Wednesday 30 December 2015

High and bright - looking at the origins of the haute-contre

Costume for Apollon (danced by Louis XIV) in the Ballet de la Nuit (1653)
Costume for Apollon (danced by Louis XIV)
in the Ballet de la Nuit (1653)
If you look up the haute-contre voice in Grove's Dictionary of Music, the article by Owen Jander and Ellen T. Harris talks about how the voice type came to prominence in the operas of Lully which were performed in Paris from the late 17th century and then goes into a discussion about how much falsetto the original singers used (of which more anon). But the article gives little indication of where the voice type came from. And in John Potter and Neil Sorrell's A History of Singing (Cambridge University Press) the voice type gets barely a mention.

Opera came to France in the 1640s in the form of imports from Italy such as the Italian composer Luigi Rossi who wrote Orfeo for Paris in 1647 (see my review of the recent production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). The French had their own form a spectacular musical entertainment, the ballet du cour, which combined complex dance with formal social dancing, music and spectacle in often long events (the Ballet de la Nuit of 1653 lasted 13 hours). 

Cardinal Mazarin by Pierre Mignard
Cardinal Mazarin by Pierre Mignard
Italian opera, in fact all things Italian were associated with the regime of Cardinal Mazarin (born Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino) who was the de facto ruler of France during the regency of Queen Anne (with the death of Louis XIII in 1643, when Louis XV was five). The Fronde between 1648 and 1653 led to Mazarin's fall, and an associated dislike of all things Italian. Louis XIV would eventually put a ban on foreign musicians. Francesco Cavalli, who had come to France to mount his opera Ercole Amante in 1660, returned to Italy in 1666. This antipathy to things Italian seems to have been combined with a dislike of the castrato voice.

The Paris Opera, the Academie Royal de Musique, was founded in 1669 at the urging of the poet Pierre Perrin who wanted to create a new synthesis of French poetry and French music (the French language being rather different from Italian, needed a different way of setting to music). From its founding, the Paris Opera was a monopoly giving the holder exclusive rights to court opera. The monopoly was taken over by Lully in 1672 (ironically an Italian who had naturalised in France). Lully had performed in the Ballet de la Nuit with Louis XIV. From Lully's first tragedie lyrique Cadmus et Hermione the haute-contre voice comes into prominence.

So what was it? The voice type has suffered in Anglophone areas somewhat from translation problems, often rendered into English as an alto or counter-tenor. The voice is essentially a high tenor, but extended up to around D. Tenors of the period would generally take their full voice up to G above middle C. But is is what happens above this that is uncertain, what technique did the voices use to extend the voice upwards? Part of the problem in this field is that there is no definitive vocabulary for the various techniques, and different schools of teaching use different words so that the same singer can talk about the same technique in completely different terms. If you read articles you are blinded with a selection of terms including chest voice, head voice, falsetto, falsettino, voix mixte, tenor altino, contraltino... But here goes!

Tuesday 29 December 2015

2016: The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimmage

The Deer's Cry - Coro
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen are travelling to over 30 cathedrals and churches (plus the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and Kings Place, London) for The Deer's Cry, their Choral Pilgrimage for 2016. The programme mixes the music of William Byrd and Arvo Pärt, both of whom wrote music of faith under regimes of persecution (Byrd being circumscribed by being a Roman Catholic in Protestant England and Pärt living in Soviet controlled Estonia), though in the case of Pärt he did not write for the liturgy.  But many of Byrd's largest scale motets, though setting sacred texts, were not written for liturgical use, instead the wider public regarded them as a species of vocal chamber music whilst the covert Roman Catholics in the country took Byrd's distinctive selections of texts as a message of support.

Six of Byrd's pieces from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae (published jointly by him and Tallis) are included in The Sixteen's programme including Tribue, Domine; Diliges Dominum; Emendemus in melius; Miserere mihi; O lux beata Trinitas. These will be set alongside Pärt's The Deer's Cry, The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Nunc Dimittis.

The pilgrimage starts at St John's College Chapel, Cambridge on 8 April 2016 and ends on 3 November at Kings Place. A full list of dates is available on The Sixteen's website. There are also a series of choral workshops, run by Eamonn Dougan and Sally Dunkley. The complete music from the pilgrimage will be available from January 2016 on a new Cd on The Sixteen's Coro label.

Monday 28 December 2015

My cup runneth over - Piano music of Robert Nathaniel Dett

My Cup Runneth Over - R Nathaniel Dett
Robert Nathaniel Dett - complete piano music; Clipper Erickson; Navona Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 24 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Friend of Grainger, musical romantic and the first to fuse Negro folk-music and art music, the composer Robert Nathaniel Dett

The composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a name that was new to me, yet he was one of North America's finest composers of African descent and he forged a significant career for himself as composer, choir-leader and teacher. On this new disc from Navona Records, Clipper Erickson has recorded Dett's complete music for solo piano, notably a series of suites Magnolia, In the BottomsEnchantment, Cinnamon Grove, Tropic Winter and Eight Bible Vignettes which stretch from 1912 through to the year of Dett's death.

If you read about Dett's music then one of the first things which people say about him is that he was one of the first composers to fuse Negro folk-music with European art music. This can, perhaps, give the wrong impression of Dett's style and a more useful thing to bear in mind is that the Australian pianist Percy Grainger was a friend and supporter of Dett's and recorded Dett's music (you can hear Grainger's Duo Art piano roll recording of Dett's Dance - Juba on YouTube). The music where Dett incorporates Negro songs, such as the suite In the Bottoms (1913) which depicts five scenes from Negro life in the reiver bottoms of the Southern sections of North America, uses the folk-music very much in the way that Grainger uses European folk-music in his own music.

