Sunday 31 August 2014

Prom 48: Ever Icelandic - Tectonics at the Royal Albert Hall

Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's Proms Debut - Photo Alistair Muir
Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra
at the BBC Proms - Photo Alistair Muir
Haukur Tómasson, Jón Leifs, Beethoven, Schumann; Jonathan Biss, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Aug 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Unstoppable forces: two Icelandic works in the Iceland orchestra Proms debu

Unstoppable forces of nature made their presence known at the Proms on Friday 22nd August. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov, curator of the ongoing Tectonics Festival - now in its third year, performed works by two Icelandic composers Haukur Tómasson (1960-) and Jón Leifs (1899-1968).

Inspired by the nature of his homeland Tómasson was commissioned to write 'Magma' ('Storka' in Icelandic) by the Warsaw Autumn music festival in 1998 and revised it a year later in 1999. Focussing on the number five - each of the five movements (floating, animated, cantabile, coagulating and rigorous) have five sections and five note motifs abound.

Prom 58: Richard Strauss's Salome

Nina Stemme
Nina Stemme
Richard Strauss Salome; Nina Stemme, Doris Soffel, Burkhard Ulrich, Samuel Youn, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 30 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Lithe, youthful and intensely dramatic performance of the title role, complemented by glorious orchestral playing

The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, performed the opera at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014; the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings. For Salome, Donald Runnicles conducted the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, with Nina Stemme as Salome, Burkhard Ulrich as Herod, Doris Soffel as Herodias, Samuel Youn as Jokanaan, Thomas Blondelle as Narraboth and Ronnita Miller as Herodias's page. The concert staging was directed by Justin Way.

Donald Runnicles - photo Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
photo Simon Pauly
Prior to the performance, I rather wondered why this particular opera and these performers. Salome is certainly not rare in London and the David McVicar production at Covent Garden gets regular outings. Nina Stemme has recently sung Salome in Stockholm and Zurich, but the opera does not seem to appear in the current roster of Deutsche Oper productions. We did not seem to be being given a glimpse of an existing production, and this seemed confirmed at the performance when the singers varied from being completely off the book, to standing resolutely behind music stands. There was a performing area in front of the orchestra, but only Nina Stemme's Salome and Doris Soffel's Herodias took real advantage of this. But all doubts were swept away by the performance, this was simply one of the finest performances of Salome that I have heard in a long time.

The problem with Salome (written in 1905), is that though premiered barely a century ago it dates from an era of different performing styles. Dramatic sopranos had voices which were more lithe, more narrow in focus. Orchestras were generally quieter, with narrower bore brass and gut strings, and the orchestral sound a lot less dense. And production values were more forgiving, it wasn't generally worried about whether the heroine looked 16. But early sopranos in the role would probably sound a lot younger, to our ears. Nowadays, both singers and directors frequently move the character into maturity. One of the few singers that I have heard who seemed able to capture the bright freshness and youth of Salome was Montserrat Caballe.

Saturday 30 August 2014

Choral at Cadogan - 2014/15 season launch

Last night, 28 August, Cadogan Hall launched the 2014/15 Choral at Cadogan series with a short taster from Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. The group performed three works from the Metamorphosis programme which they will be presenting at Cadogan Hall on 23 October 2014. 

We heard Palestrina's Magnificat for Double Choir, a glorious work in which Palestrina starts out traditionally using the two choirs alternately but eventually varies the groupings of voices to magical effect, Orlando Gibbons' Nunc dimittis from the 'Short' service which is a simple but very effective piece with a fabulous Amen, and finally Arvo Part's Nunc Dimittis, a quietly spare work where Part reserves the climaxes for key moments such as the word 'lumen'.

Coronation of Poppea at Grimeborn Festival

Rosie Aldridge and Elizabeth Holmes in Ryedale Festival Opera's Coronation of Poppea at Grimeborn Festival
Rosie Aldridge and Elizabeth Holmes
Monteverdi The Coronation of Poppea; Ryedale Festival Opera, director Nina Brazier, music director Christopher Glynn; Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 28 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Small scale, but entrancing and engrossing production of Monteverdi's final opera

Ryedale Festival Opera brought its production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre on 29 August 2014. Premiered earlier this year at the Ryedale Festival, the production was sung in a new English translation by John Warrack and directed by Nina Brazier with designs by Sophie Mosberger and lighting by Tom Boucher. Christopher Glynn (artistic director of the Ryedale Festival) was musical director (directing from the organ) with instrumental players from Eboracum Baroque. Soloists included Ben Williamson as Ottone, Elizabeth Holmes as Poppea, Stephanie Marshall as Nero, Maria Ostroukhova as Ottavia, Rosie Aldridge as Arnalta and Rebecca Van den Berg as Drusilla.

The idea of a budget production of Monteverdi's final opera has the potential to make the heart sink, the piece is so long and complex with a huge cast of characters (Ryedale Festival Opera fielded over two dozen different roles), and requires a certain quality to the delivery of the vocal lines. There are few arias, few big moments and it is in the dialogue and drama that the interest lies. All of which needs time (and money) spending on valuable rehearsal time.

