Saturday 31 December 2016

Review of the year - 2016 in opera and concert reviews

Disciples in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Disciples in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion Photo by Graeme Cooper
2016 is a year which has seen the first UK stagings of Enescu's Oedipe and Hartmann's Simplicius SimplicissimusRenée Fleming returning to the role of the Marschallin in London for possibly the last time, Sonya Yoncheva sing her first Norma (the first of many we hope), along with a rare outing for Rossini's Semiramide (performed nearly uncut), as well as the first performance of a new opera from the impressive partnership of Stuart MacRae & Louise Walsh

Renée Fleming, Sophie Bevan - Act 3, Der Rosenkavalier  © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Renée Fleming, Sophie Bevan - Act 3, Der Rosenkavalier
© ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Here is a selection of the opera and concerts from the year, the ones which have stayed in the memory, including Penny Woolcock's remarkable reworking of Bach's St Matthew Passion with Streetwise Opera and the Sixteen.


Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano - Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano - Buxton Festival
photo Robert Workman


Kimiko Ishizaka Photo credit: Intuitive Fotografie - Philippe Ramakers
Kimiko Ishizaka Photo credit: Intuitive Fotografie - Philippe Ramakers

Friday 30 December 2016

Orchestral adventures: New South American Discoveries

New South American Discoveries - Norwegian Radio Orchestra
Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann, Victor Agudelo, Sebastian Vergara, Diego Luzuriaga, Diego Vega, Sebastian Errazuriz, Agustin Fernandez,Antonio Gervasoni; Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 21 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Fascinating survey of contemporary South American music

This enterprising disc, from Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi, is a survey of 21st century pieces by South American composers. Entitled New South American Discoveries it features music by Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann (Peru), Victor Agudelo (Colombia), Sebastian Vergara (Chile), Diego Luzuriaga (Ecuador), Diego Vega (Colombia), Sebastian Errazuriz (Chile), Agustin Fernandez (Bolivia) and Antonio Gervasoni (Peru).

The disc provides a valuable overview of what is evidently a lively South American contemporary music scene. It is perhaps unwise to generalise from the selection on the disc, as the music probably represents Miguel Harth-Bedoya's taste as much as anything, but certainly the disc makes you interested to hear more. What is particularly illuminating is that though a number of the composers studied in the USA or UK, all started off in South American institutions, showing that contemporary composition has good native roots.

The title of Jorge Villavicencio's Wayra (2011) means Wind in the ancient Inca language. Starting with vivid excitement even when the music quietens there is a sense of something about to occur. Victor Agudelo's El Sombreron (2009) is based on a Colombian story. It opens with eerie atmosphere and the sound of horse's hooves (I have to confess on first listening I assumed it was the ticking of a clock) and develops a sense of narrative with strong filmic qualities, to create a striking narrative tone poem.

Thursday 29 December 2016

Wintry Darkness from the Tallis Scholars

The Tallis Scholars
Josquin des Prez, Cipriano de Rore, Tomas Luiz de Victoria, Hernando Franco and John Tavener; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 21 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Darkness & mystery in this programme of Renaissance music

If you had walked into St John’s Smith Square (21 December 2016) without knowing what The Tallis Scholars did or what the music was, you would not immediately guess that this was a Christmas concert. There was plenty of darkness and mystery in this programme of Renaissance music that looked back to a time when Christmas was a time to celebrate – or reflect on – the unknown. Directed by Peter Phillips, they performed music by Josquin des Prez, Cipriano de Rore, Tomas Luiz de Victoria, Hernando Franco and John Tavener.

We started with Josquin’s short Christmas motet, Praeter rerum seriem (‘Beyond the order of this world’, the Virgin Mother bore God in human form). Something unfathomable yet perfect. The piece starts low and emerges slowly from the depths, with the cantus firmus or plainchant moving slowly ‘like tectonic plates’, said James Potter in his programme note. Josquin sowed the musical seeds for later composers by his understanding and exploitation of the music printing business – indeed he seems to have had rock-star status in his day, spawning imitations from copyists who would pass their work off as Josquin’s.

This austere motet certainly set the mood for the evening, and it provided the inspiration for de Rore’s full-length mass that followed. This was a still, meditative piece, written in praise of his employer Hercules of Ferrara and in homage to Josquin, and hence earning him a salary as well as a reputation as a clever composer.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Ring of Achievement?

Amalie Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde, with Cocotte, the horse donated by King Ludwig to play her horse Grane
Amalie Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde, with Cocotte,
the horse donated by King Ludwig to play her horse Grane
The first complete performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle took place in Bayreuth, in a theatre built specifically for the purpose, under festival conditions. And the cost was so great that it was four years before Wagner held the second festival. The stupendousness of Wagner's achievement with The Ring, with its 15 hours of concentrated musico-dramatic argument combined with moments of sheer theatrical genius, can blind us to how much the work had in common with contemporary opera theatre.

