Monday 30 December 2019

2019 in concert and opera reviews

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)
2019 seems to have been a good year for rarities, particularly French opera. We caught both Verdi's Don Carlos (in French) and Halevy's La Juive in Flanders, Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini exploded onto the stage at the BBC Proms, Offenbach's fantastical Fantasio received its first UK staging at Garsington, Berlioz La Damnation de Faust was done in concert in Strasbourg, the London Handel Festival performed Handel's Berenice at Covent Garden, Chelsea Opera Group gave us a chance to see Boito's Mefistofele in London, Welsh National Opera performed Prokofiev's War and Peace, Opera North staged Martinu's The Greek Passion and English Touring Opera toured Kurt Weill's Silverlake

Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini - Duncan Meadows, Monteverdi Choir - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini - Duncan Meadows, Monteverdi Choir - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Small-scale Wagner made its mark too, with Fulham Opera's memorable Die Meistersinger and Das Rheingold at Grimeborn, whilst on a larger scale Tony Cooper visited Bayreuth and caught The Ring at the Berlin Staatsoper. Striking Britten productions included Death in Venice and Billy Budd at Covent Garden, and The Turn of the Screw marked the last ever production at Bury Court Opera, they will be sorely missed.

Offenbach: La belle Helene - Catherine Backhouse, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera Photo Robert Knights
Offenbach: La belle Helene - Catherine Backhouse, Anthony Flaum - New Sussex Opera
Photo Robert Knights
Our 2019 opera selection:

Sunday 29 December 2019

2019 in CD reviews

Ethel Smyth Fete Galante, Liza Lehmann The Happy Prince; Charmian Bedford, Carolyn Dobbin, Felix Kemp, Simon Wallfisch, Mark Milhofer, Alessandro Fisher, Lontano Ensemble, Odaline de la Martinez, Felicity Lott, Valerie Langfield; Retrospect Opera
2019 seemed a year for scholarship and rarity in recordings. Retrospect Opera gave us the first recording of Ethel Smyth's Fete Galante, whilst John Butt and the Dunedin Consort recorded every note of Handel's Samson as the composer originally wrote it, and the Academy of Ancient Music recorded a new edition of Handel's Brockes Passion. Palazzetto Bru Zane's new recording of Gounod's Faust explored many variants not usually performed, and their new recording of Spontini's Olimpie gave us a new view of the opera.  Opera Rara reconstructed Donizetti's L'Ange de Nisida, an opera thought lost, whilst Vladimir Jurowski recorded the original version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

Contemporary discs included a terrific recital from pianist Adam Swayne, whilst the symphonies of the Scottish composer Thomas Wilson (1927-2001) made you wonder why his music is still relatively neglected.

Dramatic Elgar and rare Chadwick from BBC National Orchestra of Wales & Andrew Constantine on Orchid Classics

Elgar Falstaff, Chadwick Tam O'Shanter; BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Timothy West, Samuel West, Andrew Constantine; Orchid Classics
Elgar Falstaff, Chadwick Tam O'Shanter; BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Timothy West, Samuel West, Andrew Constantine; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 December 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A dramatic version of Elgar's symphonic study alongside music by his New England contemporary

Do we actually need another recording of Sir Edward Elgar's symphonic study, Falstaff? Well, considering how the work seems to be still somewhat under appreciated when compared to the composer's other symphonic works, then perhaps we do, particularly one as vivid as this one. But there is twist.

Conductor Andrew Constantine and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have recorded Elgar's Falstaff for Orchid Classics, but it is on the discs twice. The second time as Elgar imagined it, as a purely orchestral work, the first time as a more dramatic entity with Elgar's music interleaved with scenes from Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 performed by Timothy West and Samuel West. The companion work is a piece by Elgar's American contemporary George Whitfield Chadwick, Tam O'Shanter.

British conductor Andrew Constantine was a name new to me. He won the first Donatella Flick Conducting Competition and studied at the Leningrad State Conservatory. Since 2004 he has been based in the USA and is currently music director of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra and of the Reading Symphony Orchestra.

Judging by this vividly detailed account of Elgar's 1913 work Constantine has a great love of the piece and understanding of Elgar's late style, and the BBC NOW responds brilliantly to him. The performance moves between the grandiloquence of Prince Hal's theme to the pawky humour, but still a gentleman, of Falstaff. And vividness of the orchestral detail very much reminds one of Richard Strauss' tone poems, and of course Elgar's music was much admired on the continent by admirers of Strauss', and the two are somewhat akin.

Saturday 28 December 2019

The first time that someone has written something major on composer Roger Sacheverell Coke since the 1990s: I chat to pianist Simon Callaghan about his forthcoming disc and his academic research into the neglected composer

Simon Callaghan recording in Glasgow with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Photo Oscar Torres)
Simon Callaghan recording in Glasgow with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
(Photo Oscar Torres)
Pianist Simon Callaghan has been devoting a lot of time recently to the music of Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-1972), in fact Simon has just submitted a Ph.D thesis to the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) on the subject and has his viva later this year. The latest in Simon's sequence of recordings of Coke's music, his and Raphael Wallfisch's recording of Coke's Cello Sonatas, is released on Lyrita this month. Simon and I recently met up to talk about his work on Coke's music, both finding, editing and recording it, and how he came to make it the subject of academic study.

