Friday 31 August 2018

Liverpool & Hannover collaborate on Britten's War Requiem to commemorate end of World War One

Liverpool Cathedral (Photo Mark McNulty)
Liverpool Cathedral (Photo Mark McNulty)
As part of the commemorations for the centenary of the end of World War One, the cities of Liverpool and Hannover (both UNESCO Cities of Music) are collaborating on performances of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Andrew Manze (Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Conductor of NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover) will conduct the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, Choristers of Liverpool Cathedral, and Knabenchor Hannover in performances of Britten's War Requiem in Hannover's Kuppelsaal (3 November 2018) and Liverpool Anglican Cathedral (10 November 2018). The soloists will be the German soprano Susanne Bernhard, the British tenor Ed Lyon and the German baritone Benjamin Appl. The Hannover performance will also include choirs from Hannover including the Bachchor Hannover.

Britten's work includes settings of the poetry of Wilfred Owen who was killed in action in 1918, and who grew up in Birkenhead, the town on the West bank of the River Mersey, opposite the city of Liverpool.

Further information from the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover and Liverpool Philharmonic websites.

Lyrical & striking: Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion

Howard Goodall: Invictus - Coro
Howard Goodall Invictus: A Passion; Kirsty Hopkins, Mark Dobell, Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, The Lanyer Ensemble, Stephen Darlington; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 August 2018
Star rating: 4.0

The combination of Goodall's lyrical style and his intriguing selection of texts make for a striking new Passion

I have to confess that on first encountering Howard Goodall's  Invictus: A Passion I was somewhat taken aback to find a re-telling of the passion story presented in the context of a musical style which included not only hummable tunes but positively toe-tapping melodies. But then, if you think about it Bach's Passions include their fair number of ear-worms, and Goodall's writing certainly is not simplistic, neither is his choice of text for that matter. He simply expresses himself in melodic terms. So I returned to the piece, and found it rather intriguing and not a bit moving.

Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion has been issued on The Sixteen's Coro label, with Stephen Darlington conducting the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, soloists Kirsty Hopkins and Mark Dobell (both from The Sixteen), and the Lanyer Ensemble.

Goodall has taken a distinctive path when it comes to structuring the Passion, the basic narrative comes not from the Gospels but from Aemelia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judeaeorum, a narrative poem published in 1611 and possibly the earliest book published in English by a female author (Lanyer, nee Bassano, was a highly educated woman at the Elizabethan court and may even be the 'Dark Lady' of Shakespeare's sonnets). To this narrative, Goodall adds poetry by mainly female poets, mainly from the 17th to the 20th century, with work by Christina Rossetti, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, William Wilberforce, William Ernest Henley, A.E Housman, Isaac Watts, WB Yeats, George Herbert as well as from the Bible.

The work is structured as a series of movements, with Lanyer's narrative being woven in with the other poetic extracts, so we have Gethsemane whose persistently ear-worm refrain of 'Gethsemane' links together the various different texts on similar themes, Lamentation which uses a poem by an African-American author and abolitionist campaigner, His Paths are Peace which sets only Lanyer, Compassion which sets Biblical texts, Invictus which sets the poem by W.E. Henley, Golgotha which again sets Lanyer, Easter Hymn setting a Housman poem, The Song of Mary Magdalene using an extract from Christina Rossetti's poem Mary Magdalene and The Other Mary alongside Isaac Watts and a Biblical extract, and finally I will arise which weaves Lanyer's narrative with WB Yeats The Lake Isle of Innisfree (a slightly unlikely choice it has to be confessed), George Herbert, WE Henly and William Wilberforce. Overall, there is a certain sense of the texts looking at the Passion narrative from the female perspective.

Thursday 30 August 2018

A return to the Wonderful Town from Rattle's opening season with the London Symphony Orchestra

Bernstein: Wonderful Town - Rattle, London Symphony Orchestra - LSO Live
Leonard Bernstein Wonderful Town; Danielle de Niese, Alysha Umphress, Nathan Gunn, David Butt Philip, Duncan Rock, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle; LSO Live Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The LSO on sparkling form for this live recording of Bernstein's engaging hymn to NYC

Simon Rattle has form with Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town, having recorded it in 1999 with Kim Kriswell, Audra McDonald and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and he then returned to the work for DVD in 2002 with the same pairing of Kim Kriswell and Audra McDonald but this time with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2017, he presented the work with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, with a cast which features a significant number of opera singers, Danielle de Niese as Eileen, Alysha Umphress as Ruth, Nathan Gunn as Bob Baker, plus Duncan Rock, David Butt Philip and Ashley Riches. This was recorded live and is now presented on LSO Live.

Considering the number of recordings of the work, ranging from the original Broadway production of 1953, to the present recording, it is surprising that the piece has only had two Broadway productions (1953 and 2003) and one London production (1986). There have, of course, been other productions. Grange Park Opera mounted a production (in 2004 with Sophie Daneman and Mary King), and so did the Halle with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

On disc you do rather miss something, you lack the sharp dialogue, the visuals and the choreography. Every time one of the numbers breaks into dance, we rely solely on Rattle and the orchestra to make up for what we are not seeing. And though the musical numbers work well, you do rather miss the dialogue.

That said, the orchestra is in sparkling form and attacks the music with wit and zest, along with a certain something which can sometimes be lacking from orchestral versions of Broadway shows. It perhaps helps that the recording was made live, capturing something of the verve and excitement of the occasion, part of Rattle's first season with the LSO.

