Sunday 30 November 2008

Review of Riders to the Sea

The short run of performances of Riders to the Sea at the London Coliseum were intended to be conducted by Richard Hickox. In the event they were performed as a memorial, conducted by Edward Gardner.

ENO and director Fiona Shaw, chose to perform opera alone with a short prologue, rather than trying to fit its austere perfection into a triple bill - something few opera companies have done successfully. ENO obviously miscalculated the demand for the opera as the run had to be extended by adding a further performance later on Friday evening. So that after we had attended the 7.15pm performance on Friday 28th November, the performers would have to do everything again at 9.30pm.

Shaw and her designers Dorothy Cross and Tom Pye used designs evoking the Aran Isles on the West Coast of Ireland. For the prologue Susan Gritton gave a powerful and moving performance in Finnish, Sibelius's Luonnotar, a setting of part of the Kalevala about the birth of the world. Luonnotar is a spirit of the air who drifts through the waves and Gritton had as her back drop evocative vidoes from Dorothy Cross. At the end of the piece we had a short atmospheric interlude from John Woolrich whilst 6 men helped the heavily pregnant Luonnotar out of her boat. These men then helped set up Maurya's house. In fact there was no house, just an austere rocky setting with the house invisible but assumed to be there, indicated by key props like a kettle and a chair.

The men occupied the house until the women, Nora (Claire Booth) and Cathleen (Kate Valentine) erupted into it. We began to understand that these were the ghost of Maurya's already dead sons and husband. The ghost of the recently dead Michael haunted the stage, watching much of the action.

RVW set the text of Synge's play almost complete and eschewed any sort of aria, instead providing the singers with an expressive arioso which reflected the speech rhythms of Synge's Irish inflected English. Shaw got the sort of naturalistic acting from the singers which made sense of this, for most of the opera. Booth and Valentine were strong in the important roles of the daughters. And Leigh Melrose made as much as he could of the short role of Bartley, the sole surviving son whose death triggers the final catharsis.

Patricia Bardon was almost unrecognisable as Maurya, the old woman who is mother to the family. Bardon was severe, but not overly grim and fierce as Maurya which made her more sympathetic than some interpreters.

Though Shaw paced the whole opera well, I felt that from Maurya's 'I seen the fearfullest vision', when she relates seeing the ghosts of her two most recently dead sons, the acting style could have become less naturalistic. The setting did so, as the ghosts of the dead husband and sons came on along with their now lost boats. But Bardon, Valentine and Booth were firmly entrenched in a naturalistic acting style. And I wanted something a little more transcendent, reflecting RVW's ending. I had the feeling that though Shaw was responsive to RVW's music, for her ending she was staging the words more than the music. RVW's music with the great scena at the end for Maurya, 'They're all gone now' helps transcend the bleakness of the action into something wonderful.

Luckily, Patricia Bardon's performance was everything that we could hope for. Here account of the ending was beautifully musical and profoundly moving.

I do hope that this production does not disappear, it proved to be a strong account of RVW's operatic masterpiece and deserves to be seen more.

Saturday 29 November 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Joyce di Donato's Handel recital is here.
An absorbing and brilliant recital ...

And my review of Kathleen Ferrier singing Bach and Handel is here. Both reviews on Music and Vision.
Profoundly moving performances, strong musicality and emotional truth ...

Friday 28 November 2008

There's something about Mary

The Armonico Consort are a talented vocal ensemble, based in Warwick, whose range extends from 16th century polyphony to staged performances of Rossini's Barber of Seville. They made a rare London appearance on Tuesday (25th November) as part of the Choral at Cadogan series at the Cadogan Hall.

Entitled There's Something About Mary, the concert concentrated on polyphony written during the short reign of Mary Tudor, when elaborate Latinate music enjoyed a brief renaissance in England. The centre piece of the programme was Tallis's wonderful Missa Puer Natus est Nobis, with the choir performing all 3 surviving movements (Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei) interspersed with contemporary organ music by Tallis, John Bull, Antonio de Caezon and Francisco Correa de Arauxo, and polyphony from Guerrero, Lobo and Sheppard.

Tallis's mass was written for 7 part choir (AATTBaBB) but was performed transposed up by a 16 voiced ensemble which included 6 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors and 4 basses. I am entirely unclear quite how the parts were allocated but the general effect seemed to be a little weak on the inner parts. The choir made a fine rich sound, but it was most definitely soprano and bass led.

