Wednesday 30 November 2016

New David Sawer opera for Garsington

David Sawer
David Sawer
Having commissioned Roxanna Panufnik to write a community opera, Silver Birch which premieres in 2017, Garsington Opera has announced its first main stage commission. David Sawer is writing a new opera, The Skating Rink, to be premiered by Garsington Opera in 2018. The new piece has a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey (who wrote the libretto for Joanne Lee's opera The Way Back Home), and the work is based on the novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (you can read Philip Hensher's review of the book in The Guardian), and the plot does involve a skating rink.

David Sawer is an interesting choice for a new operatic work. He writes highly dramatic, not to say theatrical music (as well as a significant amount of music for the theatre), yet his operatic output so far has been a bit varied. His opera From Morning to Midnight (based on a Georg Kaiser play) received a highly promising premiere at English National Opera in 2001, though sadly ENO never followed this up with a further commission. Sawer's operetta, Skin Deep with a libretto by Armando Iannucci was premiered by Opera North but it seemed to fail to take wing, perhaps because operettas require tunes. Sawer's subsequent theatrical works have not quite been in the classic opera category, so it will be fascinating to see and hear what he comes up with.

Christmas at Cadogan

Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Seasonal celebrations at the Cadogan Hall kick off tomorrow, 1 December 2016 with the first of two concerts by Barts Choir with the Trafalgar  Sinfonia conductor Ivor Setterfield in Charpentier's Messe de Minuit, plus music by RVW, and Finzi. Still in a choral vein, Tenebrae and the English Chamber Orchestra, conductor Nigel Short perform Handel's Messiah with soloists, Grace Davidson, Sarah Connolly, James Gilchrist, and Chrisopher Purves. Maasaki Suzuki conducts the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with soloists Anna Dennis, Robin Blaze, Jeremy Budd and Ashley Riches in Bach's Christmas Oratorio spread over two evenings. 

The choir of St John's College, Cambridge, conductor Andrew Nethsingha are bringing a programme which mixes traditional favourites with RVW and Jonathan Harvey, whilst the Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers, are exploring the Three Kings with music stretching from England to Bohemia.

In a lighter vein, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will be presenting its Christmas Cracker, and there is a chance to hear Ralph McTell (celebrating 50 years as a professional musician), and  the Rat Pack at Christmas. Ben Palmer and the Orchestra of St Paul's will be delighting families with The Snowman and We're going on a Bear Hunt.

Full details from the Cadogan Hall website.

Diversity alone makes for all that is perfect: Marc-Antoine Charpentier at Kings Place

An engraving from the 1682 Almanach Royal thought to be Charpentier
Engraving from the 1682 Almanach Royal
thought to be Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Hymne à la Vierge Charpentier, Couperin, Saint-Colombe, Marin Marais, Robert de Visée; Eamonn Dougan and friends; Kings Place
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 4.5

The music of Charpentier the starting point for a concert of rare treats

"Diversity alone makes for all that is perfect". That was Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s motto, and hence (the penny dropped for me) it is fitting that the Prelude to his D major Te Deum was adopted as the anthem for the European Broadcasting Union, familiar to millions of Eurovision Song Contest viewers. At Kings Place on Saturday 26 November 2016, Eamonn Dougan directed choral and instrumental forces, including Rachel Podger, Jonathan Manson, Steven Devine, David Miller, Kati Debretzeni, Zoe Brookshaw, Charlotte Mobbs, Eleanor Minney, Nancy Cole, Hugo Hymas, Thomas Herford, Greg Skidmore and members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a programme of music by Charpentier, Couperin, Saint-Colombe, Marin Marais and Robert de Visée.

Diversity is certainly what characterises Charpentier’s output. Though he went to Italy to learn the family trade of master scribe, he also studied with Carissimi and came back to Paris three years later a job with patroness of the arts, Marie de Lorraine, duchess de Guise – luckily for him as those Italian influences he had absorbed might not have gone down so well at Versailles.

I was intrigued to know what the relationship was with the duchess, as the composer was treated as a courtier rather than as a servant (as he would have been at Versailles). But I was left to speculate.

Lots of taste but not much excess: French baroque at Kings Place

Louis XIV in 1701 - Hyacinthe Rigaud
Louis XIV in 1701 - Hyacinthe Rigaud
Le coucher du Soleil François Couperin, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Clérambault, Leclair, Mondonville, Rameau; Robyn Allegra Parton, Instruments of Time and Truth, Edward Higginbottom; Kings Place
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 3.5

A varied, if too polite, programme exploring a relatively neglected corner of French baroque

Part of "Baroque Unwrapped" at Kings Place, this "Weekend of Excessively Good Taste" was curated by conductor and baritone Eamonn Dougan. Together with his friends, colleagues and mentors he put together a series exploring the relatively neglected music of the French Baroque. The Friday evening concert (25 November 2016) was the second of the mini-festival, with Edward Higginbottom directing Instruments of Time and Truth with Robyn Allegra Parton in Le coucher du Soleil – Music from the last years of Louis XIV and the Dauphin with music by François Couperin, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Clérambault, Leclair, Mondonville, and Rameau.

