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!

Sunday 27 November 2011

Chelsea Opera group - Beatrice et Benedict

Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict is only an intermittent visitor to London. It is many years since ENO staged the work, but Colin Davis has done concert performances with the LSO and the piece has been performed at the music colleges. Now Chelsea Opera Group have performed the piece in concert at the Cadogan Hall (26th November 2011).

The problem with Beatrice et Benedict in concert is the amount of spoken dialogue, a common problem with the opera comique and singspiel genres. The short rehearsal time just does not allow for adequate preparation of the singers in the dialogue and companies tend to shy away from it, replacing dialogue with a narration or abandoning it altogether. I didn't see the LSO performances but I understand that Davis used a parallel group of actors. COG took a similar view, understandable given that their cast included at least 2 non-British singers.Their Somarone was Donald Maxwell, who will be singing the role for WNO in 2012, so he plus two young actors (Sion Davies and Helen Ramsorrun) delivered a shortened form of the dialogue in English whilst the musical items were delivered in French.

Maxwell delivered spoken lines for Leonato, Somarone and the Notary, Sion Davies was the Messenger, Don Pedro, Benedict and a servant, whilst Helen Ramsorrun was Beatrice, Claudio, a servant and Hero. Which meant that at times Sion Davies had to have dialogues with himself; the addition of an extra actor or, perish the thought, having one of the male singers speak some lines, would have made big difference to dramatic logistics.

Also, having a spoken and a singing pair of lovers on stage at the same time was slightly odd. To add to the confusion, where Berlioz's text was based directly on Shakespeare, then Shakespeare's text was spoken, but for other passages modern English was used. Frankly I found this fussy and confusing and felt that a simple, straightforward English translation should have been used.

One of the problems with stagings of the opera is that producers tend to want to make Berlioz's opera closer to Shakespeare, rather than perceiving it as a work in its own right. Still, whatever the quibbles, COG's presentation was far better than their previous use of spoken narration to replace dialogue.

Berlioz's distillation of the text lacks the kill Claudio moment of Shakespeare's original, Hero and Claudio's path to matrimony is straightforward so that Hero becomes a softer romantic heroine. Ana Maria Labin made an attractive Hero, delivering her aria Je vai le voir with passion and with a richer, more vibrant voice that I am used to in this role, Labin's Hero was no soubrette, though her coloratura was slightly sketchy. Labin is Roumanian but seems to have performed a lot on France and her French was attractive and convincing; in fact all of the cast were entirely praiseworthy when it came to their French diction.

Beatrice was sung by Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Liora Grodnikaite who has sung other roles for COG in the past. A striking, tall presence on stage, Grodnikaite had a nicely modulated way with Berlioz's music, though she seemed to concentrate more on beauty of utterance, her delivery lacked something of the pertness which might be appropriate. But then Grodnikaite accounts of her two arias were so beautifully passionate, that they were entirely satisfying.

The third female member of the cast was Emma Carrington as Ursule. Carrington is possessed of an extremely striking contralto voice and I would love to have heard more of her.

Act 1 concludes with a duet for Ursule and Hero, a sort of barcarolle. Labin and Carrington's voices combined superbly in this and conductor Nicholas Collon coaxed some hushed magical playing out of the  orchestra. The image of Ursule and Hero stood on the coast of Sicily looking out to sea came to mind and Berlioz's music implies that you can see all the way to Carthage, so palpable were the echoes of his music for Les Troyens.

All three women combined in another highlight, the trio in Act 2. Again the 3 voices blended beautifully and these two female ensemble pieces were the stand out moments in the performance.

The male trio, sung by Benedict (Ben Johnson), Claudio (Simon Lobelson) and Don Pedro (Adrian Clarke) was robustly enjoyable, unfortunately Lobelson and Clarke got very little else so sing. Johnson as Benedict had two duets with Grodnikaite as well a solo of his own. Johnson has a lovely lyric voice, having sung Nemorino and Don Ottavio. In this context he negotiated Berlioz's lines beautifully, but seemed slightly under powered. He wasn't helped by the way Collon encouraged the orchestra to play out. More worryingly, Johnson's performance seemed to be at a distance from the attempts at drama in the presentation (Martin Lloyd-Evans was credited as director). Certainly the first duet with Grodnikaite Comment le dedain pourrait il mourir did not raise the sparks it should and their relationship did not develop.

Maxwell, as Somarone, had relatively little to sing but he did have the rather embarrassing rehearsal scene, where Berlioz pokes fun at musical performances of his own day. Maxwell, using a degree of improvisation, brought this off delightfully as well as giving us a fun rendition of the drinking song at the opening of Act 2.

In this, and in other places, the chorus were participants in the drama, not only singing but entering into the dialogue with enthusiasm and commitment.

The two actors, Davies and Ramsorrun gave sterling performances. Davies proved suitable schizophrenic in his abilities to deliver two different characters simultaneously. Ramsorrun was nicely tart as Beatrice, so much so that I felt that it would certainly be interesting to see her in the full role in Shakespeare's place.

Nicholas Collon drew fine playing from the orchestra, in fact I think that this was one of their best performances. Granted, Collon compromised the balance at times but generally the orchestral contribution was at a very high level and the group brought off the magical effects of Berlioz's orchestration. All in all a magical evening.

