Thursday 31 January 2008

Interview with David Hill

My interview with David Hill is now live, here, on Music and Vision; we covered the Bach choir's forthcoming première of Carl Rütti's Requiem and the choir's return to the Royal Festival Hall for their annual performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion

Concert Review - Handel La Resurrezione

On Tuesday we went off to Christ Church, Spitalfields for a performance of Handel's La Resurrezione given by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players. It was the first time that I had visited the church since the 1980's, when I saw Arleen Auger and Della Jones in Handel's Alcina (quite superb) and Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (less so). Since then the interior has been gloriously restored, making it one of the wonders of London, but rather less suitable for a concert venue.

Seats were rather crammed into the nave (no rake of course) and the singers and players were on a high platform, so that sightlines (from Row R) were decent but leg room and general personal space was at a premium. At the interval complimentary drinks were served (included in the ticket price) which meant that a remarkably speedy bar service could be provided.

The cast for the performance was remarkably starry. Rosemary Joshua was the Angel, Gillian Webster was the Magdalene, Sonia Prina was Mary Cleophas, Topi Lehtipuu was St. John and Jonathan Lemalu was Lucifer. There was, of course, no chorus but each half finished with an operatic style coro in which all the singers participated.

Though the work is an oratorio it was written to get round the Roman ban on opera and performed in static settings in Prince Ruspoli's Palazzo. Ruspoli engaged a huge orchestra (21 violins, 5 double basses), McCreesh's was smaller but still on a generous scale (16 violins, 2 double basses). The plot, such as it is, interleaves Christ's Harrowing of Hell with the activities on earth between his Crucifiction and Resurrection. Christ himself never appears, neither does his mother, though both are referred to in the libretto (by the court poet of ex-Queen Christina of Sweden, then living in Rome).

The opera opens with a spectacular aria for the Angel, with a descending phrase almost describing his/her descent into Hell. From then on Christ's Harrowing of Hell and his triumph over Death are described in a series of duologues between the Angel and Lucifer. Rosemary Joshua's Angel was technically quite brilliant and rather charming, but her habit of keeping her nose in her score for much of the time was rather annoying. Especially as there was no sense of her being unprepared, her performance was dazzling. Jonathan Lemalu made a charming villain as Lucifer and it is not his fault that we are never allowed to see him DO anything, it is all reportage.

Back on earth, Mary Magdalene (Gillian Webster) and Mary Cleophas (Sonia Prina) are both lamenting Christ's loss and have various degrees of trust in his return. Magdalene was written for Margerita Durastantini, one of Handel's long time supporters, but she could only sing one performance; the Pope objected and she was replaced by a castrato (no women allowed). Magdalene gets most of the show's hit numbers and is probably the most fully rounded character, beautifully realised by Webster. Mary Cleophas was sung by the wonderfully dark voiced Sonia Prina, though in her fast numbers her tight vibrato tended to occlude her passage work somewhat.

The two women are comforted by St. John (Topi Lehtipuu) whose great confidence in Christ's forthcoming resurrection is indicated by his series of trusting, pastoral arias (no trouble and questing here); beautiful but I came to want a little more edge, though some of Handel's orchestration was ravishing, and ravishingly realised by McCreesh and his performers.

The problem is that nothing actually happens, the 3 simply lament and recount. We don't even get St. John's encounter with the Virgin, he simply reports it. The language is a little over-heated at times which does not help the drama.

The piece is a relatively concise work and received a fine performance from McCreesh and his ensemble. If I seem a little reserved it is because though I enjoyed the performance it did not hold me the way the best Handel performances can. This might be because of a lack of sympathy with the work itself. I have a sneaking regard for Handel's other Italian oratorio, but only because much of it is familiar from other works. As this was the first time I had ever heard La Resurrezione live, I have few other performances to compare against. So the critic in me is only left to puzzle, was it them or was it me?

Wednesday 30 January 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of Plainchant for Pentecost is here on MusicWeb International.
Chant as sung in a real Benedictine community ...

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Handel's Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno is here, on Music Web International.
You will not be disappointed by this lively and vivid account ...

Monday 28 January 2008

Saturday's concert went superbly well, it was lovely to hear Lucis Creator Optime and my new Evening Service sung and played so well, and with a fine, strong organ to accompany it. There was an enthusiastic response from the audience. I now look forward to hearing the recording.

This lunchtime I was lucky enough to be able to interview David Hill, the director of the Bach Choir and chief conductor of the BBC Singers. The Bach choir will be premièring Carl Rütti's Requiem in February, further details in the forthcoming a forthcoming article.