Nadine Benjamin's Love and Prayer

Nadine Benjamin - Love and Prayer
Soprano Nadine Benjamin's debut solo album, Love and Prayer, is released tomorrow (31 August 2018) and a single from the disc Ave Maria has already been released. To celebrate, Nadine held a launch at the 1901 Arts Club last night (29 August 2018), when we heard her sing music from the disc, 'Vissi d'arte' from Puccini's Tosca (a performance which made you want to hear her singing the rest of the role), saw the striking video for Ave Maria and heard Nadine talking about the making of the disc, the video and her ideas behind it.

Rather strikingly, and surprisingly, Love and Prayer is the first such album recorded by a British Black soprano. Nadine recorded it in Studio Two at Abbey Road Studios with Kamal Khan conducting the NB Opera Ensemble. The repertoire on the disc focuses on Italian opera, with Verdi at the core, with arias from Tosca, Norma, Il trovatore, La traviata, Un ballo in maschera, Aida, Otello, La boheme and Le nozze di Figaro, plus Schubert's Ave Maria.

Besides the disc, Nadine has a lot to celebrate. She was recently made a Harewood Artist at English National Opera and makes her debut with the company in October as Clara in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, followed by Musetta in Puccini's La boheme later in the season.

Love and Prayer is available to download from Amazon, and on iTunes & Google Play

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Barbican Presents - An Autumn of striking variety

Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra
International Associate Ensemble at Milton Court
The Barbican's Autumn season of classical music presents a striking variety of works and genres, with visiting chamber ensembles, orchestras, operas and more, with premieres by Giacinto Scelsi, Roderick Williams, Bob Chilcott and Donnacha Dennehy, plus two Handel operas.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, artistic director Richard Tognetti, returns for what is its first season as International Associate Ensemble at Milton Court, with programmes which include Mozart's last three symphonies, Bach, Beethoven and Bartok in a diverse programme which mixes in Sufjan Stevens and Hildegard of Bingen, and the UK premiere of the film Mountain, a collaboration between the orchestra and film maker Jennifer Peedom, which is performed with live music.

In complete contrast, Robert Ames and the London Contemporary Orchestra are presenting the UK premiere of Giacinto Scelsi's 1969 epic Uaxuctum: The legend of the Mayan city, which they themselves destroyed for religious reasons alongside John Luther Adams' Become Ocean of 2013. And the orchestra is working with Universal Assembly Unit to create a unique AI-generated installation in response to these two highly evocative works.

Another residency at Milton Court is that of singer and composer Roderick Williams, where three concerts will present different facets of his art with the BBC Singers, conductor Sofi Jeannin, performing a new piece by Williams and music by Bob Chilcott, all responding to World War One, Williams himself will be performing Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook with Rowan Pierce (soprano), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), James Newby (baritone), Nicky Spence (tenor) and Christopher Glynn (piano), using a new English version by Jeremy Sams and Christopher Glynn, and he returns with the premiere of a song cycle by Ryan Wigglesworth.

There are further premieres from Irish National Opera with the UK premiere of Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy's opera The Second Violinist which was premiered in Ireland earlier this year.

The Early Music season features further opera, with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Christine Rice in the title role and the Academy of Ancient Music, director Richard Egarr, in a production by Thomas Guthrie. Then Il Pomo d'Oro, the Featured International Baroque Ensemble, are presenting two Handel operas, Serse with Franco Fagioli, and Agrippina with Joyce DiDonato, both directed by Maxim Emelyanychev.

Full information from the Barbican website.

Sheer delight: Vivaldi's Concerti da Camera

Vivaldi: Concerti da Camera - Il delirio fantastico - Calliope
Vivaldi Concerti da Camera; Il delirio fantastico, Vincent Bernhardt; Calliope Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 August 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Engaging accounts of Vivaldi's chamber pieces with their wonderful variety of textures

This delightful new release from the French label Calliope presents us with a disc of chamber music by Vivaldi, seven of his Concerti da Camera played by the French ensemble Il delirio fantastico, director Vincent Bernhardt.

Vivaldi didn't call his Concerti da Camera that, he simply referred to them as Concertos but they are different in form to his regular concertos. These pieces are written simply for a mixed ensemble of solo instruments and continuo (here violone, guitar/theorbo and organ/harpsichord), without the supporting string ensemble. They are not strictly Concerti da Camera in the early 18th-century usage, they are chamber works which use the concerto form so that the individual instruments move between roles, solo display, accompaniment, secondary melody, thus creating chamber music written in the same form as the larger concertos.

Twenty-one such works survive in Vivaldi's catalogue (two are of dubious authenticity), and all use a mixed variety of instruments, wind and strings, so much so that we must assume that Vivaldi enjoyed exploring the wide variety of textures that the combination of form and instrumentation presented him with. In a sense, they can be seen as concertos for flute and ensemble as each uses a flute with an ensemble consisting of one or two violins, sometimes an oboe, bassoon and continuo. Yet Vivaldi's writing makes them more than this, because of the way different instruments can come to the fore, and if a flute player played them as a concerto vehicle, they might be disappointed. It is the chamber ensemble nature of the pieces which gives them their charm.

We don't know why or for whom he wrote them.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Ten Debussys at York Late Music

JAmes Willshire
James Willshire
York Late Music is a concert series which has been running in York for over 20 years, presenting informal concerts at York Unitarian Chapel. This year the theme of the series is 'Looking forward, looking back', and on 1 September 2018 pianist James Willshire will be presenting his Ten Debussys project, which includes ten premieres with each piece quoting a Debussy piano piece and then developing this into the composer's own sound world. Composers in the project include Errollyn Wallen, Robin Holloway, Lynne Plowman, Jia Chai and Ailís Ní Ríain.

