Friday 30 December 2011

Recent CD review

My review of a live recording of the Mozart Requiem conducted by Josef Krips is here,on MusicWeb International.

Krips and his forces perform with strong integrity and he allows the music to sing.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Midnight Mass

On Saturday, I sang at Midnight Mass at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea. The service, an extensive one, consisted of Matins and the First Mass of Christmas. We sang Schubert's Mass in G, with accompaniment of a small string ensemble, along with Vittoria's motet O magnum mysterium and Luc Jakobs Dormi Iesu. Plus, of course, a goodly selection of carols and the plainchant propers. All in all a long and tiring, but immensely fulfilling evening (or morning!)

Christmas from Sweden

On Friday we went to the Wigmore Hall for the Christmas from Sweden concert with a varied programme performed by Margareta Bengtson (soprano, harp), Bengt Forsberg (piano), Mats Lidstrom (cello), Robert Maskell (speaker) and the Ulrika Eleonora Church Choir (the choir of London's Swedish Church) directed by Carina Einarson. The artistic director for the evening was Mats Lidstrom.

The evening opened with Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring performed by the choir, but the strongest theme running through the evening was the wide variety of traditional songs performed in Sweden at Christmastime. These varied from traditional Swedish carols and childrens songs to music by composers such as Franzen, Tegner and Nordqvist who are barely known in the UK. At the end of the first half Bengtson performed a medley of a different type of traditional Christmas songs, this time from America; thanks to the ubiquity of film and television these are now part of the Swedish Christmas. Bengtson sang them in idiomatic English and introduced the Swedish items, even performing some of the songs in both English and Swedish.

Robert Maskell performed a traditional Swedish Christmas poem, Tomten by Viktor Ridberg.

Some of the traditional songs were performed in Mats Lidstrom's imaginative arrangements for cello and piano and he also gave us his own striking variations on the Swedish National Anthem. I have to confess that I did not recognise this latter, but the variations were imaginative and entertaining, and brilliantly played by their composer.

Accompanist Bengt Forsberg did sterling service, accompanying the choir, the cellist and the soprano but he also had his own solo spot. He played Walter Rummel's gloriously romantic arrangement of an aria from Bach's cantata no. 127, Die Seele ruht in Jesu Handen.

Bengtson's soprano voice is a jazz-based instrument and she sings with microphone. I have to confess that this was the first time that I have heard amplification used at the Wigmore Hall. But Bengtson's voice is a beautiful instrument which was nicely balanced with the other (unamplified performers). She has a clear, high voice which she uses imaginatively. She opened the 2nd half with a pair of songs which she sang to her own accompaniment on the harp (her first instrument of study when she was at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm). These were magical and I could have listened to these folk-influenced performances all evening.

The evening concluded with a pair of traditional carols, arranged for the assembled forces including 2 extra cellos (Tamsy Kaner and Judith Herbert).

In the interval we were treated to Swedish gingerbread and mulled wine. All in all a fascinating and enjoyable evening which made a welcolme alternative to the standard fare on offer in London.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Christmas shows

Being as we have a visitor for Christmas, on Friday we decided it would be rather nice to go out, perhaps to the theatre. We checked what was on at the Royal Opera House - The Nutcracker. And the London Coliseum - The Nutcracker. And at Sadlers Wells - The Nutcracker. At the South Bank it was at least something different, Slava's Snow Show, but not quite the sort of show we had in mind. At the Barbican Hall it was a Raymond Gubbay Christmas Spectacular and at the Barbican Theatre it was Duckie presenting their alternative Christmas. Frankly, none of these were things that we had in mind. We wanted something intelligent and entertaining, if it was Christmas themed then it had to be slightly different but not alternative, suitable for an older relative.

Over at St. Johns Smith Square they were doing Handel's Messiah, performed by Polyphony and the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Stephen Layton. That was more like it, but the show was of course sold out. So a quick check of the Wigmore Hall web-site showed that they were doing Christmas from Sweden, so at least the carols would be different. So on Friday we are having a Swedish Christmas and looking forward to it. But oh, why do theatre administrators seem to think that people lose their sense of discrimination at Christmas. Can the English National Ballet really manage fill all those performances of Nutcracker (one or two per day from 8th December through to the end of the month). At least at the Royal Opera House, if we'd flexible over date, we could have seen  Die Meistersinger or Sleeping Beauty.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Chapelle du Roi at St. Johns Smith Square

On Saturday, St. John's Smith Square launched their annual Christmas Festival and as usual the eagerly awaited first concert of the series was an appearance by Chapelle du Roi under their conductor Alistair Dixon. This year Dixon offered a programme entitled Meet the Tudors which mixed old favourites with new items in a nice mix highlighting the full range of Tudor polyphony from early to late.

