Thursday 30 April 2015

ENO new season

Benedict Andrews' production of La Boheme at Dutch National Opera. Photo Monica Rittershaus
Benedict Andrews' production of La Boheme at Dutch National Opera.
Photo Monica Rittershaus
English National Opera has announced a 2015/2016 season which is remarkably confident and shows that artistic director John Berry is intending to stick to his guns and develop the company's distinctive brand. There are new (to London) productions from Dmitri Tcherniakov, Benedict Andrews, Calixto Bieito, Christopher Alden, Phelim McDermott and Daniel Kramer with Tristan and Isolde, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Force of Destiny, and Akhnaten, four operas which have strong historical resonance for the company, all making a welcome return to the Coliseum stage and Norma coming to ENO for the first time.

It is possible detect hints of ENO simply going shopping for suitable productions in this selection of co-productions, which may be a result of ENO's current economics, and can be seen as a canny way of getting greater leverage. Tcherniakov's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for instance is much travelled, having been created for Deutsche Oper am Rhein, this outing is a co-production between ENO and Opera de Lyon. Norma is borrowed from Opera North for whom it was created (with Die Theater Chemnitz). Calizto Bieito's new Force of Destiny is a co-production with the Met in New York, and we wonder what that house will make of Bieito's particularly potent blend of Euro-trash?

All this has to be paid for, of course.

O/Modernt Kammarorkester – from festival to concert hall

 O/Modernt Kammarorkester
 O/Modernt Kammarorkester
Tüür, Pärt, Glass, Pérotin; O/Modernt Kammarorkester, Hugo Ticciati, Thomas Gould; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Apr 18 2015
Star rating: 5.0

'possibly the best chamber orchestra I have ever heard.'

Two minimalist concerts in two nights... After seeing the Labèquesisters play Glass and Moondog, tonight's concert at Kings Place by O/Modernt Kammarorkester brought Estonian minimalism into the mix. Directed by Hugo Ticciati (who also played violin) and featuring Thomas Gould on violin, performing Tüür and Pärt alongside Glass and Pérotin, O/Modernt Kammarorkester were possibly the best chamber orchestra I have ever heard.

O/Modernt Kammarorkester has developed from the Swedish festival O/Modernt (un-modern), also directed by Ticciati, which is interested in reinventing past musical ideas for the modern times. As part of this exploration this concert looked at "The art of repetition in sound, from the thirteenth to the twenty-first century". Here musical processes from the 13th century Notre Dame School would be used as to examine some of the well-known and well-loved minimalistic masterpieces of the 20th century, as well as guide improvisation – music so new it hadn't even been written.

The Twenty Fifth Hour - The Chamber Music of Thomas Ades

The Twenty Fifth Hour - The Chamber Music of Thomas Ades
Thomas Ades Piano Quintet, The Four Quarters, Arcadiana; The Calder Quartet, Thomas Ades; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Pure magic in a programme of Ades music for piano and quartet

This new disc of chamber music by Thomas Ades on Signum Classics showcases music written over a 20 year period, ranging from Arcadiana (1993), through Piano Quintet (2001) to the world premiere recording of The Four Quarters (2011). The performers are the Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook, Jonathan Moerschel, Eric Byers) , with Thomas Ades joining them on piano for the Piano Quintet.

The Calder Quartet - Autumn de Wilde
The Calder Quartet - photo Autumn de Wilde
We start in the middle, so to speak, with the Piano Quintet of 2001 which was commissioned by the Melbourne Festival for the Arditti Quartet. The piece is in one single movement span, though on the disc it is tracked in three parts, and in structure it represents a highly complex response to traditional forms. It starts with just a solo violin and throughout textures are spare but Ades ensures that lack of density does not imply lack of complexity. He is fond of using small groupings of instruments, and though there is a very strong central development section we are a very long way from the traditional big romantic piano quintet. There were moments when the night music of Bartok was called to mind. Ades also plays with time, both speeds and time signatures, and the whole recapitulation is highly compressed, with a similar increase in density leading to highly complex final pages.

The Four Quarters for string quartet (2011) was premiered at the Carnegie Hall by the Emerson String Quartet. The four movements, Nightfall, Serenade: Morning Dew, Days and The Twenty Fifth Hour take the listener through the diurnal cycle. The opening movement starts with music on two different planes, violins playing harmonics in a regular pattern (short, short, long) and far below these the viola and cello in slow harmonies together. The result is highly evocative and magical, and throughout the long movements (over seven minutes) there is a sense of the two planes coming together, coalescing and then receding. It is an intense, concentrated and thoughtful movement which receives playing of superb control and poise by the players. Serenade: Morning Dew is more of a scherzo with string pizzicatos, though there is an element of violence in the plucking, with some perky underlying rhythms. Days is described by the booklet notes as a study in monotony! The instruments have a gentle circling round a repeated note from the second violin, and it is this repeated note which increasingly dominates and takes over the rhythms before it all unwinds. Finally The Twenty Fifth Hour, the time outside time, where we return to the magical textures with upper harmonics and a plucked cello, creating a sort of continuum, a perpetuum mobile.

Wednesday 29 April 2015

Debussy and his Muse

Debussy and his Muse - Gillian Keith & Simon Lepper - photo Robert Workman
Debussy and his Muse - Gillian Keith & Simon Lepper - photo Robert Workman
Debussy and his Muse; Gillian Keith, Simon Lepper, dir: Nina Brazier; Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 27 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Dramatic exploration of Debussy's infatuation with Marie-Blanche Vasner

Gillian Keith & Simon Lepper - Debussy and his Muse  photo Robert Workman
Gillian Keith & Simon Lepper - Debussy and his Muse 
photo Robert Workman
Listening to soprano Gillian Keith's recent disc of early Debussy songs, I was struck by the rather dramatic story behind them. This thought clearly occurred to Gillian Keith as well as she has developed Debussy and his muse: the story of Achille Debussy and Blanche Vasnier in words and music which Gillian Keith and pianist Simon Lepper premiered at Wilton's Music Hall last night (28 April 2015). Directed by Nina Brazier, the show consisted of Debussy's songs with a linking dramatic narrative which was written and performed by Gillian Keith.

