Wednesday, 17 July 2019

St Marylebone Festival

Old Marylebone
The St Marylebone Festival, which runs from 20 to 26 July 2019, celebrates St Marylebone past and present with its rich cultural heritage, focusing on such diverse figures as Judy Garland, Vaslav Nijinsky, Kathleen Ferrier and RVW, as well as transporting you back to the 18th century pleasure garden of Old Marylebone or a 1920s dinner and soirée.

The festival opens with a 'Come and Sing' event as everyone is invited to join together to sing The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace by St Marylebone resident, Sir Karl Jenkins, under the direction of conductor Joanna Tomlinson.

Former residents featured in the festival include jazz legend Sidney Bechet, Judy Garland, dancer Vaslav Nijinsky whose story with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes is told in dance, word and music by Salvador Benaches (dancer), Matthew Oliver (dancer & actor) and Gavin Robert (piano). Contralto Kathleen Ferrier's story is told by Lucy Stevens (contralto) and Elizabeth Marcus (piano)

Poet & painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti was born in St Marylebone and his sister Christina had her first poems published in a local periodical, and their story is told by Amanda Pitt (soprano), Gillian Pitt (actor) and Gavin Roberts (piano), with music by Debussy, Finzi, Michael Head, Muriel Herbert, John Ireland and more. RVW lived in St Marylebone from 1953, on his marriage to Ursula Vaughan Williams, to his death and his music is celebrated by the Joyful Company of Singers, conductor Peter Broadbent, Christopher Bowen (tenor), Clare Hoskins (oboe), the Bell Quartet and Gavin Robert (piano), with the Mass in G minor, On Wenlock Edge and Ten Blake Songs.

Composers from the nearby Royal Academy of Music will be heard in conversation,  in a programme which mixes chat and music featuring current students Louise Drewett, Freya Waley Cohen and Joseph Howard, as well as alumna Roxanna Panufnik. Ensemble Hesperi will be exploring Scottish baroque music and dance, whilst there will also be a programme of songs and airs associated with the Pleasure Garden of Old Marylebone performed by Callum Anderson (harpsichord) and singers & musicians from the Royal Academy of Music.

Full details from the festival website.

East Anglian-based arts writer, Tony Cooper, previews the 2019 Britten Weekend at Snape Maltings in October

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963.
Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963.
This year’s Britten Weekend (Friday 18 to Sunday 20 October 2019) pinpoints the first encounter Benjamin Britten had with Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in September 1960. The beginning of two enduring and long-lasting friendships, it led to the Lowestoft-born composer embracing instrumental chamber music while it also had a profound effect on the Aldeburgh Festival and created significant links with the Iron Curtain at one of the most tense and difficult periods of the Cold War.


Alban Gerhadt (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Alban Gerhadt (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
The opening concert (Friday, 18 October, 8pm, Britten Studio, Snape) features the award-winning British-American soprano, Julia Sitkovetsky, and the German cellist, Alban Gerhardt - who, by the way, has collaborated with the Austrian-born composer, Thomas Larcher, one of the artists-in-residence at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival - as well as the well-known pianist and accompanist, Roger Vignoles, who lists Gerald Moore as his inspiration for pursuing a career in accompaniment. In his memoirs, Moore wrote that his services were not needed at the Aldeburgh Festival ‘as the presiding genius, there is the greatest accompanist in the world’. Praise, indeed!


Into 1770 - Classical Opera and The Mozartists 2019/2020 season

The Mozartists and Ian Page (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
The Mozartists and Ian Page (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Ian Page, Classical Opera and the Mozartists 2019/20 season will take them into the year 1770 as part of their Mozart 250 series. The season opens with soprano Regula Mühlemann, who took the title role in La finta semplice for Classical Opera in 2018, joining The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall on 19 September 2019 for three Mozart concert arias and Susanna’s ‘Deh, vieni’ from Le nozze di Figaro. In November, Ian Page conducts performances of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte with soloists Ana Maria Labin, Emily Edmonds, Rebecca Bottone, Matthew Swenson, Benjamin Appl and Richard Burkhard.

Mozart 250 moves into 1770 with 1770 - A Retrospective at Wigmore Hall on 9 January 2020, with music by JC Bach, Johan Baptist Vanhal (one of Mozart's Czech contemporaries), Gluck, Haydn and Mozart, with soloists soprano Samantha Clarke, this year’s recipient of the Guildhall School’s Gold Medal, and mezzo-soprano Ida Ränzlöv who, following studies at the Royal College of Music (where she was memorable in the title role of Handel's Faramondo, see my review), is now a member of the opera studio at the Staatsoper Stuttgart.

There is a three-concert series Mozart's Keys with pianist Ronald Brautigam combining operatic arias with major orchestral works and concentrating on the keys which inspired Mozart most! And Mozart's Czech contemporaries are explored in Mozart's Czech Mates at Wigmore Hall, with music by Vanhal, Leopold Koželuch, Gluck, Josef Mysliveček and Jiří Benda.

The Mozartists' will be travelling to Paris, to perform at La Seine Musicale in a programme of Mozart and Haydn with soprano Chiara Skerath.

Full details from the ensemble's website.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Cadogan Hall - Zurich International Orchestra Series 2019/20

Cadogan Hall - Zurich International Orchestra Series 2019/20
The Cadogan Hall's 13th Zurich International Orchestra Series from September 2019 to March 2020. The season features the inaugural tour of the Britten-Shostakovich Orchestra made up of young musicians from Britain and Russia conducted by founder music director Jan Latham Koenig, in a programme which includes RVW, Britten, Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini with pianist Pavel Kolesnikov and Shostakovich's Hamlet with actors Edward Fox and Freddie Fox.

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra, conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, perform Aereality, written for them by fellow Icelander Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. Premiered in November 2011, it was nominated as Composition of the Year at the Icelandic Music Awards in 2012. The Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Stéphane Denève perform Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour, which premiered in November 2015.

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra return for a pair of concerts including Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique and excerpts from Romeo et Juliette. Other visting orchestras during the season include the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Yuri Simonov, the Siberian Symphony Orchestra, conductor Dmitry Vasiliev, the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, conductor Jennifer Pike, the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, conductor Jose Luis Gomez, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, conductor Pietari Inkinen, the Orchestra National de Lille, conductor Alexandre Bloch, and the Swedish Philharmonia, conductor Jaime Martin.

