Thursday 31 January 2019

Of arms and a woman: late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan

Blondel - Of arms and a woman - FHR
Of arms and a woman: late medieval wind music; Blondel; FHR
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 January 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An engaging selection of medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan's writings

This delightful disc is inspired by the writings of Christine de Pisan (1364-1430) who, remarkably, produced a wide body of romantic poetry as well as Livre des fais d'armes et de chevalerie (The Books of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry) which just about defined chivalry and modern warfare for the Middle Ages, including the idea of the just war (fought by Kings in the name of God). There is only one surviving contemporary setting of Pisan's poetry, so here we have a wide selection of chansons which reflect the themes of her work in versions for Medieval wind ensemble performed by Blondel (Louise Anna Duggan, Emily Baines, Daniel Serafini, Lizzie Gutteridge and Belinda Paul) on First Hand Records. Whilst many of the works on the disc are anonymous, we also have music by Dufay, John Bedyngham, Gilles Binchois, Johannes Ciconia, Baude Cordier, Guillaume de Machaut, Solage, Robert Morton, Francesco Landini, and Josquin des Pres.

The result is 24 short tracks which engage with the melodic freedom of the music and delightful imagination of the scoring.

Music with a message: European premiere of Gabriela Montero's Babel

Gabriela Montero
Gabriela Montero
Audiences perhaps know Gabriela Montero best as a pianist and improvisor, re-igniting the tradition of performers as improvisors as well as interpreters. Montero is also a composer, and a human rights activist for her politically-troubled home country of Venezuela. And a concert with the Scottish Ensemble in February 2019 allows audiences to explore these latter two aspects of Montero's art as she and the Scottish Ensemble collaborate on the European premiere of Montero's Babel for piano and strings, a work which uses music as a metaphor for an artist trying to communicate injustice in a frantic 21st century world, creating a vivid picture of an artist trying to convey urgent political messages in a world which wants only to talk, and never to listen. The work was co-commissioned by Scottish Ensemble, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra (USA) and Kings Place (UK) and was premiered in Columbus, Ohio, USA in November 2018 with the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra.

Babel is performed in a programme which explores the theme of 'music with a message', works which use music to communicate a powerful message about our humanity, including Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony Op.118a, the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and Peteris Vasks’ Viatore.  The ensemble is bringing the programme to Kings Place, as part of the Venus Unwrapped Festival when they will also be performing Dobrinka Tabakova's Such Different Paths.

The programme debuts at Glasgow Concert Halls (8/2/2019) and then tours to Eden Court, Inverness (10/2/2019) , The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh (12/2/2019), Perth Concert Hall (13/2/2019), Kings Place, London (15/2/2019), Kendal Leisure Centre (16/2/2019).

Full details from the Scottish Ensemble website.

Wednesday 30 January 2019

The Hour Glass: Choral music on the theme of time

The Hour Glass
Conductor Andrew Griffiths and his choir Londinium are presenting a concert on the theme of time. The Hour Glass at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens, Paddington, W2 3UD on Saturday 2 February 2019 includes American composer Irving Fine's virtuosic choral suite The Hour Glass and the premiere of Barnaby Martin's I saw eternity alongside an eclectic mix of composers including Byrd, Chilcott, Ligeti, Pärt and Stanford.

Irving Fine (1914-1962) was an American composer who was a member of a close-knit group of composers associated with Boston, sometimes called the Boston Six, Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Harold Shapero. Fine was a pupil of Walter Piston and studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky as well as studying composition with Nadia Boulanger. The Hour Glass was written in 1949 and sets a text by Ben Jonson.

The young British composer Barnaby Martin had his orchestral work Quanta selected as the winner of the 2018 Toru Takemitsu Composition award, the first time a British composer has won the competition. He is currently writing a work for chamber orchestra as part of the London Philharmonic Orchestra's Young Composers Programme 2018-19. The work will be first performed in the Debut Sounds concert by members of the LPO alongside players from the orchestra's Foyle Future Firsts scheme in July 2019 conducted by Sir James MacMillan. ​

Full details from the Londinium website.

Clara Schumann festival at St John's Smith Square

Robert & Clara Schumann
Robert & Clara Schumann
This year sees the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann's birth. Still best known as the wife of composer Robert Schumann, she was also a major musical figure in her own right, one of the 19th century's most influential pianists and a composer of some stature. A festival at St John's Smith Square from 22 to 24 February 2019 is planning to reveal more about Clara Schumann the composer as well as shedding light on other aspects of her life.

There will be a rare opportunity to hear all of Clara Schumann's published songs, 29 in all, performed by soprano Sophie Karthäuser, tenor Alessandro Fisher and pianist Eugene Asti. Pianist Gamal Khamis will be performing Clara's piano works alongside those of Bach, a composer revered and studied by both Robert and Clara, whilst pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen will be performing the Handel Variations by Clara's friend Brahms (the work is dedicated to her).

Robert's wedding gift to Clara was the song cycle Myrthen, and there will be a chance to hear songs from that cycle alongside the songs from the cycle which Robert and Clara wrote jointly, Clara's Variations on a theme by Robert Op. 20 and Robert's Fantasy in C Op. 17 performed by soprano Marie Lawson, baritone James Newby, with Eugene Asti, Mishka Momen Rushdie and Gamal Khamis. The Busch Trio (Mathieu van Bellem, Ori Epstein, Omri Epstein) will be performing Clara's masterpiece, the Piano Trio in G minor.

Other relationships explored include the friendship with Mendelssohn, and Clara's long friendship and musical partnership with the violinist Joachim. The festival ends with Brahms' Vier ernste Gesänge Op. 121 performed by Stephan Loges (baritone) and Eugene Asti, songs which Brahms wrote as a testament to his long friendship with Clara.

Full details from the St John's Smith Square website.

