Saturday, 25 January 2020

Audience development and evangelism at the core of what they do: I chat to Adam Szabo of the Manchester Collective

The Manchester Collective at the White Hotel, Salford
The Manchester Collective at the White Hotel, Salford
Having had a busy 2019 with its biggest tour yet, the Manchester Collective launched the New Year with a bang, with Ecstatic Dances a programme with Poul Høxbro which toured to Leeds, Glasgow, London and Manchester this month, and there are plenty more exciting things planned. On the group's Twitter page is the tag 'Radical human experiences through live music'. I was intrigued, and I caught up with CEO and co-founder Adam Szabo over coffee earlier this month, to find out more.

Ecstatic Dances - Poul Høxbro & Manchester Collective at the Stoller Hall
Ecstatic Dances - Poul Høxbro & Manchester Collective at the Stoller Hall
Ecstatic Dances was built around Poul Høxbro, a Danish musician who plays pipes and percussion; he was joined by a string quartet and electric bass for music which ranged from Thomas Ades and Peter Warlock to ancient tunes from Scotland and Scandinavia. We speak before the show debuted, and Høxbro was to be telling stories during the show, something that the group had never done before and when we met, Adam said that they had tried it out for the first time with the players the previous day, and the result had been magical. Høxbro plays various different traditional pipes, highly restrictive instruments, along with percussion like bronze bells. Adam calls it a unique combination of instruments in this music.

Ecstatic Dances was built by the same team as their 2019 programme, Scirocco. Their biggest hit yet, Scirorro toured to 15 venues in the UK and Switzerland, and featured African musicians Abel Selaocoe, plus Sidiki Dembele and Alan Keary from Chesaba, with music from Stravinsky and Haydn, to African folk songs and Danish folk songs. The programme will be returning this year, and will be going on a world tour during the 2020/21 season. And Ecstatic Dances was built by the same team.

There are three further programmes to come this season, and in May the group will be launching its 2020/21 season, which will include the release of two CDs as well as six touring programmes. Adam describes the group's success, since he founded it in 2016, as something of a runaway freight train, but in a good way!

Characterful and flavourful


Friday, 24 January 2020

Maxim Vengerov, celebrating 40 years since his stage debut with new recordings & a new relationship with IDAGIO

Maxim Vengerov (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Maxim Vengerov (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
This year the violinist Maxim Vengerov is celebrating an amazing 40 years on stage. He made his stage debut aged five at a concert in his native Siberia, and when we meet for this interview he was even able to quote the exact date. And he is still on form, the night before our interview Maxim was the soloist with the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, conductor Sergey Smbatyan, at their Barbican debut [see my review]. 

Maxim's has been a busy career with a long period as one of the world's top classical violinists, but not without incident; he spent a period not playing due to injury, and has branched out as a conductor. But it is clear from our chat that violin playing is still very much a priority. As part of his anniversary celebrations there are new recordings, and a new relationship with streaming service IDAGIO.

Having just heard him play one of the great war-horses of the classical repertoire, Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, I was curious as to whether he had ever wanted to not perform. But he still feels the excitement going on stage, and said that he continues to play whilst the excitement is still there. If it stops being there, then he won't continue as he needs to feel there is a purpose to performing. But as a performer Maxim says he has always taken risks, he does not want to be confined to a box. This is one of the reasons why he has branched out into studying other things, such as becoming a conductor, but for him violin playing remains his mother tongue.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

White Flame: Scottish premiere of David Matthews' work celebrating Muriel Spark's centenary

Muriel Spark, Rome c1971-74 (Photo © Jerry Bauer)
Muriel Spark, Rome c1971-74 (Photo © Jerry Bauer)
2018 was the centenary of the Scottish novelist Muriel Spark, and as part of the celebrations composer David Matthews (born 1943) wrote White Flame, a setting of five of Spark's poems, for the Nash Ensemble. The work was premiered at the Purcell Room on the Southbank in 2018, and now in a sort of coda to the centenary the Nash Ensemble is to give the work's Scottish premiere at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh on 27 January 2020.

Written for mezzo-soprano and piano quintet, White Flame will be performed in Edinburgh by mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds and members of the Nash Ensemble, the performers who premiered the work. Before the concert there will be a chance to hear composer David Matthews in conversation with Alan Taylor, (past chairman of the Muriel Spark Society, the group which commissioned the work in the first place) talking about Matthews' choice of poems.

The concert will be completed by Mozart's Piano Quartet, Schumann's Piano Quintet and Brahms' Two Songs Op. 91 for voice, viola and piano.

The concert is presented by the New Town Concerts society, full details from the Queen's Hall website.

Daniel Barenboim brought his odyssey of the complete Beethoven sonatas - which he commenced upon in January 2019 at the Philharmonie de Paris - to a majestic and exciting close with a couple of recitals over a three-day period

Daniel Barenboim (Photo Ava du Parc)
Daniel Barenboim (Photo Ava du Parc)
Beethoven piano sonatas; Daniel Barenboim; Philharmonie de Paris
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 19 January 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Daniel Barenboim offered a real treat for aficionados of Beethoven especially in the year in which Paris and the world over is celebrating the 250th anniversary of this great composer’s birth

Twenty-four hours after witnessing the dynamic French-born pianist, François-Frédéric Guy, stunning a full house at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées performing Beethoven’s complete piano concerti with the Orchestre de chambre de Paris [see Tony's review], I ventured over to the 2,400 seater Philharmonie de Paris (which opened in a blaze of glory in 2015) to hear another great master of the keyboard and interpreter of Beethoven, Daniel Barenboim, perform the penultimate recital (19 January 2020) of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas which he commenced upon last year.

The programme comprised No.15 in D major, Op.28; No.3 in C major, Op.2; No.24 in F sharp minor, Op.78; No.30 in E major, Op.109, whilst in his final recital (Tuesday, 21st) which, unfortunately, I couldn’t make, he played No.9 in E major, Op.14, No.1; No.4 in E flat major, Op.7; No.22 in F major, Op.54; No.32 in F minor, Op.111.

It’s most certainly a noteworthy achievement playing all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas (written between 1795 and 1822) in a single cycle. However, the first person to undertake such a marathon task fell to the Dresden-born conductor and virtuosic pianist, Hans von Bülow. He described them as ‘The New Testament’ of piano literature whilst referring to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as ‘The Old Testament’.

