Sunday 31 December 2017

2017 on Planet Hugill

Bizet: Carmen - Tiago Matos, Christophe Poncet de Solages, Philip Rhodes, Na'ama Goldman The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
Bizet: Carmen - Tiago Matos, Christophe Poncet de Solages, Philip Rhodes, Na'ama Goldman
The Grange Festival 2017 (Photo ©Robert Workman)
We have had a busy 2017 on Planet Hugill. Highlights have included contemporary music at the Estonian Music Days in Tallinn, rare early Verdi in Heidenheim and Buxton, a powerful new production of Gounod's Faust in Riga, Ginastera's Bomarzo in Madrid, my first visit to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, and two new opera festivals in the UK (Grange Park Opera with its new opera house in Surrey and the Grange Festival in Hampshire). Not to mention Covent Garden's first production of Rossini's Semiramide for 125 years, English Touring Opera giving us Handel's Giulio Cesare uncut, Leoncavallo's Zaza at Opera Holland Park, the UK premiere of Thomas Adès' The Exterminating Angel at Covent Garden and Enescu's Oedipe from the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

It wasn't all large scale performances, Ruth caught Pop-Up Opera at the V&A whilst Anthony saw Shadwell Opera at the Hackney, and The Magic Flute at the King's Head. And it has been a great year for song, with some terrific concerts at Wigmore Hall, and London Song Festival celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Tony reviewed Wagner's Ring Cycle, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, and Meyerbeer's Le prophète and Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in Berlin. Anthony's reviews also included early Rossini from La Fenice in Venice and Ruth caught the end of Rosenblatt Recitals at Wigmore Hall.

Interviews in 2017 included sopranos Albina Shagimuratova, Natalya Romaniw, Clare Rutter, Dame Ann Evans, and Catherine Foster, violinist Kyung Wha Chung, composers Nicola Lefanu, Patrick Hawes, Jonathan Dove, Tom Green and Adrian Sutton, tenor Mark Padmore, conductors John Nelson and Suzi Digby, baritone Benjamin Appl, and director Elijah Moshinsky.

Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival - Ryan McKinny (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival - Ryan McKinny
(Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
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 Top performing stories in 2017
  • Joyce DiDonato thrills as Rossini's Semiramide at Covent Garden 
  • Respecting the drama: Annabel Arden's production of Carmen at the Grange Festival
  • Handel's Messiah from the Academy of Ancient Music
  • Daring and original: Purcell's King Arthur re-thought from Academy of Ancient Music
  • Composer, conductor, singer: I chat to Owain Park about his concerts at the Temple Winter Festival
2017 in statistics
854 posts this year (average 2.3 posts per day)
Peak page views per day, 3,576
Peak page views per month 78,108

5037 followers on Twitter
Top tweet impressions this year, 128,000 in October 2017

You can read more in my summaries of the year, 2017 in opera and concert reviews, 2017 in CDs.

Saturday 30 December 2017

Review of Quickening in Gramophone magazine

I am pleased to say that our disc Quickening: songs by Robert Hugill to texts by English and Welsh poets is featured in a review in the January 2018 edition of Gramophone magazine.

The disc features my my settings of Rowan Williams, A.E. Housman, Ivor Gurney and Christina Rosetti performed by Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone), Rosalind Ventris (viola) and William Vann (piano) on the Navona Records label, well done all.

Review of the year - 2017 in opera and concert reviews

English Touring Opera - Handel: Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie,(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
English Touring Opera - Handel: Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
2017 was the year that saw the creation of a brand new theatre at Grange Park Opera's new home in Surrey, alongside the creation of a new festival, The Grange Festival in Hampshire. 

Joyce DiDonato as Semiramide - Royal Opera (Photo Bill Cooper)
Joyce DiDonato as Semiramide - Royal Opera (Photo Bill Cooper)
Covent Garden gave us the first staging of Rossini's Semiramide for over a century, Buxton presented Verdi's original version of Verdi's Macbeth and Opera Holland Park staged Leoncavallo's Zaza.

In Dresden, Beethoven's Leonore brought the 40th Dresden Music Festival to a striking close, whilst in Riga an F.W. Murnau-inspired production of Gounod's Faust opened the Riga Opera Festival. Tony's travels this year took in both Bayreuth and Berlin, giving us reviews of the final outing of Frank Castorf's production of The Ring, and the Deutsche Oper's new production of Meyerbeer's Le prophète.

At the BBC Proms, William Christie gave us a rare chance to hear Handel's original three part version of Israel in Egypt. Rosenblatt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall sadly came to an end, but not before we had some memorable concerts, and the London Song Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary with some imaginative programming. 
Here is a selection of our opera and concert reviews from 2017, the ones which have stayed in our memories.

Friday 29 December 2017

Review of the year - 2017 in CDs

Berlioz: Les Troyens - John Nelson - Erato
The CD highlight of 2017 must be the new, live recording of Berlioz' Les Troyens from John Nelson, but other delights on disc include Simon Callaghan's new disc of Roger Sacheverell Coke's surviving piano concertos, David Skinner and Alamire's recording of the newly discovered Thomas Tallis contrafactum based on Katherine Parr's English text, Louise Alder's debut disc, and Kitty Whately in Jonathan Dove, not to forget the first recording of John Joubert's Jane Eyre and RVW's Introduction and Fugue for two pianos.

