Monday 28 December 2009

And another review

This time on the Seen and Heard web site, by Carla Rees.

Videte Miraculum was heard in versions by Tallis, using a spacious six part texture and in a world premiere version by Robert Hugill. This had a lovely opening and a simple, well considered structure, with the harmonies based in tonality but moving gradually to build up tension through dissonance. Hugill made use of parallel and contrary motion to excellent effect, and motivic sections returned to give a sense of overall coherence. He also used a wide range of textures, including unisons, octaves and polyphony in different numbers of parts. This was another well written work which deserves further performances.

Saturday 26 December 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of Salvatore Sciarrino's Madrigali is here, on MusicWeb International.
Not for the faint-hearted … uncompromising but rewarding ...

Thursday 24 December 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of Robin de Raaff's opera Raaff is here, on MusicWeb International.
Should be of interest to anyone who loves opera and wants to know where it might be going in the 21st century ...

Wednesday 23 December 2009

As seen in the Telegraph

A nice review of Saturday's St. John's Smith Square concert from Ivan Hewett in the Telegraph - 'Robert Hugill's Videte Miraculum soared too, especially at its ending, with the three sopranos perched at a perilous altitude (to their credit, they never wavered).'

Monday 21 December 2009


Well Saturday's concert went off well. Alistair Dixon and La Chapelle du Roi gave a fascinating concert mixing old and new with premieres by Paul Ayres and Gabriel Jackson along with my own piece. It was fascinating to hear Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium performed by just 9 singers rather than by the plushly upholstered tones of a large group of singers. I was extremely pleased with Videte Miraculum, and it was fascinating to re-acquaint myself with a work written some months ago.

Friday 18 December 2009

New Lamps for Old

My motet Videte Miraculum gets its premiere tomorrow in the Chapelle du Roi's New Lamps for Old concert. My motet sets the same text as Thomas Tallis's respond Videte Miraculum and there will be similar new/old pairings from Francis Pott, Kenneth Leighton, Morton Lauridsen, Paul Ayres and Gabriel Jackson.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of Handel's cantata Apollo and Dafne is here.
Showing its age but certainly in the realms of the interesting and, perhaps, desirable. ...

Saturday 12 December 2009

Messiah at ENO

Last night we went to see ENO's staging of Messiah. Well we managed the first 2 parts and I'm afraid that we left at the second interval. The Part 1 was almost OK and had the odd magical moment. The designs were superb, complete with a reflective floor and some imaginative video installations (sets Tom Pye, lighting Jean Kalman, Video Lexo Warner, Lysander Ashton and Tom Pye). The costumes were casual modern, which meant that the men of the chorus as usual looked profoundly stuffy and they had managed to make Catherine Wyn-Rogers look frumpy which is quite an achievement.

I can see the point of staging the piece in a setting which mirrors the actions of everyday life, with all sorts going on. But I am afraid that I lost patience as soon as the first cute tot dashed across the stage. This particular tot (Max Craig) was rather ubiquitous and Deborah Warner seemed to use him to undercut arias and moments of drama. This was made most manifest in the turning of the 'And there were shepherds' section into a school nativity play with lots of cute kids. This was a shame as treble (either Harry Bradford or Louis Watkins) was excellent.

At moments of drama she also introduced dancers (choreography Kim Brandstrup). This increased in Part 2 when the opening section, including He was despised accompanied a strange dance of a young man being beaten up and then being comforted by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, with the chorus watching. The later sections of this part seemed to be taking place at some sort of revival meeting. I felt that in this part, Warner had lost her way somewhat and was at a loss to know what to do with the chorus especially in the more complex movements. So she did as little as possible with them.

There were some striking images, but the happy-clappy evangelical atmosphere engendered seemed at odds with Handel's music. Frankly, I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed, just listening. The soloists were a decent bunch. Soprano Sophie Bevan had to cope with some startlingly fast speeds from conductor Lawrence Cummings, but did superbly though she rather tended to over-ornament. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was profoundly moving and it was a shame that she had been encouraged to bellow sections of He was despised. Tenor Eamonn Mulhall was a last minute replacement for ailing John Mark Ainsley. Mulhall was impressive, though he did not quite seem to have got the measure of the tricky Coliseum acoustic. Brindley Sherratt was wonderful as the bass soloist, combining drama with sympathy for Handel's style.

The chorus were a little taxed by the music, and there were some moments of frankly raw singing particularly from the tenors. The staging used a community group in addition to the choir and I felt that Warner and Cummings should have had the courage of their convictions and used a larger choir with a full symphony orchestra in the pit. As it was, Cummings seemed to be treading a strange line between period and modern practice.

So all in all, a rather mixed view, I'm afraid. As a raison d'etre for staging Messiah the jury is still out as far as I am concerned.

