Sunday, 17 November 2019

Striking new studio recording of Verdi's La Traviata from Latvia, with Marina Rebeka, Charles Castronovo, Michael Balke

Verdi: La traviata - Marina Rebeka, Charles Castronovo - Prima Classic
Verdi La traviata; Marina Rebeka, Charles Castronovo, George Petean, Latvian Festival Orchestra, Michael Balke; PRIMA CLASSIC
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 November 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A striking new recording of Verdi's classic from Latvia, a studio recording with lots to recommended it.

Studio recordings of opera are becoming increasingly rare, so a new one is always notable. This recording of Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata comes from soprano Marina Rebeka's Prima Classic label [see my interview with Marina], recorded in Riga. Michael Balke conducts the Latvian Festival Orchestra and State Choir Latvija, with Marina Rebeka as Violetta, Charles Castronovo as Alfredo, George Petean as Giorgio Germont, Laura Grecka as Annina and Elisabetta Sergeeva as Flora.

The cast is remarkably international, with a Latvian soprano, an American tenor, a Romanian bass and a German conductor. What they have in common is a discography which does not quite reflect their live experience in mainstream 19th century opera, and it seems to be conductor Michael Balke's debut opera recording.  When I spoke to Rebeka last year, she made it clear that her label wasn't about herself, but to give opportunities to fine singers outside the golden circle of those heavily promoted by record companies.

Once past the prelude, the first thing we notice in the first Act is Michael Balke's preference for swift tempos. The party scene is positively exciting, and the singers bring it off. The Brindisi is exciting too, but some might find it a little breathless, though Balke's speeds do not force the singers and there is space for rubato. (And, for what its worth, whilst I wasn't strictly keeping count, there are quite a few of the repeats in place.)

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The City Music Foundation, historic Czech chamber music recordings and music by women composers: I chat to viola player Rosalind Ventris

Rosalind Ventris
Rosalind Ventris
The viola player Rosalind Ventris is a regular visitor to this blog, we caught her at Conway Hall in January 2019 playing Liszt's arrangement of Berlioz' Harald in Italie with pianist Simon Callaghan [see my review], and previously we have heard her there playing with Trio Anima [see my review], which is Matthew Featherstone (flute), Anneke Hodnett (harp) and Rosalind Ventris (viola). Rosalind also played the viola on Quickening, the disc of my songs on Navona Records and we performed music from the disc at Conway Hall in May [see my article], including the London premiere of my Three Pieces from the Book of Common Prayer

Recently it was announced that Rosalind was one of the City Music Foundation's 2019 artists, so Rosalind and I recently met up to chat about what this new collaboration means for her, and what projects she has in store.

The City Music Foundation (CMF) provides professional musicians in the UK in the early stages of their careers with expert advice, guidance and support to help them to build successful careers in music. This support involves business mentoring, professional development workshops, making websites, professional CDs and videos, fixing professional external gigs, and the CMF's own events, recitals and projects. [See Rosalind's page on the CMF website]

The CMF scheme is not like traditional artists' management, Rosalind sees it as providing, in addition to valuable mentoring and workshops, a sounding board so that she has a group of experienced professionals with whom to discuss ideas and projects. The CMF has valuable links to arts organisations and business in the City of London, as well as creating performance opportunities [Rosalind is giving a lunchtime recital for CMF at St Bartholomew the Less on 18 December 2019]. Rosalind has recently been making time in her career for her own projects, and hopes to continue this with help and guidance from CMF. And things start with the basics, including a good set of photographs and talking through your career and future programmes.

Rosalind is keen to include more music by women composers in her programmes, though she points out the incongruity if she announced a 'programme of men composers'! Simply, she wants to programme interesting and unusual music; part of the problem is that 100 years ago there were few famous female composers. She does programme the Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata a lot, and is looking into further repertoire, describing such programming as uncovering an alternative history.

Friday, 15 November 2019

80th birthday of Uruguayan pianist Dinorah Varsi

Dinorah Varsi (Photo Werner Bethsold)
Dinorah Varsi (Photo Werner Bethsold)
Today (15 November 2019) would have been the Uruguayan pianist Dinorah Varsi's 80th birthday. Dinorah Varsi (1939 - 2013) was born in Montevideo, Uruguay and gave her first public concert at the age of four. She studied in Montevideo, Paris and New York with Geza Anda becoming her most important teacher and in 1967 she won the prestigious Clara Haskil International Competition in Lucerne. In 2015 Genuin Classics brought out the Dinorah Varsi Legacy set, comprising an amazing 25 CDs, 5 DVDs and a book, with Varsi's recordings of selected live and studio recordings from 1945 to 2004 of works by 28 different composers, from Bach and Rameau to Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, Ravel and Tchaikovsky, including such milestones as the major concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. But there are also rarities by Isaac Albéniz, Béla Bartók and Galina Ustwolskaja. You can also catch her performances on YouTube.

In October 2019, France Musique broadcast a programme of her playing Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov which is still available on-line.