Here is our disc of the year, and our selection of the top 20 plus discs that we have reviewed this year.

Disc of the year
  • A reflection of 19th century style & coruscating performances: Berlioz' Les Troyens - Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Orchestre philharmonique de Strasboug, John Nelson; ERATO. John Nelson conducts Berlioz opera in live performances with a substantially Francophone cast and a terrific amount of style

Thursday 28 December 2017

Julian Perkins plays Bach on the clavichord

In this second of Julian Perkins' videos from the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands Park, he plays the Prelude and Fugue no. 12 in F minor, BWV 881 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) from Das wohltemperierte Klavier, Book II (c1742). The instrument used, however, is not a harpsichord but reputedly J. S. Bach’s favourite keyboard instrument, the clavichord. 

The clavichord produces sound by striking strings with small metal blades called tangents, the sound produced is subtle but too quiet for anything other than domestic performance. The instrument's intimate tones compel the player to cultivate a singing tone through an assured touch, but it is also capable of sounding assertive. The instrument Julian plays was made by the Saxon builder Christian Gotthelf Hoffmann in 1784. The solid oak case belies an instrument that can sound exquisitely tender. It has a five-octave compass from FF to f3 and is unfretted (i.e. each note has its own pair of strings).

Wednesday 27 December 2017

A look back: Orff's Carmina Burana from Damascus

I came across this video by accident. Looking for an account on YouTube of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana in the composer's version for choir, soloists, two pianos and percussion, I found this video which was recorded in Damascus in 2011. It isn't perfect, but it is a touching tribute to the vibrant musical life that was possible before the current conflict.

The pianists are Evgeniy Avramenko and Marat Gubaidullin, conducted by Nouri Al-Reihbany with the choir of the Higher Institute of Music, Damascus, recorded at Damascus Opera House in April 2011

I have no idea where these people are now.

Monday 25 December 2017

Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year from all at Planet Hugill

Buðir black church on Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland
Buðir black church on Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland, November 2017

Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year 
from all at Planet Hugill

Sunday 24 December 2017

A magnificent architectural statement.
But what is it like going to a concert at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg?

 Kristjan Järvi & Baltic Sea Philharmonic at the Elbphilharmonic (Photo (c) BMEF / Peter Adamik)
 Kristjan Järvi & Baltic Sea Philharmonic at the Elbphilharmonic (Photo (c) BMEF / Peter Adamik)
What is your favourite concert hall? What are the key ingredients to your concert going? A visit this Summer to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg to hear Kristjan Järvi the Baltic Sea Philharmonic [see my review] set me thinking.

The Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg (Photo © Iwan Baan)
The Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg (Photo © Iwan Baan)
The Elbphilharmonie offers a concert-going experience like no other. Designed by the Swiss architecture firm of Herzog and de Meuron (which was responsible for Tate Modern in London), the Elbphilharmonie project was famously overrunning and costly. Work began in 2007, and was scheduled to be finished by 2010 with an estimated cost of €241 million; construction work officially ended in 2016 at a cost of €789 million. This was partly because of the technical complexity and architectural daring; putting a huge glass box on top of a huge existing brick warehouse, and suspending a concert-hall inside (in fact there are three concert halls, an hotel as well as apartments and, of course, a car park).

The result has great architectural élan, but what I want to consider is, 'Does the concert-going experience work?'.

Saturday 23 December 2017

Bach's Christmas Oratorio at St John's Smith Square

Stephen Layton and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Stephen Layton and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (photo Ben Ealovega)
Bach Christmas Oratorio (Cantatas 1,2,3,6); Anna Dennis, Helen Charlston, Gwilym Bowen, Matthew Brook, choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 22 2017 Star rating: 4.0
High quality music making enlivens quite an earnest view of Bach's sequence of Christmas cantatas

There have been quite a few performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio in London this year, ranging from the small scale, using forces of the size Bach would have recognised, from the Dunedin Consort the Wigmore Hall [see my review] and the Feinstein Ensemble at Kings Place, to Vladimir Jurowsky conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Coming somewhere in the middle, was Stephen Layton, the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at St John's Smith Square on Friday 22 December 2017, with a choir of nearly 40 singers and an orchestra based on 16 strings. They were joined by soloists, Anna Dennis, Helen Charlston, Gwilym Bowen and Matthew Brook.

Layton's selection of cantatas was quite traditional, we had numbers 1,2,3 and 6, which means we got the birth of Christ, the appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds and their subsequent visit to the Christ child and finally the Magi, and of course we got both the celebratory trumpets and the atmospheric scoring of two oboes d'amore and two oboes da caccia for the Shepherds. What this selection misses though, is the more quieter contemplative theme of the missing parts.

