Sunday 30 August 2009

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Victoria's Missa O Quam Gloriosum from Il Convitto Armonico is here.

A welcome touch of warmth and vibrancy of tone ...

And my review of a boxed of Handel cantatas and arias from Phoenix is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.

Some strong performances and some unsatisfactory ...

Friday 28 August 2009

Another view of Santa Fe

Music and Vision has a review by Maria Nockin of all of Santa Fe's operas here, providing a different view point (and more pictures).

Interview with Christine Brewer

Whilst in Santa Fe, I interviewed Christine Brewer, who sang the title role in Gluck's Alceste at Santa Fe Opera this summer. The interview is here, on Music and Vision.

Review of Alceste

My review of Alceste from Santa Fe Opera, with Christine Brewer in the title role is here, on MusicWeb International/Seen and Heard.

Friday 21 August 2009

Santa Fe Opera

We are currently in Santa Fe, attending the opera festival there. The opera house is a striking modern building housing some 2000 seats and situated on a hill outside the town. The opera has been going some 25 years. When first founded the stage was covered but the seating was open to the skies. Now the seating is covered as well, but the sides of the auditorium and the rear of the stage are open. This means that shows start at sunset (currently 8.30pm) and you are able to watch the sunset as the show opens. The whole is rather magical, though it must be borne in mind that the evenings can get rather cold and windy.

The acoustics of the theatre are surprisingly good. The stage has no drop curtain so that all scene changes must happen in view of the audience, which is something of a novelty and rather harks back to the baroque era when such practices were common. The auditorium is surrounded by a complex of buildings including a rehearsal hall and a cantina in which preview buffets are given, enabling audience members to eat whilst hearing a talk about that night's opera. These preview buffets are organised by the various voluntary opera guilds which support the opera house's work and all profits go towards their touring and educational activities.

Repertoire is generally conservative, but casting and production standards are high. This year Natalie Dessay made her debut in La Traviata and Christine Brewer made her debut in Alceste. Each year they do a relatively unknown opera, Alceste being this years. Next year they will be performing a contemporary opera by Lewis Spratlan, Albert Herring with Christine Brewer as Lady Billows and Tales of Hoffman, an opera not performed in Santa Fe before. I have, so far, been unable to determine which edition of the opera they are doing and whether it will be done with spoken dialogue or not.

The only trouble in paradise is that an audience of 2000 people requires some 1000 cars to get to the opera house and so leaving after the opera is rather tedious. My review of The Letter has already appeared and my review of Alceste will do so shortly. Then on Saturday we are seeing La Traviata.

On Monday I interviewed Christine Brewer and this interview will appear shortly, providing PC problems allow!

Review of The letter

My review of Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout's new opera, The Letter, premiered at Santa Fe Opera, is here on MusicWeb/Seen and Heard.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of EMI's Handel set (Fireworks and Water music) is here.

Fireworks apart, nothing that has not been done better elsewhere ...

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Henry Lytton as Bunthorne

A photo of Henry Lytton as Bunthorne (in Patience) wearing a wig and costume which seems to have inspired that worn by Simon Butteriss in the BBC Proms Patience

Prom 35 - Patience

Tuesday's performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience was billed as a semi-staging, directed by Martin Duncan. But what we got was far more than that. Sir Charles Mackerras and the BBC Concert Orchestra were seated at the back of the stage giving a wide but shallow acting area. All of the principals were costumed and sang off the book, the men and women of the chorus did their opening number in staged fashion (off the book) and then retired to the bleachers to sing from scores, whilst still managing to remain involved in proceedings.

Despite the Albert Hall's unhelpful acoustic, Mackerras managed to keep things moving in sparkling fashion, bringing out the Rossinian elements of Sullivan's score. For the faster numbers Mackerras's speeds seemed to be as fast as he dared, given the acoustical problems, and the cast kept up and gave us some brilliant patter.

