Friday 27 February 2009

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the 2nd volume of Bach's Weimar cantatas from the Purcell Quartet is here.
There is much to enjoy on this set ...

And my review of Tavener's Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas from Ars Nova Copenhagen is here. Both review are on MusicWeb International.
Captures the rhythmic vitality of this brilliant but tricky music ...

Thursday 26 February 2009

Candledancing Resurgam

Just over 10 years ago I was contacted by an American playwright, Coni Koepfinger, with a view to providing music for the production of her play CandleDancing. The play dealt with miracles in the context of the modern day church and require a score which included excerpts from a Requiem mass to be sung on stage. The work was premiered in Pittsburgh, USA and the production and my score went on to win an award in the Pittsburgh press.

I went on to develop the score into a full liturgical Requiem mass, but I have always had a fondness for the original stage score and the way it mixed music and speech.

Now the text of the play is finally being published, further details here. There are also plans for an audio-book with my music and a rehearsed reading in the USA. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

London Handel Festival: Theodora

The London Handel Festival opened yesterday with Theodora, full review here, on Music and Vision.

It was heartening to find the festival performing the work uncut, even though it meant spending 3.5 hours in St. George's Church, Hannover Square. A venue which has mixed sight lines, rather uncomfortable pews, terrible provision for loos (not good in long Handel pieces) and last night we seemed to have some very noisy standing room audience as well. The festival were recording the performance, so I hope the mysterious booming noises coming from the back of the balcony did not affect things too much. But, its easy to moan and we should give the festival credit for putting on such a varied and fabulous programme on what is probably a shoe string.

Recent CD Review

My review of volume 11 of the Cardinall's Musick's Complete Byrd Edition is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday 20 February 2009

Another review that wasn't

No, we haven't had any more power cuts. But last night (Thursday) we went to Sadlers Wells to see Opera North's production of David Sawyer's new operetta, Skin Deep. Having read the reviews following the first night in Leeds, I was aware that the piece might have issues but we went with open ears, hoping to be delighted and entertained.

The piece is an operetta in the strict sense of the word, in that it's subject is relatively light (a satire on cosmetic surgery) and it uses spoken dialogue. Whatever you think of Armando Iannucci's libretto, it does seem to be written using operetta forms; not only does it rhyme, but seems to be structured in terms of aria, ensemble, dance number etc. The draw backs of the libretto are that the plot itself is rather trivial and it seems a little on the wordy side. But I must confess that I was rather more impressed with the libretto that I expected to be, following the critical comment I had expected it to be far wordier than it is. Mind you, Iannucci does not seem to have taken on board Martin Crimp's comment that a libretto should always have something missing. You feel that Iannucci's libretto would make quite an adequate sit-com.

What it doesn't do is make an adequate opera.

I'm not quite sure where the root problem lies. David Sawyer has obviously worked very hard and his music is accomplished, but he does not strike me as a natural light-music composer. Simply, this was an operetta without tunes. More importantly, Sawyer seems to have eschewed closed forms. I think that the piece would have worked, even without tunes, if we had had a series of set pieces written using closed forms (march, waltz, beguine etc.). As it was we had neither.

Now, it is perfectly possible that Sawyer thinks that the work does have tunes and does use closed forms. This can often happen when writing, you get so close to the music that you don't always realise what people can (and can't) apprehend. (On a personal note, I've written a few pieces which I think are very tuneful but which other people simply hear as mournful noodling round in a plainchant-esque way).

If you played a recording of the work, without telling anyone the subject matter, then I doubt that the listener would have realised that Skin Deep was supposed to be funny. It doesn't sound funny.

The cast all worked very, very hard. But usually you had to strain to grasp the words and the laughs all came from Richard Jones's production. This was not one of his better affairs. Jones seems to have decided to stage the libretto rather than the music, so that we got farce with the odd production number. These latter came over very awkwardly as it is difficult doing a big song/dance number with music which does not seem to fit the genre.