Full details from the Cadogan Hall website.

Alchemy, Berlioz from memory & a celebration of a remarkale partnership: The Snape Proms 2019

Snape Maltings (Photo Matt Jolly)
For the month of August, Snape Maltings will be full of music of all kinds as the Snape Proms return from 1 to 31 August 2019, with classical music alongside jazz, blues, folk and pop, as well as a celebration of Snape Maltings' remarkable 20 year partnership with the prisoners of HMP Warren Hill.

The Aurora Orchestra will be continuing its theme of playing major 19th century masterpieces from memory with Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique and they will be joined by violinist Nicola Benedetti for Bruch's Violin Concerto. Other visitors include clarinettist Julian Bliss and the Carducci Quartet in Mozart and Weber, Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason (cello and piano), pianists Benjamin Grosvenor and Christian Blackshaw, trumpeter Alison Balsom and her ensemble in baroque concertos, saxophonist Jess Gilliam, and tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake in Schubert and Mahler.

Young artists featured at the festival include the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain conducted by Robert Hollingworth in an intriguing programme, Alchemy? which celebrates all the components which come together to make sound - science, the voice, vowel spectrum, harmony choices and acoustics with music from Judith Weir, Roxanna Panufnik, Kile Smith, Adrian Williams, Jessica Curry and Benji Morrison, whilst Singers of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme and Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra are conducted by Philippe Herreweghe in an all Bach programme including two cantatas and his Missa Brevis. Other young visitors include the National Youth Orchestra of China, the Suffolk Youth Orchestra,

On a lighter side visitors will include the Foden Brass Band, and the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Bramwell Tovey, with soprano Leslie Garrett bring the BBC's Friday Night is Music Night, plus a wide range of pop, jazz, folk and family events including Peppa Pig!.

For 20 years Snape Maltings has worked with HMP Warren Hill helping prisoners rehabilitate themselves through the Arts, and this anniversary (the longest continuous partnership with a local prison by an arts organisation in the UK) is celebrated with an exhibition of fine art, craft, writing and music from the region entered into the 2019 Koestler Awards for arts in criminal justice. The music group at HMP Warren Hall worked together with Snape Maltings' team to compose three songs, which lead visitors through the exhibits, whilst a day-long showcase features workshops and performances exploring the use of the arts as a tool for rehabilitation and prevention.

Full details from the Snape Maltings website.

Monday, 15 July 2019

To the max: from 40 to 60 parts in Striggio's mass from the Armonico Consort and choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

Supersize Polyphony
Supersize Polyphony Striggio Missa sopra Ecco Si Beato Giorno, Tallis Spem in alium; Armonico Consort, choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Christopher Monks; Signum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Striggio's mammoth mass recorded for the first time with all vocal forces

Until relatively recently the name Alessandro Striggio was known not so much for his music as for a masterpiece by another composer that he engendered. In 1561 Striggio wrote his 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem and travelled around Europe with it, part books perhaps strapped to a donkey. In England he may have met Thomas Tallis, who certainly heard the motet. The rest, as they say, his history and Tallis' 40-part motet Spem in alium has rather overshadowed that of Striggio. See my interview with Christopher Monks.

On this disc Supersize Polyphony on Signum Classics, Christopher Monks directs his Armonico Consort and the Choir of Gonville and Caius College (musical director Geoffrey Webber) in Striggio's Ecce beatam lucem and Missa sopra Ecco Si Beato Giorno, and Tallis' Spem in alium interspersed with chant by Hildergard of Bingen. The disc follows Supersize polyphony performances in which the two choirs were joined by a choir local to the venue (the mass moves from 40 parts to 60 parts in the 'Agnus Dei').

Striggio was born in Mantua to an aristocratic family, by 1559 he was working as a musician for Cosimo di Medici in Florence, visiting Venice and going on a diplomatic mission to England in 1567. Ecce beatam lucem was written for a royal marriage at the Bavarian court. Striggio would become friends with the composer Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer), and Striggio himself was the father of Alessandro junior who wrote the libretto for Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo. Striggio's mass based on the motet was discovered in 2005 and received its first modern performance at the BBC Proms in 2007 (it may well have never been performed in Striggio's lifetime).

In writing the mass Striggio seems to have been very influenced by Venetian polychoral music (his madrigals by contrast were very advanced in style) and he intended the motet and the mass to be performed by a mixture of singers and instruments.

London Mozart Players returns home to the restored Fairfield Halls, Croydon

London Mozart Players (Photo Kevin Day)
London Mozart Players (Photo Kevin Day)
Fairfield Halls in Croydon has been closed for three years for refurbishment and will be reopening in September 2019. On re-opening, the London Mozart Players will be returning to the hall as Resident Orchestra, marking the ensemble's 30th year as Croydon's Resident Orchestra and also bringing its 70th birthday year to a resounding close.

The re-opening will be celebrated with a gala concert being given by London Mozart Players on 18 September 2019, when three guest conductors will join the orchestra, Hilary Davan Wetton (Associate Conductor), Jane Glover (former Artistic Director 1984–1991), Gerard Korsten (former Artistic Director 2010–2015) and Howard Shelley (Conductor Laureate). The concert will feature Fairfield Fanfare by Alex Woolf, who was inspired to become a composer after an LMP outreach event in 2006, Mozart arias with soprano Louise Alder, plus music by Prokofiev and Beethoven. The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

LMP's season at Fairfield Halls will feature a wide range of concerts including soloists Sheku Kanneh-Mason in Saint-Saens, Craig Ogden in Rodrigo and Jess Gillam in Nyman and Glazunov.

In 2016,  LMP moved to St John's Upper Norwood where its innovative concert series ensured that classical music continued in the Croydon community, and the orchestra will be continuing its performances at St John's alongside the Fairfield Halls series and concerts in major London venues.

The project to restore Fairfield Halls sees the iconic venue sympathetically restored and upgraded as as part of a major project which returns many features of the original 1962 designs whilst providing new amenity spaces in the context of a wider regeneration scheme. You can read more at MICA Architects website.