In fact, listening to this disc it was the sound of Grainger's music and that of his friend Cyril Scott which kept coming back to me. Dett writes with a rich romantic idiom which recalls theirs, and the way he paints powerful tone-pictures combining this harmony with a memorable melodic idiom recalls both Grainger and Scott, especially in the production of small scale yet strongly characterised pieces. Such 'characteristic pieces' have fallen out of fashion somewhat and I certainly hope that this disc will encourage pianists to explore Dett's legacy.

Sunday 27 December 2015

A marriage of French spectacle and Italian lyricism and poetry - A propos Gluck's Orpheus

Gluck's Orfeo from the 1764 score
Gluck's Orfeo from the 1764 score
When Gluck wrote Orfeo ed Euridice for the court in Vienna there is a sense that the marriage with the opera's librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi was an arranged one. Gluck had been patronised by Count Giacomo Durazzo, the director of court spectacle in Imperial Vienna and Durazzo was interested in the marrying Italian lyricism and poetry with French spectacle in opera (for which read scenes integrating dance and chorus). When Tuscan poet Ranieri de'Calzabigi appears in Vienna he might at first seem an unlikely partner for an operatic marriage as he wasn't an experienced librettist, but he had spent time in Paris and had edited a complete edition of Metastasio's libretti.

The first results of their collaboration was the ballet, Don Juan, a rare early attempt to tell a story completely in dance, complete with a denouement which was regarded as terrifying by the first audience. The choreographer was Gasparo Angiolini, who directed the ballet in Imperial Vienna and who would work on Orfeo ed Euridice with Gluck and Calzabigi.

Their next collaboration was Orfeo ed Euridice, and encouraged by Calzabigi and Angiolini, Gluck brought to the fore elements with which he had experimented in earlier operas. So dance is integrated into the opera and the chorus is too, becoming a character in its own right in scenes such as the one with the furies. And the arias are short and relatively unadorned.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Happy Christmas from everyone at Planet Hugill

 Happy Christmas

and a Prosperous New Year

from  Robert, David, Ruth and Hilary

at Planet Hugill

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Scandinavian Christmas at the Cadogan Hall

As Christmas Eve is so important in Christmas celebrations in Sweden so 23 December is  Lillejulafton (Little Christmas Eve). If you are looking for something festive but slightly out of the way to round of the Christmas concert season tonight, 23 December 2015, then why not try celebrate Lillejulafton with the annual Christmas from Sweden at the Cadogan Hall presented by From Sweden Productions. There will be carols from Sweden, Britain and beyond, and popular classical music performed by the Swedish soprano Miah Persson and the dynamic Swedish chamber orchestra Camerata Nordica, leader Terje Tønnesen with Torbjörn Westman on the key fiddle, a traditional Swedish folk instrument

Further information from the Cadogan Hall website.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Christmas in Leipzig - Solomon's Knot at St John's Smith Square

Solomon's Knot
Solomon's Knot in rehearsal for a previous performance
at St John's Smith Square
Schelle Machet die Tore welt, Kuhnau Magnificat, Bach Magnificat in E flat; Solomon's Knot; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 22 2015
Star rating: 5.0

The first version of Bach's Magnificat in a joyous version with music by his predecessors in Leipzig

Having performed Bach's Christmas Oratorio in Spitalfields,  Solomon's Knot (joint artistic directors Jonathan Sells and James Halliday) made a second appearance at a Christmas Festival, this time at St John's Smith Square as part of its 30th festival. Bach was on the menu again, but the ensemble's programme Christmas in Leipzig combined Bach's Magnificat in E flat  (the first version, with Christmas interludes) with the Magnificat by his predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau and an Advent motet by Kuhnau's predecessor Johann Schelle, Machet die Tore welt.

The music was performed by ten singers  (Zoe Brookshaw , Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Charmian Bedford, Lucy Goddard, Kate Symonds-Joy, Benjamin Williamson, Thomas Herford, Ben Thapa, Alex Ashworth and Jonathan Sells) with an orchestra based on eight strings (led by James Toll, with Leo Duarte as first oboe). The auditorium had been re-configured with the performers placed in the body of the nave with the audience on three sides round them, thus bringing everyone closer to the performers sometimes at the expense of sight-lines. The singers were on a platform behind the instrumentalists.

The sense of communication was heightened not just by the intimacy of the staging, but that the singers sang from memory (as is often the case with Solomon's Knot). Though, as two of the planned performers were ill, Benjamin Williamson and Ben Thapa were last minute replacements and inevitably used music, but this had an admirably minor effect on the general communicability of the performance.

The group performed without a conductor, which with music as complex and large scale as Bach's Magnificat means identifying who is primary at any one time. Continuo accompanied sections are relatively straightforward, and in the concerted passages James Toll was a very active leader, and this active role was also taken by oboist Leo Duarte.

Monday 21 December 2015

Reined in - Waltraud Meier and Joseph Breinl at Wigmore Hall

Waltraud Meier - photo Nomi Baumgartl
Mahler Kindertotenlieder, Wagner Wesendonck Lieder, Mahler songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert Lieder; Waltraud Meier, Joseph Breinl; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 15 2015
Star rating: 3.5

We had to wait for the encores to hear Meier’s voice really fill the hall, if only we had had more thrills like these earlier in the evening.

At the age of almost sixty German mezzo-turned-dramatic-soprano Waltraud Meier has recently sung her last Isolde on the stage and is going to focus her attention on the Lieder repertoire. In this week’s rare visit to London she sang a programme of Mahler and Wagner with her compatriot Joseph Breinl to a capacity Wigmore Hall on 15 December 2015, with Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, three songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Mahler's Rückert Lieder.