The concert is the climax of Piano Day on 1 September 2018, when there will be lunchtime and afternoon concerts featuring music by Ligeti, Chopin, Richard Rodney Bennett,Steve Crowther, anthony Adams performed by Kate Lodge.

Readers of this blog may remember that in February 2018, James Willshire accompanied viola player Rosalind Ventris in a programme of contemporary music for viola at Cheltenham Music Society, including the premiere of my suite for viola and piano.

Each evening concert at York Late Music features a pre-concert interview and questions with a featured composer and/or performer, giving audiences the chance to engage directly with artists over a glass of complimentary wine/juice.

A real discovery: Loder's English romantic opera Raymond and Agnes

Edward Loder: Raymond and Agnes - Retrospect Opera
Edward Loder Raymond and Agnes; Mark Milhofer, Majella Cullagh, Andrew Greenan, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Richard Bonynge; Retrospect OPera Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Despite a poor libretto, this mid-19th-century English opera reveals itself to be surprisingly complex in this sympathetic new recording conducted by Richard Bonynge

In the 19th century, the British Isles were not quite as devoid of music as it can seem at first. In the opera field, there is a vein of lyric opera, which develops out of the tradition of ballad opera. Best known amongst these are the operas by William Wallace and Michael Balfe. To these must be added those of Edward Loder. His opera Raymond and Agnes has had some revival in the 20th and 21st centuries but, perhaps, lacking the big hit number it has failed to even cling to the edge of the repertoire in the way that Wallace's Maritana and Balfe's The Bohemian Girl have.

This new recording of Edward Loder's Raymond and Agnes is based on an admirable new edition of the score by Valerie Langfield and this has now been recorded by Retrospect Opera with Richard Bonynge conducting a cast including Majella Cullagh, Mark Milhofer, Carolyn Dobbin, Andrew Greenan and Quentin Hayes with the Retrospect Opera Chorus and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

Loder trained in Frankfurt with Ferdinand Ries (friend, pupil and secretary of Beethoven), and eventually, he became music director at the Manchester Theatre Royal. His output included operas, ballad operas, ballets and more. Raymond and Agnes was premiered in 1855 and revived in 1858. It is now the most highly regarded of his operas though during his lifetime his earlier opera, The Night Dancers was more successful.

To put the opera in context, Donizetti's last operas premiered in 1843, Verdi's La traviata was premiered in 1853. In England Balfe's The Bohemian Girl premiered in 1843 and Balfe would continue writing operas for Covent Garden through to the 1860s, William Wallace's Maritana premiered in 1845, Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury premiered in 1875.

Monday 27 August 2018

Somewhere for the weekend: Music at magical Cuckmere

The Coastguard Cottages at Cuckmere Haven
The Coastguard Cottages at Cuckmere Haven
The Lapwing Music Festival takes place in the stunning location of Cuckmere Haven. Running from 31 August to 2 September 2018, it provides a series of intimate concerts in the magical setting of the Coastguard Cottages at Cuckmere Haven, and all profits will go to Cuckmere Haven SOS which seeks to save the setting from coastal erosion.

Artists at this year's festival include the quanum player Maya Youssef, the hang drums player Manu Delago, mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre in recital with lutenist Thomas Dunford, and Dunford will also be giving a solo recital. There will be a screening of Manu Delago’s 30-minute film Parasol Peak, as well as a screening of Cuckmere: A Portrait by Cesca Eaton and Ed Hughes which premiered at the Brighton Festival this year, as well as a buffet lunch with guest speaker Juliet Nicholson.

Full details from the Lapwing Music Festival website.

Sunday 26 August 2018

Bayreuth’s Die Walküre is pulled from the pack and given another airing conducted by Plácido Domingo

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival 2018 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Die Walküre: Catherine Foster, Stephen Gould, Regine Hangler, Anja Kampe, Mika Kaneko, Tobias Kehrer, Christiane Kohl, John Lundgren, Mareike Morr, Alexandra Petersamer, Marina Prudenskaya, Simone Schröder, Caroline Wenborne, dir: Frank Castorf, cond: Plácido Domingo; Bayreuth Festival, Germany
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 18 August 2018 Star rating: 5.0
Frank Castorf’s Ring proved controversial at first but found its feet over its five-year run

The Bayreth Festival presented Wagner's Die Walküre as a stand-alone production (seen 18 August 2018) conducted by Plácido Domingo with Catherine Foster, John Lundgren, Anja Kampe, Stephen Gould, Tobias Kehrer and Marina Prudenskaya.

In the second part of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Die Walküre (in repertoire from 2013 to 2017 as part of the complete cycle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth), Berlin-based, avant-garde, theatre director, Frank Castorf, unconventionally dumped the opera’s traditional romantic Rhineland setting for the rough-and-tumble world of oil prospecting transporting the scenario to the city of Baku on the Caspian Sea in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Therefore, ‘Black Gold’ became the treasured Nibelung hoard, a political tool like no other.

And oil, of course, is a great bargaining tool in world politics and was a big influence on Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War (an era which Castorf grew up in) and in Putin-powered Russia today, energy and oil is still high on the agenda.