Full details from the LMP website.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Belgian ensemble Vox Luminis brings its residency at Wigmore Hall to an end with Bach's complete motets

Vox Luminis
Vox Luminis
J.S. Bach complete motets; Vox Luminis; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 July 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Bach's complete surviving motets in performances both intimate and engaging, yet never short of drama or emotion

The motet was not central to Lutheran worship in Bach's Leipzig, it was cantatas which the great man was expected to produce on a regular basis though older, smaller scale motets were used as well but these tended to be simpler in style. Bach seems to have written motets mainly for special occasions, the surviving ones are nearly all funeral motets. As ever, Bach takes a musical genre and re-makes it, so that Bach's motets are far more musically developed and more complex than those of his predecessors.

For the last concert of its residency at Wigmore Hall, the early music ensemble Vox Luminis (artistic director Lionel Meunier) gave us a complete cycle of Bach's motets, including one which was only attributed to him in the 1980s: Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf BWV226, Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn BWV Anh.159, Jesu, meine Freude BWV227, Fürchte dich nicht BWV228, Komm, Jesu, komm BWV229, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV225. The ensemble used a group of ten singers with each motet being sung by a slightly different line-up, always one singer to a part, accompanied by Bart Jacobs (organ), Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda (viola da gamba) and Lisa Goldberg (bassoon). In between each motet, Jacobs played a short organ piece to create a linked sequence.

Bach's motets are challenging, complex choral pieces with Bach seemingly taking advantage of the occasional nature of the works to push boundaries. We do not really know in detail about the performance conditions of individual motets; did Bach use instruments in all of them or just some of them, would it be the standard Lutheran tradition of one singer to a part or did the occasional or festive nature of the pieces mean Bach had more decent singers available. At least some of the surviving manuscripts include instrumental accompaniments and whilst Bach would probably not have conducted them in the modern sense, his direction from the organ would have been very active. Vox Luminis, singing without a conductor, provided an object lesson in how to perform this music with a small group of singers. Only in a couple of places did ensemble waver under the pressure of an impulsive tempo. But overall these were technically superb, with the more complex passagework woven fluidly into the overal texture of the piece.

These were generally fleet performances, but never skated over the surface and it was noticeably how, in many of the motets, the singers prized the words as well. No matter how elaborate the music, it is worth bearing in mind that the word was most important in a Lutheran service. Chorales were finely done, and many movement were notable for the moving simplicity of the performance. These singers made us understand that this music meant something.

It was fascinating, being able to hear Ich lasse dich nicht, which for a long time was attributed to one of Bach's forebears. It is in the simpler motet style which Bach inherited and shows us Bach following the example of predecessors at the church. This was emphasised by the group's encore, as they performed Komm Jesu Komm by Bach's immediate predecessor at St Thomas' Church, Leipzig, Johann Scheller. This proved to be an attractive yet quite simple chorale-like piece (evidently strictly it is an aria not a chorale).

Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Black Dragon returns

In 1999 I was asked by a friend, with whom I sang in London Concord Singers, to write a piece to celebrate the fact that 2000 was not only the Millennium, but also a Chinese Year of the Dragon and three members of London Concord Singers, including the choir's founder and music director Malcolm Cottle, were all Dragons (albeit born 12 years apart). Inevitably the piece had to use a text which referred to a dragon.

I hit upon Smaug from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and I set a passage of Bilbo's first dialogue with Smaug, and had great fun creating choral textures full of glissandi for the dragon's utterances. Rather stupidly I had failed to get permission to use the text (this was well before the films) and had some long drawn out details with a solicitor's office. This entailed a group of singers getting together in my living room to record trial passages from the work. The process ultimately failed to get permission, partly because there seemed to be a lack of understanding of what I was trying to achieve.

Having a premiere date, and a finished work but no text, I decided to write my own. Still a dialogue between dragon and human, but this time I took details from another Science Fantasy work I had been reading, Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane. (Eric Whitacre had similar problems with one of this pieces, having set a poem by Robert Frost whose work he erroneously thought was out of copyright and Whitacre had a similar solution, he commissioned a friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri to write alternative words and the result is Sleep).

You can hear my piece again on Thursday (18 July 2019) at the Grosvenor Chapel when London Concord Singers (including myself and two of the original dedicatees), conducted by Jessica Norton will be performing The Black Dragon alongside works by Bob Chilcott, Elizabeth Maconchy, Jessica Norton, Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss, in a programme called Telling Stories. Tickets are available on-line from EventBrite. Rather excitingly we are also singing the programme at Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, Ireland on 3 August 2019.

'Slightly bonkers', I chat to conductor Ben Woodward about Fulham Opera's forthcoming performances of Die Meistersinger

Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Having performed Wagner's Ring Cycle and The Flying Dutchman, and three of Verdi's largest operas including Don Carlo [see my review], Simon Boccanegra and Falstaff, to critical acclaim, Fulham Opera is preparing to perform Wagner's Die Meistersinger in August 2019 under the direction of conductor Ben Woodward. I recently met up with Ben to chat about how a London fringe opera company had started to think big.


Ben Woodward
Ben Woodward
When I ask Ben why Die Meistersinger his response is that it fits Fulham Opera's usp, they do large scale opera in big spaces in a fringe way 'with far better singing than we deserve'. And, after all, Wagner's only mature comedy is marvellous and joyous and nobody dies. But when all is said and done, Ben is the first to admit that the concept of doing the piece as a fringe production is slightly bonkers, but Fulham Opera can do it. And Ben adds that the Keel Watson (who sings Hans Sachs) and Ronald Samm (who sings Walther) make a terrific combination. Whilst Samm has done Siegmund a lot, neither he nor Watson has sung their role before.

In fact, in every respect Die Meistersinger is hard to bring off on a small scale, and the production needs lots of people. That said, there probably won't be 40 in the chorus (all volunteers) and many of the choruses have been discreetly arranged for just four parts (SATB).  The orchestra will be reduced to 18 players (single woodwind, two clarinets, two horns, trumpet, trombone, nine strings and an electric keyboard for the lute) in an arrangement by Jonathan Finney who did Fulham Opera's version of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

The set demands are not too great, so do not present that much of a challenge to director and designers, but where and when it is set very much affects the costume budget (set in period all those mastersinger costumes come expensive), and in all likelihood Paul Higgins' production will be modern day. And Ben points out that the opera deals with issues which have great resonance with contemporary society.

With all the challenges, is it possible to do a fringe production?

