Thursday 31 March 2016

Onward and upward: The Grange Festival announces its first season

Michael Chance at The Grange, Credit Jason Allen Hampshire Life
Michael Chance at The Grange
Credit Jason Allen Hampshire Life
Michael Chance is the artistic director of the new Grange Festival which takes over the opera house at Northington Grange after Wasfi Kani and Grange Park Opera leave at the end of this season. As such, Chance has the unenviable task of putting together a 2017 season for a new company which will balance the books, make all the existing punters feel they want to come back, as well as attracting new ones.

The Grange Festival has just announced the plans for the 2017 season and interesting they are too, with a canny choice of operas. Two small scale ones, a popular standard and enticing concert performances which give hints of what might be to come.

Chance puts himself in the spotlit, acting as music director for Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, in the 450th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and the opera is directed by British theatre director Tim Supple. Another anniversary is celebrated, with performances of Britten's Albert Herring 70 years after its debut at Glyndebourne. Both conductor Steuart Bedford and director John Copley knew Britten, so we can expect a combination of freshness and a certain sort of authenticity. The finally in the trio of operas is Bizet's Carmen, a work which is too often blown up, but responds well to smaller scale performance (the theatre at the Opera Comique isn't that big). Annabel Arden directs, with designs by Joanna Parker, and the work will be conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud.

As an extra treat there are two concert performances of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte from Teodor Currentzis and his Musica Aeterna, the company based in Perm (in the Urals) where the recent studio recordings of the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy on Sony came from.

Of course much will depend on the casting, and any new artistic director of an enterprise like the Grange Festival will be looked upon to open their address book and persuade friends to participate. Let us hope that Michael Chance has more treats in store, but his first season looks set for some delights.

Vivid and intense: Bellini's Romeo and Juliet in the round

Matthew Palmer, Andrew Tipple, Alice Privett - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Matthew Palmer, Andrew Tipple, Alice Privett - Pop-Up Opera 2016
Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Bellini I Capuleti e i Montecchi; Flora McIntosh, Alice Privett, Andrew Tipple, Cliff Zammit-Stevens, Matthew Palmer, dir: James Hurley, Berrak Dyer; Pop-Up Opera at Carousel
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 30 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A modern gangland setting for Bellini's romantic opera

Since its formation in 2011, Pop-Up Opera has become known for accessible lively performances of comic operas in found spaces, with the aim of encouraging new audiences. For the company's Spring 2016 tour the took a step onto the dark side, and embraced the tragedy of Bellini's re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet story in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. We caught the performance on Wednesday 30 March 2016, at Carousel, 71 Blandford Street, Marylebone, W1U 8QA. Directed by James Hurley with music director Berrak Dyer accompanying on piano, the cast included Flora McIntosh as Romeo, Alice Privett as Giulietta, Andrew Tipple as Capellio, Cliff Zammit-Stevens as Tebaldo and Matthew Palmer as Lorenzo (the whole opera is in fact double cast).

Alice Privett - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi - photo Richard Lakos
Alice Privett - Pop-Up Opera 2016, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchiphoto Richard Lakos
Performed in the round, in modern dress the set simply consisted of a series of found objects, suitcases, chairs, a wine-rack which were re-configured between the acts. As the production tours to found spaces, the lighting rig was simple but effective, the overhead lights being supplemented by portable ones which were operated by the cast creating a strong chiaroscuro effect which suited James Hurley's re-setting the piece in a modern gangland milieu.

There was no hint of attempting to lighten the drama in any way, surprising and admirable in a company known for its comedy, and the performers really threw themselves into Hurley's vision of the intense dramatics and violence which accompany the story. And, even playing in the round, the cast managed to avoid any hint of the risible, the evening was thankfully free of embarrassed titters from the audience. Instead all were gripped.

The violence in the Romeo and Juliet story is rather implicit and when present is often prettified, with much posturing with rapiers. James Hurley's solution was to put the piece very much in the present, with Capellio (Andrew Tipple) in charge of a Mafia-like gang for whom violence was a way of life. All the cast really threw themselves into the violent atmosphere, so much so that I wondered whether the production went too far. Bellini's music does not depict the violence, instead he concentrates on the intense emotions of the characters. The saving grace of the production was that the cast, Flora McIntosh and Alice Privett in particular, were well able to bring out the lyrical beauty of Bellini's music.

Technically Rossini's music in his comic operas is probably no easier than Bellini's music, but in comedy there is a chance to offset things with comic business. But in a serious opera like I Capuleti e i Montecchi there is nowhere to hide.

Through Irish eyes: the silliness of English mores in Gerald Barry's crazy version of Wilde's play

Gerald Barry - The Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Gerald Barry - The Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Gerald Barry The Importance of Being Earnest; Paul Curievici, Benedict Nelson, Kevin West, Simon Wilding, Alan Ewing, Stephanie Marshall, Claudia Boyle, Hilary Summers, dir: Ramin Gray, cond: Tim Murray, Britten Sinfonia; Royal Opera House at the Barbican Theatre
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Mar 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Wilde's play re-invented, with Barry's eclectic music in a fun, if somewhat breathless evening

Alan Ewing, Stephanie Marshall, Kevin West, Hilary Summers - Importance of Being Earnest - © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Alan Ewing, Stephanie Marshall, Kevin West, Hilary Summers
© ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
All sorts of things happen to well-loved pieces when they are translated to the operatic stage: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Otello were stripped down and given a new immediacy by Verdi, while John Luther Long’s short story Madame Butterfly would not have had much of an impact had it not been for Puccini. But Oscar Wilde’s 'serious play for trivial people' may be considered unimprovable. The Importance of Being Earnest was premiered in 1895, and its commentary on Victorian mores, its larger-than-life characters, its silliness and its ubiquitous quotes still seem to be everyday currency in the Anglophone world.

