Sunday 30 December 2018

The year 2018 in opera and concert reviews

Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Deutsche Oper Berlin(Photo Bettina Stöß)
Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Deutsche Oper Berlin(Photo Bettina Stöß)
It has been a difficult year from which to pick highlights, as so much that we have seen and heard has been memorable. Looking for themes, this year has been something of a Meyerbeer year, we started it with Le prophète in Berlin and in October we saw the first production of Les Huguenots at the Paris Opera since 1936. 

In fact, it seemed a year for rarities because New Sussex Opera gave the first performances of Stanford's The Travelling Companion since the 1920s, and further back in time I caught Haydn's Armida in his former place of work, Schloss Esterházy. Early Verdi came up trumps too with I Lombardi in Heidenheim, and Alzira in Stephen Barlow's swansong season at Buxton. Whilst at Glyndebourne, Barber's Vanessa was finally brought in from the cold. And in the concert hall, Martyn Brabbins heroically stood in at the last minute for a rare performance of Ethel Smyth's mass with BBC forces at the Barbican, whilst Ruth heard Opera Rara in the original version of Puccini's first opera, Le Willis.

It was also a year for French grand opera, not only the Meyerbeer (who virtually invented the genre), but Verdi's Don Carlos in French and in the original 1867 version in Lyons, and in Italian in the later 1884 version in an intimate setting from Fulham Opera. And in The Hague, Opera2Day presented a radical new version of Ambrose Thomas' Hamlet.

New operas included Alex Mills' striking piece based on the work of Marie Stopes and premiered at the Wellcome Collection, and David Sawer's The Skating Rink at Garsington, not to forget George Benjamin's Lessons in Love and Violence at Covent Garden.

It was a strong year at Opera Holland Park both on the main stage, which included the company's first Richard Strauss, and with the Young Artists performance. Chelsea Opera Group gave us a world-class performance of Bellini's Norma.

The Dunedin Consort showed that Bach's Mass in B minor has terrific power  when performed on a smaller scale and Adam Fischer opened Kings Place's 2018 season with a joyous small-scale account of The Creation. In song, it was a good year for Schubert with terrific performances from Robin Tritschler and from Gerald Finley.

Below, Anthony, Ruth, Tony and I have all made our selections from 2018's memorable performances.

Saturday 29 December 2018

A concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet

Gavin Sutherland rehearses “Song of the Earth” with English National Ballet and the ENB Philharmonic, Manchester, October 2017
Gavin Sutherland rehearses Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth with English National Ballet
and the ENB Philharmonic, Manchester, October 2017
The conductor Gavin Sutherland is a busy man at the moment, the music director of English National Ballet (ENB), he is in the middle of the company's Christmas season, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Manon at the London Coliseum from 13 December 2018 to 20 January 2019. When we meet up, he is engagingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about ENB, ballet and more despite having had the opening of The Nutcracker the night before.

When I ask him how things are going, he tells me that much of the season is a sell-out and only Kenneth MacMillan's Manon remains a harder sell. Manon is dear to Gavin's heart because it was his first new production as music director in 2008, and is part of artistic director Tamara Rojo's desire to keep challenging audiences, rather than presenting them with wall-to-wall Nutcrackers at Christmas, as well as aiming to expand ENB audiences. (Manon is not the only MacMillan ballet in ENB's repertoire, the company also dances Song of the Earth).

The production famously challenges the Royal Ballet on its home territory, and the production of Manon (a work created for the Royal Ballet by Kenneth MacMillan) was taken into ENB's repertoire when Wayne Eagling was ENB's artistic director, and Eagling had danced in the early performances of Manon at Covent Garden (according to the Royal Opera House performance database Eagling danced a small role in the premiere of Manon on 7 March 1974, and with Jennifer Penny led the second cast later the same month).

In fact, ENB are using a production of Manon taken from Royal Danish Ballet which Gavin describes as very spartan, and he feels that it achieves the right balance with a minimum of suggestion which heightens the audience's delight in the work.

That ENB is mounting such a different production at the London Coliseum, a short walk from Covent Garden, only heightens the element of competition, something that Gavin loves. He feels that ENB is in strong form at the moment, with a large company, impressive principals and tight ensemble.

Gavin Sutherland and the ENB Philharmonic in rehearsal, The Warehouse, London, June 2017.
Gavin Sutherland and the ENB Philharmonic in rehearsal, The Warehouse, London, June 2017.
The orchestra is on good form too, and with so many performances to play over a six week period, the orchestra members have started taking sports science classes; this year was the first time that they were offered and 28 players have started doing them.

The company's season has a nice Christmas atmosphere, of a reserved kind feels Gavin, and this year there are just 23 performances of The Nutcracker alongside Swan Lake and Manon. When we meet, Gavin was just recovering from the previous night's opening of The Nutcracker, and the company has eight shows during the following week (Tuesday to Friday evenings with two on Saturday and two on Sunday). And whilst Gavin does not conduct every performance, it can still be tiring, as it can for all the players.

He feels that they rise to the occasion, particularly as they have an appreciative and enthusiastic audience, and are performing music by some of the great Romantic composers. And with The Nutcracker, Gavin comments on Tchaikovsky's cleverness at not putting into the suites the music from the two big pas de deux, so that you only get the real meat of the show during the full length ballet. And this remarkable music is accompanied by some challenging choreography (ENB's version of The Nutcracker is choreographed by Wayne Eagling), so there is no room for injury with the dancers.