The opera is in 3 acts with an interval after act 2. When the interval came (at 9pm after 90 minutes of music), neither of us could face going back for the final act. My companion didn't like the music much (an thought the plot puerile) and I found that I just didn't care about what was happening on stage. So we left. I am prepared to believe that staying for Act 3 might have changed our opinions, but I am not convinced that it would have done.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Th'unkindest cut

Last week's Samson at the Barbican seems to have been well received by the critics in the broadsheets (Hilary Finch's review in the Times is here). What is interesting is that no-one seems to have mentioned that the work was heavily cut. I'm sure they noticed, after all you don't review a work like Samson without doing your homework. So we must assume that in a succinct review in print, it wasn't deemed worthy of notice. This is interesting in itself because the cuts meant that we lost 3 small solo parts (Israelite Man, Philistine Man and Virgin). Perhaps Handel oratorios are regarded as being so long that cuts are taken as read.

But this seems to be a very Handelian phenomenon. It is not so long ago that Covent Garden could mount a new production of Alcina for Yvonne Kenny and miss out an entire character (Oberto). Granted, this DID cause comment in critical circles. Imagine if someone put on, say, The Marriage of Figaro with one of the smaller characters cut entirely, perhaps Don Basilio or Dr. Bartolo, this would certainly cause a storm. Wouldn't?

There are, in fact, operas which I feel would be improved if certain characters were removed, but that's an entirely different article.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Review of "Adriana Lecouvreur"

My review of Sunday's performance of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur is here, on Music and Vision.

Free opera are promoting their new site by offering the Sky Arts video of the new ENO La Boheme as a free Webcast. Its free until March 2nd. So if you're curious about Jonathan Miller's new production or Alfie Boe's voice then here's your chance to fine out. You'll need the Microsoft Silverlight plugin.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the Faure Requiem recorded by the French choir Accentus, using the original chamber version, is here.
Fine singing and playing but fails to tug the heart-strings and thrill the soul ...
And my review of an amazing French baroque arrangement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons is here, both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Charming and convincing … lightness and deftness ...

Monday 16 February 2009

The review that wasn't

To the Royal Opera house on Saturday for a performance of George Benjamin's new opera Into the Little Hill. This was being performed, in a double bill with Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Down by the Greenwood side in the Linbury Studio by the Opera Company with the London Sinfonietta. Both productions were by John Fulljames with designs by Soutra Gilmour.

They opened with the Birtwistle, which seems to have become something of a period piece. Set for soprano (Claire Booth) and four actors (Pip Donaghy, Wela Frasier, Robert Hastie and Julian Forsyth), it pits the soprano against the actors. The soprano sings a series of laments based on folk-songs about women murdering their illegitimate children. The actors, using rhythmical speech, act out an old mummers play about St. George and Bold Slasher. Fulljames updates things, making them all down and outs and subverts things by having St. George played by a black actor (Wela Frasier) and Bold Slasher (Robert Hastie) played as a skin-head. The work mines the seam of violence (in the action and in the music) which appears in Punch and Judy. But it seemed a strange, rag-bag of ideas; a rather period theatre-piece. My only complaint about the performance was that we couldn't hear any of Claire Booth's words.

After the interval we had Benjamin's new opera. Much anticipated, I may add. We had to wait some 15 or so after the end of the interval before the piece started. The set was abstract, imaginative and obviously a bit tricky to set up, the shale covering the stage seemed to give serious problems! Still once underway the piece enchanted. The 2 singers were Claire Booth and Susan Bickley and they played everyone, including the chorus. The plot is essentially The Pied Piper of Hamlin, a little update with an extremely lucid libretto by Martin Crimp. Then 10 to 15 minutes in, the lights failed. After a further 10 minutes we were ushered into the bar (where the lights were still on!) and offered a free drink. But by now it was nearly 9.30pm and it being 14th February, my partner and I had a dinner date. So I'm afraid we decamped. Eventually the performance recommenced in the bar itself.

I can see that I will have to wait even further for a proper hearing of Benjamin's opera. This is shame as it has all the markings of a fine and lucid piece. In the programme book, Benjamin talks about the orchestration being transparent so that the vocal lines can be in the foreground, without struggle. From the section I heard, this is very true as the singers got the words over beautifully and the lovely orchestration still told.