Saturday 26 January 2008

Total immersion (again)

As a final comment on my previous post I note that the BBC have announced that their Judith Weir weekend will be the last such event. Instead they will be producing series of single composer days. It is probably not a popular decision but for myself I could see it making me go more often rather than less.


So, tonight we have the first concert in our 2 concert festival at St. Peter's Church, Eaton Square. I'm looking forward to the première of my Evening Service and re-acquaintance with the motet Lucis Creator Optime. It will be good to hear them both with accompaniment on a fine organ. When we recorded the ATB version of the Magnificat on our new disc, the organ was an electronic stand and Lucis was premièred at St. Mary's Church Cadogan Street where the organ is relatively small scale. We'll also be varying the programme with a pair of solo pieces, one of which The Prayer of Humble Access will be especially welcome as it hasn't had an outing since its première in 1998.

And another review

This time on Music and Vision, the CD is reviewed by Patric Stanford. I've never been described as gently inoffensive before. Read the full review here.

Friday 25 January 2008

Another Review

We've had another review for the CD, this time on the website, based in Illinois.

PAUL BROUGH/Testament of Dr. Cranmer: A celebratory church music recording marking the 450th anniversary of the death of the doctor in the title. Us Yanks might not get it so much, but this is a high end Church event across the pond. A well played performance, anyone with a hankering for getting deeper into some church oriented programs is well advised to open an ear in this direction.

Wednesday 23 January 2008


Having 2 concerts within a month (on Sat 26th Jan and Sat 23rd Feb) means that preparations for both concerts are rather overlapping. Whilst we have rehearsed for Saturday's concert and are now in the midst of last minute admin. and production of programmes etc., last night we had the first rehearsal for the Sat. 23rd Feb concert. This has meant that at home I have had competing piles of music and paperwork for both concerts. Still I have disposed of nearly 2 dozen sets of music for my choir FifteenB which makes the space situation rather better.

Contrary to our practice in the last few FifteenB concerts, the concert on Feb 23rd will have the choir singing just 3 larger works, a Haydn Mass, my cantata Crossing and my Choruses from Passion. This latter work is the only piece the choir have never sung before. The concert will also include 2 pieces for smaller groups, one of which is a premiere and I've not heard it yet so that is something to look forward to!

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Monday 21 January 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of a new disc of orchestral music by Pierne is here. On Music Web International.
Lacks the spark of genius but this should not stop us enjoying this fascinating disc ...
A review of Friday's concert will appear soon, but whilst at the concerts a couple of further points occurred to me on the subject of Friday's post. The first was as a result of overhearing a couple talking. Metropolitan concert goer that I am, an advantage of the weekend binge format which I had overlooked is that out of town people can come in an get a substantial amount of music in a short time. I suppose that this is one of the biggest advantages of the format and one that I can't argue with.

But, I was surprised as the sparseness of the audience at the Friday evening concert in the Barbican Hall. Only the stalls level was open and that was not full, though there were quite a lot of musical luminaries there. By contrast the late evening choral concert was completely full, though of course this venue is far smaller. But the relative disparity of audience levels was not really something that I would have predicted.

Friday 18 January 2008

Total Immersion

Tonight we are going to one (or maybe two) concerts in the BBC's weekend celebration of the music of Judith Weir at the Barbican. For a devoted music lover, prepared to give the whole weekend over to attending events at the Barbican, there is a brilliant mix of concerts, films and events.

The BBC's annual single composer jamboree is a fine example of a particular type of promotional event, one that allows the interested parties to undergo total immersion in the music of choice. Of course, this is not for everyone but the advantage of such events is that those interested can cherry pick.

For me the problem with such total immersion festivals is that I want to hear/see everything, but not in such close proximity. I need time to digest and recover. Tonight is a good case in point. There is a concert in the Barbican Hall at 7pm is followed by a BBC Singers concert at 9.30pm in St. Giles Cripplegate.

At the BBC's James MacMillan jamboree this format was also followed on the Friday evening and that time, I did attend both concerts. By the time it came to the late evening concert, I was feeling a little jaded having done a full day's work and attended a complete concert already. As it was the combination of the BBC Singers fabulous performances with MacMillan's haunting choral music made a big impression. I only hope the same can happen this year, as I am sure it will.

