Tuesday 31 March 2015

Dara - a visual epic

Vincent Ebrahim as Dara - credit Ellie Kurttz
Vincent Ebrahim as Dara
credit Ellie Kurttz
Tanya Ronder/Shahid Nadeem Dara; Zubin Varla, Vincent Ebrahim, Sargon Yelda, dir: Nadia Fall; Royal National Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 28 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Visual spectacle, and religious strife; an Indian historical epic brought to life

On Saturday night (28 March 2015) we had one of our occasional forays into non-musical theatre to see Tanya Ronder's adaptation of Shahid Nadeem's play Dara at the Royal National Theatre, directed by Nadia Fall. I have to confess that our reasons for going were many and varied, an interest in the history of the period (the era when the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal), the continuing importance of the subject matter (struggle between two branches of Islam as embodied by Shah Jahan's sons Dara and Aurangzeb) and the stunning designs (by Katrina Lindsay) based on Mogul miniatures, not to mention the plethora of magnificent beards.

Sargaon Yelda as Aurangzeb - credit Ellie Kurttz
Sargaon Yelda as Aurangzeb
photo credit Ellie Kurttz
The whole look of the play was indeed stunning, not just Lindsay's superb costumes but that when the cast stood they looked like the originals. Both Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb and Zubin Varla as Dara stood in poses which even seemed to emulate the posture of those depicted in miniatures.

The play is based on an original by Shahid Nadeem, premiered in Pakistan by the Ajoka Theatre. But whereas Ajoka Theatre's production evidently used narrative and lots of song and dance to tell the story, Tanya Ronder and director Nadia Fall had transformed it into a neo-Shakespearean epic embodied by the stunning trial scene at the end of the first part, when Dara is put on trial for apostasy by a Sharia court. I have to confess that I wanted more of this religious debate, but I am aware that not everyone has my appetite for religious debate.

Scott Karim as Faqir credit Ellie Kurttz
Scott Karim as Faqir
credit Ellie Kurttz
The show was billed as lasting two hours 40 minutes (or two hours 50 minutes) but in fact it last two hours 30 minutes which made me wonder whether it had been trimmed. For me it was still too long, and Ronder's fascination with intercutting scenes past and present led to a rather patchwork of short scenes which took a long time (the first 45 minutes) to settle into a clear narrative.

The performances were superb and both Zubin Varla as Dara and Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb were strong and contrasting. In fact their stage time together was limited but the emotional charge between them was such that you wanted more. Vincent Ebrahim was similarly strong as Shah Jahan, with Nathalie Armin and Anneika Rose providing strong support as his daughters Roshanara and Jahanara (conveniently for the plot, one supporting each brother), and Chook Sibtain as Itbar the imperial eunuch who has the grisly duty of delivering Dara's severed head to his father.

It was a large cast, many playing multiple roles, with 22 cast members listed in the biographies in the programme book. Perhaps there were slightly too many roles, and some short scenes seemed a little redundant and not everyone had the power to take the stage if their scene was a bit weak dramatically. But overall this a very strong ensemble cast.

Vincent Ebrahim as Dara and Prasanna Puwanarajah as Prosecutor Talib and the company of Dara credit Ellie Kurttz
Trial scene - Vincent Ebrahim as Dara
& Prasanna Puwanarajah as Prosecutor Talib
and the company of Dara credit Ellie Kurttz
It was heartening to see virtually an entire cast of actors of Indian, Pakistani and similar heritage, and it is rather shaming that given the wealth of talent, such things do not happen more often. Given the Shakespearean historical epic nature of the play, it seemed a shame that the opportunity hadn't been taken to make this even more of a project, and perform a Shakespearean play with the same cast, running alongside Dara.

Though three live musicians (Nawazish Khan, Kaviraj Sing Dhadyalla, Vikaash Sankadecha) were involved in the production music did not play that much of a role, often acting as little more than a backdrop or as entractes between scenes. There was one spectacular moment at Faqir, the sufi master's house at the start of part two when music and dance seemed to form a central part of the production and I could have wished for more.

It wasn't just the casting which was significant, the audience too seemed to be from a rather different demographic than usual, and the theatre was full. So no matter how we critics chunter about details, there was much to celebrate in a fascinating and ultimately gripping evening.
Elsewhere on this blog:

Celebrating Carl Nielsen and John McCabe

SOMM Recordings is marking the Carl Nielsen 150th anniversary by celebrating the recorded legacy of the late John McCabe and re-releasing McCabe's complete recordings of Nielsen's piano music. Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is best known nowadays for his six symphonies, but his other repertoire is certainly worth re-investigation. 

John McCabe ran his career as a composer in parallel to that as a pianist, and in the latter role specialised in exploring little known and unjustly neglected composers. His recording of the complete Haydn piano sonatas was a milestone, and these have been on sale continuously since the 1970's. McCabe's complete recording of Nielsen's piano music was made in 1975 for Decca. They have now been remastered by engineer Paul Arden-Taylor and are being issued in a slimline 2-CD set with extensive accompanying notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. Essential listening for all those interested not only in Nielsen and fine pianism, but in the artistry of a much loved performer. 

You can hear sample on SoundCloud.