Gavin will be conducting 10 performances of The Nutcracker (out of 23), seven of Swan Lake (out of 14) and five of Manon (out of eight). He has pulled back a little this year, and some years he has conducted 28 performances of The Nutcracker and by the time you reach performance number 26 the smile is getting a bit tight and Christmas is well past. In fact, he comments that it becomes all too easy to simply give the audience a show, to just click the baton but Gavin feels that it is important to bring much more to each performance. And in the process he manages to burn around 1750 calories per performance!

English National Ballet in Manon © Laurent Liotardo.
English National Ballet in Manon © Laurent Liotardo.
Conducting ballet is a very particular art.

Friday 28 December 2018

'From the New World' in Slovenia

The young people of the Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Nejc Bečan performing Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 at a sold-out concert in the Gallus Hall in Cankarjev dom convention and conference centre in Ljubljana, Slovenia filmed by Primož Zevnik.

That old thing: remembering Covent Garden's revivals of historic 1950s productions

Gwyneth Jones as Elektra
Gwyneth Jones as Elektra
In 1988 I attended a performance of Richard Strauss' Elektra at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. I had seen the opera before in Welsh National Opera's Joachim Hertz production with Pauline Tinsley in the title role, but this performance was rather different.

It had a strong cast, with Gwyneth Jones in the title role, Helga Dernesch as Klytemnestra and conducted by Gerd Albrecht, and in fact they opened up some of the traditional cuts in the opera. But unlike WNO's modish production Covent Garden's staging dated from 1953 and had not been seen since 1977.  Directed originally by Rudolf Hartman the production featured sets by Isabel Lambert which were not unlike those at the opera's first performance. It could have been a damp squib, but thanks to an incandescent performance from Gwynneth Jones, it was riveting. I got the impression that it was very much Jones' own performance, with a staff director simply indicating the traditional blocking.

This was a period when the Royal Opera always intended to mount a new production of Elektra, but this was long delayed. Götz Friedrich's new production finally arrived in 1990 with Eva Marton in the title role, and was revived in 1994 and 1997 before being in its turn replaced. In 1988, Gwyneth Jones, coming towards the end of her period as the house's dramatic soprano of choice, seemed to grasp the opportunity.

Alfred Roller's designs for the 1909 production of Richard Strauss' Elektra in Dresden
Alfred Roller's designs for the 1909 production of
Richard Strauss' Elektra in Dresden
Another much promised new production was Verdi's Otello. Peter Hall's new staging was trawled yet failed to materialise. I had seen Georges Wakhevitch's 1955 production in 1977 with Jon Vickers in the title role, and Raina Kabaivanska and Peter Glossop conducted by Zubin Mehta. This had been intended to be a new production of Wagner's Tannhauser but Vickers withdrew citing his Christian principals and the Royal Opera replaced the performances with Otello.

Placido Domingo had famously said that he would not appear in the 1955 production, but the new one took such a long tme in coming (Elijah Moshinsky's new production appeared in 1987), that he relented and made his Covent Garden debut as Otello in 1980 conducted by Carlos Kleiber, returning in 1983 for the Wakhevitch production's final outing.

Wednesday 26 December 2018

The Medieval Tendency

Medieval carollers
It is during the run up to Christmas that choirs cast round for interesting and approachable contemporary pieces to go into seasonal programmes. So we get a rash of modern and 20th century pieces setting Medieval and 16th century words.

Medieval carollers
As choral singers, we have all been there, the first rehearsal where you have to parse the text, check the composer's notes for meanings or unfamiliar words, check for unfamiliar spellings of familiar words, and words with extra syllables.

Then there is the vexed question of pronunciation. With a period piece it is clear that using period pronunciation is a valid approach, if you are singing a 16th century song then using some sort of period way of pronouncing the words is a clear choice. But for a piece written yesterday, what do you do about the words?

This is particularly true of all those rhymes which work if you say the piece in period pronunciation but with don't work at all (rhyming 'day' with 'by' for instance) and can provide a series of annoying near misses in modern usage is used. With an early English text with a strong rhyming scheme, such false rhymes can rather stand out.

Take the anonymous 15th century text, 'Ther is no rose of swych virtu'. Most of the rhymes work in modern pronunciation without any alteration, which means that two verses rather stand out as not rhyming:

For in this rose conteyned was
Heven and erthe in lytle space.
Res miranda.

The aungelys sungyn the sheperdes to:
"Gloria in excelsis Deo."

With the best will in the world, rehearsal will be punctuated with discussions about pronunciation and meaning. So why do it, what is it about Christmas that makes composers reach for a Medieval text? Granted the words have a vigorous energy and communicativeness, but surely this can be achieved in Modern English too.

As a singer, I find the tendency puzzling and enervating, I want to concentrate on the music rather than struggling with the Medieval equivalent of 'faux amis'.

As a composer I am completely befuddled. These are texts, striking though they are, that never fail to put me off the idea of setting them.

And, in case you feel that I am the musical equivalent of the Grinch That Stole Christmas, I have written a number of carols treating subjects like the Shepherds and the Magi in modern language. My only lapse into the Medieval Tendency was Julian Merson's charming carol There is a Rose of such vertu, where the nicely direct language and the distinctive macaronic text engaged me so much that I did an arrangement of it for London Concord Singers.