One of the advantages from the BBC's point of view is that single composer choral concerts (such as the all MacMillan concert or the all Weir concert) are perhaps not quite as 'sexy' as the bigger events. So it might be easier to attract an audience when they are performed in such a festival circumstances. This is of course an interesting moot point. Would the BBC Singers get a good audience if they simply turned up and did an all Weir or all MacMillan concert at 7.30pm one Friday during the year?

Such jamborees are, of course, tiring for the performers. The BBC forces are appearing at a number of events throughout the weekend and so the singers and musicians have quite a heavy load of rehearsal and performance. This is not necessarily all bad as, for a difficult composer, it gives the performers time to accustom themselves to the style. Another interesting point, is it easier to perform the music of, say, Gubaidulina, if you are giving a sequence of 3 or 4 concerts rather than just a single one?

My own preference would be for a festival spread over a greater period of time, say three weekends. Close enough so that the marketing people could still create the buzz of a festival, but with enough distance between the events so that old fogies like myself could recover!

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Park Lane Group - Friday 11/1/2008

Apologies for this late posting, but I've been busy promoting my CD with radio stations.

On Friday 11/1/2008 we attended the last of the Park Lane Group's 2008 season at the Purcell Room and the Southbank. The recital was shared between the duo of Eulalie Charland (violin) and Maiko Mori (piano) and the duo of Peter Sparks (clarinet) and Matthew Schellhorn (piano),

Charland and Mori opened with Judith Weir's Music for 247 Strings, the title referring to the combined no. of strings on the piano and the violin. The intention of these 10 short pieces was to make the violin almost the 3rd hand of the piano. They featured much contrary motion and Mori's hands were frequently at the opposite extremes of the piano. In contrast to Weir's epigrammatic and concise piece, Philip Cashian's Wynter Music for violin and piano was passionate, technically demanding and delighted with frequent references to jazz rhythms. Both pieces drew fine playing from Charland and Mori.

The stage was then taken by Sparks and Schellhorn. They first premiered Nicola Lefanu's Sea Sketches, 10 little fantasy pieces which were written for Peter Sparks. They start from quiet, atmospheric music with the piano offering sustained echoes, then gradually storms develop in wonderful unspoken narrative. As someone born beside the North Sea, I could empathise completely with this wonderful piece especially in Schellhorn and Sparks's performance. At times Sparks seemed to be trying to get the utmost quiet out of his instrument and was beautifully matched by Schellhorn.

They followed with Harrison Birtwistle's Linoi, written originally for Alan Hacker in 1968. Birtwistle explores the extremes of range of the bassett clarinet and accompanies the instrument with lyre like music created by getting the pianist to play inside the piano. Shellhorn showed remarkable dexterity in this, giving a fine pairing to Sparks's brilliant clarinet playing.

A further Judith Weir piece Sketches from a Bagpiper's Album was played in Weir's original version which requires each of the 3 movements to be played on a different clarinet. The results help to articulate the implicit story of the life of James Reid, a bagpiper in Bonnie Prince Charlie's army. The music was always Weir, economic and brilliant, but she embedded in it many references to the music of the bagpipes, notably the pibroch like references in the final Lament.

Sparks and Schellhorn concluded their set with the premiere Peter Wiegold's Aulos. In this, fast and furious passages inspired by Bacchanalian dance, alternate with quieter moments reflecting the stillness and coldness of the night. The result is almost a rondo and concludes with a puzzling coda where the clarinettist has to wander off the stage.

Finally Charland and Mori returned with Hugh Wood's Poem and Graham Fitkin's Bolt. Poem was a remarkably lyrical piece, its spiky romanticism felt as if a Big Romantic Tune was struggling to get out, but just failing.

The Fitkin, by contrast, was rhythmic and mostly very insistent. It came at the end of quite a long programme and seemed to outstay its welcome, though that might have been my fatigue and I would welcome hearing it again.

All 4 performers produced some brilliant playing in some very challenging music. The earliest piece in the programme was in some ways the most challenging - the Birtwistle written in 1968. Thus neatly encapsulating the way that music has become more diverse in the last 40 years.

Charland, Mori, Sparks and Schellhorn are definitely players to watch. Schellhorn has a number of projects underway for this year including a Wigmore Hall recital in May. Watch this space.

Friday 11 January 2008

Tonight's concert

Tonight we plan to visit the Purcell Room for the first time in ages. The Park Lane group are putting on one of their estimable concerts, with music by Judith Weir, Graham Fitkin, Philip Cashian, Nicola LeFanu, Harrison Birtwistle and Hugh Wood! Played by a quartet of up and coming young musicians, Eulalie Charland - violin, Maiko Mori - piano, Peter Sparks - clarinet and Matthew Schellhorn - piano.