She has mined letters and other writings by Debussy and his contemporaries to put the creation of the early songs into context. In order for it not to turn into a lecture, Gillian Keith created a dramatic context by performing the whole evening as Marie-Blanche Vasnier's daughter reminiscing to us. This could have been a rather arch concept, but Gillian Keith's performance was so beautifully direct and full of charm that instead she drew you into the story. And what a story it was!

Max Mausen - debut CD

Max Mausen © Ian Dingle
Max Mausen © Ian Dingle
Debussy, Stravinsky, Ivan Boumans, James Anderson/Max Mausen; Max Mausen, James Anderson
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Showcase for a talented young clarinettist

Max Mausen is a young clarinettist, born in Luxembourg, he trained at the conservatoire there and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and he is now principal clarinettist of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Like many artists, he has moved into producing his own CD as a showcase for his considerable talents. The new disc, New Waves, has Max Mausen partnered by pianist Jason Anderson in Claude Debussy's Premiere rhapsodie, Igor Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, Tryptique by Ivan Boumans and Walthamstow Fall by Jason Anderson and Mausen himself.

Max Mausen and Jason Anderson open with Debussy's Premiere rhapsodie for clarinet and piano, which was written in 1910 as an examination piece for the Paris Conservatoire and it is Debussy's only major work for solo clarinet. Max Mausen creates a long lyrical line, to which he gives a lovely endless feel, playing with seductive yet clear tone. He and Jason Anderson capture the atmosphere of mystery about the piece and technically both are superb, in both the lyrical sections and the cascades of notes at the end. Jason Anderson's piano is captured rather over resonantly on the recording.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Ferrier Awards 2015

Gemma Lois Summerfield - photo Robert Piwko
Gemma Lois Summerfield
photo Robert Piwko
This year's Ferrier Awards had their final last week at the Wigmore Hall when soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield took the First Prize and the Song Prize, whilst soprano Soraya Mafi took the Second Prize. Gemma Lois Summerfield sang Sibelius, Mendelsson, Duparc, Copland and Nicolai, and was accompanied by Sebastian Wybrew. Soraya Mafi was accompanied by Ian Tindale who took the accompanist's prize.

Gemma Lois Summerfield is currently studying for a Master’s in performance at the Royal College of Music under Rosa Mannion and Simon Lepper and will take up a place at the International Opera School there in September.

Song of the Stars - Orfeo Catala

Orfeo Catala and Josep Vila i Casanas at Cadogan Hall
Orfeo Catala & Josep Vila i Casanas at Cadogan Hall
Enrique Granados, Casals, Josep Reig, Eduard Toldra, Enric Morera, Xavier Montsalvatge, Josep Vila i Casanes, Bernat Vivancos; Orfeo Catala, Josep Vila i Casanas; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 27 2015
Star rating: 4.0

An exploration of Catalan music from his old-established Catalan choir

The Catalan choir Orfeo Catala, with its conductor Josep Vila i Casanas, made its Cadogan Hall debut at a lunchtime concert on Sunday 26 April 2015 as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. The choir brought a programme of music by Catalan composers, all but one of whom had links to the choir. The music included the recently rediscovered El cant de les estrelles (Song of the Stars) by Enrique Granados (with Albert Guinovart, piano, and David Malet, organ), plus music by Casals, Josep Reig, Eduard Toldra, Enric Morera, Xavier Montsalvatge, Josep Vila i Casanas and Bernat Vivancos.

Founded in 1891, Orfeo Catala is one of their country's top amateur choirs, performing major works from the Western classical canon alongside music by Catalan composers. The choir is based at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, the Art Nouveau music hall in Barcelona which was built between 1905 and 1908.

The choir opened with a work which it premiered in 1911, El cant de les estrelles by Enrique Granados (1867-1916). The manuscript for the work was thought lost and only recently surfaced, enabling them to give a second premiered in 2007. At the first performance in 1911, Granados himself played the piano part and work is more like a concerto with the piano accompanied by the choir, which is supported by the organ. The text (O, infinite vastness and stillness of space...) is based on Heine, but is not attributed and commentators have wondered whether it might be by Granados himself.

Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival

Members of the Benyounes and Piatti Quartets at Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival
Members of the Benyounes and Piatti Quartets
at Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival
Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival; Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 24 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Gershwin, Hermann, Mendelssohn and more, a feast of string quartets

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance's Royal Greenwich String Quartet Festival seems to be becoming a triennial event. This year's festival is the third (previous ones were in 2009 and 2012), with artistic director David Kenedy (Head of String Chamber Music at Trinity Laban). Taking place this year on 24 and 25 April 2015, it packed Greenwich with string quartets and film music (proving the two not incompatible) with evening performances from the Wihan Quartet and the Carducci Quartet, the Quatuor Prima Visa accompanying a filming of the silent film Nosferatu, the Richard Carne Intercollegiate String Quartet Competition and a concert by the winners of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, Quatuor Van Kuijk.

I went along on Friday 24 April 2015 for a couple of daytime events; a joint concert by the Piatti Quartet (who were also finalists in the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition) and Benyounes Quartet in the Chapel of the Old Royal Naval College, where they performed Gershwin, Bernard Herrmann and Mendelssohn's Octet, and then a joint concert by pupils from the Purcell School and Trinity Laban String Ensemble conducted by Nic Pendlebury (Head of Strings and member of the Smith Quartet).

