Saturday 30 March 2019

Steam-punk & virtuosity: Donizetti's Roberto Devereux at WNO with Joyce El-Khoury & Barry Banks

Donizetti: Roberto Devereux - Joyce El-Khoury - Welsh National Opera (photo Bill Cooper)
Donizetti: Roberto Devereux - Joyce El-Khoury - Welsh National Opera (photo Bill Cooper)
Donizetti Robert Devereux; Joyce El-Khoury, Barry Banks, Roland Wood, Justina Gringytė, dir: Alessandro Talevi, cond: James Southall; Welsh National Opera at Milton Keynes Theatre  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A first class cast on terrific form in a spine-tingling revival of Alessandro Talevi's dramatic, spider-themed production

It seems to be a good time for bel canto visions of Queen Elizabeth I, English Touring Opera's new production of Rossini's Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra is in the middle of a tour [see my review], and Welsh National Opera (WNO) has revived Alessandro Talevi's terrific 2013 production of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, similarly on tour [see my review from 2013].

Donizetti: Roberto Devereux - Justine Gringytė, Joyce El-Khoury - Welsh National Opera (photo Bill Cooper)
Justina Gringytė, Joyce El-Khoury
Welsh National Opera (photo Bill Cooper)
We caught WNO's revival of Donizetti's Robert Devereux at Milton Keynes Theatre on Friday 29 March 2019, with Joyce El-Khoury as Elisabetta, Barry Banks as Robert Devereux, Justina Gringytė as Sara and Roland Wood as the Duke of Nottingham, conducted by James Southall. The run opened in Cardiff earlier this month, and there are cast changes during the round so this performance was both Roland Wood's debut in the production and the first performance conducted by James Southall. Directed by Alessandro Talevi, with Alicia Frost as the staff director, the production featured designs by Madeleine Boyd, lighting originally by Matthew Haskins realised on tour by Benjamin Naylor and movement by Maxine Braham.

Whilst Salvatore Cammarano's libretto, based on a place by Francois Ancelot, provides a terrific picture of the ageing queen the details of the plot are completely a-historical and using an historical approach to the opera is probably hardly helpful. Instead, Talevi and Boyd channel a number of influences, Vivienne Westwood for the queen herself and Paula Rego for the look of the female courtiers, concentrating on the sense of Elizabeth as the dangerous centre of the court, with perhaps a sort of steam-punk -Louise Bourgeois for the spider machine!

Essential to this was the image of the poisonous spider, an image which threaded its way through the entire opera, at first simply as images of spiders but in the crucial Act Two scene when Elizabeth explodes at Roberto she mounts a real spider-like machine manipulated by her women. And Roberto's prison scene sees him also entangled in what could be a spider's web. The original production coupled this distinctive vision with strong central performances, and it was to WNO's credit that this revival had been equally strongly cast so that we were again swept viscerally into the opera's world.

Keeping it fresh: conductor David Hill on the challenges of performing Bach's St Matthew Passion annually with the Bach Choir

David Hill and the Bach Choir
David Hill and the Bach Choir
The Bach Choir performed its first St Matthew Passion 125 years ago and its tradition of an annual performance in English continues under its present musical director David Hill (who took over from Sir David Willcocks in 1998). This year David conducts the St Matthew Passion with the Bach Choir, Florilegium and soloists James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Matthew Rose (Christ), Sophie Bevan, Hilary Summers, Ed Lyon and Neal Davies at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 7 April 2019 (Passion Sunday). I recently met up with David to talk about performing Bach, how he keeps the music fresh each year, the importance of singing in the vernacular and more. First of all, I was interested to know how many performances of the work David had conducted?

David Hill
David Hill
He suggests around 50 performances, and each time it comes out different, which is something he likes. The players vary between performances, which is particularly important in the solo arias, as do the soloists and each person brings their own aspect. This is very true of the Evangelist, whom David describes as the person who calibrates the work, as an individual singer's pace and style can vary.

David is very happy with this sort of flexibility, and he is not the type of conductor to insist his way is the only way.

But, doing the work each year with the choir, David feels the need to keep the performance fresh so each time he encourages the singers of the Bach Choir to consider another aspect of the piece. This might involve thinking about how to make the meaning of the chorales come over or, as this year, looking at the drama of the work and making sure the singers are fully involved in it.

And he hopes that audience members come out thinking that there was something different about the performance this year. He takes an evolutionary approach to other aspects of the music such as speed. Otherwise, he points out, it would be too easy to dust off the same old routine performance each year.

David attended Sir David Willcocks' final St Matthew Passion with the choir in 1998, and when he took over he brought in a new translation by the tenor (and biographer) Neil Jenkins which the choir still uses. No translation can answer all the questions in such a big piece, but David feels that it is a strong piece of work. Though Jenkins' translation has been adjusted over the years, it is still very much his. And it is not unknown for soloists with strong views to adjust the placement of text, something David is comfortable with if done for genuinely artistic reasons.