Roger Sacheverell Coke - Cello Sonatas - Raphael Wallfisch, Simon Callaghan (Lyrita)
The Ph.D came about because, whilst Simon was recording music by Coke he met the director of research at the RNCM who suggested the idea. It wasn't something that would have normally occurred to Simon to do, but he would be able to do a Ph.D in performance. And so he has submitted recordings and editions of Coke's music, along with a dissertation of 20,000 words. And given that Coke's manuscripts have been rather scattered, and in sometimes in poor condition, the result is definitely a unique contribution to knowledge.

Simon has submitted four CDs of Coke's music as well as typesetting five or six pieces, thus making them available for further performances. On 3 January 2020, Simon and cellist Raphael Wallfisch's disc of Coke's Cello Sonatas will be coming out on Lyrita, whilst Simon's editions of the sonatas are being published by Nimbus Music Publishing.

Roger Sacheverell Coke was born into a wealthy family in Derbyshire, [and was inspired to take up music after hearing pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch performing. [there is an interesting sequence of early family photos and photos of their home, Brookhill Hall, on the House and Heritage website]. Coke's family had a strong military background and his father, who died during the first Battle of Ypres, has his name on the Menin Gate in Ypres. Coke's love of music was indulged by his mother, and he studied music privately, including piano lessons from a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky and composition with Alan Bush. Independently wealthy, but homosexual, a heavy smoker (100-a-day), a sufferer from depression and struggling with schizophrenia, he worked in a studio in the grounds of the family home and created a significant body of music. Never completely mainstream, he counted Rachmaninov as a friend and Coke's piano music can often seem influenced by this composer and is the complete antithesis of much of the music being written in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite performances and broadcasts during his lifetime, Coke and music effectively disappeared from view after his death.

Roger Sacheverell Coke's Music Room in the converted stables at Brookhill Hall. It was later converted into a seven-bedroom property. (Photo Derbyshire Countryside)
Roger Sacheverell Coke's Music Room in the converted stables at Brookhill Hall.
It was later converted into a seven-bedroom property. (Photo Derbyshire Countryside)
And it seems that Simon's dissertation is the first time that someone has written something major on Coke since an article in the British Music Society Journal in the 1990s!

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Happy Christmas from Planet Hugill

The view from the Sara Hilden Art Museum, Tampere in December 2018
The view from the Sara Hilden Art Museum, Tampere in December 2018

Merry Christmas

and a

Happy New Year



and all at Planet Hugill

Thank you to everyone for their support during 2019, and we look forward to a musical 2020 on Planet Hugill, with Verdi in Cardiff, Weill in Leeds, Meyerbeer in Berlin and much more.

Monday 23 December 2019

Mahogany Opera's Various Stages Festival will be returning to the ICA on 19 March 2020.

Audience and chorus at Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stages Festival 2017
Audience and chorus at Mahogany Opera Group's
Various Stages Festival 2017
Mahogany Opera's Various Stages Festival will be returning to the ICA on 19 March 2020. The festival provides the opportunity for five new operatic projects, all at various stages of development, to showcase material from the work-in-progress and receive feedback from the audiences and from industry professionals. 

Featured will be five entries chosen from an open call, which received over 150 applications from across the country and internationally, alongside two projects from long-term Mahogany Opera collaborators, Rolf Hind and Gwyneth Herbert.

The artistic advisors on the project will include Jessica Walker, singer, writer and educator, Martin Berry, head of learning & participation, Nottingham Playhouse and Frederic Wake-Walker, artist director of Mahogany Opera. They will collaborate with the selected artists and bring their knowledge into the development of the project they are working on; representing a range of disciplines from across the sector, they will share their thoughts, observations and knowledge about how new work is developed.

Read my article about the works presented at the 2017 festival.

Further details about Various Stages 2020 from the Mahogany Opera website.

The third instalment of the Leeds-based DARE Art Prize is now open for applications

Samuel Hertz recording source material for Gunslinge 2 (Photo Reba West Fraser)
Samuel Hertz recording source material for Gunslinger 2 (Photo Reba West Fraser)
The DARE Art Prize, awarded by the University of Leeds and Opera North, challenges artists and scientists to collaborate on new approaches to the creative process. Previous winners' work as a result of the prize has included a musical transcription of a glacier melting, and employing an algorithm to process musical scores. The third instalment of the prize will be awarded to an innovative, ambitious artist who is motivated by the opportunity to work in partnership with leading scientific researchers at the University of Leeds.

The DARE Art Prize is now open for applications with a prize of £15,000, closing date 30 January 2020. The winners of the two previous Prizes each spent a year working on strikingly different, but equally inventive projects, both of which established shared vision between artists and scientists, bridging the gap between two fields that are often seen as mutually exclusive.

Winner of the inaugural prize, composer Samuel Hertz [see my interview with Samuel] worked with low-frequency infrasound, delving into climatology, the environment and the paranormal, with outcomes including a musical transcription of a glacier melting and a piece of music featuring sounds inaudible to the human ear.