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Tautly dramatic: Ivo van Hove's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Paris Opera's Palais Garnier

 Mozart: Don Giovanni - Etienne Dupuy, Philippe Sly - Paris Opera (Photo Charles Duprat / OnP)
 Mozart: Don Giovanni - Etienne Dupuis, Philippe Sly - Paris Opera (Photo Charles Duprat / OnP)
Mozart Don Giovanni; Jacquelyn Wagner, Nicole Car, Etienne Dupuis, Philippe Sly, Elsa Dreisig, Mikhail Timoshenko, Stanislas de Barbeyrag, Ain Anger, dir: Ivo van Hove, cond: Philippe Jordan; Paris Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A stylish contemporary take, which stays true to Mozart and Da Ponte's drama and provides some tautly dramatic moments

What happens when you bring a contemporary Belgian theatre director, known for challenging audiences, together with Mozart's Don Giovanni?
 Mozart: Don Giovanni - Etienne Dupuy, - Paris Opera (Photo Charles Duprat / OnP)
 Mozart: Don Giovanni - Etienne Dupuis, - Paris Opera
(Photo Charles Duprat / OnP)
 

Ivo van Hove's Avignon festival production of Les Damnés (The Damned) for the Comédie-Française (which was recently seen to some acclaim in London) featured male and female nudity and implied paedophilia. Mozart's operatic masterpiece would seem to offer great scope, then for a free reign of the imagination.
 
In fact, Ivo van Hove's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Paris Opera's Palais Garnier (seen 10 July 2019) proved to be a thoughtful and tightly plotted production which stayed close to Mozart and Da Ponte without being over reverent. Designs were by Jan Versweyveld with costumes by An D'Huys, choreography by Isabelle Horovitz and video by Christopher Ash. Philippe Jordan conducted with Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni, Ain Anger as the Commendatore, Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Nicole Car as Donna Elvira, Philippe Sly as Leporello, Mikhail Timoshenko as Masetto and Elsa Dreisig as Zerlina.

Versweyveld's stylish grey set echoed Escher, Piranesi and those designs of ideal Renaissance cities, but here one re-made in 1970s cast concrete, the result was to evoke the great Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. Within this, D'Huys' costumes were roughly contemporary, with clear delineation of hierarchy and class, that this opera opera needs. Jan Versweyveld's lighting was highly effective, often from within the rooms of the set. With the gloom and faces in shadow for the opening scene making credible Donna Anna's claim that she did not see the face of her attacker.

 Mozart: Don Giovanni - Elena Dresig, Mikhail Timoshenko, Nicole Car, Philippe Sly, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Jacquelyn Wagner - Paris Opera (Photo Charles Duprat / OnP)
 Mozart: Don Giovanni - Elena Dresig, Mikhail Timoshenko, Nicole Car, Philippe Sly, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Jacquelyn Wagner - Paris Opera (Photo Charles Duprat / OnP)
Ivo van Hove had clearly read the libretto and listened to Mozart's music.

La forza del destino: Verdi's sprawling masterpiece in a highly picturesque production at the Paris Opera

Verdi: La forza del destino - Opera National de Paris (Photo Julien Benhamou / OnP)
Verdi: La forza del destino - Opera National de Paris (Photo Julien Benhamou / OnP)
Verdi La forza del destino; Elena Stikhina, Brian Jagde, Zeljko Lucic, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Rafal Siwek, Gabriele Viviani, dir: Jean-Claude Auvray/Stephen Taylor, cond: Nicola Luisotti; Opera National de Paris
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A finely balanced cast brings strong musical values to this revival of Jean-Claude Auvray's handsome 2011 production

Verdi: La forza del destino - Brian Jagde, Elena Stikhina - Opera National de Paris (Photo Julien Benhamou / OnP)
Verdi: La forza del destino - Brian Jagde, Elena Stikhina
Opera National de Paris (Photo Julien Benhamou / OnP)
Jean-Claude Auvray's 2011 production of Verdi's La forza del destino was revived at Paris' Opera Bastille (revival director Stephen Taylor) for ten performances of which we caught the last (9 July 2019). Nicola Luisotti conducted with Elena Stikhina as Leonora, Brian Jagde as Don Alvaro, Zeljko Lucic as Don Carlo, Varduhi Abrahamyan as Preziosilla, Rafal Siwek as Padre Guardiano and Gabriele Viviani as Fra Melitone.

Auvray set the opera in the 19th century, identifying the battles with those of the Risorgimento. Despite some interesting ideas in Auvray's programme note, the attractively traditional production (sets Alain Chambon, costumes Maria Chiara Donato) rarely went beyond the simply pictorial. Auvray seemed to have a fascination with painted backdrops which were allowed to drop at the end of scenes, perhaps evoking the production's use of flags. The set was often quite plain, with Auvray and Chambon placing single items such as a huge crucifix to striking effect.

Auvray seemed uninterested in Don Alvaro's otherness, his programme note insisting it as Don Avaro's religion not his race which the marquis objected to.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

A real delight: Handel's Rival queen's brought to life

Handels Queens - Signum Classics
Handel's Queens: Cuzzoni & Faustina; Lucy Crowe, Mary Bevan, London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham; Signum Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 June 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A musical portrait of Handel's two 'rival queens' broadening our musical picture of them

The sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni (1696-1778) and Faustina Bordone (1697-1781), popularly known as Faustina, have had a somewhat bad press in the UK. There is no denying their individual talent, but the stories tend to be of their diva-ish behaviour and the notorious fight between them.

The new two-disc set from Bridget Cunningham and London Early Opera, Handel's Queens: Cuzzoni and Faustina from Signum Classics aims to set the record straight. With Lucy Crowe singing arias for Cuzzoni and Mary Bevan singing arias for Faustina, the programme encompasses not just the arias Handel wrote for them when they were in London (Cuzzoni from 1723 to 1728, Faustina from 1726 to 1728) but arias from throughout their careers from Carlo Pollarolo, Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicola Porpora, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, Antonio Vivaldi, Pietro Torri, Leonardo Leo, Giovanni Bononcini, Leonardo Vinci, Attilio Ariosti and Maurice Greene.