Friday 29 August 2014

Peter Maxwell Davies birthday concert

Scottish Chamber Orchestra - photo Marco Borggreve
Scottish Chamber Orchestra - photo Marco Borggreve
The late night Prom on Monday 8 September 2014, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra will be giving a concert to celebrate the birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. In fact, 8 September is his actual birthday. Conducted by Ben Gernon, the orchestra will be joined by clarinettist Dimitri Ashkenazy and bagpiper Robert Jordan for an all Maxwell Davies programme. The concert also showcases the long relationship between Maxwell Davies and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxwell Davies having composed music for the orchestra over a 30 year period including the sequence of Straclyde Concertos for the orchestra's principals.

The Proms concert starts with the London premiere Ebb of Winter, which the orchestra commissioned to mark its 40th anniversary last year. The concert also includes the Fourth Strathclyde Concerto (written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's principal clarinettist) and the widely performed An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise.

B Tommy Andersson - new BBC NOW composer-in-association

B Tommy Anderson - Photo: Jan-Olav Wedin
B Tommy Andersson
Photo: Jan-Olav Wedin
The Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson has been appointed the composer-in-association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Their first joint event will be the orchestra's concert on October 3, when the programme will include Andersson's Garden of Delights. Andersson is not a particularly well known composer in the UK and I spoke to him by phone to find out more about the residency and his work.

My first question was how a Swedish composer came to be composer-in-association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (previous incumbents included Michael Berkeley and Simon Holt). The answer to the question is Thomas Søndergård, the orchestra's Danish Principal Conductor. Søndergård likes Andersson's music a lot, and the residency was his idea.

During the year that Andersson will be with them, the orchestra will be performing seven of Andersson's orchestra works plus a new piece. The works to be performed will include Garden of Delights (which Andersson premiered with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2009), his large scale piece Satyricon (premiered 20014) as well as a composer portrait concert. During Summer 2015 there will be the first performance of a new work to round things off. Whilst Andersson is in Wales he will also be doing workshops and masterclasses with composition students in Cardiff.

Introducing the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung
On Wednesday 27 August 2014, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra made its BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall under the orchestra's musical director Myung-Whun Chung in a programme which included music by Debussy and Tchaikovsky, plus Korean composer Unsuk Chin's Su for sheng and orchestra, a remarkable concerto for the sheng, an ancient oriental instrument which is played by Wu Wei. The morning of the concert there was a press conference, with Myung-Whun Chung, Unsuk Chin and Wu Wei to introduce the orchestra and the programme, as well as confirming the remarkable achievement that the appearance at the BBC Proms confirms.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in its present form is the product of an idea. Ten years ago the then Mayor of Seoul persuaded Myung-Whun Chung to come back to Korea and create a world class orchestra from the existing regional orchestra (in fact Chung played a solo with the orchestra when he was 7!). Though born in Korea and held in high esteem in the country, Chung has spent most of his life abroad. Chung talked about how he was born during the last year of the Korean war, but that when he went to the USA the only thing people knew about Korea was that there had been a war. You sense that, for Chung, the orchestra is a way of presenting modern Korea to the world and he is concerned that the musicians reflect the best in Korea.

Thursday 28 August 2014

Concerts by Candlelight at the Sam Wanamaker Playouse

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Last Winter the Sam Wanamaker P layhouse opened at the Globe Theatre and it has proved one of London's most fascinating theatrical spaces. Not just for plays, but for opera (see our review of Cavalli's L'Ormindo, concerts and other events. The programme of events for the first part of the 2014/15 season promises all sorts of good things, all by candlelight on Sunday afternoons and Monday evenings. Music ranges from 17th century to contemporary, with excursions into jazz and further afield. There are also spoken word events from poetry to short stories.

Dvorak in Love

Dvorak in Love
Tony Palmer's film Dvorak in Love was made for Czech Television in the 1980's. It was intended simply to be an account of the recording of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in the Prague with Julian Lloyd-Webber, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Vaclav Neumann. By interweaving the documentary footage with readings from Dvorak's letters the result, given Dvorak's generally presumed lack of involvement in politics, proved surprisingly political and the resulting film was not shown on Czech TV. It was premiered in the UK on the South Bank Show in 1988, and was the first documentary film to be shown on Czech TV after the fall of communism.

Palmer takes a comparatively sober documentary view of the proceedings. The main body of the film consists of eavesdropping on the recording sessions for Dvorak's Cello Concerto in the Rudolfinum in Prague. These in themselves make fascinating listening, as we see and hear the interaction between the venerable conductor and the young cellist with Neumann showing himself surprisingly flexible when it came to accommodating Lloyd-Webber's interpretation of the concerto. The footage runs through the concerto in order so that we get to hear a complete performance, albeit in pieces, with the final footage being of the conclusion of the associated concert. Perhaps the most revealing part of this is where they repeat sections and we get to hear the performers running a section of the concerto more than once.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Prom 50: Beethoven Missa Solemnis

John Eliot Gardiner
Beethoven Missa Solemnis; Lucy Crowe, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Spyres, Matthew Rose, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 26 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Transcendent performance of Beethoven's masterpiece, the first time John Eliot Gardiner has conducted it at the Proms

John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique brought Beethoven's Missa Solemnis to the BBC Proms in a much anticipated late night concert on Tuesday 26 August 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall. The soloists were Lucy Crowe, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Spyres and Matthew Rose.

