Friday 29 July 2005

Thursday 28 July 2005

Magi Magic

Well, after moaning last week that my Magi piece, setting parts of Lancelot Andrewes's nativity sermon, was going slowly I can now report that things seem to have picked up. I've almost finished the 2nd movement which will mean I've done 3 or the 4, all I have to do now is conjure up a suitable finale. Some of it has been slow going as I get rather lazy when writing in 8 parts and have to kick myself, otherwise the separate parts end up getting boring.

I've just heard that my review of the Barenboim Ring cycle set will be appearing in a week or so. Watch this space! I'll be off line for a few days, back on Monday.

Wednesday 27 July 2005

CD Review

My new CD review on MusicWeb; Johann Simon Mayr's Sisara, a real work of excavation from the archives, something for those interested in the origins of 19th century Italian music. (Mayr was the teacher of Donizetti).


Tuesday 26 July 2005

En route for Strasbourg

Last night we had a London Concord Singers rehearsal with the smaller group of us who are going to Strasbourg in August. We're doing basically the same programme as that which we did in London on July 14th; entitled A Musical Tour of the EU this includes music from a variety of eras and countries in Europe, including my own motet Respice Domine. Its a little challenging, doing some of the works with a smaller group and I'm the only 2nd tenor, which is tiring; but I think things are going well.

I'm the tour manager for the trip, so last night was our briefing session, with everyone getting their timetables and information packs. Luckily this year I've been able to do all of the business by fax and email, no long conversations in Franglais thank goodness.

We're performing in St. Thomas's Church, Rue Martin Luther, Strasbourg on Saturday 6th August 2005 and then doing Mass at the Cathedral on the Sunday.

Monday 25 July 2005

Dreaming of Gerontius

Out of London for a short weekend, our trip back on Sunday night was much enlivened by the live relay of The Dream of Gerontius from the BBC Proms at the Albert Hall. The soloists were Paul Groves (Gerontius), Alice Coote (Angel) and Matthew Best with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder. The Halle Choir was boosted by the London Philharmonic Choir, the 2 choirs making a suitably fine sound.

As far as we could tell, listening over the car radio, Paul Groves was a moving Gerontius. Perhaps he needed a little more heft, but its difficult to tell without being there. He was quite restrained, in fact his manner and his exemplary diction rather reminded me of Heddle Nash's renowned recording of the role; the recording I grew up on, in fact.

This was very much a dignified, Anglican interpretation of the work. A friend of mine has a theory that you can divide Gerontiuses into two types, dignified Anglican (Sir Adrian Boult) and passionate Catholic (John Barbirolli). What I liked about the soloists was that they sang with passion and committment without going too over the top in an operatic manner; there is a tendency nowadays to see the work as an opera manque and to sing it accordingly.Coote was near ideal as the Angel and we will really have to make an effort to hear her live.

Rather imaginatively, the semi-chorus was sung by the recently formed Halle youth choir; the main Halle Choir itself is the same age as the orchestra, who are Britains oldest professional orchestra.

My first live exposure to the work was in the early '70s when I was a student in Manchester. The Halle was directed by James Loughran then, but the aura of Barbirolli still hung over the orchestra. They performed a number of works associated with Barbirolli, such as the Elgar Violin Concerto, which were rarely performed in England at the time. The details of the performances are rather lost in the mists of time, but I rather think that we heard Janet Baker and Richard Lewis in the work. On performance I do remember, rather oddly, was one given by student forces at the Royal Northern College of Music where the student choir, orchestra and soloists were joined by veteran tenor Alexander Young as Gerontius; he was Head of Vocal studies at the College at the time.