This year's Park Lane Group concert series showcases some 33 artists in 50 works written between 1934 and 2007

Thursday 10 January 2008

Reviewer's Log

After a long gap, I've somewhat caught up on my reviewer's log for Music Web, so if you wonder what I think about when reviewing discs, you might care to look here.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

And off we go

Monday saw the re-starting of rehearsals for London Concord Singers working towards the next concert on Saturday March 15th at Hampstead Town Hall. The programme will include John Gardner's Five Partsongs to Poems by Wallace Stevens, Philip Cranmer's Three Parodies on "Lloyd George knew my Father" and my new setting of Do not go gentle into that good night for choir and French Horn. The programme also includes part-songs by Elgar and Song of Sorrows by Mary Jane Leach.

My piece is a world première, the 3rd such this year. As usual, the first run-through is always a little nerve-wracking but the piece seemed to go down well with the choir.

Recent CD Reviews

My review of A Sei Voci's Allegri disc is here.

As a fine exploration of Allegri’s talents this disc is highly recommendable. ...

My review of Penderecki's Te Deum on Naxos is here.
Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
In many ways an admirable disc … If Penderecki’s challenging music appeals then do try this disc. ...

Monday 7 January 2008

CD on Music and Vision

News of my CD, The Testament of Dr. Cranmer, has made it to the Music and Vision web-site, here.

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the new disc of motets by Nicolas Gombert is here.
Fine musicianship and commendable curiosity. Ideal listening ...

And my review of Gerard Lesne's Purcell disc is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.
In many ways, Gerard Lesne has the perfect voice for Purcell … up to a point ...

Sunday 6 January 2008

Gleanings from this month's Opera magazine

Gleanings from this Month's Opera Magazine.

David Grant writes in the Letters page that he is producing a new, Urtext, edition of Wallace's Maritana. Evidently the original, some 150 minutes of music, has not been heard for over 150 years. It will be interesting to compare this version (due to be published in time for the bicentenary in 2012) with that which has been recorded on Marco Polo (with Majella Cullagh in the title role), where the entire set lasts some 110 minutes or so.

Susan Bullock, having successfully stood in for Lisa Gasteen in the Covent Garden Ring, has 3 further Ring Cycles (not in London!), her first Kundry and is recording Salome (for Chandos in English I believe). So, when do we get to hear her Brunnhilde in London?

Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking has made it to Vienna. Christopher Norton Welsh is very sympathetic to the opera, though a Viennese critic has dismissed it as well-crafted film music. I have my own prejudices about the piece, but until we get to hear a fully staged production in London then it will be a bit difficult to tell. But Martin Bernheimer has come out against Barber's Vanessa. I must confess to have missed the concert performances of this opera in London so can't comment. But loved Bernheimer's comment that 'the music seems redolent of cheap perfume, wrong-note harmonies and orchestral busy-music supporting vocal indulgence amid knowing nods to Puccini and Strauss'. At the New York performances Rosalind Elias (Erika 48 years ago) was the Baroness, quite a lineage.

Over in Prague, they have just heard their first Norma in 70 years, rather amazingly. Another amazing gap, the producer Nikolaus Lehnhoff hasn't worked at Bayreuth since being on of Wieland Wagner's assistants in the 1960's. Considering that Lehnhoff is one of the major Wagner producing talents of our day, this is rather striking.

Over in the Deutsche Oper, Berlin they have performed Richard Strauss's Elektra along with Vittorio Gnecchi's rather fascinating 1905 prequel, Cassandra. A fascinating idea.

In Munich, the ideas were less fascinating. A new production of Eugene Onegin where Onegin and Lensky are depicted as a homosexual couple. Nice idea, except that that music just does not seem to go there. Evidently the Act 3 Polonaise was danced by a corps de ballet of bar-chested gay cowboys (inspired by Brokeback Mountain.) Eh?

Hugh Canning, in Amsterdam for Pierre Audi's cycle of the 3 Monteverdi Operas was suitably impressed. He refers to the 1978 Zurich Opera performances of the 3 in Ponnelle's productions, I think implying that it was the last time he heard all 3 in a cycle in strong productions. I saw the 1978 productions, and the Orfeo has stayed in my memory ever since.