Daniel Barenboim, however, is no stranger to the Beethoven cycle and, indeed, no stranger to Wagner’s Ring cycle either which he has conducted on numerous occasions, the latest being Guy Cassiers [see Tony's review] which has just ended its time at the Staatsoper Berlin where Barenboim has been general music director since 1992. However, he has recorded Beethoven’s 32 sonatas for EMI Classics and from a performance point of view has performed it many times in such noted musical capitals of the world as London, Berlin, New York, Prague and Vienna as well as in Buenos Aires where he was born in 1942.

The early sonatas were highly influenced by those of Haydn and Mozart and overall they make up one of the most important collections of works in the history of music. They came to be seen as the first cycle of major piano pieces not only suited for concert-hall performance but also for both private and public performance while forming a bridge between the world of the salon and that of the concert-hall.

After he wrote his first 15 sonatas, Beethoven wrote to his bosom friend, the Czech-born mandolin/violin player, Wenzel Krumpholz, saying: ‘From now on, I’m going to take a new path.’ And Beethoven did just that and, therefore, his sonatas from this period proved totally different from his earlier ones and his experimentation in modifications to the common sonata form of Haydn and Mozart became more daring as did the depth of expression.

Interestingly, most Romantic period sonatas were highly influenced by those of Beethoven whose late sonatas were some of his most difficult pieces and still prove difficult today but in the capable and assured hands of Daniel Barenboim he made short work of them. He’s a master of the keyboard per se.

An innovative and ground-breaking composer in more ways than one, Beethoven discovered a new path to explore in his compositions incorporating, say, fugal techniques while making a radical departure from the conventional sonata form. For example, the Hammerklavier, a work deemed to be Beethoven’s most difficult sonata, was considered unplayable until almost 15 years after its composition when Franz Liszt, a 19th-century pianist of great standing, got to grips with it. And, of course, Daniel Barenboim’s a pianist of great standing today and, from my point of view, he’s also a brilliant conductor, artistic director, mentor, humanist and free-thinker.

Attending a Barenboim recital is a truly special event and coupled with François-Frédéric Guy’s performance - a pianist so different in style and temperament to that of Barenboim - and, indeed, the performance I attended at Norwich’s Assembly House of the Brodsky Quartet playing Beethoven’s 127 quartet - completed in 1825 and the first of the composer’s late quartets - prior to my departure to Paris, it’s been a great start for me apropos the celebrations this year marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. There’s Bonn and Vienna still to come! Cor’ blimey, Mary Poppins!

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Launching the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra's Beethoven Festival with Alfred Brendel, Benjamin Appl and Manon Fischer-Dieskau

Beethoven in 1803, painted by Christian Horneman
Beethoven in 1803, painted by Christian Horneman
Last night (21 January 2020) the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra launched its Beethoven Festival with a reception at the German Ambassador's residence in London hosted by the German Ambassador to St James's, Dr Peter Wittig (who is honorary patron of the orchestra) with guest of honour Alfred Brendel (who is patron of the orchestra). 

We were given a taster of the music to come, baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist Manon Fischer-Dieskau performed Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (a work which they will perform as part of the Beethoven Festival), and violinist Natalia Lomeiko (one of the orchestra's concert masters) and pianist Marios Papadopoulos (music director of the orchestra) performed the first movement of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata.

Before that Alfred Brendel said a few words, though he pointed out that to talk about Beethoven was the most unnecessary thing in the world as his works hardly needed promotion. There was also a discussion between Marios Papadopoulos, Malte Boecker (director of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn) and John Suchet (who in fact curated the orchestra's first Beethoven festival 20 years ago) introducing the Beethoven celebrations both in Oxford and in Bonn. The two cities have been twinned for nearly 70 years and Marios Papadopoulos commented that the twinning was ample reason to indulge in some of the world's greatest music. Malte Boecker also talked about the recent discovery of a letter by Beethoven, written in 1795 to a friend then living in Russia, where he re-iterates many of the concepts which would resonate in his art particularly in the setting of the worlds from Schiller's Ode to Joy.

The Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra's Beethoven Festival is remarkably comprehensive, it starts tomorrow, 23 January 2020 and runs until 13 December 2020. During this time Marios Papadopoulos and the orchestra will be performing all the symphonies and all the piano concertos, with Marios Papadopoulos directing from the piano for the concertos, along with the Triple Concerto with Maxim Vengerov, Mischa Maisky and Sergei Babayan, and the Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter, plus Ah! perfido, the Mass in C Major, Christ on the Mount of Olives and the Choral Fantasy.  Perhaps the only thing missing, as far as I am concerned, is Beethoven's piano version of the Violin Concerto!

There will also be a concert performance of Beethoven's Fidelio with Emma Bell as Leonore and Andrew Staples as Florestan, plus David Shipley, Haegee Lee, Yuriy Yurchuk, Robin Tritschler and the Garsington Opera Chorus.

A piano recital series features Jonathan Biss, John Lill, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Andras Schiff, Paul Lewis, Kit Armstrong, Evgeni Koroliov, Louis Schwizgebel and Oxford Piano Festival alumni in the piano sonatas and Diabelli Variations, with Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich performing Beethoven's four-handed piano version of the Grosse Fuge.

The chamber music series showcases principals from the orchestra in Beethoven's violin and cello sonatas, with quartets from the Takacs Quartet and the Juillard Quartet. Benjamin Appl and Manon Fischer-Dieskau's performance of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte takes place within the context of Jessica Duchen's narrated concert Immortal Beloved, based on her book.

There is also a study weekend and a symposium.

Full details from the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra's website.

Listening with all five senses: Puccini's Gianni Schicchi from Five Senses Music

Puccini's Gianni Schicchi at the work's 1918 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York
Puccini's Gianni Schicchi at the work's 1918 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York
 As you  might expect from the name, Five Senses Music invites the audience to get close enough to the action to explore it with all five senses, to allow for a different kind of contact, a truly physical engagement and meaningful interaction.