Friday 29 March 2019

Period charm & fizzing performance: Messager's Les p'tites Michu from Palazzetto Bru Zane

Messager: Les p'tites Michu - Palazzetto Bru Zane
Messager Les p'tites Michu; Violette Polchi, Anne-Aurore Cochet, Philippe Estephe, Artavazd Sargsyan, Boris Grappe, Pierre Dumoussaud; Palazzetto Bru Zane  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 March 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Messager's first big hit in a recording full of charm

Andre Messager is perhaps as well known today as the conductor of the premiere of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande as a composer, though his ballet Les deux Pigeons remains in the repertoire thanks to Sir Frederick Ashton. Of Messager's operas people might name check Veronique and Grange Park Opera revived Fortunio in 2013 [see my review].

Now, Palazzetto Bru Zane has sponsored a recording of Andre Messager's first major hit Les p'tite Michu after a long run of failures. Les p'tite Michu dates from 1897, a year before Veronique. The original run of the piece, at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens was over 150 performances, and the English premiere in 1905 enjoyed a long run of over 400 performances. The recording is based on a stage production co-produced by Angers Nantes Opera, Bru Zane France and Compagnie Les Brigands, with Violette Polchi as Marie-Blanche, Anne-Aurore Cochet as Blanche-Marie, Philippe Estephe as Gaston Rigaud, Marie Lenormand as Mme Michu, Damien Bigourdan as M. Michu, and Boris Grappe as Le General, with the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire and the Choeur d'Angers Nantes Opera conducted by Pierre Dumoussaud.

It is a frivolous piece, but a charming one and full of terrific tunes. No wonder it was a hit. The plot is a variant of the mixed up baby story; during the Revolution the General leaves his baby daughter in the keeping of M. & Mme Michu, staunch petit bourgeois, for safety. Come 1810, the General wants her back to marry to his nephew. The problem is that the Michus have mixed the babies up and no-one can tell which one, Marie-Blanche and Blanche-Marie, is the General's daughter. All is resolved happily, of course.

Thursday 28 March 2019

They have arrived!

Leaflets for the premiere of The Gardeners on 18 June 2019
They have arrived! We now have lovely leaflets for the premiere of The Gardeners, my & Joanna Wyld new opera, at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019
Please do visit our Crowdfunder page, Helping The Gardeners to Grow

Remarkable opportunity for Royal Birmingham Conservatoire students

Roman Kosyakov, Daniel Lebhardt, Pascal Pascaleff, Julian Lloyd Webber, Yue Yu, Domonkos Csabay and Andrey Ivanov at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
Roman Kosyakov, Daniel Lebhardt, Pascal Pascaleff, Julian Lloyd Webber, Yue Yu, Domonkos Csabay and Andrey Ivanov at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, principal Julian Lloyd Webber, has announced a remarkable partnership with Naxos Records whereby six outstanding students from will each have the chance to make their all-important debut recording. The recordings in this innovative and fascinating series will take place in the Conservatoire’s own acoustically-acclaimed Bradshaw Hall for future international release on Naxos Records.

The students are pianists Daniel Lebhardt, Roman Kosyakov, Pascal Pascaleff, Andrey Ivanov, Domonkos Csabay and viola player Yue Yu, and they will record music Liszt, Scarlatti and Schumann plus world premiere recordings of music by Holst, Britten and York Bowen.

A remarkable work of reconstruction: Opera Rara's world premiere recording of Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida

Donizetti: L'ange de Nisida - Opera Rara
Donizetti L'ange de Nisida; Joyce El-Khoury, David Junghoon Kim, Laurent Naouri, Vito Priante, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Mark Elder; Opera Rara Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 March 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Donizetti's long-lost opera on disc for the first time in a finely stylish performence

I have to confess that I have always found Donizetti's La favorite, with its unbelievable plot and unsatisfactory characters, a strange and unsatisfying work even in its original French version. Part of this, we now realise, stems from the work's complex history, re-working chunks of a complete, but unperformed, opera L'ange de Nisida. This was long thought to be lost, or unretrievable.

Now, thanks to determinded scholarship, Opera Rara has brought Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida to fruition, giving the opera's world premiere at Covent Garden [see my review], and now this world premiere recording with the same forces. Sir Mark Elder conducts the orchestra Royal Opera House and Royal Opera Chorus with soloists Joyce El-Khoury, David Junghoon Kim, Laurent Naouri, Vito Priante and Evgeny Stavinsky.

It has to be said that L'ange de Nisida is as equally strange as La Favorite is unsatisfactory. Yet it is mature Donizetti and certainly not a trivial early work. Part of the reconstructed opera's strangeness is that it is that tricky beast, an opera semi-seria with the King's counsellor, Don Gaspar, who is one of the main engines of the plot, a pompous, self-important and funny character.

Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida - David Junghoon Kim, Joyce El-Khoury - Opera Rara & Royal Opera  2018(c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida - David Junghoon Kim, Joyce El-Khoury
2018 (c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
The other characters have outlines that are familiar from La Favorite, and listeners who know that opera may be disturbed by the way that sections of La Favorite go in and out of focus as the fragments of L'ange de Nisida which Donizetti re-used for the later opera appear and disappear alongside new (to us) material. There is much new music and different emphases in the plot, so it is important that we try to consider L'ange de Nisida in its own right rather than as a strange pre-echo of La Favorite.

The problem with the opera isn't so much the comedy, in fact the libretto makes Don Gaspar's self importance work as part of the serious plot. No, the main problem is the unsatisfactory nature of the three other leading characters.