Gerald Barry's operatic treatment brings the obsession with money, breeding and image up to date, adds another layer of visual and aural silliness and keeps the handbag 'gag' (literally, as Lady Bracknell did in fact gag as s/he uttered the famous line) as well as many other characteristics of a certain type of Englishness filtered by an Irishman.

Barry’s opera had its European premiere at the Barbican Hall in 2012 and was first staged at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre in 2013. It is now back at the Barbican Theatre (seen on 29 March 2016), with most of its original cast, before heading to the Rose Theater, New York, in June. Directed by Ramin Gray and conducted by Tim Murray, costumes by Christina Cunningham, associated set design by Ben Clark, after an idea by Johannes Schütz, and lighting by Franz Peter David, with Paul Curievici, Benedict Nelson, Kevin West, Simon Wilding, Alan Ewing, Stephanie Marshall, Claudia Boyle and Hilary Summers. The Britten Sinfonia was in the pit.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

Elena Langer - Landscape with Three People

Elena Langer - Landscape with three people - Harmonia Mundi
Elena Langer Landscape with three people, Snow, The Storm Cloud, Two Cat Songs, Ariadne, Stay O Sweet; Anna Dennis, William Towers, Nicholas Daniel; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 27 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Vocal music by the Russian-born British composer, full of fascinating textures and evocative writing

Elena Langer's new opera Figaro gets a divorce has been something of a success at Welsh National Opera and now this new disc from Harmonia Mundi gives us a chance to hear Langer's music on a smaller scale though no less dramatic.

Landscape with three people contains a selection of predominantly vocal music performed by Anna Dennis (soprano), Williams Towers (counter-tenor), Nicholas Daniel (oboe) with an instrumental ensemble, Roman Mints (violin) for whom Langer has written a number of works, Meghan Cassidy (viola), Kristina Blaumane (cello), Robert Howarth (harpsichord), plus Katya Apekisheva (piano). The music spans over a decade, 2002 to 2013, with Landscape with three people for soprano, counter-tenor, oboe and ensemble, Snow for violin and piano, The Storm Cloud for soprano and piano, Two Cat Songs for soprano, cello and piano, Ariadne for soprano, oboe and string trio, and Stay O Sweet for soprano, oboe and ensemble.

Elena Langer
Elena Langer
Elena Langer was born in Russia and all her early training took place there. She arrived in the UK in 1999 and studied at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music (where she first met soprano Anna Dennis who features on many of the recordings on the disc and for whom a number of the works were written). So all the music on the disc has been written in England, but there is still a very Russian thread running through Langer's writing.

And when writing for the voice she reveals a very distinctive specificity of texture; in a note in the booklet Robert Thicknesse refers to 'playful counterpoint, a certain delicacy of texture, a delight in the sound worlds of instruments singly and in combination'. A feature which struck me on first hearing and developed over time was how Langer doesn't so much accompany her voices as surround them, often with a very delicate texture.

The disc open with Langer's 2013 song cycle, Landscape with three people. Setting a sequence of poems by Lee Harwood, the piece examine the relations between a couple when one has an affair. By using two high voices and writing a work which, in its original context, was performed alongside Baroque music where women can play men, there is a delightful non-specific sense of who is whom, with the oboe being the third protagonist.

Beethoven Extreme in Cracow

Capella Crocoviensis - © Piotr Kucia
Capella Cracoviensis - © Piotr Kucia
Performing all the Beethoven symphonies in one day might seem a somewhat crazy enterprise, but it is certainly achievable. And if Beethoven himself never performed all the symphonies like this, concert programmes in his lifetime were considerably more expansive (notably the concert at which he premiered the fifth and sixth symphonies alongside a concerto and other works). In 2010 the Salomon Orchestra, under conductor Martin Brabbins, performed the symphonies in one day at the Royal Festival Hall.

If you are in Cracow on 27 August 2016 then there is a chance to hear a similar feat when the Cracow-based period-instrument ensemble Capella Cracoviensis will perform all the symphonies under the title Beethoven Extreme, conducted by a relay of distinguished conductors, Christophe Rousset, Paul Goodwin, Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Evelino Pidò, and Jan Tomasz Adamus, Capella Cracoviensis’ artistic director. Concerts take place in the Auditorium Hall of the ICE Kraków Congress Centre. Full details from the Capella Cracoviensis website.

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Handel's Imeneo in its Dublin incarnation

Handel - Imeneo
Handel Imeneo (Dublin version); Ann Hallenberg, Monica Piccinini, Magnus Staveland, Fabrizio Beggi, Cristiana Arcari, Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi; Glossa
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 17 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Handel's Dublin version of his penultimate opera makes a rare appearance on disc

Handel's Imeneo is something of a curiosity in more ways than one. Not only is it Handel's penultimate opera, and rather lighter in subject matter but the heroine ends up paired off not with the alto voiced hero but with the bass voiced anti-hero. And it was the only one of his operas that Handel performed outside London. Even though the work had not done well when premiered in London in 1740, he gave performances in Dublin as part of his visit there in 1742 (when Messiah was premiered). The version used in Dublin had significant revisions, and was performed as a serenata Hymen. It is this version which has been recorded by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante on the Glossa label. Monica Piccinini is Rosmene and Ann Hallenberg is Tirinto, with Magnus Staveland as Imeneo, Fabrizio Beggi as Argenio and Cristiana Arcari as Clomiri.