Under conductor Tom Seligman ]who conducted Chelsea Opera Group's recent performance of Verdi's Un giorno di regno, see my review], Five Senses Music are presenting a concert performance of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi in the ​St Andrew's Building of the Grey Coat Hospital School, Greycoat Place, London SW1P 2DYon Saturday 25 January 2020 at 6pm. And conductor Tom Seligman will introduce the piece.

The fine young cast includes Andrew Mayor [whom we saw as Rodrigo in Fulham Opera's production of Verdi's Don Carlo, see my review] in the title role, with Lauren Campbell-Lodge and Seumas Begg as the young lovers, James Gribble as the doctor and notary, and Jessica Gillingwater [whom we heard in the BBC Singers performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt, see my review], Adam Maxey [Don Magnifico on British Youth Opera's production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, see my review], Philippa Boyle [Elisabeth in Fulham Opera's Don Carlo], Emma Lewis [Mother Goose in British Youth Opera's production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, see my review], Jerome Knox [Dandini in British Youth Opera's La Cenerentola], Lyndon Green and Stefan Berkieta as the members of the Donati family.

Full details from the Five Senses Music website.

François-Frédéric Guy’s Beethoven piano concerti marathon proved an extraordinary event offering a delighted and informative audience a demonstration of technical prowess at the keyboard

Francois-Frederic Guy (Photo Caroline Doutre)
Francois-Frederic Guy (Photo Caroline Doutre)
Beethoven complete Piano Concertos; François-Frédéric Guy, Orchestre de chambre de Paris; Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 18 January 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
In this extraordinary concert, François-Frédéric Guy performed all of Beethoven’s five piano concerti in one evening to a packed and excited house in the stylised art deco Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth

I first became aware of Parisian-based pianist, François-Frédéric Guy, when he joined the BBC New Generation Artists’ Scheme in 1999 but I immediately got hooked on him after he made his first visit to my home city of Norwich in 2011. Under the auspices of the Norfolk & Norwich Music Club, he performed the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas over a nine-day period.

He quickly returned to Norwich later the same year at short notice to replace an indisposed Radu Lupu and played Debussy’s Preludes, Liszt’s Benediction and Schubert’s penultimate Piano Sonata, D 959. Four years later, he was back in the city - once more at the invitation of the Norfolk & Norwich Music Club - offering a weekend of music for two pianos working alongside his fellow countryman, Geoffrey Couteau, an exceptional and gifted performer.

They played works by Brahms and Mozart but most memorable of all they concluded their weekend with a salutary performance of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, a work that Roger Rowe - former programme director of the Music Club - says that no one who was there will ever forget! 'The 2011-12 season, in fact, turned out to be a vintage one for the Music Club,' enthused Roger, who's now series producer of Norwich Assembly House classical lunchtime concerts. 'During that season we also enjoyed visits from Paul Lewis and the Belcea and Jerusalem string quartets.'

Over the years, therefore, François-Frédéric Guy has grown upon me especially in relation to his interpretation and playing of Beethoven. Therefore, I felt it a great privilege to travel to Paris to hear him on home ground performing his Beethoven marathon of the five piano concerti in one evening. And what an evening it turned out to be. Unforgettable, that’s for sure!


So, on 18 January 2020 at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, François-Frédéric Guy was accompanied by the Orchestre de chambre de Paris in all of Beethoven's Piano Concertos, directing them from the keyboard.

But you can always expect the best from Monsieur Guy and without a shadow of doubt he gave of his best delivering Beethoven in no uncertain terms performing magnificently while conducting the 42-piece Orchestre de chambre de Paris (so confidently led by Deborah Nemtanu) from the keyboard positioned on stage with his back towards the audience thus connecting so intimately with his players whilst offering audience members the chance to witness him at work as (probably) never before.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Voice & piano trio: Tom Poster & Kaleidescope Chamber Collective open Wiltshire Music Centre's 2020 season

Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford on Avon
Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford on Avon
Pianist Tom Poster is the Artist in Residence at the Wiltshire Music Centre (WMC) and Poster will be opening WMC's Spring/Summer 2020 concert season on 24 January 2020 with his Kaleidescope Chamber Collective. Poster, soprano Katharine Dain, violinist Savitri Grier and cellist Laura van der Heijden will be performing a programme which mixes folk-song with the piano trio.  

So there are Beethoven's folk-song arrangements for voice and piano trio (Beethoven never visited the British Isles but he was commissioned to write arrangements of songs by an Edinburgh publisher), Britten folk-songs, RVW's stunning version of The Unquiet Grave (How Cold the Wind Doth Blow) with violin obbligato, and two songs by Amy Beach for soprano and piano trio. There will also be songs by Clara Schumann, as well as Mendelssohn's Piano Trio no. 2 (the finale of which includes the chorale we know as Old Hundredth). The evening ends with Poster's arrangements of Cole Porter songs. 

And if the concert doesn't appeal, then on 1 February, WMC is presenting Sir Scallywag and the Battle of Stinky Bottom, with Ensemble 360 and narrator Polly Ives, based on the book by Gile Andreae with music by Paul Rissmann,

The concert season continues with a piano recital from Benjamin Grosvenor, the City of London Sinfonia and pianist Danny Driver in Beethoven, pianist Steven Osborne in Rachmaninov and Schubert, the Doric String Quartet and the Marmen Quartet in Enescu's Octet for Strings, violinist Alina Ibragimova joins the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for Michael Haydn's Violin Concerto, and Voces 8 perform a programme moving from Renaissance polyphony to contemporary classics. WMC's Young Quartet in Residence is the Marmen Quartet and they will be presenting a Beethoven Festival, 4-7 March, which includes performances of the quartets, lectures and a lecture recital. Many of the concerts are free to the under 25s in an arrangement with the Cavatina Music Trust.

The Wiltshire Music Centre celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018. Founded in Bradford on Avon as a rehearsal space for young musicians, it has developed into a professional concert hall as well as being a community hub, home to many local choirs, orchestras and music groups (over 800 young musicians rehearse there weekly and 60,000 people use the centre each year), as well as a vibrant and varied Creative Learning Programme.

The programme also includes jazz, folk, world music and family concerts. Full details from the Wiltshire Music Centre's website.

