Friday 29 April 2011

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of plainchant from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Benoit du Lac is here.

Reflects a community who sing this music every day.

Monday 25 April 2011

Recent CD Review

My review of a show-case disc for Trondheim Cathedral Choir, Nidaros, is here

A superb showcase. Anyone interested in contemporary choral music should try it.

Thursday 21 April 2011


The Gabrieli Consort have posted a comment on my Proms posting confirming that Paul McCreesh will be using soloists in the Octet in Elijah which is very heartening.

And my remarks about the starting time of Pelleas seems to have generated a couple of comments supporting early starting times; oh well.

Another correspondent was enquiring about the performance of Saul and what it actually contained. The High Priest did sing two arias, often cut, as follows:-
Recit: Go on, Illustrious Pair
Aira: While yet thy Tide of Blood runs high
Air: O Lord, whose Providence

The edition, by Antony Hicks, was credited in Lawrence Cummings' introduction to the Festival programme, but not mentioned on the actual Saul pages of the programme. Its worth noting that they will be performing Hicks edition of Comus as well next week

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Pelleas et Melisande at the Barbican

Last night, the Barbican gave us Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande given by forces fresh from the Theatre des Champs Elysee in Paris, though unusually the French performances were concert performances as well so on this occasion we weren't missing out. The prime attraction of the performance was to hear a French orchestra, French conductor and primarly Francophone cast. Even in France it seems increasingly rare to hear mainly French singers in French repertoire. Debussy's opera is very much about declamation of text and having Francophone singers is an enormous help. When those singers are of the calibre of Natalie Dessay (Melisande), Laurent Naouri (Golaud) and Alain Vernhes (Arkel), then we are in heaven.

Of the principals the only non-French speaker was Simon Keenlyside, but I'm certainly not complaining. Genevieve was played by Marie-Nicole Lemieux, from Quebec (so Francophone but not French).

In terms of realism, there were things that needed forgiving; after all not all of the principals were anywhere approaching the right age. But what matters is how they suited vocally and here we were seeing a good match. Dessay, though not quite as coloratura as she once was, is still mainly a lyric soprano and has a beautifully fine, focussed tone which conveyed Melisande's youth and beauty. For the first 3 acts she seemed a little too arch, a little too chic, perhaps, but as the drama developed then this mattered less.

Though this was a pure concert performance, all of the singers conveyed much with little. There were entrances and exits, but mainly we relied on the expressiveness of the singers faces. Sometimes this results in a boringly impassive performance, but with 5 fine singing actors in the lead roles then we didn't really need much else. Having overwhelmed with her over the top Orlando (in Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso), Lemieux showed that she can be richly subtle as well, singing Genevieve with dignified melancholy.

Keenlyside was a profoundly moving Pelleas, full of humanity. Yes, he's getting a little old for the role, but who cares when its sung like this. His relations with Dessay's Melisande quivered beautifully with unspoken depths. That is the delight of this opera; the dialogue is matter of fact and natural, but much is implied and requires a sort of restraint from the singers. Something all of them understood, under Langree's capable direction.

For me, the outstanding performance was Naouri's Golaud. Expressive from the very beginning, shading melancholy into madness, but always human. In an evening of rich subtletly, Naouri won the palm with a performance which was complete without any movement, set or costume.

Alain Vernhes was a fine Arkel, rising to the challenge in his final scenes to give a sympathetic performance.

Khatouna Gadelia was a charming Yniold, conveying simplicity without too much archness, which is always tricky with a mature woman singing the role of a boy. Nahuel di Pierro displayed a lovely rich bass voice as the shepherd and the doctor, I look forward to hearing more of him.

The stage was very full, with the Orchestra de Paris in fine form. They no longer sound distinctively French, but their grasp of the music was strong and all Debussy's interludes told strongly in this concert performance without visual distraction.