Edward Higginbottom introduced and directed a varied programme focusing on and around François Couperin. We started off in 1690. Couperin was organist at Saint-Gervais, a job that had been lined up for him until he was old enough. He was at the heart of the musical life of Paris, coming from a musical dynasty going back centuries. He was among the first to absorb Italian influences, particularly those of Corelli, thanks to his friendship with the Abbé Mathieu who gave him access to his extensive library, and who put on concerts of repertoire more eclectic than the rather exclusive French court would sanction.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Dig a little deeper, explore our archive of interviews on Planet Hugill

Composer Sven Helbig
Composer Sven Helbig whom we interviewed in October 2016
We have a regular series of interviews on Planet Hugill, talking singers, instrumentalists, conductors, directors and all those others who are making waves in the classical world, both the famous and those who are starting to make names for themselves. Our People we've interviewed page has links to all of them, a lovely archive to explore.

Recent interviews have included Anneke Scott the French horn player who specialises in period performance, the genre-crossing pianist Thomas Lauderdale of the band Pink Martini, piano duo Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen, the young conductor Jonathan Berman who recently made his Wigmore Hall debut with Ensemble Modern, conductor John Wilson who is best known for the John Wilson orchestra but whose work encompasses RVW symphonies with the CBSO.

Interviews are normally scheduled to publicise a particular event, but sometimes they occur simply because an artist is happy to be talked to about their career. And interesting things can happen, my interview with Rhian Lois included a fascinating talk about what its like to sing when pregnant. Politics and the state of society have, not surprisingly, cropped up more than once this year. Jan Vogler, the intendant of the Dresden Music Festival was concerned to use the arts to counter the atmosphere created by the anti-Islam demonstrations in Dresden, whilst both conductor Kristjan Järvi and composer Sven Helbig were both concerned with the nature of today's society and the relationship between music, the arts and society.

Visit our People we've interviewed page to explore further.

NYO: Increasing diversity

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO) has announced its line-up for the 2016/17 season, 164 young musicians in all aged between 13 and 19. Rather impressively 21.9% of the new intake of NYO musicians identify as non-white British, which is 7.3% above than the national population average, and a 4.9% increase on the previous year. 28 of this year's musicians participated in the NYO Inspire programme, which aims to encourage talented musicians particularly in state schools and targeted at increasing all aspects of diversity: racial background, socio-economic background and access to music services. Over the past decade NYO has moved from 35% to 51% state school musicians plus 3% home-schooled and 49% from the private sector, with the private sector figure including the 18% at specialist music schools as part of the government’s Music and Dance Scheme.

The new leader of the NYO is Leora Cohen. The NYO musicians have a week-long residency at the University of Nottingham in late December, with conductor John Wilson (see my interview with John), culminating in concerts in Nottingham (5/1/2017), Birmingham (6/1/2017), and the Royal Festival Hall (7/1/2017, where the orchestra is now an associate orchestra), performing Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4, Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 and Brett Dean's Komarov's Fall.

On time, on budget: Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp

Queen Elisabeth Hall, Antwerp - credit Jesse Willems & deFilharmonie
Queen Elisabeth Hall, Antwerp - credit Jesse Willems & deFilharmonie
When so many concert-hall projects get mired in politics or go wildly over budget, it is heartening to hear of one completed on time and on budget (The ElbPhilharmonie in Hamburg and the Philharmonie in Paris each cost over £500 million and who knows what the new London hall would cost if it ever got built). 

The Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp, Belgium opened this last weekend (25 November 2016) at a cost around £57 million. A traditional concert hall holding 2,000 people, it will form the home of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra. The hall is designed by Manchester-based architects SimpsonHaugh & Partners co-operating closely with Bureau Bouwtechniek (Antwerp) and Kirkegaard Associates (Chicago), and reputedly has excellent acoustics. The new hall is part of an historic complex at Antwerp Zoo and so combines the modern auditorium other more historical buildings. 

The new hall will be the home of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, principal conductor Philippe Herreweghe, honorary conductor Edo de Waart.

The concert hall was inaugurated on 25 November 2016 when Edo de Waart conducted the Royal Flemish Philharmonic in Dvorak's Cello Concerto (with Truls Mørk) and Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, and on 2 & 3 December Edo de Waart conducts the orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 2 Resurrection. Future concerts include further Mahler, and Bruckner symphonies, Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible conducted by Martyn Brabbins, Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle with Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko, the world premiere of Wim Hendrickx Symphony No. 2 'Aquarius' Dream, Philippe Herreweghe conducting Mendelssohn's Elijah with soloists including Carolyn Sampson and David Soar, James MacMillan conducting the premiere of his trombone concerto plus music by Ades and Turnage,

La Calisto at the Wigmore Hall

La Calisto
Francesco Cavalli La Calisto; Lucy Crowe, George Humphreys, Jurgita Adamonyté, Tim Mead, Rachel Kelly, James Newby, Andrew Tortise, Sam Furness, Jake Arditti, Edward Grint, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; the wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 28 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Highly theatrical yet finely musical concert performance of Cavalli's opera

La Calisto was Francesco Cavalli's eleventh opera and certainly not his most successful but, perhaps because it came to prominence as a result of Glyndebourne's early revival of the work in 1970, the opera remains one of Cavalli's most revived opera in modern times. Of course, that does not mean that it easy to bring off in performance. David Bates and La Nuova Musica gave themselves an extra challenge when performing the work at the Wigmore Hall on Monday 28 November 2016, as it was being given in a concert performance, though in fact the group's lively and imaginative approach to 'staging' and keen attention to musicality meant the performance really took wing.

There had been cast changes, some last minute, with George Humphreys coming in as Giove rather late. Lucy Crowe played Calisto, with Jurgita Adamonyté as Diana, Tim Mead as Endimione, Rachel Kelly as Giunone, James Newby as Mercurio, Andrew Tortise as Pane, Sam Furness as Linfea, Jake Arditti as Satirino and Edward Grint as Silvano.