Layton's approach to the music was energetic yet earnest, whilst celebratory there was no doubt of the sacred nature of the text. There was little inappropriate levity, so that the opening chorus 'Jauchzet, frohlocket, started with tightly driven excitment and the choir gave us crisp attack and vivid engagement but not really a sense of infectious joy. Though the singers were clearly enjoying themselves as they swayed to the music. This was true of the opening chorus of the third cantata,  but the approach drew great dividends in the chorales, where the seriousness of the text was conveyed in sober intensity and great concentration. And, of course, in moments like the concluding chorale of the whole cycle, there were wonderful instrumental flourishes too.

Friday 22 December 2017

Christmas CD Roundup

O Holy Night - Merton College Choir - Delphian
I have to confess that I have a limited appetite for carols, and the classic carol discs are rarely ones which I would think of playing repeatedly. But the genre is one which attracts contemporary composers, and the batch of Christmas discs to which I have been listening contains new carols by a number of composers, as well as new takes on old carols. It isn't all choral music, there is a trio of discs from vocal ensembles, as well as music which fits more into the wider seasonal music theme. [For further information about any of the discs, click on the links to take you to the relevant Amazon page].

In O Holy Night on Delphian [DCD34192], Benjamin Nicholas and the choir of Merton College, Oxford are joined by the Oxford Phiharmonic Orchestra for recordings of favourite carols. The trick here is to include both the known and the unfamilar, so we start a lovely John Rutter carol which is not the expected one, followed of course by the Shepherd's Pipe Carol and both work well in their orchestral guise. We have traditional carols, in David Willcocks arrangements (where would Christmas be without Willcock's descant to Hark the Herald), Berlioz' The Shepherds Farewell, as well as music by Patrick Hadley, Bob Chilcott, and Thomas Hewitt Jones, plus of course Elizabeth Poston's Jesus Christ the apple tree. This latter is of course unaccompanied, as is the last item on the disc, Morton Lauridsen's O magnum mysterium.

Collegiate and celebratory Bach, or perhaps Bach in party mode! B minor mass from Solomon's Knot

Solomon's Knot (Photo James Berry)
Solomon's Knot (Photo James Berry)
Bach B minor mass; Solomon's Knot; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Small scale, from memory & without a conductor: A very human B minor mass

This is third time I have reviewed Bach's B minor Mass for Planet Hugill, the other two were at King’s Place [see Ruth's review] and the Barbican [see Ruth's review] last year. This time it was at St John's Smith Square, on 18 December 2017 with Solomon's Knot. It was the second time I have seen Solomon’s Knot, the first time being the anonymous Baroque opera L’ospedale a couple of years ago at Wilton’s Music Hall [see Ruth's review] and, with its exploration of dilemmas about who pays for our health, getting more relevant by the week.

JS Bach wrote the Mass in B minor not for a Lutheran service but, it is assumed, for his CV as he was looking around for other potential employers when things were looking precarious at Leipzig. He never made it to the Dresden or Danzig courts as he had in mind, but he did leave behind this wonderful portfolio – his monument – adding settings of the ‘Osanna’ and ‘Benedictus’ that were not part of the liturgy in Leipzig. Only the ‘Confiteor’ seems to have been composed especially, the other movements recycled from earlier material.

Solomon’s Knot go with Rifkin’s assertion that the piece was written for solo singers with ‘ripieno’ movements, and they exploited the idea that Bach was writing for prospective employers who were keen on Neapolitan and operatic idioms. They sang and often played from memory.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Handel's Messiah from Academy of Ancient Music

Hannah Conway - A Young Known Voice - Academy of Ancient Music, La Retraite RC School, St Paul's Way Trust School, Tri-Borough Music Hub and Westminster City School at the Barbican (Photo Academy of Ancient Music)
Hannah Conway - A Young Known Voice - Academy of Ancient Music,
La Retraite RC School, St Paul's Way Trust School, Tri-Borough Music Hub
 and Westminster City School at the Barbican
(Photo Academy of Ancient Music)
Hannah Conway A young known voice, Handel Messiah; Mary Bevan, Reginald Mobley, Thomas Hobbs, Christopher Purves, Academy of Ancient Music and choir, Richard Egarr; Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Messiah and more; a fine narrative based account of Handel's masterpiece, alongside a brand new work

There was something of a surprise at the beginning of the Academy of Ancient Music's performance of Handel's Messiah at the Barbican on Wednesday 20 December 2017, a new piece. The evening began with Hannah Conway's A Young Known Voice, a piece arising out of workshops with schools and performed by 50 school children alongside the Academy of Ancient Music and its choir, conducted by Richard Egarr. For Messiah, the Academy of Ancient Music and choir were joined by Mary Bevan (soprano), Reginald Mobley (counter-tenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor) and Christopher Purves (baritone), with Richard Egarr directing from the harpsichord.

Hannah Conway's 15 minute piece was the result of the children's reaction to and examination of Messiah. The young people, from La Retraite RC School, St Paul's Way Trust School, Tri-Borough Music Hub and Westminster City School were from diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious backgrounds so the particular Christian resonances of Messiah could not be expected to always be that familiar. In fact, the text Conway developed with them included some powerful passages about alienation, and diversity, but conveyed in a remarkably direct, buzz-word-free way. 'Everyone needs to feel safe. But shouts of: Faggot and Queer Only fed my fear', 'You're not my child anymore'.