1769: A year in music

Saverio dall Rosa: Mozart aged 14 in January 1770
Saverio dall Rosa: Mozart aged 14 in January 1770
Mozart, Arne, Paisiello, Gluck CPE Bach, Haydn, Leopold Mozart; Chiara Skerath, James Newby, The Mozartists, Ian Page; Queen Elizabeth Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 January 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Ian Page's Mozart 250 project has reached tthe teenage Mozart, here performed alongside an intriguing selection of music by his contemporaries

It is 1769, and young Mozart turns into a teenager. Having written his first full-length opera (La finta semplice) the previous year, this year is a quieter time for composition with only three orchestral serenades. But in the wider world, there is plenty of music going on with works by Arne, Paisiello, Haydn, CPE Bach and Gluck.

This is the context for Ian Page and the Mozartists' 1769: a year in music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on Tuesday 29 September 2018 for the fifth year of their Mozart 250 project. The orchestra was joined by soprano Chiara Skerath and baritone James Newby to perform Mozart's Symphony from Cassation in G major K.63, two airs from Thomas Arne's An Ode upon Dedicating a Building to Shakespeare, Mozart's aria Cara, se le mie pene, arias from Pasiello's Don Chisciotte della Mancia, Haydn's Le pescatrici, CPE Bach's Die Israeliten in der Wuste and Gluck's Aristeo, the first movement of Leopold Mozart's Symphony in G major 'Neue Lambach' and Haydn's Symphony No. 48 in C major 'Maria Theresia'.

We started with the symphony which Mozart extracted from his Cassation in G major. A cassation was a type of serenade, and Mozart re-used four of the movements to create a symphony. First a crisp and perky 'Allegro' with prominent horn parts, then a lyrical 'Adagio' with a prominent solo violin part. This movement though seemed to almost outstay its welcome. The third movement minuet was brisk, with a trio played by a smaller concertante group, and finally a lively 'Allegro assai'. A very creditable piece, and quite a piece of work for a thirteen-year-old, but the music does not yet dig very deep.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Requiem Masses for murdered royalty

Execution of Queen Marie Antoinette
Execution of Queen Marie Antoinette
Tristia: Requiems for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette Plantade, Cherubini; Le Concert Spirituel Choir and Orchestra, Hervé Niquet; Barbican Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 25 January 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Masses in memory of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, one familiar, the other less so

On Friday 25 January, in the Barbican Hall, Le Concert Spirituel and its founder Hervé Niquet presented the post-revolutionary Requiems in memory of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, who were executed in 1793. In the relative peace of 1815, their remains, or what was purported to be, were reinterred in the Bourbon crypt at Saint-Denis by command of Louis XVIII. For the occasion Cherubini’s C minor Requiem for the King was performed. The Plantade Requiem for Marie Antoinette was not heard until 1823 at a ceremony in Paris to mark the 30th anniversary of the Queen’s execution.

In transcription: Berlioz arranged Liszt and Richard Strauss arranged Willner at Conway Hall

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, by William Turner, Italy, 1832 (Image (c) Tate, London 2014)
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, by William Turner, Italy, 1832 (Image (c) Tate, London 2014)
Berlioz arr. Liszt Harald en Italie, Strauss arr. Willner Don Quixote; Rosalind Ventris, Karel Bredenhorst, Simon Callaghan; Conway Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 January 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two orchestral showpieces re-cast as works for solo instrument and piano

The re-casting of familiar orchestral works in pianistic guise was a standard part of musical life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as enthusiastic amateurs would use these to familiarise themselves with the music and to gain enjoyment from performances at a time when gramophone records did not exist. They would enable people who might never have the chance to hear a work performed by orchestra, to experience the music in another form.

For the Sunday concert at Conway Hall on 27 January 2019, pianist Simon Callaghan (director of music for the Sunday Concerts Series) was joined by Rosalind Ventris (viola) and Karel Bredenhorst (cello) to perform two monolithic transcriptions of works for orchestra and soloist, Berlioz' Harold en Italie in a version for viola and piano by Franz Liszt, and Richard Strauss' Don Quixote, in a version for cello and piano by the Czech composer Arthur Willner.

Both works are notable for the richness and imagination of the orchestration, so it might seem perverse to reduce them down to just a piano and concertante instrument, but whilst there are indeed losses, there are also gains as the music gains a greater intimacy and the essential structure of the piece can be more easily discerned. It has to be admitted that neither is a work or great piano writing, both being closer to a highly effective transcribing of the orchestral lines than works of pianistic imagination, and both place great demands on the pianist (particulary the Liszt).

Sunday 27 January 2019

A powerful journey: Sir Colin Davis complete live Berlioz recordings on LSO Live

Berlioz Odyssey - Sir Colin Davis & LSO
Berlioz Odyssey; Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra; LSO Live Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 January 2019
A remarkable testament, all of Colin Davis' live Berlioz recordings with the LSO

The title on the cover of this boxed set is Berlioz Odyssey, and it is very much an odyssey as it takes in all the live Berlioz recordings that Sir Colin Davis made with the London Symphony Orchestra, from Béatrice et Bénédict recorded at the Barbican in June 2000 to the Grande Messe de morts recorded at St Paul's Cathedral (the only work not recorded in the Barbican) in November 2012. In between we have Symphonie Fantastique, Roméo et Juliette, La damnation de Faust, Les TroyensHarold en Italie, Benvenuto Cellini, L'enfance du Christ, and the Te Deum. In all 16 discs.

And part of the set's appeal is the sense that this was very much a journey, for conductor and orchestra. Davis had recorded much of the repertoire before, but this was a chance to revisit with his own orchestra. In fact the journey started before the recordings captured the performances, and I remember attending a very fine performance of Benvenuto Cellini with Giuseppe Sabbatini in the title role in 1998 or 1999. Unfortunately this was not captured for posterity, though there is a chance to hear Sabbatini in very stylish form as Faust in La damnation de Faust, the tessitura of the role offering him no problems, and supported by a strong cast with Enkelejda Shkosa as Marguerite and Michele Bertusi as Mephistopheles.

Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra in 2011
Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra in 2011
When Davis was talking about his performances of Les Troyens in 2000, he said that he wanted to return to the opera but then allow younger conductors the chance to shine during the 2003 centenary celebrations. Thankfully, he was not as good as his word and continued conducting Berlioz (including returning to Les Troyens again) right through to the year before his death when he conducted the stupendous performance of the Grande Messe de morts in St Paul's Cathedral to opening the City of London Festival.