Monday 30 March 2015

Celebrating a Bulgarian emigre in London - Pierre Rouve aka Peter Ouvaliev

Pierre Rouve
Having interviewed composer Dobrinka Tabakova recently (see my article), I was keen to hear some of her music live and was intrigued by the UK premiere of her new work for violin and piano which was being given at the Bulgarian Embassy on Friday 27 March 2015. So I went along, and discovered a whole network of other connections. The event was in fact a centenary celebration for Pierre Rouve (aka Petar Ouvaliev). You might not think you know Pierre Rouve's work, after all why should you know about a Bulgarian emigre, but in fact he worked extensively in the British film industry, starting as second director of Innocents in Paris with Claire Bloom and Alastair Sim, going on to found the production company 'Bridge Films' with Carlo Ponti and co-producing the film The Millionairess with Sofia Loren and filming Blow Up with Michelangelo Antonioni, Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings. He was also a talented writer, in both English and Bulgarian, and for over 40 years broadcast regularly on the Bulgarian service of the BBC World Service. 

And the double name? Petar Ouvaliev chose the name of Pierre Rouve as the one by which he was known in the UK, it was the name on his British passport. His wife and biographer feels it shows how his personality and all his artistic activities bridged the two persons: the Bulgarian who had already begun to make a name for himself before coming to the West and the perfect European that he became once settled in the United Kingdom. 

Ivo and Lachezar Stankov performing at the Bulgarian Embassy
Ivo and Lachezar Stankov
performing at the Bulgarian Embassy
It turns out that Pierre Rouve and his wife Sonia lived around the corner from D.'s shop and their house in Markham Street had a plaque unveiled on Friday 27 March, and in fact D. has done work for Pierre and Sonia, and their daughter. Then when we got to the Bulgarian Embassy I discovered that, of course, Dobrinka's violin and piano piece was being performed by a pair of London-based Bulgarian performers, the Stankov brothers (Ivo and Lachezar), whose Stankov Ensemble I am reviewing at the moment and will be publishing a review of their Musical Evenings with the Stankov Ensemble disc shortly.

Dobrinka Tabakova - photo credit Sussie Ahlburg
Dobrinka Tabakova
photo credit Sussie Ahlburg
The evening celebrated Pierre Rouve's many talents. He came to the UK after the war as a diplomat and in fact taught himself English on receiving his posting. Subsequently his career moved in its various directions and he did not return to Bulgaria after 1948, taking up British Citizenship and only resuming his Bulgarian Citizenship in 1994. That he is now honoured by the Bulgarian state was evident from the various strands of celebration that we learned about, ranging from stamps in his honour to his archive being presented to Sofia University. We heard, on film, from the first head of the Bulgarian service of the BBC World Service who first employed Pierre Rouve, and live from the final head (the BBC World Service has subsequently terminated the service), and Rouve's talks on a bewildering variety of subjects are the subject of a scholarly study, volume one of which will be published this year.

The more formal part of the evening (there were drinks to come!) finished with the UK premiere of Dobrinka Tabakova's Through the cold smoke performed by Ivo Stankov (violin) and Lachezar Stankov (playing a piano given to the embassy by Paderewski). Dobrinka had based the work on an image from Pierre Rouve's photographic archive, of a cigarette smoking in front of a microphone, and had used the letters of Pierre Rouve's name to form a melody which came in the middle of the piece. It is quite a contemplative work but with some highly dramatic moments. The Stankov brothers premiered it in Sofia in January on the very day of Pierre Rouve's birthday. I am very sure that it won't be the last time we hear it.

Finals of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition

Van Kuijk Quartet (winners of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition) performing in the final - photo Ben Ealovega
Van Kuijk Quartet
(winners of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition)
performing in the final - photo Ben Ealovega
Debussy, Ravel, Dvorak; Aizuri Quartet, Verona Quartet, Van Kuijk Quartet, Piatti Quartet; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 29 2015
Star rating: 5.0

The finals of the 2015 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, the culmination of a week of competition, masterclasses and performance.

Four quartets (two American, one French and one British) for the final of the 2015 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 29 March 2015. All this week quartets have been competing, alongside masterclasses and concerts by former participants. The quartets had already played quartets by Haydn, Beethoven, and a new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage, alongside other repertoire, and for this round the work was a romantic one. This meant that we heard the String Quartet in G minor Op.10 (1893) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) from the Aizuri Quartet, the String Quartet in F major (1903) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) from the Verona Quartet, Debussy's quartet from the Van Kuijk Quartet, and String Quartet in G major Op.106 (1895) by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) from the Piatti Quartet.

Van Kuijk Quartet receiving their award from competition chairman John Gilhooly - photo Ben Ealovega
Van Kuijk Quartet receiving their award
from competition chairman John Gilhooly - photo Ben Ealovega
The Aizuri Quartet started things off with Debussy's String Quartet. Based in the USA, and formed in October 2012 the members of the quartet have all studied at the Julliard School and the Curtis Institute and the members are Japanese, American and Canadian with Miho Saegusa and Zoe Martin-Doike (violins), Ayane Kozasa (viola) and Karen Ouzounian (cello).

They started the first movement (Anime et tres decide) with strong dark tones and a lovely communal sense, with very strong phrasing and well modulated sound combined with vibrantly impulsive climaxes. The second movement (Assez vif et bien rythme) opened with rather dramatic pizzicato, with a strong yet delicately characterful viola, and there was a lovely perky swing to the movement and confident handling of the many changes of texture. The third movement (Andantino, doucement expressif) was again delicate, yet strong in character with a lovely veiled singing tone, which developed from calm to vibrant intensity and back.. The whole magical and mesmerising. Finally, the movement marked Tres modere - tres mouremente started with an intense introduction, leading to a dynamic and free-flowing fast section. Not metronomic, there was a lovely communality to the pulse and its variety. Throughout you felt that the four breathed the music together.

