Sunday 31 December 2006


Of course, now that Christmas is passing and New Year will soon be a memory, I have to get cracking on all the plans for next year. This has been noticeable over the past week as the dining room table has gradually been overcome with piles of music by Tomkins, Weelkes, Pelham Humfreys and Orlando Gibbons. We are doing a programme of Verse Anthems at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London on 18th March as part of their fund raising campaign for the church's restoration. So I have been busy acquiring music, thanks to the ever wonderful Stainer and Bell, much of it has been bought in the form of PDF's from the publisher's web site. Much of our repertoire is embedded in learned tomes such as Musica Britannica and Early English Church Music and Stainer and Bell have a scheme whereby you can buy PDF's of the lesser known pieces, copied directly from the relevant volume. A wonderful, economic way to enable people like our little group of 6 to be able to perform this music.

Christmas Presents

The combination of a Roberto Alagna recital disc to be reviewed and a concert performance of Halevy's La Juive, both of which included the well known aria Rachel, quand au Seigneur, meant that I went scurrying off to try to get a complete performance of the opera for D.'s Christmas present. Not surprisingly, the best recording, with June Anderson, Jose Carreras and Julia Varady, did not seem to be available. This sent me scurrying toThe Clasical CD Exchange, one of the sites which sell second hand CD's. There, by virtue of the vagaries of search engines, I managed to acquire not only the relevant recording of La Juive but also Ben Heppner's recital of French opera arias (which includes Rachel, quand au Seigneur). Both are wonderful; the complete opera is notable for the fact that Carreras over-dubbed his part after the recording, because of his problems with Leukemia, but you would never notice.

The Heppner is a marvel because so few tenors nowadays can sing the French parts with such a feeling of focus in the voice and a fine sense of line. Heppner is, perhaps, not the most interesting singer in the world, but his tone and line are incomparable when compared to many contemporaries. He is not Georges Thill, but in this barren modern age, he comes decently close.

Friday 22 December 2006

Recent CD Review

My review of Palestrina's Missa Tu Es Petrus is here on Music Web International.
Unusual though the repertoire is the disc is not one that I will be returning to. ...
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Thursday 21 December 2006

Christmas Revels

Tonight is the London Concord Singers' Christmas Concert at the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. The programme includes the Poulenc Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noel, 2 Advent motets by Brahms, Bruckner's Christus Factus Est and Virga Jesse, Naylor's Vox Clama, Dicentes and Britten's early Hymn to the Virgin, plus various carols. Not exactly my beau ideal of a concert, but there is sufficient I think to keep everyone interested.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

Too little time, too many operas

Having booked a couple of operas in the ENO's short summer season, submitted a booking for Grange Park Opera's June 2007 programme and having already booked for the LSO's performances of Benvenuto Cellini in June 2007, I opened the new booking info. from the Royal Opera with some trepidation.

Quite rightly, as it seems. Everything is happening in June, so we won't be able to go to see the concert performance of Thais with Renee Fleming, it clashes with Benvenuto Cellini. Well, the Royal Opera are doing 2 performances but the first is on the Wednesday and following Benvenuto Cellini we have a heavy weekend (Chelsea Opera Group on Saturday and Semele at Grange Park on Sunday), so I'm afraid that we have reached our going out limit that week. This also means that we'll miss out on the ROH Katya Kabanova which is on at the same time. Also, ROH are staging Sondheim's Into the Woods, one of my favourite musicals, directed by choreographer William Trevitt. The only way we'll manage to see this is to go to a preview.

What is it about theatrical/musical scheduling that leaves you will wall to wall La Boheme or Carmen (no, we're not seeing the latest Francesca Zamballo extravaganza at Covent Garden) one moment, and then lots of exciting things all at once.