The small instrumental ensemble consisted of Oliver Webber and Miki Takahasi violins, Judith Evans violone, Jonathan Rees and Ibrahim Aziz violas da gamba, David Miller theorbo, and Frances Kelly harp, directed from the harpsichord and organ by David Bates.

The libretto, by Cavalli's regular collaborator Giovanni Faustini, is extremely schematic but it provided the right mix of high art, opportunities for luscious melodies and low comedy. Premiered in 1651, the work was the result of the development of commercial opera houses in Venice, so the works needed to be relatively compact (no large orchestras) and have the right mix to attract audiences. In La Calisto there are two main couples, Diana (Jurgita Adamonyté) and Endimione (Tim Mead) whose romance is frustrated because the goddess Diana has to be chaste, and Giove (George Humphreys) and Calisto (Lucy Crowe), add to the mix Giunone (Rachel Kelly), Giove's jealous wife, and Mercurio (James Newby), Giove's side-kick. Around these characters circle a group of lesser beings whose appetites are far earthier, providing the low comedy, Pane (Andrew Tortise), the god Pan also in love with Diana, Linfea (Sam Furness), Diana's handmaid who is frustrated by her chastity, the lecherous Satirino (Jake Arditti) and Silvano (Edward Grint).

An interesting wrinkle in the plot of La Calisto is that Giove seduces Calisto by taking the form of Diana (Calisto is one of Diana's votresses). This means that Giove is the only character who straddles the serious and the comic, all the other characters though they interact remain firmly either comic or serious. The role of Giove was originally written for a bass who could also sing in the falsetto register when Diana (thus adding to the low comedy), and rather admirably this is what George Humphreys did, appearing in a frock and wig as well, looking positively alarming (Humphreys is a very tall man). His falsetto was impressively serviceable, though challenged at times by the high tessitura, but the result really brought the mix of comedy and tragedy to life. Elsewhere in the plot, Sam Furness was equally impressive in the transvestite role of Linfea, combining a sense of comedy with a fine feel for the music.

This was one of the delights of this performance, the comic elements were really brought out in lively fashion yet the musical values were never neglected.

Monday 28 November 2016

London Concord Singers celebrating 50 years in style

London Concord Singers 50th anniversary concert
London Concord Singers is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the choir was founded in 1966 by the late Malcolm Cottle. As part of the celebrations the choir's new musical director Jessica Norton will be directing them in a 50th Anniversary Concert on Thursday December 8, 2017 at the Priory Church of the Order of St John, St John's Square, Clerkenwell Road (full details from the choir's website). In true Concord fashion, the programme will include three world premieres, my own Dominus illumination mea, a new Christmas motet written specially for the choir by conductor Jessica Norton, and the winning work in the choir's 50th Anniversary Composition Competition, Alison Willis's Thou has made me endless

Tickets for the concert are £12 (including a festival glass of wine), with Under 25s at £5, available online from EventBrite. See the concert poster (PDF) for more details.

The choir has also had a new video created, by Laura Ruiz. You can see it below, but it is also available on Vimeo.

From Page to Stage at the Other Palace

Submissions open today for From Page to Stage, a Summer festival devoted to finding new musicals. For three weeks (14 August - 3 September 2017) the festival will showcase over 20 shows at The Other Palace, Andrew Lloyd Webber's new theatre (the former St James's Theatre) which opens in February 2017.

The festival will showcase one fully produced musical production in the theatre, plus workshops, semi-staged performances and extracts in the theatre and studio, as well as readings and songs in the bar – there’ll even be pop-up talent performing new songs from new musicals in the box office and foyer! The show does not need to be finished, entrants simply need to include their show title, composer/lyricist/book writer, short synopsis and three recorded tracks from the show (see website for full details The 2016 festival received over 200 submissions.

The Other Palace opens in February 2017 as Andrew Lloyd Webber takes over the St James's Theatre and turns it into a home and breeding ground for musicals at various stages of development. The opening production in the main theatre will be Michael John LaChiusa’s musical The Wild Party, directed by choreographer Drew McOnie. The UK premiere of Whisper House will follow in April 2017, a musical ghost story from Duncan Sheik, the composer of Spring Awakening and American Psycho. The world premiere production of Olivier Award nominee Sally Cookson’s adaptation of the Fellini classic La Strada will then take place from May to July. Further ahead in the season is the first work-in-progress, Bateman and Conley's cautionary fairy-tale musical The Little Beasts, and the National Youth Music Theatre will be presenting productions of a new musical, Imaginary, and Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George.

Daniel Röhn: The Fritz Kreisler story

Daniel Röhn - The Kreisler Story - Berlin Classics
The Kreisler Story music by Fritz Kreisler, and Kreisler arrangements of Paganini, Wienawski, Tartini, de Falla, Poldini, Schubert, Bach; Daniel Röhn, Paul Rivinius; Berlin Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 23 2016
Star rating: 4.0

The wit, charm and style of Fritz Kreisler re-captured for today

On this delightful disc from Berlin Classics the German violinist Daniel Röhn captures the spirit of the great violinist Fritz Kreisler for the modern day. Accompanied by pianist Paul Rivinius, Röhn plays mixture of Kreisler's own pieces and Kreisler's arrangements of everything from Paganini and Wienowski to De Falla and Bach, this latter is the first recording of Kreisler's arrangement of Bach's Partita No. 3.