The programme opened with the Sarum chant, A solis ortus cardine used as a processional; this Latin hymn was used at Lauds during the Christmas season. It was followed by a characterful and surprisingly lively account of William Byrd's setting of Rorate Coeli, the introit for mass on the last Sunday of Advent.

The centrepiece of the first half was a performance of Robert Fayrfax's monumental Magnificat Regale from the Eton Choir book. This is a big work and possibly quite a stretch for just 8 singers. Certainly the performance went awry in a couple of places. Though Dixon was working with a significantly changed line-up from last year and the group may need a little more running in. But there were some fine things in the performance as well, with strongly characterised solo singing, a richly expressive soprano line and a very fine low bass.

The first half was completed by John Sheppard's respond Verbum caro, Tallis's Beati Immaculati and Suscipe Quaeso. The Sheppard offered some rich textures and a nice clear line in the high soprano part. Beati Immaculati was a speculative reconstruction by Dixon, based on the premise that Tallis's Blessed are those that be underfiled is an English contrafactum of an early Latin motets. Dixon's arguments in the programme notes were convincing and the group gave a poised and vivid performance. Suscipe Quaeso was probably written for the ceremony of the Absolution of England by Cardinal Pole in 1554, an event which Dixon and his group have explored in previous Christmas concerts. Tallis wrote for 7 part choir and offered some amazingly richly textured polyphony.

The problems in the Fayrfax seemed to have disturbed the singers equilibrium and these concluding items in the first half did not have the poise and brilliance that we have come to expect in this group.

Luckily things improved after the interval and the items in the second half showed the group to be back on top form.

They opened with a pair of English settings, written during the Edwardine protestant renaissance; Tallis's If ye love me and Sheppard's I give you a new commandment. The Tallis was sung by four voices, AATB, a quite convincing allocation of parts and the Shepperd was also sung by a smaller group, this time TTBB, giving us a lovely chocolatey sound. But in neither piece did the singers make anything like enough of the words; after all, under Edward VI, composers like Tallis and Sheppard were deliberately writing settings of English which were as comprehensible as possible, in line with the doctrines promoted by Edward and his advisors.

Next followed Tallis's respond Videte Miraculum, with its six-part texture giving us a further example of how Tallis could create beautifully rich textures. More Tallis followed in the form of his Te Deum for Meanes, a work which was probably written during the Edwardine period (based on the particular version of the text used). It is an astonishing work, set for two 5-part choirs; Tallis manages to give the work breadth and grandeur even though the text itself is rather choppy and list-like. Dixon cunningly performed the piece with just 8 singers by having the two hard working counter-tenors singing in both choirs; quite a brilliant piece of performance which came of superbly.

As a closing Marian motet we moved to Spain, for Victoria's lovely Alma Redemptoris Mater, in his setting of 8 voices.

Friday 16 December 2011

Recent CD reviews

Iestyn Davies fine disc of cantatas by Porpora is reviewed here.
A fine disc of civilised entertainment which wears its learning and musicality lightly.

Choral music by Dame Ethel Smyth's friend and teacher Heinrich von Herzogenberg is reviewed here.
Nothing here remotely approaches the vividness or intensity which Herzogenberg’s great contemporaries could achieve in this repertoire.

My review of a selection of Mad Scenes and Arias from Joan Sutherland's early recitals is here.
Showcases the talents of the young Sutherland.

A selection of Rossini operas from the Rossini Festival in Pesaro is reviewed here.
Not perfect but lively and involving and certainly worth the low price. 

And my review of a disc based around music for Vespers by contemporaries of Monteverdi is here.
All reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Subtle charm, intelligence, commitment and clever programming. 

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Review of Walton's Belshazzar

My review of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast performed a the Barbican on Saturday 10th by BBC forces is here, on OperaToday.

Saturday 10 December 2011

L'Enfance du Christ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

L'Enfance du Christ is a tricky piece to bring off well and, if not understood, can leave the listener feeling underwhelmed; as if the composer of The Trojans and La Damnation de Faust had somehow gone off. But all these works use a collage technique for dramatic purposes. Berlioz's dramatic constructions are best understood via a work like Romeo et Juliette where the characters are depicted by a variety of means (both vocal and orchestral), using a series of snapshots rather than continuous narrative. This technique even extends to The Trojans where, even though characters are embodied by singers, Berlioz feels happy to drop and take up a character as necessary (leaving a director having to decide in Act 4, for instance, whether to leave singers off stage when not singing or whether to invent extraneous business).