Other things we are going to miss out on includes Delius's Koanga, at Sadlers Wells, it clashes with again. And also at Sadlers Wells, we'll have to do without their choreographed staging of Dido and Aeneas its the same time as my FifteenB Consort are going back on the road. In March 20027 we're doing a programme of 16th/17th century verse anthems (Tomkins, Weelkes, Pelham Humfrey and Gibbons) as part of the fund raising Campaign at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London. Guess what, its the same week as Dido and Aeneas, wouldn't you know it.

Monday 18 December 2006

Review of Christmas Oratorio

On Friday we went to hear Bach’s Christmas Oratorio performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican. Christie worked with an ensemble about 2/3 that used by Colin Davis for his Messiah with the LSO; which was still quite large for a Bach oratorio. Given what we know about Bach’s performance practices, using a choir of 24 was probably on the large size for a period performance. Of course, Christie makes no particular claims about his performance, you simply go along for the Arts Florissants experience.

Christie’s Bach, like his Handel, is very French influenced. Throughout the whole piece, all the movements with dance based rhythmical formats had an underlying bounce and lilt, this was a very dancing sort of performance. Speeds were generally geared to the dance-like file, so that the opening chorus was rather too fast for my liking. Though Christie obviously relished the array of instrumental colour that Bach uses in the work, Christie never quite solved the problem of the flutes in this movement. I have always found that on period instruments the flute interjections sound far too underpowered compared to the oboes and brass, as if something was missing.

Still, the performance got off to a lively and attractive start, with fine contributions from chorus and orchestra. The chorus provided a well modulated, rather blended sound; they seemed to go for blend and overall timbre rather than line. This in contrast to Tenebrae who sang Messiah for Colin Davis with a great attention to the line of the music.

As Christie’s speeds were on the fast side, this meant that he was able to bring the first 3 cantatas in at 1 hour 20 minutes. Despite music making of a high order, I rather felt that things had skipped past at a little too fast a rate. Christie’s light, dancing touch could have done with a bit of the German angst that a previous generation brought to these works. That said, Christie’s soloists responded magnificently.

Top of the list must be counter-tenor Tim Mead, displaying a lovely, smooth tone and wonderful breath control he impressed in all his numbers. Perhaps his stage demeanour needs a little work, he came over as a trifle smug, but such was his musicality that you forgave him. Similarly impressive, albeit in a more dramatic way, was bass Markus Werba. It helped, of course, that Werba was singing in his native German. He seems to be a naturally dramatic performer and brought a welcome whiff of the opera house to the performance.

Nicholas Watts sang the Evangelist; always an expressive performer, Watts made you wish that the part was meatier. The tenor arias were allocated to Marcel Beekman who threw off the tricky passage-work with ease; passage work made trickier by Christie’s lively speeds. In the first half, soprano Marie Arnet was under used but she came into her expressive own in the final 3 cantatas.

As I have said, orchestra and choir performed brilliantly but there were moments, particularly in the final movement when I felt sorry for the trumpet players and wished that Christie had eased up on the speeds to make their lives a little easier.

Whilst this performance dazzled with its musicality I did not feel that it plumbed the emotional heart of the piece. Christie’s approach seemed to present us with a series of attractive moments rather than an emotional narrative of the nativity.

Friday 15 December 2006

New folksongs

I've just been writing the programme notes for London Concord Singers concert on Thursday Dec 21st (at the Grosvenor Chapel). Besides the real music we are doing a selection of Christmas carols so I had to find something to say about them.

It was easy for Silent Night because the carol's history is so fascinating. Existing just on the cusp of awareness of intellectual copyright it was spread widely in manuscript owing to the carol's popularity and when first published was simply credited as a Tirol song. But an early copyright investigation in the 1850's enabled the composer's son to write a deposition which established his father as the writer of the music.