The opera start at 6.30pm and finished at 9.45pm with 1 interval. Surely someone at the Barbican could have organised things a bit better. 6.30pm is far too early for a week night concert, but is excusable in a long evening. If we had to start at 6.30pm then couldn't we have a second interval. Pelleas et Melisande is a 5 act work and performing the first 3 acts without an interval is a very long sit. Perhaps, as it was her birthday, Dessay had requested an early finish so she and Naouri (her husband in real life) could go out to dinner!

A superb evening. A fine, subtle performance of one of the 20th century's greatest operas, perhaps greatest opera.

Tuesday 19 April 2011


My Elegy for baritone, piano and strings is to be premiered by the London Schubert Players (Artistic Director: Anda Anastasescu) on August 27th at St. Botolph's Church, Trunch, Norfolk as part of a concert which mixes chamber music from the classic tradition with contemporary works. The concert includes Mozart's String Quintet in G minor along with contemporary music by Sviatlana Rynkova (Belarus), Michael Cretu (Romania). More information here.

The Elegy sets the opening stanzas of Rilke's 2nd Duino Elegy and is a radical re-working of material from the complete setting of the Elegy, for baritone and orchestra, which was premiered in 2006 by David Greiner and the Salomon Orchestra under Adrian Brown.

Monday 18 April 2011

Proms web site - is it me?

My traditional way of navigating round the proms and choosing what to go to is to go onto the Proms web-site and print-out the whole season. Then the printed page gets covered in all sorts of little symbols and squiggles, indicating desirability (of the concert) and availability (of us, to go said concert). This year, I can't find a printable page which has all the information on it. So I'm going to have to wait for the brochure to be printed - perhaps a cunning plan by the BBC to boost sales of the Proms brochure!

Royal Opera new season

Despite a cut-back in grants the Royal Opera have managed to put together a season which mixes the interesting with the popular. The good news is that David McVicar's new production of Berlioz Les Troyens is happening (in June 2012), with Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Didon and Jonas Kaufmann as Enee, conducted by Antonio Pappano - a strong cast indeed, but one which is hardly Francophone. The Royal Opera have not performed the work complete since 1972, though Scottish Opera brought Tim Albery's production in the 90's (with Kathryn Harries as Didon).

Amazingly, the new production of Dvorak's Rusalka will be Covent Garden's first staging (its only been done in concert so far). The staging, and cast, are being taken from Salzburg where the production premiered in 2008 directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. Opinion seems to have been divided on the contemporary setting and magic realism of the production, but Camilla Nylund in the title role should be well worth the visit. Yannick Nezet-Seguin makes a welcome Royal Opera debut as the conductor.

Another rarity hoves into sight. Puccini's Il Trittico, the 3 operas not performed together at Covent Garden since 1965 (though a version without Suor Angelica had a longer life). Richard Jones's brilliant Gianni Schicchi is returning and Jones is directing the other two operas. Pappano is at the helm with a cast which includes Lucio Gallo, Anja Harteros and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Again a strong cast, but not ideally Italianate.

The other major standard receiving a new production is Falstaff directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by Daniele Gatti. So far the information seems unclear as to what relation this new production will have to Carsen's existing production of the opera.

The final new production in the main house is the UK premiere of Judith Weir's Miss Fortune with Emma Bell and Jacques Imbrailo, conducted by Paul Daniel. The production is directed by Shi-Zheng Chen and is a co production with Bregenz. Definitely highlight.

ROH2 will be producing Tarik O'Regan's Heart of Darkness which was developed via the ROH2's Opera Genesis programme. The opera is based on the Conrad novel and includes creative input from artist/composer/librettist Tom Phillips.

Revivals include all 3 Mozart/Da Ponte operas with very strong casts; Gerald Finley and Erwin Schrott share the Don, Cosi starts Rosemary Joshua and Thomas Allen, Nozze de Figaro will be conducted by Pappano with Simon Keenlyside, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Aleksandra Kurzak and Kate Royal. Sonnambula comes back with the wonderful Eglise Gutierrez in the title role; its not a production I particularly enjoyed but the chance to hear Gutierrez in the role is welcome. La Fille du Regiment returns, again, but this time with Patrizia Ciofi in the title role which will be interesting, she is paired with Colin Lee - nice to see him being given proper air time at last.

