Monday 27 July 2020

Towards German romantic opera: Carl Maria von Weber's struggle to create modern German opera

Weber: Der_Freischütz -  Design for the Wolf's Glen scene - Weimar, 1822
Weber: Der_Freischütz -  Design for the Wolf's Glen scene - Weimar, 1822
The operas of Carl Maria von Weber remain something of problem, despite being highly important and significant in the development of German music, the works themselves are often much misunderstood and valued more for their influence on later composers like Richard Wagner than for their own sake. Outside German-speaking areas, performances of Weber's masterpiece Der Freischütz are relatively rare and even in German-speaking areas it can be unusual, when Vienna State Opera performed a new production of Der Freischütz in 2019 it was the first time the opera had been performed there in over 20 years. And Weber's other two major operas, Euryanthe and Oberon remain little more than misunderstood curiosities.

Carl Maria von Weber was born in 1786, five years before his cousin Mozart's final German opera, Die Zauberflote was premiered, and Weber would not yet be twenty when Beethoven's only opera, Leonore, premiered in 1805; these were the giants of German opera. Carl Maria, studying in Vienna with Abbé Vogler would discover a commonality with one of Vogler's other pupils, the slightly younger Jakob Meyer Beer (born 1793) who, as Giacomo Meyerbeer, would revolutionise French opera.

The Secret Garden concerts

The venue for London Concertante's Secret Garden concerts
The venue for London Concertante's Secret Garden concerts
The chamber ensemble London Concertante has launched Secret Garden Concerts, a new socially distanced concert series, five out-door performances hosted in a private garden in Streatham Hill, SW16. The ensemble, artistic director Chris Grist, will be presenting concerts on Sundays in August commencing 2 August 2020, with musicians including The David Gordon Trio, The Camarilla Ensemble, London Concertante’s Guest Director Jonathan Stone, harpsichordist David Wright and of course London Concertante itself as well as many more.

Founded in 1991, London Concertante has for many years given a regular concert series at St Martin in the Fields, so that like a number of other organisations it has been hit not only by lockdown, but by St Martin's decision to stop all concerts given by outside promoters.

The solution was for the artistic director of the ensemble, cellist Chris Grist, to open up his garden in Streatham Hill to provide an intimate outdoor venue for concerts. The programmes will feature wine and food, as well as live music which includes Mozart and Mendelssohn quintets, jazz, Bach, Handel and Corelli, Mozart, Bizet, Dvorak, Arnold and Gershwin, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

Full details from the Secret Garden website.

Temple Music Live On-Line launches with Julius Drake and Friends

Temple Music Live On-Line
Temple Music Live Online launches tomorrow, 28 July 2020, live concerts streamed free from the Temple Church and presented by the Temple Music Foundation which usually presents concerts in and around the Temple, including Temple Song, artistic director Julius Drake.

For the first on-line concert, Julius Drake and Friends on Tuesday 28 July at 7pm, Julius Drake (piano) is joined by Priya Mitchell violin, Sascha Bota viola, Brian O’Kane cello, Steven Williams double bass for Beethoven's Allegretto in B flat for piano trio and Schubert's Trout Quintet. Then on 25 August, pianist Imogen Cooper performs Schubert's Moments Musicaux, Ravel's Jeu d'Eaux, Sonatine and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.

Full details from the Temple Music Foundation website.

Update: Imogen Cooper's concert has had to be put back to 25 August.

Sunday 26 July 2020

The Wreckers & Euryanthe from Fisher Centre, Summerscape at Bard College, City Music Foundation Young Artists

Ethel Smyth: The Wreckers - USA premiere at SummerScape 2015
Ethel Smyth: The Wreckers - USA premiere at SummerScape 2015
There are certain significant operas that get dusted off once per generation, everybody says how terrible the libretto is and the work is put back on the shelf again. The perceived awfulness of the libretto being a comfortable excuse for not examining the work in detail. Sometimes, of course, the libretto is truly awful and I have never yet seen an entirely satisfactory performance of Emmanuel Chabrier's Le roi malgre lui, but I keep hoping. Yet that composer's operette L'etoile makes a salutary lesson, written as entertainment for Offenbach's theatre with its tiny orchestra, the work is intended to be fluff and if you don't take the work seriously (even comedy has to be taken seriously), or if you try to make it something that it is not, then it fails. L'etoile is a work where small-scale performances on a budget often work, but the last large scale one we saw, at Covent Garden, firmly threw the baby out with the bath water.