The requiem apart, everything in this set was recorded by Davis and the orchestra live in the Barbican Hall. This is not always an ideal space for audiences to listen to large scale pieces, particularly the choral ones, but the sound on the discs is very vivid and vibrant, giving a sense of the live occasion and perhaps slightly improving upon it.

The 16 discs in the set very much capture a journey, an odyssey, rarely can one conductor and orchestra have had the chance to explore Berlioz' music in so much detail. The big advantage that this set has is the superb consistency and style that Davis and the LSO bring to the music. By the time of the first recording he had been chief conductor for five years and had a long association with the ensemble prior to that. They respond well, and this brings a lovely freedom and consistency to the orchestral sound, along with a great richness of tone. Davis' approach to Berlioz does not seem to have changed significantly, though I am sure details altered over time, he took no interest in historically informed approaches and gives us a thoroughly vibrant, large-scale 20th century orchestral sound. But it works because of his immense sympathy for the composer, and many of these recordings draw you in.

About the vocal soloists, I have more mixed feelings and did so even when attending the live performances.

Saturday 26 January 2019

Beyond the Three Bs, Wigmore Hall's 2019/2020 season

Wigmore Hall 2019/2020 season - Rebecca Clarke, Myieczyslaw Weinberg, Bach, Britten, Brahms, Freya Waley-Cohen, Beethoven
Rebecca Clarke, Myieczyslaw Weinberg, Bach, Britten, Brahms, Freya Waley-Cohen, Beethoven
2020 will see the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth (with the 200th anniversary of his death in 2027, so we will be having a lot of Beethoven celebration), and organisations are already gearing up for this. The Wigmore Hall has recenty announced the programme for its 2019/2020 season, and already the music of Beethoven plays large role, but the season is far wider than that and it has at its centre celebrations of music by three B's, Beethoven, Brahms and Britten, not forgetting Bach. And most of the Beethoven programming will be available permanently from the Wigmore Hall's streaming service.

Beyond that, there are of course other focuses as well. The music of Myieczyslaw Weinberg is brought into greater focus with a centenary cycle of his 17 quartets, programmed alongside those of his friend and mentor Shostakovich, performed by the Quatuor Diotima during the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 seasons. And violinist Linus Roth (who has recorded much of Weinberg's output for solo violin) will be leading a Weinberg focus day.

There is also a spotlight on the music of Rebecca Clarke allowing us to explore beyond her famous viola sonata, with Raphael Wallfisch, Ailish Tynan and John York. And there will also be a focus on new works by Freya Waley-Cohen.

Other contemporary composers featured include Huw Watkins (a new work for percussionist Colin Currie), Oli Mustonen (the UK premiere of Taivaanvalot), Kevin Volans (celebrating his 70th birthday, whilst jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is composer in residence.

The centrepiece of the programming is a series of complete cycles. For Beethoven there are cycles of  the piano sonatas with Jonathan Biss, the violin sonatas with James Ehnes, the cello sonatas, the quartets with the Belcea Quartet, the piano trios and the string trios, plus a series on Beethoven's piano variations, and Philippa Cassard and Cedric Pescia will perform Liszt's two-piano arrangement of the Ninth Symphony, and Simon Keenlyside performs An die ferne Geliebte. For Brahms, there will be a cycle of his chamber music, with the Castalian String Quartet and friends, Michael Collins and Stephen Hough.

The Wigmore Hall was the location for a number of premieres of Britten's works during his lifetime, and during 2019/2020 there will be nine concerts (plus learning events) focused on his music. Allan Clayton will perform the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (which was premiered at the hall) and he features in six concerts in the Britten series, along with Sophie Bevan, the Aurora Orchestra and Ryan Wigglesworth, the Doric String Quartet, Iestyn Davies, James Newby and Vox Luminis, giving us the complete songs with piano, the Canticles, Les Illuminations, the three string quartets, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, cabaret songs and an evening of choral music.

Angela Hewitt's Bach Odyssey comes to a conclusion during the season with the final three concerts, whilst Mahan Esfahani will be continuing his Bach Harpsichord series and Bach will also be the focus of Rachel Podger's six-date residency.

The 2019/2020 season also features a Learning Festival running throughout the season, with a theme of Musical Conversations.

Full details from the Wigmore Hall website.

Friday 25 January 2019

Super-size masses from the Armonico Consort.

Armonico Consort (photo Chris Hall)
Armonico Consort (photo Chris Hall)
Biber's large-scale Missa Bruxellensis survives in a single copy now housed in the Royal Library in Belgium (hence the work's name). It is anonymous, but has more recently been attributed to Biber (his previous large-scale mass the Missa Salisburgensis was long mis-attributed to another composer, Benevoli). Biber writes on a large scale, two choirs and an instrumental ensemble making as many as 23 parts and this might be music written for Salzburg (where Biber was the Kapellmeister to the Prince-Bishop), but much of it is Venetian in inspiration. 

We don't know for what occasion the Missa Bruxellensis was written, but commentators suggest the 1701 celebrations for the foundation of the Order of St Ruperti, an order of military knights hence the sometimes martial elements in the work.

Christopher Monks and the Armonico Consort are taking on the challenge of this large scale work and performing it with the English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble on 26 January 2019 at the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick and on 1 February 2019 at Malvern Theatres. The programme will be completed with a performance of Bach's rather more intimate Easter Oratorio.

The group will be staying large scale for its concert at the Lighthouse, Poole on 2 February 2019, when joined by the choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, director Dr Geoffrey Webber, they will be returning to Striggio's 60-part Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno [which the group has recorded for Signum] alongside Tallis' Spem in Alium, a 40-part work partly inspired by the Striggio.

Still large scale but from a more recent period, Monks and the Armonico Consort will be joined by young singers from the AC Academies Choirs to perform Carl Orff's Carmina Burana at Warwick Arts Centre on 1 March 2019.

Full details from the Armonico Consort website.

