Tuesday 30 March 2010

Review of The Cunning Little Vixen

It seems amazing that Covent Garden's production of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen is 20 year's old. Bill Bryden's production seemed fresh and charming when it was new and, remarkably, it has still preserved these qualities despite the fact that William Dudley's sets have rather a lot of moving parts.

Dudley's designs are highly mechanistic, but very evocative, and it can be argued that Bryden's production is a little too anthropomorphic (plus it relies a little too much on cute children). For me it contains one of the most memorable scenes in any staging of the opera, when the Spirit of the Vixen appears on a trapeze outlined against the moon and the starry sky.

The interest in this revival wasn't just that fact that it remains one of my all time favourite productions of the opera, but also that Sir Charles Mackerras was at the helm. His first time conducting the opera at Covent Garden. Despite apparent frailty (he stayed in the pit for the whole time and took his bow from there), his account of the opera was masterly, warm, transparent and vibrant.

The Forester was sung by Christopher Maltman with his characteristic charm and frankness. His final scene didn't quite reach the mystical element that I've experienced in other performances, but Maltman's warmth and directness were winning.

As the Vixen, Emma Matthew's displayed a spunky charm and worked very hard, but it cannot be denied that her voice was a size too small for the Covent Garden. There is always a tendency to cast the Vixen as a soprano with a slightly too small voice. But in this case, even Mackerras's sympathetic accompaniment couldn't disguise the problem.

Emma Bell was supposed to sing the Fox but she was ill so her place was gamely taken by Elisabeth Meister who turned in a fine performance, though her costume was hardly flattering. The remainder of the cast were all Covent Garden regulars with Jeremy White as the Badger and the Priest, Elizabeth Sikora as the Innkeeper's wife, Alasdair Elliot as the Innkeeper and Robin Leggate as the Mosquito and the Schoolmaster. Amazingly this was Leggate's 900th performance at Covent Garden. Matthew Rose made a welcome appearance as Harasta the Poacher.

The orchestra played finely under Mackerras's direction, making the orchestral interludes a delight to hear.

Review of Katya Kabanova

My review of Katya Kabanova at the London Coliseum is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site). We saw the opera on Saturday, which was its last night. As the production is a co-production with the Teatr Weikli in Poland, the rear of the London Coliseum Theatre was crowded not by the usual trucks, but by Polish ones waiting to whisk the production off there.

It is something of Janacek occasion at the moment, last night we attended The Cunning Little Vixen at Covent Garden with Sir Charles Mackerras in the pit. Monday's performance represented Robin Leggate's 900th performance at Covent Garden.

Saturday 27 March 2010

PayPal Pain again

We use PayPal on the Spherical Editions web site (which sells my music) to take payments for music. It is very convenient for on-line sales, but every so often there is a blip and the accompanying email either goes astray or gets eaten by my anti-virus software. This means that we get an embarrassing email from someone who has bought music but which has failed to arrive. Ah, the joys of technology!

Bach Arias at the Barbican

On Tuesday we were back at the Barbican for a concert by the Munich Chamber Orchestra under their conductor Alexander Liebreich with soprano Mojca Erdmann (replacing an ill Christine Schäfer), baritone Matthias Goerne and violinist Hilary Hahn. Their concert was based around performances of J.S. Bach's arias for voice with violin obligato, taken from the cantatas, the Mass in B minor and the St Matthew Passion. To these, the orchestra added orchestra movements from suites by J.S. Bach and by his son C.P.E Bach.

The first half started with a sinfonia by C.P.E. Bach, followed by 3 arias from J.S. Bach, then another C.P.E Bach sinfonia and a further 3 J.S. Bach arias. The second half was similar in construction, except that the orchestra items were by J.S. Bach and there were two duets. This probably looked good on paper. But, rather than simply sitting to the side, the soloists were absent from the platform during the orchestral items. This mean that a relatively short concert was padded out rather over much with a great deal of walking to and fro by the soloists (to applause by the audience).