The two operas that we saw on-line this week, Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers and Weber's Euryanthe, are both problem operas. Both are from the SummerScape festival which happens every Summer at the Fisher Center at Bard College in the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York. The center's website has an admirable streaming page full of rarities which the festival has performed.

Live music returns: Opera Holland Park's uplifting evening of operatic arias from an impressive line-up of performers

The cast and crew from Opera Holland Park's concert on 25 July 2020 (Photo Kathy Lette)
The cast and crew from Opera Holland Park's concert on 25 July 2020 (Photo Kathy Lette)
It wasn't the season opening that had been planned (the 2020 season at Opera Holland Park was due to open with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin on 2 June 2020), and there were times during the last few months when it seemed as if there would be no Opera Holland Park 2020 season, but on Saturday 25 July 2020, opera returned to Holland Park. The company presented an evening of operatic arias, sung against the back-drop of the ruins of Holland House, but without the usual temporary theatre and with the audience sitting on chairs in the open air. There was reduced audience capacity, social distancing and other measures in place, but for us and for many in the audience, this was our first live music since the beginning of March.

An impressive line up of singers gave us 90 minutes of opera arias and duets, with a nod towards last year's Opera Holland Park season (Yvonne Howard sang the powerful 'Esser madre è un inferno' from Francesco Cilea's L'arlesiana), and with some artists giving us samples of roles they were due to be performing this year. Matthew Kofi Waldren conducted nine string players from the City of London Sinfonia, and they were joined by sopranos Lauren Fagan, Kiandra Howarth, Alison Langer, Anna Patalong, Natalya Romaniw, and Nardus Williams, mezzo-soprano Clare Presland, tenors David Butt Philip and Samuel Sakker, baritone Ross Ramgobin and bass Blaise Malaba.

Saturday 25 July 2020

Creating new opera under lockdown: I chat to composer Alex Woolf about A Feast in the Time of Plague, his new opera with Sir David Pountney to be premiered by Grange Park Opera

Alex Woolf (Photo © ORA Singers)
Alex Woolf (Photo © ORA Singers)
As for many of us, the last few months have been an interesting time for composer Alex Woolf. Rehearsals for his first opera, Pandora's Box, were suspended in March just two days before the dress rehearsal, and by June he was hard at work on a new opera, A Feast in the Time of Plague, to a libretto by Sir David Pountney written specifically during lockdown, which is to be premiered by Grange Park Opera.

Having lost its original 2020 season and created an on-line Found Season, Grange Park Opera and artistic director Wasfi Kani have continued to create art out of lockdown. In September the company will premiere A Feast in the Time of Plague under socially distanced conditions at Grange Park Opera's Surrey base. I chatted to composer Alex Woolf, via Zoom, about creating an opera under lockdown.

The new opera, which is around 90 minutes long, has been created in what Alex describes as a frighteningly short time. Pountney started writing the libretto during lockdown, being at something of a loose end. He wrote the libretto on spec, inspired by Alexander Pushkin's short play A Feast in the Time of Plague, and then sent it to Wasfi Kani who decided to produce the opera and set about first finding a composer, and approached Alex, and then set about finding a cast. Alex received the libretto at the beginning of June, and admits that he rather relished the challenge of creating the piece so quickly. He had an initial phone call with Wasfi Kani, saw the libretto and then started writing the opera within days.

Friday 24 July 2020

A reverberation of those years spent alone in my studio: Kemal Yusuf's The Key-Crack Chronicles

Kemal Yusuf
Kemal Yusuf
We first covered the work of composer Kemal Yusuf (British of Turkish descent) back in 2017 when Tony wrote about the premiere of Yusuf's first work for string quartet, performed by the Carducci Quartet at the Norfolk and Norwich Chamber Music Festival [see Tony's review]. A year before that, after completing a major orchestra commission, Kemal decided to strip things down and started improvising at the piano, and recording the improvisations. He now has around 700 of these recordings!