Artist and researcher Anna Ridler, who won the 2018-19 Prize, has spent her tenure investigating the points at which artificial and human intelligence intersect, teaching a machine to draw, and employing an algorithm to process musical scores.

Further information from the DARE website.

Sunday 22 December 2019

A hugely rewarding journey: I and Silence, Marta Fontanals Simmons & Lana Bode in Aaron Copland, Dominick Argento, Peter Lieberson, Samuel Barber, and George Crumb

I and Silence: Women's voices in American song - Copland, Argento, Barber, Lieberson, Crumb; Marta Fontanals Simmons, Lana Bode; Delphian
I and Silence: Women's voices in American song - Copland, Argento, Barber, Lieberson, Crumb; Marta Fontanals Simmons, Lana Bode; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A hugely imaginative and ambitious debut disc, which combines two major contemporary American song cycles

This imaginative disc takes its title, I and Silence, from a phrase in one of Emily Dickinson's poems set by Aaron Copland. The disc gives us music by five 20th century American male composers, but also embodies the disc's subtitle, Women's Voices in American Song. Three of the women so embodied are writers, Emily Dickinson whose work is set by Copland in Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf whose work is set by Dominick Argento in From the diary of Virigina Woolf, and Sara Teasdale who is set by George Crumb in one of his Three Early Songs.

Two of the women embodied are singers. Peter Lieberson's cycle Rilke Songs was written for his wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, with her voice completely in mind, and Hunt Lieberson was very much identified with the cycle. Dominick Argento's cycle, From the diary of Virginia Woolf, was written for the mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker, who gave the work's first performance and again, Argento had Baker's artistry in mind when creating the work.

On this Delphian disc, I and Silence: Women's voices in American song, we have the British-Spanish mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals Simmons and American-British pianist Lana Bode performing three of Aaron Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Barber's Nocturne, Peter Lieberson's Rilke Songs, and George Crumb's Let it be forgotten from Three Early Songs.
I have to confess that the disc was released in August 2019, and Marta Fontanals Simmons is very much a singer whose career I have followed, [I interviewed her in 2018, saw her as Hel in Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child at Covent Garden, and caught her recently in Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall], but, rather embarrassingly this disc somehow got pushed to the side.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Prayer of the Heart: the Brodsky Quartet & the Gesualdo Six in a sequence of music from Tavener to Panufnik (father and daughter)

Gesualdo Six (Photo Ash Mills)
Gesualdo Six (Photo Ash Mills)
Prayer of the Heart - Tavener, Morales, Esenvalds, Hildegard von Bingen, Rimkus, Kraggerud, Gesualdo, Roxanna Panufnik, Andrzej Panufnik; THe Brodsky Quartet, Gesualdo Six; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Marking the end of Venus Unwrapped this sequence of music for voices and strings proved a powerfully concentrated and sophisticated evening.

It made a rather lovely change that the final concert in Kings Place's Venus Unwrapped series, which took place on Friday 20 December 2019, had nothing to do with Christmas. Instead, we had a sequence of music from the Gesualdo Six (Owain Park, Guy James, Andrew Leslie Cooper, Joseph Wicks, Josh Cooter, Michael Craddock, Samuel Mitchell) and the Brodsky Quartet (Gina McCormack, Ian Belton, Paul Cassidy, Jacqueline Thomas) which played without an interval and took us from John Tavener, through Cristobal de Morales arranged by Eriks Esenvalds, Hildegard von Bingen, Owain Park, Sarah Rimkus, Henning Kraggerud and Andrzej Panufnik, with the music of Roxanna Panufnik at its centre including her Dante setting, This paradise.

The Brodsky Quartet (photo Sarah Cresswell)
The Brodsky Quartet (photo Sarah Cresswell)
The pieces flowed continuously, with no applause between, and lighting was low-ish and atmospheric. The quartet was on stage at all times but the singers came and went, starting in the balcony, and for some later items standing with the instrumentalists including, rather memorably, interleaving themselves amongst the players. The sheer logistics of the evening were impressive, as the music flowed naturally, people moved yet you were never aware of a hiatus or a need to shuffle. All beautifully done.

My main gripe was in the low lighting level, which rendered the printed words unreadable so we were left to simply listen with our ears. This worked for many of the pieces, but for Roxanna Panufnik's large-scale Dante setting this was a problem. Roxanna had provided a lucid printed explanation of the piece, which of course we could not follow and none of the singers' words were very comprehensible, and I felt I could have appreciated the work more if I had been able to follow the programme notes.

We started with John Tavener, his Prayer of the Heart where the Brodsky Quartet provided quiet sustained chords over a recorded heart-beat, as individual members of the Gesualdo Six, placed half out of sight in the balcony, intoned a sequence of quasi chant-like passages. This is one of those pieces which rather divides people, on the one hand Tavener creates something profoundly contemplative and rather magical from quite simple materials, yet his very willingness to repeat meant that the work felt longer than it needed to be with the musical material over stretched.

But Tavener would have argued that that was not the point, his own programme note says 'Then you are singing no longer with your own emotion or your own intellect, but with the eye of the heart in the intellective organ of the heart. This can save millions of souls, and change the world.'