It takes an experienced and confident artist to start with the Kindertotenlieder but in many ways these were the most successful of the official programme – spare and intimate, with Meier demonstrating total control over her breath and her phrasing of Rückert’s texts and, appropriately, didn’t give us her luxury Isolde voice. Breinl’s piano playing drew out the links between Mahler and the Second Viennese School. However, in the last song ‘In diesem Wetter’ reassuring us as the storm raged outside, the intimacy came across as slightly too cosy. I couldn’t help thinking irreverently of Julie Andrews as Maria with the Von Trapp children.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Taverner and Tavener - ancient and modern from Fretwork at Kings Place

Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby, Reiko Ichise, Richard Tunnicliffe)
Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby,
Reiko Ichise, Richard Tunnicliffe)
John Taverner Missa gloria tibi trinitas, John Tavener Nipson, The Hidden Face; Iestyn Davies, Nicholas Daniel, Fretwork; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Two Tave(r)ners on viols, a 16th century mass and contemporary music for counter-tenor and viols

Fretwork's programme at Kings Place on Friday 18 December 2015 brought together music by the two John Tave(r)ners, with the Missa Gloria tibi trinitas by John Taverner (1490-1545) and Nipson and The Hidden Face by Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) with the viol ensemble being joined by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and oboist Nicholas Daniel. The concert was part of King's Place's Minimalism Unwrapped series which has run for 2015, and it contrasted two composer neither of whom are strictly minimal but whose style has important links.

Performing John Taverner's great mass with just a viol concert (Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby, Reiko Ichise, Emily Ashton, Richard Tunnicliffe, Sam Stadlen) might not seem an immediately obvious move. But it was common to do so in the 16th century and in fact the In nomine section from Taverner's mass so gripped musicians and composers in this period that it gave rise to a distinct English form right up to Purcell who wrote a pair of In nomines.

It was strange at first hearing the mass played instrumentally, it was the same music yet transformed. With no words you relied on the musical articulation of the players, and this became a very different experience. Because of the way the viols are played with bows, though there was light and shade the ebb and flow in individual lines seemed to be less. But what we had was a wonderfully rich toned texture with the mellow, speaking tones of the viols.

Saturday 19 December 2015

There is something satisfying about making people laugh - an encounter with director Sam Brown

Sam Brown's production of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest at the Theatre National de Lorraine, Nancy
Sam Brown's production of Gerald Barry's
The Importance of Being Earnest
at the Theatre National de Lorraine, Nancy
In February 2016, Welsh National Opera presents its new season, a trilogy of operas based on Beaumarchais, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (directed by Sam Brown), Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (directed by Tobias Richter) and Elena Langer’s new opera Figaro Gets A Divorce (with a libretto by David Pountney, and directed by him). All three use sets by Ralph Koltai and have costumes by Sue Blane.

Sam Brown, who directs the Rossini opera, is a young British director who has been making something of a name for himself on the continent where recent productions have included Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady at the Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, Hair at the Staatstheater, Darmstadt, Donizetti's La Favorite at Oper Graz in Austria, Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Luzerner Theater, Switzerland, and Bernstein's Candide and Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest at the Opera National de Lorraine in Nancy. But The Barber of Seville will only be his third UK production; he directed Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz with English National Opera in 2012 and Stephen Shulman's The Water Palace at Tete a Tete this summer. I met up with Sam to talk about his new production and what he has been up to on the continent.

Sam Brown ©Jochen Klenk
Sam Brown ©Jochen Klenk

With the three operas in the WNO season sharing the same set, I was curious how the logistics of directing The Barber of Seville would work for Sam. He explained that the set is inspired by a production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra which David Pountney and Ralph Koltai did some time ago. It is not so much a set as a system of moving panels of scenery around and Sam assured me that the result will be abstract and sculptural and to contrast with this he has requested extreme, cartoonish costumes.

Doing the three operas together is intriguing but they form significant musical contrasts. For Sam the concept works because he sees it as Figaro’s story; though the Count and Countess go through all three operas they are not central. In an ideal world Sam would use the same singers throughout but having the same singer are Rosina and the Countess would be difficult, and the rehearsal schedule would be a nightmare. As it is, The Marriage of Figaro and Figaro Gets a Divorce have the substantially the same cast so the rehearsals have to be carefully scheduled.

I comment to Sam that The Barber of Seville seems a long way from the serious Jakob Lenz, but his response is to grin and say that he loves comedy. He has become known for directing operetta, as well as musical theatre, and he has recently done Rossini’s La Cenerentola in Karlsruhe. He has come to realise that comedy is one of the things he is best at. He says he would often rather do a comedy than a serious opera, and that there is something satisfying about making people laugh. When I add that doing Rossini’s comedies requires precision, Sam’s response is that all comedy requires precision and that all the details have to be crisp. He cites a recent production of his which was huge success at its premiere, but when it was revived (without his participation) it did not do as well simply because the revival was not precise enough. Working on a comedy has to be very much like creating a well oiled machine.

Friday 18 December 2015

The Virgin Mother and Child

The Sixteen, photo credit Arnaud Stephenson
The Sixteen, photo credit Arnaud Stephenson
Thomas Tallis, John Tavener, Boris Ord, James MacMillan, Gabriel Jackson, William Byrd, Walter Lambe, Howard Skempton, Richard Pygott, Alec Roth, Peter Philips and Robert Parsons; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 16 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Intelligent programming and fine singing in the Sixteen's Christmas programme

Christmas concerts are tricky things, how do you balance the interests of those who want something reflecting the season (including carols) against those who (like myself) are not interested in popular carols and want something meatier. For their concert The Virgin Mother and Child at the Cadogan Hall on 16 December 2015, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen programmed a series of works themed around the Virgin and the Christ child, mixing some lesser known 20th century and contemporary carols and Christmas pieces, with a traditional West Gallery carol and a group of more substantial 16th century works including one from the Eton Choirbook. The list of composers was varied, with music by Thomas Tallis, John Tavener, Boris Ord, James MacMillan, Gabriel Jackson, William Byrd, Walter Lambe, Howard Skempton, Richard Pygott, Alec Roth, Peter Philips and Robert Parsons. The concert is being toured, it debuted at Glyndebourne on 6 December and further dates are Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (18 December), and Saffron Hall (20 December).