Wednesday 20 December 2017

The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu

Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Tchaikovsky, Alexandra Dariescu The Nutcracker and I; Alexandra Dariescu, Amy Drew, Nick Hillel, Adam Smith, Jenna Lee; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 19 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Piano recital, animation and live dance innovatively combined into a magical evening

Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
A little girl walks onto the stage, and starts to play the piano, snow begins to fall and the little girl transforms into a woman, playing the prelude to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. As the music progresses the story starts to play out, the little girl, the nutcracker, a nasty cousin, the prince. And all the while, it is the piano which is the source of the magic, as the kingdom of the sweets and its denizens emerge from it, as the music continues.

Pianist Alexandra Dariescu's The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu takes a number of slightly unlikely ingredients and melds them into a magic whole. There is Dariescu's own pianism, playing a sequence of piano music from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker in arrangements by Stepan Esipov, Tchaikovsky himself, Mikhail Pletnev, and Percy Grainger, plus three new arrangements specially commissioned from Gavin Sutherland. There is animation from Nick Hillel (director), Adam Smith (art director and animation director) and Yeast Culture, which magically creates the story, and there is the live ballerina (we saw Amy Drew), with choreography by Jenna Lee, who represents the little girl transformed during her dream of the kingdom of sweets.

Premiered at the Milton Court Concert Hall on Tuesday 19 December 2017 as part of Guildhall School of Music and Drama's alumni recitals, the event is product of Dariescu's participation in the school's innovative creative entrepreneurship programme. Dariescu has developed the idea and produced the show, as well as playing the piano, collaborating with director Nick Hillel, Yeast Culture, Jenna Lee and with the live dancer.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

CD news

It is very exciting that three different discs including pieces of mine have been issued recently. My own disc, Quickening on Navona Records, is entirely devoted to my songs, Lux memoriaque on Nimbus Alliance contains my motet Populus Sion and four of my songs are included on Sappho, Shropshire and Super-tramp, the English Poetry and Song Society disc on Divine Art which comes out in January 2018. Further details of all three below.

Sappho, Shropshire and Super-tramp on Divine Art records, comes out in January 2018. A two disc set, it contains song cycles by Ivor Gurney, William Carnell, Michael Watts, and Denis Wickens, plus contemporary composers associated with the English Poetry and Song Society, all performed by Johnny Herford (baritone), Sarah Leonard (mezzo-soprano) and Nigel Foster (piano). The set includes four of my songs setting poems by Rabindranath Tagore, Hart Crane and Thomas Wyatt. Full details from the Divine Art website.

Populus Sion: Peter Leech and Harmonia Sacra's new disc from Nimbus Alliance, Lux memoriaque, is based around contemporary sacred music from Advent, much of it performed at the group's regular Advent Sunday concert at St Thomas the Martyr in Bristol. Amongst the works which the choir has performed over the years are a group of my Advent motets from Tempus per Annum, my cycle of 70 motets for the Church's year (all motets are available for free download on

Lux memoriaque includes one of these, Populus Sion, alongside music by Lawrence Whitehead, David Bednall, Jonathan Lee and Peter Leech. Full details from the Amazon website.

Quickening: Songs by Robert Hugill to English and Welsh Poets is the new CD of my songs on the Navona Records label.
A talented group of young British artists, Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Rosalind Ventris (viola), Johnny Herford (baritone) and William Vann (piano) have recorded a disc of my settings of poems by Rowan Williams, AE Housman, Ivor Gurney and Christina Rossetti. We are very pleased indeed that Dr Rowan Williams gave us permission to record my setting of his powerful poem 'Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995'.

A sample track from the CD is available in the SoundCloud box to the right. Further details (including on-line sales) on the Quickening page.

Christmas Eve services in London

St Bride's Church, Fleet Street
St Bride's Church, Fleet Street
Some years ago, we stayed in Canterbury for Christmas and arrived on Christmas Eve  in time to attend Evensong at the Cathedral. It was a lovely way to begin the festive season, but one which has proved difficult to repeat. Few churches offer Evensong on Christmas Eve and services are mainly devoted either to carols or midnight mass. In London, we have often attended the Solemn Vespers at Westminster Cathedral, which provides a fine afternoon alternative.

This year, with Christmas Eve being a Sunday there is a wider choice of sung services, with a wide variety of sung morning services to choose from. If it is Evensong you are after, then in London St Bride's Church, Fleet Street has a sung service (Gibbons & Tallis), whilst there is said Evening Prayers at Southwark Cathedral or there is Solemn Vespers at Westminster Cathedral (Buxtehude & Victoria) where you can hear Peter Steven performing Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur in the hour before the service. In Canterbury, the cathedral is again giving Evensong where they will be performing the final O anthem, O Virgo Virginum, plus Wood in B flat and the Hereford Carol.

One of the reasons for the scarcity of Evensong is that it stretches already busy choral resources, and at Westminster Cathedral they are giving the boys the morning off and the Solemn Mass is being sung by men's voices (Palestrina and Parsons).