Tuesday 25 December 2018

A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

The South Bank (Photo David Hughes)
The South Bank (Photo David Hughes)

A Merry Christmas and a Peaceful and Musical New Year from all at Planet Hugill

Monday 24 December 2018

Looking back - in case you missed it

Meyeerbeer:  Le prophète - Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Meyeerbeer's Le prophète at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, with which we started the year
It has been an eventful year, what with two Meyerbeer operas, an intimate version of Verdi's final French grand opera, a revival of Ethel Smyth's mass and much else besides. We will be producing our highlights of the year, but if you want to look back and check out things that you might have missed then our Performances we've heard page is now up to date and lists all of this year's (and last year's and beyond) performances, from Meyerbeer's Le prophète (4/1/2018) to Bach's Christmas Oratorio (22/12/2018).

Do have a browse.

Sunday 23 December 2018

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

Stephen Layton and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Stephen Layton and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Bach Christmas Oratorio; Katherine Watson, 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 22 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A strongly engaged performance, full of vivid detail

A regular part of St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival, Stephen Layton, the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment returned on 22 December 2018 with Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio, with soloists Katherine Watson, Helen Charlston, Gwilym Bowen and Matthew Brook. With substantially the same line as soloists as their performance of the oratorio last year [only Katherine Watson was new, see my review of the 2017 performance], it seemed a shame that Stephen Layton and his forces gave us the same selection of Parts as last year, I, II, III & VI.

Yes, it is terrific to have these movements with the festive trumpets and the quartet of oboes (including oboes d'amore and oboes da caccia). but there is lots too in the quieter Parts IV and V. Though Bach performed the work in pieces across six major feasts during the period from Christmas to Epiphany, the libretto was published as a whole and he clearly thought of the piece as a single entity.

Stephen Layton took quite a serious view of the work (as undoubtedly did Bach himself), a thoughtful narration of the Christmas gospel with all its foreshadowings of Christ's passion, and less a festive romp (despite the trumpets).

But there was much joyful detail in the performance, rhythms were full of crisp bounce and were very infectious, not to say positively toe-tapping. The performers, though disciplined, were clearly enjoying themselves with the back rows of the choir positively swaying to the music.

Bach probably did not think of it as a choral work per se; he probably only had a handful of choral singers (the luxurious orchestration may well have entailed some doubling on voice and an occasional instrument). But the work has very much become a choral showpiece, though smaller scale performances do shed a different light on the score [performances such as that of the Dunedin Consort in 2017,  or that of Solomon's Knot in 2015].

Here we had the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, some 40 young women and men singing from memory with a combination of discipline and engagement. It wasn't just the vivacity of the choruses, but the singers' engagement with the words of the chorales which made it seem as if they meant it.

Speaking of words, with largely (I presume) English speaking choir, soloists and audience, why couldn't we have the work sung in English?

Illuminating a neglected work: John Andrews & the BBC Concert Orchestra revive Sir Arthur Sullivan's sacred oratorio, 'The Light of the World'

Arthur Sullivan - The Light of the World
Sir Arthur Sullivan The Light of the World; Natalya Romaniw, Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately, Robert Murray, Ben McAteer, Neal Davies, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews; Dutton Epoch
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 December 2018 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Sullivan's strangely neglected early oratorio makes a strong impact in this fine new recording

Handel's Messiah, which takes us from Christ's birth through to his Resurrection was intended as a Lenten/Easter work but has become wedded to the Christmas period. So it seems apt that today we have Sir Arthur Sullivan's very different take on the same story, in his oratorio The Light of the World

Listening to Sullivan's The Light of the World today, it is difficult to believe that there was anything controversial about it. But Victorian England had an odd relationship with religion and any hint of a dramatic depiction of the Biblical was frowned upon. Handel's oratorios, Biblical dramas intended for the theatre, were taken firmly into the church and the concert hall. Biblical operas were banned, so the young Clara Butt never did sing the role of Dalila in Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila despite the composer wanting her to.

It took a German, Felix Mendelssohn, to revitalise the oratorio tradition in England with Elijah which premiered at the Birmingham Festival in 1846. And it is the spirits of Mendelssohn and Bach which hung over English composers when writing oratorios in the 19th century.

The Light of the World was written in 1873 for the Birmingham Festival, and when writing the work Sullivan took an innovative approach, yet one which Mendelssohn had used in Elijah. There is no narrator, the characters speak directly to the audience. This takes the oratorio back to something closer to Handel's great sacred dramas such as Belshazzar. Yet for The Light of the World, it meant the bold step putting Jesus directly on stage. For the first time an English audience heard Jesus addressing them directly, none of the distancing he said/she said familiar from the Passions. Yes, there are fudges, the role is simply labelled solo baritone. And the figure is very much Jesus the man rather than Christ the Saviour.

The preface to the score explains that the intention was no to convey the spiritual idea of the Saviour as in Messiah or to recount the sufferings of Christ, as in the 'Passionsmusik' but to set forth the Human aspect of the Life of Our Lord on earth.