The concert opened with the plainsong Puer natus est nobis which was followed immediately by the Gloria from Tallis's mass based on the plainsong, presumed written for the Christmas after the marriage of Queen Mary and Philip of Spain as the court expected her pregnancy. The plainsong was sung alternim by high and low voices with everyone joining for the final verse. The Gloria from Tallis's mass was sung in a beautifully restrained manner yet full of detail; the opening built from the single line to a lovely complexity of texture. There was a lovely relaxed feel to the performance, but still full of vibrant incident with a fine ebb and flow of voice in the polyphonic texture.

John  Tavener's The Lamb setting William Blake has become a classic, but welcome nonetheless. Christophers took it quite slowly, with every note beautifully place though perhaps it revelled in the textures a little too much with a touch of austerity being welcome.

Boris Ord's Adam lay ybounden was written for King's College Cambridge where he was organist from 1929 to 1957 and here it receive a bright toned and finely focused performance. Rejoice and be merry is from the tradition of West Gallery music and it was lovely to hear it included in the programme, sung alternim in unison with just the last verse harmonised. James MacMillan's O radiant dawn sets one of the O Antiphons and it has become a welcome staple in The Sixteen's repertoire. The choir gave a strong focus on the lovely words, whilst placing the harmony perfectly and singing with focused tone.

Gabriel Jackson's The Christ-child was also written for King's College Cambridge, for the 2009 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. It sets text by GK Chesterton using rich harmonies which sounded almost bluesy at times. The choir brought a lovely radiance to the piece, especially the second lines of the verses, the first of which was His hair is like light.

William Byrd's Ave Maria is not one of his better known pieces. It is a small but lovely piece first published in the 1605 Gradualia though probably written in the 1590's for the private, clandestine services at Ingatestone Hall. Quite low key and surprisingly gentle, yet intense, it received a beautifully proportioned performance.

The first half concluded with the plainchant Nesciens mater followed by Walter Lambe's motet from the Eton Choirbook based in the chant. Written in the 1400s, it  uses a great deal of melisma and places different groups of voices in dialogue to create something rather wonderful.

The second half opened with Tallis's respond Videte miraculum. (This is a work that I take a particular interest in as I wrote a companion setting of the same text for Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi). The Sixteen's performance was nearly effortless with a lovely clarity to the fine high soprano line. Overall there was a great lightness of texture but combined with a nice intensity.

Adam lay ybounden reoccurred, this time in Howard Skempton's unhackneyed setting which gave us an interesting combination of textures with the fluid soprano part set against the steadier chanted lower parts.

Richard Pygott worked for Cardinal Wolsey before joining the Chapel Royal. His complex carol Quid petis, O fili mixed a rather static Latin refrain sung tutti with fluid verses sung by a group of soloists (sometimes all four and sometimes in pairs). The result was a lovely combination of texture and gave us a piece of great charm.

A  child is born in Bethlehem is another traditional piece, from the late 13th century and here sung with a lovely lilt. John Tavener's tiny O, do not move was entirely magical. Alex Roth's A song of the shepherds was written in 2013 to celebrate the quater-centenary of the metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw. It was a beautifully made piece, rather part-song like, with an appealing simplicity allied to great clarity in the word setting.

Peter Phillips O beatum et sacrosanctum diem was one of his works published in Antwerp in 1612 but probably dating from earlier. Starting quite gently we had some lovely evocations of the trumpet and the sound of rejoicing leading to a lively conclusion. Finally Robert Parson's magically beautiful Ave Maria, a lovely end to the concert.

Except it wasn't the end, we were treated to Quem pastores laudavere and Ding dong merrily on high to send us singing on our way.

Elsewhere on this blog:

Thursday 17 December 2015

St Beornwald’s day concert

Matthew Stiff as Trofonio with his 'cave' at Bampton
Matthew Stiff as Trofonio with his 'cave'
at Bampton in 2015
On Monday 21 December 2015 Bampton Classical Opera will be holding its annual St Beonwald's day concert at St Mary's Church, Bampton. The slightly mysterious Saint Beornwald of Bampton was venerated as patron saint of Bampton from at least the 9th century until the Reformation and he may even have been the founder of the community.

This year's concert will be the inauguration of a new ensemble, Bampton Classical Voices, an eight-voice a capella professional vocal ensemble directed by Andrew Griffiths (who also sings tenor in the group). The concert combines music by Tallis, Byrd, Praetorius, Mouton, Lassus and Victoria with Britten Ceremony of Carols (in the version for SATB choir and harp) as well as popular 20th century Christmas pieces by RVW, Ireland and Michael Head. The ensemble will be joined by harpist Rita Schindler.

Bampton Classical Opera's 2015 presentation was the first UK staging of Salieri's The Grotto of Trofonio (see my review) and their 2016 programme will be a double bill of Gluck's Philemon et Baucis and Arne's The Judgement of Paris (see my preview).