Sylvia (Joyce El-Khoury) is well-born, yet has allowed herself to be duped by the King (Vito Priante) and become his mistress instead of his wife. She has enough firmness to rebuff the advances of Leone (David Junghoon Kim), but the whole thing shows up the King in a not very pleasant light. And Leone is simply a classic dim 19th century tenor, it takes until part of the way through Act Three before he realises what is going on.

So the plot requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, yet it works because you have a strong cast and Donizetti has written some terrific music. Part of the work's fascination is watching Donizetti enjoy himself with the freedom and flexibility that French opera gave him, there is only a single cavatina and cabaletta combination in the whole opera. And there are some terrific moments, most notably a series of very strong ensembles, I was particularly fond of the thunderous monks with their dramatic imprecations, and the Act Two finale is a great ensemble of confused emotions.

Wednesday 27 March 2019

Focus on Lithuania at the Felicja Blumental International Music Festival

Felicja Blumental International Music Festival
This year's Felicja Blumental International Music Festival has just opened. Running until 30 March 2019, the festival is Tel Aviv’s longest-­‐running classical music festival, and this celebrates 21 exceptional years in 2019 with a rich and varied programme of events. This year's festival is very much a celebration of things Lithuanian.

The Aidija Chamber Choir presents a programme of Lithuanian music, conducted by Romualdas Gražinis and pianist Andrius Žlabys performs a varied recital featuring Lithuanian painter, composer and writer Čiurlionis. The Israel Chamber Orchestra welcomes Lithuanian accordionist Martynas Levickis as Giedrė Šlekytė conducts an evening featuring Arvydas Malcys’ Scherzo from his Concerto for accordion and strings, and the Festival also showcases a rousing documentary film called How We Played the Revolution, which focuses on the art-­‐rock band, Antis, who played a key role in Lithuania’s struggle for freedom.

Other artists this year include British pianist Robert Markham who accompanies Bruno Monteiro from Portugal in a violin recital featuring works by Mozart, de Freitas Branco, Elgar and J.Williams.

Full details from the festival website.

Bach to Baby's Queen Victoria 200!

Bach to Baby 2017 (Photo Alejandro Tamagno)
Bach to Baby 2017 (Photo Alejandro Tamagno)
This year is the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth, and by way of celebration Bach to Baby is presenting over 80 concerts through April and May 2019 themed on music from Victoria's reign and music that she would have listened to. Curated by founder and pianist Miaomiao Yu the programmes will include Mendelssohn, Strauss, Gilbert & Sullivan, Schubert, Chopin, Elgar, and Glinka performed by harp, piano, violin, soprano and baritone in 40 locations across London, Surrey, Kent, Essex, Cambridge, Oxford & Birmingham.

Bach to Baby offers classical music and innovative programmes in a format which is accessible to adults with children; during the concerts children can roam about as adults take time out of their busy days to enjoy performances by world-class artists, feed their babies and have a much needed cup of coffee. And two children can come to the concerts free with each adult.

Full details from the Bach to Baby website.

Iestyn Davies & the viol consort Fretwork in Michael Nyman & Henry Purcell at Temple Church

Iestyn Davies & Fretwork
Iestyn Davies & Fretwork
Michael Nyman, Henry Purcell; Iestyn Davies, Fretwork; Temple Church Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 March 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Ancient and modern intertwine as a counter-tenor and five viols perform music English music from the Baroque and the Contemporary periods

Michael Nyman is best known for his film scores, and when his music does come into the concert hall there is often an electronic element to is such as in the performances with his own band. But his interest in the processes of music of the past means that heard acoustically we can appreciate it in a different way.

For the Temple Music Foundation's concert at Temple Church on Tuesday 26 March 2019, it wasn't just the pairing of the music of Michael Nyman with that of Henry Purcell that was striking, it was that it was performed by the viol ensemble Fretwork, Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby, Joanna Levine, Emily Ashton, Sam Stadlen (playing on instruments that were falling out of fashion even in Purcell's day) with the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. The result was a seductive combination of ancient and modern, pairing Purcell's Fantasias, Music for a While and Evening Hymn with Nyman's Robert Herrick setting No Time in Eternity, his Roger Pulvers settings If and Why (from the film Diary of Ann Frank), plus Music after a While, Balancing the Books, and The Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence. A programme which Davies & Fretwork has recorded for Signum Records under the title of If.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Handel Remixed: a contemporary take on Baroque classics at the London Handel Festival

Handel Re-mixed
Different generations have always treated Handel's music to re-mixes and new versions, just think of Mozart's Messiah, Mendelssohn's Israel in Egypt or the large scale orchestral versions of Messiah from the late 19th century.

Festival Voices is a young choral group interested in making bold, collaborative choral music, performing to new audiences in unexpected venues, and the group's latest project, Handel Remixed, is being given as part of the London Handel Festival. They will give festival goers the chance to hear Handel's music in a new and distinctive way, remixed for a contemporary audience.

The centrepiece of the event is a performance of Handel's Dixit Dominus in a new version reimagined live with electronic dance music performed in collaboration with Nico Bentley and the Pencil Collective who will be joining the fourteen singers of Festival Voices and a baroque ensemble. The programme also will include music from Handel's Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne HMV74 and 'Lascia ch'io pianga' from Rinaldo.