Also in the programme book, librettist Martin Crimp talks about how a text for music should have something missing; that a libretto should not draw attention to itself. That text for music can afford to stand still (whereas a play cannot), as music can provide the motion. Crimp's article was a testament to intelligent and lucid libretto design, it should be essential reading for all trainee librettists!

Saturday 14 February 2009

Review of "Samson"

My review of The Sixteen's performance of Handel's Samson from the Barbican on Thursday 12th February is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday 13 February 2009

To the Barbican Centre last night for The Sixteen's performance of Handel's Samson (a review will appear in due course). Their 1996 recording of the work lasts some 205 minutes so we were not surprised to find the concert starting at 6.30pm, though getting to the Barbican by this time is always quite a challenge unless you have the sort of job where its OK to leave early. Not surprisingly the hall seemed to be full of rather flustered and stressed audients.

The programme said that there was only 1 interval, after Act 1, which was a surprise. In fact the work was cut, quite significantly. The article in the programme mentioned that it was common to cut the work, because of its length, but entirely failed to specify what cuts had been made. Surely some mention should have been made of the fact that three entire characters had disappeared!

In fact the cuts were such that we lost around 40 minutes of music and the concert finished at 9.30pm. Why on earth did the management of the Barbican Centre put us through the stress of arriving for a concert at 6.30pm if it was scheduled to last only 3 hours. We could have 1) started the concert later, 2) had more music, or 3) had two intervals. Or even a combination of the above.

All I can think is that when the concert was originally programmed, no-one had decided on the cuts so it was assumed that the work would be done full length. This isn't the first time that this has happened at the Barbican, its almost as if they delight in making us struggle to enjoy the music.

Recent CD Review

My review of Sir Andrew Davis's account of Handel's Messiah with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is here, on MusicWeb International.
A real symphonic account which respects Handel's original conception ...

Sunday 8 February 2009

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Vesselina Kasarova' disc of Handel's arias for Carestini is here.
Strong technique and imaginative but try before buying ...

And my review of Harnoncourt's account of the Monteverdi Vespers is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Entirely fails to convince ...

Saturday 7 February 2009

EPSS Housman Competition

My song, He Looked at Me has come 3rd in the English Poetry and Song Society's Housman Competition. The song will be performed, along with the other winners, at a recital by Gordon Pullin and Jolyon Laycock at St. Mary's Church, Bathwick, Bath on Saturday 7th March, 3.30pm. Tickets, price £9, are available from the Bath Festival Box Office.

Typically, in London Bus style, the date of the concert clashes with the forthcoming 15B Consort concert at St. Mary's Cadogan Street, Chelsea. So while my song is being premièred, I will be busy rehearsing.

Friday 6 February 2009

Gleanings from this month's Opera

From this month's Opera magazine.

The interview is with Vivica Genaux, who makes some interesting observations on the difficulty of making a decent mark in a role like Rosina (Barber of Seville) where you get just 20 minutes rehearsal and have to fit in to an existing concept.

There is an obituary for Richard Hickox; evidently when I saw him conduct Aida in Manchester, at the RNCM, in 1974 it was his operatic debut. And an obit. for Richard Van Allan; Van Allan sang for Glyndebourne Touring opera in his early days, covering an amazingly wide range of roles - Cavalli to Mozart, Haydn, Rossini through to Britten, Prokofiev, Maw and Dove.

Also in the Obits., one for the English mezzo Enid Hartle, written by Linda Esther Gray.

A Viennese performance of Gluck's original Orfeo, which was written for Vienna, where Stephen Lawless and Lynne Hockney seem to have made sense of the final dances, rather than them being something embarrassedly tacked on. Still in opera seria land, they Handel's Ezio has cropped up in Turin of all places, along with a performance of Peri and Caccini's Euridice. One of the earliest operas, I saw it many, many years ago in Florence and, I am afraid, found it entirely forgettable.

Over in Lyons there were doing La Clemenza di Tito, with Sesto transmogrified into an androgynous one which the reviewer refers to as Sesta! How would the opera work if Sesto was really turned into a woman! And in Marseille they have been doing Reyer's Salammbo. I know Reyer mainly for his opera Sigurd, which covers the same territory as the Ring but in a different fashion. It is an opera I have long wanted to hear but entirely failed to do so. I know it mainly from an excerpt on a Regine Crespin recital record.