The plot is relatively simple, Rosmene and her friend Clomiri have been abducted by pirates, and Rosmene's beloved, Tirinto, laments their loss. But they have in fact been saved by Imeneo, who claims the hand of Rosmene in reward, though in fact Clomiri has fallen in love with him. Clomiri's father Argenio informs Rosmene that the senate has come down in Imeneo's favour, duty above love. Rosemene eventually feigns madness in order to choose and chooses Imeneo.

The curiosity of the plot is that Imeneo is a minor character and it is Tirinto (originally played by an alto castrato) who has the lions share of the arias including the honours of the final duet with Rosmene. The opera seems to have had something of a long gestation period with Handel putting it to one side, this was a period when disillusion with opera in London had rather set in and he was also having difficulty putting together casts. The remarkable thing is that, despite all the problems, the result is a delightful work. Handel writes with a lightness here, bringing forward some of the galant style which was becoming popular.

Vierne's Messe Solennelle at Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Cathedral nave, before the current building works
Manchester Cathedral nave, before the current building works
For a church currently in the process of re-building its organ, it might seem a little ambitious to choose Louis Vierne's 1899 Messe Solennelle to celebrate Easter Day when the mass calls for not one, but two organs. We were in Manchester for Streetwise Opera & The Sixteen's The Passion (see my review) and so attended 10:30am Sung Eucharist at Manchester Cathedral on Easter Sunday (27 April 2016). The cathedral is in the process of replacing its organ. The historic instrument was damaged in the war (when the cathedral was hit). The Scott case on the 15th century rood screen was never fully replaced and this will be remedied with the new organ, which will have a spectacular new case mounted on the screen. The new organ will be mechanical action, and is intended to be far easier to maintain than the old stop-gap one. The original organ was a William Hill & Sons, from 1871 and rebuilt in 1910 and with restorations by Harrison and Harrison, who did the post-war salvage re-build.

At the moment the rood screen is being prepared and is covered in scaffolding. So Sung Eucharist took place in the nave, well forward of the screen, with the choir placed at the side adjacent to the console of the replacement, electronic organ. Acoustics were not ideal, and from where we sat we heard rather more of Geoffrey Woolatt's excellent organ playing than the choir. Directed by Christopher Stokes, the choir consisted of six men and around a dozen or so trebles (mainly girls with one or two boys). The opening introit, Byrd's Haec Dies was sung from the rear of the choir, and the admirably clear focussed sound of the trebles gave me no hint whether they were boys or girls, an excellent blind test.

The historic organ at Manchester Cathedral
The historic organ at
Manchester Cathedral
We heard the Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei of Vierne's mass, a glorious piece designed for the two organs of a large French church, the choir organ and the grande orgue in the nave.There are few UK churches able to reproduce this but Geoffrey Woollatt clearly revelled in the virtuoso organ part. I have always rather loved the Sanctus with its outrageously perky organ part (shades of Lefebure Wely). We were also treated to Gibbons If ye be risen again at Communion and Weelkes I heard a voice at the Dismissal, both with excellent solos, pieces which admirably suited the style and size of the choir. It has to be admitted that they were a little on the small side for the Vierne mass, but coped admirably with some finely vibrant singing.

I remember services at Manchester Cathedral from my student days, combining ceremonial with an element of approachable informality,  and this has evidently continued. The president was the Very Reverend Rogers Govender, Dean of Manchester Cathedral, and the Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker gave a thought provoking sermon.  After the service we were able to wander round to see the installations by artist Julian Stair, a series of highly evocative pots, part of a Lent trail in Manchester linking art and religion.

The church only became a cathedral in the mid 19th century, but the church is finely historical (though most of the stonework was replaced in the 19th century). It was originally rebuilt in the 15th and 16th century with a fine surviving set of choir stalls alongside the screen. Thanks to the preponderance of chantry chapels in the medieval period it has one of the widest naves in the UK; when the chantries were dissolved during the reformation, the screens dividing them were removed giving the church the appearance of being double aisled.

You can support the Manchester Cathedral organ appeal at their website.

Monday 28 March 2016

The Captive Nightingale: German romantic rarities from Elena Xanthoudakis

The Captive Nightingale - Elena Xanthoudakis - Signum
Schubert, Späth, Kreutzer, Proch, Kalliwoda, Lachner, Lindtpaintner; Elena Xanthoudakis, Jason Xanthoudakis, Clemens Leske; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 82016
Star rating: 4.0

Schubert's shepherd in context with music for clarinet, soprano & piano by his contemporaries

What to programme with Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen is always something of a challenge in recitals and on CDs. Schubert didn't write anything else quite like it and there are few works for the same forces which immediately suggest themselves. But for this disc, The Captive Nightingale, from Signum Classics, soprano Elena Xanthoudakis, clarinettist Jason Xanthoudakis (the two are brother and sister) and pianist Clemens Leske have done some digging and come up with a whole array of songs written for soprano, clarinet and piano by Schubert's contemporaries.