Yet again I was frustrated that an intelligent concert programme was spoiled by the presentation. The whole evening had the aura of a small scale recital for the Wigmore Hall which had been expanded to fit the Barbican. This feeling was intensified by the fact that all the cantata arias, and the two duets, were accompanied by just Hilary Hahn's violin and the continuo group. So that excellent Munich Chamber Orchestra spent quite a lot of time sitting doing nothing.

That said, there was some lovely singing and playing. Goerne was wonderful in the bass ariaJa Ja, Ich Halte Jesum feste from Cantata BWV 157, but elsewhere he seemed restless on stage when not actually singing. His duet with Mojca Erdmann from Cantata BWV 140 was truly ravishing. The evening closed with another duet, from Cantata BWV 158, which meant that the orchestra didn't actually play in the last item!

One curiosity was the soprano version of Erbarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion in Mendelssohn's arrangement.

The orchestra brought on the oboist Claire Sirijacobs in the final duet and the flautist Henrik Wiese in two items including a movement from Bach's Suite No. 2. One fascinating curiosity was that Wiese played in a dog collar and so is, presumably, an ordained clergyman!

Recent CD Review

My review of Dido and Aeneas with Della Jones as Dido is here, on MusicWeb International.

A good, solidly intelligent and musical account ...

Tuesday 23 March 2010


The latest issue of Opera magazine contains initial information about next season's plans from Opera North and Welsh National Opera, plus snippets of info about Covent Garden and ENO's plans.

Opera North are doing a season which includes the traditional favourites of Carmen, The Merry Widow and Fidelio, but also include Janacek's From the House of the Dead and Jonathan Dove's rather wonderful The Adventures of Pinocchio. They start their semi-staged Ring cycle with Das Rheingold. But the great rarity is The Portrait by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, the Polish born composer who spent much of his life in Moscow and was a friend of Shostakovich's. The Portrait was written in 1980 and is based on Gogol.

Over at WNO, the season includes plenty of old favourites: Fidelio, The Magic Flute, Cosi van Tutte, Die Fledermaus and Il Trovatora. But for novelties, we must be content with Ariadne auf Naxos (with Orla Boylan and Sarah Connolly in a production by Neil Armfeld) and Turandot (in a production by Christopher Alden).

Over at Covent Garden, it seems that Tim Albery will be directing a new Tannhäuser conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Its a long time since their last production of the opera so this outing is more than welcome. And Paul Curran will be doing a new production of Rimsky Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.

More Wagner at the London Coliseum as ENO are reviving their production of Parsifal directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Stuart Skelton (who sang in their recent Peter Grimes) will sing the title role with John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz, and Irene Theorin as Kundry, conducted by Mark Wrigglesworth. I must confess that the production did not much appeal to me last time I saw it, but the cast sounds very promising.

Monday 22 March 2010

Choir of Trinity College at the Cadogan Hall

On Thursday we were at the Cadogan Hall for a concert by the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge conducted by their director Stephen Layton. The choir is a mixed one, with female sopranos, female and male altos, and numbers some 30 singers, mostly undergraduates at the college (some looking alarmingly young).

The group made a lovely clear, light transparent sound. I wanted a bit more weight in Bach's Komm, Jesu, komm where the light textures and Layton's speeds combined to make the work tell less than usual. But the group of early English motets from Tallis, Parsons and Bird seemed to suit the choir's style better. However, I thought that they seemed most at home in the final item in the first half, Stanford's three Latin motets (Justorum Animae, Beati quorum via and Coelos ascendit hodie). These were actually written for Trinity Choir (presumably when it had boys on the top line) and seemed to find the young singers most at home in Stanford's style.