Further information from the Dinorah Varsi website

Hector Berlioz - the Musical Outsider

Berlioz when a student at the Villa Medici in Rome in 1832
Berlioz when a student at the Villa Medici in Rome in 1832
The Musical Outsider - Hector Berlioz; Nadine Benjamin, Michael Bell, Nigel Foster, Gabriel Woolf; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A remarkable portrait of Berlioz, mingling song and spoken word, including the original version of Les Nuits d'Été

Hector Berlioz was the eternal outsider, never really achieving consistent success in France in his lifetime, his music somehow too idiosyncratic. Yet it is these very qualities which make Berlioz the genius he is. As part of the London Song Festival's Outsiders series at Hinde Street Methodist Church on Thursday 14 November 2019, Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Michael Bell (tenor), Gabriel Woolf (speaker) and festival artistic director Nigel Foster (piano) presented the Musical Outsider, a portrait of Hector Berlioz which mixed Gabriel Woolf's spoken excerpts from Hector Berlioz' memoirs (translated by David Cairns) with Berlioz' songs including Les Nuits d'Été (in its original piano version), songs from Irlande, La Mort d'Ophelie, Chant de Bonheur, La Captiveand Zaide.

Central to the evening was Gabriel Woolf's magnificent re-creation of Hector Berlioz' own voice through his memoirs. Starting with Berlioz' description of his birth, and ending with the gruesome image of the reinterment of Harriet Smithson and Berlioz' envoi, Woolf's performance really brought the memoirs alive, and you could have well believed that it was the composer himself reminiscing. Berlioz' was a full and active life, so we had little excerpts from it, and often music and text chimed together. Songs like Chant de Bonheur were explicitly described in the memoirs, whilst others provided more oblique musical commentary, some of the songs from Irlande for instance providing a musical commentary of Berlioz' romantic obsession with Harriet Smithson. Frankly, I could have happy listened to Woolf reading from the memoirs all evening, but thankfully the musical side of the evening was equally engaging.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Barbara Strozzi: Virtuosa of Venice - Fieri Consort

Barbara Strozzi - Virtuosa of Venice - Fieri Consort
Barbara Strozzi Virtuosa of Venice; Fieri Consort; Fieri Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An enterprising collection of Strozzi's songs, arias and duets from this talented consort

Barbara Strozzi was one of the most prolific female composers of her time, publishing seven books of secular music and one sacred collection. On this disc from the members of the Fieri Consort, on Fieri Records, with Harry Buckoke (viola da gamba), Toby Carr (theorbo and baroque guitar) and Aileen Henry (baroque harp) perform items from Barbara Strozzi's collections, alongside music by her contemporaries, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Bartolomeo Selma y Salaverde, Benedetto Ferrari, Claudio Monteverdi, and Ascanio Maione. Unlike previous discs from the Fieri Consort, we do not hear them as an ensemble but in a series of solos and duets as their selections wander widely of Strozzi's published output.

Coming from an artistic family (her father was the Venetian poet Giulio Strozzi) Barbara Strozzi was encouraged in her musical career with her father employing Francesco Cavalli as her teacher, and founding the Accademia degli Unisoni to showcase her talents. Giulio Strozzi's musical links were strong, and he wrote libretti for both Monteverdi and Cavalli.

But the sheer fact of a woman performing in public was still suspect and thought wanton, with contemporaries showing ambivalence over Strozzi's virtue, doubts that still occur today though there seems little concrete evidence beyond the tutting of her male colleagues. We know that she had children by a relationship with a married aristocrat, and in fact on his death her daughters' dowries to enter a convent were paid by the aristocrat's widow, and he was a friend of Barbara's father. So both sides of the family seem to have been in some way complaisant.

It does not help that Strozzi's songs often have suggestive, rather sexy words. She was clearly an enchanting performer, and really capitalised on this, one contemporary said that she could 'steal the souls of her listeners through their ears with sweetness'.

All this raises the issue of quite what you want Strozzi's arias and duets to actually sound like.

Buddhist Dance Drama at the British Library

Mahajanaka Dance Drama - UK Tour November 2019 from Sebastian Reynolds on Vimeo.

Neon Dance is bringing a new multi-disciplinary music and dance drama to the British Library on 16 and 17 November 2019. Mahajanaka Dance Drama is based on the South Asian myth 'Mahajanaka Jataka', and features Thai dance artist Pichet Saengkrai, composer Sebastian Reynolds along with traditional Thai musicians Pradit Saengkrai and Great Lekakul, in a work inspired by folk-tales about Buddha's previous lives.

The project has been mentored and supported by Buddhist scholar Dr Sarah Shaw, Fellow of The Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies at Oxford University. Dr Shaw’s translations of Jataka stories for Penguin Classics have been a great inspiration for the project

Reynolds has also produced an EP of music from the show, which is based around samples of the Thai traditional instruments the Pii-Nai, recorded during Sebastian’s British Council funded research and development trip to Bangkok in 2016. The EP also features a traditional Thai piece that features in the ‘Mahajanaka Dance Drama’ soundtrack, performed by Thai pi-phat ensemble The Jongkraben Ensemble. Available via his website.

The performances are part of a tour which continues to Derby (19/11/2019), Cambourne (20/11/2019) and Huntingdon (21/11/2019), see Sebastian Reynolds website for more details.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Septet version of Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen: Spotlight on the Oculi Ensemble.