These are lesser known composers, Andreas Späth, Conradin Kreutzer, Heinrich Proch, Johann Baptist Wenzel Kalliwoda, Franz Lachner, Johann Sobeck and Peter von Lindpaintner, and unlike Schubert, most had court appointments of some sort and combined careers as composer and conductor, generally with the title kapellmeister. Most of the composers were writing for the salon or the parlour and these were songs which were meant to please, and the addition of a clarinet meant that someone else got to show off as well.

But one of the fascinating things about the disc is how the other songs feed into Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. Schubert's quasi-aria might be written on a far larger scale, but the text uses the same enthusiasm for things mountainous and Alpine, and the melody with its leaping arpeggios has qualities which are similar to the melodies based on the traditional Swiss Kureihen or Ranz des vaches. So what we see is Schubert taking familiar tropes and creating something extra special from them.

Sunday 27 March 2016

Simply remarkable - The Passion from Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen

Anita Ferguson as Jesus and Joshua Ellicott as Evangelist in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Anita Ferguson as Jesus and Joshua Ellicott as Evangelist in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
JS Bach, James MacMillan The Passion; Streetwise Opera, the Sixteen, dir: Penny Woolcock, cond: Harry Christophers; Campfield Market Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 25 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Visceral, intense and simply remarkable; promenade production mixing amateurs and professions reinvents Bach's passion as a modern parable

Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
The Passion was in many ways an unlikely event. A 70 minute digest version of Bach's St Matthew Passion performed an huge deserted market hall, Campfield Market in Manchester (on Good Friday, 25 March 2016), which had no theatrical facilities but bags of space. (You can see the whole event on YouTube).The performers mixed amateurs from Streetwise Opera with members of The Sixteen, the main body of The Sixteen performing from the sides from music but the soloists and members of Streetwise Opera dramatising the events of the Passion. Jesus was played by eight different members of Streetwise Opera. Joshua Ellicott sang the Evangelist, the arias were sung by Jeremy Budd, Ben Davies, Hannah Pedley and Kirsty Hopkins from the Sixteen, some of the other singers including Jonathan Ainscough (Peter) and Gavin Bailey (Pilate) work regularly with Streetwise Opera but the rest of the soloists came from Streetwise Opera. The production, directed by Penny Woolcock and designed by Dick Bird, was huge; a promenade affair with the audience standing and video images of the performers in close-up projected onto huge screens, the result was viscerally confusing in the way the events of the Passion would have been when experienced by the protagonists. At the centre, Harry Christophers conducted an instrumental ensemble of string quartet, two flutes, and two oboes with Christopher Glynn on piano continuo (RVW would have been pleased). And there was a new ending, with music by James MacMillan setting texts created in workshops with the members of Streetwise Opera, poetic meditations of life after the apocalypse.

Abigail Kitching as Jesus in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Abigail Kitching as Jesus in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion
Photo by Graeme Cooper
There were a lot of disparate elements to the production. The core of Streetwise Opera's activities is a series of regular workshops across the country for people who have experienced homelessness. Two of these formed the core of the Streetwise Opera performances, and they have been working towards this for over a year, including having regular workshops with the four soloists from the Sixteen to build up trust and a sense of common purpose in the performance, so that that four professional singers were more embedded than just being flown in. Rehearsals on the production cranked up to full scale just a few weeks before opening night, the amount of time in the real venue (where everything had to be created from scratch) was limited. And the multiple layers of the production with the professional choir and orchestra only came together relatively late on in the process.

I detail all this to make it clear what a remarkable undertaking this was, and how much of a minor miracle the performance became. The performers from Streetwise Opera had strong sense of identification with the story and all had a clear sense of taking control of the stage. Talking to people afterwards, it was remarkable how affected the professionals had been by the intensity of the performance and one commented to me that the event just would not have been the same without the performers from Streetwise Opera.

Saturday 26 March 2016

You don't look at the music and understand it at once: pianist Kimiko Ishizaka on playing Bach and more

Kimiko Ishizaka
I recently heard the Japanese-German pianist Kimiko Ishizaka performing Bach's The Art of Fugue in Cologne (see my review). The day after the performance I was able to catch up with her to chat about her piano playing. A former child prodigy who played in a piano trio with her brothers, we talked about how the music of Bach helped Kimiko to find her own voice as a mature piano player, and about her remarkably focused attitude to practice and to piano playing.

My first question was why Bach, the composer with whom Kimiko has been most associated in the last few years. She explained that it was the music of Bach which made her want to be serious about the piano. For a decade had she felt that playing the piano was just learning endless pieces and doing her best. But in 2006 she took part in a competition which required a Bach prelude and fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier. She wasn't keen to play the Bach as she regarded the music as complicated, something she tried to get through as best she could. Kimiko added that even the less complicated fugues are a complex challenge, and whilst the preludes are expressive and and seem to be not overly challenging regarding the structure, the music conceals more than can be seen at first sight making both preludes and fugues a complex task. In the end she decided she wanted to do a good job, and worked on the articulation, practising the individual voices alone, something she hadn't done before.

Kimiko's mother, who is a piano teacher and who was a big influence on Kimiko's piano playing when she was growing up, believes in practising the left and right hands individually. But Kimiko has come to realise that this does not work for Bach as it chops up the voices, so she never practices individual hands, always voices. And in fact now she rarely ever needs to practise the individual voices and just maps them in her mind. She has perfect pitch, so she hears all the notes just fine, and rarely listens to recordings. Quite remarkably she has never heard a recording of Bach's The Art of Fugue!