Cadogan Hall is a tricky place in which to sing polyphony and the group seem to take a little time to get used to it. The acoustic is rather dry for choral music and lacks the sort of resonance which adds lustre to this music. At first, the start of each movement was a little tentative but in the end they sang with a rich sound.

In fact the piece that worked the best was Guerroro's lovely Ave virgo sanctissima - a 5 part piece with 2 soprano parts. The resulting textures were rich and luscious, with better internal balance than in the Tallis. This is not a group where individual voices are massaged into uniformity, the singers all displayed lovely voices which blended whilst retaining their individuality.

The organ interludes were performed by Charles Matthews on a little chamber organ whose tones were delightful, but sounded a trifle quiet in the Caodgan Hall.

Though they performed Lobo's Versa est in luctum, they performed Vittoria's Versa from the Requiem in memory of Richard Hickox. The closing work from the printed programme was John Sheppard's Libera nos with its astonishing dissonances, you never wanted it to end.

Thursday 27 November 2008

ETO Handel celebration

English Touring Opera have announced the dates for their ambitious Handel Celebration in Autumn 2009, part of the celebration's for the company's 30th birthday. They are reviving their productions of Tolomeo, Alcina, Ariodante and Teseo, and adding a new production of Flavio. The tour opens on 15th October 2009 at the Britten Theatre and then moves on to Exeter, Malvern, Buxton and Cambridge. It will come as a great relief to all ETO's Handel opera lovers that the London season is at the Britten Theatre rather than the Hackney Empire. Though the Britten Theatre is smaller, it has the advantage of better transport infrastructure; getting home to south London from Hackney after a 3 hour Handel opera is no fun at all, lovely though the Hackney Empire is as a theatre.

Their spring 2009 tour includes Mozart's Magic Flute and Janacek's Katya Kabanova, plus concert performances of Bellini's Norma.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Richard Hickox (1948 - 2008)

I first saw Richard Hickox conduct in Manchester in the mid 1970's (probably 1974). He was the conductor in the Royal Northern College of Music's production of Aida. I don't recall that any of the production's singers went on to be famous but it was conducted by Hickox who would have been in his late 20's. Looking back on it, it was an incredible achievement for a young conductor. [Having done a little research it turns out that John Rawnsley was, I think, the Amonasro in that production]

He came back into my purview in the 1980's when I came to live in London. Initially I sang with the London Philharmonic Choir and Hickox was known because he conducted the LSO Chorus. He used to conduct large scale choral works with them on Sunday evenings at LSO concerts. My main feelings about his conducting was that he was more than competent but rather uninteresting; the most interesting thing was his repertoire.

Hickox remained on the radar and cropped up periodically. He did one or two very good things at the Spitalfields Festival, especially the 1985 Handel Alcina with Arleen Auger (which was subsequently recorded). Out of this, there were attempts to form an opera company. They subsequently did Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, again with Auger and Della Jones, but this was not so successful. I also remember an interesting take on Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Hickox's recordings usually came to my attention because of their interesting repertoire, though I must confess that I don't have that many on my shelves. In areas of interest such as RVW, I tended to prefer other conductors. But somewhere along the way he grew into a conductor of stature, giving performances of interest. I am not quite sure when this happened. The Barbican performance of RVW's Pilgrim's Progress was very notable (it was subsequently recorded) but I felt that the performance this summer at Sadler's Wells had far greater stature, no matter what you thought about the relative merits of Gerald Finley and Roderick Williams as Pilgrim. But where I was most impressed was with the sequence of RVW symphonies that Hickox did with the Philharmonia. These were all revelations and I now deeply regret that we could not make the first in the series which included the Sea Symphony.

Some conductors only really develop into interesting personalities in old age; Mackerras is a prime example. I began to feel that this was what was happening to Hickox and that he had the most interesting 20 years of his career ahead of him. I never had any really idea of his age, except to know that he must have been around 5 years older than me (in fact 8). He never seemed to age and even in his 40's looked like the same little boy of 20 years earlier. Unfortunately we'll never know what sort of conductor he would have developed into, but at least we have his astounding catalogue of recordings to listen to.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Review of Bellini's 'I Capuletti e i Montecchi'

Orpha Phelan's production of Bellini's I Capuletti e i Montecchi for Opera North[Nottingham Theatre Royal, 22nd November] opened with a drop, curtain apparently of metal, inscribed with a huge target and pockmarked with bullet holes. During the overture, the chorus, in contemporary costume, assembled slowly and passed through a secret door in the drop curtain.