In the second half we had an interesting and attractive group of 20th century pieces, concentrating on the Baltic and Poland. Arvo Pärt's Bogoroditse Djevo found him in rather lively mood. John Tavener's contemplative Mother of God here I stand comes from his mammoth Veil of the Temple which Layton premiered with the Temple Choir. Then Urmas Sisask's dynamic and lively Benedictio where the choir obviously enjoyed Sisask's jazzy rhythms and they made light of the trickiness of the piece. Pavel Lukaszewski's Ave Maria and Vytautas Miskinis's Angelis suis Deus completed the Baltic/Polish group.

Then followed two movements from Morten Lauridsen's Nocturnes. The choir obviously enjoyed performing the music and it is well crafted, but frankly it sounded just like quite a few other Lauridsen pieces. Gustav Holst's Nunc Dimittis was an austere relief. Finally we had Eric Whitacre's rather lovely Sleep.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Stainer Archive

For most people, if John Stainer's name means anything it is as the composer of the Victorian war-horse The Crucifixion, though that work has had its reputation improved in recent years. Now there is a Stainer Archive at Durham University, donated by his descendants.

If nowadays he is associated with a few hymns and cantatas, Stainer had an enormous influence on Anglican church music and was responsible for the improvement in standards and quality of the music. Durham are planning an exhibition timed to coincide with the 170th anniversary of Stainer's birth in June this year.

Friday 12 March 2010

Recent CD Reviews

A whole clutch of my CD reviews has appeared this week. My review of Gaspard Corrette's Messe du 8e ton is here, a fascinating reconstruction of mass from an 18th century abbey.
Charm, vividness and vitality ...

And my review of Thomas Tallis's Secret Garden is here.
An interesting experiment, recording Tallis's pieces as if they were vocal chamber music ...

An a modern instrument account of Bach's Christmas Oratorio is here.
This intelligent modern instrument performance has much to recommend it …

And finally a disc of 17th century choral music from Poland, by a composer new to me, Mikolaj Zielinski; reviewed here. All the reviews are on MusicWeb International.
A disc that all lovers of 17th century choral music will want to have …

Thursday 11 March 2010

Review of Don Pasquale

My review of Donizetti's Don Pasquale from English Touring Opera is now on-line here, at Music and Vision Daily (subscription site).

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Mahler 10 from the Salomon Orchestra

To St John's Smith Square last night for the Salomon Orchestra's performance of Mahler's 10th Symphony in the completion by Deryck Cooke. The orchestra were directed by Nicholas Collon.

I must confess that Mahler isn't central to my listening and going to hear Mahler symphonies live is quite a rare occurrence. But I find the 10th symphony a fascinating work. To a certain extent this represents interest in Cooke's restoration as much as the music itself. But there is a great deal of Mahler in the symphony (far more Mahler than Cooke thankfully) and it is also interesting to hear the way Mahler is pushing himself in other, harder directions. The symphony seems rather tauter than some of the earlier rather sprawling full evening works and you can't help but wonder where Mahler's genius would have taken him had he lived.

St. John's Smith Square was very full, both with a packed audience and a packed orchestra (quadruple woodwind for a start). Under Collon's apparently relaxed direction the orchestra turned in a strong, mature performance. Along the way there were moments when Mahler's exposed writing rather over exposed the orchestra. But they managed well in the Lewis Carroll moments ('two contradictory things before breakfast'), and in the final movement all came together memorably and movingly. There was some good solo playing and some sterling work from the first trumpet.

Collon directed the orchestra confidently but without over heating and in a space as small as St. John's, every gesture told.

Saturday 6 March 2010

On Wednesday we were privileged to hear a preview of Kathleen Broderick and Sergey Rybin's recital which they will be giving at St. John's Smith Square, on Tuesday 23rd March. The imaginative programme pairs Grieg's opus 48 songs (setting German texts), with a group of Tchaikovsky songs (including the well known 'In the midst of the ball'), and Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death with Debussy's Proses Lyriques. Whilst Grieg and Tchaikovsky were friends and admired each other's music, the link between Debussy and Mussorgsky is less obvious. But Debussy was employed by Tchaikovsky's patron, Madame von Meck, to teach her daughters and whilst Debussy and Tchaikovsky never met at the time, it is now thought that Debussy was introduced to Russian music and the music of Mussorgsky and knew the Songs and Dances of Death. Broderick is an ex-Kathleen Ferrier Award winner and made a strong impression as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin with British Youth Opera 3 years ago. She is definitely a talent to watch.

