Monday 31 October 2005

The Cut and Patch of Opera Production

Re-reading the reviews of WNO's new production of Verdi's Don Carlos on the admirable Opera Critic web site, I was struck again by the sheer oddity of the way people go about producing a text for this opera.

The journey from the 5 Act French Grand Opera performed in Paris to the 5-Act Italian Modena version was quite a long one for Verdi. The only constant was the French language, something that tends to be forgotten nowadays. He always regarded the Italian version as a translation and that the French libretto had primacy. But the 5-Act Italian version of the opera was premiered nearly 20 years after the opera's original premiere in Paris (in 1867).

So the later version of the opera is a finer, tauter thing; more dramatic, less leisurely, closer to later Verdi. The earlier opera is discursive (it was too long even for Paris and was cut prior to its premiere there), and Verdi's ultimate take on the genre of French grand opera. That particular art form which was developed specifically for the Opera in Paris.

For those interested in the opera's history then, it would make a lot of sense to try performing the original version of the opera (even in a cut version). This was done by the BBC in a concert performance in 1976. This is going to be re-issued by Opera Rara in their Verdi Originals series and I can't wait for it to come.

But most opera companies and comentators cannot bear to perform, in unrevised form, passages which were subsequently revised and tautened up by Verdi; the master's final thoughts are paramount. There is, of course, no problem with this; it is as it should be. But there is a lingering fascination with the bits Verdi cut when creating his later versions of the opera. So WNO, like the Royal Opera before them, perform the Modena version with bits of the original Paris version inserted. The result makes a mockery of Verdi's cutting and tautening and causes tension between the two eras of the opera's performance.

Any performance of Don Carlos is an event and one in French is very special, no matter what the edition. But I wish that opera houses would stick to a version of the opera which bears some resemblance to one that Verdi intended.

Recent CD review

My review of Emma Bell's lovely disc of Handel arias is here, on MusicWeb.

Friday 28 October 2005

Chelsea Festival 2006

FifteenB have been invited to perform at next year's Chelsea Festival. Further details later, but we'll probably be doing a programme of unaccompanied choral music mixing my pieces with music by more well known composers.

Thursday 27 October 2005

I've made some corrections to the Siegfried review; a rather embarassing number of typos seem to have crept in, but then I am not the best of proof readers. My apologies.

We are currently going to quite a few London Film Festival events, so there is slightly less musical activity than usual. That said, tonight is the annual autumn soiree for the Friends of the Chelsea Festival, hosted by the Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea at Kensington Town Hall. We've performed at 3 festivals over the years and keep in touch just in case there is space for us at a future one. Also, we're Friends anyway as there are usually some interesting musical events on. (That said, I don't think we managed anything this year but that was down to problems of timing more than anything else).

Then tomorrow we're off to Salome at the London Coliseum; ENO's revival of David Levaux's production with Cheryl Barker in the title role, her first stab at the role I believe. I've never seen Levaux's production and David has never seen Salome staged so it seemed a good moment to catch up with the production. I'll report back after we've seen it.

I'm still working on songs (well, a song); my second this autumn. I am also trying to find some more poetry to set. The local bookshop did not have any books by poets that I'd identified, so it looks as though a trip to the library is in order. That way, at least I might find some poems which I like which aren't about love.

Tuesday 25 October 2005

Recent CD Review - Georgian Journey

Here, on MusicWeb is my review of a lovely disc of Georgian music (both sacred and secular). The Georgian musical tradition is very old and rather special in that they sing polyphonically, the results are completely entrancing.

Monday 24 October 2005

Review of Siegfried at Covent Garden, Sat. 22nd October 2005

Episode 3 of the Royal Opera's new Ring Cycle opens in a bleak, black and white space with just the stray detritous of living and a crashed plane. Quite what relevance the plane has to the story of Siegfried and Mime I'm not sure but it did provide a concrete place in which they could interact. The act had opened with something of a coup; a drop curtain covered with equations, Mime frantically scribbling and a series of Siegfrieds (baby, toddler, teenager) who constantly break swords. This aptly sets the scene for the relationship between the grown-up Siegfried (John Treleaven) and Mime (Gerhard Siegel). The interplay between the 2 was one of the best aspects of this new production of Siegfried. Whereas Phyllida Lloyd at the London Coliseum, created a Siegfried who was a believable sulky teenager, at Covent Garden Treleaven and Siegel created a relationship closer to that of Steptoe and Son.

