Saturday 31 March 2012

Recent CD review

My review of a disc of Giacomo Antonio Perti's 12 part mass, recorded live in Bologna, is here on MusicWeb International.

Vivid, lively, full of joie de vivre in projecting Perti’s amazing work.

Friday 30 March 2012

BREMF 2012 - Celebration!

This year's Brighton Early Music Festival has a rather tempting programme celebrating 10 years of the festival from 26/10/2012 to 11/11/2012. The Tallis Scholars are celebrating the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the extravagant event where Henry VIII and Francis I of France met and did rather a lot of competitive showing off. Whilst the BREMF Renaissance Orchestra (which includes members of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and the Monteverdi String Band), plus the BREMF Consort and Aerial Dance, all directed by Deborah Roberts, will be celebrating the Florentine Intermedi, the amazing musical interludes which were composed to be performed, in spectacular fashion, between sections of a spoken play. They are important precursors of opera and went on to have a life in their own right. Then the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble with the BREMF Consort of Voices are back with another celebration, that of Gabrieli's 400th anniversary.

The final weekend of the festival includes a celebration of the life and work of David Munrow (his radio programme was essential listening in our flat when I was a student), a musical carnival from Musica Secreta and of course a celebration of Coronations. This latter concert is from the wonderful International Baroque Players, with the BREMF Singers.

There is of course much more, just visit the BREMF website.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Quatuor Psophos at the Institut Francais

The Institut Francais in South Ken has been developing a rather interesting concert season with monthly concerts in their cinema auditorium. This season has included a group of concerts exploring the full gamut of French music with each concert concentrating on one area. In February there was a recital of French song from Faure to Poulenc and in May there is chamber music by Boulez, Grisey and Messiaen.

On 27 March the Quatuor Psophos presented a programme of French string quartets, those by Debussy, Chausson and Ravel. The Quatuor Psophos (Eric Lacrouts, Laurent Manaud-Pallas, Cecile Grassi and Guillaume Martigne) was formed in 1997 at the Lyon Conservatoire and they have been BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists. The line-up as given above, which appeared on 27 March, differs from the group's publicity so I am not sure whether Laurent Manaud-Pallas is a new member or a temporary replacement for Bleuenn le Maitre).

The figure of Cesar Franck rather hung over the programme. The premiere of his quartet in 1890 prompted Debussy to venture into the realms of chamber music. Debussy's quartet was premiered in 1893. His friend, and pupil of Cesar Franck, Ernest Chausson was working on his quartet when he died in 1899 so it was left to another Franck pupil, Vincent D'Indy to complete the final surviving movement. Ravel's quartet of 1903 was in fact more directly inspired by Debussy's quartet than Franck.

In the Debussy the Quatuor Psophos brought out the tension between the restless elements and the lyric beauty of the melodic lines, a pull between freedom and control. Their opening movement had moments of almost coital ecstasy. In the mysterious 3rd movement they showed fine control and created a magical ending, the magic only to be broken by applause from the audience and the plunge into restless final movement.

To describe Chausson's quartet as neo-classical would be wrong, but the serious, closely organised discipline which he learned from Franck rather showed and the work was in strong contrast to the impressionistic flights of Debussy's quartet. The intense prelude led to a lyrical first movement which became increasingly restless, whilst remaining more firmly anchored than the 1st movement of Debussy's quartet. The 2nd movement was serious and lyrical with the Quatuor Psophos giving us another magical ending. The 3rd and final movement was a rather serious scherzo with a rather weighty dramatic ending, which might owe more to D'Indy's need to have a final gesture than Chausson's original intentions assuming that the work was meant to have 4 movements.

With Ravel we were in a world of poise and elegance, but one with undercurrents of drama, storms which quickly arrived and just as quickly left. The Quatuor Psophos's response to the music was dramatic and quicksilver with a fine interplay between the players. The 2nd movement with its array of plucked and bowed textures taxed the players but they generated an intense performance. They created moments of ethereal beauty in the 3rd movement but brought out the strange undercurrents of the work, taking the dramatic flurries of notes in the last movement to create a brilliant finish. Their playing was not perhaps quite as effortless as it could have been, but their intense concentration on the work brought the piece to life.

Monday 26 March 2012

CD Review - Pisendel: Violin concertos from Dresdenn

Pisendel - Violin Concertos from Dresden

Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688 - 1758) - Concerto in D major for violin, flutes, oboes, strings and basso continuo, FWV L:D8
Johann David Heinichen (1683 - 1729) - Concerto in A minor for violin, strings and basso continuo
Georg Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759), arr. Pisendel - Sontata for orchestra in F major, HWV 392
Georg Phhilipp Telemann (1681 - 1767) - Concerto in B-flat major for violin, strings and basso contino, Pisendel Konzert, TWV 51:B1
Johann Georg Pisendel (1687 - 1755) - Concerto in G major for violin, horns, oboes, bassoon, strings and basso continuo

Johannes Pramsohler (direction/violin)
International Baroque Players
Recorded 27-30 April 2011, St Michael's Church, Oxford
RAUMKLANG LC05068 1CD [58.08]

18th century Dresden must have been a dazzling place, both visually and aurally. Under Augustus the Strong and his successors, all the arts were used for Electoral display. So one might marvel at the Electoral art collection, the architecture of the Zwinger, the Meissen china, the treasures in the Grünes Gewölbe, the operatic performances, the music at court and in the Royal chapel. The orchestra, the Dresden Hofkapelle, was one of the largest and finest in Europe, with first class musicians in all sections, so that the group specialised in the con molti stromenti style where multifarious instruments came forward for solo moments, neither strictly a solo concerto nor a Corelli-style concerto grosso.

The orchestra was led, from 1728, by Johann Georg Pisendel, a fine violinist (as the solo parts for this disc testify) but also a fine orchestral trainer and a networker who managed to acquire a wide range of music for the Dresden orchestra, now preserved in the Saxon State Archives.

Vivaldi's concertos for Dresden are well known and received fine recordings on Naxos in 1995. Now this disc from Johannes Pramsohler  and the International Baroque Players showcases a variety of other composers who wrote for Dresden; of the 5 pieces on this disc, 4 are world premiere recordings. The group open with the Concerto in D major by Johann Friedrich Fasch. A relatively short, compact work, it opens in bouncey, lively style with pairs of flutes and oboes competing with the solo violin. In the middle Andante the solo violin part intertwines expressively round the flutes and oboes.

Sale prices may apply.

The Concerto in A minor by Johann David Heinichen is an altogether different affair, closer to Vivaldi with just a solo violin and strings. The 4 movement work opens with a striking largo et staccato which leads into an Allegro where a dramatic string unison figure is contrasted with the brilliant solo part. An elegant Affettuoso follows with an Allegro finale which has quite a bit of rhythmic interest in the opening ritornello. The solo violin part is quite brilliant and superbly played by Johannes Pramsohler, but Heinichen is perhaps slightly too reliant on schematic arpegiated chords.

Handel features quite significantly in the Dresden music library with collections of overtures and suite movements that were probably used as ballet music. The Dresden Library also holds copies of the 3 Trio Sonatas. The Sonata in F also exists as an arrangement by Pisandel for ensemble with oboes and bassoons doubling the strings. Pisandel inserted extra movements so that the piece could be broken up and played with a church service; the International Baroque Players record only Handel's movements.

Playing chamber music orchestrally can be a great challenge, one that obviously reflects the standard of the original Dresden orchestra. Here Johannes Pramsohler and the International Baroque Players also respond brilliantly with playing that is infectiously invigorating.