Bach never forgets about details

Kimiko Ishizaka performing Bach's 'The Art of Fugue' in Cologne
Kimiko Ishizaka performing
Bach's 'The Art of Fugue' in Cologne
The odd recording Kimiko has heard tends to be recommended by her husband and manager, Robert. It was in one of these that she heard the voices in the fugues each articulated differently. She wants structure of the pieces differentiated, bringing out the logic of the piece by using different articulations, not just for the various voices but for the motifs too.

When the work is really complicated she draws a chart above the piece which shows the main events in the work. Because of this she has come to realise that Bach never forgets about details, moving through the piece he does wonderful things with the material. In The Art of Fugue the main theme takes on importance and guides you through piece. Also she see the relation of the main theme to subsidiary themes as important, if the next theme enters higher or lower and Kimiko ensures that this is brought out. It also matters to her to make a difference between upward and downward motion of the theme.

An exclusively legato sound is not a good choice in Bach

Over time, the way she played the piano changed, and three years ago she stopped using the sustaining pedal in Bach, as she felt that she was doing so many things with her hands that using the pedal would have disturbed the articulation of the individual the voices. She has also altered her playing mode, shifting the weight from her arms and shoulders to achieve a more melodious way off playing, one that she sees as not being dry.

I was curious as to whether she was influenced by the sound of the music on harpsichord. But in fact she never thinks about the sound of the harpsichord in the piece she is working on, though she admires how the instrument sounds. For Kimiko, an exclusively legato sound is not a good choice in Bach, it gets 'boring boring'.

Bach and Chopin

At the moment Kimiko is playing Bach and Chopin almost exclusively, and it is these two composers she practices, with Chopin not as much as Bach. Both composers have something which attracts her imagination. She finds them enigmatic, you don't look at the music and understand it at once. She comments that in some of Chopin's polonaises you think 'what was that all about' after 20 pages of continual surprises. She feels that, after all Chopin didn't just write something with no reaction to what came before, it takes Kimiko a long time to come to understand how Chopin connects the different sections.

From prodigy to mature artist

Kimiko was a child prodigy and played in a piano trio with her two brothers. She feels that her parents were ambitious for her, adding perhaps too much so in most respects. There were clear ideas as to how the music should go, so that she had no chance to find out what she wanted in the music.

By her late teens she seriously considered another career entirely, in mathematics or English. She felt that she had been pushed around for more than a decade, taking over her entire childhood; at weekends they had to practice the entire day. She performed as a piano trio with her brothers, but each played two instruments. People thought it looked the most beautiful thing, the three siblings playing together, as if they had been born as triplets with instruments inside their mother's womb.

They did lots of concerts and she missed a lot of school. At the age of 17 she bought a piano, the one on which she still practices, and paid for it in cash from her share of the trio's earnings. She had worked for her entire childhood.

A wonderful and unique discovery all of her own. 

Her parents had believed the more teachers the children had the better, so there were many masterclasses, lots of ideas and opinions and the children had to whatever 'they' wanted. It took her many years to recover, to feel that she had her own ideas.

Kimiko Ishizaka performing at the O.H.M. festival in the Netherlands, 2013.
Kimiko Ishizaka performing at the O.H.M. festival in the Netherlands, 2013.
Bach was hardly present in her childhood, just a few preludes and fugues, so the music became a wonderful and unique discovery all of her own. She changed every aspect of her piano playing from what it had been in the past. In playing Bach, she really found herself as pianist, it was really meant to be.

Having just given her first complete performance of The Art of Fugue and got the Goldberg Variations (which she recorded for the Open Goldberg project) and book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (recorded for Navona Records, see my review) under her belt, I was wondering what came next. She has not done book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier though this would be a huge amount of work. But at the moment there is still more work to do on The Art of Fugue, with her score to be got into proper order.

To practice with care and attention

When she is preparing for a concert she doesn't practice more, she always tries to practice with care and attention, and never has an easy day or a day when she doesn't focus. But before a concert she always ensures that she is well rested, and can do the performance well. Running up to the concert, things come together in her playing because she is working through the material more.

She works on a score at her desk around 30 to 40 hours per month and does around 130 hour practice per month. And for the past year she has been keeping a practice long. During the last year she has done on average four hours practice per day, which doesn't sound a lot until you take account of the days off for holidays or for travel. And every other day she does sports too, she regards this as extremely important to piano playing. Having physical stamina helps her to concentrate. (It should be added here that Kimiko is a former Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting champion).

The Art of Fugue, the way she has chosen to play it, is very physically demanding. But she recently played Chopin's Op.10 and Op.25 preludes in one go, and she feels that The Art of Fugue is only slightly less demanding than playing all the Chopin preludes.

You experience not them but the music as pure as could possibly be.

When I ask about pianists she admires, she mentions Alicia de la Rocha's recording of the Bach Italian Concerto, and Lazar Berman's performances of Chopin's Polonaises. She admires both artists because they are as absolutely true as possible to what was written in the music. She feels that both let the music speak, you experience not them but the music as pure as could possibly be.

