Thursday 31 March 2005

Lancelot's Magi

I've just started work on a new libretto for a choral work. It's based on a sermon preached by Lancelot Andrewes. He has featured in my reading recently as he was part of the high church group surrounding Archbishop Laud in the early 17th century; Charles 1st came heavily under their influence and the rest, as they say, his history

But Andrewes was also a gifted orator and one of his published sermons, on the journey of the Magi, was quarried by T.S.Eliot for his poem about the Magi. Here is the original Andrewes: It was no summer progres. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio brumali, the very dead of winter.. Wonderful, is it not. I managed to find the whole sermon here. The sermon was preached at Whitehall, before King James at Christmas 1622.

Andrewes was a very learned cleric and his sermons can be convoluted. He heavily lards the text with Latin references to the original biblical text. I am currently struggling to reduce the text to manageable proportions whilst still keeping the magic, settable quality of the original

Current thinking is to have it set for double choir, or choir and semi-chorus with some magical (we hope!) bitonal echo effects for the dual language bits. I'll keep you posted.

By the way, does anyone know of a good English translation of the Pervigilium Veneris?

Tuesday 29 March 2005

Die Walk.....

The big news in our house yesterday (Easter Monday) was the disappearance of Acts 2 and 3 of Die Walküre from BBC TV's schedules because of Bryn Terfel's illness. Is it me, or is an aura of doubt and cancellation gathering around Terfel. Rightly, or wrongly, some artists seem to gather this.

I've already seen the opera live, (my review is on Music and Vision), but seeing things on TV means that you pick up on details which are not visible from the Amphitheatre seats in the Royal Opera House. M., our Wagner loving lodger, was looking forward to the production immensely. He'd had his appetite whetted by my descriptions and we'd had long discussions about what Warner's production might mean.

M. had already picked up on details I'd missed such as the fact that the wearing of the ring itself seems to cause scorching on the wearing. And he was already speculating about the links between Nibelheim and the Valkyrie rock, as both seem to involve viscerated corpses.

So, paradise postponed until Saturday then.

It ain't over till the fat lady sings

I was saddened to read the article in the Guardian saying that Deborah Voigt had undergone gastric surgery in an effort to lose weight. She evidently had the treatment in June but has recently told everyone about it because people had started to notice her decrease in weight - she's lost 7 stone.

Ms. Voigt is perhaps most recently famous for the kerfuffle about her non-appearance in Covent Garden's production of Ariadne auf Naxos because of her weight; the producer had refused to sanction a costume change. When news of this hit the press, as it did repeatedly last year, there were moments when I wondered who was driving the publicity campaign; it seemed as if perhaps the diva herself was trying capitalise on the free exposure. If this is so, then she may be regretting it as the press coverage has ensured that Ms. Voigt is best known for her weight, rather than her stupendous voice.

I saw Deborah Voight on stage at the Met in 2003 and she was an impressive performer both physically and vocally. Size need not be an issue providing the performer is a good actor and knows how to be expressive, which Voigt does. All it needs is a decent producer/director to work with the diva/divo. Unfortunately this does not always happen.

In her last outing as Turandot at Covent Garden, Jane Eaglen and the revival director did sterling work in adapting the roles movement requirements so that Eaglen could be expressive as Turandot but never look foolish (after all Turandot should not look foolish). Eaglen said at the time, that she can do most things a thinner person can, but you don't always want to see them and they are not always suitable for the character.

This was evident in the revival of Jonathan Miller's production of Tosca at ENO in which Eaglen sang quite some years ago. The revival director reproduced on Eaglen all the movement which had been crafted for Josephine Barstow. The results were, at times, awkward and on her final run up a plank to leap off the ramparts, almost laughable. Large people running are rarely dignified. Surely the ENO staff must have realised that the final image we were presented with was unsuitable for the end of Tosca, even if it is what Mr Miller created, though with a rather slimmer singer.

The most expressive large singer that I have known was the late Rita Hunter. I saw her in only a handful of roles (Brunnhilde, Turandot, Leonora (Il Trovatore)). But even though it was over 20 years ago I still have vivid memories of her singing and her stage presence. She was not a vigorous stage performer, but had truly expressive hands and face; there are moments from Act 2 of The Twighlight of The Gods which remain embedded in my visual memory.

Thursday 24 March 2005

A Handelian Passion

To St. Johns, Smith Square on Tuesday to see the King's Consort performing the St. Matthew Passion. Having seen the Gabrieli Consort perform the work here in 2003 with just 8 singers, it was a complete contrast to find Robert King conducting a choir of around 50 (2 mixed choirs of 17 each and around a dozen choristers from Wells) and an orchestra to match. They filled the stage to overflowing (at one point in part 1, St. Peter had to deliver his lines from behind a pillar), and there was a disturbing amount of coming and going from the soloists who were housed off stage when not singing.