Telemann visited Dresden in 1719 and gave Pisendel a concerto grosso. The title refers more to the substantial solo violin part rather than to any idea of a Corellian  concerto grosso. Telemann's Concerto in B flat, his Pisendel Konzert, was obviously designed around Pisendel's considerable technique and is one of the most substantial of Telemann's violin concertos, here quite superbly handled by Johannes Pramsohler. It opens with a singing largo followed by a dazzling Vivace. the 3rd movment, marked sempre piano, has a beautifully singing top line and the Allegro finale fairly dances along.

The final work on the disc is a concerto by Pisendel himself, his Concerto in G major for violin, horns, oboes, bassoon, strings and basso continuo. This shows off Pisendel's own skills on the violin and has some nice effects with the multiple instruments.

The playing by the International Baroque Players is clean and crisp, it is playing which makes you pay attention and vividly brings the music to life. The group impressed when we heard them at a private concert last Autumn, before the Brighton Early Music Festival, and I'm pleased to say that this disc confirms my live impression of the group. They are technically confident and show off in the music in just the right way.

The International Baroque Players was founded in 2009, originating out of the European Union Baroque Orchestra and the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra. This CD is their recording debut, a confident and striking disc, intelligently interesting programming, played with style and brilliance. Highly recommended.

Recent CD review

My review of James Bowman's recital of lute songs, with Dorothy Linnell on lute, recorded last year in New College Chapel, is here.

Bowman distils a lifetime's artistry and his voice defies time … will surely be of interest to all lovers of the voice.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Illuminating the Mind

A fascinating event at the Courtauld on Monday 26th March.

Illuminating the Mind presents the discoveries from a week of performance research by a diverse range of practitioners exploring sensation, disorder, and the relationship between visual and aural aesthetics. Extracts from Boris Blacher's Abstrakte Oper Nr I will form the centrepiece of the event which combines live performance with speakers. Further information from the Courtauld web-site:-

Help complete the Bach Pilgrimmage

The recordings of Bach's cantata's from John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimmage are almost complete; twenty-seven 2-CD volumes have already appeared. Unfortunately the Ascension Cantatas are missing because noise issues meant that the original performances could not be recorded. So the the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists are trying to raise £50,000 to enable them to record the missing cantatas in May this year at St. Giles Cripplegate.

Alexander Armstrong is hoping to find 2000 people to donate £20 each and help complete a major musical landmark. Further information here

Circus Tricks

Tête à Tête  are back at the Riverside Studios with a new piece, Circus Tricks with music by Michael Henry, words by Adey Grummet. Their magical and musical exploration of the world of the Circus can be experienced 22, 23 (7.30pm) and 25th March (3pm). More information at their website.

Monday 19 March 2012

Judith Weir's Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera House

We went to the 2nd performance of Judith Weir's new piece, Miss Fortune, on 15th March at the Royal Opera House. The piece is a co-production with the Bregenz Festival where it was first performed last year (in the Bregenz theatre not on the open-air mid-lake stage). Weir has written her own libretto based on a Sicilian folk-tale. As with most folk-tales, the story is rather elliptical which, of course, would seem to entirely suit Weir's own music.

Essentially a series of misfortunes happen to a young woman, Tina (Emma Bell), starting with her parents losing their money. Each misfortune is created by Fate (Andrew Watts) and it is only when Tina finally stands up to Fate and ultimately rejects his intervention which would have given her a winning lottery ticket, that she takes control of her life.

The opera is quite short and concise, the first act lasts 55 minutes and the 2nd act 35 minutes. The action all takes place in the present day, with Tina's adventures occurring in a factory, a kebab-van (run by Hassan - Noah Stuart) and a laundrette (run by Tina - Anne Marie Owens). The final scene, in which all the ends are neatly knitted up, is a little too long. Tina's parents reappear (Alan Ewing and Kathryn Harries) having lost all their money; Simon (Jacques Imbrailo), a rich young man who has his shirts laundered at the laundrette, gives Hassan the money to buy a new van (the old one having been burned down), and falls in love with Tina.

Judith Weir's music was approachable and beautifully wrought, though at times I thought that the real interest lay in the orchestra rather than singable but not very arresting vocal lines. There were some lovely moments, but somehow they didn't add up. In the first half, none of the scenes stayed long enough to make a big impression. The fact that Tina's character is so reactive, means that the drama becomes simply a picaresque journey. Bell worked hard and was extremely engaging, but the character never quite drew your sympathy sufficiently.

The production, directed by Chen-Shi-Zheng, with sets by Tom Pyre and costumes by Han Feng, was visually arresting, flowed smoothly and ensured our interest, Though its very slickness perhaps detracted from an element of grittiness which would have helped the drama. The inclusion of break-dancers as Fate's side-kicks was a curious idea. Very little of Weir's music seemed to be at the requisite speed and intensity to match the dancers movements, so often they seemed to be dancing in a vacuum.

The cast were all hard working and formed a brilliant ensemble. Conductor Paul Daniel seemed to be able to conjure the requisite sounds from the orchestra and kept the drama flowing. He ensured that Weir's fine orchestration made its mark and there were some lovely moments.

Ultimately I felt that the opera was in the wrong theatre. Miss Fortune seemed to be designed to fit into the closer, more intimate confines of the Linbury Theatre. I wanted to hear it in a smaller scale, tauter, tighter performance in a production which was less glossy and gave some of the drama a genuine edge. At the moment, the piece feels as though it hasn't quite find its niche.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Recent CD review - A Song for Francesca

My review of the re-issue of Gothic Voices 1987 disc,  A Song for Francesca – Music in Italy 1330- 1430 is here on MusicWeb International.

You’ll be beguiled and entranced.
I see from Opera Magazine that the Royal Opera are planning (for 2013) a new Les Vepres siciliennes with Marina Poplavskaya as Helene and Erwin Schrott as Procida, directed by Stefan Herheim and conducted by Antonio Pappano. I hope, from the title, that they will be doing it in French rather than Italian. Also in 2013, Deborah Warner's production of Messiah makes a return (not sure whether to say Welcome or not) to the Coliseum. Still in 2013, David Parry will conduct the first British production of Rossini's Maometto II at Garsington, should be something to look forward too.

Also next year San Francisco opera will be premiering Tobias Picker's new opera, Dolores Clairborne.

I see that Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus will make its way to the Holland Festival and to Bregenz in summer 2014; sounds like a very good reason to travel to the Netherlands that year.

A new production (thank goodness) of Lucia di Lammermoor is planned at Covent Garden for 2015/16 with Diana Damrau (hurrah!).

In his review of the Tales of Hoffmann Rodney Milnes makes some pertinent points about the way we tend to ignore the opéra comique origins of so many operas (Hoffmann, Faust, Mignon) and that these pieces seem to work better as opéra comique, and stand in danger of seeming overblown when done with recitative. Quite.

Friday 16 March 2012

Royal Opera new season

The Royal Opera's 2012/13 season has been announced, and there are quite a few goodies.

The 60th anniversary of the Coronation is being celebrated with a new production of Britten's Gloriana, the work which the opera house commissioned to celebrate the Coronation. This will be directed by Richard Jones, conducted by Paul Daniel with Susan Bullock as Elizabeth I and Toby Spence as Robert Devereux. The strong cast also includes Kate Royal as Lady Rich and Patricia Bardon as Frances Devereux. I have strong memories of Opera North's stunning production of the opera so will be interested to see what Jones makes of it. Regarding the casting, the title role was written for Joan Cross who was a notable dramatic soprano in her day. I first saw the production in the 1970's in the ENO production with Ava June and then much later the same production was revived for Sarah Walker and of course the Opera North production starred Josephine Barstow.