This was Gardiner's 30th live performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. In 2012 he performed the work with virtually the same forces in a series of concerts, including one at the Barbican, which were recorded live and issued on disc (see my review). Performing in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, Gardiner's speeds hardly relaxed but seemed to take account of the acoustic and allow the work to blossom. There were moments when he seemed to have all the time in the world, but the music still kept its vibrancy and urgency.

Gardiner clearly revels in the possibilities that the period instruments give him, with hard accents and strong dying away causing heightened contrasts. The whole performance had a transparency and clarity which is somewhat surprising given the work's reputation for massiveness. There was also the fact that the balance between strings, wind and singers is completely re-set when played on such forces, which meant that there were lots of wonderful moments when you came to appreciate details in the orchestra.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields 2014/15 season

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
This year the Academy of St Martin in the Fields has been celebrating the 90th birthday of its founder, Sir Neville Marriner. The Academy's 2014/15 season under their current musical director, violinist Joshua Bell, is full of interest, with concerts which vary from chamber music to larger scale works. Neville Marriner conducts an all Howard Blake programme, Joshua Bell directs two concerts and guests include Martin Frost, Julia Denk and Julia Fisher.

Joshua Bell has been music director of the ensemble for three years, and Bell has recently renewed his contract for another three years, until summer 2017. The forthcoming season includes the London concerts plus tours to Germany and South America. (A video introduction to the season from Joshua Bell follows after the break.)

Unsuk Chin Concertos

Unsuk Chin - concertos - Decca
Unsuk Chin Piano Concerto, Cello Concerto, Su for Sheng and Orchestra; Sunwook Kim, Alban Gerhardt, Wu Wei, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 23 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Three contrasting concertos from the Korean composer Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin as a composer is associated very much with her opera Alice in Wonderland which premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. This new disc showcases other sides to the Korean composer, her relationship with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (where she has been composer in residence since 2006) and her sequence of concertos spanning 13 years, with the Piano Concerto of 1996/7, Cello Concerto of 2008/9, revised 2013 and Su for sheng and orchestra (2009) a concerto for the sheng, an ancient oriental mouth-organ with a 3000 year history.

This recording on Deutsche Grammophon features the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, with Sunwook Kim (piano), Alban Gerhardt (cello) and Wu Wei (sheng).

Unsuk Chin's Piano Concerto was commissioned by the BBC for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The work is in four movements and to the standard orchestra Unsuk Chin adds two dozen percussion instruments and a celeste. The result is to provide a varied sound world, in which the percussive piano sound can be emulated by these extra instruments so that instead of being spotlit, the piano becomes part of the texture. Texture is important in all three concertos and Usuk Chin's writing is clearly an exploration of the possibility of texture rather than pure melody and harmony. In the piano concerto there is a sense, during the movements, of the piano gradually emerging from the orchestral texture and becoming more spotlit.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

The Madrigal Transformed

The Monteverdi String Band at the Echi Lontani
The Monteverdi String Band at the Echi Lontani
The development of the Italian Madrigal in the 16th century took place at a time of great artistic ferment when artists of all kinds were making discoveries. Old classical texts were re-examined, re-translated and re-discovered, whole continents were being discovered and a new way of looking at the world. Music was no different and there was a lot of philosophical discussion about the role of words and music. 'Writers like Vincenzo Galilei (father of the famously persecuted astronomer, Galileo) espoused the increasingly common view that the words should be served by the music - "prima la parola" – and that composers should use whatever means at their disposal to ensure this.'

This last quotation is from Oliver Webber's programme note for a fascinating concert, The Madrigal Transformed, which Webber's group The Monteverdi String Band performed at the Echi Lontani Festival in Cagliari in Sardinia on 30 May 2014, in which the group explored the influence of ornamentation and the seconda pratica on contemporary madrigals. The performers were Oliver Webber (violin), Teresa Caudle (violin), Wendi Kelly (contralto viola), David Brooker (tenor viola) and Christopher Suckling (bass violin).

This list of performers might, at first, cause a slight jolt. If this is a programme of madrigals, where were the singers? Well, there weren't any. The 16th century had a far more flexible attitude to music than we do, and the mixing of vocal and instrumental forces was far more common than now. The style of the four or five part madrigal lent itself to performance by a consort of string instruments, and the various bowing techniques can be used to emulate the vocal effects, dynamic shapes, articulation and phrasing.

Donizetti to the fore - Gyndebourne 2015

Michael Fabiano who starts in the title role in Donizetti's Polyeucte at Glyndebourne in 2015 - photo Arielle Doneson
Michael Fabiano who stars in the title role on Donizetti's
Polyeucte at Glyndebourne -  - photo Arielle Doneson

There is going to be a fine selection of rare Donizetti opera in the UK next year, thanks to the Peter Moores Foundation. Not only is English Touring Opera performing L'assedio di Calais and Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo, but it has now been announced that Glyndebourne will be starting their 2015 season with Donizetti's Poliuto with Michael Fabiano and Ana-Maria Martinez in the lead roles. The Glyndebourne season will be also include new productions of Handel's Saul and Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, plus revivals of Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole and L'Enfant et les Sortileges, Bizet's Carmen and Britten's Rape of Lucretia, plus a new opera from composer-in-residence Luke Styles.