In L'Enfance du Christ we again have a series of snapshots, the characters are generally embodied by singers but the orchestra plays a huge role, not only in the instrumental numbers but in the way Berlioz colours the accompaniments. There is no particular dramatic development, simply a series of tableaux linked by a narrator. And, Herod's slaughter of the innocents apart, Berlioz chooses the more thoughtful episodes, he seems to have been aiming at a contemplative, almost spiritual feel for the piece; perhaps surprising in a man who was not particularly religious.

The role of the narrator is supremely important and on Thursday night (8th December) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Britten Sinfonia under Sir Mark Elder had a very fine narrator indeed in the form of Allan Clayton. With his artfully disarranged hair and beard, Clayton looked as if he was in training for an old testament prophet (he is singing Handel's Samson later this year). But musically and textually he was impressively fluent and expressive. His sung French was convincingly melifluous and the high tessitura of the part seemed to hold not terrors.

Clayton made the narrations not so much the linking material as the very centre of the piece. This was particularly true of the epilogue where his passion, commitment and restraint combined with a beautiful line, made of a magical conclusion. In this he was ably supported by Sir Mark Elder who shaped the music beautifully and drew a fine performance from the Britten Sinfonia.

Mary and Joseph were played by Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams, both turning in nicely understated performances which got to the essence of the music; these solo roles are not showy and a singer must find other ways into the music, something Connolly and Williams did. Bass Neal Davies got the most dramatic roles, contributing a very vivid Herod and an equally dramatic Ishmaelite in the final part.

The chorus was formed of Britten Sinfonia Voices, a new professional choir trained by Eamonn Dougan. The programme described the choir as being made of young professional singers, though in fact the age range was rather larger than this. Vocally the group were impressive, contributing a very finely tuned account of the music which matched the Sinfonia's performance nicely. I could wish that British groups would take a leaf out of the books many continental performing groups as so many of the groups from Europe succeed in looking as stylish as they sound. Whereas Britten Sinfonia Voices, particularly the men, looked so casual as to seem almost haphazard.

The start of the concert was a very curious affair. Orchestra and chorus wandered onto the stage in an ad hoc way, followed by soloists and conductor, all very casually with people stood about chatting, as if we were witnessing the start of a rehearsal. There was then a 10 minute pause, where we sat there watching the performers socialising; when things started, 15 minutes late, there was no explanation.

The Britten Sinfonia were on great form Sir Mark Elder obviously has the feel of Berlioz's deceptively simple work. Elder ensured that all the various paragraphs were not only nicely shaped, but the the whole was built into a satisfying structure.

A moving and profoundly satisfying account of an all too rarely performed work.

Friday 9 December 2011

Rosenblatt Recitals: Sabina Cvilak

On Wednesday, Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak appeared at St. John's Smith Square in the latest in the Rosenblatt Recitals series. Accompanied by Iain Burnside she gave an unusual programme which started with a group of Slovenian composers, ended with arias from operettas by Lehar and Stoltz and took in songs by Hauer and by Richard Strauss along the way.

The songs by Marijan Lipovsek (father of the mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovsek) and Franz Serphin were relatively sober and a quietly understated way to start the recital. But the final one of the group, Ciril Preglj's Ciciban, which sets a childrens poem by Oton Zupancic, was a delight and presented most charmingly by Cvilak.

Cvilak has been performing mainly lyric roles in the opera house, but her voice has an interesting edge to it and can be, at times, a quite powerful instrument which will develop rather interestingly. Her vibrato is not too over-developed and she sings with a very, very fine sense of line and dares to fine her voice right down where necessary.

The Slovenian group were followed by Josef Matthias Hauer's five Hölderlin settings from 1914, the early period of Hauer's mature work. Hauer (1883 - 1959) was a Viennese composer who experimented with using all the 12 notes of the chromatic scale equally, though in these songs there was a distinct sense of tonal centres. In fact the vocal lines were quite melodic in an austere way; Hauer seems to have set the texts as a sort of dramatic recitative and allowed the piano to add all the colouristic elements. There results had a sort of neo-classical beauty, but were very far from the sort of singer-pleasing songs which Richard Strauss was producing at this period. I did wonder if Cvilak could have made more of the German texts, but her voice seemed ideal for Hauer's rather plain lines. Sung from memory, as well all her items, these were a brave and interesting choice, very far from the usual operatic and song repertoire.