Kemal has produced a new album, Key-Crack Chronicles, which he describes as 'taking inspiration from the sonority of those many, many tracks. This album is a reverberation of those years spent alone in my studio. An echo of years of improvised playing. The album takes its' name from the wear and tear of my piano over the years. The keys are cracked, the strings all loose and the stool is sinking. This was not a gentle experience'. He is planning an album tour, which will be similarly improvised.

A track from the album, Bother my soul is now on Spotify, and on Soundcloud (below):

Zest and relish: Handel's comic masterpiece Semele directed by John Eliot Gardiner with young cast enjoying every minute

Handel Semele; Louise Alder, Hugo Hymas, Lucile Richardot, Gianluca Buratto, Carlo Vistoli, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner; SDG
Handel Semele; Louise Alder, Hugo Hymas, Lucile Richardot, Gianluca Buratto, Carlo Vistoli, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner; SDG

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 July 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Based on a live performance at Alexandra Palace, Handel's comic masterpiece is presented here in quite a full version combining great zest and character with technical bravura from John Eliot Gardiner and his young cast

In 1741, Handel stopped presenting Italian operas in London and, feeling rather off with the London scene entirely, accepted an invitation to perform in Dublin (where Messiah was premiered). Whilst Handel was away, Thomas Arne presented a double bill at Covent Garden, Handel's Alexander's Feast and his own new setting of Congreve's libretto The Judgement of Paris (which was originally written for an English opera competition 40 year earlier, see my article The Invention of English Opera).

Handel would have known about the performances, and someone in Handel's circle seems to have pointed out to the composer that Congreve wrote other librettos, his text for Semele was published in 1710. This had been written for John Eccles (who had taken part in The Judgement of Paris competition), but Semele had never come to the operatic stage, falling foul of the complex theatrical politics of the day and the changing tastes of the theatre-going public.

Handel: Semele - John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists, Louise Alder - Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome
Handel: Semele - John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists, Louise Alder
Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome
In 1744, Handel organised his own subscription series at Covent Garden, working for himself rather than another promoter. Handel's tastes had always been rather more varied than those of his aristocratic clients, and his supporters in England had often urged him towards more English opera. Eccles' Semele was the last flowering of the brief early run of English opera, Blow's Venus and Adonis, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Eccles' two pieces, and Handel had nodded to this tradition in his masque Acis and Galatea in 1718. Here, and in other works, Handel had shown how he could take the English, Purcellian tradition and present his own take on it.

Perhaps he considered that the experiment of Semele might come to be the start of a tradition of his own English operas. It is an intriguing thought, but it was not to be; Handel's Semele did not go down well and was never repeated.

John Eliot Gardiner first recorded Handel's Semele some 40 years ago, with Norma Burrowes in the title role. Last year, he returned to the work and presented it in semi-staged performances on tour. His recording on SDG, made live last year at Alexandra Palace Theatre, features Louise Alder as Semele, Hugo Hymas as Jupiter, Lucile Richardot as Juno and Ino (a doubling that Handel seems to have intended), Carlo Vistoli as Athamas, Gianluca Buratto as Cadmus and Somnus (again, Handel doubled these roles in his performances), Emily Owen as Iris, Angela Hicks as Cupid, Peter Davoren as Apollo, Angharad Rowlands as Augur and Dan D'Souza as the High Priest, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Emily Owen, Angela Hicks, Peter Davoren and Angharad Rowlands are all members of the Monteverdi Choir. The piece was staged by Thomas Guthrie [see my recent interview with Thomas].

Antipodeans in London: four alumni of Covent Garden's Jette Parker programme in recital from Australia House

Samuel Sakker, Lauren Fagan, Filipe Manu, Kiandra Howarth, Sergei Rybin
Four alumni of Covent Garden's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme are coming together for a recital from Australia House in London, to be broadcast on the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall website on 4 August 2020, with the support of the Tait Memorial Trust. Sopranos Kiandra Howarth and Lauren Fagan, tenors Samuel Sakker and Filipe Manu (three Australians and a New Zealander of Tongan descent) will be accompanied by pianist Sergei Rybin in a programme of songs by Debussy, Strauss, Rachmaninov, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Bellini, Poulenc and Respighi.