Bach, Feery, Maconchy, Beamish, Imogen Holst: music for solo viola from Rosalind Ventris

Imogen Holst
Imogen Holst
Bach, Feery, Maconchy, Beamish, Imogen Holst; Rosalind Ventris; City Music Foundation at the Church of St Bartholomew the Less
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An imaginative programme of music for unaccompanied viola by British and Irish women composers, works which all deserve to be better known.

As part of the City Music Foundation's lunchtime concert series at the church of St Bartholomew the Less, on Wednesday 18 December 2019, viola player Rosalind Ventris gave a solo recital, performing JS Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 in C major (in a version for solo viola) alongside music for unaccompanied viola by Amanda Feery, Imogen Holst, Sally Beamish and Elizabeth Maconchy; four women composers, two contemporary and two writing in the mid-20th century.

We started with the Bach, and of course his unaccompanied cello music works well on the viola because the viola's strings are tuned to the same pitches, but an octave higher, as the cello so that where Bach is working with the natural resonances and open strings of the cello, this carries over into the viola. Of course, it helps that Ventris has a lovely mellow tone with a nice depth to it. In the 'Prelude' we could appreciate her sense of line in the long sequences of descending scales, whilst the 'Allemande' was very much a perky dance, albeit with elegance too. The 'Courante' was full of brisk energy, and the 'Sarabande' slow and thoughtful. The first 'Bourree' was an elegant dance with lively rhythms, whilst the second was more haunting with somewhat veiled tone. Finally, we had a 'Gigue' full of rhythmic energy.

Friday 20 December 2019

A striking voice revealed: piano music by Janet Graham spanning nearly 40 years

North East Hauntings - Janet Graham, Aleksander Szram - Prima Facie
Janet Graham Piano Music; Aleksander Szram; Prima Facie
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A striking voice revealed on this disc of piano music spanning nearly 40 years from contemporary composer Janet Graham

Janet Graham is not a well known name, and the music on the disc of piano music may well be entirely unfamiliar to listeners, but is well worth getting to know. Under the title North East Hauntings on the Prima Facie label, pianist Aleksander Szram has put together a programme of Graham's music spanning nearly 40 years from Persephone from 1980 to Sonata from 2017.

Graham is a further example of a woman composer whose career changes mid-life, and then who comes back to composition and you think of other women composers like Erika Fox [see my review] whose music has been rediscovered recently.

Janet Graham studied composition with James Iliff at the Royal Academy of Music (1966-1971), and with Elizabeth Lutyens, and then had a promising career as a young composer. In 1989, after working voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital, she re-trained as a music therapist. It was only after retiring from music therapy in 2013 that she started to compose regularly again. In an article in the CD booklet, Graham talks about the way, in music therapy, she was encouraged to explore music beyond the standard syllabus and to improvise, so that other influences have crept into her more recent work. That said, Graham's music remains atonal and remarkably bold and confident.

Many of the pieces on the disc were written for the pianist Anthony Green, who played Graham's music regularly since the mid-1970s and in fact Aleksander Szram is a former student of Green's. Szram, who is a senior teaching fellow at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, makes something of a speciality of contemporary repertoire, having recorded music by Daryl Runswick, Douglas Finch [see my review], Kenneth Hesketh [see my review], Edward Gregson [with recorder player Jill Kemp, see my review] and David Lumsdaine [see my review].

Listening to the disc, despite the wide time span covered by the music, we can hear a consistency of approach from Graham. She thinks that her more recent work has become 'softer-edged' and indeed the Sonata of 2017 includes a folk-song from the North-East (Graham was born in County Durham and currently lives there).

Writ large: a remarkably satisfying performance of Handel's masterpiece at the Royal Albert Hall, demonstrating that large-scale accounts of Messiah work well in the right hands.

Grand opening of the Royal Albert Hall in 1871
Grand opening of the Royal Albert Hall in 1871
Handel Messiah; Natalya Romaniw, Marta Fontanals Simmons, Egan Llŷr Thomas, William Thomas, Christoph Altstaedt, Philharmonia Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Royal Albert Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 December 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A large scale Messiah with a young cast of soloists proves full of surprises

For those of us who live in a metropolitan bubble, where performances of Handel's Messiah by small professional ensembles are common, it is easy to forget that for many people, Handel's masterpiece remains a large-scale choral work. My own experiences of Messiah include singing the work in a choir of 150 at the Royal Albert Hall, and the venue's tradition of performing the work annually dates back to the 19th century.

Perhaps, somewhat in the spirit of inquiry we went along to this year's performance of Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 18 December 2019. Christoph Altstaedt conducted the Philharmonia Chorus and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with soloists Natalya Romaniw, Marta Fontanals Simmons (replacing an ailing Katie Bray), Egan Llŷr Thomas and William Thomas.

The chorus numbered some 130, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra fielded only a moderate size team, with just two oboes and one bassoon, with continuo provided by a portative organ and harpsichord. The fine team of young soloists are perhaps best known for their operatic roles,  Natalya Romaniw recently made her debut as Puccini's Tosca with Scottish Opera and will be appearing as Puccini's Madama Butterfly with English National Opera in 2020. Marta Fontanals Simmons sang the lead role of Hel in Gavin Higgins new opera The Monstrous Child at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden [see my review], Egan Llŷr Thomas is currently a Harewood Artist at English National Opera, and despite still being on the opera course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, William Thomas has already made his debut with Vienna State Opera.