Faure Requiem from Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School

Faure: Requiem - Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School - Herald AV
Faure Requiem, Cantique Jean Racine, Messe Basse; Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Belgravia Chamber Orchestra, Scott Price; Herald  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 January 2019 
Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A performance with an appealing simplicity and directness from the young singers

This disc from Herald, recorded in 2015, gives us the original chamber version of Faure's Requiem recorded by the all-male Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School and the Belgravia Chamber Orchestra, conductor Scott Price, with Jack Comerford (baritone), Karol Jozwik (treble) and Iestyn Evans (organ). There is more Faure for the companion pieces, the Messe Basse (with treble soloist Alessandro Mackinnon), Cantique Racine and Ave Maria.

The performance rather surprises at first, because Scott Price's speed is so remarkably slow for the opening section. It works, just, but I was quite relieved when the faster section started to move at a more familiar speed. From then on, Price takes a fairly conventional yet relaxed view of the work, letting it gently unfold and letting the special qualities of his performers shine.

The choir is the liturgical choir of the school and numbers over 50 including 28 trebles, but it is worth bearing in mind that these are young voices so the sound is quite light and transparent. When the faster section of the 'Introit' starts, we can hear the lovely youthful flexibility in the tenor line, and there are many places on this disc where the quality of the lower parts impressed me greatly. The result has a simplicity and directness which is very appealing, so the opening of the 'Offertoire' is beautifully moving because the singers do not try to do too much with it. Faure's version of the Missa pro defunctis lacks the fire and brimstone of some settings, and this very much suits these forces.

A sense of narrative: Stockhausen's Stimmung at Barts Pathology Museum

Ante Terminum Productions is presenting Stockhausen's Stimmung with The Facade Ensemble in the intriguing confines of the Barts Pathology Museum on 1 February 2019. Stimmung is one of Stockhausen's most iconic works. Written in 1968, it is for six singers and six microphones, and will be performed surrounded by the specimens in formaldehyde of the Pathology Museum, very much evoking a journey from life through to death with senses heightened via lighting and olfactory designs.

The title Stimmung has several meanings in German including 'tuning' and 'mood' and both apply to the work. Stockhausen uses a complex arrangement of pitches, with the singers producing overtones. The work is in 51 sections, called moments by Stockhausen, and whilst the sequence of pitches used is fixed, many of the specifics are decided by the performers so that each performance has a freedom to it. Yet the result is also complex and dense, and can give difficulties to the average listener, unaware of the structural sophistication of the work and unfamiliar with works using overtones.

Ante Terminum Productions is a recently established theatre company whose work includes a production of Britten's Curlew River last year. Artistic director,  Peter Thickett, is keen to make Stimmung more transparent to the average listener, so the group has used its very freedom to 'deconstruct the composition’s component themes and reconstruct them into a more tangible narrative that encourages the audience to engage with the aesthetic tensions at play.'

The group hopes to bring out the rational, algorithmic, computational aspects (the whole is built around Stockhausen's complex calculations), whilst exploring more spiritual and erotic ideas (Stockhausen gets the performers to chant the names of gods and godesses from many cultures from Aztec to Ancient Greek). They also want to bring out ideas of revelation and enlightenment which are implicit in a piece which is fundamentally meditative.

This sense of narrative will be heightened as the group is working with a lighting designer, Edward Saunders, and a scent artist, Harry Sherwood (a recent Philosophy graduate who is a perfume autodidact, gaining experience through various internships and the British artisan perfumery 4160Tuesdays. This Spring, he continues to explore the topic of olfaction with an MRes in Philosophy at the Centre for the Study of the Senses).

Barts Pathology Museum
Barts Pathology Museum
Doors from 6.30pm. The performance will be preceded by a discussion between Paul Edlin, director of music at Queen Mary University London and Benedict Collins Rice, director of The Facade Ensemble and tenor in the ensemble. And due to popular demand (!) the ensemble has added an extra performance at 4pm.

Further informaton from Ante Terminum Productions website.

Thursday 24 January 2019

BBC Hoddinott Hall @ 10

BBC NOW in BBC Hoddinott Hall
BBC NOW in BBC Hoddinott Hall
This year the BBC Hoddinott Hall, in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, celebrates its 10th anniversary and the hall's resident orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW)kicks off the celebrations with a concert on 25 January 2019. 

Conducted by Martyn Brabbins and by Holly Mathieson the orchestra will give the premiere of Kenneth Hesketh's Piano Concerto 'Uncoiling the River' with pianist Clare Hammond, plus Alun Hoddinott's Taliesin, Rhian Samuel's Brass Express, Sarah Lianne Lewis's Is there no seeker of dreams that were? and Andrzej Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony No.3).

BBC NOW's disc of Kenneth Hesketh's orchestral music In Ictu Oculi: Orchestral Works was released in October 2018 on the Paladino label [see my review]. Clare Hammond, the soloist in Hesketh's concerto, has recorded a disc of Hesketh's piano music especially written for her, Horae (pro Clara) [see my review].

The concert includes music by three Welsh composers from three different generations. Alan Hoddinott's Taliesin was commissioned by the Swansea Festival of Music and Arts, and premiered by BBC NOW in 2009. Rhian Samuel's Brass Express was written in 1995 as a 75th anniversary commission from the College of Estate Management, Reading University. Sarah Lianne Lewis, who graduated from Cardiff University in 2011, wrote Is there no seeker of dreams that were? in 2016 when it was premiered by BBC NOW, and the work was shortlisted in ISCM World Music Days 2017.

Full details from the BBC website.

Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition

Hastings International Piano Competition logo
Last night (24 January 2019) the 2019 Hastings International Piano Competition was launched in the august surroundings of the Houses of Parliament. The 2019 competition runs from 21 February to 2 March 2019 at the White Rock Theatre in Hastings. For this year's competition there were originally 176 entrants from 26 countries, aged between 18 and 30, of whom 50 have been invited to play at Hastings. The competition culminates in the final (spread over two nights, 1 and 2 March 2019) when the six finalists are accompanied in a piano concerto by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

But one of the distinguishing features of the competition is its focus on concertos, both the first and second rounds are also piano concertos, with just the semi-finals being a piano recital. The winner receives not only a cash prize but also concert engagements including playing a concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra during its regular concert season. Past winners of the competition have gone on to compete successfully in the Leeds International Piano Competition and the Van Cliburn Competition.