Rossini's La Donna del Lago is getting a new production, with a terrific cast. Having previously performed this opera (with Marilyn Horne) in a production from Houston which wasn't well liked, the house seem to have decided not to risk things again. The new production is not going to be the planned co-production, but John Fulljames is doing his first production for the big house, which should be very exciting. Cast includes Joyce DiDonato as Elena, Juan Diego Florez as Uberto and Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm. The conductor is Michele Mariotti, principal conductor of the Teatro Communale in Bologna.

Another rarity, Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable in a production by Laurent Pelly. Pelly seems to be one of the directors who has become rather too ubiquitous at the ROH recently, hopefully Holten will change that. But we've been woefully deprived of Meyerbeer so it will be good to see one of his operas on the Covent Garden stage. Bryan Hymel is Robert with Diana Damrau and Marina Poplavskaya in the contrasting female roles.

New director of the Royal Opera, Kaspar Holten  makes his own house debut with a production of Eugene Onegin, with Simon Keenlyside in the title role,  Krassimira Stoyanova as Tatyana and Pavol Breslik as Lensky. Robin Ticciati conducts, good to see him conducting here in the big house.

Another new production is Verdi's Nabucco directed by Daniele Abbado, notable mainly for the fact that the veteran baritone Leo Nucci is sharing the title role with Placido Domingo. Liudmyla Monastyrska sings Abigaille and Nicola Luisotti conducts. This is a co-production with La Scala.

Moving to the 21st century we get George Benjamin's new work, his first to be performed in the big house, Written on Skin, again with a libretto by Martin Crimp. Katie Mitchell directs, her first production in the big house, with Christopher Purves, Bejun Mehta and Victoria Simmonds; George Benjamin conducts. And I can't wait!

Also contemporary, Harrison Birstwistle's The Minotaur is being revived, again with the amazing John Tomlinson in the title role, Christine Rice returns as Ariadne, Antonio Pappano conducts.

Other notable revivals include Laurent Pelly's L'elisir d'Amore with Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak; La Boheme with a variety of casts including Rolando Villazon, Vittorio Grigolo and Barbara Frittoli with Mark Elder sharing the conducting honours. Amanda Echalaz is amongst the Toscas in the revival of Jonathan Kent's production. Sophie Bevan and Andrew Staples make their debuts in revivals of David McVicar's The Magic Flute, with Christopher Maltman and Simon Keenlyside sharing Pappageno.

Don Carlo is coming back with Jonas Kauffman in the title role, alas presumably still in Italian. But Anja Harteros sings Elisabeth, Marius Kwieczen sings Posa and Christine Rice is Eboli, Pappano conducts; so its certainly a revival not to be missed.

Thomas Hampson starts in the revival of Simon Boccanegra with  Ferrucio Furlanetto as Fiesco. Angela Gheorghiu and Ermonela Jaho share the honours in a revival of Nicholas Joe's production of La Rondine with Vittorio Grigolo as Ruggero and Edgaras Montvidas as Prunier.

Richard Strauss's Capriccio makes an appearance, in concert, with Renee Fleming, Christian Gerhaher, Bo Skovhus, Peter Rose and Christine Rice, conducted by Andrew Davies. Not a new production, but a cast and conductor which makes everything worthwhile.

Over in the Linbury there is the return of OperaShots, David Bruce's The Firework-Maker's Daughter, directed by John Fulljames (the opera is based on a story by Philip Pullman); Music Theatre Wales (in collaboration with Scottish Opera) in a contemporary double bill. The double bill consists of The Locked Room by Huw Watkins with libretto by David Harsent (Librettist of The Minotaur) and Ghost Patrol by Stuart MacRae with libretto by novelist Louise Welsh (author of The Cutting Room).

Wednesday 14 March 2012

ETO Autumn tour

English Touring Opera's Autumn tour has been announced, a rather exciting mix of three 20th century operas. Britten's Albert Herring, will be conducted by Michael Rosewell and directed by Christopher Rolls . Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis will be directed by James Conway and conducted by Peter Selwyn; it will be paired with Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden. Peter Maxwell Davies's The Lighthouse will be conducted by Geoffrey Paterson and directed by Ted Huffman. Now I have to admit that I've never seen either the Ullmann or The Lighthouse, so am looking forward to them; and of course Albert Herring is always a treat, and as they've cast Jennifer Rhys Davies as Lady Billows you know that things are on the right track.

The tour starts at the ROH's Linbury Theatre on 4/10/2012 and goes to Cambridge, Exeter, Harrogate, Bath, Snape and Buxton.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Review of Barber of Seville

My review of the new ETO production of The Barber of Seville with Kitty Whately as Rosina, directed by Thomas Guthrie, is here on Opera Today, complete with pictures.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Rusalka at Covent Garden

In their autobiography, Hinge and Bracket refer to their time with the Rosa Charles Opera Company including performances of Turandot, undertaken after the sets had been destroyed so that the production was mounted with the Turandot costumes, but sets from HMS Pinafore; there is even a picture of Dame Hilda (I think) in Turandot costume on the poop deck of the HMS Pinafore.

The opening scenes of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production of Rusalka felt a bit like this. (The production was new to Covent Garden, revival director Samantha Seymour, but already performed at Salzburg; we saw the production on Friday 9th March) All the cast were dressed as if for a traditional production, Camilla Nylund's Rusalka sported a fish-tail on her lower half and the wood nymphs (Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte) behaved just like stage wood-nymphs.

But the set, rather than being a woodland glade, was a terrible, tacky 1970's interior complete with shiny plastic sofas,  and ruched curtains, looking just like a brothel; the set from Lulu perhaps.

Only when Jezibaba (Agnes Zierko) appeared as an elderly woman with a walking frame did anyone in contemporary costumes appear. Act 2 moved into something more consistently 20th century, though the way the chorus was dressed in a range of characteristic German costumes, I felt that we were missing some element of satire of the production. The prince's palace was essential the same interior as Act 1, minus the plastic furniture but plus a piano, now looking like a cheap restaurant.

For Act 3, we returned to the brothel, but this time the cast were dressed as inhabitants of the brothel, with the wood nymphs now tarts, Jerzibaba as the madam and Vodnik (Alan Held) as some sort of elderly pimp. Once Rusalka died we moved into more schlock horror territory with Rusalka wandering around during the final duet with a very obvious bloody wound in her stomach.

I have to admit that I just didn't work out what the directors were aiming at, there were simply too many ideas thrown at the piece, as if they didn't quite trust it. If you want to make the piece be about a prostitute trying to find love, then fine, do so; but do it consistently. Also, during the ball scene, Rusalka was treated more like a doll than a real person, and her dress was dismembered with bits turning up during the later scenes. Then there was the issue of the cat. In Act 1, Rusalka as a toy stuffed cat, to which she sings her hymn to the moon. Then during the scene with Jezibaba, the witch's familiar appears as a person in a cat suit, a giant cat who fully participates in Rusalka's change and at one point has sex with her (rapes her?). In the final act, Jezibaba as Madam has a real cat.

Why the rape? Did they want to add the idea that the opera is about a sexual coming of age? But Pountney did that in the 1980's ENO production in a far more sophisticated and convincing fashion. Then the ending, sure is a bit weird with Rusalka as one of the undead (that's what's in the score, she's not alive but can't die). But what had the directors' 'exorcist' routine to do with the rest of the opera.