Sunday 29 March 2015

Eastern inspiration - Felicien David's Le Desert

Felicien David Le Desert; Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, Dubois, Wilder, Winling, Equilbey; Naive
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 29 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Superb resurrection of David's forgotten Arabic symphonic epic

The idea of the East was something that inspired a great deal of 19th century art, one way or another, but few artists actually visited these foreign parts. The 19th century French composer Felicien David was different, he actually did visit Algeria, Egypt and the Middle-East, and his experiences there fuelled his music. His orchestral ode Le Desert was his best known work, though it is virtually ignored today, but under the auspices of the Palazzetto Bru Zane, Laurence Equilbey and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris have recorded Le Desert on the Naive label. In fact they have recorded it twice, once in the original version with narration spoken by Jean-Marie Winling and once without the narration. On both versions, Equilbey is joined by her choir Accentus and tenors Cyrille Dubois and Zachary Wilder.

Laurence Equilbey - ©Julien Mignot / naïve
Laurence Equilbey - ©Julien Mignot / naïve
Felicien David (1810-1876) is one of those composer whose career runs through the biographies of better known figures like Bizet (who admired his music and thought of writing a symphonic ode like Le Desert), without his music ever really making much of an impact. Though a disc of David's songs was issued last year (see my review). David was at the cathedral school in Aix-en-Provence before going to the conservatoire in Paris, where he studied with Millault, Fetis, Benoist and Reber. And if those names are not well known to you, that is because David belongs to a substantial thread of 19th century French music which is largely unexplored today. Which is where the Palazzetto Bru Zane comes in, they are the Centre de Musique Romantique Francaise.(If you are interested in Bru Zane's work then they are presenting four concerts at the Institut Francais in London today - 29 March 2015).

Saturday 28 March 2015

French Romantic piano music with the support of the Palazzetto Bru Zane

Palazzetto Bru Zane
If you thought that English music from the late 19th and early 20th century was often in danger of being neglected by broadcasters and concert promoters, just spare a thought for those interested in French Romantic music from the 19th and early 20th century. The catalogue is full of works by composers rarely heard, and unheard works by major composers. The work of the Palazzetto Bru Zane - Centre de musique romantique francaise is dedicated to restoring this gap, and you can get a little flavour of their work tomorrow (Sunday 29 March 2015) when they are presenting a group of recitals at the Institut Francais in London, as part of the It's all about piano festival. Four piano recitals will take listeners on a journey through French Romantic music from the French revolution to the 20th century.

Pianists Laurent Wagschal, Dana Ciocarlie, Romain Descharmes and Nicolas Stavy will each give a recital (at 12pm, 2.30pm, 5pm and 7pm respectively, on Sunday 29 March 2015). Music to be performed includes the work of three women whose names you have probably not come across before -  Helene de Montgeroult (1764-1836) the French pianist/composer (born into an aristocratic family, reputedly it was respect for her compositions which allowed her to survive the Terror), Marie Jaell (1846-1925) who besides composing and teaching, was the first pianist to perform all of Beethoven's piano sonatas in Paris, and Mel Bonis (1858-1937) who was a prolific composer in a whole variety of genres. Also in the mix, will be music by Florent Schmitt, Louis Vierne, Paul Dukas, Gabriel Pierne, as well as Faure, Ravel and Schumann.

But who or what is the Palazzetto Bru Zane?

Till the Stars Fall - an encounter with Matthew Long - 'is this a crossover disc?'

Matthew Long - photo Ria Mishaal
Matthew Long - photo Ria Mishaal
It is rare to come across a young singer who is not only talented but who has a clear understanding of how the music and record industry functions, and takes a strong interest not just in their contribution but the whole recording and what happens to it. I recently met up with the young tenor Matthew Long to talk about his latest CD, Till the stars fall, and it was clear that he takes a keen interest not just in the music itself, but in the whole mechanics of getting the product out to audiences.

You have probably seen Matthew without necessarily realising it, as his performing career has included performing with a number of period instrument groups as well as singing with The Sixteen, and in fact the day that we met I had just been listening to The Sixteen's latest Purcell disc The Indian Queen on which Matthew features as soloist as well as performing in the ensemble. (see my review of The Indian Queen).

Matthew has just released a new disc, his first solo recital disc. It is entitled Till the stars fall and consists of a number of songs by Holst, Quilter, RVW, Finzi and Elgar alongside modern arrangements of traditional songs and popular numbers like Jerusalem and I vow to thee my country. Performers including Matthew, the pianist Malcolm Martineau, the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ben Parry (who did a lot of the arrangements), and Rufus Miller. Miller is in fact a session guitarist who works with people like Sting and The Slease. In fact, a quick glance at the disc, and it screams cross-over. What has our young period tenor (about to go off to Boston to sing Evangelist in the St Matthew Passion) got himself into?

Matthew laughs when I ask him about what the disc is and says that if it 'sits uneasily between Classic FM and Radio 3' then he is happy.

If the CD 'sits uneasily between Classic FM and Radio 3' then Matthew is happy.

Friday 27 March 2015

Homages: A Musical Dedication - Christoph Denoth

Homages - Christoph Denoth - Signum
Malats, Narvaez, Llobet, Sor, Villa-Lobos, Falla, Turina, Albeniz, Rodrigo; Christoph Denoth; Signum Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 23 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Imaginative selection of guitar pieces mainly from Spain, all linked by their sense of homage

This new disc on Signum Classics from Swiss guitarist Christoph Denoth presents a selection of pieces by mainly Spanish composers all linked by the fact that they were dedicated to someone or something. Christoph Denoth feels that these are all very personal pieces and it makes for an appealing programme. The centrepieces are the Preludes by Heitor Villa Lobos (the only non-Spaniard in the programme) and the Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy by Manuel de Falla. But round these Denoth has assembled music by Joaquin Malats y Miarons, Luis de Narvaez, Miguel Llobet, Fernando Sor, Joaquin Turina, Isaac Albeniz, and Joaquin Rodrigo.