Kiandra Howarth won the second Grange Festival International Singing competition in 2019 [see my article], and you can also catch her in Respighi with Sergei Rybin recorded in the Crush Room at Covent Garden [Facebook]. Tenor, Samuel Sakker took second prize in the inaugural Grange Festival competition in 2017 [see my article] and he was Federico in Opera Holland Park's 2019 production of Cilea's L'Arlesiana [see my review]. Lauren Fagan was a great hit in the title role of Verdi's La traviata at Opera Holland Park in 2018 [see my review], and we saw Filipe Manu as Ramiro in Rossini's La Cenerentola at West Green Opera last year [see my review]. Sergei Rybin's work as a pianist includes a lovely disc of Rimsky Korsakov's neglected Romances with Anush Hovhannisyan and Yuri Yurchuk [see my review].

Their recital is being broadcast on Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on 4 August 2020 at 8.30pm AEST (which I think is 11.30am UK time), further details from the website.

Thursday 23 July 2020

Media Vita reconsidered: Alamire's fine new recording takes advantage of the latest research into the structure of Sheppard's great antiphon

John Sheppard Media vita; Alamire, David Skinner; Inventa
John Sheppard Media vita; Alamire, David Skinner; Inventa

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Sheppard's great Antiphon given a new structure in the light of recent research into the liturgical structure of the work

Different eras have focused on different aspects of the church's liturgy for large-scale musical contributions, sometimes responding to fashion and sometimes to the church's own changes of focus. In Tudor England, the structural possibilities of Responds and Antiphons seemed to attract composers, in these the liturgy's use of repetition seemed to hold interest in the way larger-scale structural pieces could be created from components. Many singers are familiar with the challenge, two or three pages of music, polyphony and plainchant, marked up with labels, A, B, C etc, and a rubric at the end with a rather complex series of instructions about repeating different sections. The liturgical raison d'être for these has virtually disappeared, the modern church has simplified much of its liturgy and there is rarely the time in modern services.

John Sheppard's antiphon, Media vita, is one of the most large-scale works of this type surviving (though it does not survive complete, the tenor part has had to be re-constructed). It is the antiphon to the Nunc Dimittis at Compline from the Third Sunday in Lent to Passion Sunday. Quite why Sheppard wrote it, we do not know, the work survives in a single source which was copied in the late 1570s and preserved at Christ Church, Oxford. And whilst this surviving manuscript is marked up with symbols, indicating some sort of repeat structure, there are no instructions.

Media vita is one of Sheppard's masterpieces, and a very long work, so inevitably it has been well recorded over the past 30 years, each group bringing a slightly different attitude to it, size of ensemble, gender and age of those singing the upper parts, pitch, speed etc. But most groups have used the same structure for the piece. Lacking any detailed instructions, performers have turned to another similar form, popular in the Tudor period, the Respond. Responds have a similar repeating structure, so it made sense to structure Media vita like that and in fact, for many years I assumed that Media vita was a Respond. But, using this structure for Media vita results in a work which can seem rather unwieldy.

David Skinner and Alamire recorded Sheppard's Media vita in 2012, as part of a project linked to David Starkey's BBC series, Music and Monarchy, though the recording was never issued on CD. It has now been issued as an EP on Resonus Classics' Inventa label, and is worth hearing not just because of Skinner and Alamire's approach to pitch and sonority, but because Skinner was able to take advantage of the most recent research into the liturgical structure of the piece.

ARTS OF FUGUE: Live music returns to St John's Smith Square

St John Smith Square (Photos Michael Andrews)
St John Smith Square
(Photos Michael Andrews)
During lockdown, St John's Smith Square developed its Digital Exchange project, a series of workshops, concerts and online advice and exchange sessions. These are now extending into live performances at the venue with ARTS OF FUGUE, concerts broadcast on-line from 4 August 2020, examining the development of fugue from its roots in the 16th century through the Baroque and Classical to the Romantic and beyond.

Each concert will feature approximately 25 minutes of music along with a discussion between Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square and the artists performing. On-line programme notes, providing interactive links, will be available to download from the St John’s Smith Square website before and after each concert.