Berlioz’s ‘La damnation de Faust’ at the Philharmonie de Paris turned out to be a flaming affair unlike its first Parisian performance in December 1846 that turned out to be a bit of a damp squib

Berlioz by August Prinzhofer, 1845
Berlioz by August Prinzhofer, 1845, the year before
the premiere of La damnation de Faust
Berlioz La damnation de Faust; Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Renaud Delaigue, Karine Deshayes, Paul Groves, Orchestre de Paris, Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris, dir: Lionel Sow, Chœur d’enfants de l’Orchestre de Paris, cond. Tugan Sokhiev; Grande salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 15 January 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The subject of Faust is often referred to as one of the two quintessential myths of western culture, the other being Don Giovanni. The tragic story of this doomed character became an obsession for many of the greatest composers of the 19th century and Berlioz is up there with the best

I’m in league with the devil, it seems! Old Beelzebub has stalked me a few times over the past year. I travelled to Nice for a well-staged production of Gounod’s Faust [see Tony's review] mystically and darkly directed by Nadine Duffaut for Opéra de Nice but, closer to home, I attended a semi-staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress [see Tony's review] at the Aldeburgh Festival featuring a young and enthusiastic cast recruited from Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists’ Programme.

But, like a good ’un, he kept his fangs deep into me and tracked me down on the East Sussex Downs where I witnessed an excellent and innovative staged production of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust at Glyndebourne [see Tony's review] directed by Richard Jones marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death.

And, now, with the New Year - and fresh new souls to prey on - he’s up to his old tricks again and nabbed me in Paris where, sitting comfortably in my seat in the grand surroundings of the Grande salle Pierre Boulez of the Philharmonie de Paris.
At the Philharmonie on 15 January 2020, I attended a marvellous concert performance of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust under the baton of Russian-born conductor, Tugan Sokhiev, with the Orchestre de Paris and soloists Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Renaud Delaigue, Karine Deshayes, and Paul Groves.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Acknowledging a debt to Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver - James MacMillan's Symphony No. 4

Carver Choirbook Adv.MS.5.1.15, fol.135 recto Acknowledgement is made to the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland
The Carver Choirbook,
only source of Carver's Missa Dum Sacrum Mysterium Acknowledgement is made to the
Trustees of the National Library of Scotland
The Kensington Symphony Orchestra, conductor Russell Keable, returns to the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday 23 January 2020 with a performance which gives us a chance to hear James MacMillan's Symphony No. 4. Written in 2015 to celebrate conductor Donald Runnicles' 60th birthday, the symphony was premiered at the BBC Proms that year with Runnicles conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Unlike the composer's three previous symphonies, his fourth is purely abstract, exploring various elements of ritual in music on one continuous movement lasting around 40 minutes. What perhaps gives the symphony its particular flavour is that MacMillan has chosen to acknowledge his debt to the Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver and include parts of Carver's Missa Dum Sacrum Mysterium. Talking about the symphony and his use of Carver's music, MacMillan said ' I love the austerity of his [Carver's] music, but also its complexity. I've incorporated some of his ideas into the structure of the symphony and wound my own music around it'

If you are interested in a compare-and-contrast then the Sixteen have recorded Carver's complete 10-part mass [available from Amazon], whilst Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have recorded MacMillan's Symphony No. 4 [available from Amazon].

The companion work in the concert is Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2, with the UK-based Russian pianist Samson Tsoy.

Full details from the Kensington Symphony Orchestra's website.

From the rare to the popular: Fauré and Poulenc from Bertrand de Billy and the London Philharmonic

Gabriel Fauré painted by John Singer Sargent, 1889
Gabriel Fauré painted by John Singer Sargent in 1889
the year after the premiere of the first version of the Requiem
Poulenc Sept répons des ténèbres & Organ Concerto, Fauré Requiem; Katerina Tretyakova, Stéphane Degout, James O'Donnell, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bertrand de Billy; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A warmly intimate account of Faure's popular choral work contrasted with Poulenc's spiky late masterpiece

What to programme with the Fauré's eternally popular Requiem? For it's concert on Saturday 18 January 2020 at the Southbank Centre, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Bertrand de Billy opted for an all French programme, with Poulenc's Organ Concerto with organist James O'Donnell playing the Royal Festival Hall organ and Poulenc's Sept répons des ténèbres, thus giving the London Philharmonic Choir a chance to shine. The soloists were soprano Katerina Tretyakova and baritone Stéphane Degout.

We started with Poulenc's  Sept répons des ténèbres, written in 1961/62 to a commission from Leonard Bernstein and premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1963 after the composer's death. It is a relatively rarely performed work, perhaps because the style is closer to the Poulenc of the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence than the Poulenc of the Gloria, though the fact that the composer wanted the piece to be performed by a choir of men and boys with a treble soloist probably didn't help either. The music is dark, edgy and full of contrasts, sharp tuttis followed by quiet unaccompanied chorus.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Bach Round-Up: violin, piano, organ, recorder, viol, choral and orchestra by Bach and his cousin Johann Bernard

Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
This month's Bach round-up starts off with the viol consort Phantasm providing an alternative view of the composer with A Well-Tempered Consort, and then we move to the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas, Sei Solo recorded by Thomas Zehetmair. From violin to the keyboard as pianist George Lepauw has recorded Bach's complete 48 for Orchid Classics, whilst organist Manuel Tomadin has recorded a selection of Bach's organ music under the title Harmonic Seasons on the historic Christoph Treutmann organ in Church of St George, Grauhof, Austria for Brilliant Classics. Still in an instrumental mood, recorder player Michala Petri is joined by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and viola da gamba player Hille Perl for the complete flute sonatas on OUR recordings. 

The Baroque collective Solomon's Knot's, known for their performances from memory, make their debut recording on Sony Classical, Christmas in Leipzig which features the original Christmas version Bach's Magnificat plus Christmas music by two of his predecessors in Leipzig. Our final disc is a different Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach's cousin, Johann Bermard Bach whose surviving orchestral suites are played by Thüringer Bach Collegium on Audite.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Creating and performing on equal terms: Able Orchestra makes its North-West debut at the ABO Conference

Able Orchestra in March 2019 (Photo Mark Nelson/Inspire Culture Nottingham/TRCH/Metronome Photographs)
Able Orchestra in March 2019 (Photo Mark Nelson/Inspire Culture Nottingham/TRCH/Metronome Photographs)
Able Orchestra will make its debut appearance in the North West on 29 January 2020 at the BBC Philharmonic Studio, Media City, Salford, in a performance during the Association of British Orchestras 2020 Conference which takes place from 29-31 January in venues across Manchester and Salford.