Kimiko Ishizaka on Planet Hugill:
January 2013: Bach - Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Concert review
March 2015: Bach - Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: CD review
March 2016: Bach - The Art of Fugue: Concert review

Kimiko Ishizaka on disc:
Bach - Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Navona Records
Bach - Goldberg Variations  
Elsewhere on this blog:

Friday 25 March 2016

On Eagles Wings - Tenebrae and Alexander L'Estrange

On Eagles Wings - Alexander L'Estrange - Tenebrae
Nigel Short, artistic director of the choir Tenebrae, gave composer Alexander L'Estrange his first commission and the choir has celebrated this fruitful relationship with a new CD of L'Estrange's music on Signum Records; On Eagles’ Wings: Sacred Choral Works by Alexander L’Estrange. The disc is being launched at a concert on 7 April 2016 at St James's Church, Spanish Place when Tenebrae, conductor will be performing a diverse selection of L'Estrange's music spanning 15 years.

For one of the items, Tenebrae will be welcoming one of their choral development partners, The Music Centres, which aims to provide young people of Islington and Southwark with high quality music tuition regardless of their ability to pay

Full information from the Tenebrae website.

Trying a bit too hard to impress? Saimir Pirgu's Il mio canto

Saimir Pirgu - Il mio canto
Il mio canto, Verdi, Puccini, Gounod, Strauss, Cilea, Donizetti, Massenet; Saimir Pirgu, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Speranza Scappucci; Opus Arte
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 13 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Showcasing the talents of Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu

The Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu recent London appearances have included a Rosenblatt Recital (see my review) and Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden. His latest disc on Opus Arte is entitled Il mio canto and clearly is intended to showcase the tenor's voice. The recital includes opera arias by Verdi, Puccini, Gounod, Richard Strauss, Cilea, Donizetti and Massenet. Pirgu is accompanied by the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Speranza Scappucci.

The opening aria, Gabriele Adorno's Sento avvampar nell'anima from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra opens with a fine orchestral contribution and then Pirgu's entry is positively barnstorming. He relaxes as the aria develops, but he is clearly keen to show us that his voice extends from the lyric through to the more spinto roles, though I far prefer the beauty of his quieter singing. This sense of trying a bit too hard comes out on Che gelida manina from Puccini's La Boheme. Well enough performed, but what could have been a nicely lyric performance is in fact rather big boned, with the microphone catching something of a beat in Pirgu's voice. Over all, he seems to be trying to hard to impress.

Salut! Demeure chaste et pure from Gounod's Faust seems to fit his voice far better and we are treated to some caressingly beautiful quiet singing. His French is pretty good too, though he has the standard Italian tenor trick of singing in good French style when quiet or low in the voice, but opening up the Italian manner on the top.  The tenor aria from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a slightly strange addition to the recital, and again Pirgu spends a little too much time convincing us he is Pavarotti.

Thursday 24 March 2016

Turntables, Iron Foundries & Recomposed Seasons: the Southbank Sinfonia.

Max Richter © Yulia Mahr
Max Richter © Yulia Mahr
On 7 April 2015 the Southbank Sinfonia will be performing with the National Youth Dance Company (with whom the sinfonia performed the Rite of Spring in 2013). At Sadlers Wells Theatre, the sinfonia will be in the pit playing Max Richter's Recomposed: The Four Seasons for a new dance work by Michael Keegan Dolan, In - nocentes

In a busy month for the Southbank Sinfonia, they will be popping up at the University of Westminster's Ambika P3 on 15 April, for Nonclassical: The Rise of the Machines a programme full of remarkable sounds which includes Alexander Mosolov's iconic Iron Foundry, plus music by Nonclassical founder Gabriel Prokofiev, Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra (fifth movement), and Concerto for Trumpet, Percussion, Turntables and Orchestra, with DJ Mr Switch and percussionist Joby Burgess.

Then on 21 April the Southbank Sinfonia's regular rush-hour slot at St John's Church, Waterloo, includes John Adams Chamber Symphony conducted by Holly Mathieson, plus music by Bryce Dessner and Osvaldo Golijov.

Full details from the Southbank Sinfonia website.

Far from hackneyed: Christoph Denoth in Palomo's Nocturnos de Andalucia

Nocturnos de Andalucia - Christoph Denoth - Signum
Palomo Nocturnos de Andalucia, Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez; Christoph Denoth, London Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez Cobos; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 13 2016
Star rating: 5.0

The Andalusian night evoked in Palomo's substantial concerto for guitar and orchestra

When I interviewed guitarist Christoph Denoth in 2015, he was preparing for performances of Lorenzo Palomo's Nocturnos de Andalucia and looking forward to making this recording. It is a work of which he spoke most highly, so I was pleased to be able to explore the work on disc. Denoth has recorded Lorenzo Palomo's Nocturnos de Andalucia along with Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and Denoth's own arrangement of Joaquin Malats' Serenata Espanola with conductor Jesus Lopez Cobos and the London Symphony Orchestra on the Signum Classics label.

The guitar still remains something of a special case when it comes to concertos, the instrument's rather modest volume can be an inhibiting factor. In a good concert hall, there is no problem in solo recital but the sound quality is such that it can be relatively easily overwhelmed by an orchestra. Joaquin Rodrigo solved the problem by using relatively modest forces, but Lorenzo Palomo uses a full symphony orchestra in Nocturnos de Andalucia and manages to make the guitar stand out.