I can forgive the piece being ugly (set designs Barbara Ehnes, costume designs Anja Rabes), but not its incoherence and lack of support for Dvorak's drama. Various companies, ENO, Glyndebourne and Grange Park notably, have shown that if you trust the piece then it works. ETO even did a very successful small scale touring version set in the Caribbean.

All this would have made for a poor night in the theatre, if it hadn't been for the simply stunning performances. Much of this must go down to the conductor, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, but as someone pointed out a propos of the Richard Jones Ring at Covent Garden, if you don't like a director's production style but they get stunning performances from the cast then they must have been doing something right.

I was nervous about Camilla Nylund; I'd been disappointed with her recital disc and a couple of reviewers had said that her performance as Rusalka wasn't as good as her Salzburg account, in the original production. But, quite simply, she was just about the best Rusalka that I've ever heard, being nearly ideal in the role. Nylund combined beauty of tone, excellence of line with a goodly reserve of power which meant that Dvorak's vocal lines were carried evenly and beautifully over his orchestration. Plus she looked good and was a profoundly touching actress. Her Hymn to the Moon was just ravishing, but almost everything else was well done too.

She was ably partnered by Brian Hymel; in physique he looked rather like a rugby player but succeeded both visually and aurally in making the Prince something heroic when needed. The Prince is a difficult role at the part is tricky to bring off, requiring as it does a certain combination of power and litheness, perhaps in a way that we have lost. Hymel responded well and whilst he was a little solid as an actor, he managed to make the Prince's hesitations something touching. And his closing solo was profoundly moving.

Agnes Zwierko was just wonderful as Jezibaba, whether being a batty old lady or the rather heartless Madam, Zwierko had all the notes for the role and clearly relished the nastiness which the directors brought out, but her incantation when Rusalka is changed into a human was a great piece of singing as well.

Alan Held was a fine Vodnik, thrilling when cursing Rusalka and touching when she returns and dies; even though he had to play Act 3 as if drowned in drink. Petra Lang played the Foreign Princess as a glamorous super-bitch, giving a relatively unsubtle performance.

The remainder of the cast were of an equally high standard. Devin, Pierard and Gringyte looked and sounded good whether being Wood Nymphs (Act 1) or tarts in barely there clothing (Act 3). Daniel Grice was the huntsman in Act 1, Gyula Orendt the Gamekeeper and Ilse Eerens the Kitchen Boy. Orendt's character seemed to be sex obsessed as he had sex with the kitchen boy during their scene and then, of course, in Act 3, the visit to Jezibaba was his taking the kitchen boy to visit a brothel for the first time. In fact the scene between Eerens and Zwierko was hilariously done as Zwierko relished the prospect of having sex with the young man, and started to undress 'him'. The amazing thing was that Dvorak's music did fit.

That was the problem with this production, they were exploring ideas which are present in Dvorak's music but presented in such a haphazard and ugly way that it made the production count for little.

The opera was presented with a single interval, after Act 2; thus making the first half a rather long 110 minutes. Being as the performance started at 7.30pm and finished at 10.50pm, I did wonder whether we couldn't have started earlier and had a 2nd interval. The opera, the music, the drama don't depend on Act 1 flowing into Act 2, in fact they benefit from the pause; and the scene change necessitated a 2 or 3 minute pause anyway. Whilst on the subject of the scenery, we never did fathom why the scenery kept moving about and swaying during Act 3.

Luckily things were saved by the very strong musical performance, all directed by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, whose account of this lovely score was rich and subtle. The ROH orchestra responded will to him; rarely has Dvorak's orchestration sounded so expressive.

Saturday 10 March 2012

CD Review - The Little Road to Bethlehem

Just before Christmas we heard Quintessential Voices perform the programme The Little Road to Bethlehem live. This, rather belated, review is of the CD of that same programme which they recorded in February 2011. Quintessential Voices is a 5-man vocal ensemble made up of singing men from Westminster Cathedral  and St. George's,Windsor - Stephen Burrows (counter-tenor), Ben Alden (tenor), Jonathan Bungard (tenor), Jon Saunders (baritone), Will Gaunt (bass). Their programmes typically include spoken text as well as sung items; this programme tells the story of the Nativity, using a wide range of music (plainchant and Perotin to Sally Beamish) plus readings from the Bible and from Kipling (Eddi's Service). The programme is carefully structured into sections, Procession and Annunciation, The Journey to Bethlehem, The Birth of Jesus, The Shepherds and the Magi, Recession. The result is  profoundly satisfying both as a narrative and musically. The group's diction is excellent so that, though the English texts are not printed (you only get the translations for the non-English items), the story is eminently clear.

They open with a lovely carol from Sally Beamish, In the Stillness; this is followed by the Kipling reading. This is the only non-Biblical reading and it seems to work the best, simply I wish they'd found other non-Biblical passages.

Thomas Ravenscroft's Remember O thou man, is followed by Rutter's arrangement of I wonder as I wander and RVW's As Joseph was a walking. This latter is done without counter-tenor; throughout the disc the various items are performed with different combinations of the 5 singers which helps alter the texture and ensures that Burrow's delightful but rather distinctive counter-tenor timbre does not weary.

For the Annunciation reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, I could have done with a more demonstrative performance; something which applied to all the Biblical text, I just wanted them to emote a bit more. This is a narration on a CD not a reading in a service.

Next comes a wonderful, wonderful item, a complete change of mood; Burrow's stunning performance of Perotin's Beata viscera, accompanied just by a drone in the other voices. I wanted more of these and felt that the programme would have been stronger if they had taken more risks with musical style. Guerrero's Alam redemptoris mater comes over as beautifully intimate, sung one to a part in quite a close acoustic.

A nicely shaped account of Gabriel's message arranged by David Willcocks risked sounding a bit thin and etiolated, I particularly wanted more punch and body in the upper voices. The lower voices only featured on an arrangement of a Bara folk-song Christ child's lullaby, with a melody which recalls the folk-song Ca' the yowes.

Following another reading from St Luke we get the CD's title track, The Little Road to Bethlehem by Michael Head with a fine baritone solo (the different voice credits are not listed in the CD booklet so I am uncertain who sings what but I presume the soloist to be Jonathan Saunders). This contrasts with the medieval In natali Domino and RVW's arrangement of O little town of Bethlehem.

A reading from Isaiah follows, with Michael Praetorius's celebratory En natus es Emmanuel, sounding surprisingly modern. The lively 16th century Gaudete is followed by a nicely flexibly reading of Susanni from Richard Rodney Bennett's Five Carols. We lull the Christ child to sleep with Lullay lullow, another medieval carol. Roy Massey's arrangement of Long the night is lovely and rather romantic with a fine tenor solo (Roy Massey was Organist and Master of the Choristers of Hereford Cathedral and President of the Royal College of Organists).

More Gospel of St. Luke follows, then Michael Nicholas's Rise up shepherd an' foller, a spiritual which demonstrates that English singers need to be careful of the spiritual repertoire as, fun though they are, the performances nearly always come over as far to studied and polite; though the group contribute a good tenor solo.

Another Michael Praetorius, Quem pastores ad laudavere which uses a melody which will be very familiar in other guises, again with a fine baritone solo.  Finally in this section Silent night in an arrangement by Burrows. Striking though the arrangement is I confess to preferring versions which stick as close as possible to Gruber's original; here the piece sounds a little too artful.

St. Matthew's account of the Wise Men is followed by Victoria's O regem coeli with a lovely rich texture using only the four lower voices. The first chapter of St. John's Gospel, The word became flesh is the final reading and the disc concludes with Gallus's lively Resonet in laudibus, the more reflective plainchant sequence Qui creavit caelum and RVW's Mummers carol with familiar words but a less familiar tune.