The advantage of the disc is the way it has cast its net widely. The two sopranos stay in London co-incided with Handel's prime and an entire disc could be assembled of his music for them, but this is a more balanced picture. We get Bononcini's Astianatte and Ariosti's Caria Marzio Coriolano written for London's Royal Academy of Music by composers who were Handel's peers and rivals, a valuable corrective to the fact that we often concentrate on Handel's influence at the Academy at this period. We hear an aria by Leonardo Vinci in Handel's version from his pasticcio L'Elpidia, pasticcio being an important way of filling the schedule and also providing an outlet for music by the younger composers from Italy. The disc ends with an aria da camera by Maurice Greene which has been identified as Faustina's farewell to London.

Monday, 8 July 2019

City Music Foundation residency at the Wallace Collection

Sholto Kynoch with Gildas Quartet at the 2016 Summer Residency (© Robyn Skead)
Sholto Kynoch with Gildas Quartet at the City Music Foundation's
2016 Summer Residency at the Wallace Collection (© Robyn Skead)
The City Music Foundation (CMF) is returning to the Wallace Collection later this month when the current crop of CMF Artists will be giving free lunchtime concerts from Monday 22 July to Friday 26 July 2019.

The programme consists of Ariana Kashefi (cello) and Maksim Štšura (piano) in Debussy, Faure & Brahms (22/7/2019), jazz pianist Tom Millar (23/7/2019), Toby Hughes (double bass) and Daniel King Smith (piano) in Bottesini, Liebermann, Desenclos and Brahms' Cello sonata (24/7/2019), Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano) and Adam Cigman-Mark (piano) in Alma Mahler, Clara Schumann and Alban Berg (25/7/2019), and A4 Brass Quartet in music by Jonathan Bates (a member of the quartet), Bach, Bartok and Grainger plus the world premiere of the winning entry from their latest composition competition (26/7/2019).

A4 Brass Quartet will also be presenting a children's concert on 26 July, and Tom Millar will be giving an intimate Discover the Wallace concert. Discover the Wallace is the Collection’s programme for people living with the early stages of dementia and their friends and families. Taking the audience on a trip down memory lane, Tom’s programme will include hits of yester-year; the performance starts at 3pm, with tea and an opportunity to gently explore the Collection with specialist educators starting from 2pm.

The residences ends with CMF's first evening concert at the Collection, when on Friday 26 July. the Eblana String Trio (CMF Artist 2017) and double bass player Toby Hughes will be joined by pianist Sholto Kynoch to perform Schubert's Trout Quintet, and Kynoch will join Helen Charlston for a selection of fish themed songs including of course Schubert's trout Die Forelle, plus sundry carp, crayfish  and mermaids by Poulenc, Mahler and others!

Full details from the City Music Foundation website.

From duo to septet: meet the Oculi Ensemble.



The Oculi Ensemble is a flexible group of string players which grew out of the Badke Quartet, and so the ensemble can provide programmes varying from two players to seven. Jon Thorne, who plays viola with the ensemble, explained that the evolution of life and the complexities of families meant that the players of the Badke Quartet felt that the new flexible ensemble was the logical development.

One of the features of the ensemble is that all the players have a string quartet background, and between them they have quite an array of distinguished instruments with a Stradivarius, two Guarneri and a Grancino, Jon calls it an amazing collection of instruments, commenting that they are very fortunate. The regular players in the ensemble are Charlotte Scott (violin), Emma Parker (violin), Jon Thorne (viola), Simon Tandree (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello), Pau Codina (cello) and Stacey Watton (double bass).

The ensemble have a group of concerts coming up shortly when they will be playing in Chichester (12/7/2019) and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (15/7/2019) with a programme of Mozart and Brahms quintets plus Webern, and at LSO St Lukes in London (19/7/2019) with a programme of Richard Strauss, Mozart and Brahms. Further ahead the ensemble is at the North York Moors festival and back in London in the Autumn

The ensemble plays the classical repertoire, and can offer programmes based on anything from duos to septets, and Jon comments that it is nice to be able to play this wider repertoire properly. Currently they give around ten to fifteen concerts per year, but are hoping to grow this.

Their first disc is due out at the end of this year or early 2020 and will feature an all Richard Strauss programme with not only the string septet of Metamorphosen and the sextet from Capriccio but the early piano quartet, first string quartet and a fragment which was specially released from the family archives for the ensemble to play. I caught them in the Strauss Sextet at Conway Hall last year [see my review] and the planned inclusion of the Strauss Quartetsatz did not happen because the music had not arrived from the archives, but thankfully it was there in time to be recorded.

The Strauss disc is already recorded, so the ensemble is now thinking about their next one. The Badke Quartet gave the UK premiere of the Bruch quartets, so they are thinking about some Bruch chamber music, or the Borodin Sextet, which Jon calls 'a gorgeous work'.

Full details of the ensemble's concerts from its website.

Music may not make you smarter, but we now know that music engagement sustained from childhood into adolescence may lead to doing better in high school

Gabrieli Roar, Gabrieli Consort & Players St Andrew's Church, Holborn
Gabrieli Roar (with children from Tiffin Boys Choir & DRET Youth Choir), Gabrieli Consort & Players
St Andrew's Church, Holborn
There has been a dramatic fall in the number of pupils talking music, mirroring the fall in other creative subjects not included in the English Baccaleaureate (see article on Classic FM website). Numbers released by Ofqual, the government department that oversees qualifications and exams, reveal that the number of students taking Music at GCSE has been in decline for the past four years. Music isn’t included in the English Baccalaureate, the set of core subjects used to measure schools’ performance, which was introduced in 2010.

It isn't just music as an academic subject, with the cuts in funding for education and the down-grading of music's role in the syllabus it is tempting to think that we are on the way to all forms of music in education being the preserve only of the privileged or dependent on external projects. There is lots of good work being done by musical organisations, something touched on in my recent my interviews with Nicholas Chalmers of Nevill Holt Opera and Christopher Monk of the Armonico Consort and my article about the recent Gabrieli Roar project. But the result is a patchwork of practical music provision, rather than a coherent musical policy.

Ironically, this comes at a time when we are beginning to understand quite what a valuable tool music can be in education, improving not only social cohesion but academic skills as well.