Brahms and Bruckner from Nigel Short and Tenebrae

Tenebrae - Brahms & Bruckner Motets
Brahms & Bruckner motets; Tenebrae, Nigel Short; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 10 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Motets by two 19th century giants in fine new versions

Whilst a history of 19th century classical music could be written passing from the symphonies of Mendelssohn, through those of Brahms to those of Bruckner, an entirely separate path could be trodden by considering these three composers as creators of sacred music. On this new disc on Signum Classics from Nigel Short and Tenebrae, the group put together a selection of Brahms’s motets along with those of Bruckner. From Bruckner we have Virga Jesse, Ecce sacerdos, Christus factus est, Locus  iste, Os justi, Ave Maria, Tota pulchra es and two of the Aequale. From Brahms we have Fest- und Gedenkspruche Op.109, Ave Maria Op.12, How Lovely are they Dwellings, Drei motetten Op.110 and Geistliches Lied Op.30.

Both composers' choral music is conditioned by their participation in some of the various 19th century movements which invigorated choral singing. Bruckner was influenced by the Cecilian movement which sought to improve the quality of Roman Catholic Church music. The composer Franz Xaver Witt, who produced a journal devoted to the cause of improving church music, talked about the problem of the ‘trashy church music’ favoured by Catholic parochial choirs, a comment which rather resonates today! Bruckner’s mature motets all very much follow Cecilian ideals influenced by the music of Palestrina. Brahms, by contrast, was influenced by the burgeoning amateur choral movement and he conducted amateur choirs in Hamburg. His Ave Maria was written for his Hamburg Women’s Chorus. Like Bruckner, Brahms was influenced by early music though in this case it was an array of composers like Bach, Palestrina, Isaac, Eccard and Schutz, with Brahms making a collection of early music. Whereas Bruckner’s motets, with their blocks of harmony, can sometimes seem like his symphonies in miniature, Brahms in his motets introduces a polyphonic complexity which gives the music a very distinct character.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Songs for the Coming Day

Songs for the coming day
David Maslanka Songs for the Coming Day; Syzygy Quartet
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 14 2015
Striking contemporary suite for saxophone quartet

Songs for the Coming Day for saxophone quartet by the distinguished American composer David Maslanka was originally commissioned by a group of performers in 2012. The young British saxophone quartet, the Syzygy Quartet, which was one of the original commissioners of the piece have now recorded it on their own label.

The music is predominantly slow and sustained, and the group's performances are remarkable for the way they sustain the intensity. David Maslanka utilises individual movements in the different instrumental lines to create subtle movement and harmonic shifts. But there is nothing minimal about the music, quite the opposite.  The opening has a quite romantic feel, but what is fascinating is the way Maslanka moves the moved from consonance to passages of intense and disturbing dissonance.

Syzygy Quartet
Syzygy Quartet
Whilst not programme music there is a clear message and programme to the pieces. In his introduction David Maslanka talks about mankind 'destroying the natural world at an ever increasing pace', but he also finds a 'rising creative energy' in the process too, a harbinger of 'a new way of living, with ourselves and with the earth'.

It is intriguing therefore that Maslanka uses three hymns within the work, and these form some of the more structured, consonant passages from which the more uncertain dissonance flows. Maslanka has also worked two of his older songs into the piece.

The Syzygy Quartet (Naomi Sullivan, Dominic Childs, Michaela Stapleton, Neil McGovern) was formed in 2009 after they played together at the 2009 World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok. The Syzygy Quartet were co-commissioners of Songs for the Coming Day, and the work was premiered in Tokyo in 2012 by the Masato Kumo Saxophone Quartet, the group which was the lead commissioner of the work.  David Maslanka refers to the pieces as songs yet there is little that is conventionally song-like, instead he has created music which utilises the qualities of the saxophone quartet whilst never being Hackneyed.

Shared experience - Bach's Christmas Oratorio from Solomon's Knot

Solomon's Knot
Solomon's Knot
Bach Christmas Oratorio; Solomon's Knot; Spitalfields Music Winter Festival at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 15 2015
Star rating: 4.5

Sung from memory, a remarkably direct chamber-scale performance

For the final concert in this year's Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, on Tuesday 15 December 2015 performed in the distressed grandeur of St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, the ensemble Solomon's Knot performed four cantatas (nos. 1,3,5,6) from Bach's Christmas Oratorio. Solomon's Knot, joint artistic directors Jonathan Sells and James Halliday, is an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists who are interested in removing the barriers between performers and audience. One way of doing this is for the singers to perform from memory, communicating directly to the audience without any score or conductor in between and this is how they performed the Christmas Oratorio.

The singers (Zoe Brookshaw , Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Michal Czerniawski, Kate Symonds-Joy, Gwilym Bowen, Peter Davoren, Alex Ashworth and Jonathan Sells) sat in a shallow arc facing the audience with the orchestra (led by John Crockatt with Leo Duarte as first oboe) behind. This was a small scale performance, with just eight strings and eight singers, but it is probably the scale of performance which Bach was used to. In the pre-concert talk, given by Jonathan Sells and James Halliday, the issue of Bach's expectations and performance practice came up and though Sells mentioned the issues surrounding the practice of performing Bach one singer to a part, he did not dwell on it clearly wishing to avoid controversy and instead emphasised the group's interest in performing the music as chamber music. After all, with no conductor they have to listen and watch each other. But whatever the motivation, the results were probably quite close to the sort of performance Bach might have expected.

Another factor which, ironically, Bach might have recognised was a certain earnestness in the delivery, responding to the Lutheran text. Singing directly to us, the singers conveyed a remarkable intensity which reminded me of meetings of the Christian group which I attended as a student. Perhaps, through a concern to express the deep emotions of the text, the singers gave us a very serious, intent and sober presentation clearly wanting to seem moved by the narrative being presented. But though the text reflects the Lutheran concerns over man's sin and Christ's sacrifice, Bach music transcends this and radiates with pure joy. Luckily, though the singers did not always look joyous enough, this came out in their performance music.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Iain Bell and WNO bring us some Christmas spirit

Iain Bell - photo Peter M Mayr
Iain Bell - photo Peter M Mayr
Composer Iain Bell has his third opera In Parenthesis premiered by Welsh National Opera (WNO) in 2016 and to get us in the right mood (and bring in some Christmas Spirit) WNO is mounting a production of Bell's A Christmas Carol this month. A Christmas Carol was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and premiered by them in December 2014 (directed by Simon Callow), when the work was a great hit. 

