Saturday 30 November 2019

As a young singer you have to give yourself to patience: I chat to counter-tenor James Hall, currently in Handel's Rinaldo & looking forward to Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream

James Hall as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Montpellier Opera (Photo Mark Ginot)
James Hall as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream
at Montpellier Opera (Photo Mark Ginot)
The young counter-tenor James Hall is having a busy time at the moment. He is currently coming to the end of a run of Handel's Rinaldo with Glyndebourne on Tour, playing Goffredo, and in the New Year will be Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. This is in Ted Huffman's production which debuted in Montpellier earlier this year, also with James as Oberon. At the same time, Elegy, his disc on Vivat of counter-tenor duets by John Blow and Henry Purcell, recorded with Iestyn Davies, the King's Consort and Robert King has recently been released [see my review]. 

I recently met up with James to chat about these in a lively conversation which also covered such issues as the differences between performing in concert and in opera, and the challenges facing young singers trying to build a career.

Rinaldo was at Glyndebourne this Summer, where James was covering the role of Goffredo, which was played by Tim Mead. James found covering the role incredibly useful, it was a real learning curve for him, particularly following an artist like Tim Mead who, having performed the role in an earlier revival at Glyndebourne, gave a really solid performance. With such a small cast, each revival of the opera is different and James has found the atmosphere on the tour different again, as a change of cast bring new perspectives on ideas about the opera. When we spoke, he had just two performances of Rinaldo to go and was just back from performing it in Liverpool, where James commented on the sheer number of record stores!

James Hall
James Hall
Then, in January he moves on to Berlin where Ted Huffman's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream opens at the Deutsche Oper on 26 January2020, conducted by Donald Runnicles. Having performed the role in the production when it was at Montpellier Opera in May, James is already familiar with the production. Though Montpelier was, in fact, his stage debut as Oberon, prior to that he had performed it once during the 2013 centenary year at a garden party. He enjoyed returning to the role in Montpelier, in is looking forward to going back to it again.

When I ask about the production, which he later describes as very imaginative, his first comment is that he hopes he fits into the corset better in January!

Friday 29 November 2019


London Concord Singers & Jessica Norton in rehearsal (Photo © Alejandro Tamagno)
London Concord Singers & Jessica Norton in rehearsal (Photo © Alejandro Tamagno)
Britten's youthful brilliance in A Boy Was Born, Arvo Pärt's stripped back intensity in Sieben Magnificat Antiphonen and Palestrina's luscious double-choir Missa Hodie Christus Natus Est

I will be singing with London Concord Singers, conductor Jessica Norton at the Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street, Mayfair on Thursday 5 December 2019

Full details from EventBrite.

The curious history of the saxophone

The Darling Saxophone Four in the 1920s
The Darling Saxophone Four in the 1920s
On Sunday 8 December, I will be talking at Conway Hall about the development of the saxophone, from its invention by Adolphe Sax, the importance of the work of Theobald Boehm and Hyacinthe Klosé, and its move from classical to jazz via ragtime, in my pre-concert talk at for Conway Hall Sunday Concerts. 

This is in advance of the concert by the Arcis Saxophon Quartett with music by Steve Reich, Dvorak, Bernstein, Barber and Gershwin.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

Grace Williams' Violin Concerto

Grace Williams in the 1940s
The music of Grace Williams (1906-1977) has always had a toe hold on the repertoire but more recently her music is being explored more widely. In 2006, she was Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3, which resulted in performances of works which had long lain dormant. In 2016 the BBC revived her large-scale Missa Cambrensis which had received such a poor first performance that it was never again performed in her lifetime, and earlier this year violinist Madeleine Mitchell released a disc of Williams' chamber music. Now it is the turn of Williams' Violin Concerto which Mitchell is performing tomorrow (Saturday 30 November 2019) with the Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra, conductor Michael Turner, at St Mark's Church, Regent Park.

Williams wrote her concerto in 1950, a period when amazingly she was thinking of giving up composing. There will be further chances to hear the concerto as next March, Madeleine Mitchell will be performing it in concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Jamie Philips (see the BBC website for details). The link is apt, as the work was premiered by violinist Granville Jones with the BBC Welsh Orchestra (BBC NOW's predecessor), conductor Mansel Thomas.

Further details of Saturday's concert from the Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra website.


Hearing anew: two contemporary quartets and an established classic in the Sacconi Quartet's programme at Kings Place

The Sacconi Quartet (Photo Clive Barda)
The Sacconi Quartet (Photo Clive Barda)
Grime, Rachmaninov, Bingham, Schubert; Sacconi Quartet; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two striking new quartets and an established classic in the intriguing programme at Kings Place

As part of Kings Place's Venus Unwrapped series, on Thursday 28 November 2019, the Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson, Robin Ashwell, Cara Berridge) gave a programme which combined two contemporary works with an established classic, giving the first London performance of String Quartet No. 1 by Helen Grime (born 1981) and the world premiere of Goya's Dog by Judith Bingham (born 1952), alongside Rachmaninov's Romance and Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor 'Death and the Maiden'.

Helen Grime's String Quartet No. 1 was commissioned by the Edinburgh Quartet and premiered by them in 2014. It is in one continuous movement but the material is clearly delineated in sections, though Grime's organic approach to musical material meant that the work flowed continuously, gradually changing. A big feature of the whole piece was the use of duos within the quartet, with the work opening with viola and second violin duo, followed by that between cello and first violin. At first there was a steady thread of scurrying music running through, with the other pair of instruments commenting on the duo which was of primary interest. This led to sections where textures became more transparent, and the comments were almost highly rhythmic interruptions. Aetherial at times and often quite intense, Grime used the different duos interacting so the music could be transparent and magical or highly rhythmic, ending in an intense high energy final section.