There is a lot of lovely music on offer, Haydn's Little Organ Mass crops up twice, and there is inevitably plenty of Palestrina, but also Guerrero, Victoria and even Lotti (the three-part service at St George's Cathedral, Southwark), but there is also Berkeley's Missa Brevis (at St Paul's Cathedral), and Vierne's Messe Solennelle at Southwark Cathedral.

A full list of services after the break:

The Sixteen at Christmas

Marco Galvani
Marco Galvani
Poulenc, Palestrina, Marco Galvani, Allan Bullard, John Joubert, John Rutter, Kim Panter, Herbert Howells; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 18 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Poulenc, Palestrina and a brand new carol at the heart of The Sixteen's Christmas programme

The Sixteen at Christmas, the programme from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen which debuted at the Sage, Gateshead, and which we caught at Cadogan Hall on Monday 18 December 2017, had the advantage of combining familiar carols with more unusual fare and some meatier items. The centre piece of the programme was a pair of works by Francis Poulenc, his seasonal motets, Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel, from 1951/52 and his Winter sequence setting Paul Eluard, Un soir de neige written in Occupied Paris in 1944. In an intriguing bit of compare-and-contrast, the choir also sang a group of Christmas motets by Palestrina, setting the same texts as used by Poulenc. The French theme continued music by Costeley and a French chanson by Lassus.

A new carol by Marco Galvani, On Christmas Morn, commissioned to celebrate Classic FM's 25th anniversary, was joined by Kim Porter's Christmas Eve, and Herbert Howells A spotless rose, plus less familiar works by Alan Bullard, John Joubert, John Rutter and Bob Chilcott, and there were familiar carols too.

The first of Poulenc's Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel, 'O magnum mysterium' started dark and sombre and the sopranos floated their first entry beautifully though the first note was not quite effortless. This was quite a slow, beautifully shaped performance with little hint of the music's awkward corners. 'Quem vidistis pastores' was all transparency and fluidity, with lovely rhythmic pointing, plus firmness of purpose at 'Dicentes'. 'Videntes stellam', quite steady and rather striking, was not a little mystical. 'Hodie Christus natus est' was crisply vivid and articulated, rather than going full pelt. I could imagine a performance that was more dramatically intense, but this one was full of details and expressive beauty.

Monday 18 December 2017

Small forces, big ideas: the Dunedin Consort in Bach's Christmas Oratorio

John Butt & the Dunedin Consort in rehearsal at the Wigmore Hall (photo Dunedin Consort)
John Butt & the Dunedin Consort in rehearsal
at the Wigmore Hall (photo Dunedin Consort)
Bach Christmas Oratorio, parts 1,4,5,6; Mary Bevan, Emilie Renard, Hugo Hymas, Edward Grint, the Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 16 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Intimate and immediate, Bach's Christmas journey in an evening of vital music making

To re-capture the full original effect of Bach's Christmas Oratorio would require us to perform the works spread across the Octave of the Nativity, in the way that Bach did when the work was new in 1734. Of course, the music wasn't strictly new in 1734, much of it was re-cycled from secular cantatas, and it is this that gives the work much of its gloriously festal charm.

Most groups perform a selection, and at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 16 December 2017 John Butt and the Dunedin Consort gave us Parts 1,4,5,6 which cover the journey to Bethlehem & the Birth of Christ, his receiving of his Name, Herod's search for the Christ Child and the arrival of the Magi. We didn't get the shepherds and their wondering music, but the selection mean that we heard less frequently performed parts 4 and 5.

In other ways, Butt's performance evoked Bach's early ones, as Butt used relatively slender forces. We had four soloists, Mary Bevan, Emilie Renard, Hugo Hymas, and Edward Grint who also sang in the chorales and choruses with four additional singers, and an instrumental ensemble of 19; though Bach uses his resources sparingly and the trumpets and drums do not occur in the same cantatas as the horns.

The result, for all the crowd on the Wigmore Hall platform, had great intimacy and immediacy. This wasn't a grand, orchestral account of the work, instead Butt and his performers relied on a great sense of character, playing and singing with vibrant verve. This was one of the few occasions when the opening to the first cantata, 'Jauchzet, frohlocket', in which Bach contrasts blocks of sound from strings, trumpets and flutes, really worked as the differences in relative volume of these instruments was balanced by the vibrant intensity of the playing. My only cavil, one which occurs in most concert hall performances, was the relatively discreet organ sound, I long for performances of Bach's cantatas which use an organ comparable to his own in Leipzig.

Sunday 17 December 2017

Tears are not far away: Andrew James Johnson's Winter's heart

Andrew James Johnson - Winter's Heart
Andrew James Johnson Winter's Heart
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 12 2017
Lyrical contemporary yet romantic music from a young composer pianist

Andrew James Johnson is a British composer-pianist whose first album, Winter Heart has just come out. This comprises eleven tracks of Johnson himself playing the piano, 45 minutes in all. The different tracks each have intriguing names, 'Echoes of Love', 'Moonlight Shadows', 'Taylor's Theme', and so on, yet little else is revealed, we have to listen to the music.