Not only is Wagner's work based on a re-invention of the theatrical myth-making of Weber, Marschner and their contemporaries, but the work's length and festal nature have links to contemporary opera performance. In the 19th century nights in the theatre could be long, short operas would be supplemented by ballets. As a young man in Paris, Wagner experienced the theatrical grandiosity of French grand opera, where operas by Halevy and Meyerbeer can reach a length which we now think of as Wagnerian.

Wagner's musical background, though, was not in the state-subsidised opera house in Paris, but in the German Hofoper, the court opera where opera was staged as part of court festivities and the sense of a festival event (rather than run of the mill season) was great. This was, of course, changing and part of the story of 19th century opera is the replacement of royal and aristocratic patronage with other forms of more public support.

The sheer size of The Ring means that it remains something of a festal event. And in the modern opera world, the extremely long operas are rare. Few companies would consider mounting Halevy's La Juive uncut, and Verdi's Don Carlos is usually performed in the more compact later versions. Wagner is one of the few composers where the sheer amplitude of his vision is routinely preserved uncut.

Sunday 25 December 2016

Happy Christmas

Middle Temple Hall at Christmas
Middle Temple Hall at Christmas

Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year
from all at
Planet Hugill

Saturday 24 December 2016

The Ghost of Rosenkavaliers past

Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Theatr Magdeburg, director Olivia Fuchs. Photo by Nilz Böhme.
Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Theatr Magdeburg, director Olivia Fuchs. Photo by Nilz Böhme.
There seem to be a lot of Rosenkavaliers around at the moment. This Autumn Opera North revived its David McVicar production (with Ylva Kihlberg as the Marschallin, see my review) the Royal Opera has mounted a new production by Robert Carsen (with Renee Fleming and Rachel Willis-Sørensen singing the Marschallin, see my review), to replace the 1984 John Schlesinger production (which itself replaced the 1966 Visconti one), and Welsh National Opera is mounting a production in June 2017 for the first time in 15 years, presenting Olivia Fuchs production first seen in Magdeburg, with Rebecca Evans as the Marschallin.

Valerie Masterson as Sophie and Sandra Browne as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at ENO in 1975 (Photograph © Sarah Quill, 1975)
Valerie Masterson as Sophie and Sandra Browne as Octavian
in Der Rosenkavalier at ENO in 1975
Photograph © Sarah Quill, 1975
It is fascinating to see how easy it is to refer to the productions via a single member of the cast, the Marschallin. The opera is really about the triangle of Ochs, Sophie and Octavian; Strauss was after all thinking of calling it Ochs von Lerchenau. But somehow it is the Marschallin we remember, even though she is absent from the stage for all of Act Two and much of Act Three. The role has managed to capture both the imagination of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and the paying public.

The shadow of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf hangs heavily over the role of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier for people of my generation. Even though she had stopped singing the role before I started going to opera (I saw her in recital), she was the Marschallin par excellence. I have, however, been lucky enough to see some very fine Marschallin's indeed. At English National Opera there was Ava June and Valerie Masterson both in the pre-Jonathan Miller production, Yvonne Kenny, Janice Watson and Anne Evans in the Jonathan Miller production, Joan Rogers and Amanda Roocroft in the David McVicar production. Ava June was in fact my first Marschallin (at ENO in the late 1970s with Josephine Barstow as Octavian), but another early one was Catherine Wilson at Scottish Opera in 1979 in Anthony Besch's production. Whilst at Covent Garden, Marschallins have included Gwyneth Jones in the last revival of the Visconti production (which debuted in 1966), Kiri Te Kanawa, Anna Tomowa Sintow, Felicity Lott, Lucia Popp and Renee Fleming in the John Schlesinger production.

Friday 23 December 2016

Unjustly neglected: Francesco Durante's Requiem

Francesco Durante - Requiem - Coro
Francesco Durante Requiem, Organ concert; Alexandra Kidgell, Katy Hill, William Purefoy, Mark Dobell, Ben Davies, Clive Driskill-Smith, Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, Oxford Baroque, Stephen Darlington; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 15 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Popular in its day but now unjustly neglected, a striking Requiem mass

If you have heard of Francesco Durante at all it is probably as a teacher (his pupils included Pergolesi, Traetta, Piccini and Paisiello) but this new disc on the Coro label from Christ Church Cathedral Choir and Oxford Baroque, conductor Stephen Darlington, shows us another side to Durante. Stephen Darlington conducts choir, orchestra and soloists Alexandra Kidgell, Katy Hill, WilliamPurefoy, Mark Dobell and Ben Davies in Durante's Requiem Mass in C minor, and organist Clive Driskill-Smith is the soloist in Durante's Organ Concerto in B flat major.

The recording is premiere of Darlington's new modern performing edition of Durante's Requiem, making easily available for the first time a work which was remarkably popular in its day. Though Durante was based in Naples, the Requiem seems to have spread widely over the Hapsburg Empire, but was in fact never published. Naples was renowned for its opera, and Durante's major pupils were all known for their operatic work, so the fact the Durante concentrated on writing sacred music seems to have hindered his historical reputation.