When the overture finished and the drop curtain rose we were in a space. The opera's setting remained stylishly unspecific, almost abstract. For Act 1 the playing area was a triangle of parquet flooring, surrounded by dark. For the first scene a chandelier was added.

It was apparent that this was to be a contemporary version of the opera. Capellio (Nikolay Didenko) was some sort of gang leader, perhaps Mafia, perhaps Irish. Didenko had the physique for the role but I felt that Opera North could have found a more subtle singer closer to home. His supporters, both male and female, were all be-suited thuggish types. Lorenzo (Henry Waddington) was the decent doctor, ministering to Capellio's clan.

Edgaras Montvidas as Tebaldo stood out in his leather overcoat; he stood out also because he is tall and slim, relatively rare for a tenor. Montvidas, a Lithuanian, was a Young Artist at Covent Garden and is now at Frankfurt Opera. He is a Pollione rather than Nemorino and should easily encompass the Duke in Rigoletto. As Tebaldo he was, perhaps, a little more vigorous than was desirable, nudging the role closer to Verdi than was perhaps desirable. But he looked so good, sounded good and shaped the role so well that it hardly seemed to matter.

Sarah Connolly's Romeo, when he arrived, was dressed in a white linen suit. Women are tricky to dress in men's suits and, frankly, designer Leslie Travers attempt for Connolly wasn't flattering. As in her recent Octavian for ENO, Connolly looked a little too mature but sounded fabulous. She captured something of Romeo's impetuousness and youthful ardour.

For Giulietta's first scene a matching triangular glass and metal structure descended, to create a very striking stage image. Reflected in the glass could be seen vague images of Capellio's guards, guarding Giulietta. Marie Arnet's Giulietta was discovered lying on the floor. I gradually warmed to Arnet's Giulietta, but initially her voice seemed a little uncertain. In the upper register it's vibrato gave it a quavery feeling, rendering the voice fragile and uncertain. To a certain extend this could have been to give the character naivety and uncertainty. But fioriture in music of this period needs to be sung with a firmness of voice that Arnet seemed to lack. This was a shame as she beautifully conveyed Giuletta's fragility and her toughness. She was especially good in the scene where Giulietta refuses to flee with Romeo because of her family honour.

Just before Giulietta was due to be married to Tebaldo, Phelan turned the chorus into Giulietta's dream/nightmare - a Giulietta double was manhandled by her father's men and by Tebaldo. In some ways this was an apposite touch, but unfortunately Phelan's drama seemed to find more violence in the piece than was portrayed in Bellini's music. But for much of Act 1, the violence jarred with the music; the people described in Bellini's music are not as rough and uncouth as those that Phelan and her cast created. This was a shame, because much of the staging was thoughtful and effective. For the quartet, Phelan had the chorus act in tableaux, the soloists moving to interact with them as in a dream, then returning to their places at the front of the stage.

But in Act 2 something happened to Bellini's music and to Phelan's production. For much of Act 1 Bellini had raided earlier operas with the result that the piece is fluent but not always striking or moving. Act 2 he wrote from scratch in his new flexible style. Phelan's production similarly transformed itself. The act opened in the aftermath between the two sides. Travers's barely representational set from Act 1 had been transformed into a stunning abstract frozen explosion. Violence behind her, Phelan's production flowed effortlessly and beautifully. Her staging of the final scene was simple and moving, supporting strong performances from the principals.

Marie Arnet's Giulietta will never be my favourite; one or two fluffed notes indicated that she might not have been on the best form. But her Giulietta was touching and moving, fragile and tough. Her singing was nicely phrased and, whilst I found her vocal quality a little too fluttery, she displayed a good feel for Bellini's touching music.

She was ably complemented by Sarah Connolly's stunning Romeo. Connolly combined Romeo's youthful posturing and impetuousness with a seriousness of purpose (both dramatic and musical) with a lovely feeling for Bellini's musical line. The feeling for line which she brings to Handel, helped transform her shaping of Bellini's romantic arioso into something special. How about a Chandos Opera in English recording of this opera.

Monday 24 November 2008

Review of "Boris Godunov"

When I first saw Boris Godunov in the original version (at Munich's Staatsoper in the '90s) it seemed like abbreviated highlights of the full opera. But then I was used to the very full version done at ENO (with John Tomlinson as a memorable Boris) and at Covent Garden (in the Tarkovsky production, originally with Robert Lloyd).