The venue is also a new one for the festival, the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham.

Full details from the London Handel Festival website.

Dance Maze: new chamber music by Tom Armstrong on Resonus Classics

Dance Maze - Tom Armstrong - Resonus Classics
Dance Maze chamber music by Tom Armstrong; Simon Desbruslais, Jakob Fichert, Nicola Meecham, Audrew Riley, James Woodrow, Fidelio Trio; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 March 2019 
Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Revision and re-working is the key to this fascinating collection of chamber music from contemporary British composer

This disc from Resonus Classics is an intriguing selection of the recent chamber music by the contemporary British composer Thomas Armstrong. Performed by Simon Desbruslais (trumpet), Jakob Fichert (piano), Nicola Meecham (piano), Audrey Riley (cello), James Woodrow (electric guitar) and the Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan, Robin Michael, Mary Dullea), we have six pieces which span a remarkable range of Armstrong's career.

The selection of pieces presents a remarkable example of Armstrong's technique as each piece is part of a process of revision which seems to be an ongoing part of Armstrong's compositional process. Some are replacements, though it seems that Armstrong is keeping the original versions as a separate revisional layer, whilst others create parallel versions often changing structure and instrumentation, a duet for electric guitar and harpsichord being re-written for piano trio.

In the cast of the piano suite, Morning Music (2012-2015), the smaller movements are in fact re-workings and re-visitings of the material used to create the longest movement, 'Aubade'. In Divertissements for piano trio (2009) we are hearing the revision of the original electric guitar and harpsichord.  And with Diversions 3 for electric guitar and cello, we also have a significant re-working of original material. And then we have Dance Maze in which we are presented with two versions, the original for piano which was written in 1994 and has itself been revised, and then the revised version for trumpet and piano from 2016-17 (and on the download, there is a version for trumpet only as well). The final work on the disc Akin is not strictly a revision, or reworking, but is inflected by previous material.

Monday 25 March 2019

Walk within a symphony: Southbank Sinfonia invites you to experience Beethoven's Eroica Symphony from the inside

Southbank Sinfonia
Southbank Sinfonia's #ConcertLab series aims to explore how we might experience concerts differently, and the series arose in 2016 out of the orchestra's own experiences performing on stage as part of the National Theatre's production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.

On Wednesday 27 March 2019 the orchestra is once again abandoning the concert hall, but this time giving the audience a chance to join it in an immersive experience. Under conductor Lee Reynolds they will be performing Beethoven's ground-breaking Symphony No. 3 'Eroica' at Oval Space, Bethnal Green, E2 9DT and instead of being en bloc with the audience members looking on, the players will be dotted around the space and audience members will be able to wander around between the players. This will give people the unusual experience of hearing the symphony from the inside, creating a fully immersive performance.

A further perspective will be given via Beethoven's letters, interpreted by actor Anton Lesser (also BSL interpreted) to bring out the turblent nature of Beethoven's genius.

After the main performance the bar stays open and there is more live music!

Full details from Southbank Sinfonia's website.

The road not taken: Boito's Mefistofele makes a rare London appearance with Chelsea Opera Group in terrific form

Boito: Mefistofele - Vazgen Gazaryan - Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito: Mefistofele - Vazgen Gazaryan
Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito Mefistofele; Vazgen Gazaryan, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Pablo Bemsch, Chelsea Opera Group, Matthew Scott Rogers; Queen Elizabeth Hall  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A rare opportunity to hear this important work, in a performance full of drama and vivid singing

It is 20 years since an opera company performed Boito's Mefistofele in London (my thanks to colleagues on Twitter for confirming that the Royal Opera gave a concert performance in 1998 and English National Opera staged it in 1999), which seems a long gap for such a significant work in Italian operatic history. Created by a young Turk intent on reforming Italian opera [Boito was 26 when it premiered in 1868], Meftistofele was a failure at first and despite later success its composer is now best known as the librettist of Verdi's final two masterpieces.

So it was grateful thanks to Chelsea Opera Group for giving us the chance to hear Boito's Mefistofele again at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 March 2019 when Matthew Scott Rogers conducted a concert performance with Vazgen Gazaryan as Mefistofele, Pablo Bemsch as Faust, Elizabeth Llewellyn as Margherita and Elena, Angharad Lyddon as Marta and Pantalis, and Aaron Godfrey-Mayes as Wagner and Nereo.

Boito: Mefistofele - Elizabeth Llewellyn - Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito: Mefistofele - Elizabeth Llewellyn
Chelsea Opera Group (photo Robert Workman)
Boito's libretto attempts to do some sort of justice to the protean nature of Goethe's original, so that instead of concentrating on the story of Faust and Marguerite, as did Gounod and his librettists, here we have a prologue in Heaven, episodes of a witches Sabbath and Helen of Troy, in addition to Faust and Margherita.

The opera was given in Boito's revised 1881 version which trimmed it in length, in the original, far too long, 1868 version there was an additional episode at the court of the Emperor. The result is to make various pieces of the work seems somewhat disparate, and perhaps the work does not quite succeed. But there are some astonishing moments, particularly the prologue in heaven, which seems to see Boito the composer rather channelling Berlioz. Boito's revisions introduced more set pieces into the work, but you can still detect a wish to convey drama through expressive arioso-like dialogue, though I thought the the grand sing-along finale to the work seemed to resort rather to conventionality.