Written for tenor and 15-person chamber ensemble, it is very much a one man show. WNO will be performing the piece from 18 December to 20 December 2015 at the Wales Millennium Centre with Mark Le Brocq as the narrator; the conductor is James Southall, the director is Polly Graham with designs by Nate Gibson.

Musical tour - Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI at the Wigmore Hall

Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall
The Musical Europe 1500-1700; Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

A brilliant musical tour of Europe with some dazzling viol playing

Distinguished viol player Jordi Savall brought his group Hesperion XXI to the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 13 December 2015 for a much anticipated programme. The theme was Musical Europe 1500-1700 with items grouped by country, Italy, England, Spain and Portugal, France and Germany, finishing with a group of late 16th century pieces which showed how style had become international. In each country there was a selection of contrasting works, pointing the way to the more international suite of the later Baroque with its German allemande, French courante, Spanish sarabanda and English jig. 

The composers in the evening included John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, William Brade, Luys Milan, Antonio de Cabezon, Diego Ortiz, Pedro de San Lorenzo, Philidor, Samuel Scheidt, Henry Purcell, Juan Bautista Jose Cabanilles, Johann Hermann Schein, Guillaume Dumanoir, Antonio Valente as well as a number of anonymous pieces. The ensemble consisted of Jordi Savall (director, treble viol), Philippe Pierlot (alto and bass viol), Sergei Casademunt (tenor viol), Lorenz Duftschmid (bass viol), Xavier Puertas (violone), Xavier Diaz-Latorre (theorbo and guitar), and Pedro Estevan (percussion).

They started with a group of anonymous dances from Renaissance Venice. The opening dance was a stately pavane where the rich palate of colours of the viols was enlivened by a drum. Throughout the evening Pedro Estevan's discreet but imaginative percussion contributions helped bring the music to life. The Venetian dances then continued, alternating between the catchy up-tempo and the more stately.

We then moved to England, for a selection of Elizabethan consort music. There was rich melancholy in Dowland's Lachrimae Pavan with a lovely singing quality to the melody, and fine contrast was provided by the rhythmic The King of Denmark's Galliard, where the steady tempo provided space for some fabulous ornamentation from Savall. Orlando Gibbons In nomine a 4 played by just viols and violone, was sober but rather wonderful, whilst William Brade's Ein Schottisch Tanz was a complete delight in its evocation of Scots snaps in the melody and drones in the accompaniment.

Monday 14 December 2015

Michael Head's Snowbirds receives its first recording

National Youth Choirs of Scotland's Girls Choir ┬ ® Drew Farrell.jpg
National Youth Choirs of Scotland's Girls Choir  ® Drew Farrell.jpg
The songs The Ships of Arcady and The Little Road to Bethlehem by Michael Head (1900-1976) are some of the most popular in the 20th century song repertoire. But, as with many such composers, the available repertoire on disc only touches the surface and now Head's cycle Snowbirds is getting its first release on disc in a recording by the National Youth Choir of Scotland's Girls Choir with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill (who is patron of the choir), Philip Moore (piano) and Christopher Bell (conductor), on Signum Classics. The disc, Only a singing bird, is being officially released on 8 January 2016 which is the choir's 20th anniversary.

Head's Snowbirds consists of seven songs for soloist, female choir and piano, based on the 1919 publication of the same name by Brahmin poet Sri Ananda Acharya (1881-1945). From 1917 until his death, Sri Ananda Acharya lived on Tronsvangen on the slopes of Mt.Tron in Alvdal, Norway and was the first Indian yogi and sannyasi to come to the Nordic countries in modern times.

Also on the disc is music by Gary Carpenter, Ken Johnston and Stephen Deazley including Gary Carpenter's The Food of Love - Book 2 (based on works of William Shakespeare) which the choir premiered in April 2015.

The National Youth Choir for Scotland was formed in 1996 and now has four national choirs, providing annual residential courses, concerts and tours for singers between the ages of 12 and 25. The girls choir was formed in 2007 for singers aged 12-16 years and is open to girls who are resident, studying or born in Scotland. 

Beyond Pierrot Lunaire - The Pierrot Project

The Pierror Project
The Pierrot Project
The Pierrot Project was originally conceived of by curator Niamh White, composer Ewan Campbell and pianist Alex Wilson. With a shared love of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, they wanted to create events that combined both music and art, and establish opportunities for talented young artists and musicians to work together in informal settings for large cross-arts audiences. For their latest project in 2016, the exhibition – The Pierrot Studio – composers Ewan Campbell, Stef Conner and Chris Roe will be working with visual artists Tim A Shaw, Jörg Obergfell and Sara Naim, creating installations influenced by the life and work of Arnold Schoenberg, combining music and sound with art and sculpture. These installations will be displayed for 2 weeks from February 5th-17th 2016 at Display Gallery in Holborn.

Alongside these the contemporary chamber ensemble the Dr K. Sextet and soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers will perform three concerts amongst the installations. These will feature the world premieres by these composers and works by other emerging artists, as well as a performance of Pierrot Lunaire.

You can read more about the project on their website, and they are looking for support through Kickstarter so do visit their Kickstarter page.