The Requiem is not the first orchestral requiem by a long chalk, but it very much takes a symphonic approach to the music. Listening to it I was reminded of the Requiem by Michael Haydn, an important precursor of Mozart's Requiem. Not that much is known about the work, but it was probably premiered in Rome in 1746; one probable suggestion begin a requiem mass for Philip V of Spain at S. Giacomo degli Spagnoli.

Durante wrote the Requiem for an interesting combination of performers. The main choir is five-part (SSATB), from which group the soloists were taken. There is also a ripieno group (ATB) which is often used simply to reinforce the tutti, but Durante also makes use of the ripieno group to create a rich eight-part texture.

On this recording both choirs are sung by members of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir. The recording does not specify details, but with a choir of 14 trebles, 5 altos, 5 tenors, and 4 basses, the numeric options are relatively limited. The soloists are not drawn from the choir but use singers associated with The Sixteen.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen & Anna Stéphany in Der Rosenkavalier

Anna Stéphany, Rachel Willis-Sørensen - Der Rosenkavalier - @ ROH. photo Catherine Ashmore
Anna Stéphany, Rachel Willis-Sørensen - Der Rosenkavalier
@ ROH. photo Catherine Ashmore
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier; Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Anna Stéphany, Sophie Bevan, Matthew Rose, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, dir: Robert Carsen, cond: Andris Nelsons; Covent garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 22 2016
Star rating: 4.5

A return to Robert Carsen's new production to hear two very different singers as the Marschallin and Octavian

We returned to Robert Carsen's new production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier on 22 December 2016 at the Royal Opera House to see the alternative cast (see my review of the production's first night). This time Rachel Willis-Sørensen was the Marschallin and Anna Stéphany was Octavian, with the rest of the cast remaining the same; Matthew Rose as Ochs, Sophie Bevan as Sophie, and Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Faninal with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Helene Schneiderman and Giorgio Berrugi. Sets were by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting by Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet, choreography by Philippe Giraudeau, with Andris Nelsons in the pit conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen won first prize at the 2014 Operalia competition, was a winner of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and spent three yeas as a member of the ensemble at the Dresden Semperoper. She is moving into jugend-dramatisch territory, singing Eva in Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden, Beethoven's Leonore and Freia. I am unclear whether this was her first Marschallin but it certainly isn't a role which she has sung extensively, yet! We last heard mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany singing the title role in Handel's Serse with the Early Opera Company (see my review), and she first sang Octavian in 2011 at the Bolshoi and returned to the role more recently at the Royal Swedish Opera.

Thursday 22 December 2016

Cavalli and Rameau at Woodhouse in 2017

Woodhouse Copse
Woodhouse Copse
Woodhouse Copse is an Arts and Crafts house in Surrey, with gardens originally laid out by Gertrude Jekyll, where artistic director Monika Saunders stages operas in a small indoor theatre and in an outdoor amphitheatre in the woods. Under the direction of Mauricio da Silva, Woodhouse Opera runs Baroque Academies where young singers come together to rehearse and perform. In 2017 they are presenting two baroque operas at Woodhouse Copse. Francesco Cavalli's La Calisto (on 22 and 23 April 2017), and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie. Whilst in September they are performing Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore.

Earlier in 2016 we saw a terrific performance of Lully's Armide staged at Woodhouse, you can read my review on this blog.

Full information from the Woodhouse Opera website.

Live buzz: James MacMillan's Symphony No. 4 and Violin Concerto

Macmillan Violin Concerto
James MacMillan Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 4; Vadim Repin, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles; Onyx
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 18 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Two substantial symphonic works in terrific performances

This new disc on Onyx (in association with BBC Radio 3) from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra includes two substantial symphonic works by James MacMillan, the Violin Concerto (with violinist Vadim Repin, to whom the concerto is dedicated), and Symphony No. 4 (dedicated to Donald Runnicles).

The booklet information on the concerto is slightly frustrating, there is an admirable explanatory note from MacMillan, and details of the original commission, but no dates. So we must resort to Google to discover the work was premiered in 2010 by Vadim Repin, the London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev. [Whilst I am in grouchy mood, it would have been nice if someone had spotted that the CD booklet has added 9 years to James MacMillan's age].

The Violin Concerto is in three movements, 'Dance', 'Song' and 'Song and Dance'. 'Dance' opens with rhythmic elements in the orchestra and a high energy violin part. There are many moments of pause, but this feeling of energy continues through the movement. MacMillan achieves a sense of distance between soloist and orchestra, not so much physical as conceptual, indicated by the way the high violin part floats over the lower instrumental writing. Overall, there is a sense of dialogue, one leading the other on. I have to confess that it was only after reading James MacMillan's note that I realised that one of the episodes was a Scottish reel.