Fritz Kreisler was one of those performers who combined immense technical ability with a very particular and personal performing style. You would never mistake his playing for someone else, and his choice of repertoire very much reflected his wit and style, particularly as he had no compunction at adjusting and revising music of other composers (and even writing his own pieces in the style of old masters). Whilst the odd Kreisler composition crops up as an encore item, to charm and delight, few violinists would dare to commit a whole disc to Kreisler's repertoire, but that is what Daniel Röhn does.

Daniel Röhn performing The Kreisler Story at Carnegie Hall
Daniel Röhn performing The Kreisler Story at Carnegie Hall
But Daniel Röhn is no ordinary violinist, he has the Austro-German violin style in his blood. He is the third generation of his family to play the violin, his father let the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for nearly 30 years. His grandfather was the leader of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Furtwängler, and of course heard and met Kreisler, and told the young Daniel about his encounters. Daniel Röhn's own playing has been commended by Ruggerio Ricci, who remarked, 'His playing is reminiscent of the old masters.'

On this disc Daniel Röhn very much gives us Kreisler for the 21st century, and no bad thing either. Sensibly Daniel Röhn does not attempt to copy all of Kreisler's style whilst playing the discs, he gives the music a cleaner, more astringent edge, lacking Kreisler's immense sweetness (and vibrato). Where Röhn scores is that he plays the music straight, with a superb technical control combined with charm, wit and elegance. These latter are essential, as without the element of charm and the witty personal delivery, Kreisler's elaborations of past masters could fall flat.

Tenebrae's Christmas appeal

Tenebrae choral workshop
Tenebrae choral workshop
The choir Tenebrae, artistic director Nigel Short, has launched a Christmas Appeal to support the choir's Choral Development programme. To mark the choir's 15th anniversary it launched its Associate Artists scheme which provides mentoring and experience to emerging young choral singers, with both live and recorded ensemble performance experience through active involvement with Tenebrae’s engagements. The Associate Artists will also gain experience by being involved in Tenebrae's partnerships with the London Youth Choir and the Music Centres London which form the centrepiece of the choir's education and community engagement work.

The 2016-17 Associate Artists are Bethany Partridge, Tom Lilburn and James Robinson, and you can find out more about them on the Tenebrae website.

Tenebrae is hoping to raise £5,000 for the Choral Development programme, you can contribute by going to or to donate £10 text TENE002 to 70191

Saturday 26 November 2016

From Advent to Epiphany: a seasonal miscellany with carols, motets and more.

Carols from Worcester
It is that time of year when choirs and other ensembles produce CDs themed on the season. This year I have ten choral discs to choose from plus one non-choral disc, all aiming to put the particular ensemble's stamp on the Christmas repertoire. For liturgical choirs, a Christmas disc often means the encapsulation of the ensemble's regular Christmas repertory whilst for others it is the chance to do something a little different. All those under consideration bring and interesting twist to the repertoire.

For many people, Christmas means carols, and carols means David Willcocks. As a result of his involvement with, and contribution to, the seminal volumes of Carols for Choirs, his versions of many carols have entered the communal consciousness, and the carols selected for inclusion in the book have become standards.

Christmas at Selwyn
Between 1950 and 1957, David Willcocks was organist at Worcester Cathedral, and Christmas from Worcester has the subtitle, A tribute to Sir David Willocks with all the items being written and arranged by Sir David. Peter Nardone, Worcester Cathedral Choir and Christopher Allsop (organ) are joined by Worcester Festival Choral Society and Sennet Brass for the big congregational carols ending with a rousing rendition of Hark! the herald angels sing with Willcocks wonderful descant, but there are plenty of other smaller gems sung by Worcester Cathedral Choir alone.

The result is a wonderfully grand way to hear the familiar carols, with Willcock's brass and organ opening to O come, all ye faithful making a great CD opener (Willcock's brass introductions to the carols were used with the Bach Choir which he conducted from 1960 to 1998). And the smaller items sung by the choir alone are equally appealing, a lovely way to remember a major musical influence on our Christmas music.

Carols from Chelsea
David Willcocks arrangements open and close Christmas from Selwyn too, where the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, directed by Sarah MacDonald with organist Shanna Hart and Ben Comeau, mix the popular carols with other Christmas fare. So we get Stille Nacht, Angelus ad Virginem and In dulci jubilo but also Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is coming to town and White Christmas. Using young women rather than Worcester's boy trebles, the choir is recorded in the chapel of Selwyn College and the result has a lovely intimacy, rather than Worcester's large scale grandeur, and the Christmas songs in popular vein are a complete delight.

Friday 25 November 2016

Das Rheingold in Manchester

Mark Elder and the Hallé are bringing something of an early Christmas present for Wagnerians when they present Wagner's Das Rheingold in concert at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on Sunday 27 November 2016. It is the latest in Elder's exploration of Wagner's opera with the Hallé, having previous performed Götterdämmerung (2009) and Die Walküre (2011).

Mark Elder conducts and there is a strong line-up full of intriguing casting with Sarah Tynan, Madeleine Shaw, and Leah-Marian Jones as the Rhinemaidens, Samuel Youn as Alberich, Iain Paterson as Wotan, Susan Bickley as Fricka, Emma Bell as Freia, Reinhard Hagen as Fasolt, Clive Bayley as Fafner, David Stout as Donner, David Butt Philip as Froh, Will Hartmann as Loge, Nicky Spence as Mime and Susanne Resmark as Erda.

Both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung are available on disc from the Halle's own label, so we look forward to being able to hear Das Rheingold too.