The chapel at the Old Royal Naval College is a remarkable interior. Amidst all the Wren baroque, here is a very elaborate Athenian Stuart 18th century interior, heavy with plasterwork in pastel colours. Now that Trinity Laban has moved in, it means that it is the only UK conservatoire with its own chapel, and you can hear sung Evensong on Mondays.

Monday 27 April 2015

RVW at the London English Song Festival

Ralph Vaughan Williams
William Vann's London English Song Festival is returning on 3 June 2015 with eight concerts which really live up to the festival's name as during these concerts all of RVW's original songs are being performed. Thus giving us a chance to assess the lesser known works alongside the better known ones. The festival starts on Wednesday 3 June 2015 and runs until Thursday 11 June and all concerts are at St George's Church, Hanover Square with a number of early evening concerts too. 

The opening concert is Vaughan Williams and Folk-Song with soprano Louise Kemeny, baritone Gareth John and William Vann. Then soprano Raphaela Papadakis and violinist Alessandro Ruisi explore the songs for voice and violin, with mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, baritone Johnny Herford and William Vann in RVW's Rossetti settings (both concerts 4 June). On 5 June baritone Roderick Williams joins mezzo-soprano Clare Presland and Iain Burnside for RVW's RL Stevenson settings Songs of Travel plus early songs and the wonderful Four Last Songs.

Soprano Eve Daniel, mezzo-soprano Marie Seidler, tenor John Porter, baritone Henry Neill and Frederick Brown give us songs from the operas, followed by mezzo-soprano Ciara Hendrick and baritone Jonathan McGovern with Vann in songs by RVW and his contemporaries (both concerts 9 June). Soprano Mary Bevan and tenor Alessandro Fisher are joined by Matthew Scott (clarinet) and James Turnbull (oboe) and Vann, for songs for voice and woodwind (10 June). The festival finale sees Vann, the Benyounes Quartet and tenor Nicky Spence in On Wenlock Edge (11 June).

Further information and booking from the Cadogan Hall website.

Sisters at the piano: The Labèque sisters ‘Round Moondog'

Philip Glass, Moondog, David Chalmin; Labèque Sisters, UBUNOIR; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Apr 17 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Exploring the music of Moondog and its influence on Minimalist composers

As part of Kings Place's ongoing series on minimalism the Labèque sisters and UBUNOIR performed a mixture of Philip Glass, David Chalmin, and works by the New York street artist Moondog.

Louis T. Hardin (1916-1999), better known as Moondog or 'the Viking of 6th Avenue', had been experimenting with the same minimalist techniques as Glass, Reich, Riley and Young – only he was doing it ten years earlier. He was quite a character. Opposed to capitalist exploitation he lived on the streets of Manhattan (despite owning property upstate and an apartment in Manhattan) and wrote all his music in Braille having been blinded as a teenager due to an accident with fireworks.

In 1974 he moved to Germany, leading many of his New York fans to believe that he had died. However while in Germany he continued to write music and many of his compositions were transcribed into sheet music by Ilona Sommer. His compositional style is characterised by his passion for Native American and world music and by his use of the ambient sounds around him such as cars, horns, and the subway, and by treating musical elements as though they were the repeated noises which fascinated him.

Minimalist composers like Philip Glass were strongly influenced by the work of Moondog. In 1989, during a rare visit to America, Glass asked Moondog to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra returning him to the public eye.

The International Opera Awards 2015

Sir Antonio Pappano receiving the Richard Strauss Anniversary Production award at the Opera Awards 2015, with Joyce Kennedy and Richard E Grant
Richard E Grant, Joyce Kennedy, Sir Antonio Pappano
Richard Strauss Anniversary Production Award
The International Opera Awards 2015; Savoy Theatre, London
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on April 26 2015
Live performance, and awards for achievement; the opera world rewards its own

Now in their third year, the Opera Awards looks set to be a fixture of operatic life, giving the opera world a chance to reward its own. This year the awards ceremony took place at the Savoy Theatre, which meant a rather better acoustic then previous years for the live performance element of the evening, though did necessitate climbing a remarkable number of stairs between the reception in the Savoy Hotel and the Savoy Theatre. The ceremony itself was hosted by the actor Richard E Grant, and we were treated to live performances from Carolyn Sampson, Justina Gringyte, Lawrence Brownlee and Aleksandra Kurzak. In a packed programme,  the awards for Male Singer went to Christian Gerhaher, Female Singer to Anja Harteros and Conductor Semyon Bychkov (none alas able to receive in person) and Director to Richard Jones, with a Lifetime Achievement going to Speight Jenkins.

The ceremony was pre-fixed by a reception in the ballroom at the Savoy Hotel, which was a chance for people to meet and congratulate, and catch up with old friends. I was able to catch up with a number of singers whom I normally only see across the footlights, and to chat about roles old and new.

The potential recipients for the awards are selected and judged by a jury of those working in opera, which this year consisted of Per Boye Hansen, Artistic Director of Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, John Allison, Editor of Opera, Nicholas Payne, Director of Opera Europa, Erna Metdepennighen, formerly of De  Standaard (Belgium), Hugh Canning, chief music critic of The Sunday Times, Kathryn Harries, Director of the National Opera Studio, Peter Alward, Intendant of the Salzburg Easter Festival, Hugo Shirley, Recordings Editor of Gramophone, Evans Mirageas Artistic Director of Cincinnati opera, and George Loomis, critic for International Herald Tribune.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Niobe, Regina di Tebe

Niobe, Regina di Tebe
Agostino Steffani Niobe, Regina di Tebe; Veronique Gens, Jacek Laszczkowski, Iestyn Davies, Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble, Thomas Hengelbrock
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Outing on disc of Covent Garden's 2010 unearthing of a 17th century opera for the Munich carnival

The 17th century was the period when Europe's rulers discovered opera. It fitted in with the theories about princely magnificence and so if you were in any way musically inclined you could have a court composer who set texts from the court poet, with elaborate sets and costumes too. The most theatrically inclined had theatres, the others used a temporary space. These were not public performances in our sense, they were displays of princely magnificence.