Review of Saul

My review of last Tuesday's performance of Handel's Saul given by the Sixteen, is now online at OperaToday, here.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Gabrieli are doing it for themselves

How much does it cost to put on a concert and where does the money come from? It is a fact of life that ticket receipts do not cover the total cost, even for a relatively small event. In 2010 we put on a concert performance of my opera When a Man Knows; it was done on a shoe string, but we still needed some substantial sponsorship to fill in the gap between ticket sales and costs. And of course if you want to put on, say, a Handel oratorio using fully professional forces properly rehearsed, then you are looking at a significant funding gap; one generally filled by sponsors, usually big name firms.

Of course, you've got to find someone willing and interested, the content of the event needs to appeal to the sponsors. This scrabbling for money has always happened, in the past composers and performers needed patrons and sponsors. Impresarios like Diaghilev spent most of their working lives searching for the next sponsor and Sir Thomas Beecham’s seasons at Covent Garden only happened because of his father’s money. Since the formation of the Arts Council, this role has often been taken by government, but as the arts have dropped in importance to a series of governments who seem to have done their best to look philistine, companies are having to hustle for themselves.

The Gabrieli Consort have had a long relationship with Christ Church Spitalfields; in 2005 their concert season there consisted of 6 concerts, but in 2011 they only performed there once. What tends to happen with such independent groups is that they perform where it is economic to do so, so you can end up with the slightly crazy situation of well known British performing groups appearing mainly outside Britain. If you want to see some of the more interesting work from groups like the Gabrieli Consort, the English Concert and others like them you have to travel to see them. In fact, thanks to the Barbican Centre’s Great Performers season, we tend to see more performances from visiting groups then UK ones.

Gabrieli's solution to this is to do it themselves. Following on from their Proms performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah  with Simon Keenlyside, Paul McCreesh and his forces went into the studio to record the work. The project was part funded by collaborators at the City of Wroclaw, Poland, where McCreesh is artistic director of the Wratislava Cantans festival, but having secured that partnership Gabrieli still needed to top up with a group funding event organised by the Gabrieli Consort themselves. The recording of Elijah will come out on Paul McCreesh's new label, Winged Lion Records; the label's first disc is Berlioz's Requiem  recorded with the Wroclaw Festival; a disc which is already winning acclaim.

So they are repeating the group funding/crowd sourcing again this autumn/winter in order to fill the sponsorship gap for their concerts as part of the 2012 Christ Church Spitalfields Festival. The extra money gives them the flexibility to mount a performance of Purcell's Fairy Queen, the Monteverdi and Stravinsky masses and a new a cappella choral programme, plus various educational extras and outreach which are now part of the contemporary performance experience.

All this will help to celebrate the amazing fact that the Gabrieli Consort are 30 next year.

The fund raising takes place as part of the Big Give, starting 5th December, the advantage of this is that funds raised through the Big Give will be matched by funds from major supporters and sponsors, so that if you include gift aid then £100 in donations will become £225.

All this happens from on Monday 5th December. Further details at and

As next year is Gabrieli’s 30th anniversary and they are inviting people to share their thoughts and reminiscences via the groups Facebook page or by sending an email to

Friday 25 November 2011

Barbican battiness

We went to see the Sixteen performing Handel's Saul on Tuesday (a review will appear eventually). It started at 6.30pm (!) and finished just after 9.30pm. I know that some people like early starts, but I still feel that 6.30pm is too early for a weekday when people work until 5.30pm. Especially as the Barbican's door policy is so haphazard. A few weeks ago D. was late for a concert (early start again) and was kept outside until the interval, despite suitable gaps and despite there being people let in. On Tuesday we received an email saying very firmly that there would be no late entry, D. was late as he worked until 6.00pm, but there were still people being let in late.

Could we please have a coherent and consistently applied door policy please. And if concerts start at 6.30pm could there be a decent reason, i.e. substantial length.

What was even more stupid on Tuesday was the the performance co-incided with Opera North in the Barbican Theatre performing Queen of Spades. This started at the normal time and the 2nd interval co-incided with us leaving Saul, so the opera goers were going to be finishing far later than Saul.....

Incidentally we bumped into a friend on leaving Saul and had a hilarious cross-purposes conversation where we each talked about the performance and compared notes, until we realised that one had been listening to Handel and the other Tchaikovsky!

Christmas at St. Martin in the Fields

The Christmas concert season at St. Martin in the Fields kicks off tomorrow (26th November) with the London Bach Singers and the Feinstein Ensemble performing Bach's Christmas Oratorio. They are using 1 singer to a part, (hurrah!), with tenor Nicholas Hurndall Smith as the Evangelist, the soprano is Faye Newton, the alto is sung by William Purefoy, and the bass is Ben Davies. They are performing parts 1,2,3 and 6 of the oratorio, which means you'll miss out on some fine music but the performance will be of reasonable duration. 

They are marking World Aids Day (1st December) with a concert of Carols and Christmas Music by Candlelight given by the City of London Choir, with Ugandan pianist Ivan Kiwuwa and George Alagaih doing readings. Given the worthy cause (VSO's HIV and Aids work overseas) there is enough of interest in the concert to make it worth considering. And on Friday 2nd December you can have an alternative view of Christmas with the Norwegian Christmas Concert (the Wigmore Hall's take on this, a Swedish Christmas, is on Friday 23rd December).

Inevitably the programme includes rather a lot of carol concerts. If you have to go and see one, then the Choir of Christ's College Cambridge on Dec 8th might be a good bet.

And for those with time to spare after Christmas, on Dec 29th Dietrich Bethge and the London Octave present the complete Brandenburg Concertos. I've not heard of the ensemble before but the marathon of all the Brandenburg Concertos sounds tempting.