When I interviewed Christoph Denoth, he talked about how he felt all the works on the disc had great emotional appeal and how the programme had been assembled to reflect this, rather than from any musicological concerns.

He starts with Serenata Espanola by the Catalan composer Joaquin Malats y Miarons (1872-1912). Malats dedicated his orchestral suite Impresiones de Espana to his friend, the novelist Benito Perez Galdos, a leading member of the Spanish Realism movement. Malats made an arrangement for solo piano of the Serenata Espanola movement of the suite, and here Denoth plays the transcription for guitar by Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909). It has an appealing combination of rhythmic swing and melody.

A Pair of Passions

Bach - St Matthew Passion - Bach's fair copy of the revised version
Bach - St Matthew Passion - Bach's fair copy of the revised version
I am sure that there are plenty of performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion occurring on Good Friday (3 April 2015) but two London performances caught my eye. The first, from Laurence Cummings and the London Handel Festival at St George's Hanover Square, partly because we are going to be attending, the second from Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican, because of a very strong cast indeed.

Nathan Vale will be singing the Evangelist at the London Handel Festival's annual performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion at St George's Church, Hanover Square, performed in the context of vespers (as it would have been originally). George Humphreys sings Christus and the bass solos, with soloists Anna Dennis and Alexandra Gibson. Over at the Barbican, James Gilchrist is the Evangelist, with Matthew Rose as Christus and soloists Elizabeth Watts, Sarah Connolly, Mark Le Brocq (replacing an indisposed Andrew Kennedy) and Christopher Purves, with Richard Egarr directing the Academy of Ancient Music. To coincide with their performance, the Academy of Ancient Music is releasing their recording of the passion on their own AAM Records label.

And if you are in Birmingham, then Ex Cathedra Choir, Baroque Orchestra and Academy of Vocal Music are performing the work at Symphony Hall with Jeremy Budd as the Evangelist, Greg Skidmore as Jesus, James Geidt as Pilate and Martha McLorinan, Christopher Watson,Katie Trethewey, Edward Grint, Matthew Venner, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore.

Thursday 26 March 2015

The Indian Queen

The Indian Queen - The Sixteen
Henry Purcell The Indian Queen, Daniel Purcell Masque of Hymen; The Sixteen; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 20 2015
Star rating: 5.0

A stylish and complete account of Henry and Daniel Purcell's music for Henry's last major stage work

Henry Purcell's The Indian Queen seems to have been somewhat in the news recently, his music having been part of Peter Sellars' extravaganza staged by ENO (see my review). Last year, to launch the Wigmore Hall's Henry Purcell: A Retrospective, Harry Christophers and the Sixteen performed Henry and Daniel Purcell's music for The Indian Queen allowing us to hear it theatrically unadorned (see my review) and now their disc, recorded shortly after the concert, has been issued on the Coro label. The disc includes all of Henry Purcell's music for The Indian Queen plus Daniel Purcell's The Masque of Hymen which was written for the piece's first revival. And the disc opens with one of Henry Purcell's catches.

One of the things that it is important to understand about The Indian Queen the theatrical work was that it was not intended to be on the grand scale of the semi-operas like The Fairy Queen and King Arthur. For one thing the company did not have the money, the production in 1695 came after yet more turmoil in the acting companies and The Indian Queen was based on a 30 year old play by Robert Howard (whose fourth wife Arabella was Henry Purcell's pupil) and John Dryden. In fact the original producers probably regarded it as a play with music (albeit, a lot of music) rather than a dramatick opera (their name for what we call semi-opera). Certainly with basic scenery and inexperienced actors (the good ones had all just left), Purcell's music was being called in to fill a lack. And this gave rise to one of the piece's distinctive quirks. The opening prologue, normally spoken, was sung to music by Purcell mainly because the singers would remedy the lack of experience of the actors.

The play concerns the fighting between Peru and Mexico (the Indian of the title in fact refers to the inhabitants of Peru!). The finale of the original semi-opera, produced in 1695 was rather downbeat, so at the 1696 revival a masque was added, written after the composer's death by Henry Purcell's brother/cousin Daniel Purcell. A rather Henry Purcell-ian (albeit without his imaginative quirk) sequence of choruses and solos.

Tippett's Ice Break

I first heard Tippett's opera The Ice Break when it was performed in concert at the Proms in 1990 woth Heather Harper coming out of retirement to sing the role of Nadia (a role she had created) and David Wilson-Johnson demonstrating his versatility by singing both in the Tippett and in Handel's Belshazzar during the same week. The opera really has not been seen much of since, and Tippett's own libretto is very much to blame and it is felt by some to be curious and dated. The setting is very 'contemporary' and nothing has dated so much as Tippett's literary attempts to be contemporary. But I remember being extremely impressed by the power of the music.

Now, Graham Vick and his enterprising Birmingham Opera Company are reviving the piece for a run of performances 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9 April 2015 in an inner city warehouse in Birmingham. Graham Vick directs and the conductor is Andrew Gourlay, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and a chorus of 150 singing and acting volunteers drawn from communities across the city. The performance is a promenade style one, taking place in the B12 Warehouse (ticket holders are advised of the exact location on booking). As should be expected from this group, this will be no ordinary performance; the audience is advised that they should be prepared with warm clothes, as it may be cold, and wear suitable footwear. The cast includes Nadine Benjamin in the role of Nadia.