Wednesday 21 December 2016

The Three Kings: The Sixteen at Christmas

The Three Kings
Three Kings, Handl, Fricker, Howells, Palestrina, Sheppard, Lassus, Warlock, Cornelius, Anerio; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

An intriguing mix of music in the Sixteen's Christmas concert

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen were at the Cadogan Hall on 20 December 2016 for the first of two Christmas concerts. Their programme, The Three Kings featured an interesting mix of plainchant, Renaissance polyphony, 20th century classics, folk-inspired items and a couple of traditional carols, all themed on the Three Kings.

We opened with I wonder as I wander, first published by John Jacob Niles in 1934 and of uncertain origins but lovely all the same. The Sixteen's simple but effective presentation was to have a fine solo from Alexandra Kidgell framing verses sung by all the sopranos. Jacobus Handl's Omnes de Saba (the gradual for the Mass of the Epiphany) was vigorous and resonant, and it was lovely to hear John Henry Hopkins' well known We Three Kings sung properly for once, with solos from Tim Jones, Ben Davies and Eamonn Dougan.

Peter Racine Fricker's A Babe is born dates from 1962 but had some nice neo-medievalism in the harmonies with added modern spice, and pleasant metrical irregularity. The traditional This endris night (sung in a four-part arrangement) had a beautiful part-song quality to it, whilst Herbert Howells' Long, long ago (written in 1950) had a lovely fluidity of metre in the way Howells handled the long-breathed modal melodies, and the way he approached the text.

Baroque and classical delights: La Nuova Musica in Bach, Haydn & Mozart

La Nuova Musica- photo Michael Poehn
La Nuova Musica- photo Michael Poehn
Bach, Mozart, Haydn; Lucy Crowe, David Blackadder, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; St Johns Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Bach cantatas, Haydn's St Nicholas Mass and a Mozart soprano showpiece in this delightful Christmas programme

David Peter Bates and La Nuova Musica provided us with four Christmas (or Christmassy) treats on 19 December 2016 as their contribution to the 31st Christmas Festival that runs for most of December at St John’s Smith Square. Their programme consisted of two Baroque favourites by Bach followed by two Classical pieces by Mozart and Haydn, with the soprano showpieces bookended by choral works, performed with soloists soprano Lucy Crowe and trumpeter David Blackadder.

We started with Bach’s Advent cantata, Nun komm, der Heiden Heliand BWV 62, written for Weimar and first performed in 1724. This was played with a muscular energy that made the opening sound like Handel, and this provided a stonking support for the voices; there were only eight of them but they made a beefy sound bigger than one would expect. The tenor recitative and aria sounded as though a baritone might have been at home in them; James Arthur’s earthy recit made time stand still and Augusta Hebbert sang delightfully. The stage choreography could have been better managed, but aurally it was great ensemble.

Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen BWV 51 was first performed in Leipzig – a more extravagant piece for starry soloists, which we certainly had tonight. Lucy Crowe went from crazy coloratura to poised legato and David Blackadder from fortissimo to pianissimo in the twinkling of an eye. The orchestra of strings and organ added to the variety.

Ambitious & brave: Louis Langrée on Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's concertos for orchestra project

Louis Langrée & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Louis Langrée & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Sebastian Currier
Sebastian Currier
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has its origins in the 19th century but it has always looked to the present (and future) with collaborations with a remarkable number of composers. Under Louis Langrée, music director since 2013, this is continuing as the orchestra has issued a new disc Concertos for Orchestra, on its own Fanfare Cincinnati label, devoted to three contemporary composers Sebastian Currier. Thierry Escaich and Zhou Tian. I caught up with Louis Langrée via Skype to find out more.

It is an ambitious and brave project, a disc devoted to three new substantial works by contemporary composers and Louis points out that the works were recorded live. The recordings were made at the world premiere performances, capturing the excitement and fear (sometimes) of the occasions. Louis admits that whilst performers can really embrace a piece when they have played it 15 times, there is a lot to be said for the way a recording of the first performance can really capture the buzz of the premiere.

Zhou Tian
Zhou Tian
The new works are part of larger scale ambitions, as Louis thinks that is is their duty as interpreters to commission new works, and important that as a great institution there is an area of experimentation. In the last three years he has conducted 12 first performances with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a striking figure for a symphony orchestra with a regular season with subscribers.

But from its founding the orchestra was committed to music of its time, working with Respighi, Varese, Elgar (who came to conduct The Dream of Gerontius), Stravinsky, Bartok, Scriabin, Saint-Saens, Bernstein and Copland, whose Fanfare for the common man was a Cincinnati commission. Last season John Adams came to conduct his Scheherazade.2 for violin and orchestra, the first time he had conducted the work after the premiere in New York two weeks previously when Alan Gilbert conducted the work.