Chapelle du Roi - The Marriage of England and Spain

Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi Photo Andrea Liu (Flickr)
Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi
Photo Andrea Liu (Flickr)
Tallis, Mundy, Hedley, de Monte, Byrd , Victoria, Guerrero; Chapelle du Roi, Alistair Dixon; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 12 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Interweaving Spanish and English music from the late 16th century, along with a modern premiere

Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi's contribution to the Christmas Festival at St John's Smith Square on Saturday 12 December 2015 was a programme of late 16th century English and Spanish sacred music entitled The Marriage of England and Spain. Themed around the marriage of Queen Mary Tudor to Philip of Spain, the programme included music written by Tallis for the joint forces of the English Chapel Royal and the Spanish Capella Flamanca along with other music which showed the continental, notably Spanish, influences on English music with pieces by Tallis, Mundy, de Monte, Byrd, Victoria and Guerrero. There was also a performance of Edward Hedley's motet for the Holy Innocents, Terreum sitiens regnum, which was reconstructed by Nick Sandon from the Peterhouse Partbooks and was receiving its probable first modern performance.

The programme started with a lively and rhythmic account of the medieval carol Gaudete, Gaudete sung as the choir walked in.

Next came Thomas Tallis's Beati immaculati, a motet which survives in a later version with an English text but the English word setting is particularly infelicitous and aspects of the scoring suggest it started as a Latin piece. It certainly shows the influence of continental models in the structure of the motet. It was sung with a vibrant sense of line by the eight members of Chapelle du Roi, along with felicitous attention to rhythmic detail which enlivened the piece. William Mundy's Adolescentulus sum ego, which sets verses from the same psalm (119) as the Tallis, belongs to the continuing tradition of composers in Elizabethan England writing Latin texted psalm motets which were not strictly liturgical. Mundy's piece was full of Tallis-like imitation and lovely false relations. The singers brought out a nice sense of individuality in the lines rather than being over blended.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Heroic undertaking - Weinberg's The Idiot

Weinberg - The Idiot
Mieczyslaw Weinberg The Idiot; Juhan Tralla, Steven Scheschareg, Ludmila Slepneva, Orchestra of Nationaltheater Mannheim, Thomas Sanderling; Pan Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 8 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Heroic account of Weinberg's huge final Dostoyevsky-based opera

Operas by Mieczyslaw Weinberg are beginning to get greater currency with The Passenger being performed at Bregenz, Houston, Chicago and at ENO.  Mieczyslaw Weinberg's final opera, The Idiot was written in 1985 based on the novel by Dostoyevsky and premiered in Moscow in 1991 in shortened version with reduced orchestration. But the opera had to wait until 2013 for the premiere of the full version, in a new production at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim.  In 2014 this production was committed to disc on on Pan Classics.  

The recording was made live at the Nationaltheater, Mannheim in January 2014, with Juhan Tralla as Myshkin, Steven Scheschareg as Rogoshin, Ludmila Slepneva as Natassya Filippovna, Lars Moller as Lebedef, Bryan Boyce as Totsky, Bartosz Urbanowicz as Epanchin, Elzbieta Ardam as Epanchina, Anne-Theresa Moller as Aglaya, Tamara Banjeevic as Alexandra, Uwe Eikotter as Ganya, Tatjjan Rjasanova as Warja and JeongkonChoi as Grinder, with Thomas Sanderling conducting the Orchestra of Nationaltheater Mannheim.

Weinberg's The Idiot at Nationaltheater, Mannheim
Weinberg's The Idiot at Nationaltheater, Mannheim
It is a substantial work, over three hours of music (208 minutes), 12 sung roles and a large orchestra. Taking Dostoyevsky's novel as its starting point, the work is also a large, serious piece. Returning from treatment for epilepsy in Switzerland, Prince Myshkin is a naive, compassionate nature loose in St Petersburg society; people treat him as an idiot and take advantage of him. He aims to save Nastassya but only ends up destroying her. Inevitably, the opera's ten scenes involve a lot of compression of the various plot lines on Dostoyevsky's book and the plot synopsis comes with three different back stories to taken on board. But to Dostoyevsky' story Weinberg and his librettist, Alexander Medwedjew, added solos for the Prince, philosophical musings which are the closest we get to arias in the opera. The other big change is the ending with instead of Myshkin going mad, he and his black nemesis Rogozhin embrace over the body of Nastassya as the opera reveals what we knew all along, that the two are one, two sides of the same coin.

Myshkin's experiences as an exile, learning an unfamiliar language, cut off from a family he was never to see again, and increasingly infirm, would seem to have had resonances with a composer who fled his Polish homeland during World War Two, struggled to gain acceptance in the Soviet Union and was diagnosed with Crohn's disease from his late 50's. He counted Dostoyevsky as his favourite writer but we have no indication of when and why he chose the subject of The Idiot for an opera.

Much of the music is dark and serious, intense and full of symphonic detail. But there are lyrical and comic moments too, a Weimar-esque piano, lyrical moments for Myshkin and Nastassya, as well as poignant duets for them.  In style, though there are hints of Weinberg's friend Shostakovich there are other influences too, and you think of such distinctive 20th century voices as Bernd Alois Zimmerman.

Reading the reviews of the live performances, I was struck by how many people were enthusiastic about the work and proclaimed it quite a discovery. On disc it is rather harder to apprehend, and you have to stick close to the libretto to stand a chance of working out what is going on (luckily Pan Classics provides on in Russian, German and English). The role of Myshkin is huge and Estonian tenor Juhan Tralla wonderfully heroic. There are times when you are aware of the sheer power the role is taking but there are poetic moments too, and you have to admire someone who can make the ending to poignant after so much music. Steven Schechareg makes a strong Rogozhin, dark and firm voiced, scary yet sympathetic. Ludmila Slepneva has a strong spinto vein in her voice, making Nastassya quite strong and independent sounding and not always loveable. The surrounding characters, many from the Mannheim company, are all admirably strong and supporting.