Treleaven makes an impressive Siegfried; whilst not conceivable as a teenager he made a believable, young and naive hero. His voice is silvery rather than golden or brazen. He does lack the ringing top that would be ideal, but he is convincing enough with silver steel tones. And he had reserves of power enough to carry him through the entire opera with a consistency of voice that was entirely admirable (though he did understandably tire towards the end). He is indeed quite a find and you wonder why he has not sung such roles in his native country before.

Siegel is an impressive Mime, struggling in a situation where he feels he has no control. The third, important person in this act is of course Wotan as the Wanderer. Here John Tomlinson, looking wonderfully down at heel, created a shabby, but powerful personage with superb charisma. Whilst it was a disappointment not to be seeing Terfel in the role, it was a such a pleasure to encounter Tomlinson's Wanderer again. He is such a vivid, theatrical performer that Terfel will be hard put to fill his shoes in this production (if he ever does). Granted, Tomlinson's voice is not quite what it once was, but somehow the traces of effort in the upper reaches chimed in with the fatalism and world-weariness of his performance.

Having 2 such strong, physical performers together meant that the '20 questions' scene was so tremendous that you stopped wondering why thy were sitting on opposite sides of a wing from a damage airplane!

The forging scene sounded admirable, but Treleaven was given lots of detailed business to do with spare plane parts, pots, pans etc. The result was indeed a forged sword, but given that the action was so detailed I could have wished for a little more realism, or more abstraction. You can understand Phyllida Lloyd's desire to stage this scene abstractly for ENO, even if that staging did not quite work.

Act 2 took place in a cavernous, dark space with the staging area disappearing into the rear of the stage. Peter Sidhom was a strong Alberich (I hope he reappears the next time Das Rheingold is given here), so the sequence of scenes between Sidhom, Tomlinson and Siegel were brought off with enviable ease. Less gripping was the attempt by director Keith Warner and designer Stefanos Lazaridis, to give the Forest Murmurs scene a trendy gloss. Siegfried disappeared down a hole in the stage, the whole floor then lifted up to reveal Treleaven reclining on a grassy surface atop a group of hospital trollies. As he sang and the orchestra played, 2 supers wheeled on first a stag and then a doe and finally the wood-bird arrived; white clad Sara Fox with a model wood-bird at the end of a rope on a stick. (During Act 1 there had been much by-play with bits of paper (contracts?) and the Wanderer had kept making origami model birds out of paper, presumably to emphasise to us that he is in control of the Woodbird).

Fafner was pretty well done; for most of the time we saw the singer clad as he was in Das Rheingold with the tarnhelm next to him. Only when he attacks Siegfried does he turn into a most convincing dragon. Once fallen, the dragon disappears and when Siegfried lifts off the tarnhelm he takes Fafner's head with it; the final dialogue between Siegfried and Fafner was wonderfully done with Siegfried talking to Fafner's disembodied head - quite magical.

Act 3 opened in an abstract space with a huge spinning platform with the troubled Wanderer on it. Erda (Jane Henschel) appears in her armchair, and floats past in almost disembodied manner, barely impinging on the Wanderer's trouble.

Then the stage re-assembled itself into a simplified version of Act 3 of Die Walküre, i.e. huge metal spiral and the white, moveable wall with just one door. It was this door that the Wanderer barred to Siegfried; Tomlinson and Treleaven were tremendous in this scene; it more than made-up for the rather low-key version of this encounter at the Coliseum. Whatever you think of Warner's staging, he is certainly alive to the mythic elements in the opera (even if he does tend to over-egg the pudding).

The Wanderer gone we waited with bated breath for the final scene.

We never saw Brunnhilde on her rock, she remained behind the white wall; for some reason Warner had Siegfried simply describe what he could see each time his disappeared from our view. Granted, this meant we were spared the more embarassing bits, like when Siegfried has to cut Brunnhilde's armour off her. But it also meant that we never saw Siegfried's first proper reaction to Brunnhilde nor did we see her waking up. In previous productions in this house, Gwynneth Jones was mesmerising as she gradually came to life, you really did believe she'd been asleep for 20 years!

Here, our first sight of Lisa Gasteen's Brunnhilde was a dramatic back-lit one as she stood in the door. From then on, Warner seemed to take a rather down-beat view of this final duet. The dramaturgy, singers' demeanour and rather gloomy setting all conspired to emphasise Brunnhilde's troubles and doubts rather than the couple's overwhelming love. Not for this couple the joyous discovery of young love, the throwing up of Brunnhilde's armour into the air like children, which made the scene between Gwyneth Jones and Alberto Remedios so memorable in 1982. Perhaps I would have felt more joyous if Gasteen had been in more radiant voice; her vibrato seemed more pronounced and her Heil dir as she wakes up was less than radiant. Perhaps she was reining herself in so that she did not overwhelm Treleaven. Certainly the 2 were well balanced and ultimately the opera came to a radiant conclusion albeit through troubled territory.