As a palate cleanser, we had Rachmaninov's Romance for string quartet, an early work from his student days which the quartet gave a highly refined, elegant performance full or tender yearning.

Judith Bingham's Goya's Dog used four of Goya's vivid images of animals to create four contrasting movements for string quartet.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Werner Herzog, drag, Scorsese, Lynch and gay erotica: Zubin Kanga at Kings Place and London Contemporary Music Festival

The composer and pianist Zubin Kanga has two interesting concerts coming up in the near future. Tomorrow (29 November 2019), Kanga is at Kings Place performing music by Nicole LizéeLaurence Osborn and Oliver Leith, and then on 11 & 12 December 2019, Kanga will be at the London Contemporary Music Festival performing works by Alwynne Pritchard and Michael Finnissy.

At Kings Place, Kanga will perform Lizée's Scorsese and Lynch Etudes, in which iconic scenes from famous films by the two directors get remixed, with original video, dialogue, sound, and foley to create something entirely new. And there will also be world premieres by Laurence Osborn and Oliver Leith. Full details from the Kings Place website.

At the London Contemporary Music Festival, Kanga is performing as part of longer mixed programmes, and will give premieres of two works both involving video and mixing in elements of drag culture and gay erotica! Alwynne Pritchard's Heart of Glass involves the slightly unlikely mix of Werner Herzog and drag. The piece is inspired by Werner Herzog's 1976 film of the same title and by the German director's Land of Silence and Darkness documentary about a community of deaf and blind people. Pritchard mixes hints to Herzog's works with a tribute to drag culture, specifically to Leigh Bowery's theatricality. Michael Finnissy's Hammerklavier (including video by Adam de la Cour) explores the connection between artistry and sexuality, private and public, with footage of pianist Sviatoslav Richter as a starting point, juxtaposed with twentieth century gay erotica. Further details from the London Contemporary Music Festival website.

Music for Milan Cathedral

Music for Milan Cathedral - Siglo de Oro
Werrecore, Josquin, Gaffurius, Weerbeke; Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Maestro di cappella in Milan for nearly 30 years, yet a 16th century composer we have never heard of, until now.

This disc is devoted to motets by a composer that you may in all probability have never heard of, despite his being at the centre of Italian liturgical musical life for nearly years. Hermann Matthias Werrecore was appointed to the post of maestro di cappella of Milan Cathedral in 1522 and remained in place for nearly 30 years, during a turbulent time which included the Italian War of 1521-26 between Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, notably the Battle of Pavia when Francis was captured. A battle which Werrecore claims to have witnessed.

On Siglo de Oro's disc, Music for Milan Cathedral, from Delphian they perform six of Werrecore's surviving 30 motets, the first time that any of his sacred music has been recorded! Alongside these we get motets by his contemporaries Gaffurius, Josquin, Weerbeke, and Phinot.

The neglect of Werrecore is rather puzzling, because the music on this disc is very appealing and beautifully put together. The authority on Werrecore's music, Christine Getz, has suggested that a contemporary confusion between Werrecore and another composer, Matthias le Maistre, which persisted to the 19th century may have inhibited recognition.
Milan Cathedral, interior - (Photo © Pietro Madasch / Duomo di Milano)
Milan Cathedral, interior - (Photo © Pietro Madaschi / Duomo di Milano)
All the music on the disc is selected from part books associated with Milan Cathedral. So we have motets from Werrecore's own 1559 publication of 20 motets, plus motets from a book printed in 1543 by a printer associated with Milan, which includes three of Werrecore's motets (including one, Beati omnes qui timent Dominum which in other sources is ascribed to another composer). Also, featured in this latter book is music by Dominique Phinot, including his motet Homo quidam fecit, though Phinot is not known to have worked in Milan, but he did do so in Urbino.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Ferruccio Busoni's Piano Concerto to get a rare London hearing as part of 'Busoni - the Romantic Modernist' at St John's Smith Square

Ferrucio Busoni in 1913
Ferruccio Busoni
There will be a rare chance to hear Ferruccio Busoni's mammoth Piano Concerto on 30 November 2019 at St John Smith Square when Karl Lutchmayer takes the solo part with the Seraphin Orchestra, conducted by Joy Lisney. The concert is in fact the culmination of Lutchmayer's three-day concert series at St John's, Busoni - The Romantic Modernist with other concerts including his 1911 Sonata Seconda, including the world premiere of the original ending, the British premiere of the Concerto for Piano and String Quartet, Busoni's concert version of Schoenberg’s Klaivierstück Op11 no.2; and the Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor (with Emma Lisney).

The idea behind the concert series is to explore Busoni's music beyond his well known transcriptions of Bach's music. And the culmination will be the performance of the Piano Concerto, a huge work with five movements, including an off-stage chorus in the finale, and lasting 70 minutes. It is a work that has had only one performance in London in the last 30 years.

The concert will also be the London debut of the Seraphin Orchestra, which was founded by Joy and Emma Lisney to give experience to young musicians studying in Cambridge, augmented by guest artists, including former BBC Young Musician prize-winners and leading players from top UK and European professional orchestras, including the Halle, RPO and BBCSO, who offer mentorship to the young players.

Busoni - The Romantic Modernist is at St John's Smith Square from 28 to 30 November 2019, and features lunchtime recitals on Thursday and Friday, plus the Busoni Piano Concerto on Saturday evening.