Johnson's style owes a lot to a welter of different influences melded into one.

Saturday 16 December 2017

Environmental sensuality, and composing with sounds we can't hear: I talk to Samuel Hertz about his DARE Art Prize project

Sam Hertz
Sam Hertz
How does a composer write music using sounds which we can't hear. Samuel Hertz is keenly interested in Infrasound, sounds below the level of human hearing, and he won the first DARE Art Prize in 2017 with a project to collaborate with scientists to use Infrasound. DARE was founded by Opera North and the University of Leeds to encourage collaborations between artists and scientists, and as part of his prize Sam is working towards a final presentation in 2018 based on his project which won the prize. Sam is a USA-born composer resident in Berlin, and I caught up with him by phone to find out more about this intriguing combination of science and art, using sounds we cannot hear.

Samuel Hertz at the National Science and Media Museum
Samuel Hertz at the National Science and Media Museum
But as Sam explained, we might not be able to hear Infrasound but we can feel it, we feel the vibrations and he is interested in talking about Infrasound as a tactile experience. Sam is also interested in the way Infrasound is produced, either naturally by large scale planetary events such as glacial or seismic activity or thunderstorms or artificially, created by humans and human made structures.

At a dance club people can feel the vibrations from the sub low bass, and we can have a meaningful conversation about this as a sensual activity. Sam wants to extend this so that we can talk about an earthquake or glacier in the same way. Sam calls this environmental sensuality, the understanding the environment in a sensual way. And it is this combination of sound, feeling and environmental concerns which is Sam's particular interest.

He has been extrapolating how Infrasound is used in scientific experiments, and wants to consider how humans understand natural events using Infrasound (and not vision) as a way of creating a different understanding of large scale planetary events. These might not be musical as such, but are sound events which with this way of thinking can become tactile.

Friday 15 December 2017

Piazzolla's seductive Maria de Buenos Aires from Mr McFall's Chamber

Piazzolla - Maria de Buenos Aires - Mr McFall's Chamber - Delphian
Astor Piazzolla Maria de Buenos Aires; Valentina Montoya Martinez, Nicholas Mulroy, Juanjo Lopez Vidal, Mr McFall's Chamber, Victor Villena; DELPHIAN
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 13 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Disturbing yet sexy, a faithful account of Piazzolla's operita from Buenos Aires by way of Edinburgh

Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer's operita Maria de Buenos Aires is a fascinating beast, part opera, part musical theatre, part installation and all tango nuevo. For their 20th anniversary in 2016, Mr McFall's Chamber returned to the operita, and this recording on Delphian is the fruit  of those performances.

This is Buenos Aires by way of Edinburgh, but the ensemble is directed from the bandoneon by Victor Villena, with Valentina Montoya Martinez as Maria and the tenor solos sung by Nicholas Mulroy. The important spoken role of The Duende is taken by Juanjo Lopez Vidal.

The performance uses Piazzolla's original line-up of 11 players, (Cyril Garac & Robert McFall violins, Brian Schiele viola, Su-a Lee cello, Rick Standley double bass, Alison Mitchell flute/piccolo, Malcolm MacFarlane guitar, Phil Alexander percussion, Ian Sandilands & Stuaart Semple percussion, Victor Villena bandoneon/music director) and the whole instrumental combination has a wonderful authentic feel, Piazzolla's seductive textures and timbres along with some rattling good tunes. Perhaps occasionally there is a lack of danger, but such faithfulness to both text and spirit is good to have. Victor Villena makes the bandoneon a real character in piece, thrilling at times. And good to have a bandoneon, the last time I heard the piece live it was with reduced scoring and an accordion.

Thursday 14 December 2017

Christmas roundup: Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio

Part of "Worthy is the Lamb", the final chorus of Messiah by Handel, from the composer's autograph score
Part of "Worthy is the Lamb", the final chorus of Messiah by Handel, from the composer's autograph score
Christmas, of course, is the season of Messiah (except that Handel wrote the work as a Lenten oratorio and the piece deals with Christ's birth, ministry and passion). As usual there is a wide selection of Messiah performances on offer in London. No-one this year seems to be doing a particular version of the piece, all are offering the standard edition based on the Messiah performances late in Handel's life.

But there are performances by candlelight (St Martin the Fields & Royal Festival Hall), performances on period instruments (Kings Place, St James's Piccadilly, Barbican, St John's Smith Square), a performance with massed choirs (Royal Albert Hall), and of course a wide range of soloists on offer with a nice array of young singers.

And interestingly, this year there is a rash of performances of Bach's Chrismas Oratorio, with performances ranging from the Dunedin Consort at the Wigmore Hall (small scale, period instrument) to the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall (large scale, modern instrument). If you want to hear the work complete with all six cantatas then it is the LPO for you, all other performances offer a selection.