Duncan treated the plot seriously and essayed no updating or modish devices. Costumes were all traditional and Carl Rosa Opera were top of the costume credits at the back of the programme. This meant that Ladies Angela, Ella and Saphir (Pamela Helen Stephen, Elena Xanthoudakis and Sophie-Louise Dann) were all in long neo-Victorian Liberty print shifts. Lady Jane (the redoubtable Felicity Palmer) was in more muted Victoriana, complete with small train. The military men (Donald Maxwell, Graeme Danby and Bonaventura Bottone) were in pukka Victorian military gear. Patience herself (Rebecca Bottone) was in classic 18th century milkmaid guise and the two poets (Simon Butteriss and Toby Stafford-Allen) were all in floppy velvet. Butteriss as Bunthorne sported an amazing curly wig whilst Stafford-Allen was all floppy hair.

Butteriss was a revelation as Bunthorne. He brought all the right mannerisms to the role, but sang with remarkably depth of tone. It is worth bearing in mind that ENO's last Bunthorne, Derek Hammond Stroud, was known to sing Bunthorne and Alberich on alternate nights. As his fellow poet Grosvenor, Stafford-Allen probably had the lovelier voice. But the two of them formed a neat complement to each other and Butteriss impressed with the way he played the Albert Hall auditorium as if it was a far smaller theatre. When playing scenes together Butteriss and Stafford-Allen develop both rapport and patter in a way which suggested a far longer rehearsal period than this staging could have had.

In fact, the whole cast impressed with the way they seemed to have developed a fine ensemble piece despite tightness of schedules. The three ladies (Stephen, Xanthoudakis and Dann) created three distinct personalities for themselves and indulged in some enjoyable hi-jinks. All three seemed to have a turn for comedy, especially Xanthoudakis. This was just as well, because Felicity Palmer, as Lady Jane, gave a masterclass in comic delivery and timing. Her solo with cello solo (which she really played) was finely delivered. Palmer allowed you to both laugh at Lady Jane and feel sorry for her; partly I think because Sullivan's music modifies Gilbert's rather jaundiced view of the elderly female character.

As the three military men, Maxwell, Danby and Bottone were frankly rather too old for the part. But in compensation they brought a wealth of comic experience and were simply hilarious, whether as stiff necked military men or as cod aesthetes. Veteran tenor Robert Tear made a cameo appearance as Bunthorne's solicitor.

In the title role, Rebecca Bottone impressed with her perky character (Patience is no shy violet) combined with a lovely lyric voice. She spoke the dialogue in a vaguely Northern accent, but sensibly did not try to sing in the same manner. Whilst the opera does not entirely depend on the title role, Rebecca Bottone ensured the ensemble had just the right personality its centre.

The opera's plot seems to have worn pretty well, Gilbert pokes fun mainly at aestheticism and posing, but manages other comic darts along the way. Though some details have aged, the general targets are as current as ever.

Patience is one of the G&S canon that Mackerras has not recorded, on this showing someone should be ushering him and his cast into the studio as soon as possible

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Unkindest cut of all

Recent reviews have been covering the new production of Aida from the Bregenz Festival. Played on the floating stage in the lake, Graham Vick's production is inevitably spectacular and receives a lot of comment. Only one review that I came across mentioned the fact that the opera was heavily cut.

Opera on the floating stage in Bregenz needs to start at sunset and, because of limitations in the transport infrastructure, must last a maximum of two hours. There is no interval because getting 7000 people in and out would take too long. So any opera performed must have 2 hours of music at the most. This means that some 40 to 50 minutes of music has been cut from Aida, whereas an opera like Tosca could be done complete.

Perhaps this is fair enough, given the circumstances of production. But the festival Website does not seem to mention the fact. A simple statement that the performance used an edition specially created for Bregenz would have been enough.

But opera houses seem reluctant to give the details of the edition being used when an opera is performed. Sometimes this is because these decisions are only made when the opera goes into production, but even then some indication should surely be given. The Paris Opera are reviving their production of The Tales of Hoffmann in May next year. The web site gives full details of casting etc., but no indication of what a potential customer might expect to hear. Will there be spoken dialogue or sung recitative; will the production be the tradition edition or does the opera house use their own edition. If you look at the plot summary, you find out that the Giulietta act comes last, which is a positive thing. These are points which many potential customers will wish to know. Its no good buying expensive tickets and turning up expecting the full sung version and getting the spoken dialogue, or vice versa.