Some years ago, I was at an In Harmony Lambeth event when Julian Lloyd Webber was talking, and he commented that as a musical project In Harmony Lambeth could only be seen as expensive but as a social action project it could be seen as providing wonderful value for money. Founded 10 years ago this year, In Harmony Lambeth was inspired by the Venezualan El Sistema. The Venezualan organisation has become controversial in recent years, but there is no doubting that those organisations in the UK that follow El Sistema, the system, have a remarkable effect on improving children's ability to work as a team; confidence, pride and aspiration; resilience; social skills; leadership skills; self-esteem; as well as allowing them to discover the sheer joy of music making. Currently Sistema England supports six such projects, In Harmony Lambeth, In Harmony Liverpool, In Harmony Newcastle, In Harmony Telford & Stoke, Sistema in Norwich, the Nucleo Project.

Nevill Holt Opera education workshop with Nicholas Chalmers
Nevill Holt Opera education workshop with Nicholas Chalmers
But it isn't just special projects such as these where music has the power to transform. The David Ross Educational Trust has a wide portfolio of Academies (both Primary and Secondary) across the Midlands. Music is important in the DRET Academies, children from the schools made up the chorus of fairies in Nevill Holt Opera's recent production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the DRET Youth Choir participated in the recent Gabrieli Roar project, An English Coronation: 1902-1953 [see my review].

But what is remarkable is the effect that music can have on schools. The Singing Schools programme devised by the Voices Foundation in collaboration with the David Ross Educational Trust (DRET) won an award at the 2018 Music Teachers Awards for Excellence. A number of DRET's Primary Academies were put on the programme, which helps staff deliver a singing-based music curriculum in which every child and every adult sings daily with repertoire ranging from simple catchy melodies to complex part songs. The results had a transformational effect, not just on the children's musical abilities but on the general education (the winning entry in the competition had seen an increase in Year 6 SATs results from 31% combined - reading, writing and maths - to 64% combined).

All this seems to be born out by recent research (see the article in iNews). Canadian researchers have been examining school records in British Colombia, and after studying 112,000 students found that music students were the equivalent of an academic year better in maths, science and English than their non-musical classmates. The suggestion is that skills learned in music classes enhanced the students' overall education. (you can read more about the research in an invaluable article on The Conversation written by one of the researchers).

'Music may not make you smarter, but we now know that music engagement sustained from childhood into adolescence — and more of it, especially instrumental music — may lead to doing better in high school.' (Scott Emerson in The Conversation)

This is completely counter to the current way of thinking in the Government and the Department for Education where music seems to be regarded as a luxury that we can ill afford. Yet projects such as these, and the Canadian research simply confirm what many experience music educationalists have known all along, that music as part of a well rounded education is the most important.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

A Rachmaninov Drama - Scenes from a Love Affair

Rachmaninov in 1902
Rachmaninov in 1902
Rachmaninov songs; Sofia Fomina, Roderick Williams, Julius Drake; Temple Music at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Around a quarter of Rachmaninov's mature songs presented as a striking dramatic sequence, highlighting discoveries old and new

For the last Temple Song concert of the season, Temple Music presented A Rachmaninov Drama - Scenes from a Love Affair, a programme of Rachmaninov songs performed by Sofia Fomina (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone) and Julius Drake (piano). Drake had selected a sequence of some two dozen of Rachmaninov's songs on the theme of love, unattainable, attained, and lost, ending with Rachmaninov's sole duet (actually more of a dialogue).

Rachmaninov wrote songs throughout his career in Russia, excluding juvenilia he wrote some 83 songs between 1890 (when he was 17) to 1916, but after 1917 when he left Russia as an exile after the Revolution he stopped writing songs. His disconnection from his home country, and the fact that the Russia of his youth now no longer existed, had a large effect on Rachmaninov's compositions. Settled in the USA, his main source of income came from piano and conducting engagements with demanding tour schedules, leading to a reduction in his time for composition; between 1918 and 1943, he completed just six works, including Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances. One of the ironies of Rachmaninov's songs (and his smaller piano pieces) is that their prevailing mood of yearning, lyric melancholy seems to evoke the exiled Rachmaninov yet they were actually written by the younger composer settled in Russia.

It is not that the songs offer no stylistic development, and the six songs Opus 38, written in 1916 just before Rachmaninov left Russia, set Symbolist poets rather than the Russian Romantics that Rachmaninov had previous favoured, and in style we can hear how Rachmaninov moved away from the Tchaikovsky-inspired melody of the earliest songs. Song for Rachmaninov seems to have been intimately bound up with the personal, his songs were dedicated to friends and relatives, wives and mistresses, and also to the great singers who performed them, perhaps offering a hint as to why he stopped writing songs when these relationships were severed by his exile.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Site-specific, steam-punk, comic, pop-up & experimental: the many faces of new opera at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival

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 2018
Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is returning for the 12th festival, providing a feast of new, experimental and intriguing opera from 24 July to 10 August 2019, with 30 new operas across nine venues ranging from the free Cubitt Sessions which are outdoors, to more formal theatres, not to mention some site specific pieces, The Key (based on a Japanese novel) in a private residence in Dulwich and Duncan House in a block of Camden flats. Whilst God Save The Tea takes place at a secret location.

Top of everyone's list must be Tête à Tête's own Madame Butterflop, continuing their massacring of a classic to create shambolic and hilarous results [see my review of last year's Toscatastrope]. This year, Mary Plazas will be bravely singing the title role against all the odds. Comedy is also around elsewhere too, with The Perfect Opera a satirical sketch piece which attempts perfection by mixing and matching, we can expect a romantic union between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a pantomime camel. And following on from the perfect opera is a Steam-punk opera, 8.

The multi-talented Ayanna Witter-Johnson is bringing her own show, as does soprano Nadine Benjamin in Beam which follow's a woman's journey through life, mixing opera, creative soundscape and imagery. Benjamin also features as performer in Shirley Thompson's Memories in Mind: Women of Windrush Tell Their Stories. Michael Betteridge and Laura Bowler's Voice(less), which was developed at Snape Maltings, explores how people lose their voice. Errollyn Wallen and Ensemble X will be performing the Errollyn Wallen Songbook, her continually evolving set of Ivor Novello songs.

Nwando Ebizie, Tom Richards and Lore Lixenberg are mixing Hildegard of Bingen, with Haitian Voudou and Neurodiversity (no, I've no idea what it is either) in Hildegard:Visions. Alastair White's Robe describes itself as 'A posthuman fantasia about cartography, cyberpunk and the A.I. singularity featuring high fashion, contemporary dance and musical virtuosity'. Edward Lambert's Apollo's Mission will mix a celebration of the moon landing with the bonkers twist to the Apollo 11 moon landing. Visiting from Poland, Warsaw Stage Society bring Karol Nepelski & Waldemar Raźniak's Birdy based on William Wharton's novel exploring obsessive fantasies.