Further information from the Hallé website.
Update: Apologies for the erroneous casting (taken from an outdated press release, all corrected now)

Celebrating Purer than Pearl

Johnny Herford, William Vann, Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan, Thomas Gould with John Francis of the RVW Society at the recording sessions for Purer then Pearl
Johnny Herford, William Vann, Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan, Thomas Gould
with John Francis of the RVW Society at recording sessions for Purer than Pearl
The RVW Society held an event last night (24 November 2016) to celebrate the release of Purer than Pearl (see my review), their latest disc of RVW discoveries on Albion Records. Rather appropriately in the Parry Rooms at the Royal College of Music, five of the performers from the disc soprano Mary Bevan, tenor Nicky Spence, baritone Johnny Herford, violinist Thomas Gould and pianist William Vann gave us a chance to hear a selection of music from the disc including Summum Bonum, Crossing the Bar, the Rumpelstiltskin songs, It was a Lover and his Lass, Searching for Lambs, The Lawyer, How Cold the Wind Doth Blow, Two Vocal Duets and a selection from The Poisoned Kiss arranged by Adrian Williams, with a number being first performances.

RVW's first surviving song is a setting of Robert Browning's Summum Bonum from 1891, which we heard performed by Nicky Spence and William Vann. John Francis from the RVW Society explained that when RVW showed the song to his teacher, Hubert Parry, Parry praised the setting for its insight but added that there was far too much Wagner in it. So the song disappeared without trace, yet RVW did not throw it away and his manuscript fair copy was preserved in the British Library. Similarly early (1892) is Crossing the Bar, a setting of Tennyson, which was performed by Johnny Herford and William Vann. This had elements of the salon about it too, but you could also try to detect hints of the mature RVW that we know.

More curious are the charming songs from Rumpelstiltskin, about which very little is known. Johnny Herford sang them, and the audience joined in as the chorus, which was great fun. Nicky Spence and Johnny Herford sang the Shakespeare duet It was a Lover and his Lass, and then Nicky Spence and Thomas Gould gave us a chance to hear the striking Two English Folksongs (Searching for Lambs and The Lawyer) for the unusual combination of voice and violin. This was prime RVW, the settings date from 1935.

Mary Bevan, Johnny Herford and Nicky Spence, accompanied by William Vann then gave us four songs from Adrian Williams' newly created Eight Songs from The Poisoned Kiss, the first time that Williams' versions of the songs have been performed. This was a chance to hear some mature RVW, unaccountably rather ignored and the new arrangements work so well that I hope others are encouraged to perform them.

How Cold the Wind Doth Blow (or The Unquiet Grave) was for me the highlight of the evening, A folk song arrangement dating from 1912, to the combination of soprano and piano (Mary Bevan and William Vann), RVW adds a highly evocative violin obbligato (Thomas Gould). The performance concluded with Two Vocal Duets from 1904, again RVW adds a violin to the mix, here performed by Mary Bevan, Johnny Herford, William Vann and Thomas Gould. The duets are notable for the fact that they seem to be RVW's first encounter with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Present in the audience were members of the family of Arthur Foxton Ferguson, one of the original singers of the duets. (you can read more about the duets in the thesis by Marcus DeLoach at Rice University, and DeLoach was also present at the performance).

This was a lovely chance to hear a selection from the disc, and to experience how well the songs work in performance. I am sure that it will not be the last we hear of them.

Re-discovering the saxhorn: The Celebrated Distin Family

The Celebrated Distin Family - Prince Regent's Band - Resonus Classics
Meyerbeer, Berlioz, Fauconnier, Donizetti, Gretry, Verdi, Henry Distin, John Distin, Handel, James Kent, Arne, Theodore Distin; The Prince Regent's Band; Resonus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 28 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Music and technology collide creatively in the recreation of the repertoire of the mid-19th century Distin family

I hadn't heard of the Distin family until I received this latest CD from Resonus Classics. The Celebrated Distin Family (released 1/12/2016) performed by The Prince Regent's Band reconstructs the repertoire of a famous 19th century brass ensemble, playing the music on instruments of the day. This means that the performers, Richard Fomison, Richard Thomas, Anneke Scott, Phil Dale and Jeff Miller, perform music by Meyerbeer, Berlioz, Fauconnier, Donizetti, Gretry, Verdi, Henry Distin, John Distin, Handel, James Kent, Arne, and Theodore Distin, on a range of cornets and saxhorns. (See my recent interview with Anneke Scott where we talk about playing the saxhorn, and rediscovering the repertoire on the disc).

The Prince Regent's Band
The Prince Regent's Band
Between 1835 and 1857 the members of the Distin family, John Distin (1798-1863) and his sons  George, Henry, William and Theodore performed as The Celebrated Distin Family. The family ensemble toured both the UK and abroad and it was in Paris that they met the celebrated inventor Adolphe Sax  (1814-1894). As well as inventing the saxophone, Sax had come up with a whole family of brass instruments, saxhorns; designed for band use they were intended to provide a uniformity of approach and timbre across the range. Somehow (reports vary) the Distins acquired a set and their use of them, combined with an imaginative approach to the repertoire, helped to popularise the instruments.

Effectively, the Distin's helped to create the traditional British brass band repertoire, but rather ironically not much of the Distin's repertoire has survived in full score. So this disc uses a handful of works by members of the Distin family (which survive in short score), some of Adophe Sax's own arrangements for saxhorns and music of the day which is known to have been played by the family. Apart from the Sax arrangements, the music is all played in arrangements by members of The Prince Regent's Band.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Roy Harris & John Adams: The American violin concerto

Roy Harris, John Adams - Violin Concertos - Tamsin Waley-Cohen - Signum
John Adams, Roy Harris Violin Concertos; Tamsin Waley-Cohen, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 22 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Two 20th century American violin concertos, giving a very particular view of the genre

This disc from Tamsin Waley-Cohen, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton on Signum Classics pairs two 20th century American violin concertos, the one relatively unknown and the other less so, the 1949 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Roy Harris (1898-1979) and the 1993 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by John Adams (born 1947) Listening to the two pieces, you wonder whether there is such as genre as the American violin concerto as both have elements in common.