I look forward to the final instalment of the Cycle next year, but still find the look and feel of this staging rather PUZZLING.

Friday 21 October 2005

Ronald Stevenson

To the Royal College of Music last night for a symposium celebrating the life and work of Scottish pianist and composer extraordinaire Ronald Stevenson. But first, one had to find it! The symposium took place in the Durrington Room which seems to be in the attics at the very back of the building. Still is was certainly worth the walk and climb.

The symposium was a joint celebration of the publication, by Toccata Press, of the book Ronald Stevenson-The Man and His Music and the forthcoming release, on APR Records of Ronald's 1976 piano recital recorded in Vancouver by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Speakers included Colin Scott-Sutherland, who edited the book, and Ronald himself, who introduced the Canadian recital. We heard the Grainger Ramble on Love from the disc; a magical fantasia on the final love-duet from Der Rosenkavalier, it is one of Stevenson's signature works. The disc also includes the Bach/Busoni Chaconne, another of the works which I associate with him.

Whilst living in Scotland in the late 70's I developed a circle of friends and acquaintainces who were all associates of Ronald Stevenson. So I came to meet him quite often and hear a number of his recitals; in fact, I acted as chauffeur on a number of occasions, running him back to Edinburgh after recitals. Someone who combines legendary charm, pianistic brilliance and great composing ability in enviable quantities, his lecture recitals were a joy.

The evening also included live performances of Ronald's music; a Royal College student played music for unaccompanied violin and a RNCM student played the Recitative and Air for Cello and piano. The evening concluded with a social glass of wine.

Impressions of the seaside, linked musical sketches depicting a seaside resort; starting with dawn over the sea and ending with sunset. The title refers to a seaside area of my home town, Cleethorpes.
Recorded live at the Tabernacle Arts Centre, London, 2001. The Salomon Orchesta conductor by Malcolm Cottle

Thursday 20 October 2005

AudioBlog - a short prelude, toccata and a kind of fugue

My orchestral piece, in 3 linked movements; the title explains it all really.
Recorded live at the Tabernacle Arts Centre, London, 2001. The Salomon Orchesta conductor by Malcolm Cottle

Thoughts on Reviewing Dialogues of the Carmelites

We went to Poulenc's Carmelites on Saturday at the London Coliseum, ENO's revival of their 1999 production, with a largely new cast; Josephine Barstow carried over from the old cast but is, I think, getting to the limits of her present voice in this sort of role. My full review is on Music and Vision here.

The problem with Carmelites is that the concentration of female role means that each revival has to be, in some way, outstanding. For myself, I have to keep ensuring that I live in the present rather than the past and don't just regurgitate the comparisons with the marvellous Royal Opera revival which had a cast that included Felicity Lott (Blanche), Pauline Tinsley (Mother Marie), Regine Crespin (Old Prioress), Valerie Masterson(New Prioress) and Eiddwenn Harry. This ROH performance was one of the landmark performances of my career listening to opera. But I can't simply complain of a more recent performance because a particular Blanche does not sound like Felicity Lott in the role. It might be true, but it is hardly helpful for a reader who was not there at the time; when writing about such pieces you've got to try and comment on what you actually heard and try and explain it in a current context.

Recent DVD review

Here's my review of the DVD of Handel's Rodelinda in the Glyndebourne Festival Opera production, the one visually inspired by early cinema.

Wednesday 19 October 2005

AudioBlog - Collect for Choir and Cello

Here's the Collect for Choir and Cello recorded live at St. Giles Cripplegate on 1st July 2005, the performers are the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble, conducted by Malcolm Cottle with Jonathan Cottle Cello. The motets sets the collect for peace from the Book of Common Prayer.