Still in France, and back on the cross dressing track, Giorgio Batistelli seems to have come up with that rare thing, a contemporary comic operaDivorce a l'Italienne; complete with a heroine played by the Rossini bass Bruno Practico.

Peter Eotvos's Love and Other Demons has wandered its way from Lewes to Lithuania (in the same production). In Lithuania, Mariso Montalvo, for whom the leading role was written, was finally able to perform in the opera having had to drop out of the Glyndebourne performances due to ill health. There was also a staging of Ponchielli's I Lituani - beat that for a combination of obscurity and local colour.

Evidently the original of the holy Grail is kept on an altar in Valencia Cathedral, so it seems entirely apt that they should be performing Parsifal.

We missed the Reginald Goodall celebrations at the London Coliseum, which was a shame as it sounds as it it was fascinating. Evidently Peter Pears said that no-one had ever conducted Peter Grimes better than Goodall.

Over in Munich they have been digging up one of E.T.A. Hoffman's operas ReadingLiebe und Eifersucht. The review was not impressed, alas. The review of the ROH's latest outing of Les Contes d'Hoffman says they should think twice before replacing the production. True perhaps, but for some reason the production is still attached to a woefully old-fashioned edition of the score. Can't we have a re-studied version which uses a version of the score which utilised recent scholarship (and spoken dialogue!).-

Thursday 5 February 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of an attractive disc of double concertos by members of the Bach family is here, on MusicWeb International.
Delightful and instructive ...

Monday 2 February 2009

Review of Die tote Stadt

It is a measure of how voice types changed, and how orchestras have got louder, that the role of Paul on Korngold's Die tode Stadt was one of Richard Tauber's major roles. Tauber could in no way be described as an heroic tenor, but nowadays if Korngold's opera is performed at all it is given with an heroic tenor as Paul. At Covent Garden on Friday (only the works 2nd staged outing ever in the UK), Paul was sung by Stephen Gould and Marie/Marietta by Nadja Michael. Neither singer could be described as lyric in any shape or form; Michael was previously a mezzo-soprano and numbers Salome in her repertoire.

Both had little problem projecting over Korngold's large orchestra. Korngold's style is in many ways a sort of super-charged Richard Strauss, his operas live in the hinterland between Strauss and say Schreker. There are lyrical moments, but much of the music is gorgeously taxing. Both Paul (Stephen Gould) and Marie/Marietta (Nadja Michael) are on stage for much of the time so that complaining that their performances were a little effortful is a bit unfair as Korngold gives them so much of a challenge. It is unfair so complain that Tauber and Lehmann on their recording of the work's famous duet, make the piece sound far more beautiful than Gould and Michael were able to. Voices just are not like that any more. It was noticeable in the quieter moments that Michael had to make and almost audible effort to keep her vibrato in control and produce a good sense of line.

The role of Marie/Marietta calls for a sexy soprano with a gleaming, free upper voice; something that Michael does not really have. The singer I would like to hear in the role is Karita Mattila.

That said, Gould and Michael made a convincing dramatic pair. Gould's physique is hulking, anti-heroic which contrasted strikingly with Michael's slim, scantily clad form. Gerald Finley gave a master class in how things should be done, in the relatively small role of Frank/Fritz. The role is mainly unexceptional, but Fritz gets to sing the Pierrot Lied, the opera's other big number; this Finley did with his customary finesse and sense of line.

Willy Decker's production, which is already rather well travelled, was quite spectacular and Decker seemed to spare no expense when it came to an excuse for a striking stage effect. Some of it was a little over done and made the work seem an overheated result of Paul's imagination; something which seemed to pre-empt the work's remarkable finale. When we discover that much of the preceding action HAD been the result of Paul's fevered imagination.

Ingo Metzmacher kept Korngold's complex score flowing and did not allow the large orchestra to get out of hand. The result sounded gorgeous from an orchestra point of view.

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