In 1990 a short score of Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen was discovered in Switzerland, which suggested that Strauss had originally thought of the work as for string septet. The work was originally a commission from Paul Sacher, the founder and director of the Basler Kammerorchester and Collegium Musicum Zürich, to whom Strauss dedicated. In fact when Sacher commissioned the work he asked for a suite for strings, and Strauss mentioned he was working 'on an Adagio for some eleven solo strings that will probably develop into an Allegro as I can’t remain very long at the Brucknerian snail’s pace'. Strauss completed the short score, for seven strings, in March 1945 and immediately began expanding the work to the 23 solo strings. In 1994, Rudolf Leopold produced an edition of the septet version based both Strauss' short score and the final version of the work.

This video is taken from the Oculi Ensemble's recent concert at LSO St Luke's, and you can see works by Mozart and Brahms from the same concert on the ensemble's YouTube channel. I chatted to the ensemble's Jon Thorne (viola) in July, see my article.

Celebrating 70 years at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
Carlo Rizzi conducts the orchestra of Welsh National Opera on Friday 15 November 2019 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD). The concert will feature young singers from RWCMD's David Seligman Opera School in scenes and arias from opera, and the concert takes place in RWCMD's Dora Stoutzker Hall.

The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama was founded in 1949 as the Cardiff College of Music, and was originally housed in Cardiff Castle, and is now in purpose built premises in Bute Park. Following an international competition, a new expansion designed by BFLS opened in 2011 featuring an acoustically excellent 450‐seat chamber recital hall (the ‘Dora Stoutzker Hall’), a 180‐ seat theatre (the ‘Richard Burton Theatre’), four rehearsal studios, an exhibition gallery (the ‘Linbury Gallery’) as well as generous foyer areas, a terrace overlooking Bute Park and a new Café Bar. Further information on and images of the new buildings at Dezeen.

Further information from the RWCMD's website.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Strong connections: Sally Beamish on her 60th anniversary piece for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, & her personal links to the orchestra

Sally Beamish (Photo Ashley Coombes)
Sally Beamish (Photo Ashley Coombes)
Composer Sally Beamish is currently the composer-in-residence with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, during their 60th anniversary year. Tomorrow (13 November 2019) is the exact anniversary, and Sally's new work Hover, written specially for the Anniversary, will be performed by the Academy at their concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (12/11/2019) and at the Cambridge Music Festival (14/11/2019). Sally has strong associations with the ensemble, her mother was a violinist with them during the 1960s and 1970s, with the young Sally accompanying her mother to rehearsals and recording sessions, and she herself as a young viola player, performed with them. Sir Neville Marriner (who founded the ensemble) was also supportive of Sally as young composer.

Sally wrote Hover at the period when she was moving from Scotland back to England, so the work is to do with leaving, unsettledness, loss and excitement. At the time, she felt suspended as they were leaving Glasgow but unable to move into their new house. The piece is based on a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem The Wind Hover, which was suggested by her husband. She found it beautiful, and full of visual and sound images. The work uses important solo oboe and horn parts, plus strings. She knew that the piece should really be a celebration, but when writing the music it came out as an elegy. She had in fact talked about the piece to Sir Neville before he died, and he had been very supportive. In fact, she had imagined Sir Neville conducting it, but now it will be directed by the leader of the orchestra. As a self-directed piece is very different from one with a conductor, this was something she had to bear in mind.

Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Photo Academy of St Martin in the Fields)
Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Photo Academy of St Martin in the Fields)
At the centre of Hover is a lullaby which was originally a string quintet piece which was intended to invoke the sense of loss a mother feels as her children grow up, and this is now on the viola. There are also fragments of Robert Burns songs, and Scots songs, which often use the pentatonic scale, but in the new context that rather sound English, as if transported.

From Darkness Into Light: Antoine Brumel's Lamentations recorded complete by Musica Secreta

From Darkness Into Light - Musica Secreta - Obsidian
Antoine Brumel Lamentations of Jeremiah, Josquin, Moro, Compere; Musica Secreta; Obsidian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A major discovery, Brumel's Lamentations recorded complete for the first time, alongside music for a Florentine Convent, on this magical disc from Musical Secreta

Musica Secreta, directed by Deborah Roberts & Laurie Stras, continues its exploration of Italian Renaissance sacred music particularly associated with religious communities with this latest disc on Obsidian, From Darkness Into Light which combines Antoine Brumel's Lamentationes Hieremie Propheta, in feria sexta Parasceve, recorded complete for the first time, alongside music from a manuscript copied in the 16th century for a Florentine nunnery, largely anonymous but with motets by Josqiun, Antonio Moro and Loyset Compere.

The second half of the disc comes from the Biffoli-Sostegni manuscript which was copied in Florence in 1560 and which Laurie Stras (who did the research on which this disc is based) postulates comes from either the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri or the convent of San Jacopo, and the manuscript documents the convent's entire liturgical year. It has not had much expose partly because the majority of the works are uncredited, though it is a substantial and elaborate manuscript. It was copied by one Antonius Morus (Antonio Moro), and it turns out that he copied another manuscript the previous year, now known the initials on the front page, P.M. and Stras examined this whilst in Florence.