For the Concertos for Orchestra disc Louis wanted to have three different composers from three different cultures and different musical backgrounds. Louis did not originally know the work of American composer Sebastian Currier, but the orchestra gave him pieces to read and he thought 'wow'. Currier's music was intense, visceral and very challenging to the orchestra, requiring individual virtuosity and creating a real concerto for orchestra.

Zhou Tian lives in the USA but is from China and Louis feels that though his musical language is Western, Zhou Tian's roots inflect his musical language. Louis describes Zhou Tian as a young man, but one who knows how to orchestrate, how to make an orchestra really sound.

Thierry Escaich#
Thierry Escaich
Thierry Escaich is the only composer with whom Louis had worked before. Louis talks about the way there are two traditions of composers in France, the pianists (Debussy, Ravel, Boulez) and the organists (Franck, Faure, Messiaen, Durufle, Gounod), adding that Berlioz fits in elsewhere! Louis feels that Escaich fits into the tradition of organists writing symphonic music, and that his conception of the orchestra comes from the way of using registrations in organ playing. Louis adds that this does not mean that Escaich music is written for the organ and then orchestrated, but that the way he uses density, different layers and groups of players is like an organ player using stops. In Escaich's piece for Cincinnati his use of Bach chorales in the music mixes the sacred and the symphonic in a way which Louis feels is typical of this tradition of organist composers.

And the fact that organists are some of the only instrumentalists in the Western Classical tradition to continue improvising is important too. Escaich is evidently an amazing improviser and Louis thinks you can feel this in his writing. Not that the music lacks structure, but there is feeling of immediacy, the way new ideas can take the music in a different direction.

They are three very different pieces, and Louis is proud that the orchestra has commissioned them. The disc was intended to be concertos for orchestra, a form which Louis associates with the Cincinnati Symphony because the first time he really listened to them (before he had conducted them) was on a disc conducted by Paavo Järvi of Concertos for Orchestra by Bartok and Lutoslawski, He thought it a wonderful recording and was very  impressed, and when he became music director of the orchestra he had that recording in his head. He thought to ask the composers of the present day what they have to say in the form, not a symphony but a concerto for instrumentalists.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Intimate and text-driven: Handel's Messiah from Ian Page and Classical Opera

Handel by Balthasar Denner
Handel by Balthasar Denner
Handel Messiah; Sarah Fox, Angela Simkin, Stuart Jackson, Neal Davies, Classical Opera, Ian Page; Temple Winter Festival at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Relatively intimate account of Handel's oratorio which had the text to the fore

The Temple Winter Festival came to a close on Monday 19 December 2016 with a performance of Handel's Messiah in Middle Temple Hall, with Ian Page conducting the choir and orchestra of Classical Opera plus soloists Sarah Fox, Angela Simkin, Stuart Jackson and Neal Davies.

Messiah was a work which was notoriously flexible during Handel's lifetime as he adjusted it to suite individual performers. Ian Page's edition of the score was largely traditional, in his note he says that he sought to 'incorporate Handel's lasting preferences'. We also had the versions of 'But who may abide' and 'Thou art gone up on high' which Handel created in 1750 for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, bringing a little touch of opera seria bravura into the work. So 'But who may abide' was sung by the alto, 'Thy rebuke', 'Behold and see' and 'But Thou didst not leave' were sung by tenor, 'Thou art gone up on high' by alto, 'How beautiful are the feet' by soprano, 'Their sound is gone out' by chorus.

Charles Jennens by Thomas Hudson
Charles Jennens
by Thomas Hudson
This was a relatively intimate account of the work, with a choir of nine young professional singers and an orchestral ensemble based on nine string players. This meant that the soloists could take advantage of the relatively favourable balance, and this was a very text-based performance as it should be. Ian Page favoured quite brisk speeds, particularly in the choruses as he was able to take advantage of the high degree of flexibility and technical expertise from his small group of choristers.

The overture moved from intimacy to grandeur, ending with a nicely perky fast section. The smaller string contingent meant that we got a lovely experience of Mark Baigent's oboe.

The following recitative and aria introduced us to what was, for me, the stand out performance of the evening from tenor Stuart Jackson. Jackson sang with barely a glance at his music and whatever the narrative context, he always brought out the meaning of the words. Oratorio should be as much about words as music, the text was there to convey a message and with Jackson it really did. Not that there was anything skimped about the musical values as he could spin a fine line, produce lovely even runs and sing with lyric beauty, but always allied to the sense of the drama.

Music academy in Provence

Class at the 2016 Musique Cordiale Academy
Class at the 2016 Musique Cordiale Academy
The Musique Cordiale International Festival takes place in the picturesque medieval hill towns between Nice and Aix-en-Provence. 2017 will be the 13th Festival and will feature two weeks of concerts conducted by Graham Ross and James Lowe, 27 July - 5 August 2017. The Festival Orchestra is a multi-generational ensemble made up of young professionals and established musicians from orchestras such as the LSO, the OAE, the Tonhalle Zurich and the Oslo Philharmonic.