It was high on the agenda, too, for Wotan who travelled Route 66 to his new job as boss of the Baku oil-field from his old job as boss of the Golden Motel in Das Rheingold. A switch of jobs, too, from Scottish bass-baritone, Iain Paterson (Wotan in Das Rheingold) to Swedish bass-baritone, John Lundgren (Wotan in Die Walküre), who arrived on the scene sporting a long Russian Orthodox-style beard which, for one reason or other, was later shaved off. However, Lundgren proved an excellent choice for the role delivering a strong and authoritative performance in an interesting and detailed production that employed and merged stagecraft and video work skilfully created by Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival 2018 (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
One good example came in the scene in which Sieglinde’s caught on camera preparing a sleeping-draught for her husband Hunding so she could slip off for a secret rendezvous with her long-lost Wälsung brother, Siegmund. Scenes like this, combining ‘live’ and ‘video’ action, worked well most of the time but, occasionally, cluttered up and confused the overall stage picture.

Legendary opera star, Plácido Domingo, worked well, too, finding himself in the pit of the famed Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus but causing a furore in many quarters because of his limited experience of conducting Wagner - and for the first time at Bayreuth. Heavens above!

Saturday 25 August 2018

Popular tunes, segregation & pioneers: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the 1935 pre-Broadway tryout
Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the 1935 pre-Broadway tryout
George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935 at the Alvin Theatre, New York, and from the start it was somewhat controversial. Based on the play by DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy (and Dorothy & DuBose Heyward's play based on  the novel) with a libretto by Ira Gerswhin and Heyward, it dealt the life of black people in the poor area of Charlston, but the work's creators were all white. Yet in 1930s segregated America the choice of an all black cast was controversial, in fact, the first cast would all break segregtion barriers. And even today, when the work is performed by opera companies all over the world, it can highlight contemporary problems of racial inequality.

The opera itself has had problems with the racial aspects of the plot from the very outset, with a white composer and librettists writing about a black people. Shortly after the premiere Virgil Thomson said "Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935", and members of the original cast worried that the opera played to stereotypes, equating black with poverty, violence, pimps and drugs.

In fact, Gershwin's idea seems to have been that writing for conventional classically-trained white opera singers at the Metropolitan Opera would not work as they would not be able tosing his melodies with the right style. His idea was to have the piece performed by classically trained black singers, and having it sung by black cast has been obligatory since then (the work is under copyright and this is a stipulation). Though there have been notable exceptions such as concert performances using a white chorus, all white performances (with blacked-up singers) in Nazi occupied Denmark in 1943 (the work's European premiere) and the recent Hungarian State Opera production which re-set the work in the context of the Syrian migrant crisis).

Friday 24 August 2018

Sinfonia Cymru: Tramshed Tech, Sheku Kanneh Mason, Kabantu and more in the 2018-19 season

Sinfonia Cymru
Sinfonia Cymru
Sinfonia Cymru's 2018/19 places the players firmly to the fore. The orchestra's leader, Caroline Pether, directe and features as soloist in a programme of Eric Whitacre, Samuel Barber, Grieg and Vivaldi. And individual players are curating the concerts which make up the ensembles series @Tramshed Tech, where Sinfonia Cymru is returning to the former Cardiff industrial workspace Tramshed Tech for programmes which mix an eclectic choice of music with film projections and digital installations from emerging composers.

There are guests in the season too, cellist Sheku Kanneh Mason performs Haydn with the orchestra in a programme conducted by Jonathan Bloxham which includes music by CPE Bach, Beethoven and Ives. And the world music collective, Kabantu joins the ensemble for a programme inspired by folk songs from Wales and from the UK. There are lunchtime concerts too, and a creative learning project with children from schools across Powys (with the Mid Wales Music Trust).

Sinfonia Cymru is a lively Cardiff-based ensemble made up of young professionals in the early stages of their careers, all are in their 20s. The ensemble is known for its eclectic programming and an exciting freedom in the way it curates concerts, often breaking traditional concert barriers.

Further information from the Sinfonia Cymu website, and you can also download the 2018-19 season guide (PDF)

A different side to Julian Anderson revealed in this disc of choral music from Gonville & Caius

Julian Anderson choral music - Delphian
Julian Anderson choral music; Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Geoffrey Webber; Delphian Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Superb performances illuminate a disc which reveals a different side to contemporary composer Julian Anderson

The composer Julian Anderson is not particularly known for his choral music, but this new disc from Delphian helps provide an illuminating insight into that particular aspect of the composer's work. Geoffrey Webber and the choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge perform a range of Anderson's music including anthems, his Bell Mass and Four American Choruses.

We start with the anthem My beloved spake which was written as a wedding anthem for choir and organ. There are interesting chromatic hints in the melody lines, and the choral writing is full of quite austere polyphony with some striking organ interruptions. The whole creating rather a thoughtful effect.

Thursday 23 August 2018

In Sorrow's Footsteps: The Marian Consort in Gabriel Jackson, James MacMillan, Palestrina & Allegri

In Sorrows Footsteps - The Marian Consort - Delphian
Palestrina, Gabriel Jackson, Allegri, James MacMillan; The Marian Consort, Rory McCleery; Delphian Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Ancient & modern: contemporary settings of sacred texts alongside iconic settings from the past

This latest disc from the Marian Consort, director Rory McCleery, on Delphian, In Sorrow's Footsteps, compares and contrasts ancient and modern settings of iconic sacred texts, with settings of the Stabat Mater by Palestrina and Gabriel Jackson, and the Miserere (Psalm 51) by Allegri and James MacMillan, with two motets by Palestrina completing the programme.