This Week's Classical Music Roundup

Guest Post from The Arts Desk: This Week’s Classical Music Round-Up

This week’s classical music coverage on The Arts Desk includes a disastrous dance piece, a concert that runs hot and cold and the top pick of the latest CDs.

picture credit Sadler's Wells
Combining classical music and dance at Sadler’s Wells on 22 November, choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker put on a show in collaboration with Jérôme Bel and the Ictus ensemble that has provoked strong reactions. Judith Flanders was one of the more sympathetic in the audience for 3Abschied finding the show a fascinating failure. A failure because their cerebral attempt to choreograph Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde using a mixture of discussion, uncertain dance moves, a take on Haydn’s Symphony No 45 in which the orchestra leaves one by one and yet more unsuccessful dance moves was often nothing less than disastrous. But it was fascinating nonetheless because, to Flanders, it encapsulated the everyman’s inability to articulate the enormity of what art means.

While over the weekend Graham Rickson gave his weekly appraisal of the latest classical CD releases. First up was the Ulster Orchestra under George Vass. An unpublished 1902 piece by Vaughan Williams was recognisable Vaughan Williams fare, but it was the first two piano concertos by Welsh composer William Matthias that Rickson deemed the more enjoyable. There are more challenging pieces out there, certainly, but these works still had a thrilling bite to them. Next was the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest release with conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, bringing together Sibelius and Lutoslawki. Another Sibelius’s Fifth was perhaps unnecessary, Rickson thought, and Lutoslawksi’s Concerto for Orchestra was a sleazier, more forbidding performance than he’s ever heard before, but it was Sibelius’s tone poem ‘Pohjola’s Daughter’ that stood out, in a thrilling live performance that brings out every dark narrative twist of this tragic Finnish folk tale. The final recommendation was ‘Five Pieces’, superbly played by the Italian Gazzana sisters on piano and violin. The disc includes works by Hindemith, Janáček and Silvestrov but the real revelation was the delicate yet angular piece ‘Distance de fée’ by Takemitsu which had Rickson grinning helplessly and hitting the repeat button.

picture credit Greg Helgeso
And on 17 November Geoff Brown went to the Royal Festival Hall to see conductor Osmo Vänskä take the London Philharmonic in hand for an uncompromising interpretation of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. Though some audience members disliked the results, Brown was not one of them. Vänskä’s treatment was meticulous, drawing a polished performance from the orchestra and daring to bring the sound down to, at times, an almost imperceptible level. The result was exceptionally refined but with a definite wind-chill factor, feeling particularly cool after Janine Jansen’s sublime performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in the first half. A passionate, fiery performance, yet tender and fragile too, she had the audience enslaved.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Idomeneo in Catford

Having last given us a concert of substantial excerpts from Wagner's Ring, Midsummer Opera are now giving us a masterpiece of an entirely different kind (albeit one which also has problems of length), Mozart's Idomeneo. They are performing it in the Munich version, thank goodness, with a mezzo-soprano Idamante and will be giving 3 concert performances; on 6th November at the Broadway Theatre in Catford and on 11th and 12th November at St. John's Church, Waterloo. The cast includes John Upperton as Idomeneo, Deborah Stoddart as Elettra, Emma Dogliani as Illia, and Norma Ritchie as Idamante, all conducted by the indefatigable David Roblou. For those of us who found ENO recent production of the opera rather too full of stage business, here's a chance to here the work with only our imagination to supply the visuals.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Recent CD review

My review of Butterfly by Bass Instinct (an all double bass group!) is here, on MusicWeb International.

By turns serious, humorous and attractively melodic. Do try it.

Eugene Onegin at the London Coliseum

The problem  with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is to make the final scenes belong to the same opera as the opening ones. From the duel scene onward, the drama almost runs itself, most Onegins and Tatyanas find the characters' older incarnations easier, their final passionate encounter is the one that usually works. Deborah Warner and her designers (Tom Pye, sets, and Chole Obolensky, costumes) emphasised this divide in their new production of the opera for ENO (seen Friday 18th November). The duel scene was set in a spectacular stylised landscape, mirrored floor, white and mirrored walls, with a little snow and bare trees. This basic set, with the addition of some spectacular columns at the front of the stage, formed the setting for the St. Petersburg scenes; stylish, stylised, simple and not a little spectacular and the setting for some powerful performances.

But earlier on in the opera, Warner relied on naturalism to create the Larina's estate, though as Act 1 progressed we came to realise that it was a kind of Hovis realism. And at the centre of this should be the youthful passion of Tatyana, but Amanda Echalaz's  performance, though moving and passionate, failed to convince as the impressionable young girl. Despite an impressive dramatic manner where she did indeed capture the right body language, she was let down by the wonderful richness of her voice; this Tatyana just sounded far too mature. Of course, this maturity can count in the letter scene; taken out of context the scene was superbly done and revealed Echalaz to be a fine dramatic actress; it just didn't feel like a young girl.

This is a common problem with the opera; I've lost count of the reviews I've read which say that a particular singer's Tatyana was fine in the last act but less convincing in the first. Perhaps, in this post-Callas era, we don't make the sort of youthful sounding passionate voices any more. I have to confess that I have only really seen one performance where the soprano managed to trick properly, this was many years ago at the Royal Opera House where Gabriela Benackova gave a performance which was notable for the intensity of youthful passion she brought to the the first 4 scenes in the opera.