Formed in 2015 with the ethos that all members can create and perform on equal terms, Able Orchestra is co-produced by Orchestras Live and Inspire Youth Arts and is an inclusive ensemble of professional orchestral musicians, digital artists and young musicians including disabled people who use assistive technology to perform. The ensemble originated as an iPad Orchestra for profoundly disabled students in North Nottinghamshire, but has expanded to bring together diverse young musicians and emerging music leaders with world-class professional artists from a range of music and digital genres

The 29 January performance will include musicians from the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra alongside the core artists and young musicians and digital artists from Fountaindale School, Outwood Academy Portland and the Minster School in Nottinghamshire together with young people from the Seashell Trust in Cheadle Hulme. The concert will feature a new piece specially commissioned from composer Oliver Vibrans.

Building directly from the performance, on the following day (30 January) there will be an ABO Conference discussion chaired by Sarah Derbyshire MBE of Orchestras Live at Hallé St Peter’s, with panellists including composer Oliver Vibrans, in an interactive session sharing their own personal perspectives and ambition for inclusive practice in the music profession.

Further information about the ABO Conference from their website.

European song exploration: Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song reaches the 1840s

Decades - A Century of Song: Volume 4 - Schumann, Dargomyzhshky, Franck, Donizetti, Lindblad, Josephson, Geijer, Mendelssohn; Anush Hovhannisyan, Ida Evelina Ranlöv, Nick Pritchard, Oliver Johnston, Florian Boesch, Alexey Gusev, Samuel Hasselhorn, Malcolm Martineau; Vivat
Decades - A Century of Song: Volume 4 - Schumann, Dargomyzhshky, Franck, Donizetti, Lindblad, Josephson, Geijer, Mendelssohn; Anush Hovhannisyan, Ida Evelina Ranzlöv, Nick Pritchard, Oliver Johnston, Florian Boesch, Alexey Gusev, Samuel Hasselhorn, Malcolm Martineau; Vivat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Malcolm Martineau's song exploration reaches the 1840s, and shows us that there was much more to European song than simply Schumann

Pianist Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song on Vivat reaches the 1840s with Liederkreis where he is joined by singers Anush Hovhannisyan (soprano), Ida Evelina Ranzlöv (mezzo-soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Oliver Johnston (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone), Alexey Gusev (baritone) and Samuel Hasselhorn (baritone) for a selection of songs from the decade by Robert Schumann, Alexander Sergeyevich Dargomyzhshky, Gaetano Donizetti, Adolf Fredrick Lindblad, Jacob Axel Josephson, Erik Gustav Geijer, and Felix Mendelssohn.

The problem with any selection of song from the 1840s is how to represent Schumann's great outpouring of song from 1840 (hundreds of songs from that year alone) whilst giving us a flavour of what else was going on. Whilst the German lied remained in prime position for its sheer complexity in terms of both poetry and music, its influence was such that other composers were writing music which moved away from the simple strophic song. So on this disc, alongside mature Schumann setting Heine and Mendelssohn, we have music from Russia, Sweden, France and Italy.

The recital starts with Schumann's Liederkreis, Op.24, his setting of nine songs from Heinrich Heine's 1827 Buch der Lieder. It was Schumann's first Heine cycle, and he deliberately called it a Liederkreis as the group of songs has only the vaguest of narratives, a poetic musing on love's ardour, despair and a final metamorphosis into art. Schumann takes Heine at face value, this is ardent romantic music, and we hear none of the irony in Heine's verse.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Intimate Voices

Ainola, the home of Jean Sibelius in Järvenpää, Finland
Ainola, the home of Jean Sibelius in Järvenpää, Finland
Jean Sibelius is one of those composers whom we think we know, but whose work extends into far darker, more complex areas than is readily apparent in some of his more popular works. This is a composer who suddenly stopped composing at the height of his powers, and burned the manuscript of the symphony that he was sketching, remaining silent for 30 years.

For the Orchestra of the Swan's forthcoming concert at Stratford Playhouse on 21 January 2020, conductor Tom Hammond has curated a programme which explores the wider regions of Sibelius' imagination, combining performances of The Swan of Tuonela (from the Lemminkäinen Suite), a suite from his incidental music to The Tempest, Humoreskes for violin and orchestra (with violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen) and Symphony No. 7, with readings from his letters. Symphony No. 7 and The Tempest are two of the last works that Sibelius, before his silence.

Entitled, Intimate Voices, the programme provides audiences with the opportunity to hear some of Sibelius' lesser known works, and also to explore the composer's complex musical imagination.

Full details from the Orchestra of the Swan
's website.

An engaging Baroque recital from City Music Foundation artist, Anna Cavaliero

Anna Cavaliero
Anna Cavaliero
Monteverdi, Handel, Strozzi; Anna Cavaliero, William Cole; City Music Foundation at church of St Bartholomew the Less
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An engagingly imaginative Baroque recital from British-Hungarian soprano Anna Cavaliero as part of the CMF Presents... season

British-Hungarian soprano Anna Cavaliero is one of this year's City Music Foundation Artists and at the CMF Presents... recital on 15 January 2020 at the church of St Bartholomew-the-Less, Smithfield in London, Cavaliero accompanied on the harpsichord by William Cole, gave a recital of baroque arias and cantatas, including excerpts from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea and L'Orfeo, Handel's Theodora and Partenope, plus a complete performance of Handel's La Lucrezia, Barbara Strozzi's L'Eraclito amoroso and an aria from Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre's Semele.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

From rare Donizetti to Rosina Storchio: 50 years of Opera Rara

Rosina Storchio
Rosina Storchio
This season, Opera Rara is celebrating its 50th anniversary and to kick the celebrations off soprano Ermonela Jaho, accompanied by pianist Steven Maughan, is presenting An Evening with Rosina Storchio at Wigmore Hall on 2 February 2020 performing music championed by the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio, who created the title roles in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Leoncavallo’s Zazà [a role Jaho recorded for Opera Rara, see my review] and Mascagni’s Lodoletta. Jaho will present salon pieces of the period, including songs by Bellini, Verdi, Toscanini and Tosti, and excerpts from some of Storchio’s most famous operatic roles.