Conductor Christoph Altstaedt [whom we heard in 2017, conducting Opera North's Hansel and Gretel], took a modern, period-performance inspired view of the work. The days seem long gone when modern orchestras could completely ignore the historically informed approach, and nowadays performing Baroque music requires the delicate navigation through a tricky field. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played with admirable crispness and lightness, and I very much enjoyed their performances throughout the evening. Their two solo spots, the overture and the Pifa, were finely done with plenty to enjoy. Altstaedt's tempos were on the fast side, and he certainly took no prisoners, yet his performers, both soloists and choir, we well up to the task and throughout the evening we had some admirably fleet passage work.

In the early 1980s, I worked with a veteran choral conductor in Edinburgh who commented that the overall timing of Messiah could be gauged from the speed at which the choir could sing the semi-quaver passages. In the case of the wonderfully admirable Philharmonia Chorus that seemed to be at whatever speed Altstaedt wanted, and sung with a nice lightness and unanimity too.

What let the performance down, for me, was the issue of balance, which is an area where many modern instrument performances go wrong.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Best Opera Blogs

Expertido - Best Opera BLog
We are now featured on Expertidos' 16 Best Opera Blogs, a list which includes a wide variety of opera websites. Expertido is a USA-based product review site, so we are pleased to be selected, do check out their list:

Mass for Christmas Morning: the richly imaginative music of Michael Praetorius performed by an ensemble ranging from nine-year-olds to seasoned professionals

Schloss Wolfenbüttel, where Michael Praetorius lived and worked; copperplate engraving by Matthäus Merian, 1654
Schloss Wolfenbüttel, where Michael Praetorius lived and worked; copperplate engraving by Matthäus Merian, 1654
Michael Praetorius Mass for Christmas Morning; Gabrieli Consort & Players, DREt Youth Choir, DRET Primary All Stars, Paul McCreesh; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 December 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Venetian poly-choral techniques combined with Lutheran chorales in Praetorius' richly imaginative music in a reconstruction performed by Gabrieli and young singers from the David Ross Educational Trust

Michael Praetorius
Michael Praetorius
The richly inventive choral music of the German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) is not as well known as it deserves to be. Yet Gabrieli's 1994 recording of Mass for Christmas Morning, based on Praetorius' music, remains the group's best-selling disc. I have to confess that it is recording that I have long treasured, so it was a great pleasure to be able to appreciate the music live as Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli performed their reconstruction. They are undertaking a tour, and their Polish performance was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday, and they will be off to Versailles and Rotterdam.

But lucky for us, on Tuesday 17 December 2019, Paul McCreesh conducted the Gabrieli Consort and Players, the DRET Youth Choir and DRET Primary All Stars (two groups drawn from the David Ross Educational Trust) in Mass for Christmas Morning at St John's Smith Square as part of the Christmas Festival. The reconstruction featured music by Michael Praetorius including the Kyrie and Gloria from his Missa ganz Teudsch in the 1619 publication Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrics, with other material coming from the same publication and also from Praetorius' Musae Sioniae V and Urania.  The Creed was in a version by Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), whilst we also heard the Padouana a 5 by Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)

Michael Praetorius spent most of his working life at Wolfenbüttel, working for the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. But a great influence in Praetorius' music in later life was the period that he spent in Dresden between 1613 and 1615, when he met Heinrich Schütz and was introduced to Venetian poly-choral music. Praetorius was notable for the way he developed musical forms based on Protestant hymns, and his earlier music had had a strong Italian influence and the most elaborate works from his later period include spectacular poly-choral works. Yet Lutheran congregational singing was also a significant factor in the music and most of Praetorius pieces, even the most elaborate, are skilfully written so that various groups can be included, the Town Waits, the school children, the Collegium Musicum of amateur musicians as well as the professional Kantorei. This was real inclusive music making, on a grand scale as befitted the Ducal court, yet allowing full congregational participation.

At St John's Smith Square we heard a reconstruction of a Lutheran mass as it might have been staged in Wolfenbüttel in around 1620, using the 1595 Wolfenbüttel Order of Service, which owes much to Martin Luther's Wittenberg liturgies. This is a communion service, with Kyrie, Gloria, Creed and Sanctus (though the texts are not necessarily literal translations of the Latin), with the usual consecration, interspersed with the congregational hymns, four in all, and motets during communion. Around 80 minutes of music in all, and what impressed was the way the Praetorius could move from a gloriously elaborate poly-choral, multi-instrumental piece such as the four-choir version in In dulci jubilo with its use of trumpeters and drums (where McCreesh took advantage of Praetorius' suggestion that the material be re-arranged to suit performance needs, and here included all his performers in a final flourish), to profoundly simple pieces such as the touching (and still well-known) harmonisation of Es is ein Ros entsprungen.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

The Sixteen at Christmas: A Ceremony of Carols

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen
Harry Christophers, The Sixteen
Britten A Ceremony of Carols, William Walton, Elizabeth Poston, Gustav Holst, Matthew Martin, Jan Sandstrom, James Burton, Cecilia McDowall, Medieval carols; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Britten's glorious carol sequence complemented by ancient and modern settings of related Medieval texts

A remarkable number of early English carols survive, giving us a window onto a form which underwent significant changes in the 19th century. And these texts have provided an endless source of inspiration to 20th century and contemporary composers as the contemporary carol has developed a lively new life. In fact, new carols were very much the thing in the first half of the 20th century, Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down (from 1927) was published by the Daily Telegraph, and William Walton's Make we joy now in this fest (from 1931) by the Daily Despatch.

Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols (from 1942) had no such direct inception, it was inspired by a book of medieval carol texts which he bought in Nova Scotia on the journey back to wartime Britain from voluntary exile in America that he and Peter Pears made in 1942, uncertain of their reception on arriving. The work is a 20th century masterpiece, but what to programme with it?

For The Sixteen at Christmas: A Ceremony of Carols at Cadogan Hall on Monday 16 December 2019, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen performed a sequence of carols (some for Christmas, some for other times of the year) all based on Medieval texts, giving us surviving Medieval carols alongside carols to Medieval texts by 20th century composers, William Walton, Elizabeth Poston, Gustav Holst, and contemporary composers Matthew Martin, Jan Sandstrom, James Burton and Cecilia McDowall, all culminating in Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, performed with harpist Frances Kelly.

We started with Walton's 1931 Make we joy now in this fest, a setting of a macaronic text which was somewhat unfamiliar, and for all its liveliness has subtle moments too.

There followed a sequence of Medieval carols, the trick with these is how to present them. Christophers chose to give the carols quite plainly without too much additional arrangement, which made them all the more effective with their bold harmonies.

Barbican Presents: Beethoven, Bach, contemporary opera and more

Barbican Presents
Not surprisingly, Beethoven looms large in the Barbican's programme for the first half of 2020 in Barbican Presents, its curated classical music season. Sir Andras Schiff will be completing his performances of the Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conductor Ivan Fischer, whilst Sir John Eliot Gardiner will be presenting the complete Beethoven symphonies with his Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique and Anne-Sophie Mutter will be performing violin sonatas, accompanied by Lambert Orkis

The Beethoven Weekender will present a whole weekend of Beethoven-related events, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia and Halle Orchestra sharing the symphonies, the Carducci Quartet in the quartets, plus chamber music and more. The Beethoven-Haus Bonn's exhibition BTHVN on Tour will be at the Barbican in the Spring, combining artefacts from the composer's life with contemporary views of the composers

Bach is also a feature, and Mahan Esfahani will be exploring Bach's The Musical Offering, whilst Accademia Bizantina will be performing The Art of Fugue, baritone Benjamin Appl joins the Academy of Ancient Music for Bach cantatas, Masaaki Suzuki conducts Bach Collegium Japan in Bach's St John Passion, Jeremy Denk performs Book One of The Well Tempered Clavier and Lang Lang performs the Goldberg Variations. Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras will perform Bach's cello suites alongside contemporary responses by Ivan Fedele, Jonathan Harvey, György Kurtág, Gilbert Amy, Misato Mochizuki and Ichiro Nodaira.

David Lang's new opera prisoner of state, a contemporary re-working of the story from Beethoven's Fidelio, will receive its premiere when Ilan Volkov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Claron McFadden, Jarrett Ott, Alan Oke and Davone Tines. Max Richter's new piece Voices, co-commissioned by the Barbican, will receive its world premiere by 'an orchestra featuring a radically reimagined instrumentation'. We are intrigued already. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is also presenting Joby Talbot's 2015 opera Everest, with Nicole Paiment conducting.

Handel's Rodelinda receives a concert performance from the English Concert, conductor Harry Bickett, with Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies and Joshua Ellicott. Whilst Arcangelo, conductor Jonathan Cohen, will be performing Haydn's Creation with Lucia Richter, Toby Spence and Thomas Bauer.

Trumpeter Alison Balsom will be Milton Court Artist in Residence, exploring a repertoire which varies from Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain (arranged by Gil Evans) with the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra, director Scott Stroman, to John Woolrich's Hark! The Echoing Air with the Britten Sinfonia.

The third visiting orchestra is the New York Philharmonic which, under music director Jaap van Zweden, will be performing Mahler's Symphonies No. 1 & 2, and the orchestra's relationship with the composer goes right back to when Mahler was music director in the early 20th century.

Other artists featured include Yuja Wang, who will be performing chamber music with cellist Gautier Capucon and also giving a solo recital. And Igor Levitt will be performing Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, rarely played as a full set, and then will be joined by friends for Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen, a chamber version of Shostkovich's Symphony no. 15, Beethoven's piano duet version of the Grosse Fuge, and Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Soprano Lise Davidsen will be giving a recital performing lieder accompanied by James Baillieu, in Brahms, Strauss, Sibelius, Grieg and Schumann.