Vivid and passionate: chamber music in Highgate

Ernst von Dohnányi
Ernst von Dohnányi
Beethoven, Britten, Ludwig, Dohnanyi; Highgate International Chamber Music Festival; St Michael's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two highly contrasting mid-20th century works in a vividly passionate programme

The Highgate International Chamber Music Festival is in its 8th year. Founded in 2012 by artistic directors Natalie Klouda, Irina Botan and Ashok Klouda, this year the festival is presenting 14 concerts over a week from 23 to 30 November, often with an early evening and late night concert in addition to main concert. And whilst the concerts do feature well-known artists (the opening event featured cellist Sheku Kanneh Mason, and the closing one includes oboist Nicholas Daniel), the emphasis is on a pool of artists, including the joint artistic directors themselves, who play at many of the events thus enabling concerts to be interestingly varied. And providing regular concert goers with the chance to get to know particular performers.

We went along to the concert on Tuesday 26 November 2019, at St Michael's Church, South Grove, when the programme featured Beethoven's Clarinet Trio in B flat, Op.11, Britten's String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 25, David Ludwig's Three Yiddish Dances for piano trio and Ernst von Dohnanyi's Sextet in C Op.37, performed by Benjamin Gilmore and Natalie Klouda (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Robert Cohen and Ashok Klouda (cello), Julian Bliss (clarinet), James Pillai (horn) and Simon Callaghan (piano).

The concert had been preceded by an early evening concert in which the festival's young artists, the Salome Quartet, played Beethoven's Rasumovsky Quartet, and after the main concert there was a candlelight concert in which Ashok Klouda played Natalie Klouda's Solo Cello Suite written for baroque cello. The concert was certainly well-supported, with many of the audience members seeming to be local, and you got the impression that quite a few people were planning to attend all three concerts that evening The church itself is an attractive early 19th century building (1832), with a memorial to the composer Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who worshipped at the church), and whilst church buildings are not always ideal for chamber music it proved to have fine acoustics, and there was mulled wine for sale at the back to take away the chill of the weather.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Winner of the 2018 Paloma O'Shea Santander International Piano Competition in recital at the Wigmore Hall

Dmytro Choni
Dmytro Choni
The Ukrainian pianist Dmytro Choni won the First Prize and the Gold Medal at the Paloma O'Shea Santander International Piano Competition in Spain in 2018, and now there is a chance to hear him in the UK when he plays at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 27 November 2019. Choni's programme at the Wigmore Hall includes Liszt's Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata from the Années de pèlerinage, Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe (one of his last compositions, completed just three months before his attempted suicide), two Brahms Rhapsodies and music by Rachmaninov including his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 36.

Choni had his first piano lesson at the age of four, and started studying in Kyiv. He is currently studying with Prof. Dr. Milana Chernyavska at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz. The video shows his winning performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 (with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Radio Televisión Española, conductor Miguel Ángel Gómez Martínez) at the Palacio de Festivales de Cantabria in Santander, Spain in 2018).

Full details from the Wigmore Hall website.

Artful creation: Marci Meth's The Wild Song mixes Britten folksongs, Yeats poetry and soundscapes by Mycheal Danna

The Wild Song - Marci Meth - Modern Poetics
The Wild Song - Britten folk-song arrangements; Marci Meth, Anna Tilbrook, Simon Russell Beale; Modern Poetics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 November 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Britten folk-songs, Yeats poetry and modern soundscapes in an intriguing sequence

Benjamin Britten created over 60 arrangements of folk-songs and traditional songs over the course of his life, the first dating from 1941 whilst he and Peter Pears were in the USA and Britten was nostalgic for Suffolk. The last from 1976, the last year of his life. A constant thread through the songs was the voice of Peter Pears, the first were written as extras for Britten and Pears recitals together, and the majority date from the 1940s and 1950s, though the final group were written in 1976 when Britten was in a wheelchair, they used harp as accompaniment. Though some were created for Britten's friend, the soprano Sophie Wyss.

But though the voice of Pears is paramount in the songs, they have very much been adopted by singers all over the world, often as a chance for an English-speaking singer to address the audience in song in their native tongue. It helps that many of Britten's choices are well known, and that he rarely re-casts the melody line, instead they are clothed in imaginative harmonies. Sometimes these can seem a little too artful, too clever, and we do not always want to listen to an entire recital (though Hyperion has issued a complete set of them).

The Wild Song is a new disc on a new label, Modern Poetics. On this disc from Paris-based American soprano Marci Meth, pianist Anna Tilbrook and actor Simon Russell Beale, Meth has selected 18 of Britten's songs and paired them with poems by W.B. Yeats. Nearly 50 years older than Britten, but very much of the 20th century and writing in a way which resonates with both the folk-song texts and Britten's treatment of them. A final element in this sonic tapestry is a series of interludes by film composer Mycheal Danna. Danna has used elements from the recording to create sonic tapestries which link and continue from the other elements.

Monday 25 November 2019

The other Semele: John Eccles undeservedly neglected opera returns.

Anne Bracegirdle in the title role of The Indian Queen (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
Anne Bracegirdle in the title role of The Indian Queen
(© The Trustees of the British Museum)
John Eccles' Semele, with a libretto by the playwright William Congreve, has never really got the exposure that the piece deserves. It was written in 1707 at a time when there was some interest in developing an English style of opera. Eccles had come second the 1700 competition to set William Congreve's The Judgement of Paris, and Semele was clearly designed to build on this. Its premiere at the time was planned, with the actress Anne Bracegirdle in the title role, but never happened, because the support for English opera died away in the face of the novelty of Italian opera. A number of the English works performed at the time were perhaps not particularly strong, and it is unfortunate that Eccles' confident and highly dramatic work was never seen. An early 18th century London where Eccles and Congreve's Semele was successfully staged and had influence is an intriguing might have been.