This is a fine recital, very finely performed and recorded; the voices are captured with just the right amount of air round them, but close enough so that the details of the texts are perfectly clear. The large-scale polyphony comes over as nicely intimate and highly personal.

If I have a complaint it is that the pieces, though wide ranging, rely a little too much on the Carols for Choirs / Oxford Book of Carols axis. I wanted more pieces like the Perotin, which come from a different position entirely. I thought that it was a shame that the group could not have found a way to included on of Poulenc's Christmas motets or of one Paul Villette's luscious pieces.

This is far more than a Christmas disc, it makes a nicely satisfying programme which works entirely on its own terms and showcases some very fine singing indeed. I look forward to the group's next disc.

The Little Road to Bethlemen
Quintessential Voices (Stephen Burrows, Ben Alden, Jon Bungard, Jonathan Saunders, William Gaunt)
Recorded February 18/19 2011, Parry Hall, Eton
Quintessential Voices QV01 [65.31]

The disc is available for £10 direct from Quintessential Voices own website.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

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

Freezing festivals, Joshua Bell and the latest essential CDs all feature in this week’s classical music coverage on The Arts Desk.

Vinterfest - Nikolai Lund
Braving the sub-zero temperatures of Sweden in mid-winter, Kate Connolly found herself in Dalarna for the Vinterfest festival. Egos and snowboots were left at the door for this no-nonsense chamber music festival held in a variety of unusual venues (churches, gyms, museums) across the province. Highlights this year included Fröst and Friends – a classical jamming session complete with candlelit dinner, where clarinettist and Vinterfest artistic director Martin Fröst teamed up with Swedish soprano Kerstin Avemo for a breathtaking rendition of Eden Ahbez’s Nature Boy - and Polish ensemble Apollon Musagete Quartett, who particularly impressed with their show-closer, Stravinsky’s Tango. With plenty of skiing and skating to break up the concert-going, it’s a festival with a difference that looks set to be just as great next year, with Anne Sofie von Otter and Leif Ove Andsnes already booked.

Edward Gardner
credit Jillian Edelstein
Camera Press London
Graham Rickson, meanwhile, was sifting through the latest classical  CD releases, and selected his three must-haves. Lisa Smirnova’s dazzling, life-enhancing Handel: The Eight Great Suites came highly recommended, making Rickson want to skip around the room with its unshowy clarity and uplifting rhythms. Lutoslawski: Orchestral Works II was another brilliant and generous disc, with the BBC SO in fine fettle playing some of the earliest and latest of the 20th-century composer’s works. Together with pianist Louis Lortie and Edward Gardner’s faultless conducting, they showed Lutoslawski’s orchestral writing in its best light. And lastly, Alexander Melnikov bravely pairs Shostakovich’s two piano concertos – the first more optimistic here than usual, the second more sinister and edgy – with his later, rather haunting Violin Sonata, here invested with great humanity by Isabelle Faust. Wise decisions all round.

Star violinist Joshua Bell was the big draw at the Royal Festival Hall on 22 February, where he was joined by Jurowski’s London Philharmonic Orchestra to grapple with a curious hotch potch of Zemlinksy, Mozart, Szymanowski and Brahms. Brahms’s Violin Concerto was the main attraction, yet it turned out to be the most uneven performance of the night, leaving Alexandra Coghlan impressed but emotionally underwhelmed. Whereas Mozart’s Symphony No 32 in G major made a great curtain raiser, Zemlinksy’s Psalm 23 had a bucolic charm before the composer’s tendency towards bombast took over, and Szymanowski’s Symphony No 3, though occasionally tipping over into a cacophony which swamped soloist Jeremy Ovenden, was wonderfully textured. Whether by accident or design, it was certainly a thought-provoking concert.

Virtuoso works for natural horn on the South Bank

To the Purcell Room on Monday 5th March to hear Anneke Scott (natural horn) and Kathryn Cok (forte piano) play early 19th century works for horn and piano. A fascinating programme which explored the music written by Beethoven and his younger contemporaries to show off the techniques of the virtuoso horn players of the time.

Horn playing had developed immensely in the 18th century, with hand stopping techniques being introduced to enable players to have access to the full scale rather than just the natural harmonics available. The use of hand stopping means that the non-harmonic notes have a wide variety of textures and timbres quite different to the modern horn.

Scott and Cok opened their recital with the Andante e polacca for horn and piano by Friedrich Kuhlau (1786 - 1832). Kuhlau was born and brought up in Hamburg but just as he was establishing himself as a pianist the city was invaded by Napoleon and Kuhlau fled to Denmark where he settled. His Andante e polacca was a short, charming 2 movement work with a rather grand opening movement leading into a lively polacca which seemed modelled on a rather operatic set of variations.

The balance between the two instruments seemed to generally favour the horn. Cok was playing a modern copy of a 1798 forte-piano by the Viennese maker Rosenberger and Scott was playing  a natural horn dating from 1820 by Marcel Auguste Raoux. Scott's horn playing produced a far wider variety of sounds than we might expect from the modern instrument with its evenness of tone over the whole repertoire; instead there was a wonderful textural quality to the way each individual note had a distinct timbre.

The second work in the programme was more substantial, the Grand Sonata in F for piano and horn, Opus 34, by Ferdinand Ries (1784 - 1838). Ries studied in Vienna with Beethoven and Ries's sonata post-dates Beethoven's own ground breaking sonata for piano and horn. In fact it is a longer, rather more developed piece than the Beethoven sonata with a very substantial piano part. Ries's writing for the horn seems to respond to what the instrument was then capable of, including some daring chromatic explorations of the instrument's lower reaches. But the piece is still heavily reliant on the piano for the musical structure.

We know the background to Beethoven's Sonata in F for piano and horn, Opus 17 thanks in part to Ries who collaborated on one of the first biographies of the great composer. Beethoven was commissioned to write a horn sonata for the virtuoso Giovanni Punto and in fact left the writing of the piece till the day before (it was premiered in 18 April 1800). As a result, the sonata is rather episodic, but could not help but be by anyone other than Beethoven. The comparison between the Ries and the Beethoven sonatas brought out again the problem of comparing lesser work's a great composer with major works by a lesser composer. I have to admit that I found I still admired the Beethoven sonata, though my horn playing companion seemed rather taken with the Ries.

Beethoven's piece seemed less decorative the Ries's, though he rather cheated with the slow movement which is very short, but followed by a lively rondo. Ries in fact not only used the same key as Beethoven but used a Rondo in the last movement. Beethoven was clearly working with Punto as he included a lot of Punto's show-off tricks including creating notes lower than the horns lowest natural harmonic. In fact this piece showed off the wonderful variety of the timbres that the instrument was capable of.

The second half opened with a performance of Haydn's  piano Sonata in E flat, Hoboken XVI/52, a substantial and very musically satisfying piece written for London in 1794/5. But one which enabled me to take stock of Cok's forte-piano playing. In all the pieces, the forte-piano part seemed to be at a single level without the sense of muscular straining, particularly in the Beethoven where Cok seemed content to operate well within the limits of the instrument rather than pressing it. In the Haydn, the vivid and exciting dynamics of the piece just did not seem to come over. Though the horn sonatas were all written with substantial piano parts, there was a little too much of the feeling of the piano tinkling away nicely underneath rather than developing a real muscular piano part.