Review of Christine Brewer / Charles Mackerras Wagner concert

My review of the concert of music by Wagner given by Christine Brewer and Charles Mackerras with the Philharmonia Orchestra on 10th December at the South Bank is here.

Friday 11 December 2009

Digging into the past

Some years ago I was given a pair of 19th century bound volumes labelled plays. The bindings gave no clue as to who had had the contents bound. Inside were some dozen librettos for performances by the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden. Each libretto listed the work to be performed, the orchestral members (by surname) and conductor (always Michael Costa) along with the artists involved. For some productions the designers of the scenery were named, always the same people. No dates were given. All operas were sung in Italian, including Fidelo and Les Huguenots.

There were various interesting points. No director was ever named. The orchestral players are all men and are listed by surname only, but the chorus members are not mentioned at all. The repertoire consists of operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Bellini, Mozart and Beethoven. As I have no information on the original owner of the wordbooks, I have no way of knowing whether the selection is the complete picture. For instance there is no Verdi, despite I Masnadieri being premiered in London in 1847.

I have finally got in contact with the Royal Opera House archives and they have been able to confirm the dates for the librettos, they range from 1849 to 1854, with most being clustered around just a couple of years. Interestingly the House's archives are not complete as a lot was lost in the fire in 1857.

This is the second time recently that we have been attempting to trace an exact date for a musical document. Previous D. had had access to a fragment of manuscript with a partial rehearsal schedule call for Aldeburgh on it under Britten's direction, requiring some fascinating research into Aldeburgh performances under Benjamin Britten.

Thursday 10 December 2009

A tale of two counter-tenors

Last night we went to the Wigmore Hall for Bejun Mehta's recital with Nicholas Drake accompanying on piano. And last week we went to the Barbican for Philippe Jaroussky's concert with Concerto Köln. Both counter-tenors are in the current vanguard of young start counter-tenors. Both have relatively high-placed voices which enable them to sing a wider range of pieces than is commonly associated with counter-tenors.

Jaroussky stuck firmly to baroque repertoire, mixing operatic arias by J.C. Bach with more well known ones by Handel. Jaroussky's voice is sweet and beautiful, but does not strike me as being exceptionally powerful. He does, though, have an upward extension which means that he has greater flexibility and control in his upper reaches and seemed unphased by top E's (and perhaps even F's) [at concert pitch, I've no idea what the written pitch of the notes was]. This is allied to a strong technique, which meant that he was able to dash off with ease the virtuoso vocal parts written by J.C. Bach.

I am not sure that Handel was the best partner for the J.C. Bach arias, as Handel's ability to mine the depths of emotion, with relatively economical means rather showed up J.C. Bach's showier (flashier?) arias, which seemed to skim the surface, but did so in a quite brilliant manner. One could understand why his music was popular. Especially when these vocal lines were coupled to attractive proto-Mozartian accompaniments.

Concerto Köln played conductorless and there were times when I felt that a stronger guiding hand might have helped. Jaroussky had a tendency to go over-board in the da capo sections of the Handel arias, re-writing the vocal line in an alarming manner. This is definitely a place where less is more.

Mehta in his recital, ranged far more widely, creating a programme which would not have been out of place for a variety of more traditional song recital voices. He started with Purcell and Haydn's English Canzonets. Finished the first half with Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Then in the second half gave us a ravishing selection of English song from Vaughan Williams, Howells, Stanford, Lennoz Berkely, Gurney and Warlock.

Mehta's voice is similarly quite highly placed, and he sang most of the songs in quite high keys, providing plenty of top E's. But Mehta's voice also has darker tones than Jaroussky's and I was conscious at times of Mehta's managing his voice in its upper register, whereas I wasn't conscious of this with Jaroussky.

Mehta seems to be conscious of delivery a finely crafted vocal line, and sometimes seemed to sacrifice other elements to the beauty of line. There was a feeling that he rather slid round the notes a little too much, his technique seemed far more suitable for the songs in the 2nd half than the first. Or perhaps it was just that he had relaxed a bit more. For whatever reason, the Purcell and Haydn, whilst beautifully done, rather failed to make their mark completely. I think that Mehta is also a little to interventionist and perhaps needed to find a vein of plangent simplicity [something he did only at the end with a lovely performance of Music for a While as his final encore].

Beethoven's cycle was well crafted and dramatic, but I wanted more a feeling of the words.

But in the English songs, technique and music seemed to come together. Mehta's plangent tones exactly suited the songs. Voice, artists and composer seemed to come together perfectly in Howells The little boy lost and The Willow Bird. Stanfords La Belle Dame sans merci enabled Mehta to demonstrate his dramatic skills.