Tenebrae at St John's

The service of Tenebrae during Holy Week, inspired many composers to produce music. There are settings both of the Lamentations of Jeremiah which form the readings during the service, and of the individual Responds sung before and after the readings. 

The service had its drama heightened by the candles in the church being extinguished one by one, until only one was left. Whilst not going quite this far, Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi will be evoking this in their Tenebrae concert at St John's Smith Square on 1 April 2015, when the group will be performing Thomas Tallis's Lamentations of Jeremiah, Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responds, plus music by Guerrero and Byrd, along with a set of motets by Bernardino de Ribera which were only recently discovered.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Stravinsky double bill

A Soldiers Tale / Renard
Two enterprising young companies, Constella Ballet and Orchestra and Helios Collective, are collaborating to present an all-Stravinsky programme at the Bloomsbury Theatre on 31 March and 1 April 2015. The programme is a double bill of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale choregraphed by Jaerad Glavin (first presented in 2013, see my review) and a new production of the opera-ballet Renard with choreography by Erico Montes of the Royal Ballet. Far less well-known that Soldier's Tale, Renard is a work based on Russian folk-tales.

The works, which involve six dancers, two actors, four singers, and an orchestra, are directed by Helios Collective’s Artistic Director Ella Marchment and conducted by Leo Geyer. The cast includes tenors Leonel Pinheiro and Daniel Joy, and the dancers Matt Petty and Michael Walters. The instrumental ensemble will be on-stage for the performances, making them very much part of the action and for Renard this is a great advantage for audience members as Stravinsky used a cimbalom as the continuo instrument in the work. This is a large hammered dulcimer, a Hungarian folk-instrument, best known for its use in Kodaly's Hary Janos and for its occasional inclusion in Rosalinde's act two aria (when she is a 'Hungarian' countess) in Strauss's Die Fledermaus.

See the Bloomsbury Theatre website for further details.

I musicisti dell'imperatore - Music from the reign of Charles VI of Austria

Music from the reign of Charles VI of Austria
Piani, Caldara, Scarlatti, Vivaldi; Raffaella Milanesi, G.A.P. Ensemble; Pan Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 17 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Viennese Imperial court style in 18th century music written for Emperor Charles

In the 18th century the Hapsburg Emperors in Vienna ruled a huge empire, which stretched as far south as Italy. From the 17th century the Vienna Court Orchestra was predominantly Italian, and in the early 18th century a sequence of Emperors were notably music loving. So that under these, particularly the last of the sequence Charles VI (reigned 1711 to 1740) music at the Viennese court reached its heydey. But 1736 saw the death of Antonio Caldara (Charles' favourite composer), in 1741 the death of Johann Joseph Fux (the Imperial Kapellmeister) and in 1740 the death of Charles himself, to be replaced by his daughter Maria Theresa (reigned 1740 to 1780) who considered the political benefits of the court orchestra to be slight, and vastly limited the amount of music at court.

This disc, on Pan Classics, from soprano Raffaella Milanesi and G.A.P. Ensemble (Emilio Percan, violin, Oriol Aymat Fuste, violoncello, and Luca Quintavalle, harpsichord) presents a selection of music which written for Charles, though so much was written they could probably have assembled dozens of discs without much overlap. There are three cantatas for soprano, each with an obbligato violin part. Risoluto on gia tiranno amore by Antonio Caldara, who worked for Charles, and two cantatas by composers who worked for his viceroys but tried to get his attention. Alessandro Scarlatti's Appena chiudo gli occhi and Antonio Vivaldi's Lungi dal vago volto, RV 680.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

It’s All About Piano

The Institut français is running its celebration of all things piano again this weekend. Their It's All About Piano festival runs from 27-29 March 2015 with a whole plethora of exciting events throughout the weekend. Concerts run throughout the day and include late evening recitals, so you can spend the day there (and the food in their bistro is great and it becomes a piano bar during the festival) or just drop in. Besides recitals there are a series of workshops Build your own piano with piano tuner and technician Alain Chauvel, and free beginners workshops with Music'all

Events which caught my eye included Mikhail Rudy’s multimedia recital which combines his programmes Métamorphose (based on Kafka) and Pictures at an Exhibition, linking animated images by the Brothers Quay and Kandinsky with music by Janáček and Mussorgsky (Friday 27); a concert from Julien Gonzales, 8-time winner of the Accordion World Championship (Saturday 28); the London première of Messiaen’s La Fauvette Passerinette, presented and performed by Peter Hill (Saturday 28); and recitals from François-Frédéric Guy (Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart on Saturday 28) and Peter Donohoe (Messiaen, Debussy and Beethoven on Sunday 29).

You can see all the events at a glance on the festival's website.

Jonathan Biss re-starts his Beethoven piano sonata survey.

Jonathan Biss - Beethoven piano sonatas Vol 4
Beethoven piano sonatas nos. 6, 10, 19 and 23 (Appassionata); Jonathan Biss
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 17 2015
Young American pianist has re-started his survey of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas

The young American pianist Jonathan Biss is currently working his way through the complete Beethoven piano sonatas with the latest CD on his own label (produced in collaboration with Meyer Media), the earlier volumes having been issued on Onyx Classics. With this volume Biss starts at the beginning with  Beethoven's first piano sonata, Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1, Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10 No. 2, Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1, finishing with Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata".

Born into a family of musicians, Biss's parents are violinists and his maternal grandmother is the player for whom Samuel Barber wrote his Cello Concerto. Biss studied at the Curtis Institute from the age of 17 with Leon Fleischer. Biss himself now teaches at the Curtis where, last Autumn he offered an on-line course in Beethoven's piano sonatas, which is promised to re-start this year.