For the first concert, The Gesualdo Six explore fugue's roots in 16th century Italy, including music by Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez and Jean Mouton, then organist David Titterington performs fugues by Bach, CPE Bach and Robert Schumann, along with a UK premiere from Calliope Tsoupaki. The Revolutionary Drawing Room performs Beethoven's Grosse Fugue, and finally Julian Jacobson performs Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor.

Full details from the St John's Smith Square website.

Songs that were written in isolation, because of isolation, to be performed in isolation: The Isolation Songbook

The Isolation Songbook
Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston's lockdown project has been collecting new songs. She conceived the idea of a songbook, 'songs that were written in isolation, because of isolation, to be performed in isolation?'.

Helen put out a call on social medial, and the Isolation Songbook was born, with a total of 15 poets and composers creating songs specially, including Ben Rowarth, Heloise Werner, Owain Park, Richard Barnard, Terence Charlston, Nathan Dearden, James Davy, Kerensa Briggs, Gerda Blok-Wilson, Joshua Borin, Elliot Park, Matthew Ward, Andrew Bixley Williams, Stephen Bick, and Derri Joseph Lewis.

There will be a chance to hear the result next week, when Helen along with baritone Michael Craddock and pianist Alexander Soares performs the Isolation Songbook for City Music Foundation's live from St Pancras Clock Tower recitals on Wednesday 29 July 2020 at 6pm. Full details from the CMF website.

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Leeds Opera Festival 2020

The Theatre, Leeds - source
The Theatre, Leeds, where Arne's Thomas & Sally was performed in 1771
The Leeds Opera Festival had been re-invented for 2020 in the light of the current crisis, and the festival is taking the 300 year history of opera in Leeds as the inspiration for a festival which will mix live and on-line. There is an exhibition at Leeds Kirkgate Market, the Leeds Opera Story which celebrates the history of opera in Leeds, from 24 August to 7 September. The first opera to be performed in Leeds seems to have been Charles Coffey's The Beggar's Wedding, the venue probably being a pub.

The centre-piece will be a performance of Thomas Arne's Thomas and Sally, one of the most popular operas in the city during the 18th century and the first opera to be performed n Leeds' first theatre in 1771. The intention is to have the production on-line and also performed to a live audience (subject to government guidance). John Savournin will direct, with a cast including Beth Moxon, Naomi Rogers, Michael Vincent Jones and Elgan Llyr Thomas, conducted by David Ward, the artistic director of the festival.

Arne's short opera Thomas and Sally was premiered at Covent Garden in 1760, it was originally an after-piece, a short musical performance put on after the main spoken play.

In another nod to history, the popular English form of ballad opera will also be a feature of the festival, performed in pubs and public spaces across the city. And there will be a lunchtime concert featuring opera from the city's 300 year history.

There will also be special digital events, and a preview of Lewis Murphy and Laura Attridge's new opera Arc23 which is due to be premiered in Leeds next year.

Leeds Opera Festival 2020
The festival runs from 28 August to 1 September 2020, full details from the Festival website.

Stanford and Howells Remembered: John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers' influential recording returns in expanded format

Stanford and Howells Remembered; Cambridge Singers, John Rutter, Wayne Marshall; Collegium Records
Stanford and Howells Remembered
; Cambridge Singers, John Rutter, Wayne Marshall; Collegium Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
This lovely and influential recording returns in expanded format

This set is a re-issue of influential recordings made by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers in the 1990s, and expanded too with a further 20 minutes of music not on the original disc. The music that Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Herbert Howells wrote for Anglican services, notable Matins and Evensong, never went away and the sets of canticles they wrote have been well-loved by generations of church musicians. But there was a tendency to overlook or take it for granted in the wider musical world, and for much of the post-War period, neither composer's choral output was known well. This recording was part of a valuable re-assessment of both composers' works.

Stanford and Howells Remembered on Collegium Records features John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers with organist Wayne Marshall in Stanford's Evening Canticles in G, Evening Canticles in B flat, Latin Magnificat, Te Deum in C, When Mary thro' the garden went, I heard a voice from heaven and O for a closer walk, and Howells' Requiem, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from The Gloucester Service, The fear of the Lord, Like as the hart, and Long, long ago plus the hymn All my hope on God is founded, all recorded in Ely Cathedral in 1992.