Musica Secreta
Musica Secreta
P.M. contains Antoine Brumel's Lamentations of Jeremiah alongside other uncredited works. What Stras found, by accident, was that a substantial chunk of the 'uncredited' works were, in fact, further verses of Brumel's Lamentations so what is recorded on this disc for the first time is Brumel's setting of the Lamentations from the Good Friday lessons, with verses which correspond to those in a Franciscan breviary published in Venice in 1478. (You can read more at the Musica Secreta website).

From Eugene O'Neill play to American folk opera: I chat to composer Edward Thomas about his opera 'Anna Christie'

Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas
The American composer Edward Thomas has worked in a wide variety of genres, jazz, theatre, commercial, concert music and opera. He studied originally with the Hungarian-American composer Tibor Serly, and has had a career as a guitarist, songwriter and composer. His opera Anna Christie, based on the Eugene O'Neill play, was premiered in October 2018 by Encompass New Opera Theatre at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York and is now available on disc.  

Anna Christie is Edward's third opera, and his second based on a Eugene O'Neill play (he has also made an opera of Desire under the Elms).

Monday, 11 November 2019

Gems and discoveries: Piano Quartets from the Rossetti Ensemble at Conway Hall

The Rossetti Ensemble (Photo Robert Piwko)
The Rossetti Ensemble (Photo Robert Piwko)
Mozart, Debussy, Bridge, Mahler, Schumann; Rossetti Ensemble; Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Gems from the piano quartet repertoire in warmly passionate performances

Last night, 10 November 2019, the Rossetti Ensemble (Sara Trickey violin, Sarah-Jane Bradley viola, Tim Lowe cello, John Lenehan piano) gave a programme of piano quartets at the Conway Hall, as part of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts, and beforehand I gave a pre-concert talk, The Cinderella Effect: a History of the Piano Quartet looking at the development of the piano quartet from Mozart and Beethoven, through Dussek and Marschner, to Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Fauré.

The Rossett Ensemble played Mozart's Piano Quartet no. 2 in E flat, John Lenehan's arrangement of the prelude to Debussy's La demoiselle elue, Frank Bridge's Phantasy for Piano Quartet in F sharp minor, Gustav Mahler's Piano Quartet in A minor and Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat.

We began with the Mozart in a performance that was poised, strong and full-blooded. The slow movement was interestingly complex and the substantial final movement was full of delightful moments, but also its elaboration made you realise why Mozart's publisher had rejected his first piano quartet as being too complex for amateurs!

Come into the Garden - Samling Artist Showcase 2019 at Wigmore Hall

Samling Artist Showcase - Come into the Garden - Wigmore Hall
Samling Artist Showcase - Come into the Garden; Claire Lees, Anna Stéphany, Nicky Spence, Dominic Sedgwick, Joseph Middleton, Somi Kim, Simon Russell Beale; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 November 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Songs from Beethoven to Britten in this imaginative Garden-themed survey from artists associated with the Samling Institute

On Friday 8 November 2019 at the Wigmore Hall, the Samling Institute for Young Artists held its annual artist showcase, an event where current and former Samling Artists come together in recital as a celebration of Samling's work. This year's line-up had been subject to some re-arrangement due to illness and unforseen circumstance. First, soprano Simona Mihai had to drop out, to be replaced by soprano Claire Lees, and then tenor Filipe Manu had to drop out owing to illness, to be replaced at short notice by tenor Nicky Spence. Entailing some alterations to the programme.

So the Samling Showcase on Friday, featured soprano Claire Lees [Samling  2017, recently seen as Oscar in Opera Holland Park's 2019 Young Artist performance of Verdi's Un ballo in Maschera, see my review], mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany [Samling 2005, last seen in Mendelssohn's Eljiah with the OAE, see my review], tenor Nicky Spence [Samling 2006, currently singing Manolios in Martinu's The Greek Passion with Opera North, see my review] and baritone Dominic Sedgwick [Samling 2017, currently a Jette Parker Young Artist at Covent Garden], accompanied by pianist Joseph Middleton [Samling 2008, artistic director of Leeds Lieder] and Somi Kim [Samling 2015 & 2017], with readings from Sir Simon Russell Beale. The programme, Come into the Garden featured music by Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Georges Bizet, Richard Strauss, Ludwig van Beethoven, William Walton, Charles Villiers Stanford, Arthur Somervell, Gabriel Faure, John Ireland, Jean Sibelius, Liza Lehmann, Manning Sherwin, David Baker, and Wynn Stanley.

Sir Simon Russell Beale, Somi Kim, Joseph Middleton, Anna Stephany, Claire Lees, Dominic Sedgwick, Nicky Spence - Samling Artist Showcase 2019, Wigmore Hall (Photo Roger Way)
Sir Simon Russell Beale, Somi Kim, Joseph Middleton, Anna Stephany, Claire Lees, Dominic Sedgwick, Nicky Spence - Samling Artist Showcase 2019, Wigmore Hall (Photo Roger Way)

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Bringing to the community something which it would not otherwise see: I chat to festival director Anthony Wilkinson about the Wimbledon International Music Festival

Hugo Ticciati and O/Modernt who make a number of appearances at this years Wimbledon International Music Festival
Hugo Ticciati and O/Modernt who make a number of appearances at this years Wimbledon International Music Festival
The Wimbledon International Music Festival opens today, 9 November 2019; three weeks of music making and events under the theme of 'Music Mathematics Architecture'. This year's festival is the eleventh and I recently met up with festival director Anthony Wilkinson to chat about the festival's achievements, this year's highlights and future plans.