The programme concluded with the Sonata in E flat for piano and horn, Opus 28 by Franz Danzi (1763 - 1826). Danzi joined the Mannheim court orchestra at the age of 15 and from then onwards his career was linked to Mannheim and Munich (where the Electoral Court was moved). Danzi was friends with another younger composer, Carl Maria von Weber, and it is Weber's influence that seems to hang over this sonata particularly in the piano writing. Danzi had a nice melodic turn, which came to the fore particularly in the slow movement with a lovely lyrical melody introduced by the horn. One thing noticeable in all the works in this programme was how relatively short breathed the horn writing was, though Danzi seemed to stretch the phrases the longest. Then in the finale, a lively Allegretto, Danzi really gave the horn its head.

I have to confess that there was quite a bit of discussion with my horn playing companion about Scott's technique, with some horn players feeling that Scott could have achieved smoother tone with the hand stopped notes. But I have to confess that I loved the multi-coloured textures and timbres that Scott produced; her playing of the more brilliant passages was vivid, with just the right note of bravura. These were pieces written to show off the original players and that's just what Scott did.

The applause at the end of the recital was deservedly warm, so Scott and Cok treated us to a delightful transcription of Schubert's song The Trout. A fine end to a fascinating recital, full of amazing musical treats.

Monday 5 March 2012

Voices Now

Yesterday we went to the Round House (embarassingly my first visit since it was restored) for Voices Now, the celebration of all things choral singing put on by the BBC in association with Making Music. We arrived in time to catch the Colliers Wood Chorus with young singers, wind, brass and percussion from the Merton Music Foundation giving a spirited rendition of a selection of movements from Carmina Burana, (a work which they performed complete on Saturday night as part of the Music Nation celebrations).

They were followed by the lively Ring Around The World Choir - a joining forces of Camden Youth Choir and Poole's Park Community Choir; then finally the Westbourne Chorus, based on young primary school children from Westminster - a charming and impressive group.

After the performances in the main space had finished, the music continued in the foyers, though I rather felt sorry for the Croydon and South Norwood Community Choir who had to compete with the sound of 100's of children and their parents leaving the centre! The Maspindzeli Georgian Choir was truly impressive, a group based in London, English speakers directed by a Georgian, the results were convincing and thrilling. I've always loved Georgian traditional music, one of the oldest polyphonic folk traditions in the world, and here it was a thrill to hear it live.

We managed to catch the beginning of the Pink Singers performance, as they sang Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque and Stanford's The Blue Bird; fine performances which really deserved to have been on the main stage.

We missed the rest of the foyer events as we attended a Making Music event to celebrate the Making Music overture, a new piece commissioned from Orlando Gough and John Agard which was receiving its premiere at the festival. The idea behind the piece was that the music was scored flexibly enough to be performed by a wide range of Making Music's member groups; in true Percy Grainger fashion, Gough has provided flexible scoring including an a cappella version and the score includes many invitations to improvisation.

The event in the main space was also a live broadcast for The Choir, the BBC Radio 3 programme introduced by Aled Jones. Ifield College Community Choir opened thing with an inspiring performance accompanied by drummers. Finchley Chamber Choir sang Howells (from the Requiem) and Villette, a lovely change from all the livelier numbers; Maspindseli Georgian Choir returned with a further couple of items; the Choir with No Name and the Round House Choir also contributed spirited renditions.

Then finally Berkshire Youth Choir, Hertforshire County Youth Choir and the BBC Singers joined forces (each singing one movement) of Traditional Values, the new piece by Orlando Gough and John Agard. Agard's lyrics, which take a wry look at Britishness via tea, the weather and cricket, were wittily handled by Gough and I have no doubt that the piece will prove popular. Already quite a few performances are scheduled.

As we left, Shout Rhythm and Blues Choir were providing lively entertainment in the bar. All in all a thrilling and uplifting afternoon, showing that live music is alive and well and proving the power of communal performance to uplift, inspire and bring people together.

A Midsummer Nights Dream - Guildhall School of Music and Drama

The Guildhall College of Music and Drama's new production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed not in their own theatre but in the bigger and better equipped Barbican Theatre.  I was curious to see how the director, Martin Lloyd-Evans, and designer, Dicky Bird, had taken advantage of the facilities, and also how the young cast took to the opera which contains a significant number of roles whose ages tally to the students own.

We saw the performance on Saturday 3rd March, the second performance of the first cast; Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, Hermia, Theseus and Bottom were all double cast, though in the case of Bottom and Theseus the singers involved simply swapped roles.

The curtain (well the high tech safety curtain) rose on a disused hospital, entering was an old man in a wheel chair, Puck (Alexander Knox). The chorus of fairies appeared from in and under the beds, ghosts of children from the hospital? Puck regresssed to his younger self and left the wheelchair, also wearing pyjamas like the children. The fairies were played by a mixture of young adults and children with the four solo roles taken by female singers from the Guildhall (Alba Bosch Teixidor, Faustine De Mones, Iria Perestrelo, Laura Ruhi Vidal); this meant that the predominant sound of the chorus was more adult than childish; an advantage perhaps in terms of quickness of learning and rehearsal time, but a significant loss in terms of the evocation of innocence that the sound of boys voices brings. But the four adult fairies were convincing in their acting young, so that visually the chorus formed a coherent (if varied) ensemble; it was just vocally that

Oberon (Tom Verney) and Tytania (Eleanor Laugharne) appeared through windows; he dressed as a surgeon of the 1940's complete with apron, mask (painted on) and light on the top of his head - rather oddly he was wearing motorcycle leathers as his trousers; Tytania was dressed as a stylised, sexy nurse.

The lovers when they appeared (Lysander - Stuard Laing,  Hermia - Kathryn McAdam, Demetrius - Ashley Riches, Helena - Sky Ingram) were all in 1940's dress, the men in military uniforms. Again, when they left they disappeared through the windows.

Then suddenly the walls disappeared and we were in the forest which lay behind the hospital. From here on, until the closing scene, the production was pretty traditional. Except that, having Puck played by an adult student meant that Lloyd-Evans could make slightly more explicit the idea that Puck and Oberon have some sort of sexual relationship. Unlike some productions, the changeling boy was rather played down and it was Oberon's reconciliation with Tytania which caused Puck's jealousy.

At the end, the hospital reappeared and Puck went back to his wheel-chair.

Frankly, I'm not really sure what the hospital setting added to the production, it seemed an unhelpful and unnecessary gloss; and it saddled Verney's Oberon with a rather ugly costume. Luckily Verney has a strong stage presence and carried it off well. Verney has an attractive, well produced counter-tenor voice, nicely even in the entire range. Oberon was written for Alfred Deller, a cathedral alto for whom the C above middle C was an extremely high note. For modern young counter-tenors the tessitura of the role lies rather low and I have heard a few performances where the counter-tenor spends a lot of time changing vocal gear rather awkwardly. Not Verney, who impressed by the evenness of his delivery. His Oberon was pretty commanding and his singing of the great moments, such as I know a bank was nothing short of mesmerising.  Verney joins the Guildhall opera course later this year and I look forward to seeing him in other roles.

His Tytania was Eleanor Laugharne; she too had to cope with the directors pensées, being required to show a considerable amount of stockinged leg and be rather more overtly sexy than many Tytanias. Laugharne combined this with a attractive lyric voice, perhaps not a natural coloratura, but certainly richly attractive with a lively stage personality and she clearly has a strong technique, the various vocal flurries of the role seem to hold no terrors for her. She and Oberon had a believably volatile, sparky relationship.