Stanford became conductor of the choir of Trinity College whilst still at Cambridge, and throughout his life he would write seven sets of services for the Anglican church, his first in B flat in 1879 whilst he was still music director of Trinity. Stanford's settings of the canticles for morning and evening prayer are the music that never went away, even when the composer's reputation was at its lowest ebb. And, in a sense, they are the fundamental on which the music of the modern day cathedral is based, practical and do-able yet memorable and musical with Stanford bringing a symphonic eye to these miniatures which means that the works are satisfying and useful.

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Thinking with opera: Opera North's new podcast

Opera North - Thinking with opera
Opera North has launched a new podcast series, Thinking with opera, in partnership with the University of Leeds as part of their DARE partnership. The series is intended to explore the component part of opera in the light of the wider world of the arts and ideas. The first episode sees Professor Griselda Pollock of the University of Leeds, in conversation with Opera North's projects director Dominic Gray talking about violence in painting, sculpture, film and literature, how it is performed in opera, and its implications.

Prof. Pollock makes a fascinating point, "In cinema you are a spectator; in opera you are present. I’m fascinated by the notion that we witness in opera: we have to endure." And the conversation ranges from Ancient Greece to The Godfather, Pasolini's Medea to Some Like it Hot, focusing particularly on the operas of Puccini and Verdi.

The podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and SoundCloud.

Contemplative and contemporary: world premiere recording of Ian Venables's Requiem from Gloucester Cathedral

Ian Venables Requiem; Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, Jonathan Hope, Adrian Partington; SOMM
Ian Venables Requiem; Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, Jonathan Hope, Adrian Partington; SOMM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A contemplative setting of the Requiem mass by an English composer best known for his song; it sits firmly in the English tradition yet also includes other influences

I first heard Ian Venables' Requiem at its first London performance in 2019 when Victoria Ely conducted Evoke at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street [see my review]. Ian Venables' Requiem was premiered in November 2018 by Gloucester Cathedral Choir, conductor Adrian Partington, and these same forces, with organist Jonathan Hope, have given the work its first recording on SOMM, with motets and anthems by John Sanders, John Joubert, Ivor Gurney, and Ian Venables.

Conductor Adrian Partington was very much involved in the genesis of the work. Venables had written a short choral work, setting the Introit Requiem aeternam for a memorial service, at the time an unusual venture into sacred choral music for a composer who has been most associated with song. At first reluctant to write a Requiem, with encouragement from Partington, Venables expanded this into the full Requiem. Venables' selection of texts very much reflects that used by Faure and Durufle in their Requiems. He deliberately does not set the Dies Irae, but nor does he make his own selection of non-liturgical texts as Herbert Howells did in his Requiem.

Venables' teachers included Richard Arnell (1917-2009), himself a pupil of John Ireland, and John Joubert (1927-2019), whose teachers included Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush, and Venables' own music owes clear allegiance to this stream of 20th century English music, tonal, complex, mixing contemplative, pastoral and mystical elements with other more dramatic ones.

Yet, if you say English composer and Requiem, very few works spring to mind. Stanford's Requiem from 1896 is a large scale work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, whilst the large and important corpus of Anglican church music which was written in the 20th century (with Herbert Howells sitting firmly in the centre) concentrates on the English services, whilst the masses written for Westminster Cathedral (notably that by RVW) concentrate on the more standard mass.

In style, Venables' Requiem however also owes something to the French tradition in the way the organ comments and amplifies the textures. Venables eschews the textures of Herbert Howell's Anglican church services, with their strong organ parts supporting choral elements which grow from sturdy unisons. Instead, we hear a lot of unaccompanied passages, and sparely written ones, with the organ as an additional character in the mix. The result, of course, is a far more challenging work to prepare, but gives us a very sophisticated manipulation of textures, especially as the composer varies his choral writing by using soloists (Catherine Perfect, alto, Arthur Johnson and Alex Taylor, trebles, Matthew Clark, baritone).