Opus Arte has given us an opportunity to hear one of these, Niobe, Regine di Tebe by Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) which was written for the Duke of Bavaria in Munich in 1688 and premiered during the carnival season. It is heard here in a performance from Covent Garden in 2010 which was actually a revival of a production originally seen in 2008 at Schwetzingen. Thomas Hengelbrock conduced his own Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble with Veronique Gens as Niobe, Jacek Laszczkowski as Anfione, Iestyn Davies as Creonte, Alastair Miles as Poliferno, Delphine Galou as Nerea, Lothar Odinius as Tiberino, Amanda Forsythe as Manto, Bruno Taddia as Tiresia and Tim Mead as Clearte.

The problem with 17th century operas is that they were often written for the greatest virtuosi of the day and modern revivals can sometimes be in the hands of small opera companies, where talent and enterprise do duty for the highest levels of technical virtuosity. This recording gives us a chance to hear a performance by a modern day cast of virtuosi and to appreciate fine music sun by great artists.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Guillaume Tell - more than complete

Guillaume Tell - Naxos
Rossini Guillaume Tell; Michael Spyres, Judith Howarth, Andrew Foster-Williams, Virtuosi Brunensis, Antonino Fogliani; Naxos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Striking new live version of Rossini's last opera, in its most complete format

I have long been looking for a recording of Rossini's Guillaume Tell to set beside the classic one from Lamberto Gardelli with Nicolai Gedda and Montserrat Caballe. I don't have huge requirements but it has to be in decent French, and be reasonably complete. The first requirement rules out a few and the second rules out the recent recording from Antonio Pappano with John Osborn and Malin Bystrom, because it uses the shortest and most unsatisfactory of Rossini's versions.

This new recording on Naxos, was made live at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival. It contains the first recording of the complete opera (quite what complete means I will come to later), in French with Andrew Foster-Williams in the title role, Michael Spyres as Arnold, Judith Howarth as Mathilde, Tara Stafford as Jemmy, Alessandra Volpe as Hedwige, plus Nahuel di Pierro, Raffaele Facciola, Giulio Pelligra, Artavazd Sargsyan, Marco Filippo Romano, with Camerata Bach Choir Poznan and Virtuosi Brunensis conducted by Antonino Fogliani.

When Rossini planned Guillaume Tell it was to prove rather expansive, so after he had written the skeleton score but before fleshing out he cut a few items. A few numbers were cut during rehearsals, and then after the premiere cuts were made and further cut were made after subsequent performances so that when Rossini left for Bologna we have the most compressed four-act version (the one recorded by Pappano). Rossini was a man of the theatre, he made the trimming because he wanted to be in charge of it and in the theatre this version (or one based on it with extra items) is understandable given the length of the piece and the stamina required. But on CD we need something closer to what Rossini intended.

On this new disc we get the work as close as possible to that originally conceived by Rossini, with items cut during rehearsals restored as well. There is also an appendix, with different versions of the items. The opera is spread out sensibly over four discs with one for each act (something which Naxos's pricing makes affordable).

Thinking and playing - My encounter with violinist Eric Silberger

Multi-layered Pagannini Caprices, playing in a volcano and writing modern baroque music, all this and Mozart with the Philharmonia Orchestra. My encounter with violinist Eric Silberger.

The young American violinist Eric Silberger has just made his debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra (18,19 April 2015) performing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Eric Silberger has been busy travelling recently; in Spain in March touring with the Berlin Konzerthausorchester and Dmitri Kitajenko in Brahms Violin Concerto, off to Denmark to play the Mozart again, with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Robin Ticciati, and Romania in June for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I met up with him, en route for rehearsals, to chat about his career so far, and his plans.

In any performing career there are things that the performer does which they enjoy and others less so, but which might seem necessary. In Eric's case, he has managed to catch the imagination with a couple of events out of the way of regular performances. One is his recording playing inside a volcano, and the other is the layering of all 24 of Pagannini's Caprices on top of each other (you can see this on YouTube).

'something of a history with volcanoes'

I am curious about the volcano stunt, and Eric says that he did it because it was on his bucket list. He has what he terms 'something of a history with volcanoes', the ash cloud prevented him from getting to Norway for a concert, but another ash cloud did not prevent him getting from New Zealand to Russia. So when the opportunity came to play in the volcano he took it. Eric is also interested in how you might reach more people by changing the context of the performance, so felt that this was a great idea of moving outside the regular concert hall.

Friday 24 April 2015

Mazurkas from Chopin to Ades in a brilliant programme by young Kazakh pianist

Mazurkas from Chopin to Ades - Dina Duisen
Mazurkas from Chopin to Ades; Dina Duisen
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 8 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Imaginative disc showcasing the talents of a young Kazak pianist

Dina Duisen is a young pianist from Kazakhstan who has studied in her native country and America before coming to London and completing her studies at the Royal Academy of Music. On this disc, designed to showcase her talents, she has put together a rather imaginative programme which takes the Mazurka on a journey from Chopin to Thomas Ades, along the way we hear music by Liszt, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Lyadov, Albeniz, Arensky, Debussy, Delius, Sibelius, scriabin, Gliere, Szymanowski, Prokofief and Ades.