There will be pop-up opera too including a karaoke station, Karaopera, plus a series of composed pieces popping up, Apple Appleby's We Did Our Best, Catherine Kontz' Handclap, and Vahan Salorian's Aliens on the Street

Full details from the Tête à Tête website.

A first opera, opening the Cheltenham Music Festival & the RLPO's 2019/20 season: I chat to composer Dani Howard

Dani Howard
Dani Howard
The young Hong Kong-born British composer Dani Howard is having quite a busy year. Her first opera, Robin Hood was premiered earlier this year by The Opera Story in London [see my review], her new orchestral work Gates of Spring will open the 75th Cheltenham Music Festival tonight (5 July 2019) with Elim Chan conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and another new orchestral work Coalescence opens the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra's 2019/2020 season with Vasily Petrenko conducting the orchestra. I met up with Dani recently in London to chat about her new pieces, and find out how writing her first opera had gone.

Dani often bases her subject matter on the forces required and the length of the piece, so as Gates of Spring was required to be a short concert opener it is quite light-hearted, written for a full symphony orchestra with a big tuba solo. She describes Gates of Spring as being loosely based on the founding of Cheltenham as a spa town, with the title referring not to the season but to the gates which the founder of the spa put round the original spring. Her piece takes a musical journey which depicts Cheltenham as a beautiful old farmhouse, the spring being discovered by a young entrepreneur and the spa developed. So we have an atmospheric beginning, an idea, an outpouring of excitement, a false sense of confidence, doubts growing and then events building, at the end the two musical ideas representing the old and new Cheltenham merge.

Coalescence is somewhat longer, which forms the first work in Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's opening concerts (19 & 22 September 2019) of the orchestra's 2019/20 season. Dani confesses herself very excited to be working with Petrenko.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

A Suffolk heroine returns home: Margaret Catchpole: Two Worlds Apart

Margaret Catchpole
Margaret Catchpole was a young Suffolk woman who was convicted of stealing a horse in a desperate attempt to meet a young man (a smuggler) with whom she had fallen in love, she was caught, convicted and transported to Australia, where she remained and her letters are an important eyewitness account of events in Australia in the early 19th century.

In 1979 the composer Stephen Dodgson turned to the story of Margaret Catchpole as the basis for his chamber opera with a libretto by the Suffolk-based writer Ronald Fletcher. Dodgson's wife, Jane Clark Dodgson, lived in Suffolk and fell in love with the novel The History of Margaret Catchpole by Richard Cobbold (first published in London in 1845), and this formed the inspiration for Dodgson's choosing the story for the opera.

Margaret Catchpole premiered in 1979, having a short run in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Dodgson subsequently revised the last Act and this version was performed at the Wangford Festival in 1989. Now the opera is returning to Suffolk, where it is being performed at Snape Maltings on 5 July 2019, and will be recorded live for Naxos. Julian Perkins conducts Ensemble Perpetuo with Kate Howden in the title role, plus Matthew Brook, Richard Edgar-Wilson, Anna Dennis and William Wallace.

Full details from the Snape Maltings website.

Mozart travelogues, moon landings and Mansfield Park: the 2019 Lichfield Festival

2017 Lichfield Festival (photo Redlock Photography)
2017 Lichfield Festival (photo Redlock Photography)
The Lichfield Festival (festival director Damian Thantrey) opens on Friday 5 July 2019, providing nine days of music, dance, comedy, talks, family events and more. Headlined by K T Tunstall whose concert on Friday opens the festival, performers include the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, The Mozartists, and Voces8, with Jonathan Dove as featured composer.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales returns for a second year of residency and with conductor Ainar Rubikis performing Elgar's Enigma Variations and Sea Pictures, with mezzo-soprano Polly Leech, and Shostakovich's Cello Concerto, with Andrei Ionita. Ian Page and The Mozartists present A Mozart Travelogue with soprano Louise Alder, harpist Oliver Wass (who performed in the premiere of my opera The Gardeners last month), and Gavin Edwards (horn).

Jonathan Dove is the festival's featured composers. Voces8 will be performing his new work (and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings), Jonathan will be in conversation with Kate Romano, his opera Mansfield Park is being performed by students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and Lichfield Cathedral Choir sing one of Jonathan's anthems in their Festival Compline..

Festival director Damian Thantrey has created A Celebration of Ivor Novello performed by Thantrey, soprano Rebecca Bottone and mezzo-soprano Polly Leech. and the Atea Quintet.

Other visitors include BBC Young Musician 2018 winner Lauren Zhang, returning Young Artists Michael Petrov, the Albion Quartet, Ensemble Hesperi performing 18th century Scottish Baroque music complete with a Highland dancer, Charles Court Opera's production of G&S's HMS Pinafore [see Anthony's review], a cappella group Black Voices performing Nina Simone, Kathryn Tickell and her band The Darkening.

Full details from the Festival website.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

15 premieres, 5 recent works: New Music Biennial on the Southbank and in Hull

New Music Biennial
New Music Biennial returns to the Southbank Centre for a fourth time this weekend (5-8 July 2019) bringing a celebration of new music across genres, classical, world music, folk, jazz, electronic and even music for ice cream vans. The event is a PRS Foundation initiative presented in partnership with Southbank Centre, Absolutely Cultured (Hull), BBC Radio 3 and NMC Recordings. There are 15 works from UK-based composers receiving their first performances, plus five pre-existing works composed within the last 15 years. There will be a chance to hear music from Gazelle Twin and Max de Wardener, Roderick Williams, Sam Eastmond, Claire M Singer, Khyam Allami, Sona Jobarteh, Arun Ghosh, Sarah Tandy, Forest Swords, Klein, Dan Jones, Edmund Finnis, 9Bach, Conor Mitchell, Jessica Curry, Shiva Feshareki, Aidan O’Rourke, Kit Downes, James Robertson, Rolf Hind, David Fennessy and Numb Mob.

The New Music Biennial then moves to Hull, talking place in various venues across the city from 12 to 14 July 2019.