Richard King's book The Lark Ascending, about the relationships between the people, the music and the landscape of Great Britain, comes out in paperback in the Spring and to coincide with this there is a special evening which will feature a seamless blend of music, specially-commissioned audio-visual content, spoken word and dance and will offer Barbican audiences an opportunity to experience an alternative reimagining of the book’s narrative, including appearances by many of the artists mentioned in the text. If you have enjoyed the recent performances of Britten's Death in Venice at Covent Garden [see my review], then Internationaal Theater Amsterdam's presentation of a dramatic version of Thomas Mann's novella may appeal. Adapted by former Dutch poet laureate Ramsey Nasr, who performs the role of Aschenbach, the work is based both on the novella and on Mann's live, and the performance features music by Nico Muhly alongside Strauss and Schoenberg, performed by the Britten Sinfonia.

Full details from the Barbican website.

Monday 16 December 2019

An intriguing journey: with Soledad, baroque violinist Jorge Jimenez takes us from Biber's intense Catholicism, through Bach to the vibrancy of Spanish baroque

Soledad - Jorge Jimenez
Soledad - Biber, Bach, Lorca, Scarlatti; Jorge Jimenez
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Baroque violinist takes us on an intriguing journey from the Catholic intensity of Biber, through Lutheran Bach to vibrant Baroque Spain

The Spanish violinist Jorge Jimenez might be a name known to British listeners as his Baroque violin playing some times pops up with period instrument groups in the UK (he was recently performing Beethoven with the Hanover Band). Jimenez has released a new disc Soledad on his own label, which is available on CD, as a download or via a limited edition vinyl. The word Soledad means loneliness in Spanish, though Jimenez disc does not give much away as to how we might apply this to the music. Perhaps it refers to the loneliness of the violinist, playing music unaccompanied, or perhaps to the feelings engendered by the music on the disc, much of it soulful and melancholy.

The programme takes us on an intriguing journey from Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, through Johann Sebastian Bach to Domenico Scarlatti, via Federico Garcia Lorca. Not all the music was originally for solo violin, but then again much Baroque music existed and can exist in multiple versions. Jimenez' programme includes an organ work by JS Bach, which may not be by Bach and may not originally have been written for organ!

Sunday 15 December 2019

On Bethlehem Down: Chamber Choir of London & Dominic Ellis-Peckham at St George's Church, Bloomsbury

Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
On Bethlehem Down; The Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Ellis-Peckham; St George's Church, Bloomsbury
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Christmas music old and new in engaging performances from this young chamber choir

Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
The Chamber Choir of London is a relatively new ensemble under the artistic directorship of Dominic Ellis-Peckham. A group of 18 young professional singers who finished a busy 2019 with a Christmas concert on Friday at St George's Church, Bloomsbury.

Now, I have to confess that I am somewhat resistant to the traditional Christmas concert, and the prospect of traditional carols is not one that delights. But the combination of intelligent programming (including a significant number of contemporary pieces and many unfamiliar works) and a freshness of approach from the singers was enough to weaken the heart of the grumpiest of critics.

Bethlehem Down at St George's Church, Bloomsbury on Friday 13 December 2019 featured music by Cecilia McDowall, Richard Allain, Kerry Andrew, Jonathan Rathbone, Adrian Peacock, Peter Wishart, Judith Weir, Bob Chilcott, Toby Young, Sally Beamish, John Rutter, Sir William Walton, Imogen Holst and Herbert Howells, as well as arrangements by Sir David Willcocks, Andrew Carter, Henry Walford Davies, Charles Wood and Wolfgang Lindner.

The concert was billed as being by candlelight and so lights were low and there was a stylish arrangement of candles on the floor. The singers generally performed in a single arc or two lines, but for some items they surrounded the audience in a single arc, and in others they made full use of the many different spaces of the church.

Saturday 14 December 2019

Rule-breaking music that inspires you and empowers you: Tamsin Waley-Cohen and James Baillieu on CPE Bach's sonatas for violin and keyboard.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen & James Baillieu recording CPE Bach at Snape
Tamsin Waley-Cohen & James Baillieu recording CPE Bach at Snape
Violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and pianist James Baillieu have just recorded CPE Bach's complete works for violin and keyboard, a set 10 sonatas and fantasias which span a significant portion of the composer's life. And the disc has just been released on Signum Classics. Whilst CPE Bach's keyboard works are moderately well known, his music for violin and keyboard is less so, and for both artists it was very much an exploration of new territory. I recently met up with Tamsin and James to find out more.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen & James Baillieu - CPE Bach - Signum Classics
Born in 1714, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach was the fifth child and second (surviving) son of Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife Maria Barbara Bach, and the composer Georg Philipp Telemann was the child's godfather. Having studied with his father, in 1738, CPE Bach entered the service of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (later King Frederick the Great),  becoming a member of the royal orchestra on Frederick's accession, and CPE Bach remained in post in Berlin until 1768 when he succeeded his godfather, Telemann, as music director in Hamburg. It is from these Berlin years that the sonatas for violin and keyboard date, covering a period of 30 years up to the 1760s. The earliest ones pre-date the composer's time in Berlin, but he revised them in the 1740s. And we can imagine CPE Bach performing them with a member of the court orchestra.