This was very definitely a performance in the European oratorio tradition, the Passion as it might have been performed had Handel chosen to perform it in London. This is not quite as mad as it sounds, after all Handel and Telemann were friends and correspondants (in old age, Handel was still sending Telemann packages of plants). Telemann staged a number of Handel's works in Hamburg, doing the necessary adaptions himself I believe. Handel never reciprocated, he seems to have been on of those performers who cannot bear to have other challengers around. In that respect, life in London suited him where he could be very much top dog.

Handel and Bach were not friends, they never met and I don't think they corresponded. Bach attempted to meet up with Handel a couple of times but Handel seems to have gone out of his way to avoid a meeting. As he left little in the way of personal record, we have no way of knowing what his thoughts on his great contemporary were.

Wednesday 23 March 2005

Fame at last

I've just heard from a friend, who phoned to congratulate me that my settings of Carl Cook, sung by the Burgundian Cadence, are on the Radio tomorrow night, Thursday 24th, BBC Radio 3, Late Junction at 10.15pm. I think its my debut on Radio 3, what fun. The settings come from my Passion, which interpolates settings of Carl's poems into the St. John Passion done unaccompanied by just 4 voices. The disc was produced comercially and is still available.

Its rather funny, because I've just had an email conversation with the director of another group about the Passion, he'd just got around to listening to the CD I sent him. This conjures up visions of the various CD's I've sent out somehow finally squirrelling their way to the tops of desks, like an alien invasion in Doctor Who - well we can but hope.

Monday 21 March 2005

Out and About

To Oxford on Friday to visit the newly upgraded Fitzwilliam Museum - mildly disappointing, some of the galleries were closed and the general atmosphere still retains something of the froideur of the old museum. Still the newly cleaned polychrome entrance hall was quite stunning.

In the evening we took in English Touring Opera's new production of Maria Stuarda A full report will appear in due course. The production was stunning for the dramatic commitment of the cast and exemplary way that they put the English text over, in a small theatre like the Cambridge Arts Theatre this made for wonderful communication with the enthusiastic audience. Such a pity that the theatre was not full.

Staying with friends over the weekend we had lunch at the Leaping Hare, at Wyken Vineyard near Bury St. Edmunds. Delicious food with the addition of the lovely, is it/isn't sort of discussion that we all have when spotting potential celebrities. In our case, Jeremy Isaacs and Lesley Garrett, who were performing that evening at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds.

Wednesday 16 March 2005

Concord and Disharmony

Off to the dress rehearsal tonight for my choir's Easter concert. We (London Concord Singers) are doing a concert tomorrow (St. Patrick's Day), so its a selection of music with Irish connections - music by E.J.Moeran, Charles Wood, Elizabeth Maconchy and Samuel Barber, our usual varied mix, more details here.

There have been the usual panics leading up to the concert, especially as this term is so short (Easter is very early this year), but it has not helped that our regular concert venue (St. Cyprian's Church) is in dispute with Westminster City Council over their licence to perform concerts. So we've had to move the concert from there to the Grosvenor Chapel and are not sure where our July concert is going to be. I have even had emails from other groups, trying to find out whether we knew anything more about the situation. There must be a lot of performing groups in London looking for alternative venues.

Whilst rehearsing for this concert I've been helping to plan the July concert and sorting out the bookings for our Summer trip abroad (we're going to Strasbourg this year - we hope to do the Krystof Harant mass at the Cathedral). I sort of end up living simltaneously in the present and the future.

Tuesday 15 March 2005

50th Birthday blues

I'm busy sorting out the music for my 50th Birthday concert in July. Rather than my using my usual amateur group, FifteenB, I'm using a small group of professional choral singers. The concert's on 1st July at St. Giles Cripplegate in the Barbican, more details later.

For reasons best known to myself, the main work in the programme is my new setting of extracts from Thomas Cranmer's speech from the scaffold, just before he was executed. (One version of the speech is here). I've set it for unaccompanied choir and the Cranmer text alternates with settings of the Latin De Profundis. The work came about as a result of reading a couple of wonderful books by Diarmaid McCulloch, his biography of Cranmer and his book about the reformation. In one of the two he describes how Cranmer was led on, with a pair of priests singing Psalms. It was this which gave me the image for the piece and I was lucky to find that Cranmer's words are eminently settable.

Granted, it is not a very celebratory work but I have never been very good at writing music of a lighter nature; unless I go the whole way and wrote another musical. Partly, this is a problem with texts, it is the more serious stuff that I find inspiring and settable.

So I am now assembling a programme round the Cranmer. I've included another piece of mine which sets his words (from the Book of Common Prayer) for choir and Cello, which should be fun. And then we're having a group of pieces dating from Cranmer's time, contrasting the English church music under Edward 6th with Latin church music under Mary. So I've had a wonderful time searching out pieces by Mundy, Type, Sheppard etc. Many are not suitable as they are written for larger forces than our small choir, but you never know. I live in hope that some might find their way into another programme.