Opera Rara was founded in 1970 by Patric Schmid and Don White to bring back the forgotten operatic repertoire of the 19th century. Early revivals, in concert performances, included Meyerbeer's last Italian opera Il crociato in Egitto and Donizetti's Maria Padilla. The company's first official disc (the earlier performances also appeared on pirate editions) was Donizetti's Ugo, conte di Parigi issued in 1977. Casts for the recordings have always been impressive with singers such as Janet Price, Yvonne Kenny, Della Jones, Christian du Plessis, Renée Fleming, Jennifer Larmore, Joyce El-Khoury, Angela Meade, Nelly Miricioiu, Vesselina Kasarova, Chris Merritt, Marco Lazzara, Mark Stone, James Westman, Bruce Ford, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Patrizia Ciofi, Carmen Giannattasio, Jose Bros, Joyce El-Khoury, Michael Spyres, Sarah Connolly, Albina Shagimuratova and many more working with the company.

Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida - David Junghoon Kim, Joyce El-Khoury 2018 (c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Donizetti: L'Ange de Nisida at the Royal Opera House in 2018- David Junghoon Kim, Joyce El-Khoury
2018 (c) ROH and Opera Rara. Photo by Russell Duncan
Though some Offenbach operettas were issued, the company's early focus was on Italian opera of the bel canto era with the operas of Donizetti being, and continuing to be, a particular focus. Last year, under Artistic Director Sir Mark Elder, Opera Rara reached its 25th Donizetti opera with the world première of L’Ange de Nisida, made in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden [see my review]. Donizetti wrote over 70 operas, so there is still some way to go before reaching anything like completeness!

Other composers documented include Meyerbeer, Opera Rara's recordings of his Italian operas have been a valuable addition to the repertoire, as well as lesser known but no less deserving composers such as Pacini, Mercadante, Paer, Ricci and Mayr, as well as many of Rossini's opera seria, plus more recently Gounod, further Offenbach and Leoncavallo. The company took over the BBC's live recordings of Verdi's lesser known original versions operas better known in revised form, including the 1847 version of Macbeth, the 1857 of Simon Boccanegra, Les Vepres Siciliennes, La forza del destino and the original 1867 French version of Don Carlos complete with ballet music! In recent years the company's repertoire has expanded into Verismo with Leoncavallo's Zaza and Puccini's first version of Les Willis [see my review].

It is thanks to the company's championing of such repertoire that the record buying public has been able to widen its taste and understand that early 19th century Italian opera has much to love beyond that same hackneyed six operas. In 2011, Sir Mark Elder took over as artistic director and in 2019 it was announced that Carlo Rizzi would take up the position.
Opera Rara & Britten Sinfonia at Barbican Hall – Mark Elder and soloists after performing Donizetti’s Il Paria (Photo JS Henderson)
Opera Rara & Britten Sinfonia at Barbican Hall – Mark Elder & soloists after performing Donizetti’s Il Paria - 2019
(Photo JS Henderson)

Rizzi, who previously recorded two bel canto recital discs with Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres for Opera Rara [see my review], will mark the beginning of his tenure with the June 2020 recording and Barbican concert performance of Donizetti's Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo. Before that, Spring 2020 sees the release of Elder’s latest recording for Opera Rara, Donizetti’s Il Paria, starring another of the company’s close collaborators, Albina Shagimuratova. The Russian soprano also stars in Opera Rara’s Semiramide [see my review], which was recently named best opera recording at the 2019 International Opera Awards, International Classical Music Awards and Opus Klassik Awards.

Further ahead, Mark Elder will be recording Verdi's original 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra, Carlo Rizzi will record another rare Leoncavallo opera Zingari, Halevy's Guido e Ginevra in a new critical edition with a cast including tenor Michael Spyres, and Offenbach's La Princesse de Trebizond.

The company's work involves not just presenting and recording operas, but creating new editions of them as well such as the important work re-constructing Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida (whose score was lost when the composer cannibalised it for La favourite). See my interview with Opera Rara's CEO Henry Little for more details of this important work.

Notable debut: the Armenian State Symphony orchestra's first Barbican appearance gave us music from Armenia alongside Bruch and Ravel with the orchestra's artist in residence, Maxim Vengerov

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra (Photo Lusine Sargsyan)
Armenian State Symphony Orchestra (Photo Lusine Sargsyan)
Alexey Shor, John Ter-Tatevosian, Max Bruch, Maurice Ravel; Maxim Vengerov, Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, Sergey Smbatyan; Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
On a rare visit to the UK, the Armenian orchestra brings a programme mixing popular classics with rarer Armenian classical repertoire and a new work by the orchestra's composer in residence

The Armenian State Symphony Orchestra made its Barbican debut on Tuesday 14 January 2020, as part of a European concert tour supported by the European Foundation for Support of Culture, visiting Germany, Austria, the UK, the Czech Republic and Russia. Conducted by Sergey Smbatyan, the orchestra was joined by its artist in residence, violinist Maxim Vengerov, for St. Elmo Barcarolle by Alexey Shor, Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26 and Maurice Ravel'sTzigane, and we also heard the UK premiere of Armenian composer John Ter-Tatevosian's 1959 Symphony No. 2 'The Fate of Man'.

The  Armenian State Symphony Orchestra is quite a young ensemble, it was founded in 2005 by Sergey Smbatyan who remains the artistic director and principal conductor. In fact, Smbatyan was only 18 when he founded the orchestra, as the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia, and it has developed into one of the leading orchestras in Armenia. The personnel of the orchestra remain relatively young too, with a very high percentage of women on stage at the Barbican. The orchestra gives over 50 concerts per year, with a repertoire which mixes Western classical music with contemporary composers and Armenian composers, including the Armenian Composers Arts Festival and the Khachaturian International Festival.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Kurt Schwertsik and Stephen Barlow: percussionist Colin Currie joins the Northern Chamber Orchestra

Colin Currie (Photo Linda Nylind)
Colin Currie (Photo Linda Nylind)
Scottish percussionist Colin Currie will be joining the Northern Chamber Orchestra at its next concert at the Stoller Hall, Manchester on 17 January 2020. Conducted by Stephen Barlow, Currie and the NCO will be performing Viennese composer Kurt Schwertsik's Now you hear me, now you don't, and Stephen Barlow's own Nocturnal (also with NCO's principal clarinet Elizabeth Jordan). The programme is completed with music by Grieg, Delius and Dvorak.