It is puzzling that Sullivan's The Light of the World has been so ignored in the 20th and 21st centuries, thankfully that will be rectified with this fine new recording from John Andrews and the BBC Concert Orchestra on Dutton Epoch, with Natalya Romaniw (Mary, the Mother of Jesus), Eleanor Dennis (Mary Magdelene/Martha), Kitty Whately (An Angel), Robert Murray (A Disciple/Nicodemus), Ben McAteer (Jesus), Neal Davies (A Ruler/A Pharisee/A Shepherd), the BBC Symphony Chorus, and the Kinder Children's Choirs of the  High Peak.

Mendelssohn is a clear influence and there are whole sections of the piece where my listening notes constantly refer to Mendelssohn's Elijah. But there is an engaging freshness and directness to Sullivan's writing. The Light of the World lacks the vein of pious sentimentality which fatally ran through Victorian oratorio.

Sullivan: The Light of the World - Robert Murray, Neal Davies, John Andrews, Kitty Whately, Eleanor Dennis, Natalya Romaniw, Ben McAteer, Gavin Carr
Sullivan: The Light of the World - Robert Murray, Neal Davies, John Andrews, Kitty Whately, Eleanor Dennis,
Natalya Romaniw, Ben McAteer, Gavin Carr
Sullivan is not afraid to talk directly to the listener, whether it is Jesus's long speech (taken from Matthew XXV. 31) at the opening of part two or one of the large-scale choruses.

Seasonal touches: The Tallis Scholars at St John's Smith Square

Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars (Photo Nick Rutter)
H. Praetorius, Byrd, Eccard, Part, Rutter, Victoria; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Music from the 16th to the 21st centuries in programme with Seasonal touches

At first sight, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars' programme at St John's Smith Square on 21 December 2018 as part of the 33rd Christmas Festival was not particularly seasonal. Except that including two settings of the Magnificat (by Hieronymous Praetorius and by Tomas Luis da Victoria) made reference to the current season of Advent whilst that of Praetorius was in fact highly seasonal as it interpolated vernacular Christmas carols. Alongside these two, we hear two settings of the Nunc Dimittis (the two canticles are associated in the Anglican church but not in the Roman Catholic) by Johannes Eccard (in German) and William Byrd (in Latin), plus two large-scale Latin motets by Byrd, Tribue Domine and Laudibus in Sanctis, and a pair of contemporary works, Arvo Part's hymn to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Virgencita, and John Rutter's Hymn to the Creator of Light.

We began with the Praetorius which mixes the macaronic carols Joseph, lieber Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo (in German and Latin), with the Latin Magnificat. Praetorious's Magnificat setting is quite four square, yet with dancing textures, which contrasted with the lilting carols, the result made a pleasing mix and added a pleasingly celebratory feel to the Magnificat. The programme was then intended to move on to Byrd's Nunc Dimittis but as Peter Phillips felt the first half was too short, the choir slipped in Johannes Eccard's German setting which relates to the Nunc Dimittis and is known in English as 'When Mary to the temple went', a delightful piece. Byrd's Latin Nunc Dimittis comes from his Gradualia, not intended for Anglican Evensong but instead a setting of the Tract for the Feast of the Purification (Candlemas). It is a sober yet elaborate piece full of busy lines, and ends in a rather surprisingly sudden manner, perhaps because Byrd anticipated that the service's plainchant would take over, and in fact one could almost hear it.  

Saturday 22 December 2018

The Dead City: Robert Carsen's new production of Korngold's masterpiece in Berlin

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/
Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/   
Korngold: Die tote Stadt; Aleš Briscein, Sara Jakubiak, Günter Papendell; dir: Robert Carsen, cond: Ainārs Rubiķis; Komische Oper, Berlin Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 14 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
New production of Korngold's late-Romantic opera and musical psycho-thriller at the Komische Oper, Berlin

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Aleš Briscein - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/
Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Aleš Briscein
Komische Oper, Berlin
(Photo Iko Freese/   
Working together with the new general music director of Komische Oper, Ainārs Rubiķis, Canadian star director, Robert Carsen, made his début at this imposing house located on Behrenstraße just a few steps from Unter den Linden with Korngold's Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), this musical psycho-thriller about the difficulty of letting go and the necessity of doing so (seen 14 December 2018), with Aleš Briscein, Sara Jakubiak and Günter Papendell.

The close-knit scenario surrounds Paul and follows the death of his wife Marie. Isolated from the outside world, he has sequestered himself in his Temple of Memories and lives solely for the memory of his deceased wife until he encounters the dancer Marietta, the spitting image of Marie. He falls instantly in love with her but, ultimately, seeks only to bring the woman he has lost back to life. Paul becomes ever more enmeshed in his obsessive love until catastrophe strikes. Was it all a dream? A trick of the subconscious mind? What secret lurks behind the death of his beloved wife?

A late-romantic masterpiece written during the First World War by the teenage Korngold, already an internationally-successful composer, Die tote Stadt is based on the 1892 Symbolist novel, Bruges-la-Morte, by the well-known Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach and set to a libretto by Paul Schott, a collective pseudonym for the composer and his father, Julius Korngold. The work - which at the time of its première the composer was just 23 years old - leads one deep into the impenetrable confusion of the subconscious mind and the morbidity and the symbolic ambiguity of the piece is wholly in keeping with the spirit of fin-de-siècle.