The first act was played with detailed naturalism by a very strong cast in Tom Pye's single set, a huge barn-like structure which seemed to be attached to the Larina's house. There was no garden, just a view of the yard outside when the barn-doors were open. For some reason, Tatyana slept here and her confrontation with Onegin was here also. I began to suspect that the look of the production was dictated more by the needs of having a single spectacular set for the whole act (for economic reasons), rather than from the dramatic need that Tatyana indeed be sleeping outside. The production is a co-production with the Met in New York and the cynical side of me suggests that the production values had to cope with the expectation that the Met have a spectacular setting. I suspect that Met audiences would in fact normally expect a different, handsome-looking, setting for each scene and that if ENO had been going it alone we would have had a less substantial but more flexible setting.

This wasn't a serious problem, but just nagged away, it seemed as if Warner was only intermittently interested in being true to the libretto; Toby Spence's Lensky went into raptures about a non-existent garden; Echalaz's Tatyana threw about furniture in a way which suggested, in the context of the surrounding naturalism, that she was indeed rather disturbed; during the dance at Madame Larina's in Act 2, the entire staff (including the chef) seemed to be dancing at the ball; in Act 3 Tatyana was present when Prince Gremin (Brindley Sherratt) sang his aria and he seemed to be singing it to Tatyana rather than Audun Iverson's Onegin (who hardly seemed to be paying attention); and the dancing at the Act 3 ball seemed entirely restricted to the professional dancers.

For me, the best productions use the dance as an additional element of the drama, both at Madame Larina's and in St. Petersburg; but Warner didn't really do this, dance was there as entertainment and nothing else. But having much of it danced by the professional dancers rather than chorus, she minimised its dramatic impact. The dance during the peasants choruses in Act 1 was solely confined to 3 professionals and was far too elaborate; the choreographer (Kim Brandstrup) showing off rather than producing something suitable to go with Tchaikovsky's folk-like choruses.

All this rather took the mind off the performances, which was a shame because they were very strong. Echalaz's Tatyana was superbly dramatic and, as I have said, she gave a creditable and impassioned account of the letter scene, she just sounded too old. But of course, that meant that when we got to St. Petersburg she was in her element and show what a fine dramatic actress this singer is becoming. I do hope that ENO next give her something to get her teeth into.

About Audun Iversen's Onegin I was a little conflicted; he has a fine, bright baritone voice which he uses intelligently and sounded just right. But dramatically he was a little dull. In Act 1 he seemed more of a bank-manger-ish safe bet, rather than a broodingly interesting presence. At the Larina's dance he seemed not quite other enough. But he came alive in the St. Petersburg scenes, showing what a fine dramatic singer he can be. For me Onegin needs to exude an element of interesting otherness, a sense of difference and perhaps a feeling of brooding intensity; you didn't feel that there was anything in this Onegin that could really fascinate and infatuate the youthful Tatyana.

This, of course, rather threw Toby Spence's Lensky into relief. Spence was very fine indeed in this role, performing Act 1 with a sort of puppyish enthusiasm and charm which made his descent into manic jealously quite believable. An then the duel scene, here Spence was quite, quite superb. He delivered the aria in a beautifully controlled, yet intense fashion, daring to sing incredibly quietly. Though it was show-piece he never grandstanded and this continued into the fine duet which preceded the duel itself.

The supporting characters were all cast from strength with Diana Montague as Madame Larina, rather less scatty than she is sometimes portrayed, a lovely sympathetic portrait, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Filippyevna also providing sympathetic support and an unhackneyed portrayal of the old nurse. Claudia Huckle was a charmingly bubbly Olga, blending nicely with Echalaz in the Act 1 duet.

The role of Prince Gremin is a gift to the right singer, and Brindley Sherratt grasped it with both hands, giving as fine an account of the aria as I have heard, sung with a rich, resonant voice which went all the way down to the bottom.  David Stout was  admirable in the small role of Zaretsky.

The opera was sung in a translation by Martin Pickard which used rhyming verse, something which at times was a little too noticeable. I still have fond memories of David Pountney's translation.

Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra and Chorus were all on fine form, giving us some fine impassioned music, all well paced by Gardner. Tchaikovsky gives both the orchestra and the chorus moments in the spotlight and they did not disappoint. Gardner's dramatic handling of the piece was impressive.

I came away from the performance wondering whether Warner might have been more comfortable if she could have delivered a less naturalistic, more expressionistic production. That said, she, Gardner and the cast created a fine, dramatic evening and I certainly hope to see the production again at the Coliseum; there are plenty of fine young baritones who ENO ought to consider for the title role.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

I see from the latest Opera magazine, that Calixto Bieito will be directing a new production of Carmen at ENO in autumn 2012, so it seems that Sally Potter's production will be no more. In many ways this is a shame; though there was plenty wrong with it I thought that with some work, ENO could have had a promising and interesting production. I do find it troubling when productions are seen as disposable, being got rid of after one showing rather than trying to work to fix problems. And quite what Bieito will make of Carmen is anybody's guess (except of course we can get a fair idea by reading the fuss created by his recent productions elsewhere).

And in Covent Garden 2013, Placido Domingo will be singing another Doge; this time Doge Francesco in I due Foscari.

Monday 14 November 2011

Harry Bramma at All Saints, Margaret Street

On Friday we went to All Saints, Margaret Street for a musical celebration of Harry Bramma's 75th Birthday. Bramma was musical director at All Saints for many years, and his successor Paul Brough conducted the choir in a number of Bramma's beautifully wrought pieces, along with some Byrd. Interspersed with this were addresses from Lindsay Gray (Director of the Royal School of Church Music) and Nicholas Frayling (Dean of Chichester) which covered Bramma's myriad activities including his influential time as director of the Royal School of Church Music. Brough and his choir have recorded a disc of Bramma's music for Priory Records and the event concluded with a glass of wine, a piece of a huge birthday cake and a chance to buy the new record.