The mazurka was originally a Polish folk-dance in triple-time with the accent on the second or third beat. Whilst Chopin was inspired by November Uprising in Poland to use a traditional Polish form, in fact his mazurkas are his effectively his own, newly invented form. The fascinating thing about this disc is how we can watch different composers reacting differently to the genre. Some create a work which is clearly a study like Chopin's, others take a very rhythmic view clearly owing a lot to the work's folk origins and other simply write salon music. Not every composer's voice is recognisable in his work. some write generic salon pieces which charm or show off, whilst others bring their own distinctive voice directly to bear.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights
The choir Voxcetera and the Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra, with conductors Adam Johnson and Jane Hopkins, will be performing Vivaldi's perennial Gloria at St Martin in the Fields on 28 April 2015, but it is in the smaller work which are also in the programme that the concert's main interest lies. 

The Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra specialises in the music of Northern composers and this concert is no different. There will be two Icelandic works, Jón Leifs' Consolation, Intermezzo Op.66 for orchestra, and Sigurbjörnsson's simple, beautiful setting of the ancient Icelandic text Heyr Himna Smiður for a cappella choir, plus the Magnificat by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (who is 80 this year). Also in the programme are Gabriel Jackson's Salve Regina, Francis Poulenc's Exultate Deo and music by Morten Lauridsen.

Tickets and further information from the St Martin in the Fields website.

A Marriage of Science and Art - Three Tales at the Science Museum

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Three Tales at Science Museum IMAX
Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 22 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Reich and Korot's video opera, in an IMAX at the Science Museum

Three Tales (1998-2002) is one of Steve Reich's video operas created with the video artist Beryl Korot (the two are married). In form Three Tales echoes their first essay in the genre The Cave (1990-93). Three Tales made a reappearance in London at the hands of Ensemble BPM at the Science Museum's IMAX Cinema on 22 April 2015. The venue and the date are significant. 22 April is the centenary of the first use of nerve gas in World War One, a date which marks the commencement of our fascination with weapons of mass destruction and the subject of a conference whose delegates attended the performance of Three Tales.

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Three Tales
The piece was conducted by Nick Sutcliffe in a production directed by Matthew Eberhardt, designed by Gillean Denny with lighting by Stuart Webb.

Three Tales takes three episodes in 20th century history chosen as key moments, examining man's relationship to technology. The first, the Hindenberg Disaster, when the German passenger airship crashed in 1937 killing 36. The first disaster to be captured on cinema newsreels. The second, the bombing of Bikini atoll, as part of the USA's atomic tests in 1946-1958. The third, the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep which led to a greater consideration of man's relationship to technology.

Beryl Korot's video uses archive footage and interviews, intercut and re-purposed; though there is a documentary narrative element, this is combined with a thoroughgoing artistic viewpoint. The sound-track combines found sound, original sound-track and Steve Reich's music. Much of the music originated in Steve Reich's technique of shadowing the vocal inflections exactly, mimicking the person's intonations. All this combined with live musicians via a click track. Playing live Ensemble BPM consisted of two pianos, two vibraphones, two drum kits, the Ligeti String Quartet and Synergy Vocals. Laid out in front of us, they looked remarkably factory-like, a machine for creating music. All of course were miked.

Thursday 23 April 2015

The French Connection - Piotr Beczala in French 19th century opera

The French Connection - Piotra Beczala
Massenet, Berlioz, Verdi, Boieldieu, Gounod, Bizet; Piotr Beczala, Diana Damrau, Orchestre de l'opera national de Lyon, Alain Altinoglu; Deutsche Grammophon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 Mar 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Modified rapture for Piotr Beczela's all French album

I have to confess that my heart sinks when I see another CD of French 19th century operatic tenor arias. Styles of singing French operatic music have changed enormously in the last 100 years. The CD booklet for this new disc from Piotr Beczala talks about the negative reaction when Georges Thill sang Massenet's Werther at the New York Met and used a voix mixte rather than full chest for the climactic top C. So somewhere along the line we have lost a general feel for the style needed to sing this music. Not so much the lyric repertoire, but the more dramatic where Italianate technique with its open vowels and pushed-up Verismo inspired chest registers can significantly falsify the sound. Yes, a great tenor in the repertoire is always thrilling and illuminating, but I usually want something more.

That it can be done is shown by a small group of post-war artists who have responded to the challenge, the CD's booklet article talks about Piotr Beczala responding to performances by Nicolai Gedda. And it shows, Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Kraus were watchwords for style in this repertory, combining a modern technique with a feel for the style of the music which has to be based on a narrower focussed tone (none of those big wide-open top notes). More recently the tenor Ben Heppner released a disc of French arias in 2002 which showed exactly how a modern dramatic tenor can respond to these pieces.

The problem is that to make them work they often require a big voice, but rather different approach than Verdi's Otello. French composers expected their big voices to be narrow and to be able to move somewhat, and remain flexible. (If you want to hear what I am talking about, just listen to Aeneas's first entry in Berlioz's Les Troyens, it is high, loud and fast and can often come out like a shocked yelp). Another Polish tenor, the great Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) whose technique was largely French and who sang a lot of Meyerbeer, had the roles of Romeo in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette (Piotr Beczala sings Lever toi soleil on this disc) and Wagner's Siegfried and Tristan (roles of which Piotr Beczala would probably never dream) in his repertoire at the same time. It gives you a huge pause for thought, about how his ability to perform the one role might have reflected on the other.

Royal Ballet new season - Carmen, Frankenstein and a new conductor

Liam Scarlett (image credit Royal Opera House)
Liam Scarlett whose new Frankenstein premieres in 2016
(image credit Royal Opera House)
Like the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet's 2015/16 season is a balance between revivals of old warhorses and new work. There is an admirable support for continuing new three act ballets, and my only real grouse is that the revivals of core repertoire from Kenneth Macmillan and Frederick Ashton play it rather safe.  So the notable news is the new Frankenstein from Liam Scarlett and the revival of Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale. The season will also be the first with Koen Kessels as the music director of the Royal Ballet.