Now, I have to start this review with an admission. I don't normally listen to Beethoven piano sonatas, and they are something of a world away from the music that interests me most. My own pianism did not get much beyond playing Mozart's piano sonatas, so that much of this music is embarrassingly unfamiliar. So what follows is something of an exploration with an innocent ear and I have refrained from giving the disc a star rating.

Beethoven's first piano sonata, written 1795, was dedicated to Haydn and starts with that most common of gestures, the Mannheim Rocket. But once beyond this, it is clear that Beethoven's talent was not one for being confined. Throughout the disc, I was repeatedly struck by how, even in the most conventional of sonatas, Beethoven refuses to be constrained and of course in the Appassionata he goes completely wild and seems to delight in wrong footing the listener.

Noriko Ogawa and Jamie's Concerts

Jamie's Concerts
Pianist Noriko Ogawa's series Jamie's Concerts seem to be rather unique. They are aimed specifically at parents and carers of children with autism, though they are open also to people interested in autism. The concerts are designed to give the carers a chance to relax and listen in supportive environment, with the concerts designed to fit their busy and demanding lives. Generally free of charge, the concerts start at 11am and end well before the school day is over. Refreshments are served and the audience has chance to relax and chat.

One of Jamie's Concerts held by Noriko Ogawa in Japan
One of Jamie's Concerts held by Noriko Ogawa in Japan
The next Jamie's Concerts are in Manchester and London. On 22 April 2015 at the Barbirolli Room at the Bridgewater Hall (as part of the hall's Ravel and Rachmaninov Festival) and on 5 May 2015 at Milton Court Concert Hall, Guildhall School of Music in Drama. On 9 April 2015, Noriko Ogawa will also be giving an evening concert at St Peter's Eaton Square, London, as part of their 2015 Spring Series, and the concert will also be the official launch of Noriko Ogawa as an official Ambassador for the National Autistic Society. You can hear Norkio Ogawa talking about her charity work to Melanie Spanswick on a YouTube video.

When Noriko Ogawa first came to the UK, she lodged with a family with a child, Jamie, who had severe autism. Noriko Ogawa wanted to do something to help, and she found that when the child's carer was calm Jamie was calmer too, so the idea of helping 'behind the scenes' with Jamie's Concerts was born. You can learn more from Jamie's mother's blog, and there is a JustGiving page if you would like to contribute.

It has recently also been announced that the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where Noriko Ogawa teaches, is to fund a research project looking at how attending concerts can help the parents and carers of children with autism, further information from the Guildhall School's website.

Monday 23 March 2015

BBC Symphony Orchestra in Monte-Carlo

BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo
If you fancy a quick jaunt to Monte-Carlo in Monaco, then the BBC Symphony Orchestra is making its debut at the Festival Printemps des Arts there on Saturday 28 March 2015. Led by the chief conductor, Sakari Oramo, the orchestra will be playing and all Sibelius programme including Pojhola's Daughter, songs with Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski and Symphony No. 5, which celebrates not only the 150th anniversary of Sibelius's birth but the fact that Sibelius conducted the symphony's premiere 100 years ago in 1915.

The festival runs from 20 March to 12 April 2015 and presents a diverse line-up of artists (some 400  in all) at a variety of different venues in Monte-Carlo including the Musee Oceanographique, Opera Granier, The Grimaldi Forum, and the Yacht Club de Monaco. This year the focus of the festival is particularly on the music of Sibelius, Bach and the Italian composer Franco Donatoni (1927-2000), whose work included Arte della Fuga based on that of Bach.

Flow my tears - Iestyn Davies

Flow my tears - Iestyn Davies
Johnson, Dowland, Danyel, Campion, Muhly, Hume; Iestyn Davies, Thomas Dunford, Jonathan Manson; Wigmore Hall Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 10 2015
Star rating: 5.0

New light on an old form - lute songs ancient and modern

This new disc from counter-tenor Iestyn Davies is on the Wigmore Hall Live label. A live recording of a Wigmore Hall concert from 5 July 2013, Davies is joined by lutenist Thomas Dunford and viol player Jonathan Manson for a programme of music for lute, viol and voice. There are a couple of interesting aspects to the programme, first the participation of viol player Jonathan Manson adds an interesting extra depth to some of the lute songs, and secondly the 16th and 17th century music by Robert Johnson, John Dowland, John Danyel, Thomas Campion and Tobias Hume, is joined by the world premiere of Nico Muhly's Old Bones.

Our knowledge of Elizabethan lute-songs is very much defined by the music of John Dowland (1563-1626), with his sophisticated talent, professional melancholy and constant frustration at never achieving a position at Queen Elizabeth's court. In fact his music was popular and he was professionally successful in monetary terms, and did achieve a court position late in life under King James. Dowland was of course simply part of a lute culture, in which songs and lute music were written, performed, published and circulated in manuscript collections.

Robert Johnson (c1583-1633) was appointed Queen Elizabeth's court lutenist in 1597 when he was only a teenager (which must, presumably, have annoyed Dowland greatly). Johnson also wrote music for the theatre and here Davies sings Have you seen the bright lily grow from Ben Jonson's comedy The Devil is an Ass (1616) and Care-charming sleep from John Fletcher's Valentinian (1610), plus a charming little song From the famous peak of Derby (also by Ben Jonson) which idealises life away from court.