La Sonnambula

To Covent Garden on Saturday 12th November for the revival of Marco Arturo Marelli's 20th century sanatorium version of Bellini's La Sonnambula. As ever it looks handsome and provides an attractive setting for the vocalism, providing you can suspend belief rather more than usual. Bellini and Felice Romani's plot has the usual class condescension, requiring us to believe that the villagers are naive (stupid?) enough to believe in ghosts and to not know about the idea of sleepwalking. Also embedded in this class division is the assumption that the count's appearance, after the first sleepwalking episode, will clear things up; that aristocrats are basically trustworthy.

By moving it to the 20th century, Marelli requires us to stretch this further and believe this of the staff and inhabitants of the sanatorium. I can understand why he did it, after all the previous Covent Garden production of La Sonnambula which was traditional in its setting, really did the opera no favours either, the theatrical convention of setting operas in cutesy period villages doesn't usually work well in modern productions. The problem is that the basic premise of the plot requires us to forget about realism, so perhaps producers should be aiming at abstraction or magical realism. But on Saturday, we had to brush aside any doubts we had about the logistics and concentrate on the vocalism.

The revival was centred around the Amina of Eglise Gutierrez, the Cuban-American soprano whose previous appearances at Covent Garden have included La Fee in the recent Massenet Cendrillon  and a concert performance of Donizetti's Linda di Chamonix for Opera Rara. So this was our first chance to hear her in a staging of a piece of mainstream coloratura repertoire. Gutierrez has a fabulous sense of line, spinning out notes endlessly, which suits Bellini's style admirably. Her voice has a creamy evenness which spreads almost throughout the range; when I heard her as Linda di Chamonix I didn't need that 'almost' but on Saturday her very upper extension seemed a little thin and not quite evenly linked to the remainder of her voice, this only applied to the acuti and is really me being picky.

A bigger problem was the speeds that she chose. Conductor Daniel Oren seemed to be entirely complaisant, letting the soprano spread things as far as she chose. Whilst hearing Gutierrez spin lines out so beautifully was a complete pleasure, it wasn't something I wanted for the entire evening. Stunning though Gutierrez's singing was, ultimately I found her Amina a little too self-indulgent and self-regarding. A stronger hand at the conductor's desk would, I think, have cured this.

Tenor Celso Albelo as Elvino, making his Covent Garden debut, seemed to suffer somewhat from the slow speeds. He is possessed of a nicely focused bright, lyric tenor which he utilised to good effect. But his delivery in the upper register seemed at times to be rather laboured and I thought he might have found a fleeter performance rather more comfortable. But he too was guilty of self-indulgence, with Oren allowing him to extend his top notes far beyond what was musically acceptable.

Albelo's acting was of a limited, rather schematic variety, so his presentation of Elvino did not attempt any novelty or subtlety. I have always felt that productions tend to take Elvino too much at face value and that there is a great deal of potential for exploring the character's fundamental personality problems; the fact that he is essentially something of a shit with a history of dumping women.

Covent Garden had surrounded the lead couple with a very strong cast. Elena Xanthoudakis was a pertly bright Lisa. She relished the roles ambiguities and opportunity for displays of temper as well as flirting outrageously with Michele Pertusi's Count Rodolfo. Xanthoudakis contributed some nicely bright and correct coloratura in her solos. Jihoon Kim and Elizabeth Sikora provided good support as Alessio and as Teresa.

Michele Pertusi seemed to be having a great time as Count Rodolfo, flirting outrageously with all the girls and generally behaving in a charmingly irresponsible way. The role is rather under-written but Pertusi made much of what he was given and managed to dominate the stage by sheer charm and personality.

There was much to enjoy in this production, but by the end Oren's tempi won out and you felt that the performance could hardly get any slower. I couldn't help feeling that Gutierrez ought to return to Callas's recording of the role, not so much for the vocalism itself but the way Callas bring vivid character to every single not, with scarcely a trace of self-indulgence.

Saturday 12 November 2011

For a Look or a Touch

Jake Heggie's operas do not get the amount of exposure in the UK that they do in America. For some reason his brand of approachable contemporary music, a style which is very much an American development, is viewed with a little mistrust, as if contemporary opera must always be difficult. The closest we come in the UK is someone like Jonathan Dove and even his operas do not always get the exposure that they deserve.

Whilst we must wait for a London staging of Heggie's Dead Men Walking we can look forward to two performances of Heggie's chamber opera For a Look or a Touch on 19th and 20th November at The Kings Head, Islington, presented by Fusebox ProductionsFor a Look or a Touch deals with a pair of gay lovers both imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and is based on the journals of a real-life figure, Manfred Lewin. With Duncan Rock and Robert French as the lovers, and an instrumental ensemble conducted by Alice Turner, directed by Sandra Martinovic, it should be a thought provoking event. The evening concludes with a semi-staged version of An American Songbook, with music by William Bolcom and Richard Rodney Bennett sung by Jonathan Lemalu

It takes two

City of London based chamber choir, Londinium, have announced their new musical director and the role is being taken as a job share by Andrew Griffiths and Stephen Farr. Both have worked with the choir and will now take it in turns to direct concerts. The planned schedule has some interesting and exciting work: Andrew Griffiths conducting Victoria's Requiem and new music from the Baltic on 15th November, Stephen Farr doing a programme of Tippett, Lauridsen, Howells and Bingham on 9th Feb 2012, Griffiths conducting Brahms, Mendelssohn, Cornelius, Schumann (both) with Gabrieli and Schutz in April 2012 and finishing with Farr conducting Pizzetti's Requiem in July 2012.