For Tamsin, a lot about CPE Bach is interesting, whilst his music is affectionate and human. She started to come across his music more and was intrigued by his influence on Mozart and later composers, Mozart said of him, "Bach is the father, we are the children." He was a noted keyboard player, and James pointed out that Beethoven was heavily influenced by CPE Bach's notable treatise on keyboard technique. This sparked their interest in CPE Bach's own music.  The solo piano music is well-known and there are some lovely flute pieces, but much of his output is beautiful yet not recorded much.

They found it valuable to put him into historical context, as the sonatas date from the most liberal years of the Enlightenment and CPE Bach was involved with key writers and thinkers such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. This was a period which put great value on the individual and on free will, all of which can be detected in CPE Bach's music, and which still felt pretty relevant to our own world.

Friday 13 December 2019

A Place to Call Home: Sing for Shelter

The young composer Alex Woolf (the premiere of whose Requiem we noted in 2018) has created a new song A Place to Call Home as part of the Sing for Shelter project, to bring awareness of Shelter and is work in helping to combat the widespread problem of bad housing and homelessness in the UK. In October, 2000 singers from across the country descended on English National Opera and joined the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, as well as such luminaries as Sir Bryn Terfel, Lesley Garratt and Alice Coote (who attended with her brother, who has himself experience homelessness) to record the single. Choirs included Fire Service personnel, Shelter service users, schoolchildren and signing choirs for deaf and hearing singers.

There is a taster video above, but the resulting single is available now from all major digital retailers, including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, Google Store, YouTube Music and more. All proceeds from the single will go to supporting Shelter’s work over this winter period, fighting homelessness and helping families get back to living in safe housing with ongoing support.

Debut with BBC Now, the London premiere of Judith Weir's Oboe Concerto - Gergely Madaras' week

Gergely Madaras (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Gergely Madaras (Photo Marco Borggreve)
This is a busy week for conductor Gergely Madaras, as on Tuesday (10 December 2019) he made his debut with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducting Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony ‘Winter Daydreams’ and Variations on a Rococo Theme, with Anastasia Kobekina as soloist, and 'A Winter Landscape' from Glazunov’s The Seasons. Then tonight (Friday 13 December 2019) he conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre (replacing Rafael Payare) in the London premiere of Judith Weir's Oboe Concerto with Nicholas Daniel as soloist, Brett Dean's Amphitheatre and Mahler's Symphony No. 1. (further details from the Barbican website).

Judith Weir's Oboe Concerto was premiered in 2018 by soloist Celia Craig with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conductor Douglas Boyd. Craig gave the UK premiere of the work in September 2019 when she performed it in Cardiff with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Andrew Gourlay. In her programme note, Judith Weir says of the work, 'Having played the oboe myself as a young person (for about 20 years, starting at age 11) the composition of an Oboe Concerto had an almost autobiographical significance for me. It was also a memory exercise, as I recalled in detail some of the music I had learned so carefully during those years. One important work, the Strauss Concerto, was helpful with my choice of accompanying instruments; just a wind octet plus strings.'

In 2012, Gergely Madaras was the inaugural Sir Charles Mackerras Fellow at English National Opera, a relationship which culminated in Madaras conducting Simon Burney's new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. In September 2019, Madaras took over as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège in Belgium, with concert series in Liège and in Brussels. On 26 January 2020 he conducts them in Bach, Kurtag and Haydn's Symphony No. 104 'London' (further details from the orchestra's website)

A bleakly haunted journey: Alice Coote and Julius Drake in Schubert's Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

Franz Schubert: Winterreise - autograph manuscript courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum
Franz Schubert: Winterreise - autograph manuscript courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum
Schubert Winterreise; Alice Coote, Julius Drake; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 December 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A performance of mesmerising intensity, as we experience the disintegration of the haunted protagonist in the superb partnership of Alice Coote and Julius Drake

We heard mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and pianist Julius Drake performing Schubert's Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall in 2012 [a performance issued on Wigmore Live, see my review]. The two returned on Thursday 12 December 2019 for a repeat performance which was also being recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast.

In fact, the programme was radically different from that first advertised for the concert, which had been billed as including Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, a selection from Schoneberg's Das Buch der hangenden Garten and songs by Berg and Weill. But encountering Alice Coote and Julius Drake in Winterreise is always a mesmerising experience, and there was certainly noting stale or repetitive about Coote and Drake's performance, quite the opposite. This was very much a performance in the moment, as Coote brought a haunted intensity to Schubert's great song-cycle. Throughout Coote showed superb technical control and was brilliantly partnered by Drake, so that the two charted a very distinct path through the Wanderer's journey. Speeds were on the slower side, Coote took her time and allowed herself moments to savour the intensity of the emotion, but it never felt over done.

Throughout there was a sense of intense emotion bottled up, and for all the eruptions of climaxes it was a very tense, interior performance. Not so much a young man living his experiences as an older protagonist recalling strong emotions. Perhaps a key to the musical and emotional arc was that Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) felt the emotional heart of the work, starting with haunted melancholy and moving towards bleak intensity. Yet there were moments of real power, as the Wanderer girded themself up, so that the simple melancholy of the opening of Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) grew into a powerful conclusion which led directly into Mut! (Courage).

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