Friday 31 May 2019

Hertfordshire Festival of Music

Hertfordshire Festival of Music
The Hertfordshire Festival of Music, artistic directors Tom Hammond and James Francis Brown, returns on 13 June 2019 for 22 events over 10 days. The festival has almost doubled in size since the 2018 issue, and visitors to the festival include cellist Steven Isserlis, the Orchestra of the Swan, ZRI, the Carducci Quartet and pianist Clare Hammond.

The festival opens with Steven Isserlis as the soloist in Haydn's Cello Concerto in C with the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor Tom Hammond, in a programme which includes music by John McCabe and Stravinsky. Isserlis has a short residency at the festival, giving a masterclass and performing a chamber music concert with friends with music by Faure and Schumann.

The inclusion of the Haydn Cello Concerto is a nod to an intriguing local Haydn connection. The father of an acquaintance of Haydn's, Nicholas Brassey, built a house near Hertford. Brassey supported Haydn for many years and the composer often visited the house near Hertford, staying there and composing, and learning English. The festival website has more details of this connection, and there will be explorations in the festival via talks and walks, whilst Ensemble DeNote will be performing Haydn piano sonatas and his Piano Trio in G Major 'Gypsy Rondo'.

Continuing the Gypsy theme, ZRI will be bringing its Brahms and the Gypsy programme, exploring the links between Brahms' music and the gypsy fiddling of which he was so fond, mixing Brahms' Clarinet Quintet with klezmer tunes and traditional music. And the group is also presenting another highly contrasting event, Adventures with Charlie Chaplin!

Tim Thorpe, principal horn with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, is also having a short residency. Thorpe and pianist Winnie Wu will be performing a programme of music by Erik Satie, Franz Joseph Strauss, Gilbert Vinter, Alan Mills and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Thorpe will be the guest at an amazing event featuring massed horns from Hertfordshire Music Service.

The Baroque ensemble Harmonia Celestis will be presenting a programme which mixes Handel and Bach with the contemporary composer Peter Fribbins. Fribbins is something of a featured composer  in the festival, and his works feature in other concerts including the final one on 23 June 2019, which features the Carducci Quartet with pianist Clare Hammond. The quartet will be playing works by Mendelssohn, Ravel and Peter Fribbins, and then will be joined by Hammond for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor.

Full details from the festival website.

Musical delights: Gluck's Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo

Gluck: Orfeo - Kiandra Howarth, Lena Belkina - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck: Orfeo - Kiandra Howarth, Lena Belkina - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck Bauci e Filemone, Orfeo; Lena Belkina, Rebecca Bottone, Kiandra Howarth, Gwilym Bowen, Ian Page, The Mozartists, dir: John Wilkie; Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A rare version of Gluck's Orfeo revived in this double bill from Classical Opera

Gluck: Orfeo - Gwilym Bowen - The Mozartists (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck: Orfeo - Gwilym Bowen - The Mozartists
(Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Eurydice is such a well-known and iconic work that it comes as something of a surprise that Ian Page and Classical Opera gave the UK premiere of a significant new version of the opera, one created by Gluck himself. Yet Gluck's 1769 revision of the work has been strangely neglected. It was created as part of a triple bill of one-act operas, Le feste d'Apollo, and as part of its Mozart 250 project Classical Opera presented two of the three.

So on Wednesday 29 May 2019 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Ian Page conducted Classical Opera in Gluck's Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo, in semi-staged productions directed by John Wilkie. In Bauci e Filemone, Rebecca Bottone sang Bauci, Lena Belkina sang Filemone, Gwilym Bowen sang Giove and Kiandra Howarth sang La Pastorella. In Orfeo, Lena Belkina sang Orfeo, Kiandra Howarth sang Euridice and Rebecca Bottone sang Amore.

Gluck's Le feste d'Apollo was created in 1769 for a wedding in Parma; Filemone et Bauci, Aristeo and Orfeo, and it was the first and third which Classical Opera performed. Filemone et Bauci was written specially in 1769 whereas Orfeo was a revised version of Gluck's 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice which premiered in Vienna. One of the reasons for the revisions was that the singer who took the title role in Orfeo in 1769 was a soprano castrato, so Gluck had to raise the solo line somewhat, he also simplified the orchestration (no exotic clarinets or trombones) and dropped the ballet at the end, thus streamlining the drama. So essentially Orfeo represents Gluck's final thoughts on the opera in Italian. (He would, of course, revise it in French for Paris in 1774, and the best known version of the opera remains the one based on Berlioz' synthesis of the French and Italian versions).

Wednesday 29 May 2019

Sheherazade: a work which spans both Persian and Western classical music

Alireza Mashayekhi - Sheherazade - Paraty
Alireza Mashayekhi Sheherazade; Layla Ramezan, Djamchid Chemirani, Keyvan Chemirani; Paraty
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 May 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Something of a surprise, a late 20th century Iranian piano work which spans both Persian and Western classical music

This disc is Iranian pianist Layla Ramezan second volume of her exploration of 100 years of Iranian piano music on Paraty records. There is a single work on the disc, Sheherazade by Alireza Mashayekhi (born 1966). It is a work which exists in different versions and is here presented with narrations from Djamchid Chemirani (himself a zarb virtuoso), and improvisations on zarb and santur by Keyvan Chemirani.

Alireza Mashayekhi studied in Vienna with Hanns Jelenik, and Utrecht. His work Sheherazade is the last of group of works he wrote exploring the borders between Persian culture and Western classical music. Sheherazade is in nine sections, with substanial narrations from Djamchid Chemirani in Persian telling the story of  Sheherazade, re-imagined by Mashayekhi. The work was premiered in Tehran in 1998 by pianist Farmimah Qavam-Sadri.