Perhaps the most memorable Gerontius I was ever involved in was the time I sang in the work with the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra. It was Bernard Haitink's first performance of the piece and for tenor soloist he had the elderly Richard Lewis, fresh from a dual hip replacement operation. Lewis's performance, from memory, was remarkable; when he opened part 2 with the words I fell asleep but now I am refreshed, you really felt that this man had died. Lewis's voice lacked something in power but Haitink was a wonderful accompanist and you never felt that the orchestra overwhelmed Lewis. A truly wonderful performance

Friday 22 July 2005

Recent CD reviews

Two more CD reviews on MusicWeb:-

William Byrd:Anthems:Hereford Cathedral Choir

The programme is excellent mixing Latin items from the Gradualia and Cantiones Sacrae but the recording itself is a little disappointing

Life Is Beautiful:Australian Compilation disc

A compilation disc from Australian Broadcasting Co., full of interesting Australian artists rarely heard here

Wednesday 20 July 2005

Guitar Manoevres

We've spent the weekend starting the publicity for the release of the score of Ricardo Frantz's Suite Urania for clarinet, guitar and piano. We're publishing it on our Spherical Editions imprint. Previously we've just published my stuff but are expanding with tentative steps. Ricardo is a young Brazilian composer and artist, his details are here, the page also gives some samples of the music and midi files for all 5 movements. But just to tempt you, here is a midi file of the first movement.

Its a bit of a new venture for us, but widens the range of music we have available on the website and Ricardo's style is very different to mine. Ricardo is also an artist and designed the artwork on the cover of music.

So now, having been busy doing all sorts of other musical odds and ends, I finally have time to get back to my Magi piece, setting excerpts from Lancelot Andrewes's sermon on the Nativity, for those that are interested the full sermon is here.
It is always difficult to get into the right frame of mind when coming back to a piece, continuing work on the first movement this morning was slow going and I hope things improve. Having only written 1.5 movement so far, I can't see the piece being finished in time to have it performed for Christmas this year, so it looks like being Christmas 2006!

Tuesday 19 July 2005

Mitridate 2

Continuing on the subject of Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, see below for part 1

The notable thing about the casting was how few star names there were in the cast, and how brilliantly all coped, turning in star performances of this virtuoso music. Mitridate's younger son, Sifare, was played by soprano Sally Matthews. Sifare is loyal to Mitridate but in love with his Father's fiance, Aspasia (Aleksandra Kurzak). As the opera open's with Mitridate's apparent death and his return occurs towards the end of Act 1, this gives Mozart and his librettist plenty of scope for putting Aspasia and Sifare through any amount of anguish, tearful admissions of love and more tearful partings; all done with stupendous artistry and virtuoso style by Matthew's and Kurzak. Both were superb, Kurzak is new to me and she is doing Norina at the ROH next season - hurray! Matthews has been doing some good things recently but her performance here was truly career defining. I doubt that Sifare will prove to be a signature role, its too obscure, but it certainly shows what a talented artist she is, coping with the virtuoso element in the music and being able to use it expressively. Not a large woman, she created a believably androgonous Sifare.

As Sifare's unsavoury elder brother, Farnace, we had the other star of the evening, David Daniels. The look of the costume, makeup and wig (shaved front of head, long, long hair and white makeup) did not really suit him as much as it did Jochen Kowalski when the production is new. Its difficult to be evil when you rather look like the wicked witch of the west. Also, I felt the role lies a little too low for Daniels, he can do this sort of thing be here is a singer who started out his career singing the mezzo-soprano role of Sesto in Handel's Giulio Cesare. Still, it provided his legions of London fans a rare opportunity to see him in a stage performance. We were sitting near someone who had been to see the opera 3 times this run!

As Farnace's ignored fiance, Ismene, Susan Gritton proved that she has been developing enormously. Glance at her CV and you notice that much of this development has been happening away from London; though she sings here regularly, it is in Munich that she sang Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. After her multi-dimensional Ismene, I hope we hear more of her on the London operatic stage.

The production seemed a little less stylised than it had been, perhaps the current cast were not so comfortable with the repertoire of movements created for them. Some seemed to lapse into naturalistic acting rather too often. The choreography also seemed softer edged, less ritualistic and kabuki like. But it is 12 years since I have seen the production, so memory may be playing tricks

This is not one of Mozart's best operas; by half-way through Act 3, I began to feel the music and drama running out of steam and Vick seemed to notch the production up a a gear to compensate. But in terms of design, style and the staging of an opera seria this is a stand-out production. I hope we don't have to wait another 12 years for it.

Recent CD reviews

My recent CD reviews on Music Web:-

Immortal Fire:Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks of Winchester Cathedral:Griffin

A fine selection of 20th century motets; a good showpiece for the relatively new Winchester Girls choir, though I would have liked more words.