The first half closed with three of Richard Strauss's best known songs, Allerseelen, Zueignun and Morgen. Her Cvilak was able to let her voice flower for the the first time, though she also thinned her voice down considerably (almost dangerously) at time as well to produce a fine, delicate sound. Cvilak's instrument is not the most luxurious of soprano voice, but what she does with it is impressive and beautiful though again I could have taken a little more text.

For the second half she sang a pair of Puccini arias, Si. Mi chiamano Mimi (from La Boheme) and Senza mamma (from Suor Angelica). Both were nicely done but her Mimi seemed to lack the ideal feeling of warmth infusing the vocal lines; hers was intelligently done, finely moulded, but a little cool. I felt that Suor Angelica suited her voice far better and, given the incipient power of her voice, would be very interested indeed to hear her in the role on stage.

Finally we had a group of arias from operettas, 3 by Robert Stolz and Vilja from the Merry Widow, by Lehar. Here Cvilak finally seemed to relax. For most of the recital her stage presence had seemed a little stiff and it was only in the operetta performances that we got the chance to discover what a truly charming performer she is. She brought great care to each of the operetta piece, but did not kill them with kindness, imbuing each with the necessary combination of clarity and enchantment.

She gave us two encores; first of all Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur in a performance which made me think that hearing her on stage in the role would be very fine indeed. Then finally another Puccini, O mio babbino caro.

In all this she was superbly supported by Iain Burnside at the piano who even managed to make the operatic arrangements sound as if the composers meant them to be like that.

This was an impressive and sometimes charming recital from an extremely talented singer. I was rather aware that she did not always quite give us of her best, but recitals can be taxing affairs for singers more used to the operatic platform. Here she gave us an interesting programme, intelligently performed with room for some delightful charm in the operetta items.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Quintessential Voices

On Tuesday we went to a private performance by Quintessential Voices, a  vocal group based around lay clerks from Windsor and from Westminster Cathedral. The 5 man group (Stephen Burrows, Ben Alden, Jonathan Bungard, Jon Saunders, Will Gaunt) performed their programme The Little Road to Bethlehem which mixes readings and music to tell the Christmas story. Apart from a poem by Rudyard Kipling (Eddi's service), the readings were all traditionally biblical, but in terms of music they managed to include a whole variety ranging from Perotin's Beata Viscera to Sally Beamish's In the stillness, taking in Guerrero, Victoria, Praetorius, Michael Head and Richard Rodney Bennett along the way.

They have recorded the programme which has been issued as their first disc, further details here.

This Week’s Classical Music Round Up From The Arts Desk

In this week’s classicalmusic coverage on The Arts Desk, we take a trip to Italy with Liszt, play host to an Australian chamber ensemble and cast our eye over the latest CD releases.

Louis Lortie, photo by Elias
At the start of this week, on Monday, 5 December, David Nice gave his verdict on Louis Lortie’s piano recital of the night before at the Wigmore Hall. The concert was a bumper celebration of Liszt’s Italian-inspired works, drawing on both art and poetry from Raphael to Petrarch, to mark his bicentenary year, with the programme including his Années de pèlerinage, Venetian water piece La lugubre gondola and Venezia e Napoli. The result was tough-going and impressive by turns, with Lortie majestic, even imposing one minute, and dazzling with his skill and clarity the next, so that it seemed to Nice like the man must have four hands.

Adele Anthony, photo by Marcia Siriello
Over the weekend Graham Rickson provided his weekly run-down of the top new classical CD releases. Violin concertos were the order of the day, with two separate discs full of them. The first boasts the unlikely pairing of Bartók and Tchaikovsky, with Valeriy Sokolov successfully championing the less-loved Bartók piece and making enjoyable work of the more popular Tchaikovsky piece. The second CD successfully pairs Australian composer Ross Edwards and Sibelius. Adele Anthony is the superb performer, bringing impressive athleticism to the Edwards and thrills aplenty to the Sibelius. The third disc this week comes from John Wilson, known for his superb conducting of music from Hollywood musicals. Made in Britain, however, is of English works from the likes of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Butterworth. With his emphasis on clarity, richness and, of course, immaculate playing, Wilson for the most part avoids twee-ness and stodge, delivering light, fun and occasionally sublime pieces.

And finally, on 30 November, Alexandra Coghlan caught Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. For all his free-spiritedness and love of surfing, Tognetti and his ensemble were a model of decorum, showing just how serious and disciplined they are about their craft. They brought an added weight to Greig’s String Quartet in G Minor while Shostakovich’s Concerto No 1 was enlivened with joyful trumpet playing from Tine Thing Helseth and particularly masterful piano playing from Simon Trpčeski. With wind and brass joining in for a focused, rhythmic rendition of Mozart’s Symphony No 40, the concert built to a romping finale.