Sunday 24 March 2019

Late romantic journeys: opera by Ravel & Tchaikovsky in a highly satisfying double bill from Royal Academy Opera

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Olivia Warburton - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The child and the dragonflies - Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Olivia Warburton
Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Tchaikovsky Iolanta, Ravel L'enfant et les sortileges;
Royal Academy Opera, dir: Oliver Platt, cond: Gareth Hancock; Royal Academy of Music

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 March 2019
A slightly unlikely but highly satisfying double bill, with superbly engaging performances

Whilst Ravel's opera L'enfant et les sortileges, with its libretto by Colette is not strictly a fairy tale it certainly has that combination of magic, morality and didacticism which is typical of a such tales. And, as such, it made quite a neat pairing with Tchaikovsky's problematical opera Iolanta at Royal Academy Opera's double bill. Both are 'not quite fairy-tales' (Iolanta is based on a Romantic Danish play), and in both the protagonist undergoes a metaphysical journey. And in each opera, the fairy-tale aspect of the piece puts the more disquieting elements of violence and control at one remove.

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Claire Tunney, Robert Forrest - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Claire Tunney, Robert Forrest
Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
We caught the final performance of the run, on Friday 22 March 2019 in the Royal Academy of Music's Susie Sainsbury Theatre. Both operas in the double bill were directed by Oliver Platt and conducted by Gareth Hancock, with designs by Alyson Cummins, lighting by Jake Wiltshire, puppetry & movement by Emma Brunton. For Tchaikovsky's Iolanta we saw the alternate cast, with Clare Tunney as Iolanta, Robert Forrest as Vaudemont, Ossian Huskinson as King Rene, Paul Grant as Robert and Robert Garland as Ibn-Hakia, plus Hazel Neighbour, Frances Gregory, Stephanie Wake-Edwards and Connor Baiano. For Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges, Olivia Warburton was the child, with Alexandra Oomens, Lina Dambrauskaite, Ryan Williams, Tabitha Reynolds, Hanna Poulsom, Aimee Fisk, Gabriele Kupsyte, James Geidt and Will Pate.

Tchaikovsky's opera is a strange piece, King Rene's urge for total control of his daughter is disturbing, yet the character is sympathetically depicted in his concern for his daughter. Vaudemont's sudden appearance and immediate falling in love with Iolanta lacks the psychological depth of Tchaikovsky's other operas and perhaps it is significant that the composer started Iolanta after the intense labours of The Queen of Spades. What makes the opera work is the way Tchaikovsky depicts his heroine and her spiritual journey, and here you wonder whether blindness was standing stead for a number of other complex concerns in Tchaikovsky's own life.

Clare Tunney, whose roles have already included Fiordiligi (Cosi fan tutte) and Lady Billows (Albert Herring), has a substantial voice and was well able to support the role's requirement to produce endless streams of richly lyrical music (the first Iolanta was also the first Lisa in The Queen of Spades). But she also has an interesting voice, and really made you care about the character. This is important, as it is sometimes difficult to feel that Iolanta matters very much, yet here Tunney gripped us and made us really care for her plight.

As Vaudemont, Robert Forrest did not have quite the lyrical expansiveness in his voice as Tunney and when matching her in Tchaikovsky's glorious duet (the part of the opera Tchaikovsky wrote first) I sometimes felt Forrest pushed a little too much. His is a lithe, rather high tension voice with a lot of potential and here he committed himself with great intensity to this slightly problematical role. The sheer intenseness which he brought to it made it work.

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Joseph Buckmaster, Paul Grant, Robert Forrest - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Joseph Buckmaster, Paul Grant, Robert Forrest - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)

Saturday 23 March 2019

Known for her performances of contemporary music, Clare Hammond's latest project includes the premiere of a different kind, a concerto by 18th century composer Josef Myslivecek

Clare Hammond, Nicholas McGegan & Swedish Chamber Orchestra (Photo © Ulla-Carin Ekblom)
Clare Hammond, Nicholas McGegan & Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Recording sessions for Josef Myslivecek concertos (Photo © Ulla-Carin Ekblom)
Pianist Clare Hammond is perhaps best known for her performances of contemporary repertoire, and composers such as Kenneth Hesketh have written pieces especially for her. That her latest disc includes a world premiere recording is no surprise, but that the composer was born in the 18th century perhaps might seem surprising.

Clare Hammond (Photo © Ulla-Carin Ekblom)
Clare Hammond (Photo © Ulla-Carin Ekblom)
But Clare is very passionate about the music of the Czech composer Josef Myslivecek, an older contemporary and friend of Mozart's and a great influence on the younger composer. Clare's latest disc, on BIS, presents Myslivicek's complete music for keyboard, both the solo pieces and the two piano concertos with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan. I recently met up with Clare for coffee to find out more about her relationship with Myslivecek and his music.

Clare was first introduced to Myslivecek's music by flautist Ana de la Vega (who has just recorded Myslivecek's flute concerto with the English Chamber Orchestra). Clare and Ana de la Vega played together years ago, and the flautist mentioned to Clare that there was a Myslivececk keyboard concerto which had not been published. Intrigued, Clare investigated further and found that there were two surviving keyboard concertos both in the Bibliotheque Nationale in France; one having been published in the 1960s.