The venue for the festival, the White Rock Theatre in Hastings, was built as the White Rock Pavilion in 1927 to house performances by the Hastings Municipal Orchestra, and originally had 1066 seats (!) Recent renovation work to the theatre has uncovered the venue's original wooden flooring.

After this year, the competition is becoming biennial, so that the next competition will be in 2021 and in alternate years there will be a festival of the piano with a series of piano-themed events and recitals, including a concerto concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Further details from the competition website.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Garsington's 30th anniversary season

Celestin Boutin, Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera 2015 - photo Clive Barda
Celestin Boutin, Paul Nilon - Britten: Death in Venice directed by Paul Curran - Garsington Opera 2015 - photo Clive Barda
Garsington Opera celebrates its 30th anniversary this Summer with a season of four new productions including the UK stage premiere of Offenbach's Fantasio, plus Smetana's The Bartered Bride, Mozart's Don Giovanni and Britten's Turn of the Screw.

Offenbach's Fantasio is something of a missing link between his operettas and his romantic operas, Die Rheinixen and Les contes d'Hoffmann. Dating from 1872 Fantasio is much closer to romantic opera than sparky operetta, and the work rather languished until Opera Rara dusted it off and produced a recording in 2014 [see my review]. It feels like a difficult work to pull off, a mix of comedy and melancholy, but Garsington has had success in the past with Offenbach, and this new production will be directed by Martin Duncan, with designs by Francis O'Connor, conducted by Justin Doyle. Hanna Hipp sings the title role (a travestie role) with Jennifer France has his beloved princess. As part of Garsington's extensive Learning & Participation Programme, there will be a full performance of Fantasio by the Alvarez Young Artists for local school pupils and adults, all of whom take part in preparatory workshops to introduce them to opera and deepen their enjoyment of the performance. 

Having directed a super account Britten's Death in Venice at Garsington in 2015 [see my review] Paul Curran is returning with a very different opera, Smetana's The Bartered Bride which will feature Natalya Romaniw as Marenka. Jac van Steen conducts with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit. Curran's production will transport this very Czech piece to the heart of the English countryside.

Emerging American director Louisa Muller will make her UK debut directing the new production of Britten's Turn of the Screw with Sophie Bevan as the Governess, Ed Lyon as Prologue/Peter Quint (his role debut) and Katherine Broderick as Miss Jessel. Richard Farnes conducts.

Mozart's Don Giovanni will be directed by Michael Boyd whose recent productions of Eugene Onegin (featuring Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana) and Pelleas et Melisande have been so memorable. Jonathan McGovern sings the Don, with Sky Ingram as Donna Elvira, David Ireland as Leporello, and two UK debuts, Brazilian soprano Camila Titinger as Donna Anna and Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin as Zerlina. Douglas Boyd, Garsington's artistic director, conducts.

2019 also celebrates a new relationship for Garsington, with The English Concert which makes its Garsington debut in three performances of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 with soloists Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan, Benjamin Hulett, Robert Murray and James Way, conducted by Laurence Cummings.

The season runs from 29 May to 26 July 2019, full details from the Garsington Opera website.

Reverie - Icelandic art songs

Reverie - Icelandic Art Songs
Songs by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns, Árni Thorsteinson, Gunnsteinn Ólafsson, Hreiðar Ingi Þorsteinsson; Egill Árni Pálsson, Kristinn Örn Kristinsson; Fermata Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 January 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Something of a discovery, a disc of Icelandic art songs ranging from the 19th century to the contemporary

Some time ago I received an email from the Icelandic tenor Egill Árni Pálsson enquiring whether I was interested in his recent disc of Icelandic song. Now, I have to admit that my knowledge of Icelandic music is rather patchy, but whilst in Iceland in 2016 we attended a short recital of Icelandic song at Harpa in Reykjavik [see my article]. Intended for tourists, it was an English language programme designed to introduced music which would be familiar to most Icelandic people. So my interest was piqued.

This disc Leiðsla (Reverie) from Fermata, features Egill Árni Pálsson with pianist Kristinn Örn Kristinsson, along with guests Kristinn Sigmundsson (bass-baritone), Oddur Arnþór Jónsson (baritone), Sophie Marie Schoonjans (harp), Arnar Jónsson (actor), the male voice choir Þrestir, members of Hallgrimskirkja Motet Choir and Pálsson's 6 year old daughter, Júlía Freydís!

The greater part of the disc is given over to songs by Árni Thorsteinson and by Sigvaldi Kaldalón, both of whom trained in Copenhagen, the one in law and the other in medicine, and took music on the side. Both composers, along with  Sigfús Einarsson were involved with setting Icelandic poetry at time when Icelandic poetry and song was an important part of the national liberation movement (Iceland was a Danish dependency until 1918). There are also songs on the disc by other older composers alongside those by more recent composers. If you peruse the biographies of many of the composers on the disc, it is fascinating to see how the oldest generation wrote music on the side, more recent composer such as Sigurður Þórðarson and Markús Kristjánsson studied music in Copenhagen and in Leipzig, and the most recent generation started out at Reykjavik music college  (which was founded in 1930).

A Beacon of Hope

Wissam Boustany & the Pro Youth Philharmonia at Cadogan Hall in 2018
Wissam Boustany & the Pro Youth Philharmonia at Cadogan Hall in 2018
Following its successful inaugural tour last year, Wissam Boustany's Pro Youth Philharmonia embarks on it January 2019 tomorrow (24 January 2019), when Boustany and the orchestra perform music by Bushra El-Turk, Dvorak, Amelia Clarkson and Beethoven at Blackheath Halls, with further performances at Collyer-Ferguson Hall, Canterbury (25 January 2019) and the Elgar Concert Hall, The Bramall, Birmingham (26 January 2019).