The festival is notable for the variety and imagination of Anthony's programming, alongside standards such as Haydn's Creation (which opens the festival), and the Philharmonia Orchestra in Bach, Bartók and Mozart (which closes it) there are programmes such as cellist Matthew Barley joining with Indian musicians, and a number of programmes from the ever imaginative Hugo Ticciati and O/Modernt.

Wimbledon International Music Festival 2019 logo
Anthony comments that each year he finds the more imaginative programmes, the ones which bring the most letters, are often the ones where ticket sales are the most sluggish. He finds this sad, because for him one of the joys of the festival is bringing to the community something which it would not otherwise see. And a few times during our chat, we return to the problem of how to promote fantastic music that is unusual, how to encourage the joy of discovery in listeners.
This year he has used the theme of Music Mathematics Architecture to make some interesting connections.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Engagingly youthful: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte from Ian Page and the Mozartists

Playbill of the first performance of Cosi fan Tutte at the Burgtheater, Vienna, 26 January 1790
Playbill of the first performance of Cosi fan Tutte at the Burgtheater, Vienna, 26 January 1790
Mozart Cosi fan tutte; Ana Maria Labin, Emily Edmonds, Matthew Swensen, Benjamin Appl, Rebecca Bottone, Richard Burkhard, The Mozartists, cond: Ian Page; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A lithe and youthfully engaging account of Mozart and Da Ponte's final, enigmatic masterpiece

The problem with celebrating Mozart's career year by year, is that it leaves a lot of the good things until the end, particularly when it comes to opera. So every so often Ian Page and The Mozartists cheat and take a break from the year by year exploration of Mozart 250 and give us something from Mozart's maturity.

So, on Wednesday 6 November 2019 at Cadogan Hall, Ian Page conducted the Mozartists in a concert performance of Cosi fan tutte with soloists Ana Maria Labin (soprano) as Fiordiligi, Emily Edmonds (mezzo-soprano) as Dorabella, Matthew Swensen (tenor) as Ferrando, Benjamin Appl (baritone) as Guglielmo, Rebecca Bottone (soprano) as Despina and Richard Burkhard (baritone) as Don Alfonso.

Cosi van tutte remains a somewhat enigmatic opera, no amount of research can ever quite put us in the position of those in the first night audience so that we understand the plot in the terms which they or the composer and librettist did. Even the title, one of those which is never translated, is puzzling, is it serious or ironic? It doesn't help that after a handful of performances following the premiere, the theatres were closed owing to the Emperor's death. So we don't have the sort of extensive contemporary comment on the opera that we do for the earlier Mozart/Da Ponte ones.

The advantage of a concert performance is that we don't have to worry as much about production concept, and can concentrate on Mozart's music and Da Ponte's words. Though, of course, that places a lot of onus on the performers and whilst I have enjoyed countless concert performances, I have also been to plenty where the opera failed to cross the footlights.

Thankfully there was no problem with that here, the cast were uniformly involved and engagingly direct in their performances. Whilst the singers were using scores, no-one had their head buried one or used it for protection, and instead dialogue was just that, dialogue between two people, statements could elicit reactions and there was a delightful sense of ensemble in this most ensemble of Mozart operas. Ian Page's programme note pointed out that we have to wait a long time for the first large-scale aria, and that the first time a singer is really alone on stage for their aria is not until the second act, prior to that the entire piece has been acted ensemble.

This was a youthful and lithe performance, starting with Ian Page's lively and stylish account of the overture. We have reached the point where period instrument performances of this music are relatively common, but I still find the range of colour and timbre that a good performance brings, to be completely magical. Textures were light, but everything was full of colour and transparency did not imply lack of emotional depth.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Leonardo the opera: Alex Mills' latest work debuts at the Victoria and Albert Museum

As 2019 is the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death, the Renaissance polymath is everywhere. Alex Mills, whose imaginative opera Dear Marie Stopes debuted at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival last year [see my review], is exploring Leonardo through music and his opera Leonardo will debut at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Saturday 9 November 2019 (when there are two performances, at 13.30 and 16;00). Alas the opera is not in one of the museum's evocative Renaissance galleries, but in the Lecture Theatre, though the acoustics there are good.

In the opera Mills aims to focuses on his inner world, emotional life and sexuality, using music to fill in the many gaps that we have in our knowledge of Leonardo the man. In fact, we know fairly little about Leonardo, most of his writings are architectural and technical, and certainly there is precious little about his emotional life or his sexuality. Of course, with historical figures the very silence can be telling.

The text by playwright Brian Mullin is drawn from Leonardo's personal notebooks and journals (of which the V&A have five in their collection), plus other contemporary texts from his lifetime.

The work will be performed by tenor Tom Randle, counter-tenor Feargal Mostyn-Williams and baritone Richard Immerglück with the viol consort Fretwork, conducted by Tim Anderson and directed by Patrick Eakin Young.