Kalman:Die Ziegeunerprimas

One of Kalman's earliest successes, a charming disc but the dialogue has been replaced by a spoken narration

Telemann:Ein Feste Burg:Carus

Interesting collection of Telemann's shorter religious pieces

Swiss German Folk Songs

Swiss German folksongs in clever (sometimes too clever) arrangements from a talented Swiss vocal ensemble.

Baroque Oboe Concertos

Reissue; showcases talents of brilliant Norwegian oboist; stylistically these are rather old-fashioned though.


Creditable but disappointing release.

Baroque Duets

Lovely new disc from a talented Australian soprano and mezzo-soprano, do get to know them.

Monday 18 July 2005

Mitridate 1

Sunday afternoon we went off to see Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto at the Royal Opera House in London. It was written when he was just 14 and is a very effective opera seria, giving all of the protagonists some superb virtuoso show pieces and putting each of them into a series of taxing dramatic situations. The drawback is that, being only 14, he never breaks the rules and though the work is effective and has some stunning music, there are longeurs.

This was helped on Sunday by David Vick's stunning production. First seen here in 1991 and revived in 1993, this is its first outing since then. Vick's production is a text book example of how to stage an opera seria with drama and stage interest, taking the form seriously without either sending it up or doing serious violence to the musico-dramatic structure.

The only member of the cast to have appeared in all revivals is tenor Bruce Ford in the title role, all the rest of the cast are new, many relative newcomers to the ROH stage. Ford is still brilliant as Mitridate, but he now negotiates the virtuoso passages with less freedom and flexibility. I will continue tomorrow with a discussion about the remainder of the cast.

Friday 15 July 2005

News, Reviews and Plans

Well, despite the heat we managed to perform creditably at the London Concord Singers' concert last night. The venue, St. Michael's Church, Chester Square, London, was new to us; it is a substantial cruciform Victorian church and the audience were very complimentary about the sound the choir made. But from the singers' point of view, it was tricky getting used to a new acoustic; everything sounded different and the internal balance of the choir was other than that we were used to at our regular venues like St. Cyprian's Church. Still, the concert was well received and as a recording was made, we should be able to hear the awful truth.

My motet, Respice Domine (from Tempus per Annum) was given a good first performance and was well received by both choir and audience. This is the 5th motet Tempus per Annum from to be premiered this year.

The review of the other premieres (at my birthday concert on 1st July) is now in The Church Times, Roderic Dunnett has written a very generous review and seemed to like the choir very much. The review is on the web, here but this link will only be valid for a week, until 21st July. There is a 2nd review on Classical Source

Further ahead, we are planning an orchestral concert with The Salomon Orchestra. The concert is planned for 23rd March 2006 at St. James's Church, Piccadilly, with the orchestra being conducted by Adrian Brown. The programme will include Elgar's Serenade, Haydn's Military Symphony plus my new pieces In the Barbarian's Camp and a setting, for baritone and orchestra, of Rilke's Second Duino Elegy, the one which starts Jeder Engel ist shreklich/Every Angel is terrifying. The barbarian piece is a corollary to my choral piece The Barbarian at the Gate which we premiered in 2002 at the Chelsea Festival with Philharmonia Brass. It set three rather serious poems by Helen Waddell, translations from Medieval Latin Lyrics, about how civilisation was being trampled on by barbarians. This piece is lighter as the poem it is based on is a satyrical one written by a Roman poet living with Attila the Hun, it tells how he can't write poetry amongst such galumphing, smelly but over friendly giants

Another plan, which is still a little in the air but looks promising is the idea to take Cranmer to Oxford next year, which would be very exciting indeed.

Thursday 14 July 2005

Memories of Twighlight of the Gods

Well, it has finally happened, I have finished my listening to the complete Barenboim Ring; no doubt my review will appear in time, I'll keep you posted. Twighlight of the Gods was the first instalment of the Ring that I saw, one very hot Saturday afternoon (it started at 4pm) at the Opera House in Manchester. Reginald Goodall was conducting English National Opera, Rita Hunter played Brünnhilde and Jean Cox played Siegfried. We were high up in the Gods and sweltered for the 6 hours or so that the opera lasted.

