Tuesday 30 August 2011

Sheena Coote - Mixed Blessings

Sheena Coote's disc Mixed Blessings was issued by Red Admiral Records on11th June. Coote describes Mixed Blessings as a collection of short piano pieces inspired by her own family life and by the great composers.

Red Admiral describe Coote as a semi-professional composer, she wrote this disc over 3 years juggling writing and being a fulltime Mum. She started learning the piano at the age of 2 and studied it until she went to university. A natural musician she is currently writing her second musical; the first was performed in Edinburgh and had a London try-out. She also writes pop-songs.

This disc lasts around 25 minutes and the piano pieces are all short. Coote undoubtedly has a gift for melocy, these are very much songs without words. The problem lies in their very brevity, Coote barely has time to establish a mood than the piece finishes. She is also a little too fond of Alberti-style bass. Perhaps rather than songs without words we should think of these as folk-songs in need of a strong arrangement, the pieces are crying out for further developement.

I think that your opinion of the disc is likely to go in one of two directions. Either you think these are "strong beautiful melodies that touch the heart" or you'll think, 'so what'. These pieces are charming, but need more spice, more development and more depth.

Friday 26 August 2011

Review of Handel's Rinaldo at the Proms

I had been hoping that most of Robert Carsen's production would get mislayed when Glyndebourne travelled up the M23 to bring Handel's Rinaldo to the Proms. In the event, Bruno Ravella's staging seemed an effective distillation of Carsen's original; it certainly wasn't a semi-staging, all the action took place on a substantial platform behind and above the orchestra.

Carsen's basic premise was the the entire opera was the dream of an idle school-boy, with the his school friends as the Crusaders, the teachers turned into the Saracen King, Argante, the evil Sorceress, Armida, and the friendly Christian Magician. Armida was supported by a group of female furies who were obviously from the local equivalent of St. Trinians.

Seeing diminutive Italian mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina dressed so convincingly as a school-boy you began to wonder what came first, the concept or the casting of the singer. As a concept, Rinaldo's school-days wasn't all bad, it certainly helped solve a number of problems and provided the audience with a hook into the action, which the traditional crusaders and saracens might not have done. In terms of dramaturgy my only serious complaint was the way the the final battle was turned into a joke football match.

But this was indicative of a general attitude because Carsen just doesn't seem to have taken the opera at all seriously and at every turn has added details which essentially made the piece a comedy. Which it certainly isn't. Rinaldo isn't the most sophisticated of Handel's operas; its a romping good yarn designed to dazzle and entertain. He put into it many of his finest arias from his Italian period and created a piece which is one of the most approachable. Whilst it doesn't dig as deep as his later masterpieces, he does give the characters some superbly dramatic music and they demand to be taken seriously, on their own terms.

But instead of using the setting to seriously re-think the opera, Carsen has been content to entertain, throwing in everything (including references to E.T.). Even in this reduced version it was one of the most hyper-active Handel productions I've seen in a long time. The problem wasn't the school-days setting, but the fact that there was always something going on. Virtually all the arias took place against a backdrop of busy activity, as if Carsen constantly felt pressed to keep the punters entertained. What could be achieved was shown by Prina's superb rendition of Cara Sposa where for virtually the first time she was alone on stage for the entire aria.

It was Prina's energy and vital performance which carried the show. The role of Rinaldo has a significant number of arias and when Prina was singing, her vividness and involvement in the characterisation were little short of brilliant. Granted, we had the disadvantage of the Albert Hall so that even from the stalls the entire opera sounded distant; but the ear learns to cope and Prina's personality shone forth.

As her love interest, Almirena, Anett Fritsch had rather less to work with and though she sang beautifully, she did not engage quite as much. Almirena does, however, get the opera's best known aria, Lascia ch'io pianga and this Fritsch sang superbly.

Brenda Rae presented Armida as an evil, pvc clad dominatrix. Visually this was a triumph, but the concept completely overshadowed the musical values and Rae's Armida never really created a dominatrix in the music. Rae has an attractive soprano voice, and sang the notes quite charmingly; in fact she would have made a fine Almirena. But she didn't create the sort of musical personality needed. Just listen to Cecilia Bartoli on the Hogwood recording to hear what can be done with this role. Handel did well at conflicted evil sorceresses and Armida is the first in that line, somehow Rae never brought this over.

Thankfully, Luca Pisaroni as Argante got rather closer and it was sheer pleasure to listen to the way he brought his lovely bass-baritone voice round Handel's fioriture and then used them to create drama.

The other roles were all nicely taken. Varhudi Abrahamyan made a fine Goffredo and Tim Mead impressed in Eustazio's arias. William Towers popped up as a demented Chemistry Master (the Christian Magician), his voice almost competing with the fright wig he had to wear.

Under Ottavio Dantone, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought character and richness to Handel's extravagant orchestration.

Musically this was a fine evening and it was a complete joy, providing you kept your eyes closed.

Recent CD Review

My review of Rossini's opera La cambiale di matrimonio on Naxos, recorded at the Rossini in Wildbad festival, is here

Lively and involving … a fine addition to the expanding list of Rossini operas on Naxos.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Messiah from King's College Cambridge (recorded in 1993 with a fine cast) is here,

Return to this with pleasure.

And my review of a disc of Hummel's operatic transcriptions for piano, Hummel at the Opera, is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.

A charming recital.