Friday 5 March 2010

MacMillan Passion again

On Sunday we went to the Barbican to hear James MacMillan's St. John Passion, which we first heard at its première 2 years ago. It was performed by the same forces; Christopher Maltman and the LSO conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

On second hearing the piece remains as powerful and as astonishing as on first hearing. What came over was the variety of textures that MacMillan uses in the piece. This variety arises partly because of the decisions MacMillan has taken about the allocation of the text. The Evangelist's part is sung by a semi-chorus, the Narrator choir, which sings unaccompanied or only lightly accompanied, in a generally homophonic style which is highly inflected by Gregorian chant. It is a style which you find in some of MacMillan's sacred music, one both very personal and highly evocative.

Christus is sung by the baritone solo, Christopher Maltman. For Christ's shorter, more gnomic pronouncements, MacMillan gives the baritone long, melismatic lines and uses the capabilities of a dramatic, operatic soloist to enable him to give the part with a strong orchestral accompaniment. MacMillan solves the problem of Christ disappearing from the narrative towards the end, by appending to the text the Good Friday Reproaches, so that the Christ has a satisfyingly substantial solo towards the end of the piece.

The remaining text from the Gospel is sung by the main choir, the LSO Chorus. The size of the choir means that MacMillan can write large scale, dramatic music with strong (loud) orchestral accompaniment in a way that would not be possible if he was using soloists. The result is highly dramatic, non-naturalistic and very loud; especially when as sung as thrillingly as it was here.

At the end of each section of the Gospel narrative, MacMillan appends a Latin text which relates to what has gone before and uses this text to give the large choir a motet which comments on and relates to the narrative. Here the large choir also sing in a style which relates to MacMillan's other sacred music.

Throughout the piece the orchestra are a large component of the action but at the end, in the final movement, they play alone to provide a moving summation to the action. All in all, a powerful and moving piece, one that is profoundly satisfying.

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Anne Schwanewilms recording of Messiaen's Peomes pour Mi is here.

Ideally placed to enable people to experiment and try the repertoire …

And that of Carol Farley singing Milhaud songs is here.

This disc is worth a try but you may long for a different type of performance ...

And my review of Rebel and Francouer's opera-ballet Zelindor is here; all reviews on MusicWeb International.

Successfully evokes the charm and shallowness of Louis XV's Versailles ...

Monday 1 March 2010

London Handel Festival

On Friday we were at St. George's Hanover Square again for another concert with the London Handel Festival. This time it was Southbank Sinfonia Baroque. The Southbank Sinfonia are a training ensemble of young UK music graduates. The Sinfonia provides an intensive 32 week orchestral apprenticeship. They are based at St. John's Church, Waterloo and do regular rush-hour concerts there. The ensemble is a modern instrument one but the concert on Friday was the result of a week of workshops with Adrian Butterfield; the strings played using gut strings and with baroque bows. The results were creditable and rather stylish. The first half included Corelli's Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 11 and a suite from Rameau's Pygmalion, plus an overture by Arne and Vivaldi's Concerto con molti stromenti RV577 which gave many of the string and wind players chance to shine.

In the second half conductor Michael Berman took over. Berman directs the choir Vox Music and they provided the vocal resources for a lively performance of Handel's Dixit Dominus. The soprano solo was sung by Grace Davidson, with the remaining soloists coming from the choir. The choir sopranos seemed to find the upper ranges of the soprano line a little of a strain and the choir's attack wasn't as crisp as it could have been. But all in all it was an enjoyable performance.

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