Further details from Alex Mills website,  and tickets from the V&A website.

Do not go gentle - the Chamber Choir of London in Dorchester, the Hague & London

The Chamber Choir of London and conductor Dominic Ellis-Peckham will be commemorating Remembrance Sunday with a programme, Do not go gentle at Dorchester Abbey in Gloucestershire (10/11/2019) and repeated at Kloosterkerk, the Hague on Monday (11/11/2019). The programme features Toby Young's setting of the Dylan Thomas poem from which it takes its name, along with music by Ed Rex, Kim Andre Arnesen, Alexander Campkin, Owain Park, and Kerry Andrew, plus RVW's No Long Mourn for Me, James McMillan's A Child's Prayer and Herbert Howell's Requiem. This powerful work was written by Howells in the 1930s, a period when he was much affected by the death of his son Michael (who had evidently 'contributed' to the early manuscript of the piece, in the way of young children). Howells would draw on the Requiem for his Hymnus Paradisi but put the Requiem in a drawer, and it was only in the 1950s that RVW persuaded him to allow it to be performed.

Further ahead, the choir will be bringing its Christmas programme, On Bethlehem Down to London on 13 December 2019, for a candlelit at St George's Church, Bloomsbury, with music by Andrew Carter, Peter Wishart, Judith Weir, Bob Chilcott, Herbert Howells, Elizabeth Maconchy, Jonathan Rathbone, Peter Warlock, Kerry Andrew, Richard Allain, and Cecilia McDowall.

The choir will be in London again in February 2019 at the Royal Festival Hall, but the concert sold out within 15 minutes of booking as it is a programme of music themed around the video game NieR. The choir joins with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra for NieR:Orchestra Concert re:12018 an immersive video-game concert which features music by composer Keiichi Okabe, and HD video projections by NieR Director Yoko Taro.

Full details from the choir's website.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The Lobster with live music

The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is best known for his film The Favourite, but his early catalogue includes the intriguing The Lobster (his first English language film). There is now a chance to see this at selected Picturehouse cinemas with a live sound-track from the Solem Quartet. The film, which is surreal and darkly funny, stars Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell and features a score which includes quartets by Shostakovich, Schnittke, Beethoven, Britten and Stravinsky.

The Solem Quartet was formed in 2011 at the University of Manchester (it takes its name from the university’s motto "arduus ad solem", meaning "striving towards the sun") and it won the 2014 Royal Over-Seas League Ensemble Competition. The performances of The Lobster form part of the Solem Lates project, where the quartet branches out into diverse genres and plays in unexpected settings.

The Lobster with live score from the Solem Quartet is at selected Picturehouse cinemas, screenings have already started but there are still plenty to choose from between 8 November and 18 December 2019. Full details from the Picturehouse website.

The Solem Quartet (Alistair Vennart, Amy Tress, Stephanie Tress, William Newell)
The Solem Quartet (Alistair Vennart, Amy Tress, Stephanie Tress, William Newell)

Beethoven Transformed: volume 1 of Boxwood & Brass' new project

Beethoven transformed - Boxwood & Brass - Resonus
Beethoven arr. Czerny Septet, Beethoven Sextet, Boxwood & Brass; Resonus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Beethoven's early Septet re-cast for Harmonie ensemble, showcasing the fine musicianship of Boxwood & Brass

Harmoniemusik is a style of wind ensemble music written in the 18th century generally in German speaking countries. It was often designed for performance outside, though not exclusively so. And though many major composers wrote for the genre, there were plenty of others who had their music arranged for wind ensemble. The ensemble, Boxwood & Brass, is the UK's only period instrument ensemble exploring this repertoire, giving us the opportunity to hear the music on historically correct instruments. [see my interview with Boxwood & Brass's Emily Worthington and Robert Percival for a full discussion of Harmoniemusik].

For the Boxwood & Brass' latest disc, on Resonus Classics, it has turned to a contemporary arrangement of one of the best loved large-scale chamber pieces of the Classical period, Beethoven's Septet. Written in 1799, the original was for a mixed ensemble of wind and stringa, but it is here performed in an arrangement for Harmonie sextet - two clarinets, two horns & two bassoons (Emily Worthington, Fiona Mitchell, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith, Robert Percival, Takako Kunugi) by Beethoven's pupil, Carl Czerny. Also on the disc is Beethoven's early Sextet Op.71 which sees Beethoven exploring the wind sextet not as Harmoniemusik but as real chamber music.

The disc is part of a project (with more discs to come) from Boxwood & Brass, Beethoven Transformed, which aims to explore early 19th century Viennese Harmoniemusik in the context of Beethoven's music for wind, and to show that the genre was more complex than mere background music.

In 1805, Beethoven asked his former pupil Carl Czerny to make the piano reduction of his opera Leonore. Czerny was in fact only 14, but he had had lessons from Beethoven in 1802 and 1803. Also dating from 1805 is a version of Beethoven's Septet (for a mixed ensemble of wind and strings) arranged by Czerny for Harmoniemusik, wind sextet. The background to the arrangement is unclear, but the timing makes it suggestive that Czerny was working to a commission from Beethoven, though Beethoven came to be annoyed by the success of his early Septet which he did not feel reflected his current compositional style! The booklet article by Emily Worthington also suggests another possibility, that Czerny was working for the clarinettist who owned the manuscript of Beethoven's Septet. And, in fact, the arrangement is not quite complete, and it is rather more virtuosic than a lot of contemporary Harmoniemusik.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

ORA's Christmas Gift!