La Boheme returns with a double cast almost to die for - Barbara Frittoli/Anja Harteros, Joseph Calleja/Roberto Alagna; I hope the old production is still up to it. Pappano is heading up a revival of Graham Vick's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, which has been absent from the ROH stage for far too long.

I can't get too worked up about the revival of Faust even if it does feature Georghiu, Rene Pape and Vittorio Grigolo. Salome is returning with Angela Denoke in the lead again, definitely worth catching if you didn't see her last time. And John Eliot Gardiner is conductor at the revival of Rigoletto - hmm, interesting indeed.

Over at the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason is going out with quite a splash mixing old and new, including a welcome revival of Christopher Weeldon's Alice in Wonderland. But quite high on the list of highlights for me is a revival of Prince of the Pagodas, Kenneth MacMillan's late attempt to make sense of Britten's magical but patchy ballet score. Evidently the Britten estate have finally sanctioned some cuts, so we might expect something a little tighter.


So we now have the Proms programme for this year. A quick glance over it provides some tempting nuggetts. Antonio Pappano is bringing his other orchestra from Rome to do Rossini's Guillaume Tell on the opening weekend, surely an event to look forward to. Thankfully the performance will be in French and will use substantially the same cast as that in the live Rome performances which were recorded for CD. The following day will see performance of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony, its gargantuan forces surely make the work entirely suitable for the Albert Hall.

The following weekend Semyon Bychkov is conducting Verdi's Requiem with a very fine quartet of soloists. One of the late night Proms celebrates Percy Grainger's anniversary year with a concert from the Northern Sinfonia. Later in August, Jiri Belohlavek and BBC forces will be giving Britten's Spring Symphony. And on 15th August Gergiev will be conducting Swan Lake, another unmissable event.

Glyndebourne will make their annual visit bringing their new production of Handel's Rinaldo. Paul McCreesh is conducting Mendelssohn's Elijah, with forces which include a number of youth choirs, though rather worryingly only 4 soloists are credited, which is rather worrying; we may be back to having the octet sung as a semi-chorus, I do hope not. Colin Davis will be in charge of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and John Eliot Gardiner will direct Weber's Der Freischutz in Berlioz's version with sung recitatives rather than spoken dialogue, originally made for the Paris Opera.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Saul at the London Handel Festival

One of the advantages of going to hear Handel oratorio at London Handel Festival is that they perform the works uncut and in sensible editions. On Tuesday we visited St. George's Hanover Square to hear Lawrence Cummings and the London Handel Festival forces perform Saul. Antony Hicks, a long-time supporter of the festival, died recently and in his memory his edition of the oratorio was used. Saul was Handel's first oratorio with a libretto by Charles Jennens. It is his first dramatic masterpiece in the genre but still doesn't get that many outings. Perhaps the slightly unwieldy cast list is a problem, though another more likely reason is the nature of the title role. Handel and Jennens created a psychologically aposite portrait of Saul, isolated from the rest of the cast and tortured, but the result of course is brilliant but not showy. Saul hardly gets any arias and communicates in recitative and accompagnato. In some performances this results in Saul being understated, but Njal Sparbo took the role with a vengeance. He was credibly commanding and quite fearsome when mad, completely rising above the rather limited playing area provided by St. Georges. The festival runs an annual singing contest and this provides a source for soloists, so Sophie Junker who played Michal was last year's winner. In addition, a few of the other soloists were past winners. Junker made a winning Michal, managing to make the character's goodness seem interesting, along with a nice line in Handelian fioriture. Lucy Crowe played Merab, a character with altogether more to get your teeth into. Crowe was quite brilliant as bad tempered Merab, managing to make the character angry without being quite such a bitch. David was played by Iestyn Davies with a beautiful sense of line, creating sheer beauty with the magic of his voice. Nicholas Mulroy does not have quite such a lovely voice but his Jonathan was suitably passionate. The remaining characters were all cast from members of the chorus, providing a strong array of highly characterised cameos. Most credibly, Richard Rowntree was a suitable evocative Witch of Endor and James Platt a sonorously voiced ghost of Samuel. Under Lawrence Cummings' lively direction, the chorus and orchestra provided dramatic and strong support. The orchestra, one of Handel's largest, included not only the famous carillon and David's harp, but flutes, trombones, trumpets and timpani. St. George's isn't the most comfortable place to hear a concert, but this time we hardly noticed so engrossing and grip was the drama.