Music circulated in manuscript as much as printed copies, and the collection copied by Margaret Board, one of Dowland's pupils, is an important source for his music. Praeludium only occurs here, it is a solo lute piece which demonstrates the player's virtuoso skill, a brilliant take on an academic exercise. Thomas Dunford follows it with the lovely little A Fancy.

Sunday 22 March 2015

A Knight's Progress - Music from the Temple Church Choir

A Knights Progress
Parry, Walton, Muhly, RVW, Tavener, Bairstow, Haydn; Choir of the Temple Church, Greg Morris, Roger Sayer; Signum Recordds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 9 2015
Star rating: 4.0

New work by Nico Muly is the centrepiece of this attractive mixed programme

The centre-piece of this new disc on Signum Records from the Temple Church Choir and its director Roger Sayer, with organist Greg Morris, is a new commission from Nico Muhly, Our present charter. This is performed with a mixed programme of mainly 20th century music with Hubert Parry's I was glad, William Walton's The Twelve, John Tavener's Mother of God, here I stand, RVW's Valiant for Truth, Edward Bairstow's Blessed City, heavenly Salem and Franz Josef Haydn's Te Deum in C major.

For some reason the disc is entitled, A Knight's Progress. The article in the CD booklet does not quite illuminate the reasons for this but I presume it is linked to the fact that the Muhly piece was written to celebrate the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and three of the witnesses to the sealing of the charter are buried in the church.

Sayer, Morris and the choir open with a strong performance of Parry's I was glad, the choir well supported by the recently restored organ. The choir makes a good, firm rich sound with an admirable clarity in the resonant acoustic. There is a hint that the performance loses focus a little in the quieter section but this is a finely confident opening to the recital.

Saturday 21 March 2015

La Nuova Musica, Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead

La Nuova Musica - photo B. Ealovega
La Nuova Musica
photo B. Ealovega
Bach, Locatelli, Vivaldi, Pergolesi; Lucy Crowe, Tim Mead, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; St Johns Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 20 2015
Star rating: 5.0

A lenten programme which did not preclude bravura brilliance and expressive singing

David Bates and his group, La Nuova Musica brought a rather Lenten themed programme of baroque vocal music to St John's Smith Square on Friday 20 March 2015, the first half devoted to struggling with sin and God's wrath, the second half contemplating the sufferings of Mary at the foot of the Cross. Joined by counter-tenor Tim Mead and soprano Lucy Crowe, they performed Bach's cantata Widerstehe doch der Sunde, BWV 54 (Just resist sin), Vivaldi's motet In furore Iustissimae irae, RV 626 (In wrath  and most just anger), and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, along with Locatelli's Concerto Grosso in C minor, Op.1, No.1.

Lucy Crowe - photo Marco Borggreve
Lucy Crowe
photo Marco Borggreve
Bach's cantata  Widerstehe doch der Sunde, BWV 54 was written for alto soloist, here sung by Tim Mead, whilst Bach was in Weimar in 1714, and is his first surviving church cantata for solo voice. The opening aria starts with an amazing orchestral gesture which Bates and his group made into something profoundly modern (for a second you thought, hang on a second!). Mead's performance was wonderfully straight, direct and up-front but with a lovely sense of line and here he was matched by the ensemble. The players really dug into the chords in the lower strings. After a short but expressive recitative, the final aria was distinctly fugal, with a rich lower string texture complementing Mead's strong account of the rather chromatic vocal line.

Tim Mead - photo B. Ealovega
Tim Mead
photo B. Ealovega
Bates used a combination of organ and harpsichord continuo, but his own harpsichord contributions were patchy as he spent a lot of time conducting. Here, I have to admit that I could not watch. Whilst I love the group's sound, I cannot watch Bates' gyrations as he achieves the sound he wants. The orchestra's basic sound world is very rich, and Bates seems to like a strong viola and bass lines which I rather like and which certainly adds to the richness of the mix.

Next the orchestra played Locatelli's Concerto grosso in C minor, Opus 1, no.1 which was written in Rome in 1721. A four movement work, generally slow, fast, slow, fast, it used a solo quartet of two violins, viola and cello (Bojan Cicic, Kinga Ujsaaszi, Jane Rogers, Joseph Crouch). The opening Largo was slow and grand and very striking, with the expressive yet chromatic solo from Bojan Cicic's first violin predominating, and the ensemble bringing a lot of rich colour to the harmony. The Allemanda was a perky movement, very much a quick fire call and response between soli and ensemble. The Sarabanda was stately with lovely sonorous harmonies, echoing the expressive solo passages. Finally a perky Giga Allegro, with busy solo parts giving us cascades of notes over a strongly rhythmic bass.

An encounter with John Savournin of Charles Court Opera - a passion for Gilbert and Sullivan

Ruddigore - Charles Court Opera - Sir Despard (John Savournin) and Dick Dauntless (Philip Lee) Photo Bill Knight
Ruddigore - Charles Court Opera
Sir Despard (John Savournin) and Dick Dauntless (Philip Lee)
Photo Bill Knight
Charles Court Opera has just come to the end of a run of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, a Hammer Horror style production at the King's Head Theatre in Islington (see Hilary's review on this blog). The group is also celebrating its 10th anniversary, no bad innings for a fringe opera group. So I met up with founder, baritone John Savournin (who played Sir Despard in Ruddigore and directed the show) to chat about the company and its first ten years.

John comments that the idea of 10 years rather catches up on him unawares, and whilst so much has happened he can still imagine what they were 10 years ago. The group was founded very much as a platform for young singers to have an outlet in London and has just developed. John ruefully admits that they are now not all so young but the group is there to do good work for which they all share a passion, and whilst they are noted for Gilbert and Sullivan the repertoire is in fact broader.