Mashayekhi's piano writing is strong and characterful, and most definitely 20th century with a robust feel to it. Mashayekhi's music has a distinctive and vibrant voice, which strikes quite an interesting note and the CD booklet talks about the music reaching the threshold of atonality. And there are a number of moments when we seem a long way from even the idea of Persian music, yet there are also clearly Persian influenced moments too. The result is a fascinating mix, yet a powerfully expressive one.

ComposHer: celebrating the work of women media composers

Out of the top 250 films from 2018, 94% were scored by men 
 (according to the New York Times). 

But there are moves afoot to increase the visibility of women media composers, in 2018 there was the establishment of a global database of women composers on (an organisation giving voice to women filmmakers in TV and advertising), and the establishment of a UK women composers forum. 

Now, on 12 June 2019 there is a chance to hear what young women composers in the media have been up to. ComposHer at EartH Theatre, Hackney on 12 June 2019, will feature music by women composers for film, TV and video games, aiming to both celebrate the work of women media composers and to inspire a new generation of composers.

Featured composers include Jessica Curry, Nainita Desai, Imogen Heap, Jessica Jones, Alev Lenz, Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, Anne Nikitin, Carly Paradis, Jocelyn Pook, Kate Simko, Claire M Singer, and Amelia Warner, with genres ranging from classical to electronic and alternative, and performers will include the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Further information and tickets from the website.

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Thrilling pianism: Igor Levit in Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia

Igor Levit
Igor Levit
Ronald Stevenson Passacaglia on DSCH; Igor Levit; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 May 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Stevenson's astonishing work in an evening of thrilling pianism

Pianist Igor Levit has been performing large-scale keyboard works at the Wigmore Hall, and on Monday 27 May 2019 he followed up Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski, with perhaps the largest single-movement work for piano solo, Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH, a piece which does not make it into the concert halls particularly often.

It is an astonishing piece, 80 minutes or so in length (I think Levit's was closer to 90) and a challenge for both performer and listener. Stevenson bases the work on Shostakovich's own mnemonic, DSCH (D, E flat, C, B natural) and structures the passacaglia as a journey through piano history. The various sections incorporate a sonata movement, a baroque suite, a triple fugues, Etudes, variations, a symphonic march and more. But more than that it is also a digest of performing styles, and is infused with Stevenson's personality both as a composer and pianist.

Guitar & strings; Morgan Szymanski & Benyounes Quartet at Conway Hall

Morgan Syzmanski & Benyounes Quartet
Morgan Syzmanski & Benyounes Quartet
Vivaldi, Paganini, Puccini, Boccheerini, Turina, Escaich, Piazzolla; Morgan Syzmanski, Benyounes Quartet; Conway Hall Sunday Concerts Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019
An attractive programme showcasing different solutions to the challenge of combining guitar and strings

On Sunday 26 May 2019 the guitarist Morgan Szymanski joined the Benyounes Quartet (Zara Benyounes, Emily Holland, Sara Roberts, Kim Vaughan) for an attractive programme of music for guitar and strings at the Conway Hall as part of the Sunday Concerts Series. And beforehand I gave the pre-concert talk, skeching a brief history of the development of the guitar and talking about the music in the concert. This included Vivaldi's Lute Concerto in D, Boccherini's Fandango Quintet, Paganini's Cantabile for violin & guitar and movements from Astor Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango arranged for guitar and string trio by Szymanski, plus music by Puccini, Turina and Thierry Escaich.

We started with Vivaldi's Lute Concerto and in the charming, yet perky opening movement we were aware of the potential balance problems of the original solo instrument, and how imaginatively Vivaldi had solved them. The lovely slow movement featured a nicely sung melody from the solo guitar, and the finale was positively toe-tapping.

Rather suprisingly, the virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini was also a guitarist, though he tended to only play it in private.

Monday 27 May 2019

Celebrating the centenary of Elgar's Cello Concerto

Sir Edward Elgar recording his Cello Concerto with soloist Beatrice Harrison in 1920
Sir Edward Elgar recording his Cello Concerto
with soloist Beatrice Harrison in 1920
In 1918 Elgar was ill and depressed; he was recovering from having his tonsils out, a dangerous operation at the time for a 60 year old man, and he was depressed about the carnage of the war. His wife found them a cottage in Sussex for him to recover and there, remarkably, he recovered his strength and wrote a group of late works which were noticeably different in style to earlier pieces, the String Quartet, the Violin Sonata, the Piano Quintet and the Cello Concerto.

Elgar only began work on the concerto in earnest after the successful premieres of the three chamber works. But interestingly the concerto is linked to the quartet via the cellist Carl Fuchs. It was Fuchs who, in 1900, had requested a quartet for the Brodsky Quartet in which he played, Elgar had agreed but it was not until 1918 that he began work on the quartet and when it was premiered the Brodsky Quartet had retired and the work was played by a quartet led by Albert Sammons (who made the first complete recording of Elgar's Violin Concerto) and WH Reed (who had aided Elgar in the violin writing for the Violin Concerto).

It was Fuchs who had also asked Elgar for a cello concerto, again in 1900 and repeating the request in 1906. The work was premiered in October 1919 with Felix Salmond as soloist, though the first performance was disastrous because of lack of rehearsal time and Elgar's work was going out of fashion, so the concerto was not performed as frequently at first as the Violin Concerto had been when it was premiered. But Elgar would make two valuable recordings of the work, with cellist Beatrice Harrison.