Stephen Barlow has a long-standing relationship with the NCO as he was the artistic director of the Buxton Festival from 2011 to 2018 where the NCO was in residence, so Barlow frequently conducted them in the pit of Buxton Opera House.

Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik (born 1935) studied with Stockhausen, but rejected serialism in favour of new forms of tonality. Drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Eric Satie and the Dadaist movement, Schwertsik's mercurial music is characterised by a lightness of touch, sense of irony and even humour. His Now you hear me, now you don't for marimba and strings was premiered in 2009 with Currie performing with the Scottish Ensemble.

Full details of the Northern Chamber Orchestra's concert from their website.

An anarchic approach to the every day: Bastard Assignments debut album

Bastard Assignments
Bastard Assignments; Bastard Assignments (Caitlin Rowley, Timothy Cape, Edward Henderson, Josh Spear)
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 January 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The composer/performer group brings their trade-mark anarchic approach to disc in typically thoughtful manner

The composer/performer group Bastard Assignments (Edward Henderson, Josh Spear, Timothy Cape and Caitlin Rowley) has released its first album, titled quite appropriately Bastard Assignments, which features five pieces performed by members of the group, Caitlin Rowley's dot drip line line 8918: EDGE, the group piece PrEP, Timothy Cape's Enya, Do You Need a Tambourine Player, I'm Pretty Good, Edward Henderson's Hold and Josh Spear's Comedown. The disc gives those who have had no possibility of seeing one of the collective's live shows to a chance to come to know and appreciate the group's particular anarchic brand of music theatre.

Bastard Assignments is a composer/performer group which was formed at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2011 (where all four trained). We first saw them live in 2015 at Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival and have caught a number of their live programmes since then, most recently at Mountview in Peckham last year [see my review] in a show which showcased material developed during the group's residency at Snape Maltings where this album was developed and recorded.

Bastard Assignments performances tend to be highly visual events, with the musical element shading into theatre and creating a sometimes complex music theatre. Their material is often the stuff of every day life, I still vividly remember a solo piece from Caitlin Rowley, Thing I Found in Boxes: Opening, which, deceptively simple, involved her opening a cardboard box full of screwed up paper, and was inspired by her recent experiences in real-life packing. Yet the result was a carefully calibrated audio piece using the percussive qualities available, ranging from the sound of a hand running over corrugated paper, to cutting paper and screwing it up.  And there is often reference to pop culture too, I was very much aware at the Mountview show that we did not 'get' all the popular references in the pieces.

What intrigued me about this debut album was quite how the group's brand of highly visual music theatre would transfer to disc. In fact, the repertoire has been chosen carefully, and one or two of the highly visual pieces showcased last year are not here, instead we have works which have a strong audio component. Though with a work like PrEP we have to imagine the four performers' devastatingly deadpan performance style which produced humour thanks to the contrast with the highly anarchic performance material.

Jack Liebeck: Émile Sauret Professor of Violin, and Australian Festival of Chamber Music

Jack Liebeck (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Jack Liebeck (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
The violinist Jack Liebeck has been named as Émile Sauret Professor of Violin at the Royal Academy of Music. Liebeck will be the first such, as the role was created especially for him. Liebeck studied at the Academy and was already teaching there, and in his new role as a named professor he will not only be involved in teaching but will act as an ambassador for the college. 

Jack Liebeck commented, “I am extremely honoured to take up the position as the Émile Sauret Professor of Violin at the Royal Academy of Music. The role enables me to develop my teaching, about which I am passionate, but also to make links worldwide as an ambassador, attracting the very finest young musicians to study at the Academy, just as I did 25 years ago.” 

French violinist and composer Émile Sauret (1852-1920) taught at the Academy and was a notable pedagogue.

In other news, it has been announced that Liebeck will take over as artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in 2020. Based in Townsville, North Queensland, the festival was founded in 1991 and the current artistic director is pianist Kathryn Stott.

Monday, 13 January 2020

End of an Era: Michael Volpe to step down as General Director of Opera Holland Park

Michael Volpe
Michael Volpe
After 31 years at the company, Michael Volpe will be stepping down as general director of Opera Holland Park at the end of September 2020. Opera Holland Park today is very much Michael Volpe's creation, the result of his 20-year partnership with James Clutton, director of opera. The company has become known for its explorations of the further reaches of 20th century Italian opera and the Verismo repertoire, and it has given some notable performances and premieres include Wolf Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna (one of the company's biggest undertakings) and Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re. But the main repertoire has not been neglected with, in recent years, everything from Mozart to Richard Strauss to Verdi.

On 1 October 2020, following Michael’s retirement, James Clutton will be appointed Chief Executive and Director of Opera of Opera Holland Park with overall responsibility for the company. A Deputy Chief Executive will be recruited in the coming months.

This year Opera Holland Park celebrates a highly successful five years as an independent charity, the theatre originally having been owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. As such, it is an apposite moment to take stock. This year's Opera Holland Park season opens on 2 June 2020 with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and continues with Verdi's Rigoletto, Lehar's The Merry Widow, a double bill of Delius' Margot le Rouge and Puccini's Le Villi, and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance presented by Charles Court Opera. Full details from the Opera Holland Park website.

We wish Michael well on his early retirement and look forward to the next chapter in Opera Holland Park's history. But opera world will not be quite the same.

Bach to the Beatles: Miloš on tour

Miloš - (Photo Melanie Gomez Photography)
Miloš - (Photo Melanie Gomez Photography)
The classical guitarist Miloš is currently embarking on a solo recital tour, taking in venues from Manchester to London, performing at the Stoller Hall, Manchester on 15 January 2020 and ending the tour at the Wigmore Hall on 25 January, taking in Malvern (17/1), Stoke-on-Trent (18/1), Birmingham (21/1) and Perth (23/1) in between. 