The Marian Consort sings these pieces one voice to a part, which provides and interesting perspective on pieces which are generally sung by larger ensembles nowadays; only Gabriel Jackson's piece, written for The Marian Consort, was conceived for single voices. Palestrina's music, written for the Sistine Chapel Choir, would have been performed by single voices and larger groups, and James MacMillan's piece was written for The Sixteen.

We being with Gabriel Jackson's Stabat Mater, written for The Marian Consort in 2017. The piece starts with a cry of pain in the form of dense, intense chords. Jackson uses a fluid structure, moving between single lines, translucent polyphonic textures and moments of dense intense pain, with his familiar undulating chant-inflected vocal lines often present. The Marian Consort gives a wonderfully intense yet precise performance, with superb placement in the dense chords and expressive solo moments.

A Mahler Piano Series

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler
Pianist, composer and arranger Iain Farrington has created an eleven-concert series, A Mahler Piano Series, that explores the European musical melting pot of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, focusing on the music of Mahler with many of the symphonies being performed in piano transcriptions alongside the music that influenced Mahler. In this essay written for Planet Hugill, Iain Farrington explores the concert series further.

Iain Farrington
Iain Farrington
Composers are often defined by their musical identity and how it reflects the society in which they live. The music of Gustav Mahler is a remarkable product of the times and locations in which he lived, drawing together a wide range of different musical styles that he heard throughout his life. This stylistic diversity is a key aspect of Mahler's work, as he forged his identity through these disparate musical elements. While this eclectic musical mix is much written about in Mahler scholarship, it is rarely explored in concert programmes.

The series I'm undertaking this Autumn juxtaposes many of these different musical influences with Mahler's own work. It includes a large variety of songs and piano music from Mahler's contemporaries and major influences, along with a rich selection of other genres. These then feed into the large-scale symphonies, many of which are played in my own two hand piano arrangements. Mahler often played his latest works on the piano to friends and colleagues, and his early training as a pianist left him with a good virtuoso technique. By performing the music in this way, it enabled the first listeners to hear the melodies and harmonies unadorned. The idiomatic style, the wide-ranging content, the emotional depth, the unique structure: all these pieces of the musical jigsaw were presented by Mahler himself on the piano to those trusted friends. A black-and-white image of the Symphony was presented, a kind of musical X-ray.

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Grand rarity: Halevy's La reine de Chypre revealed by Palazzeto Bru Zane

Fromental Halevy: La reine de Chypre - Palazzetto Bru Zane
Fromental Halevy La reine de Chypre; Veronique Gens, Cyrille Dubois, Eric Huchet, Etienne Dupois, Christophoros Stamboglis, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, Herve Niqut; Palazzo Bru Zane Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Stylishly elegant music allied to a rather unconvincing plot in Halevy's follow up to his success in La Juive in this rare revival from Palazzetto Bur Zane

If Fromental Halevy's La Juive is relatively rare, then his second grand opera La reine de Chypre is rarer still. This new recording from Palazzetto Bru Zane is based on the first performances of the opera for 140 years. Herve Niquet conducts the Flemish Radio Choir and Orchestre de chambre de Paris with Veronique Gens, Cyrille Dubois, Etienne Dupuis, Eric Huchet and Christophoros Stamboglis.

Of the French grand operas from the first half of the 19th century (roughly 1830s to 1850s), many of the works which have kept a toe-hold on the repertoire (Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Halevy's La Juive, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and Le prophete) seem to combine the necessary love affair (usually ill-fated) with a larger-scale subject which gives the opera depth. A prime example is Meyerbeer's Le prophete, where despite Jean's relationship with Berthe, it is his relations with the Anabaptists and with his mother, Fides, where the interest in the opera really lies.

Similarly, in Fromental Halevy's first grand opera, La Juive, part of the focus is on the relationship between Eleazar and his daughter Rachel, and on the impossibility of her relationship (as she is a Jew) with a Christian man. For his second grand opera Halevy turned to a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges based around an invented story about Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus (a subject also treated in Donizetti's opera based on St Georges' libretto). The libretto is efficient, Venetians Caterina and Gerard are in love but the evil Mocenigo (representative of the Venetian Council of Ten) forces Caterina to reject Gerard so she can become Queen of Cyprus. Thereafter their lives are intertwined.

The plot relies on us to believe in and respond to the 'terreur' of the Republic of Venice, something which appealed to the audience at the Paris opera in the 1840s when La reine de Chypre premiered. But which seems a less compelling backdrop for a plot nowadays.

La reine de Chypre is unusual, though, in a number of ways. For a start, it has only one leading female role, the title role. Sung originally by Rosine Stoltz, the mezzo-soprano reigning diva of the Paris Opera. It was usual for such grand opera to have two female roles, a high colorature and a lower soprano/mezzo-soprano (the type of role originally specialised in by Cornelie Falcon), but Rosine Stoltz was so disputatious that operas written for her tended to have only one major female role. Even the opening of the opera is unusual, no chorus to set the scene, just the heroine in recitative echoed by the tenor's couplets off stage.