Glyndebourne's production of Poliuto will be directed by Mariame Clement (who directed Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne in 2011) and conducted by Enrique Mazzola, with Michael Fabiano (who sang Alfredo in this year's La Traviata) and Ana-Maria Martinez (who made her debut as Rusalka in 2009). It will be the first professional staging of the opera in the UK The opera is based on Corneille's drama Polyeucte which looks at the early Christian martyr Saint Polyeuctus, a Roman army officer who converted to Christianity and was martyred. Donizetti wrote the opera in 1838 for the San Carlo in Naples, but it was rejected because the subject matter dealt with the death of a Christian martyr on stage. Instead he revised the work in French, expanding it into four acts as Les Martyrs, for the Paris Opera. Only in 1848 was the original Italian three-act version given. Whilst not common, the opera has a distinguished 20th century history with performances including those in Milan in 1960 with Callas.

Monday 25 August 2014

The influence of recordings.

Maria Calla as Norma in 1954
Maria Calla as Norma in 1954
Before the invention of the recording, the only way to experience an artist performing was to go to hear or see them. Just imagine what it would be like only ever knowing an artist like Maria Callas by reputation. We are so used to living with recordings that we forget about what might be the effect on performers. A singer nowadays might not learn a new piece by listening to other singers, but they cannot help but be aware of them and of the way that they performed in a way which would be alien to a 19th century performer.

Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction of La Sylphide - photo Christian Leiber
Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction of La Sylphide
photo Christian Leiber
One thing that we have lost, with our culture of complete and eternal record, is the extraordinary complexity of our memories. Humans are capable of remarkable feats and in an age without recording equipment, people would be able to remember in far greater detail. An example of this from the parallel world of ballet is Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction in 1972 of Filippo Taglioni's ballet La Sylphide from the Paris Opera of 1832. On approaching older ballet dancers Lacotte found many remarkable repertoires of steps in their memories, taught them by their teachers. These were dancers from an age when recording ballet was impossible and a dancer could rely solely on their memory.

In such circumstances teachers become highly important, repositories for knowledge which is then passed on to pupils. The 19th century in particular can be traced through families of teachers so-and-so was a pupil of Tausig who was a pupil of Liszt. And whilst Liszt's pupils were a diverse bunch (there are recordings from 21 of them), the pupils of a teacher like Clara Schumann form quite a coherent group (we have recordings from five of them including Fanny Davies's recording of the Schumann piano concerto).

Manual Garcia the Younger, by John Singer Sargent
Manual Garcia the Younger
by John Singer Sargent
Liszt and Clara Schumann were teachers because they were famous performers, but a vocal teacher like Manuel Garcia the Younger (1805 - 1906), who was responsible for influencing whole generations of 19th century singers, was a teacher because of his great pedagogical skills. He was taught by his father, Manuel Garcia senior, and his sisters were the singers Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. Some of Manuel Garcia the Younger's pupils became teachers. Mathilde Marchesi for instance went on to teach Nellie Melba, Emma Calve, Sibyl Sanderson and Emma Eames. And Jenny Lind, Christina Nilsson and Henry Wood were among Garcia's important pupils, in fact Wood became his accompanist. Again though, if we try to gain an insight into his methods by listening to surviving recordings they are so diverse that it is difficult to gain any firm impression.

But such lineages would have been important not only for pedagogy, but for information about other performers both past and present. An example of this is the soprano Adelina Patti. Born 1843, she came out of retirement in 1905 to make recordings, so that we can hear for ourselves what a late 19th century diva sounded like. Patti was managed from a young age by her sister's husband, Maurice Strakosch who was a pupil of Giuditta Pasta and also her accompanist. Strakosch trained Patti the way he had learned from Pasta. And Patti had created roles for Donizetti and Bellini, and had sung Zerlina in London within 25 years of Mozart's death. Now, we can make too much of such links, especially as Patti's recordings are of a style and freedom which is alien to today's performers. But it is well worth bearing in mind. (You can hear hear slightly alarming Casta Diva from Norma on YouTube, and her performance of Voi che sapete from Mozart Le nozze di Figaro is below).

I got much of the above information from John Potter and Neil Sorrell's invaluable book, A History of Singing, and they also illuminate another point. The way recordings themselves have changed the way we sing. For much of the 19th century, despite the rise in the amount of control composers had, performers retained a rather flexible attitude to the notes themselves. In a society without a fixed record, aural transmission was important which brings us back to the chains of information through teachers. Only in the 20th century was it possible to put on a recording and hear how so-and-so performed the music. This has had the effect of rather fixing the music. Notes have become settled and singers less inclined to sing with a freedom.

But whilst notes have become fixed, performing styles have I suspect rather widened. If a performer can hear a wide variety of other performers, then there is greater freedom to choose. Perhaps this isn't a big point but it seems one which might benefit from further research, are the performers of today more or less diverse in style than those 150 years ago?