Lorenzo Palomo was born in the Southern Spanish province of Cordoba and his music is very much infused with the music of the area. Born in 1938, Palomo was in fact conductor and pianist at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin from 1981 to 2004 and Nocturnos de Andalucia (Andalusian Nocturnes) was written in 1996 for guitarist Pepe Romero who premiered it in Berlin with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Frubeck de Burgos.

A forty minute suite with six movements of unequal lengths with the longest being over 13 minutes and the shortest just over two. Each movement has a descriptive title and though the titles might lead us to expect the sort of exotic Spanish-isms which have been common currency in 19th and 20th century music, this is anything but hackneyed. The CD booklet essay by Daniel Jaffe refers to the music of Bela Bartok, and though Palomo's style is by no means Bartokian, his music brings Spanish traditional music into the 20th century combining dissonance with complex harmonies. And the Andalusian music which Palomo references is not the picture-postcard tourist pleaser but the darker more intense Flamenco which he experienced as a youth when attending improvised tablao Flamenco in Cordoba.

Brindis a la noche (A Toast to the Night) begins with a bang, a vivid, exciting cityscape with underlying Spanish hints. The orchestra goes full pelt and you wonder how on earth the guitar will cope. When the guitar comes in we understand how Palomo's writing works, the orchestra evaporates to nothing and the solo guitar duets with one or two instruments. At first the guitar is moodily contemplative, but the more exciting passages connect to the opening introduction and a dialogue with orchestra ensues. Anyone who has been in a Spanish city at night will recognise the sound world being evoked. Sonrisa truncada de una estrella (Shattered Smile of a Star) is rather collage-like, combining lyrical outpourings from the guitar with violence in the orchestra. Danza da Marialuna starts much closer to popular song, as Palomo imagines a young girl getting ready to dance, but then the music gets darker and more intense. There is a fluid sense to this long movement (13 minutes), and Palomo combines his Andalusian roots with an eclectic orchestra palate, even referencing Rodrigo-like textures. Rafaga, (Gust of Wind) is a slight movement, lively and busy with some lovely textures for guitar and a few instruments. The music has an edge to it here, not always comfortable and then evaporates. Nocturno de Cordoba evokes the Cordoban night in music which is spare, haunting and lovely, with a rather filmic feel to the descriptive passages. Finally El Tablao evokes the Flamenco stage. Here rhythmic tapping is an important feature of the movement, a semi-constant presence just as it is in Flamenco. The music is colourful and melodious but the textures are still complex and intriguing. The drama and excitement do not preclude solos for the guitar, and all ends in a real explosion.

The companion work on the disc is the far better known Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquim Rodrigo. In his booklet note Daniel Jaffe explains that the works somewhat backwards looking style arises partly from the times in which it was written. Composed in 1939, the work appeared shortly after the Civil War had ended and the new regime was interested in music which celebrated order. Rodrigo's concerto looks back to the 18th century, with its celebration of the gardens in Aranjuez, skilfully combining 18th century-ism with Spanish rhythm and music. The opening movement is wonderfully exciting and very engaging, with Denoth bringing real brio to the guitar part. The slow second movement is as beautiful as ever, with some lovely solos from the orchestra, whilst the last movement has a sense of perky delight to the neo-18th century tune, with both soloist and orchestra bringing an engaging crispness to the melody.

Joaquin Malats' Serenata is familiar as a solo guitar piece, but here Christoph Denoth has expanded it to form a delightful orchestrally accompanied serenade. A lovely encore piece.

Inevitably Denoth's guitar is recorded quite closely and the balance seems somewhat artificial and not quite what you would experience in the concert hall. I have yet to hear Palomo's suite in performance, but have been assured that Paolomo's inventive orchestration works brilliantly in concert hall too.

Throughout Denoth impresses both with his technique, but also with the engaging way he plays the music. He clearly feels strongly about Palomo's work, and brings out the interesting darkness and complexity of Palomo's vision of Anadalusia. Whilst the Rodrigo is a lovely, highly recommendable performance, it is the Palomo which makes this disc special. I do hope that the performance makes more guitarists take up this fascinating work.

Lorenzo Palomo (born 1938) - Nocturnos de Andalucia (1996)
Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) - Concierto de Aranjuez (1939)
Joaquin Malats (1872-1912), arr. Christoph Denoth - Serenata Espanola
Christoph Denoth (guitar)
London Symphony Orchestra
Jesus Lopez Cobos (conductor)
Recorded 26-27 June, 11-12 July 2015 Abbey Road Studios
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Wednesday 23 March 2016

Principal Sound - the Music of Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman
Morton Feldman
Principal Sound celebrates the music of Morton Feldman (who would have been 90 this year). Over four days (1-4 April 2016) at St John's Smith Square the festival mixes Feldman's music with that of his contemporaries, music he admired and music by composers influenced by him.

The festival opens with a performance of Feldman's Piano and String Quartet by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet, and the festival closes with Feldman's four-hour For Philip Guston played by Jenni Hogan (flutes), Siwan Rhys (piano/celesta) and George Barton (percussion).

In between there is the chance to hear music admired by Feldman such as Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments and John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts, performed by the Ligeti Quartet (who are St Johns Young Artists). There is a rare opportunity to hear music by Feldman's associates Frank Denyer and Jo Kondo, plus music by Vivier, Radulescu, Arne Gieshoff, and the The UK premiere of Layers of Love by Christian Mason, performed by the Octandre Ensemble.