The Grand Manner: soprano Aprile Millo makes her London recital debut

Aprile Millo (Photo: Johannes Ifkovits)
Aprile Millo
(Photo: Johannes Ifkovits)
Tosti, Donaudy, Donizetti, Bridge, Wolf-Ferrari, Verdi, Refice, Rachmaninoff, Massenet, Strauss; Aprile Millo, Inseon Lee, Jeffrey Carl, Merynda Adams; London Bel Canto Festival at Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 August 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A chance to hear Aprile Millo live in London, though she kept us waiting till the end for some real Verdi spinto style

The soprano Aprile Millo is known very much for her Verdi performances, frequently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She has not, I believe, sung much in London (and never, apparently, at Covent Garden!) so it was something of a coup for the London Bel Canto Festival to be able to present Millo in her London recital debut at Cadogan Hall, with pianist Inseon Lee, harpist Merinda Adams and baritone Jeffrey Carl. Millo's programme was an eclectic mix of songs by Stefano Donaudy,  Paolo Tosti, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Donizetti, Frank Bridge, Verdi, Rachmaninoff, Massenet, Richard Strauss and traditional Irish songs, along with a scene from Licino Refice's Santa Cecilia and the Aida/Amonasro duet from Verdi's Aida.

Celebrity recitals can be tricky things, with the singer keen to explore a variety of areas of their repertoire and the audience often there simply to hear the diva (or divo) sing the opera arias for which they are best known. The audience at the Cadogan Hall on Tuesday included a significant number of Aprile Millo's fans who were clearly delighted to be able to hear the diva in London, but there was also a significant number of people for whom Millo's fame as one of the major spinto sopranos in the late 20th century meant that they were hoping for a selection of arias from Millo's best known roles. As always, the diva kept us on tenter-hooks and in the event, despite the programme presenting a tempting list of arias and duets from which she would select, the only major operatic piece that we were presented with was the duet from Verdi's Aida. It was perhaps significant, that the atmosphere in the hall became highly charged at this point, the performance was electric in a way which the rest of the programme had not been, admirable though it was. The result was that, despite a generous selection of songs from Aprile Millo and singing of much charm, we left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons & Lorena Paz Nieto visit Spain in Oxford Lieder Festival's Grand Tour

Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Marta Fontanals-Simmons
This year's Oxford Lieder Festival (12 - 27 October 2018) is taking us on The Grand Tour - A European Journey in Song. Whilst the festival will be including familiar masterpieces of the song repertoire, they will be heard alongside music which displays a range of cultural influence, from Finland to Spain, from Estonia to Poland. There will be a day long event focusing on Scandinavian song, lunchtime recitals including Polish, Hungarian and Italian song. A series of short language labs will introduce some of the European languages used in the songs. For example, I welcome the chance to get more to grips with Estonian before Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel's recital with Roger Vignoles on 17 October 2018.

A series of Spanish themed events on 18 October 2018 will be clustered around the evening recital by soprano Lorena Paz Nieto and mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons, accompanied by Sholto Kynoch, artistic director of the festival.

Lorena Paz Nieto is Spanish, whilst Marta Fontanals-Simmons is British/Catalan. When I met up with her recently, Marta explained that her father is from a small region near Barcelona, and so she speaks Spanish and some Catalan. Her recital with Lorena Paz Nieto will feature not only Spanish and Catalan songs but the music of other composers exploring the influence of Spain and the idea of Spain on European composers.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Left Bank Opera Festival

Left Bank Opera Festival 2018
This year the Northern Opera Group's Left Bank Opera Festival in Leeds (22-26 August 2018) takes as its theme opera’s longstanding (and rather contentious) relationship with stories, characters and music from Asia. Northern Opera Group is performing Raymond Yiu's The Original Chinese Conjuror in a double bill with Saint-Saens La Princesse Jaune, whilst Ensemble Tempus Fugit is bringing their show Calcutta.

Raymond Yiu's The Original Chinese Conjuror, 'A Musical Diversion Suggested by the Lives of Chung Ling Soo', tells the true story of magician William Robinson who, in his efforts to enliven his act, adopts the persona of a mystical conjuror from China - and keeps his real identity hidden to all but those closest to him. The opera was premiered in 2006 as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, and was also performed at the Almeida Theatre that year.

Saint-Saens' La princesse jaune (which Northern Opera Group are playing as The Yellow Princess) is a delicate two-hander which satirises the 19th century fashion for Japonaiserie; it was performed at the Buxton Festival in 2013 [see my review].

Ensemble Tempus Fugit's Calcutta by contrast evokes the real melting pot of 18th century Calcutta where Western and Indian musics and cultures mixed.

Full details from the Northern Opera Group website.

Songs of Farewell

Hubert Parry
Hubert Parry
Frank Bridge, RVW, Gustav Holst, Laura Mvula, Hubert Parry; BBC Singers, Sakari Oramo; BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 August 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A supremely poetic account of Parry's choral masterpiece, alongside a striking new work by Laura Mvula

When composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Bart. died in 1918 at the age of 70 it was very much the end of an era. Along with Sir Charles Villiers (1852-1924) Stanford, Parry had been responsible for the creation of a whole generation of English composers, yet Parry's own art looked very much to Germany. He had failed to study under Johannes Brahms but had studied with the German pianist Edward Dannreuther. Parry's Songs of Farewell, amongst his finest works and one of his last, written between 1913 and 1915 represent not only a farewell to life but a farewell to the civilisation that Parry had known and admired, as he watched the destruction wrought by the First World War.

Parry's Songs of Farewell formed the centrepiece of a BBC Proms concert given by the BBC Singers with conductor Sakari Oramo at Cadogan Hall on Monday 20 August 2018. Alongside Parry's work, we heard three pieces by English composers of the younger generation, Frank Bridge's Music, when soft voices die (from 1904), RVW's Rest (from 1902) and Gustav Holst's Nunc Dimittis (from 1915), plus the world premiere of Laura Mvula's Love Like a Lion, a BBC Proms Commission in which Mvula set words by Ben Okri.