Full listings after the break:

Seasonal celebrations from Southwell Music Festival

Southwell Festival Voices and Marcus Farnsworth (Photo Nick Rutter)
Southwell Festival Voices and Marcus Farnsworth (Photo Nick Rutter)
Whilst the main 2017 Southwell Music Festival was in August, it is making a seasonal appearance at Southwell Minster on 22 December 2017. The festival's professional choir, Southwell Festival Voices will be conducted by the festival's artistic director Marcus Farnsworth in a progamme of seasonal music from mediaeval to modern, Hildegard von Bingen to Irving Berlin, with traditional carols alongside contemporary classics. They will be joined by the actor David Oakes, currently best known for his portrayal of Prince Ernest in ITV’s hit drama, Victoria. Oakes will be reading a selection of poetry and prose including works by John Betjeman and Charles Dickens.

Full information from the Southwell Festival website.

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Bach the Universe and Everything: Antimatter Matters

The next in Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) and The Institute of Physics intriguing series at Kings Place, Bach the Universe and Everything, takes place on Sunday 17 December 2017. The series situates Bach’s cantatas in the context of today’s research and for Antimatter Matters, the OAE will be performing one of Bach’s festive Cantatas, Darzu ist erschienen, with soloists Helen Charlston, James Way and Edward Grint, directed from the harpsichord by Steven Devine.

Bach composed the cantata in 1723, his first year in Leipzig, for the Second Day of Christmas. The theme of the work is Jesus as the conqueror of the works of the devil, and this will be contrasted with a talk from CERN Physicist Professor Tara Shears. A world expert in antimatter, she’ll explain how these elusive particles involve symmetries that are almost but not quite perfect, and what they have to do with Bach’s music.

Full details from the Kings Place website.

Royal Welcome Songs for King James II

The Sixteen - Purcell - Welcome Songs fro King James II
Henry Purcell Royal Welcome Songs for King James II; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 8 2017 Star rating: 4.5
What might seem like a poor subject elicits some wonderfully imaginative music from Purcell

On this disc from Coro we get a pair of Henry Purcell's Welcome Songs for King James II performed by The Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers. Occasional pieces which showcase Purcell's imaginative talent, the Sixteen perform them with a selection of other occasional pieces, many written during the same period.

The Sixteen's Purcell series is a welcome extension of the choir's residency at the Wigmore Hall which gave us the opportunity to hear a number of Purcell's odes and welcome songs, part of his output which does not seem to get enough exposure. Part of the problem, of course, is the sheer concept of the Royal Ode or Welcome Song, complete with text in some way complimenting the monarch. Frequently these can be trivial and verge on the risible.

With Purcell's Welcome Songs for King James II, you sense that an element of knowingness might be creeping in. The two in this disc Ye tuneful muses, raise your heads and Sound the trumpet, beat the drum date from 1686 and 1687 respectively, written for James II'return to town from the extended summer, on a date which co-incided with his birthday.

The King's behaviour at the time, as he seemed to veer towards absolutism and impatience with ordinary norms, could hardly have inspired respect and Purcell's attitude to the words is occasionally perfunctory.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Long, long ago

There is music for Advent and Christmas from Londinium and conductor Andrew Griffiths in Long, Long Ago at the church of St Sepulchre without Newgate, Holborn Viaduct, London EC1A 2DQ on Friday 15 December 2017. 

In a typically inventive programme the choir is presenting a mixture of well known and unusual repertoire from the Renaissance to the present day. I have it on good authority that O Magnum Mysterium by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi is worth the trip alone, but there is also Jonathan Harvey's The Angels, Herbert Howells' Long, long ago and Heinrich Schütz's Das Wort ward Fleisch alongside well-known pieces by Elizabeth Poston, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Edward Naylor, John Tavener, Peter Warlock, Anton Bruckner and more.

All that, wine and mince pies! Further information from the Londinium website.

Forget character development, sit back and enjoy the fun: Rimsky-Korsakov'sChristmas Eve

Yevgeniya Mravina as Oksana in the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve
Yevgeniya Mravina as Oksana
in the premiere of
Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve
Rimsky-Korsakov Christmas Eve; Natasha Jouhl, Jonathan Stoughton, Anne-Marie Owens, Jeremy White, Keel Watson, cond: Timothy Burke; Chelsea Opera Group at the Cadogan hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 10 2017 Star rating: 4.0
A folk-inspired shaggy dog story, in a performance full of charm and verve

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote over a dozen operas, but they still only rarely crop up in the UK. His opera Christmas Eve, based on a Gogol story, was staged by English National Opera in 1988 but has not been seen much since so Chelsea Opera Group's performance of the opera at the Cadogan Hall on 10 December 2017 was more than welcome.

Conducted by Timothy Burke, there was a strong cast with Anne-Marie Owens as Solokha, Richard Roberts as the Devil, Keel Watson as Panas and Patsyuk, Jeremy White as Chub, Jonathan Stoughton as Vakula, Natasha Jouhl as Oksana, Kevin Hollands as the mayor, Alun Rhys-Jenkins as the sacristan, Sarah Pring as the woman with a violet nose (I kid you not!) and the Tsarina, and Sally Harrison as the woman with an ordinary nose.