In its centenary year we can probably expect a number of performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto. The 2019 Elgar Festival is celebrating with a performance of the concerto in Elgar's home town of Worcester. Raphael Wallfisch is the soloist with the English Symphony Orchestra conductor Kenneth Woods, at a concert in Worcester Cathedral on 1 June 2019. The concert is the centrepiece of a festival which runs from 30 May to 2 June 2019, with performances of Elgar's Sea Pictures  (in Donald Fraser's choral arrangement), Violin Sonata and Sea Pictures again in the original version for voice and piano, there will also be music by other composers including RVW's Symphony No. 5.

Full information from the Elgar Festival website.

Sunday 26 May 2019

A sample of what's to come? Try my 2011 opera When a Man Knows on video in advance of the premiere of The Gardeners

When a Man Knows - opera by Robert Hugill based on the play by Alan Richardson from Robert Hugill on Vimeo.

With over three weeks to go before the premiere of my new opera The Gardeners (libretto Joanna Wyld), those of you that are curious about what might be in store, musically, might care to explore my 2011 opera When a Man Knows which was filmed at its premiere performances at the Bridewell Theatre and is available on Vimeo

When a Man knows, based on a play by Alan Richardson, featured baritone Dario Dugandzic as the Man and soprano Zoe South as the Woman in a production directed by Ian Caddy and conducted by David Roblou. Do check it out here:

The Gardeners premieres at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019, 7.30pm, with William Vann conducting plus Peter Brathwaite (baritone), Magid El-Bushra (counter-tenor), Julian Debreuil (bass-baritone), Flora McIntosh (mezzo-soprano) and Georgia Mae Bishop (mezzo-soprano). Tickets price £20 are available from TicketTailor.

Saturday 25 May 2019

A Victorian 'Love Island' - Handel's Partenope from Hampstead Garden Opera

Handel: Partenope  - James Rhoads, Will Pate, Francis Gush, Jennifer Begley - Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Handel: Partenope  - James Rhoads, Will Pate, Francis Gush, Jennifer Begley
Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Handel Partenope; Jennifer Begley, Francis Gush, Alexander Pullinger, Anne-Sofie Soby Jensen, dir: Ashley Pearson, cond: Bertie Baigent; Hampstead Garden Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019
Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)

A lively and approachable account of one of Handel's lighter serious operas

Handel: Partenope  - Jennifer Begley, Alexander Pullinger - Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Handel: Partenope  - Jennifer Begley, Alexander Pullinger
Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Partenope is one of Handel's lighter operas, not comic as such but its satirical edge, relative compactness and lovely arias mean that the piece has been popular with opera companies. It is, however, not without its problems. For a start, what comedy there is arises from the mismatch of the expectations of the way characters in opera seria should act, but here don't. Which means that to enjoy the work in its original form, you need an appreciation of opera seria itself. Add to this, the setting requires the second Act to open with a battle, thus giving the modern director the problem of quite how seriously to take the plot. Recent productions have tended to replace the battle with other less serious hi-jinks, Christopher Alden's production for English National Opera set the piece firmly within 1920s artistic society, for instance [see my review].

However, with its relatively compact arias, imaginative use of ensembles (quite rare in Handel) and relatively straightforward plot, the opera makes a very sympathetic approach to Handel opera for non-specialist companies.

Hampstead Garden Opera's Spring 2019 production was thus Handel's Partenope presented at Jackson's Lane Art Centre in Highgate in a production directed by Ashley Pearson with designs by Laura Fontana and lighting by Daniel Carter-Brennan. The production was double cast with young singers, still at college or recently graduated, rather than Handel specialists, and we saw Jennifer Begley as Partenope, Francis Gush as Arsace, Alexander Pullinger as Armindo, Anne-Sofie Soby Jensen as Rosmira (disguised as Eurimene for most of the opera), James Rhoads as Emilio and Will Pate as Ormonte. Bertie Baigent directed the orchestra from the harpsichord.

The theatre at Jackson's Lane Arts Centre is in part of the old church complex, what must have been a huge hall, the raked audience looked on a relatively substantial stage but there was no pit, instead the orchestra was above and behind the singers, stretched out in a thin double line. It was a small ensemble with six strings and two harpsichords. Logistics were efficiently done via via screens, but I thought it a shame that the singers were not able to react directly to Bertie Baigent's expressive direction.

Ashley Pearson and Laura Fontana's solution to Partenope's problems was to set the piece at the Victorian seaside. Fontana's fixed set was a row of beach huts and the cast were all in Victorian bathing costumes. This was an intriguing and economic solution, after all the opera is about love and relationships rather than dynastic action. But the beach setting, with the uniform costumes, rather took everyone out of context and it was difficult to realise who these people were. Why was Partenope so deferred to? If the comedy comes from the leading man behaving inappropriately, then it is important for us to understand his position in the hierarchy. Instead we got a series of beach-side hi-jinks, a sort of Victorian Love Island.

And in an opera which is very much concerned with the gap between surface and content, it seemed unfortunate to put all the men in extremely unflattering all-in-one bathing costumes, thus essentially making them all look ridiculous.

The battle which opens Act Two (which here concluded part one of the evening) was a series of beach games, which emphasised the production's element of hi-jinks. And Pearson's general approach to the opera was to keep things moving on stage, only one or two of the more serious arias allowed the soloist to play alone on the stage.

An eclectic mix: I chat to Clare Stewart of the vocal group Apollo5 about their latest release, O Radiant Dawn

Apollo5  (Oliver Martin-Smith, Penelope Appleyard, Greg Link, Josh Cooter, Clare Stewart)
Apollo5  (Oliver Martin-Smith, Penelope Appleyard, Greg Link, Josh Cooter, Clare Stewart)
O Radiant Dawn, the new album from the a cappella group Apollo5, comes out on 31 May 2019. The album, taking its title from the motet by Sir James MacMillan which is included on the disc, is a typically eclectic mix of composers with music by Byrd, Pérotin, Monteverdi, MacMillan, Schumann and Finzi, plus arrangements written especially for Apollo5 and new commissions from contemporary composers Alexander Levine and Fraser Wilson. Clare Stewart, who sings with the group, feels that the new album reflects the embodiment of what Apollo5 is about, its programming and approach. The new disc is very much about the human journey, with MacMillan's motet O Radiant Dawn representing the dawning of a new day.