Both of these, it should be remembered, used David Lloyd Jones's edition and performed everything Mussorgsky wrote including the St. Basil's Cathedral scene from version 1 which did not make it into version 2. In Mussorgsky's 2nd version, the Simpleton sings only in the final Kromy forest scene, whereas in the versions I am talking about he appears twice, both outside St. Basil's Cathedral and in the final scene.

Thus performed, the opera is a long rambling piece, where the chorus features as the protagonist. The original version is more concentrated and Boris emerges more as the lead character. Frankly this shorter version came as something of a relief on a busy weekday evening, when the longer, more leisurely version could have been a bit of a trial.

We saw the new ENO production on Wed. 19th November. Tim Albery's production, in a setting by Tobias Hoheisel, used a fixed set, a wooden barn-like structure with an uneven floor and great doors which could open to disclose events happening behind. The result was apposite for the rougher scenes but less so for those in Boris's apartments.

The feeling was that both set and version of the opera were chosen for reasons of economy; this seemed to be confirmed in scene 3 when the inn consisted of simply a mobile drinks cart and a couple of stools. No Matter. What was important was the performance.

The opening scene sounded as glorious as ever, though the decision to place some percussion in the balcony meant that those of us in the upper reaches of the theatre (we were in the front Upper Circle) got a rather distorted aural experience. The sounds of a struck metal plate dominated. Peter Rose's Boris sounded mellifluous and thoughtful with beautifully shaped melodic lines, meditative rather than deeply troubled.

Brindley Sherratt's Pimen was truly impressive, with Gregory Turay providing able support. Such was Turay's appeal that I rather regretted not having the Polish act so I could hear more of him. Sometimes Pimen comes over as a boring old fart (the Gurnemanz of Russian opera) but not here where Sherratt was vivid and enlivening.

By contrast the Inn Scene was a bit subdued. Yvonne Howard did her best as the hostess but Albery seemed to take the humour rather seriously and little of the rumbustiousness of other productions came through. I have vivid memories of Haakon Hagegaard proving himself a fine comedian at the Royal Opera House.

Boris's scene with his children is shorter in this version though Sophie Bevan and Anna Grevelius proved very apt as the children. But here the limitations of Rose's Boris came through as he only seemed mildly troubled rather than haunted. But I hoped things would improve.

John Graham Hall was an impressive Shuisky, well in control, firm of voice and deeply untrustworthy. Hall's voice was strong and robust, not quite suggesting the oiliness which Robert Tear brought vocally to the role.

By the time of the scene outside St. Basil's Cathedral, we were resigned to the fact that the setting would not make any attempt to evoke the cathedral. The chorus continued to impress and Robert Murray stood out as a very pitiful (in the best sense) Simpleton.

By the closing council chamber scene it was apparent that Rose's Boris was one of the most beautifully sung accounts of the role that I have ever heard. Each phrase was carefully shaped. The only person to come close was Robert Lloyd when he first sang the role, but Lloyd's performance changed over the years as his delivery got closer to Chaliapin's bark.

Because Rose's delivery was totally unlike Chaliapin's bark does not mean it was wrong. In most ways it was a joy to hear the role so gloriously sung. Unfortunately Rose seemed unable to imbue his voice with the troubles that Boris feels. Rose's Boris never seemed more than mildly perturbed and in the final scene, never seemed ill. Boris should feel as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, his eyes are haunted from the first moment we see him. But Rose did not achieve this. Perhaps he needs to sacrifice some of the perfection of his performance.

Rose's Boris was a magnificent achievement, but very much a work in progress. As a result the ENO chorus emerged as one of the principal protagonists of the opera. Which made it regrettable that we lacked the Kromy Forest scene.

It is ironic that the very virtues of this production (strong supporting roles,strong chorus) and the weakness of the central character made me long for the longer version of the opera.

Edward Gardner and the orchestra played the score with a fine sweep. I hope that ENO allow Albery, Rose and Gardner to revisit this work and strengthen it, turning a promising performance into a powerful.

Sunday 23 November 2008

Saturday 22 November 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Naxos's 3rd volume of Vivaldi's sacred music is here, on MusicWeb International.
Mallon’s soloists are capable but they don’t quite thrill me ...