Elsewhere on this blog:

Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Proms

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
This year's BBC Proms is including quite a number of orchestra's from around the world which have not appeared at the Proms before. Amongst these is the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Directed by Lan Shui since 1997, the orchestra earned plaudits when they made their debut at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010. For their Proms debut, Lan Shui and the orchestra are combining two Russian masterworks, Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla and Rachmaninov's Second Symphony with the European premiere of a new piano concerto by Zhou Long with Andreas Haefliger as the soloist. The same forces gave the work's premiere on 4 July in Singapore.

Zhou Long is an American-based Chinese composer who was, in fact, at the Beijing Convervatoire at the same time as Lan Shui and during the last decade the orchestra has performed a number of Zhou Long's work. Zhou Long and Andreas Haefliger have been talking about a Zhou Long writing piano concerto for the pianist since 2010 and the project was re-vitalised by the decision of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to commission a work from Zhou Long to celebrate the orchestra's Proms debut. Zhou Long's work first featured in the Proms in 2004.

Sunday 24 August 2014

Wagner in Berwick-upon-Tweed

The Maltings, Berwick-on-Tweed
Berwick-upon-Tweed seems an unlikely  place to go for Wagner but if you visit The Maltings this weekend (23 & 24 August 2014), then Wagner is just what you will find. And not Wagner on the big screen, though The Maltings has an admirable programme of telecasts from Covent Garden. They are performing Act one of Wagner's The Valkyrie, preceded by the Siegried Idyll. The opera will be performed in Jonathan Doves's reduction,  originally made for Graham Vick's City of Birmingham Opera.  Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers is Sieglinde, Ronald Samm is Siegmund and Stuart Pendred is Hagen, with the instrumental ensemble formed from the Hebrides Ensemble and advanced players from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, conducted by Peter Selwyn.

It all seems rather wonderful and rather unlikely. In fact The Maltings is the largest auditorium between Edinburgh and Newcastle. A 311 seat theatre along with studio theatre. The venue's CEO and Artistic Director, Matthew Rooke hopes to capitalise on the venue's remote geographical location and allow artists to experiment a bit. He also feels that there are a number of venues in the UK which could never host a full scale opera but which deserve something more than a piano accompanied production and that there is a danger of audiences only having telecasts in cinema.

The Maltings is already something of a success story; in a town of around 14,000 people they manage to sell over 50,000 tickets a year. Rooke's goal is to establish The Maltings as a showcase for presenting works in the opera canon in especially re-conceived orchestral/instrumental reductions. Under the banner of Berwick Festival Opera they are already planning on launching a Ring cycle in 2016.

Handel's Acis and Galatea

Cast of Eboracum Baroque's Acis and Galatea at the Grimeborn Festival - Photo Hannah Taylor
Chris Parsons with the cast and chorus
Photo Hannah Taylor
Handel Acis and Galatea; Eboracum Baroque, dir Jennifer Bakst, cond. Chris Parsons; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Lively small scale production of Handel's pastoral serenata

Eboracum Baroque returned to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre with a production of Handel's pastoral serenata Acis and Galatea (seen 22 August 2014) directed by Jennifer Bakst, with Gareth Edmunds as Acis, Naomi Sturges as Galatea and Charlie Murray as Polyphemus. Music director Chris Parsons conducted a five-piece instrumental ensemble.

It was frankly amazing quite how much Eboracum Baroque managed to cram into the tiny studio two at the Arcola Theatre. The period instrumental ensemble (Katie Stevens and Mark Seow, violins, George Pasca, cello, Ellie Robertson, oboe/recorder and Tom Nichol, spinet) was placed to one side, behind one row of the audience, leaving the central area for the staging. The stage set was imaginatively constructed from logs and pallets and during the overture the chorus dressed it for the wedding of Acis (Gareth Edmunds) and Galatea (Naomi Sturges). There was a chorus of eight, with Damon (Nils Greenhow) and Coridon (Angela Hicks) part of the chorus.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Summer listening - Summer Guitar

Craig Ogden - Summer Guitar
Summer Guitar; Craig Ogden; Classic FM / Decca
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 21 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Intelligent easy listening in attractive arrangements from guitarist Craig Ogden and guests

Australian guitarist Craig Ogden's latest disc, Summer Listening on Classic FM / Decca, follows on from his previous albums in being what one might term intelligent easy listening. The disc contains a selection of sixteen arrangements, some solo some with instrumental ensembles, of a variety of songs ranging from the Habanera from Carmen and the Cancion from Falla's Seven Popular Songs to George Harrison's Here Comes the Sung and Stanley Myers' Cavatina (used in the film The Deer Hunter). Ogden is joined by a wide variety of guests, the Tippett Quartet, the Pavao String Quartet, Howard Goodall Chamber Orchestra, and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

The disc opens with George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun, arranged by the Swedish guitarist Goran Sollscher;  an attractive busy arrangement with the tune subsumed in a lovely texture.  Ogden is joined by the Tippett Quartet for Stanley Myers' Cavatina (arranged James Morgan and Juliette Pochin) with Odgen providing a lovely singing vocal line here.

Friday 22 August 2014

Iceland Symphony Orchestra - Proms debut

Ilan Volkov
Ilan Volkov
Tonight (22 August 2014) the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ilan Volkov, makes its first performance at the Proms in a programme which combines contemporary Icelandic music by Haukur Tómasson and music by Jon Leifs (1899 - 1968), Iceland's premier 20th century composer, with music by Schumann and Beethoven. (Hilary Glover will be attending the concert to review it for this blog). To celebrate the orchestra's debut,there was a reception at the Icelandic Embassy to enable us to meet members of the orchestra and those involved in the concert.