Though sung in English, all the words did not make it up to the Gods so I was quite often bewildered by what was going on; the amount of narrative in the opera makes it difficult to appreciate as mere spectacle. But something did grab me; there are still one or two moments that I remember. Most notably, Brünnhilde's entrance into the Gibichung Hall after her capture by Siegfried as Gunther. Despite her size and tendency to not move unless necessary, there was something extremely expressive about Hunter's acting. She could use her face and hands to stunning effect. As she entered, her face, whirring hands and arms made a vivid impression and few subsquent stagings of this scene touch what is probably just an erratic memory

The other moment is not from the staging itself, but afterwards when the Opera House errupted - it was the completion of the first complete Ring to be staged in Manchester since Beecham and his company. When Hunter took her bow she waved her forearms in the air like a wrestler, it seemed such an appropriate gesture for such a towering performance

It was the ending again that was most memorable in Götz Friedrich's first Ring at Covent Garden. The stage had become increasingly cluttered as the action moved from the world of the Gods to the world of men, but for the Immolation scene, Friedrich cleared things away leaving just Gwynneth Jones on a bare stage with a huge grille at the back burning away. It was pricely, giving Jones all the space she needed to create a huge impression. Despite my admiration for Rita Hunter, it was Jones who I saw in my first complete Ring and she was still a wonderful performer, a supremely dramatic artist even if, occasionally, she could not make her huge voice do exactly what she wanted; but she always delivered at the big moments

Most other final moments of the Ring have been a little disappointing. The Hungarian State Opera's take on it was rather novel, if a little taxing for the soprano. It took place inside the castle courtyard, but the funeral pyre was outside the castle, glimpsed by us through the castle gates. This entailed much running on and off stage for Brünnhilde as each time she had to do something to the pyre, fetch her horse etc, the director had to hurry her off stage. But it seemed to work and the soprano delivered a noble performance despite much running about. Then, when the Rhine invaded the entire front half of the castle descended into the bowels of the stage, a truly fabulous effect; leaving the ruins to be played upon by the laser-effect Rhine from the opening. Priceless

Now, all I have to do is review the highlights DVD of the Harry Kupfer Bayreuth staging which goes with the Ring box set. I hope it lives up to the memories.

Tuesday 12 July 2005

More premieres

We mainly devoted last week to preparations for my birthday party on Saturday, except for an outing to hear Handel's Flavio, an opera that I had never seen staged; you can read the review here, on Music and Vision

And now, party over, calm reigns so I must devote myself to final rehearsals for the London Concord Singers concert at St. Michael's Church, Chester Square, Victoria, London, at 7.30pm. It is called A Musical Tour of the EU and has music from countries as varied as the Czech Republic, Latvia, Denmark and Holland. Also included is the premiere of my motet Respice Domine. This is another instalment of my Tempus per Annum collection of motets; it was written specially for the choir's tour in Strasbourg in Sunday August 7th - the text is the introit for that day.

The full programme is quite tiring as the mass by Kyrstof Harant is quite substantial and sits rather low for me, but the results should be rather exciting I think. We're doing the mass semi-liturgically, preceded by my introit and broken up by suitable moetes. Come and hear for yourself!

Thursday 7 July 2005

Memories of Siegfried

Well my trawl through the Ring cycle reached Siegfried, not my favourite of operas and one which seems to yield fewer visual memories. Rene Kollo was a revelation in the title role at Covent Garden (in the 2nd Goetz Friedrich Ring); quite mature when he took the role he created a believable young Siegfried, despite an unbecoming boiler suit.

It was Friedrich, of course, who created the most exciting, mechnical Fafner in his first Covent Garden Ring; driven by the singer playing the role - some wonderful pure theatre. One of this same Ring's most memorable moments was Wotan (Donald MacIntyre) going in search of Erda. The platform tilted so that the front nearly reached the podium and Wotan climbed up as it rose till he was perched on the top, leaning over looking into the innards of the hydraulic mechanism where Erda had her lair; a thrilling moment. This was the production where Wotan seemed to express emotion by falling over, MacIntyre must have been black and blue by the time he finished.