Monday 14 March 2005


A weekend of contrasts. To the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for their new production of Die Walküre; of this, more anon, but suffice it to say that we thoroughly enjoyed the production and were revlieved to find in Lisa Gasteen a Brünnhilde who combined an active, physical stage presence with a large, gleaming voice which soared above the orchestra. Since hearing Rita Hunter as my first live Brunnhilde I have always preferred the role sung by sopranos with large, focussed voices.

Sunday we went to Sadler's Wells to see Harold Rome's Fanny. A Broadway musical, produced originally in 1954, based on the films by Marcel Pagnol. Rome is best known for his revue Pins and Needles; the 25th anniversary recording of which gave a very young Barbra Streisand one of her earliest recorded outings and caused quite a stir. Fanny was produced by The Lost Musicals, who specialise in semi-staged concerts of rare musicals. Their performances are usually a treat and Sunday night was no exception, with a large cast giving a convincing performance of this charming piece, set in the port of Marseille. The plot is not a little sentimental and Rome's style is rather old-fashioned, especially if you consider that Oklahoma dates from the same period. But it is a lovely piece and has a big baritone role, originally written for Ezio Pinza (his only Broadway outing after South Pacific). Can't we now see a full production.

In a curious piece of synchronicity, I am currently reviewing a disc of arias sung by the great American bass Lawrence Tibbett, who followed Pinza into Fanny in 1956.

Cendrillon again

As promised, my review of the opera is here on The Classical Source.

Friday 11 March 2005


To the Royal Academy of Music to review their performance of Massenet's Cendrillon (a review of the opera will be posted shortly). This was the first time I'd been in the theatre there, the auditorium is remarkably wide for its relatively short depth, presumably due to the constraints of fitting the theatre into the existing building. Unfortunately, with the seats in curved, amphitheatre formation, from our position in D1 and D2 we could see clearly into the wings. So our view of the performance was combined with the sight of stray cast members lurking off stage. This slightly village hall atmosphere was compounded by one of the cast peeping round the rear curtain at the end to check whether it was the right moment to come on for their bow. The on-stage performance was, naturally, intensely professional (as you would expect from one of London's premiere conservatoires) so it was a shame that the presentation did not quite come up to the same standard.

Thursday 10 March 2005

Opera Lyon

We spent last weekend in Lyon at the opera, they were doing a new production of Chabrier's Le Roi Malgre Lui. An opera that I love dearly and have now seen 3 times, never in an entirely satisfactory production. My review of the opera, along with some pictures is on Music and Vision, here.

The opera house at Lyon is a truly remarkable building. Originally dating from the 19th century is has been radically overhauled and brought into the 21st. The lovely facade of the original building has been kept, but over the top there is a remarkable cureved steel and glass structure, reminiscent of Charing Cross station. Inside they have kept the plaster and gilt foyer overlooking the entrance, but everything else is new. You enter into a world of gleaming black marble, dramatic lights and escalators. The theatre itself is all modern black, rather like the auditorium at Sadlers Wells Theatre here in London. The strange thing is that they have kept the traditional horseshoe format, with a deep U shaped stalls (Parterre) and an amazing 6 layers of balconies; the proscenium arch is equally high. I am not sure what the stage facilities are like as the production we saw did not really use any of them (much of it took place on a bare stage). The city of Lyon website has further info here. The audience was pretty diverse, the whole experience of opera going was refreshingly un-grand.

One logistical curiosity though, the toilet provision for men seemed to be rather inadequate, do French men have better bladder control than the English?

Wednesday 9 March 2005

The new orthodoxy

I've just been re-reading Andrew Parrott's book The Essential Bach Choir partly because, with Easter approaching, there are so many Bach passions in the air in London. We've got visits from the Kings Consort (at St. John's Smith Square) and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra (at the new Cadogan Hall). I hope to get to St. John's but alas we're going to miss the Cadogan Hall gig, which is a shame as I've not yet managed to get to a proper concert there.

I've always been fascinated by the idea of one to a part performance of Bach and I still treasure my old Joshua Rifkin LP's, in fact I've just managed to order the Mass in B minor on CD at a reasonable price (from MDT); it was available in the UK only as an import for some time. What these new performances seem to tell us is that there is a new orthodoxy, the performance of Bach by a small, professional chamber choir.

I can remember the time when it was not only common to perform Bach's passions with rather large choral groups, but that was seen as the standard method of performance. We have now replaced this with our chamber choir model, neither of which has that much basis in what we know about Bach's performance methods. But the effect has been to make it difficult for choirs to perform Bach's music in large scale performances. Couldn't we perhaps learn a little from the past and instead of replacing one orthodoxy with another simply agree that there are many valid ways of performing great music.

By the way, I managed to track down the Parrott book via a rather wonderful website, WILL, which allows you to search on-line across all of the London public lending libraries. So no more trekking to Wesminster Music Library only to discover that a) they don't have any music by Eccard or b) its all out on loan

A new beginning

This is the first entry in my new blog. I already have articles and reviews in the web at and but I fancied a more casual approach as well.

I'll try and keep this blog posted with my other reviews as they come out.

Popular Posts this month