A slightly more worrying feel, is the sense that the number of performances in the house is not keeping pace with the number of opera performances, partly this is because Kasper Holten and his team have been very adept at using the Linbury for smaller performances which complement the main house season, and there are many new operas being performed there in 2015/16 (see my preview of the 2015/16 opera season). Though the new Royal Ballet season does something similar, with performances from company's such as Québécois company Cas Public, and Martha Clark, the numbers are far smaller. Not for the first time, you feel that ballet just isn't quite as important as opera. Still, there is much to look forward to.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Practising what she preaches - Nelly Miricioiu in recital

David Gowland and Nelly Miricioiu at St John's Smith Square
David Gowland and Nelly Miricioiu at St John's Smith Square
Ravel, Chausson, Viardot/Chopin, Brediceanu, Respighi, Bellini, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2015
Opera singer Nelly Miricioiu in a rare recital appearance

Time is not kind to the lyric soprano voice and most choose to either move into another fach, or to stop performing. Only a few decide to grow older disgracefully and continue, relying on strength of technique to replace to the natural flexibility of the voice. One such is the Romanian/British soprano, Nelly Miricioiu who, now in her 60's, continues to combine a performing career with extensive teaching. She made a rare recital appearance at St John's Smith Square, on Tuesday 21 April 2015 with David Gowland at the piano in a programme of songs by Ravel, Chausson, Chopin, Brediceanu and Respighi, and arias by Bellini, Rossini, Puccini and Verdi.

It wasn't an easy programme, and though in some ways the songs in the first half seemed to be more of a warming up for the main course of arias, even these required strong technique and sterling lungs. Nelly Miricioiu and David Gowland started with Ravel's Cinque melodies Populaire Grecques. Her voice seemed to take some time to warm up, but the plangent tones and slight edginess in the timbre suited the material very well and she finely matched tone and mood of the words to the colours in her voice.

Stuart Straftford appointed as Scottish Opera's music director

Stuart Stratford. Scottish Opera 2015. Credit James Glossop.
Stuart Stratford. Scottish Opera 2015
Credit James Glossop.
The British conductor Stuart Stratford has been appointed the new music director of Scottish Opera. He joins the company in June this year and his first performances as music director will be announced as part of the 2015/16 season launch in May. Stuart Stratford recently conducted critically lauded performances of Jancek's Jenufa with Scottish Opera (you can read review by Christopher Lambton over on The Arts Desk). The search ends something of a hiatus for the company after the precipitate departure of Emmanuel Joel-Hornak in April 2013, and will hopefully bring an element of stability to standards in the company at a time when it is much needed. 

Stuart Stratford was born in Preston, but his mother was from Clydebank. This will be his first music director post in an opera company, but he has been gaining plaudits for his thoughtful musical approach. We have seen him in the pit at Buxton with Gluck's Orfeo in 2014 (see my review) and the double bill in 2012 (see my review), at Opera Holland Park with La Fanciulla del West in 2014 (see my review), Cav and Pag in 2013 (see my review) and Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera Holland Park in 2012 (see my review) and he has worked regularly with Opera North.

Spanish baritone wins 2015 London Handel Singing Competition

Josep-Ramon Olivé, © Chris Christodoulou
Josep-Ramon Olivé,
© Chris Christodoulou
The 2015 London Handel Festival came to an end on Monday with the 14th London Handel Singing Competition at St George's Church, Hanover Square. Five finalists competed, soprano Ingrida Gápová, soprano Sarah Hayashi, baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé, mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova and soprano Alice Privett, before a distinguished jury consisting of (Ian Partridge, Edward Blakeman, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Catherine Denley and Michael George). The singers were accompanied by members of the London Handel Orchestra, directed by Laurence Cummings. 

The competition has a knack of choosing its winners well, past singers have included Andrew Kennedy, Elizabeth Atherton, Ruby Hughes, Sophie Junker and Nathan Vale. And winners have a welcome habit of returning in later festivals too. Rupert Charlesworth (who took first prize in 2013) sang Jove in this year's Semele alongside one of the 2014 winners.

The Handel repertoire does, of course, favour certain voice types though I remember the quality of Argentinian bass Lisandro Abadie who was a finalist in 2008. So it pleasing that this year Spanish baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé took first place, winning the Regina Etz Prize as well as winning the Michael Normington Audience Prize. Josep-Ramon Olivé is currently on the Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, currently studying under Professor Rudolf Piernay. At the final he sang a recitative and aria from Tamerlano, 'Vouchsafe, O Lord' from the Dettingen Te Deum and arias from Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Lotario. Russian mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova took second place, with the Michael Oliver Prize, singing aria from Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Giove in Argo. Josep-Ramon Olivé and Maria Ostroukhova each receive a cash prize and a performance at the 2016 London Handel Festival, and the other two performers will be offered a lunchtime recital.

Enescu, Chabrier, Gluck and Haas - Royal Opera new season

The Royal Opera House auditorium © ROH / Sim Canetty-Clarke
Covent Garden announced its 2015/2016 season last week and Kasper Holten's Royal Opera season has been eagerly picked over by everyone, itemising the amount of contemporary opera, the number of old war-horses making a reappearance and the paucity of Jonas Kaufmann showings. What is clear is that, whatever you think of Kasper Holten's extensions to the repertoire and introduction of more innovative productions, this is being paid for by a series of securely bankable revivals of core classics; a lesson which has not yet been quite learned over in St Martin's Lane.