I know a number of groups who eschew a musical director and take different conductors for each project, but these tend to be orchestras or orchestral based groups. Choirs usual have a specific musical director who is responsible for the way the choir performs, for its specific sound quality. Presumably Griffiths and Farr feel that the have similar aims and can work together to create a unified sound and attitude. It will be interesting to see (and hear) how the choir develops under this innovative routine. Further details at the Londinium web-site.

Friday 11 November 2011

Guest Post from The Arts Desk:Choral Music & Bluebeard’s Castle

As an experiment we have the first in a planned series of guest postings from The Arts Desk.

This week The Arts Desk’s classical music reviewers took in a wealth of choral music and paid a frightening visit to Bluebeard’s castle.

On Thursday evening, Edward Seckerson headed to the Royal Festival Hall for a semi-staged performance of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, as part of their Bartók season entitled Infernal Dance. After a first half of Debussy and Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, played with disappointingly little personality by Yefim Bronfman, the audience was taken to Bluebeard’s castle. Seckerson was firmly of the opinion that this operatic masterpiece needed no form of staging, no choreography, to hammer home the disturbing images it evokes, a sentiment borne out as the projected images of condensation droplets and blood seeping through a cloth added nothing to the atmosphere and psychology of the piece, and if anything only impeded the imagination. Thankfully the quality of the musical interpretation made up for this needless distraction: John Tomlinson and Michelle DeYoung were extraordinary in the lead roles and, in full command of their vocals and the interior world of their characters did all the visual conjuring work that was necessary.

As something for the weekend, Graham Rickson chose to focus on three discs of choral music in The Arts Desk’s pick of the week’s most interesting classical CD releases. The first was a recording of Fauré’s Requiem by the Orchestre de Paris under Paavo Järvi. The revelation of this recording was that it refreshed a stale work tarnished by its own popularity. Rickson was able to appreciate anew the understated nature of the piece, and the warmth, consolation and sincerity it emits, especially in countertenor Phillippe Jaroussky’s solo Pie Jesu. The accompanying pieces were also a pleasure, including a rare performance of Fauré’s unusually bold psalm setting Super flumina Babylonis. Rickson’s second selection was in fact a classical DVD of Riccardo Chailly’s Gewandhausorchester filmed performing Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which amply met Rickson’s criteria of being well directed (by Michael Beyer), superbly performed and boasting excellent sound quality. Chailly is clearly having fun with the more peculiar elements of Mahler’s work, leading a consistently strong ensemble with his dynamic, positive conducting, making it an all the more accessible, coherent and affirmative experience. Rickson’s final disc of the week was In the Beginning by the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, a collection of mixed choral works bravely spanning five centuries and including the likes of Holst, Copland and Eric Whitacre. The choir’s sound – all clear diction and precise intonation – is top quality and very English, while the balance between brass and voices is just right. Though the songs themselves vary in quality, the performances throughout remain consistently faultless.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Now available for download

I have increased the number of my works available from the wonderful website. Now you can download pdf's rather than having to wait for the printed music. At the moment the following are available:-

Harvest Ramble, fantasia for solo guitar -
Tell me Shepherd, a carol for unccompanied choir -

Two Sketches after Browning for solo piano -

So if any of these sound intriguing, do go over to and at the moment there is a sale on with 20% off most items.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Review of Mireille - New Sussex Opera

Caroline Carvalho as Marguerite
Goodness knows what Gounod was thinking when he wrote the title role of his opera Mireille, given that it was to be premiered at the Teatre-Lyrique in Paris. The director of the theatre was Leon Carvalho and his wife, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho was one of the most famous sopranos of her day and created both Juliette and Marguerite for Gounod. She was a lyric coloratura and Juliette was her ideal role.

The title role of Mireille starts as a straightforward lyric role, but by the time we get to Act 4, when Mireille is struggling across the Crau in burning heat, Gounod takes the role into dramatic territory; add to this the fact that  the soprano is on stage for a significant amount of the opera and you get a problem. Madame Miolan-Carvalho's solution was to get the opera re-written. 5 acts down to 3, gloomy bits out, happy ending in and a delightful valse-ariette added for the soprano.

Luckily for us, in the 1930's Reynaldo Hahn and a pupil of Gounod's, Henri Busser, restored the score to its original 5-act version (gloomy bits in,  valse-ariette out) and it was this version which New Sussex Opera brought to London's Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 8th. The production, designed and directed by Tony Baker and conducted by Nicholas Jenkins, had already been seen in Lewes and Eastbourne. The group is based in Brighton, Lewes and Eastbourne and aims to produce high-quality performances involving both professional and amateurs. Their choice of repertoire is usually enterprising and previous productions have included Offenbach's Die Rheinnixen and Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover, future productions include Puccini's Edgar and Wagner's Die Feen.

Inevitably Baker's production was simple and straightforward, after all the Cadogan Hall has no facilities for scenery, no wings and no backstage. Baker's solution was highly imaginative and involved the use of simple table and chairs to create all sorts of milieu, helped by Karle Oskar Sordal's lighting.