Harris is an example of the remarkable upward mobility of musicians in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th century (a similar thing applied in the UK, particularly with singers). So Harris's music mixes the American pioneer sound with influences from his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (studies undertaken at the suggestion of Aaron Copland). The violin concerto was written in 1949 as a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra. The orchestral part proved so full of errors that the first performance was shelved, and rather oddly the work was allowed to languish until premiered by Gregory Fulkerson and the North Carolina Symphony in 1984.

John Cage

Merce Cunningham and John Cage.  Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Merce Cunningham and John Cage.
Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Ordovas Gallery at 25 Savile Row, London is currently presenting the exhibition Artists and Lovers which looks at the interrelationships between John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. The exhibition runs until 16 December 2016, and on 25 November 2016, MusicArt London is presenting performances of early piano works by Cage along with a specially commissioned poem from Ed Baker. Pianist Annie Yim will be giving performances which will be repeated every half hour between 12pm and 2pm.

The performance is intended to showcase the lesser known side of Cage's art and life – the dreamy poet and tender lover both in verse and at the piano, as revealed in his early personal letters and in the pieces In a Landscape and Dream. The new poem in response to 4’33” is inspired by reminiscences of poet Ed Baker’s first meeting with Cage at the composer’s 60th birthday party in Washington DC.

Further information from the MusicArt website.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

From social realism to fairy tale: the background to Rimsky Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden

Yevgeniya Zbrueva as Lel in Rimsky Korsakov's The Snow Maiden at the Bolshoy Theatre, 1894
Yevgeniya Zbrueva as Lel in
Rimsky Korsakov's The Snow Maiden
at the Bolshoy Theatre, 1894
In advance of Opera North's staging of Rimsky Korsakov's The Snow Maiden next year (directed by John Fulljames), I thought it would be interesting to look at the background to the opera, particularly its links to the work Alexander Ostrovsky.

The 19th century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky is little known today in Western Europe, yet his 47 plays are a staple of the Russian stage even today. Though Ostrovsky's name is not as well known as that of his contemporaries, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, his works are known to operatic audiences through adaptation. Janacek's opera Katya Kabanova is based on Ostrovsky's play The Storm, whilst Rimsky Korsakov's The Snow Maiden is based on Ostrovsky's play of the same name.

Ostrovsky specialised in social realism, being praised for his insight into the psychology of the Russian people, so it is no surprise that an opera like Katya Kabanova be based on one of his plays. But The Snow Maiden is something else again, and Ostrovsky's original play caused something of a stir. Written in 1873, it was inspired by tales told him by his nanny and has a direct link to the Russian folk fairytale which Ostrovsky read in the Vol. 2 of Alexander Afanasyev's book The Slavs' Views Upon Nature (1867).  The play was produced in 1873 at the Bolshoy Theatre, with incidental music by Tchaikovsky.

As a fairy tale, at its first performance it caused something of a stir coming from a writer known for his satirical realism and social commentary, but Ostrovsky's comment was that even Shakespeare had fairytales (such as A Midsummer Night's Dream) alongside his more serious plays.

Rimsky Korsakov's wrote his own libretto to the opera, which he composed in 1880-81, and he revised it in 1898. The work was performed in London in 2001 by the Guildhall Schooll (see the review in the Guardian) and in 2014 by University College Opera (see the review in BachTrack), but Opera North's staging of the work next year will be its first professional staging in the UK for 60 years.

It remained the composer's favourite amongst his works, and in his autobiography he says that 'The Snow Maiden is not only my best opera, but perhaps the best contemporary opera in general', however the critics did not agree casting Rimsky Korsakov as a talented symphonist rather than an operatic composer.

The plot concerns the interaction between mythological characters, real people and those in between. Compared to the play,  Rimsky Korsakov increased the pantheistic nature of the opera, strengthening the roles mythological characters. The work weaves in a lot of folk tunes, the composer was concerned to characterise the different groups, and the real people, the villagers, get folk tunes, in fact Rimsky Korsakov uses an almost Wagnerian system of leitmotifs despite having not heard much Wagner. And the mythological characters have their own whole-tone harmony, which emphasises the way the real people are unable to make emotional contact with the mythological.

The Snow Maiden's journey through the opera, finding love and eventually expiring because of it, has a Freudian coming of age feel to it, but the Snow Maiden's death brings an end to perpetual Winter, which takes us into Rite of Spring territory, It will be interesting to see what direction Opera North's new production goes.

The original work was a very long piece, and Rimsky Korsakov's 1898 version is essential the original one with cuts, plus recommendations for further cuts. Perhaps it is this prolixity which puts people off, the revised version can last three and a half hours. And the story is not exactly dramatic, though it is touching and Rimsky Korsakov's ear for orchestral colours really comes to the fore.

The folk tale is still current in Russia, and Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden) is a popular seasonal figure in Russian culture, along with her grandfather Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost) the Russian Father Christmas.

