has always had a toe hold on the repertoire but more recently her music is being explored more widely. In 2006, she was Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3, which resulted in performances of works which had long lain dormant. In 2016 the BBC revived her large-scale Missa Cambrensis which had received such a poor first performance that it was never again performed in her lifetime, and earlier this year violinist Madeleine Mitchell released a disc of Williams' chamber music. Now it is the turn of Williams' Violin Concerto which Mitchell is performing tomorrow (Saturday 30 November 2019) with the Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra, conductor Michael Turner, at St Mark's Church, Regent Park.

Williams wrote her concerto in 1950, a period when amazingly she was thinking of giving up composing. There will be further chances to hear the concerto as next March, Madeleine Mitchell will be performing it in concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Jamie Philips (see the BBC website for details). The link is apt, as the work was premiered by violinist Granville Jones with the BBC Welsh Orchestra (BBC NOW's predecessor), conductor Mansel Thomas.

Further details of Saturday's concert from the Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra website.

 

Hearing anew: two contemporary quartets and an established classic in the Sacconi Quartet's programme at Kings Place

The Sacconi Quartet (Photo Clive Barda)
The Sacconi Quartet (Photo Clive Barda)
Grime, Rachmaninov, Bingham, Schubert; Sacconi Quartet; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two striking new quartets and an established classic in the intriguing programme at Kings Place

As part of Kings Place's Venus Unwrapped series, on Thursday 28 November 2019, the Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson, Robin Ashwell, Cara Berridge) gave a programme which combined two contemporary works with an established classic, giving the first London performance of String Quartet No. 1 by Helen Grime (born 1981) and the world premiere of Goya's Dog by Judith Bingham (born 1952), alongside Rachmaninov's Romance and Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor 'Death and the Maiden'.

Helen Grime's String Quartet No. 1 was commissioned by the Edinburgh Quartet and premiered by them in 2014. It is in one continuous movement but the material is clearly delineated in sections, though Grime's organic approach to musical material meant that the work flowed continuously, gradually changing. A big feature of the whole piece was the use of duos within the quartet, with the work opening with viola and second violin duo, followed by that between cello and first violin. At first there was a steady thread of scurrying music running through, with the other pair of instruments commenting on the duo which was of primary interest. This led to sections where textures became more transparent, and the comments were almost highly rhythmic interruptions. Aetherial at times and often quite intense, Grime used the different duos interacting so the music could be transparent and magical or highly rhythmic, ending in an intense high energy final section.

As a palate cleanser, we had Rachmaninov's Romance for string quartet, an early work from his student days which the quartet gave a highly refined, elegant performance full or tender yearning.

Judith Bingham's Goya's Dog used four of Goya's vivid images of animals to create four contrasting movements for string quartet.

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