The orchestra was founded in 1950, only 6 year's after Iceland's independence and culture played an important part in strengthening the Icelandic identity. For much of the orchestra's life, its home was in the University Cinema but in 2011 it moved into the new concert hall in Reykjavik, Harpa. This hall has been something of a miracle as it was planned before the financial collapse and work came to a standstill. Thanks to the then Minister of Culture and the Mayor of Reykjavik, the hall was completed. Its name has various meanings, but in ancient Icelandic it is the first month of summer.

Prom 47: Britten War Requiem

Andris Nelsons - photo Marco Borgreve
Andris Nelsons - photo Marco Borgreve
Britten War Requiem: Toby Spence, Hanno Muller-Brachmann, Susan Gritton, BBC Proms Youth Choir, CBSO Children's Chorus, CBSO, Andris Nelsons; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 21 2014
Star rating: 5.0
Youthful singers to the fore in this performance of Britten's great choral work

For the performance of Britten's War Requiem at this year's Proms on Thursday 21 August 2014, conductor Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were joined by soloists Susan Gritton, Toby Spence and Hanno Muller-Brachmann with the BBC Proms Youth Choir and CBSO Children's Chorus.

 Since it was founded in 2012, the BBC Proms Youth Choir (chorus master Simon Halsey) has made an annual appearance at the Proms. This year the choir fielded some 250 young singers from the CBSO Youth  Chorus, London Youth Choir, National Youth Choir of Wales, Ulster Youth Choir and University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir.

Massenet's Werther at Grimeborn

Katie Bray as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther at the Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Katie Bray as Charlotte
Massenet Werther; Adam Tunnifliffe, Katie Bray, dir. Aylin Bozok; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 20 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Stylish and imaginative chamber version of Massenet's romantic drama

Aylin Bozok's new production of Massenet's Werther at the Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival was inevitably something of a chamber affair (Seen 20 August 2014). Performed in the larger of the theatre's two studios, with just piano accompaniment Bozok's production lost some of the larger scale grandeur (and smaller roles) and focussed on the main principals, Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther, Katie Bray as Charlotte, Lucy Knight as Sophie, Simon Wallfisch as Albert and Thomas Faulkner as Le Bailli. The gloriously romantic costumes were by the London-based Turkish fashion designer Bora Aksu.

Lucy Knight as Sophie and Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther in Massenet's Werther at the Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Lucy Knight as Sophie and Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther
Bozok used a cut version of the score, gone were the younger children and the whole of the first scene where Le Bailli rehearses them in the Christmas song was excised (though we did get the off-stage reprise of the song at the very end of the opera). Also missing from the first act were the extra personnel, no friends for Werther and Charlotte, no drinking companions for Le Bailli. This had various dramaturgical effects. The role of Le Bailli was reduced to almost an irrelevancy, and he came across as something of a sad, lone drunkard. Without the scenes of family life in act one, Charlotte's reliance on her mother's memory was placed without a context. I have seen a number of very effective productions in which Werther makes his first entrance silently, watching Charlotte with the children. In the full version, the origin of Charlotte's very clearly defined sense of duty is made manifest. In Bozok's production we had to take much of this on trust, and with no larger scale scenes the drama tended to concentrate on the principals. To give more of a dramatic thrust, Bozok introduced the ghost of Charlotte's mother who loomed ominously at key moments,. This made for a rather different emphasis on the plot.

There was minimal set, but Aksu's evocative costumes highlighted the heavy Romantic atmosphere, with the women's outfits in particular rather suggesting the work of artist Paula Rego.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Princely Splendour - Sacred music from 18th century Rome

Princely Splendour - Harmonia Sacra, Peter Leech - Nimbus Alliance
Princely Splendour - Sacred music from 18th century Rome; Harmonia Sacra, Peter Leech; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 15 2014
Star rating: 4.0

A fascinating survey of sacred music from 18th century Rome, much of it with Royal connections

This disc from Peter Leech and Harmonia Sacra on Nimbus Alliance presents a selection of sacred choral works from an era which is still relatively neglected, 18th century Rome. The music on this disc was all written for Rome, and that means that it can be seen as stylistically conservative. All the composers on this disc wrote sacred music in the expected stile antico emulating Palestrina, whose music was still a strong influence in Rome. But there is still much to enjoy, especially as Peter Leech has selected a variety of works which have surprising Royal connections, to the exiled House of Stuart. The composers on the disc include Alessandro Scarlatti, Giovanni Battista Costanzi, Guiseppe Ottavio Pitoni, Tommaso Bai, Giovanni Giorgi, Giovanni Battista Casali and Sebastiano Bolis. Apart from Scarlatti, none of them names well known now but whose work is certainly worth exploring.

The disc opens with Exsurge Domine by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 - 1725), who became senior maestro at Santa Maria Maggiore in 1707 A date which probably reflects the group of unaccompanied masses and motets that Scarlatti wrote at this time. Exsurge Domine is a lively piece with a slower chromatic second park and displays the choir's bright forward tone and clean lines. Scarlatti's Ad Dominum cum tribularer appears later on the disc.