As part of the festival the 2017 Musique Cordiale Academy enable a group of 12 students to enjoy masterclasses, chamber music coaching and orchestral training with Levon Chilingirian & Susie Mészáros of the Chilingirian String Quartet and Jane Hyland, former principal cellist of the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra. The students will perform in two concerts as part of the Musique Cordiale International Festival programme. Students are hosted in a large Provençal residence and enjoy eight days of intensive tuition with free time for swimming and relaxing. They attend evening concerts in the region’s spectacular churches followed by al fresco dinners with the Festival musicians, professors and team.

Applications are now open for advanced string players interested in attending the 2017 academy, further information from the Musique Cordiale website.

Rising Stars of the Enlightenement

Rising Stars of the Enlightenement
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) is launching a new scheme to help develop singing talent. Rising Stars of the Enlightenment will offer the opportunity for four young singers to perform regularly with the OAE during the 2017-18 season, working with conductors such as Ivor Bolton, William Christie, Mark Padmore and Sir Andràs Schiff, and established singers such as Roderick Williams, Brindley Sherratt and Mary Bevan, and performing Bach cantatas and Handel oratorios, featuring as top-billed soloists at the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Kings Place.

The deadline for application is 24 January 2017, and auditions will take place in London on 8 and 9 February 2017, applicants will have to prepare a selection of solo Bach and Handel arias. Full information from the OAE website.

Monday 19 December 2016

Michael Young named as assistant conductor of ESO

Michael Young
Michael Young
The English Symphony Orchestra (ESO), artistic director Kenneth Woods, has appointed Michael Young as the orchestra's first assistant conductor. The Worcestershire-based orchestra has had a busy year, including giving the first performance of John Joubert's opera Jane Eyre (which was recorded for issue on the SOMM label). Michael Young assisted Kenneth Woods on Jane Eyre and now the appointment is formalised.Michael Young is the co-founder and artistic director off the Beethoven Orchestra for Humanity.

ESO's 2016/17 season sees the orchestra commence its The 21st Century Symphony Project, commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by leading composers. The Project will be launched with the premiere of Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony in February 2017 and continues with the premiere of David Matthews’ Ninth Symphony in 2018.

Bax and more: the Carice Singers at St Gabriel's Pimlico

Arnold Bax's rarely performed carol Of A Rose I Sing, for choir, harp, cello, and double bass, the composer's response to the Easter Rising of 1916, is the centrepiece of a programme of choral music by Herbert Howells, Peter Warlock, John Ireland, and Arnold Bax at St Gabriel's Church, Pimlico, tonight (19 December 2016 at 6.30pm). The programme is being performed by The Carice Singers, conductor George Parris, a young choir formed in 2011 to specialise in British Romantic Composers  The 20th century works are being performed alongside Christmas choral music from the Tudor era.

Further information from The Carice Singers website.

A touch of greatness: Renée Fleming returns to the Marschallin at Covent Garden

Sophie Bevan, Alice Coote - Act 2, Der Rosenkavalier - Royal Opera. © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Sophie Bevan, Alice Coote - Act 2, Der Rosenkavalier - Royal Opera. © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier; Renee Fleming, Alice Coote, Sophie Bevan, Matthew Rose, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, dir: Robert Carsen, cond: Andris Nelsons; Covent garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 17 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Set in 1911, the new production brings out the decadence of the era and provides a fine setting for some great performances

Renée Fleming, Sophie Bevan - Act 3, Der Rosenkavalier - Royal Opera. © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Renée Fleming, Sophie Bevan - Act 3, Der Rosenkavalier 
© ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Robert Carsen's production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier debuted at the Royal Opera House on Saturday 17 December 2016. Replacing the old John Schlesinger production (which debuted in 1984, I was there!), the new production featured Renée Fleming returning to the role of the Marschallin at Covent Garden (she last sang it here in 2000, I was also there), with Alice Coote as Octavian, Sophie Bevan as Sophie, Matthew Rose as Ochs. Sets were by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting by Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet, choreography by Philippe Giraudeau. For many, almost as big a draw as Renée Fleming would be the fact that Andris Nelsons as making a rare appearance in the pit conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Whilst the production is new (shared with the Met, and Teatro Regio, Turin), it reworks ideas from Carsen's 2004 Salzburg production. The period is updated to 1911, Herr von Faninal has clearly made his money as an arms dealer, the third act is set in a brothel, and the final two minutes of the opera make it clear that the lovers' dream will be shattered by the events of 1914.

Matthew Rose, Alice Coote - Act 3, Der Rosenkavalier - Royal Opera. © ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Matthew Rose, Alice Coote - Act 3, Der Rosenkavalier 
© ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Robert Carsen's set relied for its effect on decoration, with all three acts in the same basic shaped space, a large rectangular room, at an angle to the proscenium, with an ante-room up-stage. Act One featured a luxurious red, white and gold bedroom (though I wondered about the Marschallin's choice of pictures), Act Two was a modernist atrium with classical frieze, and neo-secessionist furniture, and Act Three was boudoir baroque. I don't know whether it was the fault of the setting, but despite the activity and the large number of supers, the overall production felt rather static.