London Festival of Contemporary Church Music

The London Festival of Contemporary Church Music at St. Pancras Church is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The festival runs from 7th to 15th May with a programme which includes a celebration of Cecilia McDowall's choral music, premieres of commissions from Antony Pitts, Andrew Simpson and Gordon Crosse. In addition there are premieres of a wide number of pieces, plus London premieres for pieces by James Macmillan, John McCabe and Geoffrey Burgon. The opening concert on 7th May is gven by the choir of Clare College with a programme which includes Gabriel Jackson's Requiem. On 15th May, Westminster Cathedral Choir will be performing James MacMillan's Westminster Mass as part of Solemn Mass at the Cathedral.

Friday 15 April 2011

Recent CD Review

My review of the reissue William Christie's recording of Handel's Orlando is here, on MusicWeb International.

A strong performance, beautifully sung and sensitively played.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

When a Man Knows - another review

There is a short review of When a Man Knows on the Opera Britannia web-site as part of a longer column here, it takes a rather different view to Classical Iconoclast. I was particularly curious about the comments on the dearth of climaxes.

'I must also add that there were some quite beautiful melodies, which were interrupted by the chorus who had these dreadful vocal lines that were delivered by terrible singers. There was also a complete dearth of climaxes, although when the music finally did reach one, courtesy of a dramatic turn by Zoe South (announcing her reason for kidnapping "The Man"), it was truly stunning, and as an audience member it literally smacked you in the face with its intensity. ' - Opera Britannia

Monday 11 April 2011

OAE at Kings Place

To Kings Place on Saturday for the concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as part of their 5 day Baroque Contrasted season. The concert was called A Restoration Spectacular, though the only Restoration music was Purcell's The Fairy Queen, the remaineder was from the later Baroque, but who cares when presented with such a lovely string of masterpieces.

First on the agenda was Handel's Concerto Grosso Opus 6 No. 10, in a fine muscular performance led from the violin by Matthew Truscott. There were 16 musicians on stage, just strings, theorbo and harpsichord; rather strikingly of the 16, only 3 were men.

After the Handel we got a long sequence of movements from Purcell's Fairy Queen, the highlights of which was Julia Doyle's exquisite singing of See, even the Nightingale, and I am come to lock all fast and The Plaint. Singing with a fine, pure tone, Doyle's account of these 3 was magical.

The second half opened with Bach's Double Violin Concerto played by Truscott and Alison Bury. This had its beautiful moments, though the outer movements sometimes seemed a little too brisk for their own good. More worryingly the balance between the two violins was less than equal, with Bury playing with a far more muscular, weighty tone. This wasn't some much a question of volume as style and weight and I have to confess that I preferred Bury's approach.

Finally Doyle returned for 3 beautifully turned Handel arias, Ombre pallide from Alcina, Ritorna, o caro from Rodelinda and Da Tempeste from Giulio Cesare. Doyle's slim tones negotiated the passage-work with ease, creating some beautiful and moving moments. She included the recitative which prefixes Ombre pallide which was welcome. I did worry about the lack of wind instruments, though without referring to the scores I am not sure what Handel actually wrote for these arias. Finally we were treated to an encore from Rinaldo. A treat all round.