Korngold took the operatic world by storm by this work (his first-full length piece) at one point the most-frequently performed composer on the German stage until the National Socialists brought his operatic career to a premature close. In recent decades, however, his works have finally been experiencing the revival they deserve.

Mahler described Korngold as a ‘musical genius’ and recommended him study with the celebrated Viennese-born composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky. Richard Strauss also spoke highly of him, too. Praise, indeed!

Overcoming the loss of a loved one, the theme of Die tote Stadt, resonated with contemporary audiences of the 1920s who had just come through the trauma and grief of the First World War. As such, this most probably fuelled the opera’s success.

Within two years of its première Die tote Stadt travelled the world receiving a host of performances at The Met while the Berlin première took place in 1924 with the two central characters, Paul and Marie/Marietta, performed by Richard Tauber and Lotte Lehmann. The conductor was George Szell.

The Nazi régime didn’t help in sustaining the opera’s popularity and banned it because of Korngold’s Jewish ancestry and, therefore, following the Second World War, it fell into obscurity. Key post-war revivals were at the Vienna Volksoper (1967) and New York City Opera (1975).

The UK première didn’t take place until January 1996 by way of a concert performance by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Russell Keable at the Queen Elizabeth Hall featuring Ian Caley and Christine Teare. However, the first UK staged performance was at the Royal Opera House in January 2009 but, sadly, it’s still rarely seen on our shores.

A glorious and well-structured work with a sad storyline it grabs my fancy every time I see it. Right from the opening scene portraying the Flemish city of Bruges - a city of loss, a city of neurosis and a city of memories for the main protagonist, Paul - to the closing scene, it kept my interest alive in a production that truly encompassed the aura of Symbolism - an artistic movement originating in the late 19th century in Belgium and France and included such prominent writers as Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck and Paul Verlaine - which uses symbolic images and, indirectly, suggestions expressing mystical ideas, emotions and the state of mind.

Cause for Celebration: Roxanna Panufnik on the Last Night of the Proms & commemorating the Centenary of Polish Independence

Roxanna Panufnik (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Roxanna Panufnik (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
The composer Roxanna Panufnik has had a busy year not only has she had a work premiered at the Last Night of the Proms but she has celebrated her 50th birthday and written a major work to celebrate the centenary of Polish Independence, not to mention the new CD of her music on Signum Classics. I met up with her recently to find out how things had gone, and hear what we had to look forward to in 2019.

Roxanna's Last Night of the Proms premiere, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light highlights her interest in world music of different cultures, countries and faiths. The piece uses two poems, one by Isaac Rosenberg who was English with Lithuanian Ashkenazy Jewish roots, and the other by Kahlil Gibran who was Lebanese-American and a Maronite Christian but also had curiosity for Sufi mysticism, so that the musical elements represent the three Abrahamic faiths [Christianity, Judaism and Islam].

When I ask how the premiere hard gone she at first says that it was epic, but then adds that it was rather surreal and that she could not quite believe it was happening and suffered terrible imposter syndrome. The work was written for the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. And for Roxanna, one of the best things about the event was the time that she spent working with everyone involved, as she attended rehearsals for each of the groups involved and found everyone delightful and generous, enabling her to try things out and making her feel very welcome. And Andrew Davis gave her fantastic advice on the balance issues, writing for such large forces in the Royal Albert Hall.

Roxanna Panufnik takes a bow after the premiere of her piece at the Last Night of the Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Roxanna Panufnik takes a bow after the premiere of her piece at the Last Night of the Proms
(Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

Friday 21 December 2018

The Sixteen at Christmas - The Little Child

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen
The Little Child; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A nicely rounded Christmas programme which combined more serious elements with the eternally popular

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have been touring their 2018 Christmas programme and we caught up with them at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 18 December 2018 as part of Choral at Cadogan. Under the title The Little Child, the programme presented an intriguing selection of music which explored aspects of the Christmas story centred around the Christ child but which included more serious elements such as the Holy Innocents, and gave a nicely rounded programme without excessive Christmas kitsch. So there was music by Sweelinck, Howells, Richard Rodney Bennett, William Walton, George Kirbye, Kenneth Leighton, William Byrd, Palestrina, Giaches de Wert, Joseph Phibbs, Cecilia McDowall, John Sheppard and Peter Warlock.

We started with a bright and brilliant account of Sweelinck's Hodie Christus natus est, followed by Howells in a more thoughtful vein in Sing lullaby. The next three all linked the Saviour's birth to his mission using medieval texts, with an urgent account Richard Rodney Bennett's Susanni and Walton's bright and rhythmic All this time separated by the traditional The Saviour's Work, a piece with which I was not familiar at all.

A mash up of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On films: Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at Berlin's Komische Opera

Oscar Straus The Pearls of Cleopatra - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese/
Oscar Straus: The Pearls of Cleopatra
Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese/
Oscar Straus The Pearls of Cleopatra; Dagmar Manzel, dir Barrie Kosky, cond: Adam Benzwi; Komische Oper, Berlin Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 13 December 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Barrie Kosky pulls out all stops to deliver an unforgettable night in Old Vienna!