Andrew Porter mused about adding music to a major dramatic text, and whether you need to do major surgery to the text before musick-ing it. This was in the context of Boesman's Miss Julie, which doesn't do violence to the text. But Porter's review gives the impression that the result is not quite an opera. I have always had a feeling of the unsatisfactoriness of operas where the text is set verbatim.

George Loomis, in his review of Max Emmanuel Cenci's aria disc, that Rossini wrote only 1 role for a castrato. In fact, it is curious to associate Rossini with castrati at all, making you realise how long his career is and how long they lasted on the opera scene. Loomis also comments on the casting of counter-tenors in roles in Baroque operas where the original was written for a woman. I have often wondered about this and have hankerings to buy yet another recording of Solomon so that I can have a woman singing the role rather than a counter-tenor.

Finally, in the We hear that.. column. Martin Duncan is directing the first British production of Martinu's Mirandolina at Garsington in 2009. Then in 2010 Angela Gheorghui is doing Adriana Lecouvreur, I can't wait. Della Jones is returning to ENO as Auntie in 2009, she has been woefully underused there in recent years. I wish she was doing something more than Auntie. Richard Jones is doing The Gambler at Covent Garden in 2010. Having seen it at Grange Park then I look forward to seeing John Tomlinson as the General. Tomlinson is also doing Sir Morosus in Schweigsame Frau with Toby Spence as Henry, but you'll have to go to Munich to enjoy it.

Friday 4 January 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Maria Bayo's Handel recital is here.
Lovely recital displaying Bayo’s talents in this tricky repertoire ...

And my review of Emma Kirkby's Vivaldi recital is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.
Kirkby’s light vocal timbre works extremely well … most enjoyable ... a vivid, lively and well structured programme ...

Thursday 3 January 2008

Recent Book review

My review of Erik Chisholm's 1971 introduction to the operas of Janacek is here, on MusicWeb International.
This volume remains a fine introduction to the music-drama of Janáček’s operas, illuminated by Chisholm’s intelligence and graced by his lucid prose ...

Wednesday 2 January 2008

CD's I'm listening to

Over the holiday period our principal listening has been Granville Bantock's Omar Khayam and Thomas Tallis's complete oeuvre, recorded by Alistair Dixon and La Chapelle du Roi.

Omar Khayam is a 3 CD set from Chandos as part of their on-going series of discs of Bantock's music. So far the Chandos discs have generally been compilations of smaller items, though they have included the very striking Sappho song cycle and a couple of movements from the Song of Songs. But Bantock was notable for his large scale works and his complete setting of Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam is a case in point.

Using chorus, orchestra and 3 soloists Bantock expansively sets the text, creating gorgeous textures and hinting at the music by other contemporaries such as Rimsky Korsakov and Richard Strauss. This is wonderful music, but it is in no sense advanced. The work was written in pieces between 1908 and 1910, but rarely gets beyond, say, Elgar. Vernon Handley, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and soloists Catherin Wyn-Rogers, Toby Spence and Roderick Williams do the work complete justice. This is wonderful music to listen to, gorgeous, luscious and full of textures. But it is relatively undramatic, perhaps Bantock intended this but in a work this long (171 minutes in total), I think that a little more dramatic structure might have helped.

My other complaint is that the work sounds very firmly as if it comes from Edwardian England, it is unmistakeably Bantock. Despite some nice touches of local colour in the orchestration, it does not really conjure up the gorgeous east.

Again, that might be deliberate as Bantock was interested in the poem's main theme, the transience of existence, the underlying message being Waste not the hour.

I think, perhaps, that we need to get to know the work more. That its richness rather hides its subtlety. But though reviewers have generally been very positive, Andrew Clements in the Guardian (here) is far more temperate, describing it as a sumptuously brocaded if rather staid score.

The Tallis set is entirely different. For a start, the majority of the 9 discs are performed by just the singers of La Chapelle du Roi. The group varies in size according to need but there are generally 16 to 24 singers (expanding to fit the 40 part motet). The music is organised chronologically so that we start with the early stuff and the amazing late Henry VII period. This is followed by the beautiful but austere Edward VI period, when Tallis was concerned to suit his music to the predominating taste of the reformers, where words were paramount. Just think of If ye love me to get a feel for what he could do.

Then Mary Tudor re-appears and we have the late flowering of Latin complexity, including the mass, Missa Puer Natus est Nobis. Finally the full panolply of the Elizabethan works, including of course his 40-part motet. The set (10 discs in all) is a remarkable achievement and whilst you could pick individual items which could be different. Overall I find the performances beautiful and convincing, definitely a set to be played over and over.

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