Frank Bridge's Music, when soft voices die is a relatively early work. A beautifully sustained setting of words by Shelley, it featured some interesting corners in the harmony. RVW's Rest, setting Christina Rossetti was another early work and seemed like RVW not quite being the composer we know. A quiet, intense piece, it featured some lovely rich harmonies.  Holst's Nunc Dimittis (setting the Latin words) was written for Westminster Cathedral in 1915, but only published in 1979. Beginning quiet and intense with some striking harmonies, thoughts of salvation brings brighter textures leading to a fine climax for the coming of the light, with a vigorous doxology. It is a fine, mature work, not obvious in Holst's inimitable way and deserves to be better known.

Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde; Tansel Akzeybek, Stephen Gould, Petra Lang, Christa Mayer, Raimund Nolte, Iain Paterson, Kay Stiefermann, Georg Zeppenfeld, dir: Katharina Wagner, cond: Christian Thielemann; Bayreuth Festival, Germany Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 16 August 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A stellar cast was gathered together and they delivered a powerful five-star performance

This thoughtful and enlightening production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner came to the Bayreuth Festival's stage in 2015 (how times flies!) immediately finding favour with the cognoscenti of the Green Hill whilst also marking the 150th anniversary of its world première at Munich. For the 2018 revival of the production (seen 16 August 2018), Christian Thielemann conducted with Stephen Gould as Tristan, Petra Lang as Isolde, Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke, Iain Paterson as Kurwenal, Raimund Nolte as Melot and Christa Mayer as Brangäne.

One of the greatest works ever written to pure erotic love echoing the legendary days of King Arthur, Tristan - which Wagner rated as one of his ‘favourites’ - is an emotional work to say the least and Katharina Wagner - artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner - tapped into the opera’s emotional strength delivering a brilliant, powerful and compelling production that drifted at times from its traditional staging especially at the end. However, she doesn’t mind taking risks and engaging in new ideas in which to explore the works of her great-grandfather who, I’m sure, would greatly approve.

A highly-impressive first act - not just musically speaking but visually speaking, too - focused on Tristan and Isolde frantically searching for each other against all the odds with Kurwenal and Brangäne struggling to keep them apart but, of course, to no avail. When they eventually meet it proved a powerful, emotive and telling scene. The lovers just stared longingly and lovingly at each other in total silence while the love potion that Brangäne prepared for Isolde is immediately discarded by her and Tristan in a romantically-charged joint ceremony as the couple’s love was vacuumed sealed right from the start.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
What makes this act so highly impressive, engaging and so full of mystery is greatly helped by Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert’s brilliantly-designed set comprising a three-dimensional labyrinth of stairs evaporating into thin air influenced, no doubt, by the work of Giovanni Piranesi or MC Escher but it was Piranesi’s engraving - Il ponte levatoio: Le Carceri d’Invenzione (The drawbridge: the Imaginary Prison) - cited in the programme.

Monday 20 August 2018

Dvořák's Requiem in Edinburgh, and a UK debut

Jakub Hrůša & Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Photo Andreas Herzau Klein)
Jakub Hrůša & Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Photo Andreas Herzau Klein)
Antonín Dvořák had quite a strong connection with the UK performing quite a number of works here himself and his music was popular, particularly the large scale choral works. His oratorio Saint Ludmilla  was written for the Leeds Festival in 1886, whilst his Requiem was premiered in Birmingham in October 1891, both with the composer conducting. There is a rare chance to hear the Requiem at the Edinburgh International Festival on Tuesday 21 August 2018 when Jakub Hrůša conducts the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.

Jakub Hrůša, who has been conducting Samuel Barber's Vanessa at Glyndebourne [see my review], has been the chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra since 2016/17, the orchestra's 70th anniversary season. The performance at the Edinburgh Festival represents the orchestra's UK debut. The orchestra has interesting Czech roots, as it was originally based on musicians who were in the German Philharmonic Orchestra Prague.

For the performance of the Requiem, Hrůša and the orchestra will be joined by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and soloists Eva Hornyaková (Soprano), Václava Krejčí Housková (Mezzo-soprano), Pavel Černoch (Tenor) and Jan Martinik (Bass). Full details from the Edinburgh International Festival website.

Keeping her secrets: Tom Randle's Love Me To Death explores the mysterious Ruth Ellis

Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - Gillian Keith, Charne Rochford in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - Gillian Keith, Charne Rochford
in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Randle Love Me To Death; Gillian Keith, Charne Rochford, James Cleverton, Tom Randle, Reel to Real Opera; Tête à Tête at The Place Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A striking new opera which explores the life and tragedy of the last woman to be hanged in the UK

For the final event of this year's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival on 18 August 2018 at The Place, Reel to Real Opera presented Tom Randle's Love Me To Death based on the life and death of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom. Randle conducted and directed, with Gillian Keith as Ruth Ellis, Charne Rochford as David Blakely (the man she was convicted of shooting), and James Cleverton as Desmond Cussen, the other man in Ellis' life.

Love Me To Death used a libretto by Nikki Racklin and told Ellis' stories in a series of scenes intercut with video of Ellis' daughter (also played by Gillian Keith) reminiscing, which filled in much of the background to the plot. The accompaniment was provided by a 12 piece instrumental ensemble (single strings, single woodwind, horn, piano & timpani) which was conducted by Randle, and placed at the side of the stage though judging by Randle's rich orchestration the opera is intended for a full orchestra in a pit.

Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - James Cleverton in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Randle: Love Me To Death - James Cleverton
in rehearsal - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival (Photo Claire Shovelton)
The work had a full overture, and throughout Randle's music included substantial orchestral interludes. Perhaps the most striking moment was the scene where Ellis' trial should have been, instead with had a long clarinet solo where the clarinettist came on-stage and duetted with Gillian Keith who moved expressively.

Racklin's plot started with Ruth Ellis as a hostess at the Little Club in Mayfair, and took us through her relationships with Blakeley and with Cussen leading up to her shooting of Blakeley (who had abused her physically and mentally), to her ultimate death. Ellis is a somewhat enigmatic figure, after her death it came out that she was involved with the British Secret Service but she went to her death holding all her secrets. Racklin's solution was to use the spoken narration in the video to fill in gaps.

Sunday 19 August 2018

The Opera That Goes Wrong: Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe!

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Colin Carmichael - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Colin Carmichael - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Giacomo Puccini, arr. Timothy Burke TOscatastrophe!; Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Ronald Samm, Keel Watson, Colin Carmichael, Bill Bankes-Jones, Timothy Burke Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 August 2018
The Tosca That Goes Wrong!

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Ronald Samm, Colin Carmichael - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe!
Ronald Samm, Colin Carmichael - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Comedy in opera is a strange thing. The first thing you think of, perhaps, is a work like Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla where an essentially farcical plot is allied to music which can often be closely related to Rossini's music for his serious operas. A larger thought for this style of opera is, what is funny music? An alternative take is the opera which uses comedy of character, where the take on the piece can vary from farcical to downright serious (Donizetti's Don Pasquale hides some rather nasty issues, and Wagner thought of Die Meistersinger as a comedy though it deals with some pretty profound issues).

Another vein is the accidental comedy, the opera performance which goes wrong or where the performance is so bad that it is funny. This latter is, perhaps, not a style of comedy to which one would want to return too often. Alternatively, given that opera is so full of conventions, you might decide to send up the genre completely a la Monty Python, but that is a direction in which I would not want to go. This gives rise to the sense that opera as a genre is essentially ridiculous and should be sent up and not taken seriously.

These thoughts started buzzing in my mind after having a conversation after the final event of this year's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in which the subect of Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe! came up. This performance took place outdoors in Lewis Cubitt Square on Friday 10 August 2018 and was a shortened version of Puccini's Tosca, arranged by Timothy Burke and directed by Bill Bankes-Jones, which was designed to go wrong! The Opera That Goes Wrong, except this was done with love.

I did not write a review of the performance at the time, though we enjoyed it immensely, partly because I find it difficult to write about comedy and partly with such an unusual genre it was tricky to write a critique. But time for reflection has given us this article. If you are reading this and did not see Toscatastrophe then kick yourself hard, and make a note to attend  Tête à Tête's similar event next year.

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Keel Watson - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Keel Watson - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
The basic premise was a shortened and very traditional performance of Tosca with a truly admirable cast, Gweneth-Ann Rand as Tosca, Ronald Samm as Cavaradossi and Keel Watson as Scarpia, three singers who it would be a pleasure to hear in a full version of the opera. They were aided (if that is the right word) by the actor Colin Carmichael. Timothy Burke accompanied on synthesizer whilst he and director Bill Bankes-Jones provided extra instrumental accompaniment at times, with a guest on recorder at one point and three hand-bell ringers.

Bayreuth’s Parsifal provided a sensitive portrayal of humanity overcoming adversity

Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Parsifal: Günther Groissböck, Tobias Kehrer, Thomas J Mayer, Elena Pankratova, Andreas Schager, Derek Welton, dir: Uwe Eric Laufenberg, cond: Semyon Bychkov; Bayreuth Festival, Germany Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 14 August 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A production that underlined and delivered a strong message of unity through a trio of mixed faiths

Specifically written for Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus, Parsifal became Wagner’s final and farewell work to the world completed in January 1882 and first seen in that year. Therefore, this production by German director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg (new in 2016) marks its ninth outing at Bayreuth since its première. On 14 August 2018, Semyon Bychkov conducted, with Thomas J Mayer as Amfortas, Günther Groissböck as Gurnemanz, Andreas Schager as Parsifal and Elena Pankratova as Kundry

Working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber, Mr Laufenberg switched the opera’s traditional setting of Montsalvat (the revered castle of the knights of the Holy Grail in medieval Spain) to the Middle Eastern territory of northern Iraq and Syria under the tight control of Islamic State where Christianity finds itself severely under threat as never before.

The philosophical ideas of the libretto fuses Christianity and Buddhism, but the trappings of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century poem - focusing on the Arthurian hero Parzival and his long quest for the Holy Grail - are essentially Christian based. The composer actually described Parsifal as ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) not an opera thereby underlying the deep-religious overtones the work harbours.

Laufenberg, therefore, sensitively brought this pivotal issue to the fore especially at the end of the first act where one witnesses Amfortas, wearing a crown of thorns and covered only by a loin-cloth, re-enacts the Crucifixion with members of the Brotherhood (now seen as a community of Christian monks) gathered round him receiving Holy Communion and partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. It was a powerful and moving scene while the Christ-like figure of Amfortas (king of Monsalvat) was magnificently portrayed by the gifted and talented German bass-baritone, Thomas J Mayer.
Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (photo Enrico Nawrath)

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