So Clare seized the opportunity and typeset the two concertos and looked for performances. The result was a tour of Poland in 2016 which, at the time, was thought to be the modern-day premiere of the first concerto but subsequently a performance from the 1970s came to light. Clare has worked with the Swedish record company BIS a lot, and they were interested in a Myslivecek disc and introduced Clare to the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Nicholas McGegan. The orchestra plays on modern instruments but has a lot of experience in historically informed performance (HIP) practice, and Nicholas McGegan was very helpful with regard to the edition of the music. Clare admits to not having a great deal of experience in HIP and McGegan helped guide her through.

Clare did experiment with performing the music on a forte piano, but the playing technique was so different to that used on the modern-day pianos on which she trained, that she decided to concentrate on using a modern piano.

So why is Myslivecek's music so little known to modern day audiences?

Friday 22 March 2019

The French 20th century saxophone: Tableaux de Provence from Dominic Childs & Simon Callaghan

Tableaux de Provence - Childs, Callaghan - Resonus
Debussy, Decruck, Maurice, Borne Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 March 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A recital which highlights the French love affair with the saxophone in the 20th century

The French composers of the late 19th and 20th centuries seem to have had an affinity with the saxophone. On this new disc from saxophonist Dominic Childs and pianist Simon Callaghan on Resonus Classics we have works by Debussy, Fernande Decruck, Paule Maurice and Francois Borne.

Quite how much of Debussy's Rhapsodie for saxophone and piano is by Debussy is anyone's guess. It was commissioned by the redoubtable Elise Hall, an American who took to the saxophone and commissioned composers accordingly. Debussy worked on his Rhapsodie for eight years and never really finished it, when he died he apparently left an orchestral sketch, and it was the composer Jean Roger-Ducasse who tidied things up. The version performed on this disc is revised by Vincent David.

It is a poetic and fluid piece that makes the most of the saxophone's liquid tones. Much of it is quietly evocative and mysterious, flowing between sections until building up quite a head of steam at the end. There is lovely interaction between Childs and Callaghan, with Callaghan making poetry of the piano part, letting you forget it may have started life as a piano reduction of the orchestral score.

Song in the South-West: looking forward to the 2019 Devon Song Festival

The Devon Song Festival was started by Devon-raised pianist Natalie Burch to create opportunities for live performance of song in the South West. This year over the weekend of 30 & 31 March 2019 there are recitals from young artists and a masterclass from the festival's patron, Sarah Walker. 

The young artists featured in the programmes include Rowan Pierce who won the inaugural Grange Festival Singing Competition and recently made her ENO debut as Papagena in Mozart's The Magic Flute, and James Newby who is a BBC New Generation Artist and winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2016.

[James Newby will be performing my Rowan Williams' setting Winter Journey as part of the Robert Hugill in Focus event on Sunday 5 May at Conway Hall.]

The opening concert Songs of the Sea features a quartet of young artists, soprano Rowan Pierce, mezzo-soprano Felicity Turner, tenor James Way and pianist Natalie Burch in a programme celebrating songs to do with the sea, including music by Schubert, Stanford and Sondheim, at St Margaret's Church, Topsham. Then on the Sunday, James Newby and Natalie Burch will be performing Schubert's song cycle Die schone Mullerin at Stover School.

The Estuary League of Friends are able to provide transport to concerts which are then free of charge to those who might not otherwise be able to attend.

Full details from the festival website.

Man, myth and magic: how story telling has come back into opera

Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - the gods in Asgard - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Gavin Higgins: The Monstrous Child - the gods in Asgard - Royal Opera (© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey)
Perhaps it was John Adams and his opera Nixon in China (which premiered in 1987) who showed that story telling was still acceptable in contemporary opera; the idea of straightforward narrative with beginning, middle and end. But Adams based his opera on historical events, though the piece is very much about the creation of a modern myth. With the notable exception of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, the idea of using traditional myths, fairy-tales or folk tales as an operatic source was not something that featured that much late 20th century opera.

Noah Mosley: Aurora - Andrew Tipple - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Noah Mosley: Aurora - Andrew Tipple
Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Yet last month, I attended three new operas by young composers, one based on myth, one on fairytale and one on folk tale, demonstrating that these rich sources of inspiration had returned to more regular use in the creation of new opera.

In the 19th century, folk tale, fairy tale and myth were common currency of the opera libretto, Composers such as Weber and Marschner established the new German romantic opera based very much on German folk tales and fairy tales, and Wagner developed this, creating his own very personal mythology based on folk tale and myth.

Wagner's success gave rise to generations of emulators, all by and large failed to achieve what he did. Few now remember Reyer's Sigurd though Chausson's Le roi Arthus gets an occasional outing, but Albeniz's Merlin remained buried for decades. One composer stands out from this post-Wagner crowd, Engelbert Humperdinck whose fairy tale opera Hansel and Gretel manages to be Wagnerian in construction, yet delightful and light in touch. Fairy-tale opera developed into quite a late 19th and early 20th century genre, Humperdinck would write a number and his pupil, Siegfried Wagner (Richard's son) did too.