Autumn season at the Handel House Museum

Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian
Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian
The autumn season at the Handel House Museum includes not only music by the master, but a series of concerts with a French theme as well as a contemporary series curated by the the current composer in residence, Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian and of course a selection of baroque Christmas music. There is still time to catch the exhibition about Susannah Cibber, before the new one celebrates the year 1738 in Handel's life.

Harpsichordist Rebecca Pechefsky is performing by Nicolas Siret and Johann Ludwig Krebs. You might not have heard of them, but Siret was a friend and colleague of Francois Couperin, and Krebs as JS Bach's star pupil (9/9). Also in French mode, harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander celebrates Francois Couperin himself (21/9), Yair Avidor plays theorbo music written by Robert de Visee, lutenist at the court of Louis XIV, and the British Harpsichord Society commemorates the 250th anniversary of Rameau's death (13/9). Le Jardin Secret (Elizabeth Dobbin, Romiher Lischtea and David Blunden) perform  vocal and instrumental from 17th century Paris (6/11)

Rather more unusually, Chris Christodoulou and Anne Marshall are performing a programme of music for bouzouki and harpsichord. The bouzouki is an instrument which actually dates from the Byzantine era, and Christodoulou will be playing everything from Baroque to Beethoven (9/10).

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Classical Opera's 2014/15 London season

Mozart figures highly in Ian Page and Classical Opera's forthcoming season in London. There is his Requiem with soloists Sophie Bevan, Sarah Connolly, John Mark Ainsley and Darren Jeffrey at the Barbican (8/10), soprano Miah Persson singing Mozart and Haydn at the Wigmore Hall (26/11) and a survey of music from the year 1765, including works by Mozart (his first symphony), Gluck and JC Bach (22/1/2015). This latter concert is part of the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's childhood visit to London. There is an entire weekend of celebrations including five concerts looking both Mozart's music and the music of the era (20-22/2/2015 at Milton Court).

Moving away from Mozart there is an opera by a composer Mozart much admired and was influenced by. J.C Bach's Adriano in Siria is being staged at the Britten Theatre, directed by Thomas Guthrie with a cast including Kitty Whately, Rhys Jarman and Katharine Williams. The opera was premiered in 1765 at the King's Theatre in London, and sets a libretto by Metastasio. In fact the nine year old Mozart would have heard a performance whilst he was in London. The first performance in modern times was given in 1982, conducted by Charles Mackerras at the Camden Festival. but Classical Opera's performances will represent the works first staging in modern times. (14,16,18/4/2014 at the Britten Theatre)

And then on 6 May 2015 at the Wigmore Hall,  tenor Allan Clayton joins Ian Page and the orchestra to celebrate the 300th anniversary of John Beard, the tenor for whom Handel wrote so many great roles. Clayton will be singing arias from Alcina, Berenice, Semele and Jephtha plus music by Boyce, J.C.Smith and Arne.

Further information from the Classical Opera website.

The Rite as you've never heard it before

Stravinsky - Rite of Spring - Les Siecle, Francois-Xavier Roth
Stravinsky Rite of Spring and Firebird; Les Siecles, Francois-Xavier Roth; Musicales Actes Sud
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 12 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Period instrument re-creation of the original versions of two iconic ballet scores

I heard Francois-Xavier Roth and Les Siecles perform Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at the 2013 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall (see my review), and the performance was something of a revelation. Now the group has issued a live recording of the work alongside  a live recording of a re-creation of the original 1911 version of Petrushka on the Musicales Actes Sud label.

The sound world that Roth and Les Siecles have re-created is not that far from modern performance, but the differences are just sufficient to make listening to their performance a remarkable event. As might be expected, the strings are far less dominant and there is a great deal more clarity and magic in the performance. Many of Stravinsky's quieter textures are come over quite superbly. In the louder sections, you hear more detail as the woodwind are no longer swamped by string vibrato. And the wind instruments themselves have a great deal more character.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

'Don't you know who I am'

'Don't you know who I am'

I have always got annoyed with people (reviewers, celebrities etc) who use the phrase or something like it, pulling rank at events. I haven't seen it happen very often, I have to admit. But the other day, to my horror, I found myself slipping into that mode when attending an opera performance at a fringe theatre (on press tickets), for a review on this blog.

You start to realise, as a reviewer, that if you have a bad experience it can colour the review or even take over the review altogether. On a blog, you could argue that any experience would be grist to the mill. And in fact some years ago I was commissioned to attend Covent Garden to review for another website, and was seated quite badly. My review was about the performance, but I wrote a very popular blog posting about the event, my grumpiness; I tried not to let the one colour the other, but I can't be sure.

My Beloved's Voice: Sacred Songs of Love

My Beloved's Voice - Signum Classics
My Beloved's Voice: Sacred Songs of Love; Choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge, Mark Williams; SIGNUM CLASSICS
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 10 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Wide ranging survey of settings of the Song of Songs in fine performances

This new disc from the choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge, director Mark Williams, on the Signum Classics label, pulls together an eclectic selection of settings of the Song of Songs (with some excursions). The programme mixes early pieces by Antoine Brumel, Matrin di Rivafrecha and Clemens non Papa with 20th century works by Pablo Casals, Healey Willan, Edward Bairstow, William Walton, Gerald Finzi, Edvard Grieg, Patrick Hadley, Maurice Durufle and contemporary pieces by Howard Skempton, Nico Muhly and Robert Walker. Plus a short excursion into the 19th century for SS Wesley.