ORA Singers, Suzi Digby (Photo Nick Rutter)
ORA Singers, Suzi Digby (Photo Nick Rutter)
ORA Singers will be supporting 12 new composers this Christmas, offering them a free recording of their Christmas compositions. The new initiative, called Christmas Gift, will select 12 UK-based composers who will have the chance to work with ORA’s world-class vocal ensemble and director, Suzi Digby OBE, before receiving a professional recording of their pieces just in time for Christmas.

Open to UK-based composers of any age, applicants can submit any a cappella Christmas work under 5 minutes in length alongside their biographies in order to be considered for the project. ORA is looking for a broad range of composers, with no age restriction or entry fee. The group hopes to help composers take the next step in their careers by providing a professional recording; whether it be for a college application, prospective commission or portfolio enhancement.

Full details of the Christmas Gift can be found on ORA Singers’ website, with an entry deadline of the 18 November 2019.

UK premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Cello Concertino in Manchester

Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg together in Moscow
Dmitri Shostakovich & Mieczyslaw Weinberg
together in Moscow
I recently chatted to cellist Raphael Wallfisch about his project to record cello concertos by exiled Jewish composers [see my review]. Now Wallfisch is gving the UK premiere of a work by another exile, the Cello Concertino by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (Polish and Jewish by birth, Russian by adoption and a friend of Shostakovich's), which Wallfisch performs with the Northern Chamber Orchestra in the Stoller Hall at Chetham's School in Manchester on Friday 8 November 2019. Also in the programme is Tchaikovsky's Rococco Variations for cello and orchestra, in the composer's original version which Wallfisch has constantly championed [the work is best known in the adaptation by the work's original soloist, and until relatively recently this adaptation was the only version available in the West], plus Holst's St Paul's Suite and Schubert's Symphony No. 5.

Weinberg's Cello Concertino (not to be confused with the Cello Concerto) is an early work, and only came to light in 2016, and seems to be a fore-runner of the Cello Concerto. The score was written in 1948, at the height of the Soviet anti-formalism campaign and Weinberg evidently put it in a draw until 1956 (after Stalin's death) when he re-wrote it, doubling the length and created the Cello Concerto (which was premiered by Rostropovich).

Raphael Wallfisch and the Northern Chamber Orchestra are at the Stoller Hall, Manchester on Friday 8 November 2019, and they repeat the concert at Macclesfield Heritage Centre on Saturday 9 November 2019. Full details from the Northern Chamber Orchestra website

Update: I had mistakenly described the performance as the UK premiere, but it was performed at the Proms this Summer, with Sol Gabetta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Many thanks to Michael Smith for pointing this out. 

Update 2: In fact, I had got the work wrong!

A final farewell: the Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek captured live on their final tour, Remember me, my dear

Remember me, my dear - Jan Garbarek, Hilliard Ensemble - ECM Records
Komitas, Garbarek, Kedrov, Pärt,Le Rouge, Perotin, Hildegard von Bingen, Brumel; Hilliard Ensemble, Jan Garbarek; ECM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
For one final time, the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek re-visit the wonderful sound world of Officium, here recorded live on their farewell tour in 2014

It is over 25 years since Manfred Eicher (of ECM Records) brought the Hilliard Ensemble together with the Norwegian saxophonist, Jan Garbarek. The result was a successful but at first sight, unlikely, marriage and their disc Officium was a sensation, it combined the Hilliard Ensemble's performances of early polphony with Garberek's evocative saxophone. But, from the start, the members of the Hilliard Ensemble never regarded themselves as singing in an Early Music group. When I heard one of the ensemble's farewell concerts, at the Spitalfields Festival in 2013 [see my review], they talked about how from the earlies days the group's repertoire had encompassed a wide variety of styles from Early to Contemporary, but that their early recordings had all been of Early music which got them the Early Music tag. So a collaboration with a contemporary performing artist was not so strange, and there is a very vocal quality to Garbarek's playing. There were three discs made, Officium, Mnemosyne and Officium Novum. These three were all made in the studio.

But for the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek's final disc together, recorded on the Officium farewell tour in 2014, they have recorded a disc live.
Issued on ECM Records, Remember me my dear features the Hilliards and Garbarek in a wide range of music from Hildegard of Bingen and Perotin, to Komitas and Nikolai N Kedrov to Arvo Pärt and Jan Garbarek.