A professional vocal quintet based at the VCM Foundation's Gresham Centre, the five singers in Apollo5 (Penelope Appleyard, Clare Stewart, Josh Cooter, Oliver Martin-Smith, Greg Link) mix performing with leading educational programmes at the Gresham Centre and elsewhere, Clare feels that it is important for the singers to inspire another generation of young singers by leading workshops.

All five members of Apollo5 come from the British choral tradition with training firmly rooted in the collegiate/church choral background. But the group also explores other styles of music and tries to perform its repertoire in an engaging way. Clare comes from a standard choral background, studying at Edinburgh and St Andrews, where she had a choral scholarship, and this involved a wide range of styles from plainchant and polyphony to contemporary, so she was used to a varied repertoire and she sees Apollo 5's eclectic mix of styles as an extension of this.

Friday 24 May 2019

Beyond Boccherini: my pre-concert talk and music from Morgan Szymanski and the Benyounes Quartet at Conway Hall

The Mexican guitarist Morgan Szymanski and the Benyounes Quartet are giving a concert of music for guitar and strings at Conway Hall on Sunday 26 May 2019 at 6.30pm as part of the Sunday Concerts Series, and I will be giving the pre-concert talk at 5.30pm introducing the music.

The centrepiece of the programme is Boccherini's Fandango Quintet in D, one of a number of works Boccherini arranged from existing movements so that aristocratic patrons could play guitar in his chamber music. Alongside this Szymanski and the quartet will be performing music by Vivaldi and Piazzolla. There will also be music by Paganini, who it turns out was something of a mean guitarist too, Puccini, Thierry Escaich and Symanski's arrangement of two movements of Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango.

There is also a post-concert Q&A with the artists.

Do hope that you can join us:

Polish connections: Grazyna Bacewicz, Witold Lutoslawski, Henryk Gorecki from Southbank Sinfonia

SOuthbank Sinfonia
Southbank Sinfonia
Britten, Lutoslawski, Bacewicz, Gorecki, Grieg; Southbank Sinfonia; Kings Place Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The music of Grazyna Bacewicz at the centre of a thoughtful and engaging programme from the young players of Southbank Sinfonia

The Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz was a major name during her life-time and a significant influence on her Polish contempories such as Witold Lutowlawski and Henryk Gorecki, yet compared to her British contemporary Benjamin Britten (they were almost exact contemporaries) her music today is relatively neglected.

Southbank Sinfonia, directed from the violin by Eugene Lee, brought a programme of music by Benjamin Britten, Witold Lutoslawksi, Grazyna Bacewicz, Henryk Goreck and Edvard Grieg to Kings Place on 23 May 2019. The centrepiece was a pair of Bacewicz's major works for strings, Concerto for String Orchestra and Divertimento for String Orchestra, alongside works by two of her Polish contemporaries whom she influenced, Lutoslawski's Music Funebre and Hneryk Gorecki's Three Pieces in Old Style. The element of old forms made new was also explored in Britten's Simple Symphony and Grieg's Holberg Suite.

Something old, something new: Endellion String Quartet's 40th anniversary at Wigmore Hall

Endellion String Quartet
Endellion String Quartet
The Endellion String Quartet (Andrew Watkinson & Ralph de Souza violins, Garfield Jackson viola, David Waterman cello) is 40! And as part of the celebrations the group is at Wigmore Hall on 29 May 2019 with a programme which combines the traditional with the new. Alongside Beethoven's String Quartet in F major Op.18 No.1 (the first of his first published set of quartets), and Schubert's String Quartet in D minor (‘Death and the Maiden’), there are four new pieces, 40th anniversary commissions, A Myndin' by Sally Beamish, Ritus: Four Portraits for String Quartet by Prach Boodiskulchok, ENdellionIGMA by Giles Swayne and Vanishing Gold by Jonathan Dove.

'A myndin', in Scots, means the ‘remembering’ of a person, by giving them a small gift or souvenir, and Sally Beamish's piece is one of a group which she wrote in 2018 arising from her move from Scotland back to London, the mixing of remembering Scotland and the idea of re-connecting with friends and colleagues in London again.

Prach Boondiskulchok says of his piece 'Ritus is a set of four miniatures for string quartet, each dedicated to the individual members of the Endellion String Quartet, written to celebrate the ensemble’s Fortieth Anniversary. In each movement, the instruments of the quartet take turns at being the principal voice, depicting evocative elements of the different times of the year: Shoots, Crickets, Skein and Melting. An underpinning harmonic framework, derived from the analysis of the natural resonances of St. Endellion church in Cornwall (after which the quartet was named)'.

Jonathan Dove's piece is inspired by two small creatures, both of which may be extinct, the golden toad of Costa Rica and the golden coqui of Puerto Rico, whose two-note call is the starting point for the piece.

Giles Swayne's Endellionigma 'charts the development of a quartet as it evolves from four individual musicians to one integrated instrument'.