This was also the most serious account of the opera that I have seen. Carsen had evidently re-thought all the action (frankly no bad thing), sometimes to striking effect. Gone was a lot of Ochs' buffo schtick and the little comic touches in the Marschallin's levee. Not that this was grim performance, it was a comedy of character in the sense that Le nozze di Figaro is. But what the production did do was to provide a setting for some very fine performances, and we could appreciate Carsen's detailed personen-regie. The production will surely provide a good setting for a whole variety of interpretors in revivals. Though I found the whole thing a little lacking in dynamism, and what impetus there was seemed to come from the pit.

Sunday 18 December 2016

Delightful fantasy: All the Angels - Handel & the first Messiah

David Horovitch & ensemble - Nick Drake: All the Angels - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse- photo Marc Brenner
David Horovitch & ensemble - Nick Drake: All the Angels
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, photo Marc Brenner
Nick Drake All the Angels; David Horovitch, Kelly Price, Sean Campion, dir: Jonathan Munby, cond: Michael Haslam
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 16 2016
Star rating: 4.0

The creation of Handel's Messiah is the centrepiece for this delightful music-led drama

Nick Drake's play All the angels takes a number of curious facts about the first performance of Handel's Messiah in Dublin in 1741, and weaves them into a delightful fantasy which mixes drama with the music of Messiah in a striking way. We caught the performance on Friday 16 December 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre, directed by Jonathan Munby and designed by Mike Britton, with David Horovitch as Handel, Kelly Price as Susannah Cibber plus Sean Campion, Lucy Peacock, Saskia Strallen, Lawrence Smith, and Paul Kemble.

The play incorporates Messiah, with the singers being provided by Lucy Peacock, Saskia Strallen, Lawrence Smith, and Paul Kemble plus four singers from a pool of eight supplied by alumni of Genesis Sixteen (Tom Castle, Nancy Cole, Camilla Harris, Rebekah Jones, Angus McPhee, Ben Vonberg-Clark, Daisy Walford, Jamie Wright), with instrumentalists Jorge Jimenez and Naomi Burrell (violins), Joanna Levine (cello), Adrian Woodward (trumpet), and Mchael Haslam (harpsichord and musical director).

The play takes a group of known facts, that Handel down on his luck with opera in London travelled to Dublin to give a season there; that he got stranded in Chester and tried out passages from Messiah with a choir there, getting annoyed with a bass who could not read the part correctly; also in Chester he met the young Charles Burney; once in Dublin he cast the actress Susannah Cibber in the mezzo-soprano solos even though she was an actress and was away from London because of a sexual scandal involving her husband and her lover (the nastiness was mainly on the part of her husband); the porter at the music hall in Fishamble Street where Handel's music was performed was known as Crazy Crow and he was also a resurrectionist (stealing dead bodies for dissection).

Saturday 17 December 2016

Composer Rachel Portman talks about her work in films, the 2016 M & S Christmas advert, and opera

Rachel Portman - photo Giles Keyte
Rachel Portman - photo Giles Keyte
It can often seem as if film composers hide in their studios, so that though we know their work, the person behind the pencil is less known. The composer Rachel Portman wrote the score to the TV series Oranges are not the only fruit and she has gone on to write scores for such films as Cider house rules, and Chocolat. She was the first female composer to win an Academy Award in the category of Best Musical or Comedy Score (for Emma in 1996). Her opera The Little Prince was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 2003, and her choral work, The Water Diviner's Tale was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2007. 

I was lucky enough that Rachel had time between deadlines to meet up to chat about her career in music, and to talk about her most recent project, writing the score for Marks & Spencer's 2016 Christmas advert. In fact, our wide ranging discussion covered many aspects of writing for film, not to mention Rachel's love of writing opera and her surprisingly traditional attitude to her craft.

I met Rachel at her London home and we chatted over tea in her basement studio; a delightful conversation about films, music and much besides. She was happy to talk about the craft involved in writing film music, and perhaps a little surprised that someone should take so much interest in it.

A complete film in miniature

An extract from Rachel Portman's original score for the short version of the M&S advert
An extract from Rachel Portman's original score
for the short version of the M&S advert
Projects like the Marks & Spencer Christmas ad are indeed a big deal, essentially it is a complete film in miniature. Rachel's challenge was to create a satisfying piece of music whilst supporting the drama and all in the space of a few minutes (there are in fact long and short versions of the advert). In the longer one there is time for each of the main themes to be repeated just once. Whilst she used themes for individuals and events, she comments that did not want to point up every piece of the drama, adding that this isn't Tom and Jerry. Being more like a mini-feature film than a commercial, her work was highly considered. She is very traditional in the way she creates music, she writes using pencil and paper and writes slowly. She writes the sounds that she hears in her head, using just a piano rather than anything more complex.