Full information from the St John's Smith Square website.

Nocturnal moments - Myrthen Ensemble in Songs to the Moon at the Wigmore Hall

The Myrthen Ensemble
The Myrthen Ensemble
Brahms, Schumann, Peter Warlock, Elizabeth Maconchy, Samuel Barber, Joseph Szuc, Frederic Mompou, Camille Saint-Saens, Claude Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Dupar, Gabriel Fauré; The Myrthen Ensemble - Mary Bevan, Clara Mouriz, Nicky Spence, Marcus Farnsworth, Joseph Middleton; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Mar 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Young performers explore songs to moon, in German, English & French

Assembled in 2012 by pianist Joseph Middleton and inspired by Graham Johnson's Songmaker's Almanac, the Myrthen Ensemble creates programmes for solo, duet and quartet and piano around a specific theme. At the Wigmore Hall on 20 March 2016, the evening's theme was 'Songs to the Moon', which is well provided for in the repertoire, and it made for a very varied evening, with music by Brahms, Schumann, Peter Warlock, Elizabeth Maconchy, Samuel Barber, Joseph Szuc, Frederic Mompou, Camille Saint-Saens, Claude Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Dupar, Gabriel Fauré sung by Mary Bevan, Clara Mouriz, Nicky Spence, and Marcus Farnsworth accompanied by Joseph Middleton. Nicky Spence was a late tenor replacement for Allan Clayton but the programme was unchanged. The group are more or less contemporaries and well matched both vocally and in their commitment to this repertoire.

We started with Brahms, whose confused relationship with the many women in his life is well documented, not least in his song output. The first number, a quartet, 'Der Gang zum Liebchen' (The walk to the beloved), deposited us immediately in this ambivalent, intoxicating world, as the insecure lover asks the doves and the breezes to ensure no-one steals his love. 'Walpurgisnacht' was a spooky tale of witches told by a mother to her credulous daughter with a densely written and stunningly played piano part.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Clara Schumann, Brahms and Roxana Panufnik in Perivale

Minerva Piano Trio - ©Anthony Dawton
Michal Cwizewicz, Richard Birchall, Annie Yim
Minerva Piano Trio - ©Anthony Dawton
The Minerva Piano Trio (Michal Cwizewicz, Richard Birchall, Annie Yim) made its London debut at the South Bank Centre's Purcell Room in 2014 as Park Lane Group Young Artists, and the group is making a name for itself as interesting new trio with an ear for unusual repertoire whether it be contemporary (including music by the group's cellist Richard Birchall) or earlier. 

On Easter Monday (28 March 2016) at St Mary's Church, Perivale (Perivale Lane, Perivale, Middlesex, UB6 8SS), the trio will be performing music by Clara Schumann, Roxanna Panufnik and Brahms. Clara Schumann's Piano trio in G minor Op 17 was written in 1846 is is regarded as her masterpiece and the concert will be contrasting it with the original version of Brahms' Piano Trio in B major Op 8 which was written in 1854, the year after Brahms was introduced to the Schumanns for the first time. Completing the programme is ‘Around three corners' by Roxanna Panufnik written in 1995 and originally commissioned by Barnes Music Society.

Israel in Ägypten - Mendelssohn's take on Handel

Handel/Mendelssohn Israel in Egypt - Robert King - Vivat
Handel edited Mendelssohn Israel in Ägypten (Israel in Egypt); Lydia Teuscher, Julia Doyle, Hilary Summers, Benjamin Hulett, Roderick Williams, The King's Consort, Robert King; Vivat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 15 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Fascinating and illuminating reconstruction of the version of Handel's oratorio edited for performance by Mendelssohn

It wasn't just Bach's music that Felix Mendelssohn involved himself in performing, it was that of Handel too. This new disc from Robert King and the King's Consort on the Vivat label sees them performing a reconstruction of the version of Handel's Israel in Egypt (Israel in Ägypten) which Mendelssohn conducted in Düsseldorf in 1833. On this disc, King and the King's Consort are joined by soloists Lydia Teuscher, Julia Doyle, Hilary Summers, Benjamin Hulett and Roderick Williams.

Sung in German, with an overture by Mendelssohn to replace the one lacking in the standard version of Handel's score, Mendelssohn's changes are mainly related to providing more linking recitative, and orchestration of the organ part as the hall in Düsseldorf lacked an organ. The additional instruments are relatively discreet, two cellos and a double bass in the recitatives (a type of scoring used in Italy in lieu of a keyboard in recitatives in Rossini operas), and clarinets and flutes in the orchestral items. Some movements are missing, Mendelssohn was working with a short rehearsal time, and with amateurs. The biggest loss is the bass duet, 'The Lord is a man of war', but we do get the Alto-Bass duet 'Der Himmel ist Dein' from the Chandos Anthem, My Song shall be alway.

Also, Mendelssohn's processes reveal his interest in historical accuracy. The extra instruments are no wholesale reorchestration but a discreet support. And having visited Buckingham Palace and got access to the library, Mendelssohn was excited to find the manuscripts there of Israel in Egypt included movements not available to him from the only published score, the Arnold edition of 1792. Part of the attraction of this recording is the light it sheds on Mendelssohn's proto-historically informed attitudes. When asked to edit a new vocal score he insisted his markings be distinguished from those of the composer. At performances where an organ was available, then no additional instruments were added.

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