The BBC Concert Orchestra is presenting Shiva Feshareki’s recent work for turntables and orchestra, plus a new piece by British electronic music composer and producer Gazelle Twin who collaborates with composer Max de Wardener, whilst the London Contemporary Orchestra is collaborating with Claire M Singer for a work featuring the newly renovated Queen Elizabeth Hall organ. BAFTA winning composer Jessica Curry uses the poetry of American feminist and poet Judy Grahn to create a powerful new work of hope for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. Dan Jones’ Music for Seven Ice Cream Vans, sees a fleet of ice cream vans call out to one another to create a magical soundscape, created especially for the Southbank Centre site and the streets of Hull.

Cross-country and cross-cultural collaborations are very much a feature, with Sona Jobarteh, the first female Kora virtuoso to come from a west African Griot family, integrating West African and European instrumental interpretation, Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami's sound installation from broken and decaying ouds (a new commission from Opera North), Sam Eastmond whose piece Brit-Ish explores Jewish culture and identity in 21st century Britain, the alternative Welsh folk group 9Bach collaborating with actress Maxine Peake and acclaimed drummer Andy Gangadeen in a bilingual multi-media work, Rolf Hind working with gamelan, Roderick Williams setting poems evoking Chris Beckett's upbringing in Ethiopia and performing with Chineke!, Jazz pianist Sarah Tandy inspired by the work of Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes.

Interactive workshops include the art of storytelling with novelist James Robertson and an all-age vocal workshop led by conductor Dominic Ellis-Peckham exploring improvisation and compositional ‘play’, and there are a series of talks from Composers' Collective.

Full details from the New Music Biennial website, or the Southbank Centre website.

Contemplative beauty: Ian Venables new Requiem at Holy Trinity Church, Chelsea

Ian Venables - Requiem - Evoke
Ian Venables Requiem; Evoke, Victoria Ely, James Gough; Holy Trinity Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 July 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A significant new contemporary Requiem proves to be a contemplative work of profound beauty

Evoke
Evoke
The composer Ian Venables is perhaps best known for his songs, and whilst he has written choral music as Requiem represents something of a departure for him. Setting eight movements of the Ordinary of the Mass (there is no 'Dies Irae') for choir and organ, the work has grown gradually and the performance last night (2 July 2019) at Holy Trinity Church, Chelsea by the choir Evoke, conductor Victoria Ely, and organist James Gough, was not only the work's first London performance but the first complete performance (when the work was premiered during a service at Gloucester Cathedral in November last year it was lacking the two final movements, see the review in Seen and Heard). The mass was preceded by a selection of English works by Robert Pearsall, William Byrd, John Joubert, RVW, Frank Bridge, Cecilia McDowall and Herbert Howells.

Venables takes a consoling view of the work, and this setting is very much in the tradition of Faure and Durufle rather than Verdi, and I also thought of Herbert Howells' Requiem (a work which is linked to his Hymuns Paradisi but being for unaccompanied choir has a very different tone quality to it). The individual movements are short enough to work liturgically, but it is sufficiently substantial to make a significant concert work in its own right. Throughout the piece, Venables' writing for voices and organ seemed to evoke both Howells and Durufle, the latter particularly in the way the organ amplified, commented and discussed rather than accompanied and the way all the melodic ideas suggested that they might have evolved from chant.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Berlioz’ thrilling ‘légende dramatique’ - La damnation de Faust - makes its Glyndebourne Festival début in a clinical and clean production by Richard Jones

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust - Chritopher Purves, Allan Clayton - Glyndebourne Festival 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust - Christopher Purves, Allan Clayton
Glyndebourne Festival 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Berlioz La damnation de Faust; Allan Clayton, Christopher Purves, Julie Boulianne, Ashley Riches, cond: Gareth Hancock, dir: Richard Jones; Glyndebourne Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 27 June 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust - an operatic tour-de-force like no other - asks one simple question: What is the price of the human soul?

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust - Allan Clayton, Julie Boulianne - Glyndebourne Festival 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust - Allan Clayton, Julie Boulianne
Glyndebourne Festival 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
After seeing Gounod’s Faust in Nice [see Tony's review] and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Aldeburgh [see Tony's review], Planet Hugill’s roving reporter once more catches up with the devil but this time round on the South Downs of East Sussex with Glyndebourne’s production of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust directed by Richard Jones (seen Thursday 27 June 2019). This is the first time that the opera has been staged at Glyndebourne marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death.

The performing company is one of the largest seen at Glyndebourne. Sixty-four singers make up the Glyndebourne Chorus complemented by Glyndebourne Youth Opera, Trinity Boys’ Choir and 14 actors plus the four principal singers comprising Allan Clayton (Faust), Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès), Julie Boulianne (Marguerite) and Ashley Riches (Brander). The production also featured 85 instrumentalists (80 in the pit, five off-stage) while Gareth Hancock (standing in for Robin Ticciati) conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Pieter Schoeman.

Berlioz was inspired to write La damnation de Faust after reading part one of Goethe’s Faust in 1828 in a translation by Gérard de Nerval. He commented that ‘this marvellous book fascinated me from the first. I could not put it down. I read it incessantly: at meals, in the theatre, in the street.’ He was so impressed by it that a suite entitled Eight Scenes from Faust became his Opus 1 in 1829.

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust - Chritopher Purves, Allan Clayton - Glyndebourne Festival 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust - Christopher Purves, Allan Clayton
Glyndebourne Festival 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Originally, a ‘concert opera’ it became with expansion a ‘légende dramatique’ (a term coined by Berlioz) in four parts. By the time it was written, the composer had found fame by the trio of works - Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet.

Often referred to as one of the two quintessential myths of western culture - the other being Don Giovanni - the story of Faust became an obsession for many of the greatest composers of the 19th century. Countless works were inspired by the myth including Liszt’s A Faust Symphony, Part II of Mahler’s Symphony No.8, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust and, of course, Charles Gounod’s opera, Faust.

Berlioz always wanted the work to be staged and, in this respect, the première fell to the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in December 1846. The performance, though, became a damp squib due to its status, perhaps, of being part-opera, part-cantata. Causing a financial setback for Berlioz, he recalled: ‘Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference.’ He conceded that the production techniques afforded him were not really up to the task of bringing the work fully to dramatic life. How he would have loved today’s hi-tech production facilities.

Popular Posts this month