At this point in our discussion I admitted that I know little about writing film music. As we were in her studio, Rachel went over and switched on her equipment to demonstrate her working methods. She has a monitor, where she watches the video with time-codes, a piano and a microphone. So she tries out ideas at the piano and can record them to video alongside the film. It is this film, with Rachel's live piano accompaniment which represents the first cut of her ideas

For the Marks & Spencer ad what appealed to her was the little boy, and within ten minutes she had the boy's theme. It is up to her how she tells the story in music and as the character was a child she chose a simple theme. (In fact if you watch the ad, the main theme only really gets going when the little boy appears, all the rest is in the nature of a prelude.) After her piano version, the next stage was for Rachel to produce a short score and someone created a synthesised version from this. This version of the film, with synthesised score, was then subject to an amazing amount of critical discussion from the director and others involve in the advert. The final version had a fully scored orchestration production, and this was then recorded live at Abbey Road Studios.

For a full-length feature film, Rachel needs to plot out where in the film music is to go. The Marks & Spencer ad was unusual in having music from beginning to end. Rachel often writes themes for characters or events in films, she likes working melodically and though not every film requires this approach, she feels that you can sell an emotion better using a melody.

Friday 16 December 2016

Albion Quartet goes Tricycling for Christmas

Albion Quartet - Tamsin Waley Cohen, Emma Parker, Rosalind Ventris, Nathaniel Boyd
Albion Quartet
Rosalind Ventris, Tamsin Waley Cohen, Emma Parker, Nathaniel Boyd
The Albion String Quartet is a relatively new ensemble. Formed this year, it features violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen with Emma Parker (violin), Rosalind Ventris (viola), and Nathaniel Boyd (cello). There are a number of opportunities to hear the ensemble in London next year, but they have a special Christmas gig at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn on Sunday 18 December 2016.

The four young players share a belief in the communicative power of the string quartet, and play a fine group of instruments between them - Stradivarius, Amati, Guarnerius and Grancino. Their programme at the Tricyle Theatre will feature two seminal quartets, Haydn's Quartet in C major opus 20, no.2 and Schubert’s Quartet no 14 in D Minor ‘Death and the Maiden’, as well as a Christmas surprise.

See the Tricycle Theatre website for full details.

Handel House Christmas Showcase

Hunter Coblentz - Handel House composer in residence
Hunter Coblentz - Handel House composer in residence
Handel House Christmas Showcase; Eleanor Minney, Olwen Foulkes, Mirjam Münzel, John Crockatt, Satoko Doi-Luck, Aidan Phillips, Alice Privett, Kate Conway, BLOCK4, Hunter Coblentz; St George's Church, Hanover Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 15 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Young artists showcase with music old and new, including Hendrix and a world premiere

The Christmas Showcase from Handel & Hendrix in London is an annual celebration of their young artists schemes, providing a showcase for the Handel House Talent, Ensemble in Residence and Composer in Residence. At St George's Church, Hanover Square on Thursday 15 December 2016 we heard the six members of the 2015/2016 Handel House Talent scheme, Eleanor Minney (mezzo-soprano), Olwen Foulkes (recorders), Mirjam Münzel (recorders), John Crockatt (violin), Satoko Doi-Luck (harpsichord) and Aidan Phillips (harpsichord), and the Ensemble in Residence BLOCK4 (Emily Bannister, Lucy Carr, Katie Cowling and Rosie Land), as well as hearing the premiere of a new piece by composer in residence Hunter Coblentz. Beside Coblentz, the composers on offer were highly varied with Handel and Hendrix (of course), plus Corelli, Rameau, Schütz, Bach, Couperin and Fiorenza, plus five carols for the audience to join in.

BLOCK4 with their Paetzold recorders
BLOCK4 with their Paetzold recorders
There had been some drama before the event started as the organist, who was to accompany the audience carols on the Richards, Fowkes & Co organ of St George's, was taken ill but thankfully Satoko Doi-Luck (one of the Handel House Talent) stood in and accompanied the carols (in addition to playing the harpsichord and the smaller Handel House organ).

After an opening carol and a welcome from Elizabeth Nicholson (general manager of Handel & Hendrix in London), we heard from Olwen Foulkes (recorder), who with Satoko Doi-Luck (harpsichord) and Kate Conway (cello) performed Arcangelo Corelli's Sonata in C major, Op.5 No. 10. Originally for violin, Foulkes performance gave no hint of the change of instrument and sounded completely idiomatic. After a nicely fluid Adagio (with some vibrant playing from cellist Kate Conway), there was a perky Allemande where we could appreciate the evenness of Conway's tone. The Sarabande was stately which gave space for plenty of divisions in the recorder part (and leaps too), the finishing with the distinctly lively Gavotta which was very characterful and finished with some spectacular finger-work.

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