This sort of modern, created folk-song came to mind again last night when we singing carols at a hotel in central London as part of the entertainment for arriving guests. Naturally we used Carols for Choirs, books 1 and 2, the books that virtually every amateur choral singer possesses. We'd not rehearsed, because everyone knew the arrangements of the well known pieces, as they'd sung them so many times before. In fact, if you gather choral singers together to sing from carol word sheets most of them can sing the arrangements from memory. And David Willcocks's descants to Hark the Herald and other carols have effectively passed from being composed music into folk memory. Virtually every choral soprano knows them and can sing them from memory.

This is one of the few modern occasions where the symbiosis between oral and written musical culture is still in existence. We know understand that the old folk music culture did not exist in vacuo but had a symbiotic relationship with the printed examples produced on broad sheets etc. This only broke down with the change in society in the late 19th century. But its nice to feel that aspects of this relationship continue in the use of those humble books Carols for Choirs.

Thursday 14 December 2006

Have I missed it?

I have just booked tickets for operas in the ENO's short 2nd season. We're going to see the new production of Death in Venice with Ian Bostridge and the repeat of La Clemenza di Tito with Alice Coote (and Emma Bell). We can't manage Satyagraha, its on over the Easter period when we are away, which is profoundly annoying.

One rather curious thing is that, despite being existing subscribers we don't seem to have had a mailing about the season. Instead we happened to see a leaflet sent to our house but addressed to some friends who were camping out here last year. Anyway, I consulted the ENO web-site about subscriptions (the leaflet said that to get a subscription discount you must book before January 10th). The subscriptions page (here, still refers to the old booking period so how do you buy a subscription for the new season?

It all seems rather irrelevant as the operas are open for single booking as well, so you can bet that buying a subscription means that you won't get first chance at the good seats.

This raises 2 issues. What is happening to ENO marketing? Surely, as existing subscribers who have not renewed we should be being bombarded with information. Perhaps they are doing by email, but I usually discount such emails, I'm still a print boy at heart.

The second issue is, why can't ENO introduce subscription buying on line like Sadlers Wells do. The Sadlers Wells site allows you to select the shows you want and adds the relevant discounts. The Barbican's great performer scheme also allows you to do this.

So the total sum of this post seems to be, wake up ENO!

Recent CD Review

My review of the disc of Romanus Weichlein masses is here on MusicWeb International.
Attractive, vibrant performances, recorded live with considerable immediacy ...

Wednesday 13 December 2006

Recent CD reviews

A batch of recent CD reviews seem to have slipped through my net, so here they are.

First of all 3 reviews of Handel oratorios recorded live at Maulbron Monastery in Germany.

My review of Jephtha is here on MusicWeb International.
f you are an admirer of Emma Kirkby’s, then you might care to have this on your shelves.

And my review of Saul is here.
Creditable enough, but unless you are interested in these particular performers, the lack of drama means that the essential core of the work is missing. ...

An Belshazzar is here
Perhaps an interesting record of a live occasion using Handel’s 1751 version, but not recommendable for the library.

My review of Mhairi Lawson and La Serenissima's Vivaldi disc is here, also on MusicWeb.
An appealing selection of rarely performed Vivaldi works, given in lively and vivid performances that bring out the works’ appeal...

A chamber version of the Brahms Requiem is here.

There are other versions of this arrangement and you might be well advised to try listening to some of them before deciding which you should buy. ...

Recent book review

My review of Roz Southey's book about music in the North-East of England in the 18th century is here

Adds enormously to our picture of music-making; more importantly it examines what was happening in ordinary places away from the glare of celebrity ...

Tuesday 12 December 2006

Review of Messiah

My review of Sunday's performance of Messiah given by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra is here on Music and Vision.

Monday 11 December 2006

A friend was singing in a performance of Handel's Messiah on Saturday. A small amateur choir with a group of young professional soloists with the soloists singing in the choruses as well. Quite sensible and very much as Handel would have expected.