Full details from the Wigmore Hall website

The textures of sound: Bastard Assignments at Mountview in Peckham

Bastard Assignments (Photo Max Colson)
Bastard Assignments (Photo Max Colson)
Bastard Assignments at Mountview in Peckham Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new theatre, new material; the composer/performers on devastating form

The composer/performer collective Bastard Assignments (Edward Henderson, Josh Spear, Timothy Cope and Caitlin Rowley) has had a residency at Snape Maltings, giving them an opportunity to develop creative practice and create new work. The result was on show at the studio theatre at Mountview (Mountview of Theatre Arts) on Wednesday 22 May 2019 with performances of EDGE by Caitlin Rowley, PREP by the group, FLOWER by Edward Henderson, SUGAR CAGE by Timothy Cape and FEED by Josh Spear.

The theatre itself is new, part of a striking brand-new complex which Mountview has created in the heart of Peckham, with a second theatre opening next month. And the black box of the studio theatre was an apt space in which to experience the inspired lunacy which is Bastard Assignments' world. Notionally composer/performers, the group stretches the definition of what is music and what is performance, presenting collective and solo pieces which sometimes hover on the boundaries of music theatre and sometimes are so left-field as to be unclassifiable. To live in Bastard Assignments' world is to experience music in the very essence of the everyday; we still have vivid memories of Caitlin Rowley's solo piece where she simply unwrapped a box of parcels, creating a striking musical experience out of a simple narrative.

Wednesday's show opened with another solo piece from Rowley, EDGE, in which she presented a vividly articulated, yet wordless narrative which evoked the world of Cathy Berberian's Stripsody. It was a piece which managed to combine amusement and anxiety, yet also without the words left you feeling that you were failing to grasp an essential point.

Thursday 23 May 2019

Berners, Stanford, Milford & RVW premieres open English Music Festival

Dorchester Abbey (Photo John Armagh)
Dorchester Abbey (Photo John Armagh)
The 13th English Music Festival start tomorrow (24 May 2019) at Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, providing a weekend of exploration of English music from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.  The festival opens with a remarkable programme of world premieres from the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Martin Yates, including Lord Berners' Portsmouth Point, a work written in the 1920s and perhaps never performed owing to the success of William Walton's overture (both based on a Rowlandson cartoon), a violin concerto by Stanford which dates from his period studying in Leipzig, a symphony by Robin Milford who was a pupil of RVW and Holst, and RVW's The Blue Bird which is incidental music that he wrote for Maeterlinck's play in 1913 which survives only in piano score so many never have been performed.

A recital by Rupert Marshall Luck (violin) and Michael Korstick (piano) will include the first performance of a new Urtext edition of Elgar's Violin Concerto, whilst Nicholas Daniel (oboe) will be performing RVW's Concerto for oboe and string orchestra with the English Arts Orchestra, conductor Leslie Olive as part of a programme of English String music. Lynn Arnold and Charles Matthews (piano duet) will be performing music by York Bowen,William Alwyn, Arthur Bliss, Donald Tovey, Delius and Frances Routh. The Piatti Quartet performs Elgar's String Quartet alongside music by Walton, Britten and Bridge.

The Chapel Choir of Worcester College, Oxford, perform a programme of English choral music, and the the Godwine Choir and Holst Orchestra, conductor Hilary Davan Wetton perform Dyson, Rubbra, Finzi, Howells, Holst and Elgar. The Chamber Ensemble of London, director Peter Fisher, perform RVW's Concerto Grosso alongside music by Bainton, Alwyn, Ireland, Finzi and Clive Jenkins.

Full details from the English Music Festival website

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Jennifer Witton wins inaugural By Voice Alone competition

Finalists at the 2019 By Voice Alone competition
Finalists at the 2019 By Voice Alone competition
A new vocal competition, By Voice Alone, reached its climax on Monday (20 May 2019) at Kings Place when seven young singers competed at the final. Launched in 2018, the competition is distinctive in that the opening round of auditions were done blind, hence the competitions title. Attracting over 400 singers from around the world, the competitions final featured sopranos Siân Dicker, Jeannette Louise van Schaik, Luci Briginshaw, Chloë Morgan and Jennifer Witton, mezzo soprano Kate Howden, and baritone Themba Mvula.

The winner was soprano Jennifer Witton, with her performances of 'Glück das mir verblieb' (Marietta's Lied) from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt and 'Enfin, je suis ici' from Massenet's Cendrillon (an opera in which she was on tour with Glyndebourne Touring Opera as Cendrillon, and she is currently with the main company covering the role for the forthcoming season). Jennifer was joint winner of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's gold medal in 2015.

Second Place and the Audience Prize went to Luci Briginshaw (who is currently on tour with English Touring Opera), whilst the prize for Emerging Artist went to Chloë Morgan, who is currently at Glyndebourne Opera covering the role of Noémie in Massenet's Cendrillon, but who was originally a jazz specialist, performing at Ronnie Scott's and other key venues on the jazz scene.

On tour from Baltimore: Morgan State University Choir

Morgan State University Choir
Morgan State University Choir
The Morgan State University Choir, director Eric Conway, is currently touring the UK in a six date concert tour which culminates in concerts at the Battersea Power Station (27 May 2019) and the Gresham Centre (28 May 2019). The choir's repertoire is a lively mix of gospel songs, spirituals (including one arranged by Bob Chilcott), and excerpts from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and Leonard Bernstein's Mass.

The choir is based at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and recently the choir sang in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Allsop. Other engagements have varied from performing at the White House to supporting Aretha Franklin.

The full tour is Chester Cathedral (24/5/2019, 1pm), The Bramall, Birmingham (25/5/2019, 7.30pm), St. George's Chapel, Windsor (27/5/2019, 1.10pm), Battersea Power Station (27/5/2019, 5pm), Gresham Centre (28/5/2019).