I have to admit though, that much as I admire the commitment and the energy which has gone into this production, I do find that without any stage action Weinberg's vocal lines, with their rather steady syllabic setting of text, get rather wearing. This, combined with the rather dramatic nature of much of the delivery make the opera somewhat hard work. What transforms it is the performance from Thomas Sanderling and the orchestra. He clearly has a strong command of the sprawling idiom of the piece, and his orchestra plays superbly for him. This is very much a symphonic opera, and the orchestra is frequently to the fore. Weinberg produces some wonderfully magic moments and some dazzling orchestration. This set is well worth listening to for Sanderling and the orchestra, and he is clearly a talent to watch.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) - The Idiot (1985) [208:00]
Juhan Tralla as Myshkin
Steven Scheschareg as Rogoshin
Ludmilla Slepneva as Natassya Filippovna
Lars Moller as Lebedef
Bryan Boyce as Totsky
Bartosz Urbanowicz as Epanchin
Elzbieta Ardam as Epanchina
Anne-Theresa Moller as Aglaya
Tamara Banjeevic as Alexandra
Uwe Eikotter as Ganya
Tatjjan Rjasanova as Warja and JeongkonChoi as Grinder
Orchestra of Nationaltheater Mannheim
Thommas Sanderling (conductor)
Recorded 12 & 13 January 2014, Nationaltheater, Mannheim
PanClassics PC10328 3CD's

Elsewhere on this blog:

Saturday 12 December 2015

Creative entrepreneurship - an encounter with Lizzie Holmes, of Debut opera

Marie Lys singing at 60th birthday party
Marie Lys singing at a 60th birthday party
You have graduated from music college, and are looking at post-graduate training and gaining experience in opera, there is only one problem; where does the money come from? Most young singers end up working somewhere, often in a non-musical environment, whilst they pursue their career. And some talented singers never ever make it into the opera house as economics force them to take career in the commercial world. 

But the young soprano Lizzie Holmes is developing a solution. Her company Debut Opera, whose mission statement is 'Debut Opera brings together the UK's brightest emerging opera singers & pianists to provide unparalleled musical entertainment for corporate & private events', provides young opera singers for private events, thus giving the singers a form of income derived from a genuine musical source. Whilst those hiring the singers not only get high quality entertainment but the real chance to hear ‘Tomorrow's stars, for your event today'.

Lizzie Holmes of Debut Opera
Lizzie Holmes of Debut Opera
In person Lizzie Holmes is bright, lively and engaging and we prefix the more formal part of our interview with a general discussion about the perils of young singers being pressured to do too much to soon, a chat which soon veers into some of my reminiscences of great singers of the past. But once she is talking about Debut Opera, Lizzie is focussed and direct, clearly passionate about the subject and making you wonder why no-one has done it before. 

Between the ages of 25 and 35 most singers have an income gap, granted they are building a career by being on young artists schemes, singing with a small touring opera company or doing oratorio but it is only with experience that a liveable wage comes. Coming out of college with a degree can be an amazing experience, but you are then facing a £20,000 per annum bill for post-graduate study whilst trying to earn money working in a coffee shop. Lizzie comes from a family of non-musicians so the idea that you are a young artist until you are 35 was alien to them. But she was in a similar position and when she sang for someone’s wedding, it struck her that she could do a better job so she has set up Debut Opera.  Generally when events firms provide singers for corporate and private events they often come from a musical theatre background whereas Debut Opera’s roster of performers are all highly talented opera singers.

Sheer magic - Elina Garanca and Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall

Elīna Garanča at Wigmore Hall (c) Simon Jay Price
Elīna Garanča at Wigmore Hall (c) Simon Jay Price
Brahms, Duparc, Rachmaninov; Elina Garanča, Roger Vignoles; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 11 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Elegant melancholy and passionate longing from the Latvian mezzo-soprano

Not only was Elina Garanča's recital at the Wigmore Hall on 11 December 2015 her Wigmore Hall debut, but there was some unnecessary excitement before it started, as pianist Malcolm Martineau had to pull out and was replaced at the last moment by Roger Vignoles. The programme was unchanged and thankfully you would not have known that the pairing of Garanča and Vignoles hadn't been planned all along. The programme gave use three contrasting groups of melancholy longing about love, from Johannes Brahms, Henri Duparc and Sergei Rachmaninov. Garanča and Vignoles performed a striking series of 14 Brahms songs in the first half, opened the second half with three Duparc songs and then finished with eight Rachmaninov songs. And, of course, the three composers gave us such strikingly different responses even though the emotions depicted were similar. It was a concentrated and serious evening, lifted by the sheer beauty of Garanča's voice and the musicality of the performances.

Elīna Garanča and  Roger Vignoles at Wigmore Hall (c) Simon Jay Price
Elīna Garanča and  Roger Vignoles at Wigmore Hall (c) Simon Jay Price
Elina Garanča's stage persona is poised and elegant, and as a performer she is highly communicative. She sang from memory, so that we were able to appreciate fully the range of facial expression and body language. Such was the directness of her communications that in the Russian songs you hardly needed to look at the translations of the words. Her voice is something of a contrast to her visual image, as it is rich and dark with a lovely lower register. But the tone is focussed and even over the whole range and what was noticeable during the evening was the lovely way she could lighten it and sound girlish where necessary, and how she could float a high line too.

Elina Garanča and Roger Vignoles started with Brahms, fourteen songs in all sung with just a single break in the middle, giving a striking sequence of intimate drama. Brahms's choice of poet tended to be rather lower key than his contemporaries, he commented that Goethe's poems were all 'so finished that there is nothing one can do to them with music'. So in these pieces the words, though necessary, are only a vehicle for Brahms's own musical emotions.

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