Over in England Rutland Boughton mined Celtic myth for popular hits like The Immortal Hour (which created something of a record by running for 216 consecutive performances at its London premiere in 1922) and Stanford's final opera The Travelling Companion used a Hans Christian Anderson tale [see my review of New Sussex Opera's recent revival].

Thursday 21 March 2019

Get to know the composer of War Horse: Inside the Creative Process with Adrian Sutton

National Theatre production of War Horse (Photo  Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
National Theatre production of War Horse (Photo  Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
The composer Adrian Sutton is perhaps best known for his music for the play War Horse, but he has a string of other credits as well [see my interview with Adrian]. 

Adrian Sutton (photo Matthew Gough)
Adrian Sutton (photo Matthew Gough)
He trained at Godsmiths, University of London and is returning there on Thursday 27 March 2019 for a workshop/masterclass Inside the Creative Process with Adrian Sutton in which Adrian will be discussing his varied career as a composer with Professor Mark d’Inverno, talking about the diverse range of skills and knowledge needed, and the challenges and rewards of the creative process, giving insights into what he has learned about the mechanisms of his own creativity and that of others, and what he continues to learn.

His best-known are scores are those for the National Theatre's productions War Horse, Angels in America, Coram Boy and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which have gained him Olivier and/or Tony nominations and in the case of the latter, a joint Olivier Award for Sound Design in 2013. Away from theatre and the studio, his output includes orchestral and chamber works, among them War Horse – The Story in Concert (for orchestra, chorus and narrators) the symphonic poem War Horse Suite, A Fist Full of Fives performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Radio 3, a children's concert opera The Griffin and the Grail, a Sinfonietta for small orchestra, and a Double Piano Sonata.

Full details from the Goldsmiths website.

Into the harem and beyond: the richness & exoticism of the music of Fazil Say

1001 Nights in the Harem
Fazil Say Violin concerto 1001 nights in the harem; Iskandar Widjaja, Iraz Yildiz, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Howard Griffiths; Sony Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Seductive exoticism and a rich tonal palate, the music of Turkish composer Fazil Say

This disc of music by the Turkish composer Fazil Say owes its origins to the Orpheum Foundation for the Advancement of Young Soloists, and its programme to provide young soloists with their first experience of the recording studio.

Howard Griffiths, artistic director of the Orpheum Foundation, conducts the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in Say's violin concerto 1001 Nights in the Harem, with violinst Iskandar Widjaja, Grand Bazaar rhapsody for orchestra, and China Rhapsody for piano and orchestra with pianist Iraz Yildiz. Say's orchestration includes a number of Turkish percussion instruments, including the Kuldüm drum, played by Aykut Köseleri.

The violin concerto, inspired by Sheherezade and the 1001 Nights, was premiered in 2007 by Patricia Kopatchinskaya. The concerto doesn't so much tell a story as first of all introduces us to the inhabitants of the harem and then evoke an atmosphere.

The first movement starts with just violin and drum, before the full orchestra joins in. Say combines Turkish melodic fragments with rich and complex harmonies, yet there are also poetic moments for the violin alone. The richness of the palate rather reminds me of Rimsky Korsakov, yet clearly more modern folk-inspired composers like Enescu and Bartok are there too. The Turkish melodic and harmonic influences are central to the piece, not just window dressing. The second movement starts as a fast furious dance with lots of drums and giving us some exciting furious fingerwork from Iksander Widjaja. The third movement is quietly evocative with night-music type sounds in the orchestra, and even when a gentle dance starts we hear the night in the background.

Another composer that I though of when listening to this was Korngold for the combination of exoticism, lyricism and heart on sleeve romanticism and yet here with added spice. The finale is extraordinarily spare, virtually violin and percussion alone at first, then the violin providing birdsong over a Turkish theme in the orchestra. The soloist Iskandar Widjaja is the son of Arab/Dutch and Chinese/Indonesian parents. He trained at the Hanns Eisler University of Music Berlin.

Fazil Say's love of colour and richness of tonal palate really comes over in the orchestral rhapsody, Grand Bazaar from 2015/16, a collage of sounds and influences which receives a vivid and exciting performance. This continues with the final work on the disc, China Rhapsody for piano and orchestra. This creates a positively cinematic picture with harmonies, timbres and melodic fragments inspired by China woven in. The result is the sort of cross-polinating rhapsody of which 19th century composers were fond, but the embedding of Chinese melodies and harmonies in a Western-style orchestration by a Western-trained Turkish composer was a combination which did worry me somewhat.

There is much to enjoy on this disc from the colour and imagination of Fazil Say's music to the fine performances from the young soloists.