There have been occasional sightings of the opera, it was premiered in a semi-staging in 1964 in Oxford, and was given again at St John's Smith Square in 1972. In 2003, Anthony Rooley conducted forces from Florida State University in the first complete recording, and last year Peter Holman directed a concert performance as part of the Suffolk Churches Festival.

Now the Cambridge Handel Opera Company has joined forces with the Academy of Ancient Music and Cambridge Early Music to perform the work on Tuesday 26 November 2019 in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, directed by Julian Perkins with Anna Dennis as Semele, Richard Burkhard as Jupiter, Helen Charlston as Juno, Aoife Miskelly as Ino, and William Wallace as Athmas. For those unable to get to Cambridge tomorrow, the good news is that the performance will be recorded for issue on the AAM's own label.

The curious thing is that opera went on to have a strange shadow life, because Congreve's libretto was the basis for Handel's English opera Semele, so listening to Eccles' work can be an odd experience as we recognise some of the words, the characters and the plot.

Further details of tickets from Cambridge Live.

Czech concerto rarities in recordings of engaging freshness and immediacy from Ivo Kahánek, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and Jakub Hrůša on Supraphon

Antonin Dvorak Piano Concerto, Bohuslav Martinu Piano Concerto No. 4 'Incantation'; Ivo Kahanek, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša; Supraphon
Antonin Dvorak Piano Concerto, Bohuslav Martinu Piano Concerto No. 4 'Incantation'; Ivo Kahánek, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša; Supraphon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two non-traditional Czech piano concertos in a fine new recording from a German orchestra with a strong Czech history

The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra has an interesting and honourable link to the Czech Republic as the orchestra was founded in 1946 by musicians who had been expelled from the Czech Republic and formerly been members of the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague, thus giving it Czech roots which stretch back to Mahler and even to Mozart.

On this new disc on the Supraphon label the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is conducted by the Czech conductor Jakub (principal conductor since 2016) in a pair of lesser known Czech works, the piano concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Bohuslav Martinu, with pianist Ivo Kahánek. So we have Dvorak's early Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G minor, Opus 33 from 1876 and Martinu's late Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 'Incantataion', H358 from 1956.

Dvorak's Piano Concerto is the first of his three concertos. Written in 1876, it would be followed in 1879 by the Violin Concerto and then in 1894-95 by the Cello Concerto. And they are very much thought of in that order, with the concerto for piano often coming a poor third. The concerto comes just after Dvorak's fifth symphony, and after he had won the Austrian State Prize for Composition in 1874 (he would win it again in 1876) which brought him both financial reward and recognition (Brahms was on the jury and took notice of the young Czech composer). The concerto was premiered in Prague in 1876.

It is not a bravura concerto in the manner of those of Brahms, and the effect is in fact rather symphonic. In a joint interview in the CD booklet with conductor Jakub Hrůša and pianist Ivo Kahánek, Kahánektalks about the piano writing being very similar to that in Dvorak's chamber music, it is effective but the piano is primus inter pares, rather than being protagonist or antagonist. A number of attempts have been made to make the piano writing more virtuosic, notably by pianist Vilém Kurz, but on this disc Kahánekreturns to Dvorak's original.

Saturday 23 November 2019

Making the violin speak: I chat to Elisa Citterio, violinist and music director of Canadian ensemble Tafelmusik

Elisa Citterio and Tafelmusik (Photo Jeff Higgins)
Elisa Citterio and Tafelmusik (Photo Jeff Higgins)
The Canadian period instrument ensemble Tafelmusik is currently on tour to the UK, with a performance at the Barbican on Sundat 24 November 2019. The ensemble's programme, Love and Betrayal, with Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, is directed from the violin by Elisa Citterio who took over as director of the ensemble in 2017 after founder Jeanne Lamon retired (she is now Tafelmusik's Music Director Emerita). I recently met up with Elisa to talk about the ensemble's London programme, their new disc Vivaldi con amore (Elisa's first with Tafelmusik), making the violin speak, and her intriguing career path combining both period and modern instruments, including playing with the orchestra of La Scala, Milan.

Under the title of Love and Betrayal the ensemble's London programme includes arias by Handel and Vivaldi, sung by Karina Gauvin, along with Locatelli's Concerto in E-flat major, Op 7 No 6 'Il Pianto d'Arianna'. The concerto was the first work that Elisa played with Tafelmusik at the time that the ensemble was looking for a new music director and invited her to come and create a programme with them. She chose the Locatelli, which she describes as a cantata without a singer where the violinist is the protagonist, and she thought that it would be interesting to use it in the current concert of arias with a singer. This enabled her to alternate vocal and instrumental items and still keep the theatrical aspect to the programme.