Clive Osgood: Sacred Choral Music

Clive Osgood - Sacred Choral Music
Clive Osgood Sacred Choral Music; Excelsis, London Mozart Players, Rebecca Moon, Robert Lewis; Convivium Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 May 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Attractively melodic music from a young contemporary composer, in engaging performances

Clive Osgood is perhaps not a name well known to everybody, but this disc of his sacred music on Convivium Records should help change that. Robert Lewis conducts the choir Excelsis and the London Mozart Players along with soprano Rebecca Moon in a programme which includes Osgood's setting of the Dixit Dominus, Beatus Vir and Miserere Mei alongside a series of smaller scale English anthems.

Osgood studied music at the University of Wales and the University of Surrey, as well as having an organ scholarship at Salisbury Cathedral. He is currently director of music at St Bartholomew's Church in Haslemere and teaches music at the Reed's School, Cobham. He is involved in amateur music making in the community, and many of the smaller pieces on the disc were written for such groups, so that Brightest and Best was first performed his choir at St Bartholomew's Church, and Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life was premiered by the Llandaff Cathedral parish choir. His carol Alleluia! A new work is come on hand was one of six works shortlisted in the 2016 BBC Radio 3 Carol Competition.

I could well imagine Osgood's music being popular with such groups, he writes attractively melodic music which always has an imaginative use of texture. He also writes well for voices, creating imaginative music which is accessible yet satisfyingly challenging for non-professionals is tricky and without having seen any of Osgood's music, it sounds as if he succeeds admirably.

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Marilyn Forever

Marilyn Forever
Gavin Bryars' chamber opera Marilyn Forever will receive its UK premiere on Wednesday 22 May 2019 in the Oxford Contemporary Opera Society's inaugural production at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, University of Oxford with further performances on 24 & 25 May 2019. The opera will be directed by Zerlina Vulliamy (founder of the Oxford Contemporary Opera Society and a music student at Exeter College), and conducted by Charlotte Corderoy (a music student at Hereford College).

Bryars' opera, with a libretto by Marilyn Bowering, was premiered in Canada in 2013. It focuses on the actress's last hours, examinining her relationship to love, death and ambition. Since the premiere there have been productions of the opera in Adelaide, Australia (2015) and by Long Beach Opera, California (205).

The Oxford Contemporary Opera Society was founded in 2018 by Zerlina Vulliamy with the objective to perform more contemporary opera in Oxford, as well as encouraging students to have greater interaction with opera.

Full details from the venue's website.

Delicatessen II - More Choice Morsels of Early English Song

Delicatessen II - Kate Semmens, Steven Devine
Delicatessen II - early English Songs; Kate Semmens, Steven Devine; Devine Music Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A charming exploration of the often-ignored English song tradition from the 17th and 18th centuries

Under the title Delicatessen II, this is the second of soprano Kate Semmens and harpsichordist Steven Devine's explorations of early English song on Devine Music. Few of the composers are well known, though there is a sprinkling of material by John Blow, William Boyce, Maurice Greene and Thomas Arne, alongside songs and piano works by Eliza Turner, William Jackson and John Stanley, John Weldon, Samuel Howard, James Hook, and John Frederick Lampe

These are songs from the 17th and 18th centuries, and they were all written for voice and keyboard (no arrangements of orchestral items). So the material on the disc is all designed for intimate domestic use. The works stretch beyond song, there are two cantatas by John Stanley, charming, witty pieces, and there are keyboard collections too, by Maurice Greene and Eliza Turner, who was active as a singer as well. The keyboard music consists of loose groupings of movements, often dances, under the title of Lessons.

Maurice Green set a number of sonnets (25 in all) by Edmund Spencer, a remarkable cycle of work, and we get one here. Perhaps the most intriguing pieces are the pair of songs by William Jackson where the accompaniment is fully written out for keyboard, unlike the other songs on the disc which use the more old-fashioned figured bass leaving the detail to the improvisation of the player.

This is a charming disc, featuring material which is often overlooked. One thread which links the songs is the composers' sympathy to the text. Whilst some of the songs might be musically a bit thin, there is no doubt that all the composers were aiming to bring out the charms of the words.

Kate Semmens and Steven Devine do them ample justice, giving us a window onto a charming and often neglected world.

Delicatessen II
Songs and piano music by John Blow, William Boyce, Maurice Greene, Thomas Arne, Eliza Turner, William Jackson and John Stanley
Kate Semmens (soprano)
Steven Devine (harpsichord)
Recorded in Sendesaal, Bremen, in May 2018
DMCD009 1CD [75.14]

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Dresden Music Festival 2019
    • Three continents, three composers, one concerto - festival debuts its 2019 commission (★★★) - concert review
    • Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (★★★) - concert review
    • Visions of the original sound: colour, texture & timbre to the fore in the opening concert of the 2019 Dresden Music Festival (★★★) - concert review 
  • Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival - interview
  • An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars (★★★) - concert review 
  • Rough for Opera - Speak Red, A Father is Looking for his Daughter, Dreaming Clouds - opera review
  • A young man's passion: Julian Prégardien & Erik Le Sage in Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (★★★★) - CD review
  • Far more than choral virtuosity: Handel's Israel in Egypt from the BBC Singers & Academy of Ancient Music (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • French inspiration, spectacular scenery & classical music: I chat to festival director Christoph Müller about this year's Gstaad Menuhin Festival  - interview
  • Brainwaves and modernism: the Ligeti Quartet explores consciousness at Kings Place (★★★) - concert review
  • Telemann from Toulouse: music for strings in stylish modern instrument performances (★★½) - CD review
  • A huge undertaking: Busoni's Piano Concerto recorded live in Boston - Kirill Gerstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo - CD review
  • Palpable enthusiasm & engagement: An English Coronation from Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli & Gabrieli Roar (★★★★) - CD review
  • The old ethos and a new professionalism: celebrating Garsington Opera at 30  - interview
  • Youthful Verdi revealed: a lithe and impulsive I Lombardi from Heidenheim (★★½)  - CD review
  • Home