Tuesday 18 October 2005

Yet more activity on the concert front: tonight I'm meeting with the soloist for the orchestral concert at St. James's Church, Piccadilly in March 2006. I know it seems early, but he needs to learn the part, I might need to make changes and convey them to the conductor etc. In fact, from our brief email and telephone contacts (he lives in Italy) I know that changes are in order. A suggestion that some passages be transposed bodily would seem to be rather tricky given that this would then put some instruments into keys with 6 or 7 sharps - I can't see that going down well with the players. On other occasions I have already had experience of the comment from a player, C sharp major? We don't play in that key very often. Something I'd like to avoid if possible

Newsletter distribution continues, my email contact lists are always woefully out of date so I end up sending emails to address which people no longer user, don't exist etc. I always vow to be more organised but never am. Ho hum, perhaps next year, when I have more time!

Monday 17 October 2005

See new avenues

Well, we have failed to get Arts Council funding for our Cranmer concert in Oxford. This is not a surprise as it was quite a small, specialised event and FifteenB is too small to be able to include elements such as out-reach and education into a neat package around a concert. But all is not lost; we still have plenty of time and other avenues to explore. It just means that I'll have to do a batch of letter writing.

Friday 14 October 2005

Tuesday's Salomon Concert

We went to the concert by the Salomon Orchestra on Tuesday at St. John's Smith Square, London. Conducted by Mark Forkgen, the orchestra played the overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Sibelius's 1st Symphony.

The violinist in the Tchaikovsky was Thomas Gould, a young man who has only recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Music but who has a something of a future ahead of him. His performance of the Tchaikovsky was fabulous, he made short work of the taxing virtuoso passages, particularly the notorius string crossing. He and Mark Forkgen worked well as a team so the orchestra provided fine support and there were few, if any, moments of instability between soloist and orchestra (again, something of a problem in the work if the soloist is inclined to be wayward.). After the interval there was a fine performance of the Sibelius; I was going to say rousing, but thought Forkgen and the orchestra created some glorious moments the general atmosphere was of something far more subtly troubling.

It is quite some years since I have heard the Tchaikovsky and even longer since hearing the Sibelius. It was rather pleasant to revist the works live, especially in such confident performances.

Autumn Newsletter

Its Newsletter time again, when I sent out a batch of newsletters to friends and contacts giving details of my exciting (!) musical activities. Currently the electronic versions are going out with the print ones later next week. Here's a copy to read here.

Recent Performances

De Profundis, was performed by the Latin Mass choir, conductor Malcolm Cottle, at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea at High Mass on Sunday 9th October. The motet was commissioned by the choir and is one of a number of my pieces in their repertoire.

As part of my 50th birthday celebrations the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble, a new group of professional choral singers, gave a concert at St. Giles Cripplegate in July 2005. Conducted by Malcolm Cottle they sang a programme themed around the death of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. My cantata The Testament of Dr. Cranmer for unaccompanied chorus, setting extracts from Cranmer’s final speech, was premiered as were the 4 Advent motets from Tempus per Annum, the collection of motets for the church’s year. Cellist Jonathan Cottle joined the choir to perform my Collect for choir and cello. The concert was very well reviewed on The Classical Source web-site (http://www. and by Roderick Dunnett in The Church Times.

The Cranmer concert was recorded and I am happy to supply demo discs to anyone who is interested. Recordings of the 4 motets from Tempus per Annum have been posted on my web site ( and further postings will be happening in due course.

Respice Me, Domine, a motet based on the text of the Introit for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time was premiered by London Concord Singers, conductor Malcolm Cottle, at a concert at St. Michael’s Church, Chester Square, Victoria, London. The motet is part of my on-going collection Tempus per Annum and was commissioned by the choir for performance at Strasbourg Cathedral in a liturgical context.

Future performances

On Thursday 15th December 2005 at 7.30pm at the Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street, Mayfair, London, London Concord Singers under conductor Malcolm Cottle are giving a programme of music dedicated to St. Cecilia. My motet I Vespri di Santa Cecilia will be receiving its second performance, the choir having first performed the motet as part of their 30th anniversary celebrations in 1996. The motet sets Latin texts from the vespers antiphons for the Feast of St. Cecilia. Also included in the programme is music by Gabriel Jackson, Benjamin Britten, Peter Phillips, Morten Lauridsen and Orlandus Lassus.