This set me to thinking about performances of Handel in his own day; we know so little about them. But most commentators agree that his soloists sang in the choruses with his choir. This is a little curious as the soloists, particularly the women, were beasts of the opera house and his choir was made up of boy trebles and male choristers. Just what sort of choral sound did he get when Galli or La Francesina sang along with the boys and men. Its an issue that we'll just never really know about. Unless someone comes up with a contemporary diary which goes into some detail. Or better yet, a memorandum from Handel on the subject!

Then on Sunday night it was our turn to do Messiah; Sir Colin Davis and the LSO. But one one aspect of this performance I was wrong. They did not use the London Symphony Chorus but the professional choir, Tenebrae; so there were just 34 choristers which was far closer to the thing. A full review follows.

Friday 8 December 2006

New directions at the Royal Ballet

A couple of days ago the London Evening Standard had a leading article in the Arts section by Norman Lebrecht on how Monica Mason has appointed Wayne Macgregor (of Random Dance Company) as the Royal Ballet's principal choreographer. This is remarkable news as the company has not had a principal choreographer since the death of Kenneth MacMillan. And Macgregor will only be the 3rd such in the company's 75 year history (the first was founder Ninette de Valois, the second Frederick Ashton and MacMillan was the 3rd). David Bintley also had a post at the Royal Ballet but I'm not sure what that was.

But Macgregor is an experimental choreographer who works on abstract pieces and does not create the narrative ballets which have been a significant part of the Royal Ballet's life. Lebrecht's article was balanced and illuminating and you can read it here.

Tuesday 5 December 2006

Hywel Williams writes about Benjamin Britten in an Article in The Guardian today. All well and good; part of the commemorations of the 30th anniversary of Britten's death.

But in discussing his years at the Royal College of Music, Williams says that 'Ralph Vaughan Williams, a professor at the Royal College of Music when Britten was a student there, was at the height of his influence during Britten's youth. The dead weight of Williams's ill-disciplined meanderings meant that a provincialising Victorian taste was having an artificially prolonged existence in English music.'

Anyone who has heard RVW's music from the 30's and 40's would hardly call it ill-disciplined meanderings. RVW hid himself behind a protective carapace of amateurism. His technique was anything but amateurish, but too many commentators take him at fact value rather than really looking at the music.

And as a teacher, RVW was pretty open. His pupils cover quite a wide range of the musical spectrum; he encouraged them to be themselves. Granted neither RVW nor the English establishment were as open to the wider Viennese school as they should have been. But Williams article is simply the usual lazy thinking which neither helps RVW nor Britten

Monday 4 December 2006

The Goose is getting fat

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent which means that we start the liturgical run up to Christmas. (Technically it is the first Sunday in the church's year). At St. Mary's Church, Cadogan Street, musically this means that we lose the organ until Midnight mass (except for the 3rd Sunday in Advent) and change to a different version of the plainchant for the Credo. This latter has a couple of tricky traps for the unwary, which are apt to trip you up the first time you sing it after a significant break.

Of course, these musical changes are simply meant to reflect the nature of Advent as the church prepares for Christmas and reflects on the past year. Advent is not strictly a penitential season, but it certainly isn't a laugh a minute. Which of course, is all the more annoying when you consider how in secular life, the fripperies of Christmas are constantly advancing.

Our concert going life is starting to reflect the coming of Christmas as well. On Sunday we're going to see Messiah at the Barbican, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. A bit of a risk, the cast has impeccable credentials (Susan Gritton, Sara Mingardo, Mark Padmore, Alistair Miles) but they are accompanied by the London Symphony Choir and Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davies. I have no problem with large scale Handel performances. In the past, Davies has proved himself a moving interpreter of baroque music. But balance is always an issue and modern conductors seem disinclined to increase the number of wind instruments to balance strings and choir in the way that a contemporary of Handel would.

Just to complete things, we're off to see Bach's Christmas Oratorio as well next week. This time its William Christie, to the performance style will be very different to that of Sir Colin Davies. Well, that's the snap judgement. It will be interesting to see how the 2 performances compare in reality.

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