Elisa Citterio (Photo Daniel Banko, Banko Media)
Elisa Citterio (Photo Daniel Banko, Banko Media)
In Locatelli's concerto, the violin comes in after the orchestral introduction and you can imagine the text, images of Arianna lamenting and weeping. It is a very dramatic work, full of contrasts. Similarly, the arias are chosen, not because of the particular works they come from (operas by Handel and Vivaldi, some well-known, some more unknown) but because Elisa wanted theatrical contrasts, a range of emotions from sweetness to anger and betrayal. Gauvin will be singing 'Amato ben' from Vivaldi's Ercole su'l Termodonte, and Vivaldi also wrote a concerto of the same name, L'Amato Bene (which is on the ensemble's new disc). In fact, Elisa first played the concerto before she knew the aria and always thought that the concerto was aria-like. In the aria, Elisa feels that there are moments when voice and violin sing together. At moments like this, Elisa tries to make her violin tone as close as possible to the voice, 'I will lose but I will try'.

This speaking with the violin is something that Elisa has been concerned to do, from the moment she played Monteverdi when young and understood how she needed to speak with her instrument. And not just speaking, but pronouncing each word not with the tongue but with the bow. This requires hard work with the bow and imagining the sound in the timbre of the voice.

Friday 22 November 2019

Did the earth move? First performance of Boris Bergmann's The Richter Scale

Boris Bergmann (Photo Silvina Buchbauer)
Boris Bergmann (Photo Silvina Buchbauer)
Last night (Wednesday 20 November 2019) I heard the private premiere of The Richter Scale by the German composer, Boris Bergmann. The performance was co-presented by Steinway & Sons (who hosted it at their Marylebone Lane studios) and Heresy Records. The pianist Ji Liu performed The Richter Scale on a Steinway D Spirio.

Described as the world's most sophisticated player piano, the Steinway D Spirio's programmable capacity meant that there were passages in The Richter Scale where Liu was effectively playing with himself (the alternative would have been a second player who would have sat half the piece out). I might add that the Steinway D Spirio retails for nearly £200,000 and is a very impressive beast.

Boris Bergmann studied in Frankfurt and Darmstadt, and then went on to work in film and TV, as well as performing as a drummer and keyboard player with punk and alternative music legends Kim Gordon, Dinosaur Jr and Flipper. More recently he has returned to contemporary classical music, recording three solo piano albums featuring his own compositions alongside those of Alexander Scriabin.

The Richter Scale is inspired by the life and work of Charles F. Richter, best known for his eponymous scale measuring the magnitude of earthquakes. The hour-long piano piece is divided into ten sections, plus an epilogue, one for each level of the Richter scale. But each section also has a poetic name, Prelude, A Planet's Pulse, Richter the Poet, Seismograph, Recurring Dream, Expecting The Big One, Dance of the Things, How to Dance Out an Earthquake, Reversing the Mississippi and Voyager Golden Record.

Roughly the music starts slowly and gets faster and more dramatic, though the piece is more complex than that. Each section was distinct, with a pause between, and they varied in style, some seemed heavily indebted to the work of Debussy and of Scriabin, with complex, evocative piano textures, other seemed to mix highly rhythmic elements in the manner of Bach combined with jazz, whilst there were passages of John Adams like minimalism, as well as complex repetitive passages. Listening to a work of such length once, cold, it is quite tricky to grasp an overall impression.

Whilst the music did seem to build from section to section, I thought it a mistake to have pauses between the movements and wanted the work to move onward constantly. In the manner of Ronald Stevenson's mammoth Passacaglia which is a continuous movement of around 80 minutes and some of its power comes from the steady onward progression [see my review of  Igor Levitt performing it at Wigmore Hall]. In The Richter Scale, there was a sense of steady building in intensity and complexity towards the eighth section, How to Dance out and Earthquake which seemed to be some sort of demented rock and roll, a wonderful aural image indeed. But after this the music went more poetic, and I did so feel that we lacked the ultimate climax, akin to the work of Jón Leifs much of whose music was inspired by, and depicts Icelandic natural phenomena.

Ji Liu gave a finely poetic performance, with no hint that this was at first performance and no hint of the sheer strain of playing a piece of this magnitude And he had clearly mastered the art of programming the Spirio piano and the art of playing with himself.

Before the performance, Bergmann described the piece as a work in progress. It has very much been developed with this piano and this pianist, and I look forward to hearing how the work progresses.

Death in Venice returns: the Royal Opera's first production in over 25 years of Britten's final opera rightly showcases tenor Mark Padmore's brilliant portrayal of the writer

Britten: Death in Venice,  Tim Mead, Leo Dixon - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Death in Venice -  Tim Mead, Leo Dixon - Royal Opera
((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Britten Death in Venice; Mark Padmore, Gerald Finley, Tim Mead, Leo Dixon, dir: David McVicar, cond: Richard Farnes; Royal Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 November 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Mark Padmore's intense and febrile portrayal of the moral and physical decline of the elderly write at the centre of this fluent and fluid production

The Royal Opera House's link to Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice goes back to almost the very beginning, though the work has not been a frequent visitor. The English Opera Group's original production of the opera, directed by Colin Graham, with Peter Pears, John Shirley Quirk and James Bowman premiered at Covent Garden in October 1973, just four months after its debut at Snape Maltings. I saw Pears in the role when the production returned in 1978. Then there was a gap until 1992, when Colin Graham directed a production featuring Philip Langridge as Aschenbach, and since then nothing. Until now.

David McVicar's new production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice opened at the Royal Opera House on Thursday 21 November 2019. Mark Padmore was Gustav von Aschenbach with Gerald Finley in the seven baritone roles, and Tim Mead as the Voice of Apollo. Leo Dixon was Tadzio, Elizabeth McGorian was the Lady of the Pearls and Olly Bell was Jaschiu. Richard Farnes conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Designs were by Vicki Mortimer, choreography by Lynne Page, and lighting by Paule Constable.

Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley, Mark Padmore - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)*
Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley, Mark Padmore 
Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
I have to confess that I am starting to prefer the intimacy gained by performing Death in Venice in smaller theatres; it was, after all, written for Snape Maltings. David McVicar and Vicki Mortimer very much brought out the monumentality of the setting, with Mortimer's flexible set, consisting of an array of arches and columns, really evoking the grandeur of the Edwardian Grand Hotel. We never see Venice, it is evoked in fragments, arches and gondolas. The back-drop was often dark, a black background against which Padmore's febrile von Aschenbach really stood out. When the stage did open up, it was to reveal a glorious view of the sea.

There are two aspects to the opera which still challenge directors, the homosexual attraction between von Aschenbach and Tadzio, and the dance element. Of course, the opera is about far more than an old Queen being attracted to a young boy, that is part of its fascination, but you sense that some directors are happy to minimise the real erotic thrill that von Aschenbach gets from looking at Tadzio (and that similarly Tadzio gets from being looked at). And similarly in the dance sequences, there was a period when directors went through a phase of trying to minimise the dance element. By contrast, one of the finest productions I have seen in recent years was Paul Curran's at Garsington in 2015 [see my review], where Curran deliberately emphasised the role of both these elements whilst not minimising the work's other aspects and seemed to achieve a far stronger balance more striking vision of the opera. Of course, it helped that Garsington's theatre has a fine intimacy to it.

David McVicar seems to have trodden the middle way.

Thursday 21 November 2019

Fundraising concert for young musicians in Venezeula

Clara Rodriguez
Violinist Stephen Bryant (leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra), Venezualan pianist Clara Rodriguez and cuatro (a South-American stringed instrument similar to a guitar) player Arnoldo Cogorno are presenting concert at St James' Piccadilly on Thursday 22 November 2019 to raise money for young Venezuelan musicians.

The programme will include Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Grieg's Sonata for Violin and Piano No 2 in G, Op 13, and music by Fritz Kreisler, Brahms, Johannes Brahms, plus John Williams' Schindler's List. There will also be a selection of Venezuelan music and music by South American composers. As a complement to the Beethoven sonata, actress Susan Porrett will read Beethoven’s 'Letter to the immortal beloved'.

The aim of the concert is to support of young Venezuelan musicians who are in desperate need of essential accessories for their instruments. These talented young musicians need new and used violin, cello and double bass strings, and reeds for wind instruments. With this event, Clara Rodriguez hopes to raise awareness of the difficult situation these students face and this concert is a way of collecting donations of these essential accessories and money to pay to have them couriered to Venezuela. Donations have already been received from leading violin maker and dealer Florian Leonhard, Adrian Warwick Stringed Instruments and violinist Pierre Frappier.

Venezuelan pianist Clara Rodriguez won the 'Teresa Carreño' Scholarship that enabled her to travel to London to study at the Royal College of Music under Phyllis Sellick. She made her debut playing with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra under the baton of José Antonio Abreu. Stephen Bryant is the Leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a role he has held since 1992.

Full details of the concert from Concert Diary, tickets from Brown Paper Tickets.

Music, robotics, AI: Recording the Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra

Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra
Having recently reviewed a disc of music inspired by particle physics [Matthew Whiteside's Entangled, see my review], on Tuesday 19 November 2019 I found myself listening to the studio recording of a new work for piano and orchestra inspired by robotics and artificial intelligence!

The Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra was commissioned by Dr Susan Lim, a Singaporean surgeon who is a specialist in the field of transplantation, robotics and stem cell research. The work was written by the French composer Manu Martin, and arises out of Lim's ALAN project which aims to explore disruptive technologies, the intersection between technology and humanity, in the form of robotics and AI, via music. The idea that human engineering of the inanimate may ultimately produce companions previously unimagined. And that is Fantasy of Companionship which is depicted in Manu Martin's work.

French composer Manu Martin is best known for his work in television and radio, working alongside some major French artists. His Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra is written for large forces, substantial orchestra along with choir and solo voice, plus electric guitar, electric bass and drums.

I heard part of the recording at Abbey Road Studios, with Arthur Fagen (musical director of the Atlanta Opera) conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The solo piano part was played by the Belgian-American pianist Tedd Joselson, the role of the piano was not so much that of a concerto soloist as an important concertante part. The Fantasy is in six sections, which tell a clear narrative story. Musically, Martin's piece draws inspiration from a companion work, ALAN the Musical, and his background in writing for TV and radio was apparent in his fluent and engaging writing for large orchestral forces. It is always difficult judging a work from hearing sections out of order, and it will be fascinating to see how the Fantasy builds when the recording is complete.

Dr Lim described the project thus:
"In November 2019, I commissioned Manu Martin to write me a Fantasy conveying hope for the future companionship between and inanimate and a human; a Fantasy that would ... unfold and explain the journey of a soul from wild to captive, from animate to inanimate and with the addition of electric sounds, to herald the inanimate's bold futuristic step into a new world order of synthetic biology, AI and robotics"

As part of the same planned recording, Tedd Joselson is recording, next week, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Phlharmonia Orchestra, and Grieg's Piano Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, both conducted by Arthur Fagen.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Striking the right chord: cultural and economic diplomacy on Orchestre National de Lille's forthcoming tour to the UK

Orchestre National de Lille, conductor Alexandre Bloch (Photo Ugo Ponte)
Orchestre National de Lille, conductor Alexandre Bloch (Photo Ugo Ponte)
Whilst orchestral tours are relatively common, the idea of combing one with a trade delegation is more unusual. And in the case of the forthcoming tour to the UK by the Orchestre National de Lille, it is not a country sending the trade delegation but a region. 