Friday 2 December 2011

Language issues

London Concord Singers are currently rehearsing Morten Lauridsen's Les chansons des roses for their Christmas Concert on Dec 15th. I have been finding that Lauridsen's way of setting French rather unsettles me, though I suppose you have to bear in mind that he is setting French which was written by Rilke who was born in Prague. Lauridsen doesn't set French the way a French composer might, he ignores the sort of poetic diction that a native speaker might use (whereby such things as a silent 'e' is unsilenced). But such things are a minefield for the non-native speaker. And I find I have to temper my annoyance as I have been guilty of such things myself, in Rilke as well but this time in German.

My setting of Rilke's Second Duino Elegy was made after I fell in love with the opening. But, of course, it is a very long poem, and though I can speak German I don't speak it like a native and it became apparent that I certainly don't set it like a native. A German singer friend pointed out that I broke rules, but I came to realise that if I tried to follow all the rules whilst setting the German, my setting would start not to feel 'right' to me. So I aimed simply for comprehensibility rather than being idiomatic.

So whilst the singer in my worrits away at Lauridsen's settings, the composer sympathises entirely.

Review of the Belcea Quartet

Last night (December 1st) at the Wigmore Hall saw the Belcea Quartet perform the second in their cycle of concerts covering the complete Beethoven Quartets, a serious and impressive exercise which will be concluded with a set of live recordings. Thursday's concert was recorded by the BBC for broadcast on Radio 3. The quartet are structuring their concerts by playing an early, a middle and a late quartet so that last night we heard the String Quartet in B flat Opus 18 no. 6 from 1798-1800, the String Quartet in F minor Opus 95 'Serioso' from 1810 and the String Quartet in E flat Opus 127 from 1825-26.

The opening movement of Opus 18 no.6 is surprisingly conventional but came over as nicely playful with much question and answer between the individual voices. Under Corina Belcea's firm leadership the Belcea Quartet gave the movement some firm, dark playing and brought out the depths of even the simpler passages. A beautifully considered account of the second movement, highlighted its simple elegance but added moments of mystery. In the scherzo Beethoven's unsettling, irregular rhythms were to the fore, but conventionality did break out. Only to be swept away by the amazing slow introduction to the final movement, La Malinconia. The quartet's hushed, bleached tones alternated with more dramatic interjections, pregnant with meaning. But this introduction led, slightly bathetically, to one of Beethoven's country dances. Though the group's way with it made Beethoven's humour a little scary.

The quartet's sound quality is focussed on Corina Belcea's sweet but incisive tones. The group favours a wide range of dynamics, imbuing even the simplest of passages with an intensely felt, dramatic quality.

The group made much of the opus 95 quartet's striking opening movement, highlighting the dramatic contrasts and the music's startling turns and diversions. The players' dark, thick tones provided high intensity moments, which were strongly felt and often beautiful. We had travelled a long way from the simple question and answer of the first quartet's opening. Though the second movement is marked Allegretto, the quartet hinted at something not quite comfortable about the music, their haunting playing catching elements of another world. This movement leads directly into the dramatic opening of the scherzo, with Beethoven echoing the music of the quartet's first movement. The serene trio appears twice and contrasted with the high octane, high tension playing of the scherzo itself. Finally there was the dark and agitated final movement, but one in which the group highlighted the lyric elements; all ending with Beethoven's surprisingly up beat coda.

After the interval the group played Beethoven's Opus 127 quartet, the first of a group written for Prince Galitzin. In the work's opening movement the initial dramatic gesture was imbued with surprising delicacy and warmth, for the rest of the movement lyrical tenderness alternated with strenuousness until the surprisingly abrupt ending. The long second movement is Beethoven's favourite variation form with a theme of great beauty which is initially shared by the violin and cello. The group's hushed, magical playing at the opening was led to a long movement of quiet intensity, sustained over the full length, a remarkably achievement. For the scherzo, the dramatic contrasts were highlighted, emphasizing that this scherzo is a long way from a joke, with a fast scurrying minor trio whose false return at the end made the conclusion of the movement rather sinister. The last movements dramatic opening had its dramatic rhetoric offset by sweetness. But the movement had a certain restlessness until the magical moment, magically played, when the coda launches into the major and the tempo slows to allow the players to ethereally scurry over the music.

This was an impressive concert, serious in intention and big on achievement. The audience in the packed Wigmore Hall was rightly enthusiastic. And we have more to come!

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