Thursday 7 April 2011

The Return of Ulysses

To the Young Vic on Wednesday night for Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses performed by ENO in its annual visit to the small scale theatre. All of the ENO's previous visits had involved a contemporary element to the work, last year we had Henze and the year before was Katie Mitchell's radical re-working of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with Birtwistle's Punch and Judy the year before that. So it was heartening that the company decided to move to fully baroque music, but the way that the audience dwindled alarmingly after the interval seemed to suggest that many opera goers were conditioned to think of the ENO/Young Vic collaborations as contemporary and that Benedict Andrews' take on Monteverdi just did not hold their attention.

To a certain extent I can understand why. Even if you manage to survive the extremely uncomfortable seats, Andrews' production was a very theatrical event which at times seemed to overlay Monteverdi with extra layers, including pauses, so that Monteverdi's distinctive combination of words and music ceased to be paramount. In fact, I rather found both acts had occasional longeurs, surprising since the singers were apparently reasonably fluent in Monteverdi's style, though the technical detail was a little approximate.

But Andrews did rather throw the kitchen sink at the piece. It all took place in a modern glass house at whose walls people threw an awful lot. When action took place outside, we could still see Pamela Helen Stephen's Penelope, Diana Montague's Ericlea inside with Penelope spending much of her time moping and Ericlea doing ordinary things like tidying up and making Penelope's lunch. See, Andrews did throw the kitchen sink at the piece, complete with tap with running water. This wasn't the only running water, the shower worked as well. After he had killed the suitors, Tom Randle's Ulisse sat pondering and contemplating suicide, then decided not; to show us how he was washing the past away he took a shower (bravely stripping off completely). Of course he then had to quickly get dry (including all those awkward bits) and get dressed in time for the final duet. Luckily no-one tried using the toilet!

The suitors kept appearing and ogling Penelope through the glass and by act 2, it seemed that everyone was on stage all the time, either inside or outside. Brian Galliford's Iro wore a mask for most of the time and lurked around the house for the entire act 2, sponging away.

More problematically, Ruby Hughes's Minerva was attired exactly like Penelope and in act 2 seemed to spend as much time in the house as Penelope, even allowing the suitors to grope her etc. This, like one or two other aspects of the production, rather confused me and I felt that if you did not know the opera, you would have wondered quite what was going on.

When Tom Randle's Ulisse came to take his revenge on the suitors, the result was suitably bloody, completing the devastation.

As if this wasn't enough, there were two large video screens, one on each side of the acting area. The action was videoed and we had the live action accompanied by video montages of it, including moments not properly visible from the auditorium.

Andrews seemed determined to underplay the comedy. At one point in a scene between Melanto (Katherine Manley) and Eurimaco (Thomas Walker), Melanto tells Eurimaco to keep on talking, in fact talking was not what he was doing; I did wonder whether Andrews wanted us to pick up the pun of Eurimaco being a cunning linguist. Then Brian Galliford's Iro seemed to lack the comic pathos in his final scene which singers like Alexander Oliver brought to the role.

The band under Jonathan Cohen were impressive and seemed to mix modern and old instruments rather successfully and with some style.

This was a notable attempt at Monteverdi's opera, with some strong dramatic performances, but somewhere along the way, something of Monteverdi's vitality of line was lost to be replaced by a more generic dramatic bluster. Its a rather old fashioned thing to say, but I can't help wondering if it would have been better for the performance if the conductor had been the strongest personality; if instead of Jonathan Cohen (talented, making his ENO debut), they had engaged one of the finest Monteverdian's in the business. Then we might have seen a little more primacy of music and dramatic musical line.

Sunday 3 April 2011

CLASSICAL ICONOCLAST: Robert Hugill - When a Man Knows review

CLASSICAL ICONOCLAST: Robert Hugill - When a Man Knows review: "Robert Hugill's When a Man Knows needs to transfer to somewhere higher profile, where it can get the exposure it deserves. This is what good..."

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