John had an itch for directing as a teenager, but though he experimented with it, it was a singer that he studied at Trinity College in London. Describing his family as 'entrenched in G&S culture', when John met David Eaton (who remains the group's musical director) at Trinity, putting on a Gilbert and Sullivan concert there was a way of preserving his Gilbert and Sullivan links. They tried a Gilbert and Sullivan show at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington and it was very well received. The resulting progress has been organic, but John says that it was not all planned carefully. They now have their boutique pantomime at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, seasons at the King's Head Theatre as well as elsewhere. There have been tours too, to Lanzarote and the new concert hall in Dublin.

Friday 20 March 2015

Nos autem gloriari premiere

Vaulted ceiling at All Saints' Church, Margaret Street
This Sunday, 22 March 2015, 6pm Evensong at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London W1W 8JG, is replaced by a Passiontide Sequence of Music and Readings. During the service, my motet Nos autem gloriari will be premiered by the choir of All Saints Church, conducted by their music director Timothy Byram-Wigfield.
Nos autem gloriari comes from my collection Tempus per Annum, which contains motets for the church's year setting the Latin introits - one for each Sunday and major feasts. Though in fact Nos autem gloriari sets not an introit, but an antiphon for Maundy Thursday.
The collection is nearing completion, finally, and I am only three motets off the final one (number 73!); I am currently working on the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, and only have All Saints and the Feast of Christ the King to do. All the finished motets, some sixty or so, are available for free download from the CPDL website.

Mass and Motets for an Easter Vigil - Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers

Allegri, Sanders, Martin, Messiaen; The Holst Singers, Layton; Temple Music at Temple Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Sheer beauty of sound in a choral programme for Easter

Conducted by Stephen Layton, the Holst Singers performed their programme Mass and Motets for an Easter Vigil at the Temple Church on Thursday 19 March 2015, as part of the Temple Music Foundation's 2015 season. The concert opened with Allegri's Miserere, followed by John Sanders The Reproaches, and Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir, concluding with Olivier Messiaen's only sacred choral work, the early motet O Sacrum Convivium.

The choir is quite a large group, some 45 singers, and they stood in the entrance to the Round Church with the audience in the stalls in the nave, an arrangement which worked well and gave the choir the benefit of the support of the Round Church's acoustic. Conductor Stephen Layton is a former director of music at the Temple Church, so can be assumed to know how best to deal with its fine, but quirky acoustic.

Thursday 19 March 2015

BBC Young Musician winner Laura Van Der Heijden set to tour Wales with Sinfonia Cymru

Laura Van Der Heijden - Photo credit Sam Trench
Laura Van Der Heijden
Photo credit Sam Trench
Cellist Laura Van Der Heijden won the BBC Young Musician competition in 2012 when she was 14. Conductor Gareth Jones heard her during the competition, when he was adjudicating the string final. Now three years later, aged 17, Laura is joining Gareth Jones and Sinfonia Cymru for a Welsh tour performing Shostakovich's First Cello in a programme with Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, Sibelius's Pelleas and Melisande and Copland's A Quiet City. The tour starts at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (Thursday 26 March), with performances at Pontyberem Memorial Hall (Friday 27 March), The Riverfront, Newport (Saturday 28 March) and Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold (Sunday 29 March).

Laura is having a busy year, she is currently studying for her A levels as well as preparing for performances with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and she has recently formed a piano trio with composer/pianist Huw Watkins and violinist Tobias Feldman. Sinfonia Cymru will be following this tour with its first all-baroque concert in May, working with Brecon-based period violinist Rachel Podger.


More than just an orchestra - An encounter with Sascha Goetzel

Sascha Goetzel conducting the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra in Haydn's The Seasons photo credit Ozge Balkan
Sascha Goetzel conducting the Borusan Istanbul
Philharmonic Orchestra in Haydn's The Seasonsphoto credit Ozge Balkan
The Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel has been the chief conductor of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (BIPO) since 2009 and during this time he has transformed what was a talented provincial orchestra into one which, with appearances at the Salzburg Festival and at the BBC Proms, is developing a real international profile. As part of my trip to Istanbul to hear the orchestra performing Haydn's The Seasons, I was able to talk to Sascha about his work with the orchestra and their future plans.

BIPO is a private orchestra, created by the family which owns Borusan Holdings, Turkey's largest steel conglomerate, and funded through their Borusan Foundation. Sascha Goeztel was appointed chief conductor after an international search to replace the Turkish conductor Gürer Aykal who had directed the orchestra since its founding in 1999 (based on the Borusan Istanbul Chamber Orchestre itself founded in 1993).

When Sascha took over the orchestra he found a group of immensely talented young players (the orchestra's average age is around 30), but they had all been trained in different places and so played in differing styles. As he put it, they all spoke different dialects of music. His first task was to create a unified ensemble, by working with the orchestra having a lot of sectional rehearsals. Sascha also learned about Turkish culture, where classical music has only played a part since the 19th century, and Turkish folk music. In this latter, the dances are often in uneven rhythms and the players had a different way of instinctively dividing rhythms across the bar. Turkish music also has a huge amount of melisma in it. So Sascha worked with the players in these areas, playing music such as dance based pieces which built on their traditional styles.

The rhythmic and melismatic elements of Turkish music still imbue the orchestra's sound, and Sascha feels that the players understand the need for colouring, painting in sound in an extremely vivid way. A test of his early work with the orchestra was when he took them to the Salzburg Festival in 2010. He felt the orchestra played well, and the audience was stunned both by the sound and by the unexpected nature of a classical orchestra of such quality coming from Istanbul.

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