Both counter-tenors explored new repertoire, Jaroussky brilliantly venturing 4 barely-known J.C. Bach arias which needed (and got) a brilliant technique to make them work. American born and trained Mehta was also venturing into new repertoire, not only was his recital unusual territory for a counter-tenor, but for Mehta himself the English song repertoire was relatively unfamiliar territory.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Now out on AudioBook

The play for which I wrote incidental music, Candle Dancing by Coni Koepfinger, has been released as an audio-book. The audio book includes a little of my original incidental music as background to the readings, enough to give you a flavour of the original 1998 production. The audio-book is available from Tate Publishing here.

Sunday 6 December 2009

War and Peace

Prokofiev wrote War and Peace in 1942, but there followed over a decade of changes before he could get the opera performed. Even when he submitted it to the Soviet Authorities in 1941/1942 he was forced to make changes. Now Dr. Rita McAllister has gone back to the original manuscripts, notably the composer's piano score, to reconstruct Prokofiev's first thoughts, his original setting of the opera in 11 scenes. This has included McAllister having to orchestrate some 450 bars of music. Dr McAllister's article about her new edition can be read here. From the first Prokofiev had to re-work the War scenes to comply with the Soviet authorities desire to make them more patriotic. The 10 year process of re-working emphasised the public, patriotic at the expense of the personal in the opera.

Now a collaboration between the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Rostov State Rakhmaninov Conservatoire is bringing this first version of the opera to the stage in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It will be fascinating to see Prokofiev's first thoughts. War and Peace is one of those operas which has no definitive version; many of Prokofiev's revisions were done at the behest of others and take on an increasingly desperate nature as he tried to get the opera performed. Having a good edition of his first thoughts (previously hidden in the Soviet Archives) will enable us to make more informed decisions about what to include (and to miss out) of future performances.

Friday 4 December 2009

Recent CD Reviews

My review of a disc of Bach Missae Breves is here.
Now showing its age ...

And my review of Emmanuelle Haim's new recording of Handel's oratorio La Resurrezione is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.
Time and again my ear was drawn to the lovely instrumental contributions ...

Thursday 3 December 2009

Conch shells and horns

On of the most striking moments in the recent performance of Gluck's Alceste by Chelsea Opera Group was during Act 3 the Infernal God summons Alceste and is meant to be blowing into a conch shell. The composer writes for two horns, playing in unison, but the horn players hold the bells of their horns nearly together and the horns act as sort of mutes for each other. The effect is described by Berlioz in his Treatise on Orchestration. It both looks and sounds fascinating; looks, because of course, it is rather a contortion for two horn players standing side by side to place their bells together as the instruments are played laterally. And it sounds hauntingly fascinating. Though it doesn't seem to be a commonly used effect.

Recent CD Review

My review of Christmas a cappella from Chicago a Cappella is here, on Music and Vision.
... I would have liked a little more grit ..

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Les Arts Florissants - Grands Motets

Last Thursday (sorry for the late posting) we went to the Barbican to see the final concert in Les Art Florissants 30th Birthday jamboree. The audience seemed to include rather more of the great and good than usual, reflection of the high status that this celebration has been achieving.

Whereas the earlier events had covered much of their more recent musical explorations, this concert went back to their roots presenting music by Rameau, Lully, Campra and Desmarest. What we got was 4 works, a Grand Motet by each composer. All were written for the same sort of ensemble, choir, group of soloists and orchestra with trumpets added for some movements.

All 4 composers used large groups of soloists with all 6 (Amel Brahim-Djelloul soprano, Emmanuelle de Negri soprano, Toby Spence tenor, Cyril Auvity tenor, Marc Mauillon baritone, Alain Buet bass) being employed in the final Lully Te Deum. Though there were solos, all composers used small groups of singers to contrast with the larger choir. In fact there was rather a lot of inevitable coming and going. You got the feeling that the original motets, written for sacred use, would probably have had the solo parts sung by choir members so that the division between solo, ensemble and choir was less obvious. It was a shame that this could not be done, but with the choir placed behind the large orchestra it was difficult to see how this could have been achieved on the rather limited Barbican stage.

Toby Spence's voice has darkened and grown larger since he regularly sang for William Christie (I remember him memorably in a performance of Rameau's Les Boreades some years ago), but he has not lost the flexibility and sang with great beauty even if he was slightly louder than ideal at times. Cyril Auvity sang the high tenor roles and the two of them had a number of memorable duets.

Though all four composers wrote music of interest, the palm surely goes to Rameau for his spectacular orchestrations in his motet, Deus Noster, with its depictions of tempests. The formal part of the evening concluded with Lully's very grand Te Deum, which uses two choirs as well as all 6 singers. But this was not the end. We got two encores, the second of which Tendre Amour from Les Indes Galantes was sung by everyone, with the soloists joining the choir. The result was sensuously beautiful and so romantic as to be incredible.

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