Perhaps one reason that many of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas do not quite take in the West is that they resemble shaggy-dog stories, filling the stage full of folk-inspired characters. Christmas Eve is technically about the smith, Vakula (Jonathan Stoughton) and his wooing of the proud Oksana (Natasha Jouhl) who sends him off on a journey to get her a pair of slippers like those worn by the Tsarina. Only this gets almost lost in the welter of subsidiary plots, with Vakula's mother Solokha the witch (Anne-Marie Owens) and her antics with the Devil (Richard Roberts) and her other lovers, Chub (Jeremy White), mayor (Kevin Hollands) and sacristan (Alun Rhys-Jenkins), whilst Chub (who is Oksana's father) also seems to be the town drunkard along with his mate Panas (Keel Watson). And when Vakula does get to the court at St Petersburg (thanks to the co-operation of the devil), Rimsky-Korsakov seems as interested in the journeys there and back, giving us some wonderful orchestral interludes.

If you worried about character development, then there wasn't any; only Oksana changes as she realises she cares for Vakula when he disappears, presumed dead. But if you sat back and relaxed, then it was great fun.

Monday 11 December 2017

An unsurpassed example of modern unaccompanied vocal writing - Mater ora filium

My choir London Concord Singers, conductor Jessica Norton, is giving its Christmas concert on Thursday 14 December 2017 with a concert celebrating 20th century British music. 

The programme centres on Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor, written in 1921 and imbued with the composer's love of British 17th music, notably the music of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Though its premiere was given in concert form, the work was intended for R.R. Terry and the choir of Westminster Cathedral, and it was for Westminster Cathedral that Herbert Howells wrote a group of Marian motets early in his career, and a pair of these are also being included in the concert. On a far larger scale is Arnold Bax's Mater ora filium also dating from the 1920s; setting a medieval text, Bax was inspired by Byrd's Mass for five voices. The work was considered by composer Patrick Hadley to be 'an unsurpassed example of modern unaccompanied vocal writing'. The programme is completed with Christmas music by William Mathias, Kenneth Leighton and Julian Merson.

The concert is at the church of St Botolph without Bishopsgate, London EC2M 3TL and starts at 8pm, tickets price £12.00 include a glass of wine after the concert. Full details and tickets from EventBrite.

Strong revival, balanced cast: Cav & Pag returns to Covent Garden

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana - Martina Belli, Bryan Hymel - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana - Martina Belli, Bryan Hymel - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Mascagni Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo Pagliacci; Bryan Hymel, Elina Garanca, Carmen Giannattasio, Mark S Doss, Simon Keenlyside, dir: Damiano Michieletto / Rodula Gaitanou, cond: Daniel Oren
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 9 2017 Star rating: 4.5
A powerful revival of this Italian neo-realist production, with a pair of striking casts

Leoncavallo: Pagliacci - Simon Keenlyside - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Leoncavallo: Pagliacci - Simon Keenlyside
Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Damiano Michieletto's Italian neo-realist production of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (new in 2015, see my review) has returned to Covent Garden, revived by Rodula Gaitanou with a substantially new cast (seen 9 December 2017). In fact there were more cast changes than planned as Bryan Hymel, the scheduled Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, also sang Canio in Pagliacii after the scheduled Canio, Fabio Sartori, pulled out.

The rest of the casting was equally as full of interest. In Cavalleria Rusticana, Elina Garanca was Santuzza with Mark S Doss as Alfio, Martina Belli as Lola and Elena Zilio as Mamma Lucia. In Pagliacci, Simon Keenlyside was Tonio, Carmen Giannattasio as Nedda, Luis Gomes as Beppe and Andrzej Filonczyk as Silvio. Daniel Oren conducted.

Returning to Michieletto's prodction I found that the way he intertwined the two operas (the cast of one appearing in the other) bothered me less. Cavalleria Rusticana has stood up well and is a powerful account of this opera, whereas the music of Pagliacci notably the harlequinade, which Michieletto uses as a dream/nightmare sequence for Canio, does not quite have the psychological depth which Michieletto places on it. But the plot of Pagliacci, with its travelling players and commedia dell'arte performance, is difficult to bring off in any setting but the period one.

Sunday 10 December 2017

Russian Revolution Centenary Concert: Ilona Domnich, Paul Whelan, Nigel Foster & Gabriel Woolf

Arthur Ransome in Russia in 1917
Arthur Ransome in Russia in 1917
Rachmaninov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Alyabyev, Tchaikovsky; Ilona Domnich, Paul Whelan, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Dec 8 2017 
Star rating: 4.5
A rare & intimate evening, first-hand accounts of the Russian Revolution interwoven with song

The legend displayed outside the Hinde Street Methodist Church read "a place to rest, think, dream, be still", and there was plenty to think about in this final concert of the London Song Festival on 8 December 2017. A commemoration of the Russian revolution, first hand accounts spoken by Gabriel Woolf were interwoven with songs, performed by Ilona Domnich, Paul Whelan and Nigel Foster, that whilst not coincident with the ravages of the revolution gave, more broadly, an appreciation of the abstruse nature of the Russian character.

“You will not grasp her with your mind
Or cover with a common label”
(Fyodor Tyutchev)

The inscrutable Soul of Russia, to this Britisher, seems chock full of contradictions.

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