Sunday 19 May 2019

Three continents, three composers, one concerto - Dresden Music Festival debuts its 2019 commission

Jan Vogler, Cristian Macelaru, WDR Sinfonieorchester - Dresden Music Festival
Jan Vogler, Cristian Macelaru, WDR Sinfonieorchester - Dresden Music Festival
Gabriella Smith, Nico Muhly, Sven Helbig, Zhou Long, Beethoven; Jan Vogler, WDR Sinfonieorchester, Cristian Macelaru; Dresden Music Festival at the Kulturpalast Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new concerto spanning three composers and three continents formed the centrepiece of this imaginative programme

For its 2019 festival commission the Dresden Music Festival had the intriguing idea of commissioning a concerto from not one but three composers, spanning three different continents. Group works have featured in the classical music and the 20th century saw group pieces from Les Six for instance, and the Yellow River Concerto was a effort, but such things are not common.

The new cello concerto Three Continents by Nico Mulhy, Sven Helbig and Zhou Long formed the centrepiece of the concert given by Jan Vogler (cello), WDR Sinfonieorchester and Cristian Macelaru (conductor) at Saturday's (18 May 2019) Dresden Music Festival concert at the Kulturpalast, Dresden. The concert opened with the European premiere of Gabriella Smith's Field Guite and ended with Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 'Eroica'.

Gabriella Smith (born 1991) is a young American composer who has been mentored by John Adams. Her Field Guide was commissioned by Cristian Macelaru who conducted the work's premiere in the USA. It takes the listener in an imaginary journey listening to a wide variety of insects from close to. The work started in striking fashion with unpitched rhythmic figures, catchy rhythms creating a striking sound world. Gradually Smith introduced pitched notes, but throughout the piece there was a fascinating mix of pitched and unpitched creating a series of atmospheric and descriptive textures. Yet overall the piece did not seem contrived, and Smith built it into a terrific climax.

Saturday 18 May 2019

Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival

Charlotte Bray (Photo Michael Wickham)
Charlotte Bray (Photo Michael Wickham)
Composer Charlotte Bray has a new piano work being premiered on 10 June 2019 at the Aldeburgh Festival. Written for the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the new piece Bring Me All Your Dreams is in memory of Oliver Knussen, who was co-artistic director of the festival from 1983 to 1998, and with whom Charlotte studied at Aldeburgh. Charlotte and chatted over Skype about her new piece, about Oliver Knussen and about her background as composer.

Oliver Knussen (credit Mark Allan BBC)
Oliver Knussen (credit Mark Allan BBC)
Charlotte describes Oliver Knussen as an incredible person, and he was very much a mentor to her. She first met him through Mark-Anthony Turnage with whom she studied at the Royal College of Music, and she worked with Knussen at Aldeburgh on the Britten-Pears course So she finds it incredibly special to be writing a piece in memory of him.

As a mentor and teacher, Knussen was 'most of the time' incredibly informative and inspiring. He had a knack of finding exactly what it was about any work that you were writing. He could get to the core of a piece and would know what it was that was required to make the piece work. Charlotte describes Knussen as having 'incredible ears'.

The Gardeners asks more questions than it answers......this is a contemporary problem with no easy solution

Frances Wilson's The Cross-eyed Pianist blog has a lovely article by Joanna Wyld about the creation of the libretto for our opera The Gardeners. If you have ever wondered what goes into the writing of a new text for an opera, then head over to the blog and read on.

'The Gardeners asks more questions than it answers......this is a contemporary problem with no easy solution'

Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla at the Dresden Music Festival

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and the CBSO
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and the CBSO
Ligeti, Schumann, Brahms; Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, Kit Armstrong, City of Birmingham Orchestra; Dresden Music Festival at the Kulturpalast Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Birmingham orchestra on terrific form under its music director on this visit to Dresden

It is some years since I heard the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and I had not heard it under its new music director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, and so the opportunity to do so at the Dresden Music Festival was most welcome, though the irony of travelling from London to Dresden to hear an orchestra from Birmingham was not lost on me.

The planned programme for the CBSO and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyle at the Dresden Music Festival at the Kulturpalast on Friday 17 May 2019 had been Ligeti's Concert Romanesc, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5 with Yuja Wang, and Brahms' Symphony No. 2. But changes in personnel led to changes in repertoire, and instead of Prokofiev we heard Schumann's Piano Concerto with Kit Armstrong as soloist. A safe if unimaginative choice of work.

Ligeti's Concert Romanesc dates from the 1950s when he was still living in Hungary, and whilst it pushes few boundaries it remained unperformed until 1971. It is very much a rhapsodic work based around Romanian folk-songs. In four movements, slow, fast, slow, fast, at first Ligeti presented the folk melodies with little modification, unisons and counter-melodies were a big feature, but gradually the imagination took off and the folk-fiddling of the finale brought things to a close with vivid excitement. Grazinyte-Tyla and the orchestra really made this work a showpiece, from the superbly phrased unison at the opening to the dazzling finale.

Though each section of the strings lost a desk of players for the Schumann concerto, the orchestra was still a little too large to be ideal in this work. Kit Armstrong took a very interventionist view of the piece, making many of the piano statements in the opening movement too artfully poetic for my taste, rather holding up the flow of the argument and giving the feeling that he was overly milking the music in a way that Clara Schumann (who premiered and championed the concerto) would surely have disapproved. [The recording of the concerto by her pupil Fanny Davies, the closes we can come to Clara herself performing it, should be essential listening for every young pianist - see on YouTube].