So what is there to look forward to? Well, quite a lot actually; Kasper Holten and his team do seem to have a knack of identifying interesting areas for revival. Yes, there is a paucity of Britten, Janacek and such, but we do have Chabrier, Mussorgsky, Luigi Rossi, Enescu, Gluck and Georg Friedrich Haas.

Kasper Holten's own productions have so far, rather divided opinion and whilst his Yevgeny Onegin gets a revival, he is not at the helm of any of the new productions.

New productions include Gluck's Orphee et Eurydice (note the language) with Juan Diego Florez, Lucy Crowe and Amanda Forsythe. Choreographer Hofesh Schechter and John Fulljames jointly direct and John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Continuing the Orpheus theme, Luigi Rossi's Orpheus (the opera with which Cardinal Mazarin hoped to introduce Italian opera to France) is being directed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Keith Warner with Christian Curnyn and the orchestra of the Early Opera Company.

Christoph Loy's unlovely production of Lucia di Lammermoor is being replaced by a new one from Katie Mitchell. Daniel Oren conducts with Diana Damrau and Aleksandra Kurzak sharing the title role, Charles Castronovo and Stephen Costello sharing Edgardo and Ludovic Tezier and Artur Rucinski sharing Enrico. The combination of Katie Mitchell and Lucia is an interesting one and I can't wait to see what effect her detailed style of production will have on the work, though I do wish they had chosen a conductor more in the Charles Mackerras mould to bring the same new ears to the orchestral sound.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Avi Avital - Rock and roll Vivaldi

Avi Avital - Vivaldi - Deutsche Grammophon
Vivaldi concertos;
Avi Avital, Venice Baroque Orchestra; Deutsche Gramophon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 8 2015
Star rating: 3.0

Superstar mandolin playing Avital re-creates Vivaldi's music in his own image

For this new disc on Deutsche Grammophon label the mandolin player Avi Avital is joined by the Venice Baroque Orchestra for a variety of works by Vivaldi including the Mandolin Concerto in C major RV 425. To the concerto designed for the instrument Avital adds three more which are arrangements, the Violin Concerto in A minor RV 356 the Lute Concerto in D major RV 93 and the Violin Concerto in G minor RV 315 (aka Summer from The Four Seasons). Avital also plays the Trio Sonata in C major RV 82 with Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Ophira Zakai (lute), and Patrick Sepec (cello) and as a bon bouche at the end, we get tenor Juan Diego Florez singing the traditional Venetian song La biondina in gondoletta. All are performed in Avital's own arrangements.

Though the performers all work in the historically informed area, the works on this disc are anything but po-faced historical recreations. Avital is clearly a force of nature and everything on this disc is re-thought and re-created. All performers seem to have been given a freedom to experiment and see what works. Tempi are generally on the upbeat side, with a crispness to articulation but also a delicacy. The mandolin sound works well in the works lovely slow movements, whilst preserving a brightness which enables it to stand out from the other performers.

Three Tales at the Science Museum IMAX

Image by Beryl Korot
Image by Beryl Korot
Three Tales, the video opera by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot was premiered at the Vienna Festival in 2002 and broadcast by the BBC that year. The piece, which is similar in construction to Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's The Cave (1990-1993), is written for two sopranos, three tenors, string quartet, percussion, keyboards, and pre-recorded audio, with visuals by Beryl Korot. 

There is a chance to experience it in an IMAX Cinema as this week, on 22 and 24 April 2015, the Ensemble BPM will be performing the work at the Science Museum (a very appropriate location given the work's examination of technology in human history). The production will be presented in association with the Institute of Historical Research’s conference: Being Modern: Science and Culture in the early Twentieth Century. The first performance will mark the centenary of the first use of chemical weapons in warfare 22 April 1915.

Ensemble BPM is only the second group to perform the work since its 2002 premiere. They will be joined in performance by Synergy Vocals, led by former Swingle Singer Micaela Haslam. The production is conducted by Ensemble BPM's artistic director Nick Sutcliffe and directed by Matthew Eberhardt. Further information and tickets from the Science Museum website.

Monday 20 April 2015

Take your hankies with you - ETO's ‘La Boheme’ is a real tear jerker

La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
Puccini La Boheme; Ilona Domnich, David Butt Philip, dir: James Conway, cond: Michael Roswall; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on March 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Sensitive performances in Puccini's classic tale

The English Touring Opera's (ETO) current season includes the beautifully enacted 'La Boheme'. Performed at Hackney Empire, directed by James Conway, and conducted by Michael Rosewell, (13 March 2015) this Puccini classic kept a traditional feel with its classic costuming, yet was enhanced by its clever and quite modern multifunctional staging designed by Florence de Maré. The crowd scenes and the children added to atmosphere of 19th century Europe, and the main roles were sensitively performed – necessitating discreet use of hankies.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), born in Tuscany to a musical family, was expected to continue the long tradition of becoming the maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca. However after studying at the conservatory in Milan he was persuaded to write his first opera 'Le Villi' in 1883. By 1893, with 'Manon Lescaut', his skill at opera was renowned worldwide. 'Manon' had its share of troubles including several false starts with different librettists. The final pair, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, became long term collaborators - working with Puccini on his next opera project 'La Boheme'.

Lucy Parham explores Liszt's many lives and loves

Lucy Parham © Sven Arnstein
Lucy Parham © Sven Arnstein
Liszt seems to have lived multiple lives in the space of his 75 years, moving from a child prodigy, to a superstar virtuoso who virtually invented the public piano recital, but encompassing some late mysticism and remarkable experiments in music and tonality. 
Liszt photographed by Nadar in 1886And of course, there were all the women too, including Countess Marie d'Agoult (who was Cosima Wagner's mother) and Princesse Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (who helped persuade Berlioz to write Les Troyens).