March 21st 2006 is the 450th Anniversary of the execution of Thomas Cranmer at the University Church in Oxford. The church is marking the Anniversary with a number of events. On the day, the present Archbishop of Canterbury will be preaching; on the previous Saturday, 18th March 2006, the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble will be repeating their Cranmer themed programme at 7.30pm in the University Church. They will be performing my Testament of Dr. Cranmer, music by William Mundy, John Sheppard, Christopher Tye and Thomas Tallis plus motets from Tempus per Annum and the Collect for choir and cello. It is an immense privilege to be able to perform my setting of Cranmer’s last words in the setting where they were spoken. Further information from

On Thursday 23rd March 2006, the Salomon Orchestra under Adrian Brown will be giving concert at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, at 7.30pm. The programme will include Elgar’s Serenade for strings and Haydn’s Symphony No. 100, the Military. Also in the programme will be the premieres of my tone-poem In the Barbarian’s Camp and Elegy for baritone and orchestra. In the Barbarian’s Camp is based on Helen Waddell’s translation of a Latin poem in which the Roman poet complains of his inability to write verse whilst he his living with the over-friendly but smelly barbarians. Elegy is a setting, in German, of Rainer Maria Rilke’s long poem, the Second Duino Elegy. The singer will be the young German baritone, David Greiner, the work’s dedicatee.

Publication News

I have recently completed a cantata based on the journey of the Magi. Setting extracts for a sermon by the 17th century divine Lancelot Andrewes, the work is written for double chorus. Andrewes was fond of using Latin phrases in his sermons and a feature of The Magi is the use of bi-tonality to express the pull between the Latin and the English phrases. The work opens with a brilliant exposition of the text from St. Matthew's Gospel, in Latin and in English. Each movement then follows part of Andrewes's sermon and considers one aspect of the Magi's journey - the distance they came, the way that they came and the time of their coming. Further information, including musical extracts, available from

Volume 2 of Tempus per Annum will consist of 30 motets for Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide and Pentecost; each motet based on the text of the Latin introit for the particular Sunday or Feast Day. The motets are being published in parallel English and Latin versions. Volume 2 will be available early next year; Volume 1 covering Advent and Christmastide is already available. Further information from When complete, the Tempus per Annum collection will run to over 70 motets for the church’s year.

Monday 10 October 2005

Wagner and Handel, a director's dream

Friends have just been to see an instalment of Wagner's Ring Cycle at Esbjerg in Denmark and also caught up with the latest instalment of the Ring at Covent Garden, where Siegfried has just premiered. He commented that they had loved the production at Esbjerg, the singers were not always superb; whereas the singing at Covent Garden was superb but they did not like the production, finding it too busy and confusing.

There seems to be some sort of strange parallel between productions of Wagner and productions of Handel's Italian operas. Both need singing of a supremely high order. And in productions of both, good singing is not necessarily going to be combined with clarity of production. There is something about the wide open spaces in both types of opera that causes producers and designers to fill the time with busy silliness, or profound philosophising which does not sit easily on the stage.

Too often in Handel, the producer displays a failure of nerve in the long arias and keeps throwing in entertainment for the audience. Similar problems happen in Wagner, where the immensely long paragraphs can be difficult to sustain; producers often replace good personnen regie with gimickry.

In both cases the most striking productions that I have been to have been the most direct, those without too many axes to grind. Or else those by the few producers who have such brilliant theatrical flair that you will forgive them almost anything.

Friday 7 October 2005

Recent CD review

My review of Sunleif Rasmussen's Symphony No. 1, a wonderful atmospheric piece, is here on MusicWeb.

Thursday 6 October 2005

Review of Nielsen's Maskerade

We went to see Nielsen's Maskerade at the weekend at Covent Garden; musically superb but a rather wacky technicolour production; my review for Music and Vision is here.

Recent CD review

My review of the Naxos disc of Virtuoso Timpani concertos (I kid you not!) is here, on MusicWeb

Tuesday 4 October 2005

Recent CD review

My review of a recent disc of masses and motets by Jachet of Mantua and Adrien Willaert is on Music Web, here.

Holiday time

A few days leave from work, so all the normal routines get interrupted. I missed Concord rehearsals last night and I've been remiss in my attention to this Blog. Still, I have started writing songs again. Finding words is always a trouble, but I leafed through an old Penguin anthology of Homosexual verse (whatever that is) and found one or two poems, notably one by Adrienne Rich which comes from a collection of love poems (I must track that one down).

Once I've found a text I like the next problem is the piano; piano accompaniments never flow as freely as choral music for some reason and I am always worried about how interesting the piano part might be. Still, I am tolerably pleased with the new song and plan to do more

Whilst working in the garden yesterday it lovely to hear a programme on Radio 3 devoted to the art of Robert Russell Bennett; Bennett worked as an orchestrator on Broadway with all of the major names. He was a bit of a musical snob and had studied with Nadia Boulanger, but for a generation he effectively defined the Broadway sound.

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