The lovers formed a balanced group, each one vividly presented and nicely differentiated. Stuart Laing's Lysander was very ardent, Laing's voice hinting at other bigger possibilities. He was certainly not the typical English lyric and more dramatic roles suggest themselves, he already has significant experience both in the UK and in his native Australia, including Peter Grimes. Ashley Riches as a noble, upright Demetrius with a fine ringing baritone voice; he is on the second year of the opera course and the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the ROH beckons. The two women, Sky Ingram (Helena) and Kathryn McAdam (Hermia) formed a nice partnership. Both are on the second year of the opera course and already have significant stage experience. This showed in the way their two characters interacted, and the way the four lovers formed a believable group.

One of the advantages of the production was that, despite the oddities of the setting,  Lloyd-Evans clearly understands the way the opera is constructed, keeping different groups being distinct and ensuring that the wood was a present space which they entered, only to leave transformed. Unlike the recent ENO production, he didn't send the Mechanicals up. These were a group of men from the Home Guard; all nicely characterised and differentiated, but though we might laugh at their antics it was sympathetic laughter and the characters were never made fun of. To a certain extend, Lloyd-Evans had based the mechanicals on the men in Dad's Army and you could have fun matching character up, such as Jorge Navarro-Colorado's Flute  with Pike. But the cast were so entertaining themselves that this was soon forgotten. Barnaby Rea was a pompous, self-important man, slightly more sober and less comically ridiculous than some interpretations, but funny nonetheless, quite delightful when he fell for Tytania and suitably egocentric when playing Pyramus.

The play with a play, Pyramus and Thisbe, was presented as full of the pit-falls of amateur dramatics, it was funny but you also felt sympathy for the men trying to do their best. Lloyd-Evans brought out the class distinctions here, with the interjections of the Duke and the lovers being tartly condescending.

Navarro-Colorado was a fine, lyric Flute, as Thisbe he was an apt partner to Rea's Pyramus. Joseph Padfield's endearingly thick Snug, Luis Gomes as Snout, now a spiv rather than a tinker, and Hadleigh Adams rather camp Starveling all contributed to the characterful ensemble, with James Platt as the well meaning and rather befuddled Quince.

Ciprian Droma was a suitably impressive Thesesus with Catherine Backhouse as his Hippolyta.

Stephen Barlow conducted with obvious affection for the piece. I did wonder if one or two of his speeds were on the slow side, but he encouraged his singers and players into producing a highly musical performance. The young orchestra played the score with atmosphere, though the lack of a real pit meant that some passages had rather more presence than I am used to.

This was a performance which impressed with its musical values, it was highly satisfying to listen to - Barlow and Lloyd-Evans drew some very fine performances indeed out of their cast.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Jam again

JAM are back with another concert of contemporary sacred choral music, entitled Body of Water, being given by the choir of Selwyn College Cambridge under conductor Nicholas Cleobury with Onyx Brass, on Thursday 22nd March at St. Bride's Church, Fleet Street.

The title of the concert comes from a work of the same name by Julian Philips (the composer in residence at Glyndebourne) and it is based on the experiences of one of the JAM Trustee's, as he swam across the Dardanelles last summer. This will be the work's premiere. Also receiving premieres are works by Richard Peat and Matthew Rowan both of which were submissions to JAM's recent Call for Music, their admirable scheme for allowing a voice to lesser known composers.

Rory Boyle's Tallis Light will be receiving its London' premiere, having been premiered on the recent JAM Scottish tour. Also featured in the programme are works by Paul Mealor and Phillip Cashian.

The Death of Klinghoffer

There are certain works which, because of their structure, hover on the fringes of the operatic form. Works like Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, which the composer didn't intend to be staged but is; or Vaughan Williams morality The Pilgrims Progress which the composer intended to be staged but which critics say is better unstaged. Then of course there are Handel's dramatic oratorios which the composer didn't write to be staged, but which have such strongly dramatic frames of reference that they work on stage.

Now, how would you define a Handelian oratorio - a work with a moral purpose, a mixture of choral and solo dramatic elements where the choruses are as important as the drama but may not actually be part of it, simply providing comment and moral structure, dramatic elements which imply a knowledge of the story and which may take extreme liberties with intercutting time and place.

Now think on to The Death of Klinghoffer and its structure starts to make sense; Adams and Goodman's opera is in fact structured like a Handelian oratorio. A fact which is emphasised by the musical strength of Adams's choruses which are the most consistently musically satisfying part opera and have had a strong life on the own in the concert hall.

Of course, Adams and Goodman intend The Death of Klinghoffer as an opera, to be staged; but when watching the piece it helps to think of this background.

ENO's staging is the first time the work has been fully staged in London (the BBC did concert performances in 2002 and the first UK staging was in 2005 by Scottish Opera). We saw the ENO production on Thursday 1st March at the London Coliseum. Directed by Tom Morris and designed by Tom Pye (sets) and Laura Hopkins (costumes), the production makes as good a case as possible for the staging of the opera. But despite the best efforts of everyone I left the theatre thinking that it would have would just as well as a concert and that still the best ever version is Penny Woolcock's film which is able to respond to the structure with a greater variety of visual images and use some of the sung elements as interior monologue.

Morris set the piece in a single, flexible set onto which projections (video design by Finn Ross) helped underline the different settings; also extensive text captions helped define the time and location of the scenes and included quotations and explanations from the original events.

The opening choruses were done in a beautifully flexible manner with the chorus simply metamorphosing from one identity to the other, thus emphasising the commonality of suffering which was surely Goodman and Adams intentions.

American baritone Christopher played the Captain as a strong, upright and sympathetic figure, for whom the element of compromise at the end over the death of Klinghofer (Alan Opie) comes as a great difficulty. Magiera brought out nicely the complex, troubled undercurrent of the man's thoughts and sang Adams music quite beautifully. He was supported by James Cleverton in the smaller role of the First Officer.

The Hijackers, Molqi, Mamoud, Rambo and Omar, were played by American tenor Edwin Vega, Anglo-Swiss baritone Richard Burkhard, American baritone Sydney Outlaw and Trinity Laban trained dancer Jesse Kovarsky. They formed a very believable group, creating characters with whom you could empathise, young men out of their depth.

Alan Opie was tremendous as Klinghoffer. American mezzo Michaela Martens made a stunning impression as the rather dowdy Marlyn Klinghofer, not only in the heart-breaking scene where she confides in the Captain whilst, unknown to her, her husband is being killed but also in the barnstorming finale aria, the brilliant coup with which Adams and Goodman finish the opera.

Lucy Schaufer, looking alarmingly as if she'd stepped out of the TV series Murder She Wrote made the most of her cameo as the Swiss Grandmother and Kate Miller-Heidke was quite simply brilliant in her cameo as the British dancing girl. If I've got things correct, Australian born Miller-Heidke has a parallel career as a singer songwriter! Kathryn Harries was moving as the Austrian woman who spends the entire duration locked in her cabin. Clare Presland sang the powerful solo for the Palestinian woman.

Whilst Arthur Pita's choreography for Omar was often moving and added greatly to the staging, a lot of the other movement seemed a distraction and the dancing Palestinians in the final chorus of Act 1 were just plain embarrassing.

The chorus were on good form and sang the beautiful choruses quite beautifully. Under Swiss composer Baldur Bronnimann the ENO orchestra played Adams score to the manner born and Bronnimann structured the piece well so that the music flowed naturally.

Though sound designers were credited, the results actually sounded quite natural with none of the artificial balance between voices and orchestra which I'd feared.