A Viennese composer of operettas, film-scores and songs, Oscar Nathan Straus (6th March 1870 - 11 January 1954) was seen as a serious rival to Franz Lehár and after seeing Barrie Kosky’s riveting and entertaining production of The Pearls of Cleopatra (Die Perlen der Cleopatra) at the Komische Oper in Berlin, I can clearly see why. When Lehár's popular operetta, The Merry Widow, premièred in 1905, Straus is said to have remarked ‘Das kann ich auch!’ (I can also do that!). Undoubtedly, he did!

I caught Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at Berlin's Komische Oper on Thursday 13 December 2018, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Adam Benzwi with the actress Dagmar Manzel as Cleopatra, plus Talya Lieberman, Johannes Dunz, and Dominik Köninger.

Born into a Jewish family, Straus (who omitted the second ‘s’ from his surname to disassociate himself with the Strauss family of Vienna for professional reasons only) did, however, follow the advice of Johann Strauss II about abandoning the prospective lure of writing waltzes for the more lucrative business of writing for the theatre.

His best-known works are Ein Walzertraum (A Waltz Dream) and The Chocolate Soldier (Der tapfere Soldat). The waltz arrangement from the first-mentioned work is probably his most enduring orchestral work but one of his most famous pieces is the theme from that lovely and endearing film of the 1950s, La Ronde.

Following the Nazi Anschluss in 1939, Straus (who, incidentally, studied music in Berlin under Max Bruch) fled to Paris where he received the coveted award of Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. From the French capital he made his way to Hollywood. After the war, he returned to Europe, settled at Bad Ischl in Austria where he was laid to rest and, indeed, the burial-place of Lehár.

However, the score that Herr Straus penned for The Pearls of Cleopatra, a potpourri of cabaret and jazz styles which also included references to the Viennese waltz and, indeed, to Grand Opera (Grand March from Aida), the opera’s a conjured-up mash of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On film series and hits the target full on.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Images of Jonathan Dove's 'Marx in London' at Theater Bonn

Jonathan Dove: Marx in London - Theater Bonn (Photo Thilo Beu)
Jonathan Dove: Marx in London - Theater Bonn (Photo Thilo Beu)
I recently interviewed Jonathan Dove about his new opera Marx in London (libretto by Charles Hart), which has received its premiere at Theater Bonn, in a production directed by Jürgen R. Weber, conducted by David Parry with designs by Hank Irwin Kittel. Mark Morouse was Marx, with Yannick-Muriel Noah as Jenny, Marie Heeschen as Tussy, Christian Georg as Freddy, Ceri Williams as Helene and Johannes Mertes as Engels.

Now we are able to present a few pictures of Jürgen R. Weber's steam-punk production (photographs by Thilo Beu). The production runs until 14 February 2019, full details from the Theater Bonn website. It is a co-production with Scottish Opera so we should be seeing the opera in the UK before too long.

Jonathan Dove: Marx in London - Theater Bonn (Photo Thilo Beu)
Jonathan Dove: Marx in London - Theater Bonn (Photo Thilo Beu)

You can see the trailer for the opera on Vimeo, and there is also an illuminating 'making-of' video. Also read my interview with Jonathan.

Jonathan Dove: Marx in London - Theater Bonn (Photo Thilo Beu)
Jonathan Dove: Marx in London - Theater Bonn (Photo Thilo Beu)

Messiah in Berlin: Handel's oratorio staged in the Philharmonie

Handel: Messiah - Ahmed Soura - Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Kai Bienert)
Handel: Messiah - Tim Mead, Ahmed Soura -
Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Photo Kai Bienert)
Handel Messiah; Louise Alder, Magdalena Kožená, Tim Mead, Allan Clayton, Florian Boesch, dir: Frederic Wake-Walker, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, cond: Robin Ticciati; Berliner Philharmonie. Berlin Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 15 December 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The realisation of Handel’s Messiah by English-born opera director, Frederic Wake-Walker, added a new dimension to the overall pleasure and enjoyment of this renowned and well-loved choral work

Composed in 1741 to a text taken from King James’ Bible by Charles Jennens and the Book of Common Prayer, Messiah was first heard in Dublin on 13 April 1742 at the Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street receiving its London première the following year. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity and duly became one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works of all time.

A literary scholar, editor of Shakespeare’s plays and an admirer of Handel’s work Jennens received his education from Balliol College, Oxford. Before working on Messiah, however, he previously collaborated with Handel on Saul and L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato.

Although Handel was born in Germany in Halle (a short distance from Leipzig) in 1685, he moved to London in 1713 and remained here until his death in 1759. Over almost a 50-year time-span he transformed London’s experience of music be it through his operas, his English oratorios (a genre he invented), his celebratory anthems or his charitable performances.

However, if Messiah - which was originally intended as a thought-provoking work for Eastertide but eventually became more of a Christmastide tradition - took time to find its feet, it was a totally different story in respect of Rinaldo which audiences took to their hearts from the outset. It was the first Italian-language opera written specifically for the London stage and first performed at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, on 24th February 1711. Handel, in fact, composed Rinaldo quickly (and, indeed, Messiah, too - just 24 days) borrowing and adapting music from operas and other works that he had composed during his years in Italy from 1706 to 1710. 

Handel: Messiah - Allan CLayton, Ahmed Soura - Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Kai Bienert)
Handel: Messiah - Allan Clayton, Ahmed Soura -
Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Photo Kai Bienert)
Therefore, in so many ways Messiah does resemble that of opera over its three imposing sections. The first part chronicles the prophecies of Isaiah moving to the annunciation of the shepherds (the only scene taken from the Gospels) while in part two Handel concentrates on the Passion ending with the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. In the final part he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification into heaven.