Pianist Lucy Parham will be exploring Liszt's lives in her Odyssey of Love in which Lucy Parham interleaves Liszt's music with his words and letters, read by Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman. Odyssey of Love is being performed at Middle Temple Hall on  Tuesday 5 May 2015. Tickets and further information from the Temple Music website.

I heard Lucy Parham's Frederick Chopin programme in 2013 (see my review) and if that is anything to go by, Odyssey of Love promises to be something striking.

Chamber music by Howard Blake at Milton Court

Howard Blake and Bendict Kloeckner
Howard Blake and Benedict Kloeckner
performing together in 2013
Chamber music by Howard Blake; Madeleine Mitchell, Rivka Golani, Benedict Kloeckner, Sasha Grynyuk
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 17 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Old fashioned musical virtues and strong chamber interaction

The concert at Milton Court Concert Hall on Friday 17 April 2015 was a showcase for the chamber music of Howard Blake (born 1938). The group of musicians consisted of the young German cellist Benedict Kloeckner, who has developed something of a name for himself playing Howard Blake's music, with violinist Madeleine Mitchell, viola player Rivka Golani, and pianist Sasha Grynyuk. The pianist was supposed to be Howard Blake himself, but in the event a broken arm prevent his playing, and we were lucky enough to get Sasha Grynyuk, who learned the taxing programme specially. The musicians came together in various combinations, with the Prelude for solo viola, Diversions and The Enchantment of Venus both for cello and piano, Piano Trio No. 3 Elegia Stravagante and Piano Quartet.

The concert opened with Howard Blake's Piano Trio No. 3, Elegia Stravagante which was written in 2014 and premiered by Howard Blake and Benedict Kloeckner, with Linus Roth, in Koblenz. In seven movements, the work is based on a melody which is first stated in the opening Andante (rapsodico) movement. It is a wistful, elegant and rather thoughtful melody, by turns dramatic and elegiac, which Howard Blake subjected to a variety of treatments including elements of jazz/blues, and a big solo moment for the cello. Despite the romantic textures of the work there was a clarity and elegance to the performance.

Sasha Grynyuk
Sasha Grynyuk
Benedict Kloeckner won the 2010 European Broadcasting Union competition playing Howard Blake's Diversions for cello and piano, and he and the composer have played it on subsequent occasions and recorded it. The work was originally written in 1983 and Howard Blake developed the cello part in conjunction with the French cellist Maurice Gendron, so it is a bravura and challenging work. It is an eight-movement suite which starts with a Prelude with a long-breathed and elegant melody which was given an intense, sung performance from Benedict Kloeckner, who played the piece from memory. A jazz-like, skittering Scherzo followed, then a darkly dramatic March with a big tragic cello tune. The Waltz had jazz-like hints too, and despite the technical challenges it was clear that Benedict Kloeckner was enjoying himself. The slow moving, elegiac Aria was followed by a rhythmically catchy Serenade which circled round endlessly, followed by a Cadenza which was full of brilliant details, and thoughtful moments. The Finale was very up tempo with fast and furious passage-work. Benedict Kloeckner played with concentration, depth and intensity, and a remarkable maturity, giving a performance which was deeply felt. He was finely supported by pianist Sasha Grynuk, in a piano part which perhaps less bravura than the cello part, but no less challenging.

Rivka Golani
Rivka Golank
After the interval the distinguished viola player, Rivka Golani, played Prelude for Solo Viola, which was written by Howard Blake as a prelude to his oratorio Benedictus in 1980 and it was prepared as a solo concert piece in 1989 by the viola player Frederick Riddle. It was a rhapsodic, rather darkly lyrical work using lots of strenuous string crossing and double stopping. Not an easy piece by any means, and it got remarkably violent at times.

The Enchantment of Venus was originally written in 2006 for basset clarinet and piano, for Colin Lawson who gave the work's premiere. The version for cello and piano was premiered in 2014 by Benedict Klockner and Howard Blake in 2014. The work has a mythological narrative, which Howard Blake bases around a lyrical, melancholic melody which he subjects to some strenuous dramatic development and turmoil, before finishing with beautifully simple, elegant melody. As before Benedict Kloeckner played from memory and gave a deeply felt performance, singing the final melody with great beauty.

Madeleine Mitchell - photo Suzie Maeder
Madeleine Mitchell
photo Suzie Maeder
The last work in the programme was the earliest, the Piano Quartet (for piano, violin, viola, cello) which was written in 1974 and premiered in 1975. The opening Allegro con anima was a long, complex and highly structured movement which felt very impulsively romantic and based round an animated, long-breathed melody. The whole movement had the feeling of being inspired by Dvorak's piano-based chamber music, and this carried over into the second movement, Presto (Scherzo). This was fast and furious, with fragments of melody being passed around. There were a pair of trios, the first lyrical relaxed, the second quieter and darker and more off-beat. The third, slow movement, Lento espressivo had long intertwining lines for the strings over repeated piano chords, with a magical end. The finale, Allegro robusto started out robust and carefree, almost a country gardens feel, but then the composer moved us rapidly through a variety of moods by turns darkly dramatic and slow, before a conclusion which seemed to evoke the material from the opening.

The four performers, combing together in various combinations throughout the evening, all played with a strong commitment and feel for Howard Blake's music, often with some quite challenging writing. And throughout, there was a lovely feeling of chamber interaction and collegiality. In style the music was varied, but always complex and full of interest; Howard Blake's music might be tonal, but it is never simple. And as a treat at the end, the four performers came together to play and arrangement of the composer's best known tune.

Howard Blake and Benedict Kloekner's new disc is now available from Genuin and the disc was featured on Deutschlandfunk radio in Berlin last night.

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