Friday 17 May 2019

Visions of the original sound: colour, texture & timbre to the fore in the opening concert of the 2019 Dresden Music Festival

Rene Pape, Ivor Bolton, Dresden Festival Orchestra - Dresden Music Festival 2019
Rene Pape, Ivor Bolton, Dresden Festival Orchestra - Dresden Music Festival 2019 (Photo Oliver Killig)
Weber Overture to Euryanthe, Schubert songs (orch. Stuchasch Dyma), Schumann Symphony No. 1; Rene Pape, Dresden Festival Orchestra, Ivor Bolton; Dresden Music Festival at the Kulturpalast
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 May 2019
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)

The Dresden Festival's period orchestra brings colour and texture to the music of Weber and Schumann, with an intriguing selection of Schubert lieder orchestrated

Ivor Bolton, Dresden Festival Orchestra - Dresden Music Festival 2019 (Photo Oliver Killig)
Ivor Bolton, Dresden Festival Orchestra
(Photo Oliver Killig)
The Dresden Music Festival (Dresdner Musikfestspiele), which this year takes as its theme Visions, opened on Thursday 16 May 2019 at the Kulturpalast in Dresden, the Soviet-era cultural centre which re-opened in 2017 with a brand-new auditorium within the historic building. Ivor Bolton conducted the Dresden Festival Orchestra, the festival's own period-instrument ensemble which specialises in the music of the 19th century, in a programme of Weber, Schubert and Schumann. We began with Weber's overture to Euryanthe and finished with Schumann's Symphony No. 1 'Spring Symphony'. In between the bass Rene Pape, who is something of a local hero, sang orchestrations of Schubert songs, Prometheus and the six Heinrich Heine settings from Schwanengesang, all orchestrated by Stuchasch Dyma.

Ivor Bolton launched into the overture with verve, the orchestra playing with a crisp bright sound, creating a very distinctive sound-world. Compared to a modern-instrument orchestra the strings dominated far less, but there are other factors in play. The technology of instruments developed for a reason, the instruments of the period are more fallible and generally less even in timbre and tone across the range. This means that every not has a different quality and colour, and the sound of the orchestra was very textural.

O/Modernt - From the Ground Up: The Chaconne

O/Modernt - From the Ground Up: The Chaconne
Hugo Ticciati and O/Modernt's latest disc From the Ground Up: The Chaconne is released on Signum Classics on 7 June 2019. By way of an early celebration, Ticciati and performers from the disc, Sam West (reader), Johannes Marmén (violin), Alberto Mesirca (guitar/baroque guitar/theorbo), and Luciana Mancini (mezzo-soprano), gathered at St Stephen's Walbrook on Tuesday 14 May 2019 to talk about the disc and to perform a programme of chaconnes stretching from the earliest Spanish dances, through 16th and 17th century Italian music to the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2, linked by improvisations by Hugo Ticciati and Johannes Marmén, and readings of Shakespeare from Sam West.

Luciana Mancini proved to be an engaging and vibrant performer, making the Spanish dances really dance, so that you really wanted to get up and join in, and tugging the heart strings in the Italian repertoire. She was accompanied with virtuosity by Alberto Mesirca on baroque guitar and theorbo, and he also gave us some more modern solos on classical guitar.

In the middle of the programme Hugo Ticciati gave a very personal account of Bach's Chaconne, walking round the atmospheric space of the church to create something very free and very communicative.

The sequence was seamless, with Hugo Ticciati and Johannes Marmén's improvisations bridging the gaps and the centuries, and Sam West effortlessly managing the transition from music to spoken word.

The full Cd features music by Bach, Purcell, Pellegrini, Piconini, Marmén, Bogdanovic, plus overtone singing, improvisations, beat poetry and Shakespeare. And one other feature of it is an interest in breath and breathing, and it was this that featured in the pre-concert talk with each of the performers considering what breath and breathing meant to them. As ever with O/Modernt there is a challenge to the audience, with people being encouraged to listen actively rather than passively.

Further information from the Signum Classics website.

Thursday 16 May 2019

An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars

Sergei Rachmaninov in the 1910s
Sergei Rachmaninov in the 1910s
Rachmaninov All Night Vigil (Vespers); The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A lighter more intimate approach to Rachmaninov's Vespers, combined with the music of Sir John Tavener to striking effect

There is an English tradition of Rachmaninov's choral music, the composer even visited All Saints' Church, Margaret Street and heard the choir there under Dr Walter Vale perform Vale's English adaptation of Rachmaninov's Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. But it wasn't until the 1990s that performances of Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil by non-Slavic choirs became commonplace, until then one had to rely on recordings from Russian, Bulgarian and other Slav choirs, all firmly in the Russian Orthodox tradition. With the performance of the work by British choirs, with their very different choral technique, a different way of performing the work developed. Whilst still including the striking low bass parts, the results were often faster and lighter, making a virtue of the very different technique.

So I went along to the Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 15 May 2019 with realistic expectations of what we might be hearing when Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars performed Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil as part of a Rachmaninov and John Tavener programme for Choral At Cadogan.

The ensemble was expanded to 17 singers (with an all-female alto line), including the bass Jeremy White (familiar from the Royal Opera House) providing reinforcement on the low bass line. The programme interspersed the movements from the Rachmaninov with works by Tavener, plus Rachmaninov's setting of The Lord's Prayer from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. In the first half this meant slipping Tavener's Funeral Ikos between movements four and five of the Rachmaninov, which worked well. But in the second half we had Tavener's The Lamb and Lord's Prayer between movements 12 and 13, which seemed to sit more uneasily. Occasional corners suggested that the work was perhaps not quite as well bedded in to the choir as their regular repertoire.

In the Rachmaninov, the choir made a focused but quite light sound with Phillips giving us fast-ish tempos, though not slavishly so.

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