But adding extra emphasis to this well-loved work, performed at Berlin's Philharmonie on Saturday 15 December 2018, the enterprising and thoughtful English-born opera director and artistic director of London-based Mahagony Opera Group, Frederic Wake-Walker (now based in Berlin), conjured up some interesting stage movement (perhaps he should set Rinaldo in his sights) which added greatly to the overall pleasure of the performance given by Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the RIAS Kammerchor under the baton of Robin Ticciati who gathered together a strong and formidable team of soloists. They comprised Louise Alder (soprano), Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Tim Mead (counter-tenor), Allan Clayton (tenor) and Florian Boesch (bass). 

You couldn’t get a better team!

Wednesday 19 December 2018

…Everyone is a Child of the Inbetween…

I first came across the music of Matthew Whiteside in 2015, when I reviewed his disc Dichroic Light [see my review]. Matthew is from Northern Ireland but now based in Glasgow and his opera Little Black Lies was performed by Scottish Opera earlier this year [see the review in The Stage]. 

The opera's librettist was the Danish poet & playwrith Helene Grøn, and as a result of conversations about the opera, whose subject is belonging, the idea for new piece arose. This is …Everyone is a Child of the Inbetween… a large scale scena for soprano and clarinet, which has been released as a single, performed by Turning the Elements (soprano Frances Cooper and clarinet Joanna Nicholson) who premiered the piece in October 2018..

The piece is also available on Apple Music and Spotify, if you wish to support Matthew please do access it on one of these platforms:


A triumphal Messiah

The Hanover Band & Chorus, Andrew Arthur
The Hanover Band & Chorus, Andrew Arthur
Handel Messiah;
Erica Eloff, Timothy Morgan, Bradley Smith, Edward Grint, The Hanover Band and Chorus, Andrew Arthur; Kings Place

Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 17 December 2018 

Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Anthony enjoys a dramatically vivid, dynamic and beautiful Messiah from The Hanover Band

Edward Grint, The Hanover Band, Andrew Arthur
Edward Grint, The Hanover Band, Andrew Arthur
It’s Christmas, so naturally out rolls the behemoth that is Messiah, and on Monday 17 December 2018 The Hanover Band and Chorus under the direction of Andrew Arthur brought their period expertise to Hall One of Kings Place. They were joined by the soprano Erica Eloff, tenor Bradley Smith, alto Timothy Morgan and bass Edward Grint.

Formed in 1980 The Hanover Band’s primary objective is for audiences to get ‘a better feeling for what earlier music actually sounded like’. The idea that there is ‘a method’ that can be applied ‘scientifically’ to magically reproduce a composer’s ‘original intention’ has always seemed a stretch too far but given the fusty excrescences that Messiah has acquired in the last few hundred years a greater fidelity to the original sound can only be a good thing. That said, striving for authenticity by the slavish adherence to baroque practice is like Marmite (other spreads are available) and can render, to me at any rate, the ‘authentic’ colourless. But from the first bars of the Sinfony it was plain that The Hanover Band’s idea of ‘authentic’ would be anything but dull.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Towards the Global Digital Jukebox

Donizetti Dom Sebastien
We live in a digital age, where everything seems possible, yet much is not. You can access the most obscure of recordings in a way that record collectors in the 1960s and 1970s could only have dreamed (Maria Callas recorded on the 31 September 1958, certainly sir!). Yet other recordings seem tantalisingly out of reach, available for sale for a short period only to disappear in the vaults.

What one might term the politics of economics controls what we can listen to, what we can appreciate. Many record companies, or rather media companies which produce recordings, rely on the cycle of issue, deletion and re-issue for recordings as if a digital recording was the same as a vinyl disc.

In the 1980s you could go to Cramer's Music Shop in Bond Street and order custom prints of out of print music. Such economic models are still used by music publishers in the era of the PDF. And if you go to the Opera Rara website you can acquire digital downloads of many of the company's recordings which have sold out the CDs. Production of a run of CDs requires some sort of cost balance, the expectation that a reasonable number might be sold. Opera Rara has obviously decided that Donizetti's Dom Sebastian (written for Paris in 1838) is unlikely to sell out another run of 5,000 but you can still access their excellent recording via a download.

Why is this not standard?

We are overwhelmed with music, there is a ridiculous amount available. yet when I want to acquire a particular Mozart opera recording made by Sir Charles Mackerras I have to look to re-sellers providing second hand or sold-on remainders. No digital download here. Surely there are enough classical music nerds in the world to make some sort of digital juke-box viable.

Fancy being able to buy a download of every single recording of an opera. For many years I wanted a copy of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots with a largely Francophone cast led by Ghyslaine Raphanel, Françoise Pollet, Danielle Borst, Richard Leech, Gilles Cachemaille, conducted by Cyril Diederich. It was tantalisingly out of reach until the cycle of issue, delete, re-issue reached the re-issue stage and I can now listen to it.

In the age of vinyl discs, this role was played by the specialist record shops (such as the late lamented Harold Moores Records in Great Marlborough Street) and second-hand classical shops, providing a valuable source of obscure and hard to get recordings. Nowadays Amazon provides a similar service, want something obscure then if someone has one it is there, at a cost!