Friday 21 November 2008


My motet Gaudete in Domino semper, from Tempus per Annum will receive its first liturgical performance on Sunday 14th December 2008 at 6.00pm at the church of All Saints', Margaret Street, London. Where the choir of All Saints, conductor Paul Brough, will be performing it at Evensong.

The motet sets the text of the Latin Introit for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (which is the day when the motet will be performed). The motet was recorded by the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble, conductor Paul Brough, as part of their Testament of Dr. Cranmer CD.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of the Brook Street Band's disc of Handel's English Cantatas is here, on MusicWeb International.
A most welcome addition ...

Wednesday 19 November 2008

An eagle eyed reader has spotted an inaccuracy in my Wigmore Hall season preview. I referred to a recital in January by Jonas Kaufmann, but when you check the site there isn't one. In fact, going back to their original season brochure, Kaufmann's recital was announced for Jan 11 2009, but now seems to have been replaced by one from Patricia Rozario

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of a live recording of Don Giovanni from the Met. is here, on Music Web International.
Historical curiosity only ...

Friday 14 November 2008

1001 and counting

The previous post was my 1000th. Amazing!

Gleanings from this month's Opera magazine

The interview is with Patricia Bardon, who is singing Maurya in the new ENO Riders to the Sea, something I'm looking forward to immensely. Evidently as a child she wanted to be Tina Turner or Aretha Franklin. She is someone who you associate with Handel, but evidently she waited 10 years before her first major Handel role. The interview was done before the ENO Partenope, but she talks about a previous production which was played for laughs and wonder's whether the work is a comedy. Quite. Interestingly she's performing it again in a production by Pierre Audi, now that won't be comedy! Apart from Handel I still remember her striking performance in Bizet's Djamileh.

The previous issue's article about musical criticism and current standards seems to have created quite a heated correspondence. It is an interesting point about what qualifies a critic to be a critic; I suppose my view would be that it takes someone who has ears to listen and who can write comprehensibly about what they've heard - something that is not always as easy as it sounds.

Some interesting comments about the initial critical reception of Donizetti's Parisina d'Este. Evidently the critics found it noisy and shouted, comments that today seem quite unbelievable. It makes you realise that earlier critical views are always so difficult to assess and to place in context.

Scottish Opera's 15 minutes operas are back next year. Maybe this time I'll get to hear some of them.

Evidently Opus Arte have recorded Jonathan Dove's Pinnochio, I can't wait.

Obits for Peter Glossop, a singer whom I never got to hear live alas, but I still treasure his recording of Verdi's Macbeth in concert with Rita Hunter, doing the original version.

I Masnadieri in Australia - evidently the critic Chorley, after hearing the opera in 1845 in London he described it as the worst opera Verdi ever wrote! Still in Australia, a new Orlando had a theme running through it, sheep! It was also so cut that it lasted under 3 hours.

Over in Austria they performed Karl V by Karl Krenek, as it is 12 tone its rather a different style to his Johnny spielt auf.

Over in Brazil, Ariadne auf Naxos was staged for the first time since the 1980's, with Zerbinetta and her ensemble as a rock group.

And in Paris they did the 4 Act Italian version of Don Carlo, is nothing sacred.

And in Berlin Il Turco in Italia appeared set in Fellini's film era, sound familiar. ENO did a similar thing some years ago, and it didn't work then.

Mozart's Idomeneo in the tiny Cuvillies Theatre in Munich. Hugh Canning raises the problem of doing Idamante as a tenor; having too many tenors in the cast. You wonder what Mozart might have made of the opera had he lived. Still it did have John Mark Ainsley as Idomeneo.

In Venice, Death in Venice made an appearance, 35 years after it was first performed there in 1973. Evidently this was a production which takes the erotic relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio seriously.

At Fort Worth, Of Mice and Men opened in a new production, with the 89 year old Carlisle Floyd in attendance. They also performed Angels in America, Peter Eotvos's operatic version. The reviewer comments, quite rightly, the problems of trying to boil a 7 hour play down to an opera lasting less than 3 hours. You wonder why people try in the first place.

Is it me, or does the best bit of the new operatic version of David Cronenberg's The Fly seem to be the pictures of a naked Seth Brundle. And in San Francisco the imported production of Handel's Ariodante was so bad the review says it makes a good case for opera in concert! More cuts in the Santa Fe Radamisto, which ran for under 3 hours. Still the designs looked fab.