Another opera to which these strictures apply is Carmen. Like Tales of Hoffmann there is the issue of spoken dialogue v. sung recitative, plus the changes made to create a traditional version. Though in the case of Carmen these changes are rather less. Similarly, conductors can decide to take some of the alternative versions of Mozart's mature operas and such decisions similarly need clear warning.

When it comes to baroque operas I don't think that advance warning is necessarily required, but I certainly do feel that programmes should print exactly what we are and are not hearing. I hate having to do the sort of detective work required when listening to a relatively unfamiliar baroque opera and needing to know which bits have been missed out.

I know that not everyone is bothered by these issues and that some would argue that I should be happy to take the presentation, whatever it is, as a work of art created by the conductor, director and cast. But if decisions have been taken, for whatever valid reasons, to take variant readings of the composers text or to cut it, then this information should be clearly available.

Monday 10 August 2009

Prom 33

To the Albert Hall for the 2nd (evening) half of the BBC Proms piano teamwork day. My main complaint with the programming of this day is that they contrived 2 programmes of piano teamwork without including any of Percy Grainger's pieces for multiple pianos.

The performers for the evening were the London Sinfonietta, BBC Singers plus an impressive array of 8 pianists, all conducted by Edward Gardner. The concert opened with George Antheil's Ballet mecanique. It was performed in the composers 1953 revision, which dropped the parts for pianolas (shame!) and got rid of some of the jazzier bits (shame!), instead we had 4 pianos, 2 xylophones, glockenspiel and other percussion. The xylophones have the main melodic interest and it was amazing how little real interest there was in the 4 piano parts. Perhaps the piece would have worked better with the accompanying film, or may be in a smaller hall. Though well played, it was a bit underwhelming.

I must confess that I had similar thoughts about the John Adams Grand Piano Music which followed. Here the London Sinfonietta winds seemed to be occasionally ill at ease, almost as if the day's rather grand structure had prevented adequate rehearsal time. Adams textures burbled and pooped along neatly enough, but it lacked the shock value it once had even when the amazing big tune appears in the final movement. But the main problem might have been my ears. This was the first time I'd heard the piece live, all previous encounters having been on disc, notably Adams own recording. Now, the Proms performance did include a limited amount of amplification, but I got the impression that this was mainly confined to the three female singers (the excellent Synergy Vocals), rather than balancing the whole band. Whereas on the recording, you feel everything has been balanced to perfection. Generally I far prefer acoustic performances, but having heard this one I start to wonder whether Adams is right and that his music does need a lot more acoustical intervention.

Things picked up after the interval with a superb performance of Bartok's Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion played by Philip Moore, Simon Crawford-Phillips, Coin Currie and Sam Walton.

Then the evening closed with Stravinsky's Les Noces, with a quartet of soloists (Tatiana Monogarova, Elena Manistina, Vsevolod Grivno, Kostas Smoriginas), 4 pianists, the London Sinfonietta percussion and the BBC Singers. Have 3 Russian native speakers in the soloists (Smoriginas is Lithuanian) was a big advantage. But the soloists confidence and crispness of rhythm was not matched by the BBC Singers who were far too delicate.

Gardner seemed to be impressively in control of all the performances (he did not conduct the Bartok) and relished the unusual timbres. This was an adventurous, typically Proms type programme; more's the pity that it did not quite come off.

Friday 7 August 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of Mendelssohn's arrangement of Handel's Israel in Egypt is here, on MusicWeb International.

Utterly fascinating as a window on early Handel performance practice ...

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Anne Collins

Anne Collins contralto voice was one of the striking voices of my early opera going in the 70's and 80's. I saw her in a number of roles in various operas including The Ring, Iolanthe and Patience. She was one of those singers who seemed a fixture at ENO and helped define its sound and style. Though of course, like many others, she seemed to have dropped off the ENO radar in the later 1980's and '90s. Reading the Guardian's obituary I was struck by a couple of things, firstly she was only 65; to a certain extent her rich contralto voice seemed to fix her permanently in Auntie-dom even though she did sing more dramatic roles. Secondly, the list of performances the Guardian gives does not make it clear where Collins did most of her work once the ENO gigs dried up.

Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music

I have just finished reading John Lucas's new biography of Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart. It is highly illuminating in many ways, especially as Sir Thomas fitted so much into his life that there is probably enough material to fill two volumes.