The programme starts with Bach's Lute Suite, BWV997,  a work which commentators are in some disagreement about as it may have been intended for a keyboard type instrument. The programme continues with two of Granados' Danzas españolas, Albéniz's Asturias and Villa Lobos' Five Preludes. The Granados and Albéniz are arrangements of piano pieces (all from the 1890s) as frustratingly for guitarists these two Spanish composers wrote little or nothing for the guitar. Miloš will also be performing a group of Beatles arrangements to complete the programme.

Born Miloš Karadaglic in Montenegro, Miloš has become a major force in the classical guitar; he premiered Joby Talbot's guitar concerto ink Dark Moon at the BBC Proms in 2018 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and he will be returning to the concerto during the 2019/20 season. Though his career has not been without setbacks, and a hand injury in forced him to stop playing during the 2017/18 season.

Full details from Miloš' website.

Songs from the Soil - Theatre of Voices launches Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped season

Songs from the Soil - Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, Christopher Bowers Broadbent - Kings Place (Photo Viktor Erik Emanuel/Kings Place)
Songs from the Soil - Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, Christopher Bowers Broadbent - Kings Place
(Photo Viktor Erik Emanuel/Kings Place)
Arvo Pärt, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Michael Gordon; Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 January 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
King Place's Nature Unwrapped launched by Theatre of Voices with a trio of striking contemporary works

Having Unwrapped Venus in spectacular fashion during 2019, providing a remarkable amount of striking music by women, Kings Place launched its 2020 series, Nature Unwrapped on Saturday 11 January 2020 with a concert from the iconic Theatre of Voices, conducted by its founder Paul Hillier, featuring music by Arvo Pärt as accompaniment to Phie Ambo’s film, Songs from the Soil, Jóhann Jóhannsson's Orphic Hymn and the UK premiere of Michael Gordon's A Western.

Before the concert started there was a chance to further explore Theatre of Voices' work with film maker Phie Ambo, as there was a screening of Ambo's poetic film Good Things Await, exploring a bio-dynamic farm in Denmark and using music by Jóhann Jóhannsson on the sound-track, performed by Theatre of Voices. And as we entered Hall One for the concert there was a further layer to the presentation in that a sound installation by Chris Watson, No Man's Land, which was based on a recording of the incoming tide on The Wash; one of a number of installations commissioned by Kings Place from Watson for this year.

Theatre of Voices consisted of six voices (Else Turp & Kate Macoboy sopranos, Laura Lamph alto, Paul Bentley-Angell & Jakob Skjoldborg tenors, William Gaunt bass) with organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, conducted by Paul Hillier.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Strong revival: a well-balanced cast bring a sense of enjoyment to Richard Jones' highly theatrical production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House

Puccini: La Bohème - Charles Castronovo, Simona Mihai - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini: La Bohème - Charles Castronovo, Simona Mihai - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini La Bohème; Simona Mihai, Charles Castronovo, Aida Garifullina, Andrzej Filonczyk, Peter Kellner, Gyula Nagy, dir: Richard Jones/Julia Burbach, cond: Emmanuel Villaume; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 January 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A strong, moving and funny revival of Jones' highly theatrical production

Puccini: La Bohème - Aida Garifullina, Andrzej Filonczyk - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini: La Bohème - Aida Garifullina, Andrzej Filonczyk
Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Richard Jones' production of Puccini's La Bohème is back at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden after its debut in 2017/18. The opening night, 10 January 2020, featured the first of two casts though soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who was due to sing Mimì, had to drop out owing to illness, and she was replaced at short notice by Simona Mihai who had sung the role in the original run and is due to sing Musetta later in this run. Emmanuel Villaume conducted, with Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo (who sang the role in the production during 2017/18), Andrzej Filonczyk as Marcello, Peter Kellner as Colline, Gyula Nagy as Schaunard and Aida Garifullina (making her Royal Opera debut) as Musetta. The revival was directed by Julia Burbach.

Jones' production replaced the Royal Opera's longest running production, John Copley's 1974 La Bohème with supra-realistic designs from Julia Trevelyan Oman. A much beloved production, frequently revived, which was launched with a cast including Katia Ricciarelli and Placido Domingo, and whose final revival (supervised by Copley himself) included Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja, with some performances conducted by Placido Domingo. Some of Jones' decisions around his new production should perhaps be seen in the light of having to replace this production.

One question which hangs over La Bohème, perhaps surprisingly, is 'who are these people?'. Puccini specifies that the opera is set in Paris in the 1830s, when the original Henri Murger stories were set, but are they? Are the young men students, or are they men simply living the Bohemian life, as happened at the period? In other words, role-playing the life of a struggling artist. Perhaps the characters are denizens of the Paris of 1890, when Puccini wrote the opera, a city divided from the city of Murger by the huge urban renewal of Baron Haussmann. Puccini is rumoured to have based some of the men's antics on the japes that he and his friends got up to when he was studying in Milan, and some of Puccini's friends claimed that they were the originals of the young men, as Puccini had a Bohemian club in a local tavern whilst he was writing the opera. And don't forget that the young Puccini was taken under the wing by a group of older Italian artists who had all been members of the Scapigliatura (literally unkempt or dishevelled), the Italian artistic movement which was the equivalent of French bohemianism.

Modern directors often side-step these issues by setting the opera somewhere in the 20th century, but Jones addresses it head on by adding a theatrical element to his production. Whilst the costumes and set details are all clearly 1890s, he and designer Stewart Laing provide a great deal of evidence of the theatrical mechanism: no drop curtains, clear and obvious scene changes, visible lights and snow machine, stage hands moving the scenery. Jones also strips back some of the detail. Whilst Act Two is a dazzling whirl of theatrical daring, all vivid action and moving scenery, Acts One and Three take place in a bright attic space. There is no dark when Mimì and Rodolfo's candles go out, there is no shaft of romantic moonlight for 'O soave fanciulla'. Instead, Jones leaves space for the singers and the production relies on the relations between the singers, and the characters they create. Some of the action is naturalistic, but often the four young men, Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard act as a sort of chorus. It could be stagey and artificial, but much depends on the singers creating the roles.

Puccini: La Bohème - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Puccini: La Bohème (Act One) - Royal Opera ((C) ROH 2020. Photo by Tristram Kenton)
Thankfully, for this revival the Royal Opera had put together a strong and very balanced cast, with Simona Mihai displaying little, if any, sign of having been parachuted in at the last minute.

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