Finally, in We hear that...
Mary Plazas is doing Lucrezia Borgia in Buxton.
Covent Garden are doing a new production of Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki next year.
Nina Stemme is doing Isolde at Covent Garden in 2009-10, I hope they are doing a new production for her!

Thursday 13 November 2008

Schnittke Choir Concerto performance

On Saturday 15th November, London Concord Singers are performing Schnittke's Choir Concerto at the church of St. Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London. The concert begins at 7.30pm and also includes 6 movements from Tchaikovsky's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. If you are around, do come, you'll get to hear one of the choral masterworks of the 20th century and also hear yours truly singing, as I'm a member of the choir. The work divides the choir into 16 parts and at the end goes into 26 parts, so we'll be singing with a few extra singers than usual.

Interestingly both works in the concert date from times of stress in their respective composers lives. Tchaikovsky wrote the Liturgy around the time of his abortive marriage; a time which was very productive musically for him. Schnittke had a heart attack during the composition of the concerto and was pronounced clinically dead.

Premiere of Gabriel Jackson's Requiem

My review of the Vasari Singers concert, which included the premiere of Gabriel Jackson's Requiem, is here, on Music and Vision.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

A few months ago I reviewed a CD of Finzi's music with James Gilchrist as the tenor soloist. Gilchrist's voice sounded alarmingly stressed at the top, so much so that I did wonder about his vocal health. But shortly afterwards we heard him live and he sounded his usual mellifluous self. Gilchrist was the soloist on Sunday on the Radio 3 programme about RVW's On Wenlock Edge. Again Gilchrist's voice sounded stressed. I can only put this down to a tendency for recording engineers to place the microphones too close, so that his voice does not have time to settle.

This is a problem which can occur most frequently with big voices. Many years ago Jane Eaglen, in interview, said that at that time she was happy with only one of her recordings, the Chandos Tosca. She explained how big voices were difficult to record and this was born out by her Chandos Aida and Turandot, where the Turandot was superb but the Aida gave her a significant beat in her voice.

We have recently acquired the new Halle Dream of Gerontius, here is its Bryn Terfel's voice which causes concern. Though he is admirably firm of tone and with superb diction, the recording captures an exceptional beat in the voice. I suspect that if you heard him live, this would not be a problem as the voice would have had time to settle in the distance between him and you in the concert hall. Obviously the decision taken on the recording was that immediacy was more important than avoiding the beat in Terfel's voice.

Perhaps it is me, perhaps I'm a little to allergic to excessive beat in voices. But I am becoming increasingly aware that our recorded experience can entirely fail to reflect the reality.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Gabriel Jackson Requiem

Tonight we are off to St. Martin in the Fields (now beautifully restored) to hear the Vasari Singers, conductor Jeremy Backhouse, perform Gabriel Jackson's new Requiem, a 30 minute unaccompanied setting of the Latin text interleaved with other poetry. I have sung in a number of Jackson's smaller pieces and was on the judging panel the year he won the Liturgical category of the British Composer Awards. I very much look forward to hearing one of his larger scale choral pieces.

St. Cecilia's Day

If you feel like celebrating St. Cecilia's Day this year then wander along to St. John's Smith Square, where La Nuova Musica are presenting a programme which includes Purcell's 1683 St. Cecilia's Day Ode Welcome all the Pleasures. Along side this they present the 1684 Ode by Purcell's teacher, John Blow, Begin the Song. Blow is currently still a little under appreciated I think. Not only did he teach Purcell, but they were friends and Blow replaced Purcell at Westminster Abbey on Purcell's sudden death. Blow's one act opera Venus and Adonis (written in 1685) was an important precursor to and influence on Dido and Aeneas

Also featured in La Nuova Musica's programme is Handel's Gloria and Laudate Pueri with the ever wonderful soprano of Lucy Crowe.

Friday 7 November 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of the recital of songs by Argentinian composers Carlos Guastavino is here, on MusicWeb International.
A lovely recital ...

Thursday 6 November 2008

Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican

For their latest visit to the Barbican, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants gave us 3 acts from Rameau's comedie ballet Les Indes Galantes.

This was Rameau's 2nd major operatic work, coming just after the tragedie lyrique Hippolyte et Aricie. The new work was a vastly different style, lighter with more emphasis on dance and with a different plot for each act. One of the features of the genre was that each act was separate. Rameau expanded and revised the work over the years so that at its first showing there were fewer acts than now. So Christie's decision to present just 3 acts made perfect sense. Without dancers, sets or costumes, the work could never have quite the same impact. Though the women's dresses were all designed by Christian Lacroix, which added a strong element of style to the proceedings.