One thing struck me when writing this, the high preponderance of American singers in the opera (at least 4 of the principals were American). Its nice to see and hear new faces, but did we really need so many guests? Was there no possibility of getting Christopher Maltman to repeat his portrayal of the Captain, and surely there were a number of British singers who could have shone in these roles?

Friday 2 March 2012

Rachmaninov at the Festival Hall

For their concert at the Festival Hall on Wednesday 29th February, the Bach Choir joined forces with Chetham's School of Music to present a spectacular all Rachmaninov programme. The centrepiece of the evening was Rachmaninov's choral symphony, The Bells; this was preceded by his piano concerto number 3 (which was written just before the choral symphony). The evening started with the Spring Cantata.

The Bach Choir were joined by the 50 strong Chetham's Chamber Choir thus giving us choral forces numbering some 250 people. Chetham's Symphony Orchestra was on a similarly generous scale, with the orchestra fielding around 100 musicians, including 20 first violins. Of course, Rachmaninov's The Bells needs this sort of amplitude, the piece is scored for quadruple wood-wind with plenty of brass and percussion. The reasons why the choral symphony is not more frequently performed are as much economic as anything else.

David Hill, musical director of the Bach Choir, conducted the two choral pieces; Hill, himself an ex-Chetham's student, is in fact also a Governor of Chetham's School of Music. William Dazeley sang the baritone solo in the Sprint Cantata, and was joined by Janice Watson and Peter Auty in  The Bells.

For the piano concerto the orchestra was joined by another ex-Chetham's student, pianist Leon McCawley, with the piece being conducted by Stephen Threlfall, musical director of Chetham's School of Music.

The Spring Cantata was something of a surprise, not at all the polite evocation of the wonders of spring that I had expected. Rachmaninov set a poem by Nikolai Nekrasov which deals with a man whose wife has had an affair and confessed it; whilst the two of them are isolated in their hut by the terrible winter, the man starts to get increasingly murderous thoughts. He is just about to reach for a knife and kill her when Spring comes and releases him. The cantata was written in the period after the failure of Rachmaninov's first symphony and its musical material is linked to that of the second piano concerto which he wrote at that time as a form of therapy.

The solo role was written for Chaliapin, for whom he also wrote roles in his two operas Francesca da Rimini and The Miserly Knight. The solo part, I think, ideally calls for a voice bigger and darker than William Dazeley's and at a couple of key moments he was rather covered by the orchestra and chorus. But he turned in a finely dramatic performance as the murderous cuckold; the cantata is close to an operatic scena and Dazeley brought out the full range of the piece. The chorus responded to the drama of the cantata with gusto, where at one point they have to encourage the soloist's intentions with the words 'Kill, kill the betrayer' and they seemed to relish the tricky Russian text (both choral works were sung in the original Russian); but Rachmaninov gives the chorus an accompanying role as well, backing the soloist, and here the choir proved that they could sing with beautiful subtlety. Throughout the evening the choir sang with a bright, nicely focussed sound and seemed on top form.

The large orchestra got its featured moment in the opening, where Rachmaninov writes an orchestra introduction describing the spring awakening, building up gradually to the huge first chorus entry. Chetham's Symphony Orchestra were simply amazing, for long periods of time you simply forgot their youth and were able to enjoy a superb performance.

In the 3rd piano concerto the slightly reduced orchestral forces continued to show their mettle in some fine accompaniment to Leon McCawley's solo piano. McCawley brought out the romantic, poetic side of the piano part, seemingly making light of the multiple cascades of notes. Rachmaninov was a superb pianist and wrote the piano part for himself to play at the work's premiere in 1909 as part of a tour of the USA which he was undertaking. But, as with any Rachmaninov work from this period, the poetic moments are mixed in with barnstorming ones and big romantic tunes. Whilst the strings didn't quite provide the sort of big, well upholstered string sound which the best professional group can, they clearly responded to Rachmaninov's romanticism and sang the big tunes finely. Their performance had a maturity to it which belied their age.

McCawley was playing a Steinway piano and to my ears it seemed more attuned to the quieter, more detailed passages, the big barnstorming moments didn't quite resonate in the way I would have liked; or perhaps I've been listening to  too many recordings with the balance adjusted in favour of the piano.

Accompanying is always one of the trickiest roles for an orchestra to undertake, particularly in a big Romantic piece where tempi are mobile and very flexible. But to the young musicians' credit, neither McCawley nor conductor Stephen Threlfall seemed to be adjusting their performance to suit, all was dynamic, flexible and vibrant; though there were one or two corners where the orchestra did not quite follow quickly enough where McCawley and Threlfall led.

Rachmaninov's The Bells is based on a Russian adaptation by Konstantin Balmont of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Even before reading the poetry, Rachmaninov was thinking symphonically and there work is divided into 4 movements which function structurally in symphonic fashion. The opening movement, for tenor and chorus, describes silver sleigh bells which evoke childhood but also sleep and oblivion. The second movement has the soprano and chorus meditating on mellow wedding bells. The next movement, a brilliant scherzo full of demons and horror, is for chorus alone, describing loud alarum bells. Then finally baritone and chorus join together for the mournful iron bells. Though the subjects are varied and we clearly get different moods and movements, there is a vein of melancholy running through the whole piece, even the wedding bells have a curiously disconcerting quality.

Peter Auty coped well with the high tenor part in the opening movement though, as with the solo part in the cantata, you could imagine it being sung by a more Russian sounding voice. Watson was beautifully eloquent in the second movement  and Dazeley was darkly brooding, describing the mournful funeral bell which leads to eternal sleep.

The Bells is a tricky piece, and the chorus's role was made trickier by the use of the original version of the third movement, which Rachmaninov later simplified. But the chorus were on sparkling form, giving us some fine choral singing and rendering the third movement with brilliant, demonic energy. Throughout they were performing to a very high standard indeed, and responded to David Hill's enthusiastic direction, as did the young musicians of the orchestra who whisked through Rachmaninov's vivid orchestral writing with apparent ease. The young orchestral players were finely disciplined and very committed, but also patently enjoying themselves and this showed in the brilliant energy which they brought to the work.

This was an inspiring evening; not just for the fine accounts of two neglected Rachmaninov choral pieces with some stunning singing, but also for the superb and finely mature playing which Hill and Threlfall brought out in their young musicians. I do hope that we get to hear this partnership again.

I selected this post to be featured on Best Music Blogs. Please visit the site and vote for my blog!

Smyth and Lloyd

On May 26th there's a rare chance to hear some of Ethel Smyth's music in London, Philharmonia Britannica under conductor Peter Fender are performing the overture and 'On the Cliffs of Cornwall' (in fact the prelude to Act 3) of Ethel Smyth's opera The Wreckers. Also in the programme is George Lloyd's Symphony no. 6, another rarity, plus Elgar's Cello Concerto with Jonathan Ayling as Cello soloist.

Lloyd's 6th Symphony was written in 1956 but only received its first performance in 1979 (Sir Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra), it is evidently one of Lloyd's smaller scale symphonies, you can find out more in Paul Conway's excellent article for Music Web International here.

Saturday 26th May 2012, 7:30 pm
St John's Church, Waterloo Road
LondonSE1 8TY

Thursday 1 March 2012

Review of Beatrice and Benedict

My review of WNO's recent revival of Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict is here, on

Welsh National Opera presented a rather undercooked account of Berlioz’s tricky opera, in a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s classic production

CD review - Judith Weir choral music

My review of the disc of Judith Weir's choral music, from the choir of Gonville & Caius College under Geoffrey  Webber is here, on MusicWeb International.

Purity and austerity which feels rather Calvinist yet is always approachable. 

Popular Posts this month