The programme includes Bushra El-Turk's Mosaic, which was commissioned by Manchester Camerata in 2010, and A Beacon of Hope, a new commission from Amelia Clarkson who is a composition student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Cellist Matthew Barley joins the orchestra for Dvorak's Cello Concerto and the programme is completed with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Further information from the Pro Youth Philharmonia website.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Hugh Levick - Remnants of Symmetry

Hugh Levick - Remnants of Symmetry
Hugh Levick Island & Exile, Constellation, Remnants of Symmetry; Diotima Quartet, Wilhelm Latchoumia, Nicholas Isherwood, Daniel Ciampolini, Florent Jodelet; Radio France Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 January 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Intense and serious, a selection of recent chamber music by the American composer Hugh Levick

I have to confess that the American composer Hugh Levick was a name that was new to me, though his work has included music for theatre, performance art and opera. On this disc from Radio France we have a selection of Levick's recent chamber works, Island & Exile (2011-12) for piano quintet, Constellation (2013-14) for voice and string quartet, and Remnants of Symmetry for string quartet and percussion (2013-15), performed by the Diotima Quartet (Yun-Peng Zhao, Constance Ronzattie, Franck Chevalier, Pierre Morlet), Nicholas Isherwood (baritone), Wilhelm Latchoumia (piano), Daniel Ciampolini (percussion) and Florent Jodelet (percussion).

Levick  has a background as a writer as well as a composer and performer, in fact his biography talks about him going to Paris to write a novel, but ending up returning to his roots in music. Levick studied in both Paris and the USA, with composers as diverse as Anthony Braxton, David Diamond and John Cage.

Island & Exile is an intense and serious work, dark toned and angular, which reflects German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin's eight month stay in Ibiza in 1932-33, during which he came to understand that certain events from his childhood echoed throughout his life. Levick reflects this in the music by using a loud chord which echoes musically throughout the piece, and as Benjamin's view of time was non-linear some of the echoes happen before the event. Levick uses fragments and motifs which he transforms and links to create a strong musical narrative, serious, and concentrated, with sharp and striking textures.

John Tavener at Temple Church

Sir John Tavener with conductor Stephen Layton
Sir John Tavener with conductor Stephen Layton
The Temple Church has a strong association with the music of Sir John Tavener, the church commissioned Tavener's The Veil of the Temple, the extraordinary all-night vigil which was performed in the church without pause between dawn and dusk by  150 performers including the Temple Church Choir and the Holst Singers, conducted by Stephen Layton, in 2002 (the same performers would also give the work at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York in 2004, and in a shortened version at the BBC Proms).

On Wednesday 23 January 2019, at 5.30pm, the Temple Church is holding an Evensong dedicated to Sir John Tavener's memory with The Temple Singers performing Tavener's music including ' Mother of God' from The Veil of the Temple, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (commissioned by Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, and first performed in King's College Chapel onin 1987) and Song for Athene.

10th London A Cappella Festival

London A Cappella Festival
The 10th London A Cappella Festival opens on Wednesday 23 January 2019, with four days of performances and workshops at Kings Place and LSO St Lukes celebrating the best a cappella talent from across the globe. Events kick off tomorrow with a performance from composer and singer Laura Mvula with the European vocal quintet Black Voices at Kings Place, and the festival concludes with The Swingle Singers on Saturday 26 January 2019 at LSO St Lukes.

In between there are performances from The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voice, Vocal Sampling from Cuba, pop-jazz group m-pact from America, three a cappella groups from UK universities, The Techtonics, The Rolling Tones, The Bristol Suspensions,  as well as the London Youth Choir. There are workshops with Laura Mvula and Black Voices, and m-pact. There is also LACF Kids on Saturday, with workshops and a performance from American national champion high school a cappella group, Vocal Rush.

Full details from the London A Cappella Festival website.

Sunday 20 January 2019

Everybody Can! Nadine Benjamin in Tosca

Nadine Benjamin
Nadine Benjamin
Puccini Tosca; Nadine Benjamin, Borja Gomez-Ferrer, David Durham, dir: Rebecca Louse Dale, cond: William Conway; Everybody Can! Opera at St James's Church, Piccadilly  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 January 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An impressive assumption of the title role by Nadine Benjamin, in a small-scale performance which packed a punch

Nadine Benjamin's Everybody Can! Opera took over St James's Church, Piccadilly last night (18 January 2019) for a staging of Puccini's Tosca, directed by Rebecca Louise Dale, conducted by William Conway with Nadine Benjamin as Tosca, Borja Gomez-Ferrer as Cavaradossi, David Durham as Scarpia, Nico Laruina as Angelotti, Simon Butteriss as the Sacristan and Jonathan Cooke as Spoletta, Nicholas George as Sciarrone.
Creating a production of an opera, albeit one billed as semi-staged, is a huge undertaking and all concerned must be complimented for the skill and bravura with which they brought it off, showcasing some very striking performances indeed, with Nadine Benjamin making a compelling debut in the title role and the Spanish tenor Borja Gomes-Ferrer revealing lyric-dramatic voice indeed. The production itself was small-scale, but hardly semi at all and made highly effective drama.

Saturday 19 January 2019

The main thing is to sing well and be a good performer: I chat to soprano Chiara Skerath, associate artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera

Chiara Skerath with Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall in 2018
1768 in Retrospect - Chiara Skerath with Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall in 2018
The soprano Chiara Skerath has recently become an Associate Artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera, artistic director Ian Page, and I was able to chat to her recently when she was in London to record a new CD with Ian Page and the Mozartists. This will be her second CD with them, she has already recorded one, Mozart's Il sogno di Scipione [see my review] as well as taking part in last year's concert at the Wigmore Hall, 1768 in Retrospect [see my review], and singing in Mozart's La finta semplice [see the review in], all as part of Classical Opera's Mozart 250 project. Chiara will be back in London later this year with Ian and The Mozartists for the 1769 in Retrospect concert at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday 29 January 2019, and for performances of Hasse's Piramo e Tisbe later in the year.

Chiara Skerath recording with Ian Page and the Mozartists earlier this year
Chiara Skerath recording with Ian Page and the Mozartists earlier this year
The Hasse opera is entirely new to Chiara, she had sung the aria before but has all the recitative to learn, but she finds it exciting to be trying out new repertoire. She comments that Hasse, who rather loved himself, said that Piramo e Tisbe was the best opera that he had ever written. (The work was premiered in 1768 when the composer was nearly 70).