Founded in 1975 by the Nord Pas de Calais regional government, the Orchestra National de Lille has always been strongly embedded in the region, currently giving around 35 concerts per year in the region along with its season in Lille and visits to Paris. The orchestra is touring the UK in 2020 (28 January -1 February 2020) with its chief conductor Alexandre Bloch, performing music by Ravel, Debussy and Beethoven, visiting both London and other major regional centres.

And the Pas de Calais region is taking advantage of this cultural diplomacy to do a little economic diplomacy too. Brexit has this area of Northern France nervous because of the region's strong economic ties to the UK. So whatever Brexit is and whenever it proves to be, the region is using the tour to strengthen ties, both economic and cultural.

The orchestra was founded by the distinguished conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus, and Alexandre Bloch has been chief conductor for three years (and has just renewed his contract for five more years). Bloch has interesting ties to the UK, as he won the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition at the Barbican in 2012 (performing Debussy's Iberia), and as a result spent two years with the London Symphony Orchestra, and studied at the Royal Northern College of Music. He currently has strong links with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The tour will feature appearances in Birmingham's Symphony Hall, London's Cadogan Hall, The Sage, Gateshead (where Bloch conducts the Royal Northern Sinfonia), Sheffield's City Hall and Leeds Town Hall. The programme consists of Ravel's La Valse and a suite from Ma mere l'Oye, Debussy's La mer and Iberia, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the young American pianist Eric Lu, who won first prize at the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition playing the same concerto with Edward Gardner and The Halle Orchestra.

Alexandre Bloch admits that they won't change the world by playing Debussy's La mer, but he certainly hopes they can change the emotions of the people who are listening. And the regional agencies accompanying the orchestra on the tour will certainly be hoping that the combination of economic and cultural diplomacy strikes a chord.

Lille is only a hop, skip and a jump away by Eurostar, so it is well worth checking out the orchestra's season there, with concerts ranging from a Mahler cycle to one curated by composer Magnus Lindberg.

Full details of the orchestra's tour to the UK from its website.

Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 from The Sixteen at Temple Church

Monteverdi Vespers - title page, Bassus Generalis#
Monteverdi Vespers of 1610; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Temple Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 November 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Moving fluidly between thrilling brilliance and intimacy, this was performance which really meant something

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen first toured their performances of Monteverdi's Vespers to cathedrals and major churches in 2014 (the first time the group had done a major UK tour with orchestra), and since then I have caught them performing the work in Cadogan Hall. But the chance to hear Monteverdi's Vespers in the lovely acoustic of Temple Church was not to be missed.

Harry Christophers conducted The Sixteen in Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 in Temple Church on Tuesday 19 November 2019 as part of Temple Music's season. The soloists, all singers in the choir, were Charlotte Dobbs, Katy Hill, Mark Dobell, Nicholas Mulroy, Eamonn Dougan, Ben Davies, and the trebles of Temple Church Choir sang the 'Sonata Sopra Santa Maria'.

We don't know a lot about Monteverdi's so-called Vespers. We don't know who or where the music was written for, we have little knowledge of performances directed by Monteverdi in his lifetime, and for much of the 20th century there was even disputes about the key some of the movements were supposed to be in!

When it was published in 1610, it was Monteverdi's first published sacred music. By then he had worked for the Duke of Mantua for 20 years, published five books of madrigals and written two major operas. Part of his responsibilities for the Duke included music for the Duke's chapel, but we know little about Monteverdi's liturgical music in detail. We have to assume that the Vespers, even if largely written in 1609/1610, were the product of long experience. And there is a good case to be made for the music being written for the public chapel of Santa Barbara in the palace at Mantua.

The publication of 1610 has the complex title of Sanctissimae Virgini Missa senis vocibus ad ecclesiarum choros, ac Vespere pluribus decantandae cum nonnullis sacris concentibus ad Sacella sive Principum Cubicula accommodata" (Mass for the Most Holy Virgin for six voices for church choirs, and vespers for several voices with some sacred songs, suitable for chapels and ducal chambers), though one of the part-books refers to it as Vespro della Beata Vergine da concerto composta sopra canti firmi" (Vesper for the Blessed Virgin for concertos, composed on cantus firmi. It was published as a sort of CV, a presentation work to show other employers what Monteverdi could to. He was angling for a post in Rome (the work is dedicated to the Pope), and it almost certainly helped to get him the post at St Mark's in Venice which he took in 1613.

It is not so much a single unified work as a kit for choir masters to use to construct services. Two Vespers services are possible, a long elaborate one and a shorter one with few instruments, the motets serve to dazzle and may have been used to replace the antiphons, or they may just be Monteverdi showing off. And, of course, no-one tacks the mass, which was also in the 1610 publication, onto performances of the Vespers!

Harry Christophers opts for minimal intervention and full grandeur. We get the more complex of the Magnificats (in the now unfashionable higher key which maximises the glittering brilliance of the piece), and full instrumental panoply, with strings, recorders, dulcian (a sort of early bassoon), cornetts, sackbutts, theorbo, harp and organ. In all 18 instrumentalists and 20 singers (not including the trebles).