Caroline Carvalho as Mireille
The plot, which is based on a poem by the Provencal poet Frederic Mistral, involves Mireille (Sally Silver) who is in love with a poor basket-weaver far below her in the social scale. The basket weaver, Vincent, was supposed to be played by Michael Scott, but he had lost his voice so he acted the role and Mark Milhofer sang it from the side of the stage. Gounod's opening acts are mainly scenic, with lots of characterful chorus action and a little bit of plot advancement. As part of the celebrations in Arles in Act 2 we get a Farandole,  the dance for which Provence is famous. It is only at the end of this act that the real drama happens. Mireille is approached by Ourrias (Quentin Hayes), who is her father's choice for her husband but she refuses him. Mireille's father Ramon (Robert Presley) forbids her to marry Vincent and curses both Vincent, his father Ambroise (Paul Waite) and his sister Vincenette (Hilary Jane Andrews).

Vincent and Ourrias fight a duel and Vincent is injured. Ourrias thinks he has killed Vincent, goes mad and commits suicide. Vincent is saved by Taven (Sarah Pring) a witch who supports Mireille and crops up periodically offering support and doom sayings. Luckily Pring played down the mad witch element and made her more of a sensible, wise-woman. Mireille decides to go on pilgrimage to the church of Saintes-Maries and become exhausted and disorientated when crossing the Crau at mid-day. She and Vincent are re-united at Saintes-Maries but as pilgrim's process Mireille dies and is ushered to heaven by the ghost of her mother.

The opera is regarded by many as one of Gounod's masterpieces and certainly he provides some strongly dramatic situations and some profoundly affecting writing. Jenkins, Baker and their forces gave the work with tremendous commitment and no little flair so that by the end of the evening you wondered why it didn't crop up in operatic life more often.

As far as I know London has seen the work staged twice in living memory, both times at ENO; first for Valerie Masterson and later during their re-building season. Neither run seems to have generated a run of performances in other areas. One of the problems is undoubtedly the title role, requiring some coloratura skill, stamina, dramatic force, plus the ability to convince as a young girl. Effectively Gounod has written a role which, dramatically, starts out as Micaela and finishes as Carmen.

Luckily in Sally Silver, NSO had a soprano completely equal to the role. Silver's bright tones and beautifully focused lyric tones created an attractive picture of a lively young woman in the first 2 acts, granted her fioriture were perhaps a bit too dramatic, but the results were all of a piece and charmed. Then in her big Act 4 solo scene, she developed superbly and showed herself fully equal to the dramatic demands, giving a moving and vividly engaging performance; she even managed to die nicely. The role requires no little stamina and in length is by far the biggest role in the opera. Silver seemed completely unphased by its demands and preserved her tone until the very end. This was a total triumph and I certainly hope the this stunning performance brings its rewards; and I hope that someone else mounts a production of the opera for her.

Michael Scott made a visually convincing young basket weaver, this was a production where you did not need to excuse the age of the principals. He and Silver made a charming pairing and it was a shame that we could not hear him as well. But Mark Milhofer sang the role as if he'd been doing it all his life, bringing a nice flexibility to the line and duetting charmingly with Silver. Vincent is one of those roles where the singer interacts with others rather than getting a big solo scene of his own, but Milhofer and Scott created an effective and believable character both musically and dramatically.

Quentin Hayes was also announced as suffering a cold so this perhaps explains a little which his performance, though musical, lacked a little in vividness. This also might have been Gounod's fault; Ourrias's big solo when he announces his interest in her is obviously intended to swagger in the way that Bizet's music for the toreador does in Carmen (Ourrias is after all a bull-tender), but it didn't do so quite hear, despite some effective pleading from Hayes, Jenkins and the orchestra. Given the limitations of the stage, the fight scene between Hayes and Scott/Milhofer worked rather well and did fair crackle with a vivid energy.

I thought that Robert Presley as Ramon was a little too avuncularly sympathetic; this worked in the later scenes when he regrets his actions, but in the crucial Act 2 cursing of Vincent and his family, Presley seemed to lack the vicious edge which the role requires. Paul Waite as Vincent's father was effective in what is a rather underwritten role. Sarah Pring successfully trod a fine line as Taven, never quite going off into dotty witch mode but convincing us of the character's stubborn otherness.

The remaining soloists were provided by members of the NSO ensemble with Hilary Jane Andrewes as Vincenette, Red Gray as Clemence, Thalie Knights as a Shepherdess, Rachel Shouksmith as the ghost of Mireille's mother, Tim Lock as the Ferryman, Richard Fisher as Echo, John Cobb as a man from Arles, Fiona Baines as Azalais, Anastasia Witts as Norade and Marie Goulding as Violane. All gave creditable performances but the stand-out one was Hilary Jane Andrews whose duet with Mireille in Act 4 was one of the works subtle highlights.

Despite the relatively constricted acting area, Baker and his choreographer Caroline Pope, managed some convincing ensemble dancing for the farandole, even involving a childrens chorus! (The project also included workshops in Sussex schools relating to Mireille).

Nicholas Jenkins and the St. Paul's Sinfonia did full justice to Gounod's score, the Jenkins coaxing some nicely flexible playing from the 34 strong ensemble. It is to their credit that the relatively small string forces never seemed to tell against them and in the resonant Cadogan Hall acoustics they came across is vibrant and effective.

The chorus were immensely hard-working, appearing in a high proportion of the scenes and acting as scene shifters in all the others. The enthusiasm and commitment were palpable and it is a delight to be able to record that all their undoubted hard work paid off in a polished and highly convincing performance; only in the final choruses did Gounod's tricky choral writing threaten to disturb things but even this was a mere blip and what was a fine performance.

I'm not quite convinced that Gounod's opera is a complete masterpiece, but it certainly warrants hearing more often than it is and I definitely think it a great improvement on Romeo et Juliette. Certainly the first two acts are rather leisurely, rather too interested in local colour (Gounod wrote a lot of the opera whilst staying in Provence), but once the drama gets going it certainly picks up. Reading about the re-construction work that Busser did on the score, it seems that the original run may have used some spoken dialogue and I did wonder whether this might have helped to keep things moving in the first 2 acts.