The book is described as An Obessssion with Music and there is very much an emphasis on Sir Thomas's music-making. Lucas is very good on what made Sir Thomas a great conductor and orchestra trainer. He has also done a lot of digging an provides lots of information about areas of Sir Thomas's life which have been less covered recently. In the first part of the book, the interest is very much on his tussles with his father and the way that Sir Joseph Beecham had his wife declared insane and put in an assylum. Thomas and his eldest sister managed to get her out, though this fractured his relationship with his father. The excitement in the next part of the book is firmly on Sir Thomas's love-life, with his messy divorce and various liaisons.

Then finally we get a comprehensive survey of Sir Thomas's activities in the 2nd World War when he worked in Australia and the USA. This absence from England is probably the reason why he was less than central to music making (particularly in opera) in the UK after the war.

What we get is a rattling good yarn, written in an approachable manner. Sir Thomas was something of an adventurer and Lucas seems to bring this out. What I missed though, was a feeling for the man behind the mask. Even after reading the book, I never felt that I undersood Sir Thomas. We don't get many of the subject's own words, probably because these are unreliable. And Lucas is similarly cautious about many of the stories, he even manages to track down the correct versions of some of them. Lucas rightly treats A Mingled Chime cautiously, but it is a shame that the only commentary on the conductor's activities (either personal or musical) comes from contemporary diarists and commentators. You never get Beecham on Beecham, perhaps this doesn't exist. But it left me feeling that the great adventure lacked an emotional heart.

For anyone familiar with Beecham's post-war reputation with his bon mots and lollipops, the serious music making and trail-blazing of the conductor's younger self is something of a revelation. The book lacks anything like a complete discography, perhaps such a thing would be too voluminous. But Lucas does mention key recordings, notably some of the live ones which shed light on the conductor's methods.

As a narrative of what Tommy did next, the book is superb. But it is less good on why. He seems to have had a long relationship with Lady Cunard, but towards the end of this he took up with others. We never get behind any of his relationship, never really understand them. Dora Labette, who gave up her promising stage career when Beecham stopped their relationship, evidently burned all his letters; though being as he entirely failed to tell her that the relationship was over perhaps indicates that even Beecham's letters might not reveal the real man. This might be the problem, that the material just does not allow us to see the inner Beecham, but Lucas never lets us know.

But there is one point to bear in mind, which might explain Lucas's reticence. In the last years of his life, Sir Thomas married someone over 50 years his junior. Shirley, Lady Beecham has been zealous in her guardianship and championship of Sir Thomas's reputation. The author also seems to have had access to Sir Thomas's sons. So perhaps we cannot expect too much exploration of Sir Thomas's psyche, and that such a book might have to wait.

Tuesday 4 August 2009


To Antwerp for the weekend to sing with London Concord Singers. On Sunday evening we performed at St. Andrew's Church, on of the Monumental Churches; a huge and beautiful baroque church. Our programme, which ranged from Lassus and Peter Philips, to Jonathan Dove and Judith Bingham, was well received by a large audience. One of the more unnerving things about singing in such large venues is the worry that the audience will not fill up the space, though in this case they did in a gratifying manner. As with many similar acoustics, the church had a lovely sound quality but was a little difficult to get used to at first.

Sunday morning we sang mass at Antwerp Cathedral. Perched in the organ loft, high above the nave, we had a superb and unusual view of the building. We sang Lassus's Vinum Bonum mass along with motets by Peter Philips (who lived in Antwerp after he fled England).

Finally we sang at another monumental church, St. Paul's, giving another variation on our programme. St. Paul's is a similar large space to St. Andrews, with its own distinctive acoustic. All in all we managed to sing in three stunning baroque interios.

Saturday 1 August 2009

Les voix du plain-chant

I first started singing plainchant regularly around 15 years ago when I joined the Latin Mass choir at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street. We sang (and sing) from a Graduals based on the Graduale Romanum issued by the monks of Solesmes Abbey. The chant is highly marked up and the choir had its own way of singing the chant, this changed over time whilst I was there as one of the senior members of the choir sang in a schola directed by Mary Berry and some of this filtered down to us.