A radical re-invention: Joyce DiDonato's War and Peace

Joyce DiDonato, Manuel Palazzo, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce DiDonato, Manuel Palazzo, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Handel, Leo, Cavalieri, Purcell, Gesualdo, Arvo Pärt, Jommelli; Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo d'Oro, Maxim Emelyanychev; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 22 2016
Star rating: 4.5

A dramatic concert staging of baroque arias in a programme designed to provoke and make you think

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's latest project In War and Peace is a highly personal one. It involves the inevitable CD and attendant concert tour, and we caught her performance at the Barbican on Wednesday 22 November 2016. Yet the event was more than just a concert, it was theatrical event which DiDonato intended to make us think, to address the question 'In the midst of chaos, how do we find peace' Joyce DiDonato, accompanied by Il Pomo d'Oro directed from the harpsichord by Maxim Emelyanychev, sang arias from Handel's Jephtha, Agrippina, Rinaldo, Susanna and Giulio Cesare, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and The Indian Queen, plus arias from Leo's Andromaca, and Jommelli's Attilio Regolo, and the orchestra played music by Gesualdo and Arvo Pärt.

Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo Doro - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Directed by Ralf Pleger with lighting by Henning Blum and video by Yousef Iskandar, this was a dramatic event rather than a simple concert, and DiDonato was joined by dancer/choreographer Manuel Palazzo, and the striking costumes were by Vivienne Westwood. Joyce DiDonato was on stage throughout, when the audience entered she was sitting on a raised podium towards the rear of the stage and retired there at various points. Singing the whole programme from memory, she used movement, lighting, video, gesture and choreography to bring out the drama in the individual arias. There were instrumental moments too, when Manuel Palazzo's dancing came to the fore.

The first half was themed around war and the second around peace. We opened with Storge's Scenes of horror, scenes of woe from Handel's Jephtha, a vivid description of war and chaos. We don't usually hear DiDonato in this type of repertoire, and her lower register lacks the amplitude of classic mezzo-sopranos/contraltos who sing this repertoire, but she countered this with an acute ear for Handel's verbal drama and a real wiry strength which made a powerful combination. This was followed by the aria Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro from Leonardo Leo's Andromaca (1742) a powerful solo for the captured Andromaca who dares Pirro to kill her son, resulting in a vivid and remarkable scene. This is certainly an opera I would love to come across.

Solo Violin

Daniel Pioro - photo Claire Shovelton
Daniel Pioro - photo Claire Shovelton
Composer Alex Groves' Solo series returns to the crypt of St Andrew's Church, Holborn on Friday 25 November 2016 for an intimate recital by violinist Daniel Pioro, who has recently performed both Colin Matthews and Thomas Adès’s violin concertos as well as giving regular performances with ensembles such as CHROMA and the Fibonacci Sequence.

Pioro's recital will include music by Matteis, and Biber's Passacaglia for Solo Violin, plus classic contemporary pieces like Glass's Knee Play 2 (from Einstein on the Beach), and new music by Edmund Finnis and Caroline Shaw, plus a premiere of a new piece for violin and electronics by Alex Groves.

Further information from the Solo website.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Purer than Pearl: RVW rarities and discoveries

Purer than Pearl - Ralph Vaughan Williams - Albion Records
Ralph Vaughan Williams songs and duets; Mary Bevan, Jennifer Johnston, Nicky Spence, Johnny Herford, Thomas Gould, William Vann; Albion records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 18 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Early songs and mature songs which deserve to be better known on this affectionate survey of RVW's song output

If you played this disc blind, the opening songs would certainly not make you think of RVW. In fact RVW wrote songs all his life and this new disc from Albion Records (the recording arm of the RVW Society) presents a wide range of the composer's songs and duets, the new discoveries and the lesser known, ranging from his earliest surviving ones to those from the 1930s including a selection from The Poisoned Kiss arranged by Adrian Williams. The performers are William Vann (piano), Thomas Gould (violin), Mary Bevan (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor) and Johnny Herford (baritone).

Johnny Herford, William Vann, Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan, Thomas Gould with John Francis of the RVW Society
Johnny Herford, William Vann, Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan, Thomas Gould
with John Francis of the RVW Society
The songs are presented roughly chronologically, though for some this is the date of publication rather than the date of composition. This means that we start with a selection of songs before RVW was RVW. His editing of his compositions from his early career was quite ruthless, so it is fascinating to be able to hear songs which are clearly influenced not by folk-song but by Wagner, Brahms, Stanford and Parry. They give us a window onto how RVW developed as a composer. Not great songs, but creditable and more than performable.

RVW's first published and best known song remains Linden Lea, which is here heard in an highly effective arrangement for SATB and piano by Sumner Satter.

Rare Rimsky Korsakov and a tempting witch

Hansel and Gretel - Opera North
I am looking forward to Opera North's Winter 2017 season, which tours to Leeds, Newcastle, Salford Quays, Belfast and Nottingham between 21 January 2017 and  18 March 2017. We have the prospect of three new productions all under the banner of Magic and Mischief: A Winter Season of Deliciously Dark Fairy Tales,  including Rimsky Korsakov's rarely performed The Snow Maiden plus Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel  and Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella), along with some interesting casting.

Amazingly, Rimsky Korsakov's opera is being professionally staged in the UK for the first time in 60 years (I have only heard it once, in the late 1980s when Chelsea Opera Group gave a concert performance). At Opera North, John Fulljames will be directing with Aoife Miskelly in the title role and Heather Lowe as Lel (a role that I heard being sung by a young Fiona Kimm). The opera is being sung in English,

Sunnyboy Dladla - credit Tatjana Dachsel
Sunnyboy Dladla
credit Tatjana Dachsel
Almost as tempting is Humperdinck's perennial favourite Hansel and Gretel (sung in English) where the opera is directed by Edward Dick, the children are being sung by Katie Bray (whom was last saw in the London English Song Festival's Songs of the Somme, see my review) and Fllur Wyn (whom we recently saw as Sophie in Opera North's revival of Der Rosenkavalier, see my review), with Susan Bullock doubling the roles of Mother and the Witch. I still have strong memories of Pauline Tinsley's chilling performance in the double roles in David Pountney's production at English National Opera, and I am pleased to see that Opera North is following the correct voice casting and not having a tenor as the Witch.