Tridentine Mass

This link, has pictures and a sound extract from Sunday's Tridentine Mass at St. Mary's Cadogan Street where I was part of the choir singing the plainchant and Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli

Monday 22 August 2011

I see from this month's Opera Magazine that Terry Gilliam is going to direct a new production of Berlioz'z Benvenuto Cellini at ENO in 2014. Its great that Gilliam is coming back for more and brilliant the Benvenuto Cellini will be getting a new London outing. But I'm not really sure about what Gilliam's take on the opera will be, after all Cellini does actually have a plot!

Also, Covent Garden are doing their first production of Szymanowksi's King Roger in 2014 with Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role. Again, another opera that has been crying out for a London outing. Interestingly the production will be directed by Kasper Holten, who is obviously going to be a different type of opera director than Elaine Padmore.

Yet another interesting London outing. This time Charpentier's Medea which David McVicar will be directing at ENO in 2012-13, with Sarah Connolly in the title role and Christian Curmyn in the pit.

And as had been widely predicted, Covent Garden is doing a new Guillaume Tell in 2015, with Pappano in the pit and with John Osborn as Arnold.

Thursday 18 August 2011

CD Review

Craig Madden MORRIS - Violin Concerto [34:27]
Craig Madden MORRIS - Piano Trio [8:15]
Craig Madden MORRIS - Dream Songs [9:24]
Craig Madden MORRIS - Cello Rhapsody [15:26]
Craig Madden MORRIS - Tropical Dances [11:40]
Christine Kwak (violin)
Nan-Cheng Chen (cell0)
Eduard Laurel (piano)
Martha Locker (piano)


Craig Madden Morris is a contemporary American composer, one of those toilers at music's coal-face whose well-constructed neo-romantic music does not always get the exposure it deserves. Morris is actually a child psychologist and an associate professor at Columbia University and a New York resident. This new disc from Ravello Records offers a selection of Morris's recent chamber music. Ravello are a New England based label who offer an eclectic selection of contemporary music.

This disc features music for voilin, piano and cello played by Christine Kwak, Nan-Cheng Chen and Eduard Laurel, with Martha Locker contributing piano solos. The programme opens with Morris's Violin Concerto played in his reduction for Violin and Piano. This is a substantial work, three movements of around 10 minutes each (some 35 minutes in total) originally written in 2002 and revised in 2010.

It is a big-hearted romantic work with a nicely rhapsodic solo part, beautifully played by Christine Kwak with sterling accompaniment from Eduard Laurel. Their confident performance gives a good idea of the work, but I'm not convinced it quite works as a violin sonata, there are just a few too many moments where you want more than the piano can give, especially when it comes to intertwining instrumental lines.

You can get some of idea of what we are missing by listening to the lovely interaction between the violin, piano and cello in the Piano Trio also on this disc.

The full version of the Violin Concerto includes a second cadenza for cello, so I can't help wishing that Morris had chosen to present the piece with one or two other instruments.

The Piano Trio, played by Kwak, Laurel and Nan-Cheng Chen) is for me the stand-out piece on the disc, showing Morris's give for rhapsodic writing and long lyrical interchanges between instruments. it is a single movement work lasting just over 8 minutes, written in 2008.

The final large scale piece on the disc is the Cello Rhapsody, played in the reduction for cello and piano, by Nan-Cheng Chen and Martha Locker. A lovely elegiac work (the central section is an elegy for his teacher Shirley Bloom). The rhapsody lasts over 15 minutes in one movement. Like the previous Violin Concerto, the work rather strains in the piano reduction.

In style, Morris is unashamedly Romantic, but with a thoughtfulness and care in construction. In composing style he hovers between John Corigliano and Samuel Barber. Though Morris's lyrical impulse never quite reaches the memorableness of Barber's tunes.

The disc is completed by two groups of smaller pieces, played by Martha Locker, Dream songs - a trio of lyric songs, and the Caribbean inspired Tropical Dances

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Premiere in Norfolk

My Elegy for Baritone and Piano sextet is being premiered on Saturday 27th August 2011 at St. Botolph's Church, Trunch (NR28 0PS, near North Walsham). The concert is being presented by the London Schubert Players as part of their 2nd Norfolk Schubertiade. The programme includes Mozart's Piano Quartet in E flat, Faure's Dolly Suite, songs by Schubert, Reginald King's Meditation and premieres of pieces by Sviatlana Rynkova and yours truly.

The Elegy sets part of Rilke's 2nd Duino Elegy (Every Angel is terrifying); it is related to my Elegy for Baritone and Orchestra which was premiered by David Greiner and the Salomon Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Brown, at St. John's Smith Square. But the Elegy being premiered next week uses only part of Rilke's poem and re-works the original piece to create a rather more satisfying work.

Monday 15 August 2011

Tridentine Masses

Next Saturday at 12.00pm I'll be singing in the Tridentine Mass at St. Mary's Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea. The music includes Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, Bruckner's Os Justi and Vittoria's Sitientes.

The mass is an annual event at St. Mary's and it is usually the only Tridentine mass that I get to sing in. Unusually, this year whilst we were away (hence the radio silence), London Concord Singers sang mass at the lovely Chapelle des Penitents Noirs in Avignon. There, at a well attended service on Sunday 7th August we sang Rubbra's Missa in Honorem Sancti Dominici (which was actually written for the feast of St. Dominic on 4th August).

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Recent DVD review

My review of the DVD of Verdi's Don Carlo (4-act version) from Amsterdam is here on Music and Vision (subscription site)

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