Because the Roman Catholic Church has always used chant, I had assumed that the way of singing chant was consistent over the ages. The first real inkling that I had that this was not so was when I read Thomas E. Muir's Roman Catholic Church Music in England, 1791 - 1914: A Handmaid of the Liturgy, which I reviewed for MusicWeb International (my review is here). The book's main preoccupation is the musical repertoire of English Roman Catholic Churches in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on surviving collections of music in a number of major Roman Catholic parishes. But Muir also has to touch on the subject of plainchant.

It was illuminating to realise that one of the themes of the 19th century was the Roman Catholic Church's attempts to centralise both authority and, as a corollary, also the plainchant sung and the way it was sung. The culmination of this was the final adoption of the Solesmes editions of plainchant by the Vatican, from which comes my own experience. But prior to the late 19th century the availability of printed/published matter to churches was many and various. There were many local variants and the church as a whole was highly dependent on the Medicean Graudals which were produced in the 17th century. It is important to realise that much of the chant in these graduals is simpler than that currently sung.

The Solesmes Monks in the 19th century were part of a back-to-basics campaign whereby they researched original medieval manuscripts and produced their chant edition based on these. The music of Palestrina and later, when it refers to plainchant, refers to the slightly simpler Medicean type chant. The other point to bear in mind was that this was generally sung rather slower.

Have you never listened to a performance of a piece of polyphony, which is based on chant, and been disturbed by the fact that when the chant is quoted in the polyphony it is performed in long notes at a noticeably slower speed than the way the chant would be sung on its own. This is sometimes because the composer was thinking of a way of performing chant at a slower, more measured and regular tempo than is used today. Based on the Solesmes medieval re-creation, we nowadays sing chant in a swift, mellifluous way based on the way it was imagined that it was sung.

It is a nice idea to try mixing the slower measured chant with polyphony in concert, but I have never dared to do so. I just don't think that modern audiences would take to it. As it is I am sometimes aware that my own appetite for chant is far greater than many people in the audience.

This awareness of the way that chant singing has changed over the centuries was re-inforced recently when I read Les voix du plain-chant by Marcel Pérèsand Jacques Cheyronnaud (Marcel Pérèsis the founder of that wonderful ensemble, Organum). In this book Pérèsgives a succinct history of plainchant up to the late-middle ages and then Cheyronnaud takes over with a more anthropological view of the succeeding centuries. This made me realise first of all that the 19th century Solesmesisation of the Catholic church music making was not something restricted to England.

A corollary of this Solesmesisation was that chant became a communal thing, the idea was that rather than having a few specialised chanters who were part of the liturgy, the whole choir did it.

I am currently reading another book in the same series, La chant de la memoire by Marcel Pérèsand Xavier Lacavalerie. This is a history of the Ensemble Organum, published in 2002 to celebrate the ensemble's 20th anniversary. But more than this, it is an explanation of how Pérès came to experiment with ways of singing early chant and how his various influences (Byzantine Chant, Corsican traditional polyphony, Sufi chant) were methods of trying to find living traditions whose elements could relate to the early chants. These are chants which have survived rather badly and whose notation relied on a heavy admixture of oral tradition.

Modern notation of chant means that someone who know the notation can come to a new piece and make a decent stab at singing it. Early chant is not like this, the notation is little more than a reminder and you have to find ways of getting behind the chant. Generally, performances of early chant in Western Europe rely on a projection of current vocal methods backwards, to create a smooth mellifluous sound.

Pérèson the other hand is concerned to explore the differentness of medieval music. In his 1997 Gramophone review of Pérèsrecording of Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame, Fabrice Fitch (FF) a perceptive and highly relevant point:-

'Pérès's reading makes a point that is so often conveniently ignored: we have no idea what Machaut's singers actually sounded like, or how they produced the sound in their throats. Peter Phillips once made that point, envisaging the possibility that we might find the 'authentic' sound unbearable. As I have got used (slowly) to Organum's sound, I have been reminded how far Machaut's world is from our own. This recording questions a fundamental and untestable assumption about medieval polyphony.'

Reading these books has made me want to go back to Ensemble Organum's discs. I have a couple of them, both of early Roman Chant, but am now keen to hear others especially the Machaut disc which seems to have so divided critics.

We try to understand the past by projecting our own preoccupations and attitudes backwards. But I am beginning to learn that plainchant meant many different things depending on the period it was sung.

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