But, all the way through I kept on thinking, what would Bizet have made of this, the drama would have seemed ideal for him. Whilst Gounod has come up with a charming, well-made score which rises to the dramatic occasion, you can't help feeling that Bizet might have produced a rather more arresting work.

Still, it is all credit to New Sussex Opera that they have given us the opportunity to re-evaluate Mireille and done so in such a highly effective and stunning manner.

Monday 7 November 2011

The Heart of Darkness

On Saturday 5th November, we saw the final performance at Covent Garden's Linbury Studio of Tarik O'Regan's new opera The Heart of Darkness. Based on the novel of the same name by Joseph Conrad, O'Regan and his librettist Tom Phillips have compressed Conrad's narrative into a single 75 minute span. Written for an ensemble of 7 singers and 14 instrumentalists, the piece focuses on the character of Marlow, played by Alan Oke. An element of narrative complexity and a sense of shifting points of view is created by moving between scenes in the 'present' when Marlow is retelling his story on-board a ship on the Thames and action scenes where the narrative is played out. This had the effect of placing Oke's performance centre stage, the opera was held together by his narrative and  around him the other singers formed an ensemble, playing multiple roles. The result, with its emphasis on a single person's journey (both interior and exterior) and the way O'Regan used Oke's tenor voice, reminded me very much of Death in Venice.

Most of other male singers each played one or two roles, but stayed on stage throughout as part of the ensemble; with Nkjabuloo Madlala as the Thames Captain, Sipho Fubesi as the Company Secretary and the Manager, Donald Maxell as the Doctor and the Boilermaker, Paul Hopwood as the Accountant and the Helmsman and Jaewoo Kim as the Harlequin. Standing alone was Morten Lassenius Kramp as Kurtz, the rogue ivory trader whom Marlow is sent to fetch and whose character forms and essential part of the narrative.

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was the sole woman in the cast, playing Kurtz's fiancee and a strange native woman.

O'Regan sets the text in a flexible recitative shading into arioso, which provided singable lines and enviable clarity of text but which did not quite seem to move anywhere. Around it he spun fine textures from his instrumental ensemble, often it seemed as it the most interesting material was in the orchestra, even when we did have a set number.

The story is all about how Marlow gradually discovers the evil (the darkness) behind Kurtz's apparent success and how Kurtz's personality has a magnetic effect. Ultimately Marlow betrays Kurtz's memory by sanitising the details of his end to his fiancee.

I didn't feel that O'Regan's music quite took us on this journey; whilst it set the text in a fluent and engaging manner, it never seemed to progress into the darkness. The crucial scene between Marlow and Kurtz was telling because of the fine dramatic performances from Kramp and Oke, rather than because of the dramatic tension which O'Regan set up. In fact, I felt little dramatic tension, simply a gentle, equable flow.

Perhaps the structure and length of the piece were partly at fault; it was hardly possible for any of the other characters to develop as they were mere sketches. If the piece had developed things more, then we might have felt the weight of the drama, as it was we were entirely reliant on Alan Oke as Marlow.

Oke turned in a towering performance, convincing and ultimately moving even though at times the character's music was a little too cool and distanced. Kramp, in his short scenes, was most telling and dramatically vivid. All the other singers worked hard and contributed to a fine dramatic ensemble. Maxwell's experience showed and he was able to make his short cameos tell.
In a programme note, O'Regan says that the orchestration of the Belgian sections of the narrative were influenced by recordings from the Belgian Congo in the 1950's, with O'Regan using harp, celesta, guitar and percussion. I felt that he should have gone much further in this, the results were attractive but did not have the sort of vibrant directness associated with such music.

The instrumental ensemble under Oliver Gooch conjured up some lovely sounds and supported the singers well.

The production was directed by Edward Dick with fluently effective designs by Robert Innes Hopkins. Hopkins use of water, combined with Rick Fisher's lighting, created some supremely memorable stage effects.

This was a creditable and fluently effective opera; as it is O'Regan's first then it forms a fine starting point. As ever with creating new opera, finding the right libretto and librettist is key; I don't think that O'Regan has done that yet, so I look forward to his further essays in the genre.

Saturday 5 November 2011

British Composer Awards 2011

Partly out of a sense of masochism, I suppose, I've been looking at the line up for the shortlist of this year's British Composer Awards. In the Choral category there are works by Alexander Campkin, Francis Pott and Michael Zev Gordon; in the orchestral it is Julian Anderson, Simon Bainbridge and Huw Watkins; Liturgical is Julian Anderson, Francis Grier and Gabriel Jackson. All well and good, very much a reflection of much that is going on in the musical world at the moment, albeit from a certain, non-experimental point of view.

If we turn to the stage category then things get interesting. Note that this is stage not opera. We have Orlando Gough's A Ring A Lamp A Thing, a solo piece performed as part of ROH's Opera Shots, Jody Talbot's score for Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, the Christopher Weeldon ballet premiered at the ROH, and Tim Minchin's Mathilda, the musical based on the Roald Dahl story premiered by the RSC. As you can see the chosen works are rather a varied lot and it seems a shame that we don't have a specifically operatic category. It would seem difficult for complex and difficult operatic works to compete with the populist works; and is it fair to consider ballet as a stage work without considering the choreography. Interesting though the works are, do they really represent the best of last year's music for the contemporary stage?

Or am I just being an old curmudgeon!

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