Ian Page's Mozart 250 project is working through the composer's life, year by year, so that last year we celebrated 1768 and this year it is 1769. Each year Ian and The Mozartists give a retrospect concert pulling together both music by Mozart and the music by other composers written at the same time, that Mozart would probably have known. Chiara feels that the music in last year's 1768 in Retrospect concert was rather stronger than that in this year's concert looking at 1769, but that there is always something of interest.

She has great admiration for the way Ian Page researches the music for the concerts, going into libraries and digging up scores, she feels that he is very passionate about the music and is very sympathetic and inspiring to work with. A lot of music of the period has been forgotten and Ian's retrospective concerts enable us to see the highlights. Last year Chiara sang an aria from a Jomelli opera, Fetonte the 26th of his 27 operas, at the 1768 in Retrospect concert and this proved very popular, she points out that sometimes the arias are the highlights and the whole operas might not be to the same standard, and of course nothing can beat Mozart.

Chiara has done a lot of Mozart, having sung most of the 'maid' roles (what she calls the 'As', Zerlina, Despina, Barberina, Susanna, Servilia, Ninetta, Papagena etc), and she will be completing the list by singing the First Lady in Die Zauberflote in Opera de Paris in Summer 2019. She is still having so much fun doing the maids that she does not see herself moving 'upstairs' yet, and points out that once you have performed the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro there is no going back to Susanna. When Chiara sang Ninetta in Mozart's early comedy La finta semplice with Ian Page last year she did what she always does in such operas and starts with a plan, who is married to whom, who loves whom, to enable her to get a handle on the complex plots, and she adds that there is so much in these early Mozart operas and all he needed was a Lorenzo da Ponte, a good librettist!

Friday 18 January 2019

Premiere of Geoffrey Gordon's Prometheus

Gustave Moreau: Prometheus
Gustave Moreau: Prometheus
This weekend the Philharmonia, conductor Martyn Brabbins, will be giving the premiere of composer Geoffrey Gordon's new concerto for bass clarinet, Prometheus, with clarinettist Laurent Ben Slimane (principal bass clarinet with the orchestra). They perform the work on Saturday 19 January 2019 at De Montfort Hall in Leicester [see the De Montfort Hall website for details] and at the Southbank Centre on Sunday 20 January 2019 [see the Southbank Centre website for details]. The concert also includes three classic English works, Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, RVW's Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

Gordon is an American composer who divides his time between the USA and the UK, and his work Fathoms received its UK premiere at St John's Smith Square in 2017, whilst his concerto for trumpet, piano and strings, Saint Blue was recorded by the English String Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Woods on the Signum Classics disc The Art of Dancing [see my review]. Gordon's Prometheus is based on Kafka's short story Prometheus based in turn in the Greek myth. There is a Q&A with Laurent Ben Slimane about the new work on the Philharmonia website.

Further ahead, horn player Ben Goldschneider will be giving the premiere of Gordon's Thorn at Conway Hall Sunday Concerts on Sunday 3 February 2019 with Calum Smart, violin, and Richard Uttley, piano.. [see the Conway Hall website for details]

The Gardeners - cast announcement

The Gardeners: Flora McIntosh, William Vann, Robert Hugill, Peter Brathwaite, Georgia Mae Bishop, Magid El-Bushra, Joanna Wyld, Julian Debreuil
The Gardeners: (L to R, top to bottom) - Flora McIntosh, William Vann, Robert Hugill (photo Johnny Bourchier), Peter Brathwaite, Georgia Mae Bishop, Magid El-Bushra (photo Belinda Whiting), Joanna Wyld, Julian Debreuil (photo: Philip Allen)
I am pleased to be able to announce the full cast for the premiere of The Gardeners, Joanna Wyld and my new chamber opera which premieres at Conway Hall on Tuesday 18 June 2019.

Julian Debreuil plays The Gardener, Peter Brathwaite plays The Old Gardener, Magid El-Bushra plays The Angry Young Man, Flora McIntosh plays The Grandmother and Georgia Mae Bishop plays The Mother. The opera will be conducted by William Vann.

There will also be small male voice chorus, playing the spirits of the Dead, whilst the instrumental ensemble (harp, violin, viola, cello, clarinet) will include harpist Oliver Wass.

Julian Debreuil's engagements for the 2018-19 season include Missa Solemnis Beethoven with the Southbank Sinfonia at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Cantatas 21 & 29 Bach with the Birmingham Bach Choir, Colline in La Boheme Puccini and Talbot Maria Stuarda with OperaUpClose, Zuniga in Carmen Bizet for Kentish Opera.

In the 2018/19 season, Peter Brathwaite sings the title role in Polly Graham’s new production of Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis with Chroma Ensemble at Bold Tendencies. He covers and sings Papageno in The Magic Flute for Opera North, and creates the role of Doctor in the European Premiere of Philip Hagemann’s The Music Cure. Future seasons see him make role debuts at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Opera Philadelphia.

Magid El-Bushra's recent engagements include Nicholas Lens’ Shell Shock with the Orchestre de Radio France at the Philharmonie in Paris, Hamor in Handel’s Jephtha at the Wiener Festwochen, the Potsdamer Winteroper, and the Hamburger Theater Festival (under the baton of Konrad Junghänel), a solo recital with the Berner Symphonieorchester at Konzerttheater Bern (conducted by Kevin John Edusei), Orontes in Telemann’s Der misslungene Brautwechsel in Giessen (conducted by Michael Hofstetter), the alto solos in Bach’s St John Passion with Concerto Köln, and the Cheshire Cat in Will Todd’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Georgia Mae Bishop's recent credits include Filipyvena, Eugene Onegin (Opera Loki), Mistress Quickly (cover), Falstaff (Garsington Opera), Zita, Gianni Schicchi (Barbican Concert Hall), Madam de Croissy, Dialogues des Carmélites, Vera Boronel, The Consul, Zenobia (cover), Radamisto (Guildhall Opera), title role, Carmen, Ruth, Pirates of Penzance (Dartington Opera). Whilst studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama she was the winner of the Chartered Surveyors vocal competition and a recipient of an Opera Awards Foundation bursary. Other competition successes include 2nd prize at the Wagner Society Singing Competition (2016) and finalist in Fulham Opera’s Robert Presley Memorial Verdi Prize (2017).