Completing the trio is Rossini's La Cenerentola (sung Italian), which is being directed by choreographer Aletta Collins, with Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta as Cinderella, and fast-rising South African tenor Sunnyboy Dladla is her prince, Don Ramiro.

The three productions will share the same basic elements of a highly adaptable set, designed by Giles Cadle, using video to blur fantasy and reality and bring the themes of transformation and magic to the forefront, with real-time live video capture in Hansel and Gretel, folk-influenced dreamscapes in The Snow Maiden, and a riot of colour and invention in La Cenerentola. The flexibility of video also means that there are extra Saturday matinees of La Cenerentola, as well as a series of special schools' matinees of Hansel and Gretel.

Monday 21 November 2016

Young artists awards at Garsington

Benjamin Lewis
Benjamin Lewis
Three young singers and an up-and-coming conductor have won awards at this year's Garsington Festival. Baritone Benjamin Lewis and conductor Jack Ridley have won the 2016 Leonard Ingrams Awards, made in memory of Garsington Opera’s founder Leonard Ingrams, to ensure the continuity of his vision, whilst soprano Lauren Zolezzi (whom we caught as Sophie in English Touring Opera's 2015 production of Massenet's Werther) has received the Helen Clarke Award and tenor James Way the Simon Sandbach Award.

Jack Ridley - photo Becky Nye
Jack Ridley - photo Becky Nye
All three singers were part of this year's Alvarez Young Artists' Programme at Garsington, taking part in the festival and receiving training and support. This year, Benjamin Lewis understudied the title role of Eugene Onegin (see my review), Lauren Zolezzi understudied the role of Ilia in Idomeneo (see my review), and James Way understudied the role of Monsieur Triquet in Eugene Onegin, whilst Jack Ridley was assistant conductor of Eugene Onegin, and conductor of the schools OperaFirst performance.

In 2017 James Way returns to sing a principal role in Roxanna Panufnik’s Silver Birch, and both Jack Ridley and Lauren Zolezzi will be taking part in the 2018 opera season. The 2017 season at Garsington runs from 1 June to 30 July features four opera productions – Handel’s Semele, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s Il turco in Italia. Roxanna Panufnik’s new opera Silver Birch commissioned by Garsington Opera, for professional singers and over 180 amateur performers, completes the season. The 2016 production of Eugene Onegin can be watched on the BBC Arts website.

Joyce DiDonato asks 'In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?'

Joyce DiDonato - War and Peace:Harmony through music
Joyce DiDonato
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is in town and will be performing music from her latest album War and Peace: Harmony through Music at the Barbican Centre tomorrow (22 November 2016) with Maxim Emelyanychev and Il Pomo d’Oro. In advance of this, there is a chance to hear Joyce DiDonato talking about the project as part of The Pure Land Series at the China Exchange, 32a Gerrard Street, London, W1D 6JA tonight (21 November2016).

When planning her latest album, DiDonato had intended to present a programme exploring rare arias, but the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 made her re-think her approach. War and Peace: Harmony through Music contains powerful music by Handel and Purcell, alongside lesser known works by Leo, De Cavallieri, Gesualdo, Jommelli, as well as Arvo Part, intended to convey the power that music has to transcend borders and unify us all.

At the China Exchange tonight she will be talking about the thinking behind the programme, asking, 'In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?' Full information from the China Exchange website.

Boxwood and Brass: Music for a Prussian Salon - Franz Tausch in context

Boxwood and Brass - Music for a Prussian Salon - Franz Tausch
Music for a Prussian salon Franz Tausch, Johann Stamitz, Bernhard Henrik Crusell, Heinrich Baermann; Resonus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 16 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Franz Tausch in context, illuminating the music and influence of the 18th century clarinettist

Boxwood and Brass is an ensemble which specialises in performing harmoniemusik from late 18th and early 19th century. The players, Emily Worthington (clarinet), Fiona Mitchell (clarinet), Anneke Scott (horn) (see my recent interview with Anneke Scott), Kate Goldsmith (horn), and Robert Percival (bassoon) all perform on period instruments. This disc on Resonus Classics, Music for a Prussian Salon, is the group's first disc and they perform music by Franz Tausch, Johann Stamitz, Bernhard Henrik Crusell and Heinrich Baerman, names which do not really resonate nowadays but whose music certainly proves worth reviving.

The key figure in the programme is the clarinettist Franz Tausch (1762-1817) who, by the end of the 18th century, was established in Berlin as an important clarinettist and teacher, as well as being a composer. On the disc we hear his XIII Pieces en Quatuor for two clarinets, horn and bassoon. Tausch studied with his father, who was a clarinettist in the Mannheim Court Orchestra where the composer Johann Stamitz worked (along with his sons Carl and Anton). Thus Johann Stamitz's Three Quartets for clarinets and horns represent the older generation's influence on Tausch. Whilst Bernard Henrik Crusell's Concert trio and the Adagio from Heinrich Baermann's Quintet op.23 represent Tausch's influence on the subsequent generation, as both Crusell and Baermann were Tausch's pupils.

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