The Hilliard Ensemble’s David James, Steven Harrold, Roger Covey-Crump, Gordon Jones with Jan Garbarek, far right, in 2014. (Photo: Daniel Vass/ECM Records )
The Hilliard Ensemble’s David James, Steven Harrold, Roger Covey-Crump, Gordon Jones with Jan Garbarek, far right,
in 2014. (Photo: Daniel Vass/ECM Records )
This is very much the same recipe as before, but the ingredients are subtly different. Much of the vocal material is edgier. The original  Officium veered a little bit into the sort of New Age spiritual territory which led to monks singing chant making hit records. Here, the music sometimes has bite to it, whether early, late or Contemporary. And, of course, the performers are 25 years older. The voices of the Hilliard Ensemble (David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold, Gordon Jones) are more lived in, more (dare one say it) frayed at the edges, but there is also 25 years more experience performing together, deeper understanding and willingness to go further. The vocal performances are looser, the group is now far more comfortable if not improvising then giving the vocal lines more freedom to match Garbarek's improvisations.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Samling Artist Showcase at Wigmore Hall

Samling Showcase - COme into the Garden - Wigmore Hall
The Samling Artist Showcase at Wigmore Hall takes place on Friday 8 November 2019, an annual recital highlighting the young artists supported by the Samling Institute for Young Artists. This year the performers are soprano Claire Lees (Samling Artist 2017, Oscar in Opera Holland Park's 2019 Young Artist performance of Un ballo in maschera), mezzo-soprano Anna Stephany (Samling Artist 2005, last seen in Mendelssohn's Elijah with the OAE), tenor Filipe Manu (Samling Artist 2018, whom we saw in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra) and baritone Dominic Sedgwick (Samling Artist 2017, currently a Jette Parker Young Artist at Covent Garden), accompanied by pianists Joseph Middleton and Somi Kim. They will be joined by the actor Sir Simon Russell Beale for a programme entitled Come into the Garden, with a variety of garden themed songs from Schumann and Wolf to Britten and Walton.

There are unusual items and novelties too, two songs by Beethoven (a composer not frequently represented in song recitals), Bizet's Chanson d'Avril, Franck's Le Mariage des roses (when did you last year a song by Cesar Franck?), Sibelius' Demanten på Marssnön, as well as songs by Stanford and Somervell, plus a clutch of lighter items including Liza Lehmann's delightful There are fairies at the bottom of the garden (a song which takes my happily back to my days directing the Pink Singers in the 1980s!), and David Baker's Someone is sending me flowers.

Full details from Wigmore Hall website.

A distinct voice: Emergence, Nadine Benjamin & Nicole Panizza in settings of Emily Dickinson

Emergence - Emily Dickinson - Nadine Benjamin, Nicole Panizza - Stone Records
Emergence - Aaron Copland, Luigi Zaninelli, Juliana Hall, Sylvia GLickman, Ell Jarman-Pinto; Nadine Benjamin, Nicole Panizza; Stone Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 October 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An intriguing and enterprising collection of Emily Dickinson settings, 30 songs from five 20th and 21st century composers

The poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) has a very particular voice, slightly sharp edged perhaps and not quite as comfortable as many 19th century women poets. She was a poet of the ordinary and the everyday, often concise and intense but with poems that cover a wide range. Her verse has, understandably, been popular with composers. This new disc, Emergence, on Stone Records, from soprano Nadine Benjamin and pianist Nicole Panizza assembles together Dickinson settings from five 20th century and contemporary composers, Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Luigi Zaninelli (born 1932), Juliana Hall (born 1958), Sylvia Glickman (1932-2008) and Ella Jarman-Pinto (born 1989). The composers are all Amemrican-based (except for Jarman-Pinto), and the songs very much seem to explore an unfolding tradition, just as you could probably focus on songs setting certain English poets and see the English tradition of setting them. The result is imaginative and intriguing, and gives us a chance to explore a song tradition still not well known in the UK. A similar disc based around Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs anyone?

The best known work on the disc is the opening one, Aaron Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, written in 1950 and Copland's longest work for solo voice (it was his first work for solo voice and piano since 1928!). The twelve songs are all relatively short, with Copland seeming to enjoy Dickinson's brevity and directness. There is no overarching theme, instead it ranges widely of ideas which were common in Dickinson: nature, death, life, eternity.

Now I have a confession, I have always found the cycle difficult to love, whilst I realise that there is much to admire.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Come & Sing Mexican Baroque Choral Gems: Zéspedes and the Music of Puebla Cathedral

16 Nov 2019 @ St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate

In celebration of the 2019 quater-centenary of Mexican Baroque composer Juan García de Zéspedes (ca. 1619–1678), this one-day workshop will explore a selection of Zéspedes' works alongside others by his fellow Choirmasters at the Puebla Cathedral in Mexico where he was maestro de capilla: Gaspar Fernandes, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and Antonio de Salazar. This varied programme of small-scale works will comprise texts in Spanish, Latin, Creole (and Náhuatl!) You’ll be amazed how quickly you can learn a new piece with the help of our friendly conductor Jagoba Fadrique - one of the UK's most sought-after Spanish singers and specialist Hispanic choral directors. 


Juan García de Zéspedes Ay que me abraso | Convidando está la noche | Hermoso amor que forxas | Salve Regina
Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla Ah, siolo Flasiquiyo | Las estrellas se ríen | Stabat Mater | Versa est in luctum
Gaspar Fernandes Magnificat | Tleycantimo Choquiliya | Un relox a visto Andrés Xicochi conetzintle
Antonio de Salazar Guarda la fiera | Missus est Gabriel | O vos Omnes Oigan un vejamen

PLUS: Registration includes free entry to our evening concert feat. the Lacock Scholars and complimentary wine reception!


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