For Brunnhilde's awakening, no-one could beat Gwynneth Jones, you really believed that she was awakening after 20 years. And who can forget her and Siegfried throwing her armour around like children

Also memorable was the production at La Scala. The Valkyrie rock was a vast field of poppies which appeared gradually from the back of the stage. Brunnhilde was nowhere in sight, till you realised that she was covered by the grass and the poppies. As she stirred there was an audible reaction in the audience as they realised that this Brunnhilde was one big woman - it was Jane Eaglen, in stunning form. Mind you, this brief reaction over, they loved her.

One another subject, did anyone see Norman Lebrecht's amazing diatribe against Australian arts administrators in yesterday's London Evening Standard; its on-line here, at La Scena Musicale. His weekly columns are always controversial, but sometimes I feel that he is picking on a subject for pillorying just for the sake of it. I do hope that someone publishes a reasoned rebuttal.

Wednesday 6 July 2005

Birthday 2

No sooner had we recovered from my birthday concert than we went off to Paris, by Eurostar. Staying in a a delightful hotel in the Marais, Hotel du Petit Moulin, designed by Christian Lacroix, we spent most of the time just pottering around, eating and indulging in retail therapy. But on Sunday afternoon we went to the Chatelet Theatre to see Cherubini's Medea. The production was originally at Tolouse and you can read the reviews and see pictures here, at the Opera Critic site

It was performed by forces from Toulouse, conducted by Evelino Pido. Anna Caterina Antonacci looked fabulous as Medea and gave a tremendous performance, only marred by a steeliness in her upper register which rather hinted that the role lay a little uncomfortably high for her. She was dramatically intense without ever resorting to the scenery chewing mode which singers often resort to in this music.

Despite the dramatic intensity of the story, this is music written in the 18th century. The opera is notable for Cherubini's rich use of the orchestra in support of the singers; but his vocal lines never go much beyond the musical propriety of the time. It requires singers of stature to bring the roles to life. Antonacci did that well, but Giasone was less well served. Albanian tenor Giuseppe Gipali's CV covers mainly 19th century Italian opera so it was difficult to see why he had been engaged.
He did manage to sing with a good line, but was stiff. The remainder of the cast were creditable

Yannis Kokkos had used admirable restraint in his production, emphasising the classicism inherent in Cherubini's work and using this to point up the difference in moeurs between Medea and Giasone and his adopted country. Kokkos' designs were simple (just stairs and doors) in classical mode, the only point of note was the colour scheme of black and gold; even the singers wore uniform black (except Medea). Giasone and the Argonauts started in gold but even they conformed.

Whilst I enjoyed the production, it did not convince some French friends who though it insufficiently dramatic. Overall the results were, I think, creditable rather than superb and I left with a niggling feeling that the performers had done well by Cherubini but could have done superbly. Perhaps one of the problems was that the opera was done in Italian with the Lachner recitatives. I read in the press that this was because Antonacci was relutanct to do the French spoken dialogue (does this mean that she won't do the dialogue when she does Carmen at Covent Garden?). Whatever the reason, I think the opera works far better with spoken dialogue, rather than Lachner's attempts at dramatic recitative; the aria/dialogue mix emphasises the opera's otherness

This was my 5th production of the opera having first seen it at the Buxton Festival (with I think Rosalind Plowright) in a production which completely lacked classical poise. Plowright turned up again in the Royal Opera production mounted for the centenary of the French revolution (again there were problems casting Jason). Probably the best stage version was that at Opera North where Phyllida Lloyd's production enabled Josephine Barstow to give a superb performance. But I still have happy memories of the concert performance, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment. Where Elizabeth Connell's Medee made her first appearance, declaiming furiously, from the rear of the hall - pricelessly dramatic.

Tuesday 5 July 2005

Birthday 1

Finally, on Friday, it was my birthday concert. After struggling to find a cab in the rain (so that I could transport the interval refreshments to St. Giles), arrangements went according to plan, amazingly. St. Giles kindly made parking available, so there was no re-run of the parking ticket problems of 2 weeks ago.

A gratifying mixture of friends and strangers turned up and the musical results were highly satisfying. Even more gratifying was the positive reaction to my Cranmer cantata. The performance was excellent but I still worried that people might be bored, might not 'get it'. I need not have worried

There was a critic there from The Classical Source, so you can read his review Here.
There was time, after the concert, to retire to the pub and socialise with friends and acquaintances. My birthday was well and truly launched

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