Fazil Say (born 1970) - Violin concerto 1001 nights in the harem, op. 25 (2007)
Fazil Say - Grand Bazaar, rhapsody for orchestra op. 65 (2015/16)
Fazil Say - China Rhapsody for piano and orchestra op.69 (2016)
Iskandar Widjaja (violin)
Iraz Yildiz (piano)
Aykut Köseleri (percussion)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Howard Griffiths (conductor)
Recorded 21-24 August 2017, ORF Funkhaus Wien.
Available on-line.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Thrilling dynamism: Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi trinitas on Signum (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Imaginative debut: Rarities by Lalo and Milhaud on Hee-Young Lim's debut disc of French cello concertos (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Not heard since its 1956 premiere: Eugene Bozza's oratorio Le chant de la mine from Valenciennes (★★★½) - Cd review
  • One last show: Bury Court Opera draws the final curtain, with a terrific account of Britten's The Turn of the Screw (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Almost music theatre: song cycles by Dominick Argento and Robert Schumann from Sarah Connolly at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Emotional soundscapes: the music of young Australian composer Brendon John Warner on his debut album La fonte  - CD review
  • Highly engaging: revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute from Simon McBurney, ENO & Complicité (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Magnificent original: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake restored in a superb performance from Vladimir Jurowski on Pentatone (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Intimate conversations: the young Jubilee Quartet in three quartets spanning 20 years of Haydn's maturity (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Riveting drama: Peter Konwitschny's production of Halevy's La Juive at Opera Vlaanderen (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Claustrophobic & atmospheric: Verdi's Macbeth from English Touring Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • Letting the music speak for itself: Mozart's Idomeneo from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Cadogan Hall debut: the Gesualdo Six in a programme of Renaissance and Contemporary (★★★★) - concert review
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After a spectacular debut last year the young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev takes over at Scottish Chamber Orchestra for 2019/20 season

Maxim Emelyanychev & Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Photo SCO/Stroma Films)
Maxim Emelyanychev & Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Photo SCO/Stroma Films)
The young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev is perhaps best known in the UK for his performances of Baroque opera as a visitor with Il Pomo d'Oro accompanying artists such as Joyce DiDonato and Franco Fagioli, but UK audiences will now be seeing rather more of him as he has taken over as conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. 

He gives his first concert as principal conductor in November 2019, with a programme which includes the UK premiere of French composer Philippe Hersant’s Five Pieces for Orchestra alongside music by Mozart and Prokofiev. In Baroque music with the ensemble Emelyanychev is evidently interested in a blended approach with a mix of period and modern instruments and there will be a chance to hear the results in January 2020 with a programme which includes music from Lully’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme plus Telemann and Rameau. Emelyanychev's final concert of the season combines Debussy with Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony, and a Mozart Piano Concerto which Emelyanychev will direct from the keyboard. Emelyanychev will also be perfoming at the keyboard with the SCO soloists for one of SCO's Chamber Sundays concerts.

SCO Featured Artist for 2019/20 is the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto whose concerts will include music by Bryce Dessner, the UK premiere of Nico Muhly's Violin Concerto, and the double violin concerto, with violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, Prince of Clouds by Anna Clyne. Clyne is SCO's new Associate Composer, and her work with the orchestra includes a new piece to be premiered in November. Scottish composer, Helen Grime is writing a percussion concerto for Colin Currie to be premiered in May 2020.

29 year old Emelyanychev made his debut with the orchestra in March 2018 when he stepped in at short notice to conduct Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony and Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with the orchestra, and the response from orchestral players, audiences and critics was unanimous in its praise [see the review on].

Full details from SCO website.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Introducing the Opera Holland Park Young Artists for 2019

Jack Holton, Sonia Ben-Santamaria and Claire Lees at the Opera Holland Park Young Artists 2019 launch
Jack Holton, Sonia Ben-Santamaria and Claire Lees at the Opera Holland Park
Young Artists 2019 launch (Photo Flickr Treble2309)
Opera Holland Park introduced its Young Artists for 2019 at an event at the East India Club last night (19 March 2019) which gave us a chance to meet them and to hear some of them in action. 

This year's Young Artists will be performing in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera on 28 June 2019, with Jack Holton as Anckarström, Claire Lees as Oscar, Georgia Mae Bishop as Madame Arvidson, Blaise Malaba as Ribbing, Tom Mole as Horn, and Samuel Oram as Cristiano, the Associate Director will be Rachel Hewer, the Associate Conductor will be Sonia Ben-Santamaria and the Young Artists Répétiteur will be Lucie Sansen. The Young Artists will be joined at the performance by Nadine Benjamin as Amelia and Adriano Graziani as Gustavo.

Last night we heard Jack Holton and Claire Lees performing 'La ci darem' from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Georgia Mae Bishop singing Olga's aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and Clarie Lees also gave us a taster of Oscar from Un ballo un maschera, all accompanied by a string quartet conducted by Sonia Be-Santamaria.

The Young Artists scheme at Opera Holland park is unusual in that the young performers get a whole performance to themselves, with separate rehearsals directed by the Associate Director, this year Rachel Hewer, and conducted by the Associate Conductor, this year Sonia Ben-Santamaria. In fact they will be doing two performances, as they do the schools matinee as well. Further details from the OHP website. The scheme has been running since 2011, and means that a remarkable number of those taking part in the 2019 season are returning alumni of the scheme, singers, directors and conductors.

I bumped into Jack Holton last week as he was singing with Lunchbreak Opera for their 2019/20 launch [see my article], and as many of you will know Georgia Mae Bishop is singing the role of The Mother in the premiere of my opera The Gardeners at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019 (further details from the opera's website). Last year we caught both Claire Lees and Georgia Mae Bishop in Poulenc's The Carmelites at the Guildhall School [see my review], and saw Tom Mole in Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress with British Youth Opera [see my review].

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