The young cast were a wide variety of nationalities with only Stephane Degout being a native French speaker. Though their diction was excellent, Degout's was noticeably more idiomatic than the rest. Ed Lyons started off sounding a little too English but by his 2nd appearance in the final act, he was far more convincing.

We were presented with the acts set in Turkey, Peru and America; each dealt with a love triangle in some way and love always triumphed. Though the large cast (6 singers) were spread across the 3 acts, the show was something of a showcase for Portugese bass Joao Fernandes who was the only singer to appear in all 3 acts.

Musically the evening was triumph with all the singers displaying a good feeling for Rameau's style. We also had some lovely voices and some fine musicality. Sometimes with shows by Les Arts Florissants you get the feeling that with the voices, style triumphs over substance and voice quality, but not here. I felt sorry not to hear more of Spanish tenor Juan Sancho who only appeared in the Peruvian act. Similarly mezzo Juliette Glastian impressed in the Turkish act; but Sony Yoncheva was able to display her winning personality and pert stage manner in both the Turkish and American acts.

The singers performed off the book, moved around and generally 'acted' their roles. No producer was credited. I felt that a slightly stronger hand was needed on the directorial side. Some singers, like Stephane Degout, rightly felt that less was more and he impressed with his stage performance. But Fernandes did rather over-do the dramatics some times and rather needed reining in; this was particularly true in the American act where Rameau's characterisation verges on cariacature; Fernandes came dangerously close to giving a Mr. Bean impression ('Mr. Bean goes to the Opera' perhaps?).

The chorus started out placed behind the orchestra but they too sang without scores and moved about, making entrances and exists. This was inevitably a little distracting, but did add to the general aura of it being a real dramatic event. The only miscalculation was in having them sing from the front of the stage, placed either side of the orchestra. Communication seemed less than perfect and there were occasional moments when the two wings of the chorus got a little out of synch.

Naturally, musician ship was perfect and in the best possible taste. This was a lovely evening of Rameau, beautifully performed and thoughtfully presented.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

RVW Symphonies on the SouthBank

On Sunday the Philharmonia Orchestra, under Richard Hickox, did a 3-part programme at the Royal Festival Hall, performing 3 Vaughan Williams Symphonies. It was the penultimate offering in their RVW series this year, the final one is tomorrow (6th November). On Sunday we got the Tallis Fantasia and Symphony no. 9 in the first part, the 3 Shakespeare Songs sung by Philharmonia Voices and Symphony No. 6 in part 2 and then the concert concluded with Symphony No. 5. The subtitle of the concert was Vaughan Williams the Visionary.

By offering the Tallis Fantasia and the 9th Symphony, as in the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at the Proms this year, we heard what was essentially the first and last of RVW. Hearing it in the improved Festival Hall was a treat, rather than the vast spaces of the Albert Hall. Whilst these spaces can be effective, having the Tallis Fantasia close up, especially with the luxurious string sound of the Philharmonia, was a real treat. In the 9th Symphony the saxophones seemed to be play with slightly less vibrato than their BBC colleagues, which was a great improvement. Hickox has developed into a fine RVW conductor and his account of the visionary 9th was engrossing.

When asked about the final movement of the 6th Symphony, RVW quoted Prospero 'We are such stuff as dreams are made of' so it seemed entirely appropriate to pre-fix the symphony with the Shakespeare songs, perfectly sung by Philharmonia Voices (interestingly with 3 counter-tenors and 1 mezzo-soprano on the alto line). The symphony itself was perhaps not quite as engrossing as No. 9, but still a fine performance. As usual with the final movement, I felt that everything could have been even quieter, though the orchestra showed fine control. Hickox's reading made the movement seem a little warmer than usual; more Prospero's dreams than a vision of the cold war about to engulf Europe.

Then finally the 5th symphony, always a moving piece with its echoes of The Pilgrims Progress. There were a couple of moments when I did wonder whether the players were getting a little tired (the concert had around 150 minutes of music in it). But as ever, the 5th Symphony with its glorious cor anglais solo worked its magic.

Monday 3 November 2008

Review of Mathilde de Shabran

My review of Covent Garden's new production of Rossini's Mathilde de Shabran is here, on Music and Vision.

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