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Hallé St Peter’s Oglesby Centre opens tomorrow

Hallé St Peters & The Oglesby Centre (Photo The Hallé)
Hallé St Peters & The Oglesby Centre (Photo The Hallé)
Hallé St Peter's opened in 2013, providing rehearsal and recording space for the Hallé as was as space for education and community projects. In Blossom St., Ancoats, Manchester, Hallé St Peter's is a Grade 2 listed building and a de-consecrated church, originally built in 1859. It was the first Anglican Church to be built in this predominantly Roman Catholic community and was one of the initial phases of church building undertaken by Bishop Prince Lee, Manchester's first Anglican Bishop, following the creation of the Manchester Diocese.

Following a design competition, the building has had a new £6.6 million extension built, The Oglesby Centre, designed by Stephenson Studio, a Manchester based architecture firm who won the international RIBA competition. The Centre adds new facilities to the existing Grade II listed church including the Victoria Wood Hall: a large new double height rehearsal space, the Monument Room: an interactive classroom for education work, and a café and bar which will be open to the public. The original church building that opened in 2013 will continue to be used by the Hallé Orchestra and its family of associated choirs and youth orchestra.

The building opens tomorrow, 20 November, with an event which included a specially commissioned poem written and read by the poet laureate Simon Armitage (which will also feature in the fabric of the building) and performances from the Hallé Orchestra and Youth Choir. The celebrations will continue during the weekend of 23 and 24 November when the building will open to the general public, inviting them in to see the Hallé’s choirs and youth ensembles at work, as well as outreach events which will be taking place for the community.

Entangled: new music for string quartet inspired by quantum physics

Matthew Whiteside - Entangled
Matthew Whiteside Entangled; Aurea Quartet; Matthew Whiteside
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 November 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Inspired by particle physics, three new string quartets which explore pitch, timbre and texture in striking ways

I first came across the music of Matthew Whiteside in 2015, when I reviewed his disc Dichroic Light [see my review]. Matthew is from Northern Ireland but now based in Glasgow and his opera Little Black Lies was performed by Scottish Opera in 2018 [see the review in The Stage].

Matthew Whiteside's second disc, Entangled, released through his own label, features music for string quartet, performed by the Aurea Quartet. The disc features three of Whiteside's quartets, Quartet No. 4 'Entangled', Quartet no. 5, and Quartet No. 6, plus two electronic works Response One and Response Two.

Quartet No. 4 was the result of a commission from the Institute of Physics, and the work gets its name, Entangled, from the work of Whiteside's great-uncle, physicist John Stewart Bell who worked on the theory of Quantum Entanglement [see the Wikipedia article for a definition], which relates to the behaviour of quantum particles. The three movements each have names taken from writings on the subject, 'Waves', 'Spooky Action', 'Spinning'.

But listening to the quartet blind, simply referring to the music and the titles, you might be forgiven for imagining another inspiration, as there is something dramatically filmic about this music, it seems to be evoking elements of an unseen drama.

Monday 18 November 2019

In place and time: Britten and TS Eliot

Benjamin Britten, TS Eliot
Benjamin Britten, TS Eliot
On Wednesday 20 November 2019, the City of London Sinfonia (CLS) is marking the 90th anniversary of the publishers Faber & Faber with an event at Southwark Cathedral which combines the music of Benjamin Britten with the words of TS Eliot.

Violinist Alexandra Wood directs the City of London Sinfonia in Britten's Canticle V (The Death of St Narcissus), which sets a text by TS Eliot, sung by tenor Joshua Ellicott, Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, with Ellicott and horn-player Stephen Stirling, and the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. And there is poetry by TS Eliot, including Ash Wednesday and Little Gidding from the Four Quartets.

Eliot was a founding member of Faber & Faber in 1929, whilst Britten was instrumental in the founding of Faber & Faber's sister company Faber Music in 1965. Britten only turned to setting Eliot quite late in life, using texts by Eliot for Canticle IV: "The Journey of the Magi", Op. 86, in 1971, and Canticle V: "The Death of Saint Narcissus", Op. 89 in 1974.

The concert at Southwark Cathedral is one of CLS's informal experiences concerts, with audience members free to relax on cushions and roam the cathedral during the performance.

Full details from the CLS website.

From complex Renaissance harmonies to contemporary improvisation, O/Modernt's exploration of Labyrinths in Wimbledon culminated in a terrific account of Strauss' Metamorphosen

Hugo Ticciati & O/Modernt
Hugo Ticciati & O/Modernt at the O/Modernt Festival in Sweden
Labyrinths; Hugo Ticciati, O/Modernt, Sonoro Consort; Wimbledon International Music Festival at St John's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A fascinating sequence of musical labyrinths, old and new, culminating in a gut-wrenching account of Strauss' Metamorphosen

Hugo Ticciati is the artist in residence at this year's Wimbledon International Music Festival, giving a number of performances with his O/Modernt ensemble. On Saturday 16 November 2019, there was a double bill of concerts at St John's Church, Spencer Hill, Wimbledon under the theme of Into the Labyrinth, exploring a variety of labyrinths in music. 

In the afternoon, there was Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, preceded by a performance whereby Bach's The Art of Fugue (Contrapunctus I, VI, IX & XII) metamorphosed into Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, via Ticciati's own De/Constructing Fugues. In the evening, Ticciati and O/Modernt were joined by the nine singers of the Sonoro Consort, conductor Neil Ferris, for a sequence of music which took in the plainchant Tonus Peregrinus, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from William Byrd's Second Service,  Locatelli's Harmonic Labyrinth caprice, Gesualdo's Io parto e non più dissi, Aurelio de la Vega's The Magic Labyrinth, Monteverdi's Lamento d’Arianna madrigal sequence, Claudio Ambrosini's Ciaccona in Labirinto and Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen.

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.)

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