As on their previous disc, both choirs are represented on the disc. The chapel choir, which is men and boys, and the college choir, which is men and women, with male altos, tenors and basses being common to both choirs. The majority of works on the disc are performed by the college choir, with the chapel choir singing three items, the treble choristers sing one item on their own, and the combined choirs sing three items. There is also an organ solo from Robert Dixon.

Monday 18 August 2014

Autumn at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Guildhall School of Music and Drama: Milton Court Concert Hall
Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Milton Court Concert Hall
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Autumn programme is full of rather interesting things. Their opera is Dvorak's The Cunning Peasant, an early work which will be directed by Stephen Medcalf (3,7,5,10/11). Iain Burnside's new music theatre piece, Why does the Queen Die? is a co-commission with the Oxford Lieder Festival's 2014 Schubert Project, and it explores the connections between Schubert and his Viennese circle of friends (15, 16, 17/10 at the Oxford Lieder Festival). The season opens with performance of Verdi's Requiem at the Barbican Hall conducted by Mark Shanahan, with Elisabeth Meister, Victoria Simmonds, Adrian Thompson and Derek Welton (26/9).

Drama includes Debbie Horsfield's True Dare Kiss, David Hare's South Downs, Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version and Rebecca Lenkiewicz's Her Naked Skin. Further information from the Guildhall School's website.

Prom 37: Steve Reich

Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Steve Reich; Endymion, BBC Singers, David Hill; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Aug 13 2014
Star rating: 5.0

An hour or so of mesmeric phase shift minimalism - Late-night Steve Reich prom

Late night at the BBC Proms on Wednesday (13 Aug) was turned over to the experimentation of Steve Reich (1936-) and an hour or so of mesmeric phase shift minimalism. On the menu were 'It's gonna rain' and 'The Desert Music' performed by the BBC Singers and Endymion, and conducted by David Hill.

First on the bill was a recording of Reich's first work - 'It's gonna rain' which was written as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Composed in 1965 'It's gonna rain' uses a speech of the evangelist Brother Walter recorded the year previously in Union Square, San Francisco. Apparently Reich discovered phase shift by accident because the two recorders he used in the studio to listen to it did not playback at exactly the same speed. But it was his genius that took this accident and ran with it.

Once you had got over the idea of there being an empty stage, and listening to a recording in such a magnificent concert venue as the Albert Hall, the cleverness and precision of Reich's technique, and his vision in producing the work, carry the listener away.

Sunday 17 August 2014

Howard Blake piano concerto

Howard Blake - Piano COncerto
Howard Blake's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1991 to celebrate the 30th birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was given its premiere by the orchestra, conducted by David Willcocks, with the composer playing the piano part. The work had been recorded by Sony prior to this performance and this recording was reissued by Sony in 2008.

It is a substantial work lasting over 26 minutes and cast, as you might expect from Blake, in traditional form. Blake's career as a composer has been spent mediating between the traditional and more contemporary elements in the 20th century classical style.

The opening movement starts with an evocative and wistful Lento, a movement to which you might give the adjective filmic. Blake's concert music is fascinating for the way he does not turn his back on his film music but absorbs it and develops it. The music then gathers momentum, and the solo piano part become more strenuous as the Allegro bursts onto the scene.  The writing is tonal, but complex and requires something from the listener. The piano writing is quite strenuous, but the soloist is rather part of the texture in the baroque or classical manner, rather then in combat with the orchestra in the Romantic tradition.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Presteigne Festival

Presteigne Festival
The Presteigne Festival combines musical adventure with a delights of a little town, Presteigne (Llandras in Welsh), in the Welsh Marches in Powys in historic Radnorshire. They have a lively and adventurous commissioning policy, so that it is a lovely place to hear contemporary music. This year's festival runs from 21-26 August, and has Stephen McNeff as the composer-in-residence, a seventy-fifth birthday tribute to John McCabe and something of a Polish theme to the rest of the festival.

A festival commission, Stephen McNeff's oboe concerto receives its premiere and McNeff's opera Prometheus Drowned is being performed in a double bill with Cecilia McDowall's new work Airborne which is a festival co-commission.

Pawel Lukaszewski
Pawel Lukaszewski
The Polish theme includes a celebration of Andrzej  Panufnik's centenary along with music by other major 20th century Polish composer Gorecki, Lutoslawski, Penderecki and the less well known Grazyna Bacewicz. There is also the commission of a new Requiem from Pawel Lukaszewski, for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra, performed by the Joyful Company of Singers and the Festival Orchestra conducted by George Vass, the festival's artistic director.

Festival commissions include Lynne Plowman's unaccompanied choral work The Mariner's Compass, Toby Young's song cycle setting Dylan Thomas, Lie Still, Hilary Tann's string quartet And the Snow did Lie and a work for clarinet and piano by Daniel Kidane. Further information from the festival website.

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