Our digital jukebox still seems miles away.

It is worse, the further back you go. Some 78s still have not been transferred, or are only available via some long forgotten, hard to get

In the 1980s I had a (vinyl) disc of arias recorded by the great Yorkshire tenor Walter Widdop including some live recordings. Most have made their way onto CD but one remains elusive. Perhaps I shall have to go looking for a second-hand copy of the long lost vinyl.

One of the problems is the economic model. The way music is consumed digitally, the royalty payments are zero or minimal at best. Living artists have a perpetual struggle to get paid for recordings consumed via some digital media. In the free-for-all which arose when the digital platforms developed, the expectation that such music should be free or cheap was inescapable.

So if we do have our digital jukebox, 
will anyone be willing to pay an economic amount for it?

And as a civilisation, we are still fond of things. The idea that buying a recording involves an object, rather than a mysterious digital item. That, I have to confess is an attitude I have difficulty getting rid of. If there was a digital jukebox, I would still be hankering after CDs!

Echoes of Parsifal: songs and piano music by Robin Holloway on Delphian

Robin Holloway - The Lovers' Well - Delphian
Robin Holloway The Lovers' Well, Souvenirs of Monsalvat; Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Kate Symonds-Joy, James Robinson, Simon Wallfisch, Edward Rushton, William Vann; DELPHIAN  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 December 2018 
Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A surprising and engrossing selection of Robin Holloway's songs and piano music, where lyricism, modernism and humour intersect

This disc from Delphian features a fascinating selection of songs and piano music by Robin Holloway (who celebrated his 75th birthday in 2018), including two items for four singers and piano,  The Zodiac Song and The Food of Love and a suite for two pianos, Souvenirs de Monsalvat, along with Three Songs to Pomes by Edmund Waller, A Medley of Nursery Rhymes and Conundrums and The Lovers' Well, all performed by Clare Lloyd-Griffiths (soprano), Kate Symonds-Joy (mezzo-soprano), James Robinson (tenor|) and Simon Wallfisch (baritone) with pianists William Vann and Edward Rushton.

The recital has a certain quirkiness to it, as the centrepiece is Holloway's 27 minute waltz-homage to Wagner's Parsifal written for two pianos, so that the disc is not quite a song recital and not quite a piano recital, and the recital is bookended by a pair of songs for vocal quartet and piano. But though the genre of the pieces may not be obvious, Holloway's music certainly intrigues and entrances as he combines lyricism with modernism, passion with humour and a delightful knowingness on music of the past.

We start with The Zodiac Song, written for four singers and piano in 2017 as a sort of follow-up to Holloway's Shelly setting The Food of Love which was written for the same forces in 1996, and which concludes the disc. Here the four singers are accompanied by William Vann in a piece which places short solos and duets against a constantly moving backdrop in the piano. It is quite varied, perky at times and almost tuneful in an interesting way.

Monday 17 December 2018

Clarinettist dedications - Roeland Hendrikx in three contrasting concertos for clarinet

Dedications - works for clarinet & orchestra - Roeland Hendrikx
Finzi, Mozart, Bruch works for clarinet & orchestra; Roeland Hendrikx, Sander Geerts, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; Evil Penguin  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 December 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Three contrasting concertante works for clarinet, with Bruch's late Romantic double concerto being a delightful discovery

The relationship between composer and performer/dedicatee is the subject of this disc, on Evil Penguin, from Belgian clarinettist Roeland Hendrikx with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. They play three concertos, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, Max Bruch's Double Concerto for Clarinet and Viola with Orchestra, Op. 88 (with viola player Sander Geerts) and Gerald Finzi's Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra Op. 31. Each concerto was written for a particular clarinettist with whom the composer had a strong relationship, Mozart and Anton Stadler, Max Bruch and his son Max Felix Bruch, Gerald Finzi and Frederick Thurston.

They open with Gerald Finzi's concerto, written to be played by Frederick Thurston (with Finzi conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra) at the 1949 Three Choirs Festival. Hendrikx has a particular connection with the concerto as Thurston's wife, the clarinettist Thea King, was Hendrikx's teacher and mentor and she bequeathed to him a group of letters between Finzi and Thurston which discuss the creation of the concerto; extracts from which are printed in the CD booklet.

The opening movement has a very mid-century style to it, yet there is also a rather modern quality to the playing with an elegant, strongly focused clarinet solo supported by a very strong orchestral presence. The speed is quite fast, but fluidly flowing. The slow movement emerges from nothing and is quite classical in style, certainly not over romanticised. And whilst there are clear hints of Finzi's teachers like RVW, you can also hear European musical influences too. The finale is a briskly flowing movement, beautifully insouciant.

Mozart's concerto was written for the foremost clarinet virtuoso of his day, Anton Stadler, and the concerto has rightly achieved iconic status. In fact, it probably started out as a concerto for basset horn, the first 199 bars are identical to a basset horn concerto Mozart started to write for Stadler in 1787. The final concerto was written not for the standard clarinet, but for the basset clarinet, an instrument invented by Stadler which has a few extra lower notes, though this manuscript has not survived and all performances are based on an early edition of the work adapted for the standard A clarinet.

Does this matter? Hendrikx argues not.

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