Flora McIntosh is a Samling Foundation scholar and currently studies with Arwel Treharne Morgan. Engagements in 2018 include Das lied von der Erde with English National Ballet, Filipyevna in Eugene Onegin for OperaUpClose, Pauline in the UK premiere of Gounod’s Polyeucte (UCOpera), Lucy Lockit in The Beggar’s Opera (Oborne Opera and Mastersingers UK), Dryad In Ariadne auf Naxos for Longborough Festival, the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (National Trust collaboration) and Mercedes in Carmen for The Prison Choir Project.

The Gardeners premieres at Conway Hall on Tuesday 18 June 2019, full details from The Gardeners website.

Rebecca Saunders wins the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, and a portrait at the Southbank

Rebecca Saunders (Photo Astrid Ackermann)
Rebecca Saunders (Photo Astrid Ackermann)
The Berlin-based British composer Rebecca Saunders will be awarded the 2019 international Ernst von Siemens Music Prize at a presentation ceremony on 7 June 2019 at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. Awarded every year since 1973 by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation (which is based in Switzerland), it is one of classical music's most significant prizes, and is awarded for lifelong service to music, and comes with an award of €250,000. Saunders will be the first female composer to win the prize with Anne-Sophie Mutter being the only other woman to win the prize (in 2008).

There is a chance for UK audiences to hear Saunders music tomorrow night as Ensemble Modern performs a composer portrait at the Southbank Centre on Saturday 19 January 2019. Conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni’s, Ensemble Modern presents three of her characteristic works (Fury II for double bass & ensemble, a visible trace for ensemble and Skin for soprano & 13 instruments with soprano Juliet Fraser) celebrating the ensemble's long-standing and intensive collaboration with the composer [further information from the Southbank Centre website]. The portrait concert has already been performed at the Frankfurt Opera, the Ruhrtriennale in Essen and the Klangspuren Schwaz in Innsbruck. And then on 21 January 2019, the ensemble performs Saunders' Skin at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt.

The Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation is awarding the Music Prize to Rebecca Saunders 'for an oeuvre which leaves its visible and meaningful mark on contemporary music history through its productive contrariety, its astonishingly nuanced attention to timbre, and her distinctive and intensely striking sonic language'.

Born in London in 1967, Rebecca Saunders studied at Edinburgh University, before going on to study with Wolfgang von Rihm at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe; Nigel Osborne supervised her doctoral thesis. She was was composer-in-residence at the Konzerthaus Dortmund from 2005-2006, Staatskapelle Dresden from 2009-2010,and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2010.

It was during a trip to the USA as a young composer that she heard the music of Morton Feldman for the first time, experiencing viscerally that music could enable an alternative interpretation of time and space. A performance of Wolfgang Rihm’s Chiffre cycle, which impressed Saunders with its deep sensuality and life-affirming power, led to her studying in Karlsruhe, where she began to cultivate her own musical language. Through Rihm, she also discovered the music of Galina Ustvolskaya, whose clarity and boldness, passion and obsessiveness, but also anger and aggression, electrified and fascinated Saunders immediately, and has since influenced her subsequent works. 'Ustvolskaya’s ability to reduce her musical form of expression to such a bare and exposed structure; the essence, the purity, the absolute directness of her art – that is incredibly courageous. Nothing is superfluous, nothing trying to charm or please – just exactly said. Or not said." (Rebecca Saunders)

Further information about Ensemble Modern's concert on 19 January 2019 from the Southbank Centre website

Thursday 17 January 2019

Perhaps a film manque: Stefan Herheim's Queen of Spades at Covent Garden

Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades - Vladimir Stoyanov - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades - Vladimir Stoyanov - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Stefan Herheim's productions tend to be highly theatrical, visually stimulating and rooted in an historical period, witness his production of Verdi's Les vepres siciliennes at Covent Garden which was set in the Paris Opera of the period when Verdi was writing the opera [see my review], or his 2008 staging of Wagner's Parsifal which was rooted in the Bayreuth of the 1870s. But there is another factor at play too, Herheim does not simply lift the plot bodily from one period to another, his approach has a dramaturgical complexity which means that the stagings are more meta-theatre than theatrical productions, they are about the opera being performed and require a knowledge of the opera, the action on stage depicting the historical and emotional undercurrents which Herheim and his dramaturg find in the opera.

If you read the reviews of Herheim's 2008 Parsifal at Bayreuth you will find that many reviewers acclaim the production and say that it was something special, but few agree on what it was actually about!

For his new staging of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades which debuted in 2016 in Amsterdam and came to Covent Garden this month (seen Wednesday 16 January 2019), Herheim and dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach have turned not to the opera's history nor to Pushkin's original novella but to Tchaikovsky himself. The idea is that in this music, Tchaikovsky was channelling his angst and guilt about his homosexuality and that the extremity of the characters' emotions only makes sense in this context. So what we get isn't a dramatisation of the plot of The Queen of Spades, it neither follows the libretto nor does it follow the dramaturgy of the music, instead Herheim and Meier-Dörzenbach project the opera onto Tchaikovsky's life and mine the parallels.

Key to this approach is that the relatively minor role of Prince Yeletsky (a character who is rather boring but who, like Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin gets a stunning aria about love) is transformed into Tchaikovsky himself. The opera opens in a grand 19th century room with Tchaikovsky (Vladimir Stoyanov) giving oral sex to a young man in military uniform (played by the singer playing Gherman), who objects and then demands money before rushing off.

In fact throughout the opera there are in fact multiple Tchaikovsky's, the male chorus appears dressed like the composer and it is clear that other characters are sometimes channelling him. The costumes mix those of the composer's period with those of the setting of the opera, and there was a feeling that all of the male principals were variants of the composer, and even Paulina (Anna Goryachova) was dressed as a young man and her aria felt a proxy for Tchaikovsky's feelings.

Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades - Vladimir Stoyanov - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades - Vladimir Stoyanov - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
The problem with this idea is not so much the concept, mining the emotional undercurrents behind an opera being a standard directorial trick nowadays, but that Herheim's dramatic solutions introduce two major problems.

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