Songs of our Times: Jessica Walker and Joe Atkins in cabaret for the Lichfield Festival

Songs for our Times - Jessica Walker and Joseph Atkins (capture from film by Leon Lopez)
Songs for our Times - Jessica Walker and Joseph Atkins (capture from film by Leon Lopez)
Songs of our times; Jessica Walker, Joe Atkins, Leon Lopez; Lichfield Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Contemporary cabaret reflecting on our current times, turned into a stylish yet thought-provoking filme

Songs for our Times is a new film, commissioned by the Lichfield Festival and broadcast by them on Sunday 19 July 2020 (available on the festival's Facebook and YouTube pages). A cabaret filmed at Blackheath Halls by film-maker Leon Lopez, the work features singer Jessica Walker and pianist Joe Atkins in songs the two have written during lockdown alongside material by the Belgian songwriter and chansonier Jacques Brel (1929-1978) and by the French singer-songwriter Barbara (1930-1997.

Walker and Atkins have collaborated before, and their 2019 musical Not Such Quiet Girls, for Opera North and the Leeds Playhouse, told the story of stories of three women on the front line during World War I, using three actors and the chorus of Opera North.

The style of Lopez' film is stylish yet dark, with Walker all in black against a largely black background only offset by lighting and the occasional effect. There is a stage, but this is only used occasionally, and the camera often closes in on Walker's face, with her highly expressive eyes. This isn't cabaret as seduction, but statement and confession, and it is mesmerising and intense. The mood is, unsurprisingly, downbeat but also rather political and the songs move from the personal to the public and back, in the best possible way.

Monday 20 July 2020

The kids are going on-line: new initiatives from the National Children's Orchestra, and the National Youth Choirs

National Children's Orchestras
National Children's Orchestra
With the continuing uncertainty over live-performance, youth ensembles are going on-line. Both the National Children's Orchestras (NCO), and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (NYCGB) have announced on-line initiatives for this Summer and beyond.

The National Children's Orchestras has launched a new on-line initiative for its Summer 2020 course. A three-week digital programme has been created, in consultation with the children and their parents and the result is a highly varied series of webinars and on-line events with five categories of activity: Inspiration, Let's Create, My Instrument, Wellbeing and Pic'n Mix, with on-line guests including actors Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig, film composer Rachel Portman, players from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and London Mozart Players, and harpist Anne Denholm.

Currently, over 450 children, aged between 7 and 14 years old, have signed up to take part, and the course will culminate on 6 August 2020 with a special on-line multi-track Mambo concert. Full details from the NCO website.

The auditions for the National Youth Training Choir, National Youth Girls' Choir and the National Youth Boys' Choir will be taking place as usual this Autumn. Previous, auditions have been held in cities across the UK, but this year the auditions will be held on-line, via Zoom, so that children can audition from their homes.

National Youth Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs members are aged 9-14 and National Youth Training Choir members are aged 15-18, and these are just three of the choirs run by NYCGB, which is also home to the National Youth Choir and National Youth Chamber Choir for members aged over 18.

The auditions are open for booking from Tuesday 9 September 2020, and financial assistance is available to support those who require support with the cost of auditions and if offered a place the future ongoing costs of membership, courses and travel.

NYCGB is running a series of free online open events this August for anyone interested in finding out more about what it’s like to be a member of the National Youth Girls’, Boys’ or Training Choir. Further details will be announced shortly.

Full details from the NYCGB website.

National Youth Choirs of Great Britain
National Youth Choirs of Great Britain

The Invention of English Opera: part two, the brief flowering of English opera, the rise of Italian opera and the development of ballad opera

The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675
The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675
The Palace is probably where John Blow's Venus and Adonis premiered

Considering that the country went through two revolutions, including an interregnum when music was ostensibly banned, there was a surprising amount of music theatre in England in the 17th century, and like other countries artists, performers and aristocrats eagerly experimented music and drama, sometimes creating something which we would recognise as opera, and sometimes coming up with hybrid forms. The vigour and ubiquity of Italian opera in England in the 18th century should not blind us to the importance of the tradition of the 17th century English opera. In the first part of my article, we looked at how the first operas, and the distinctive English genre of semi-opera, developed out of the masque tradition.

Beaufort House, showing Gorges House, the Priests' school, centre left with red rooftop
Beaufort House, showing Gorges House, Josias Priest's' school (centre left with red rooftop)
where Purcell's Dido and Aeneas was performed

In this second part, we look at the brief flowering of English opera, the rise of Italian opera and the development of ballad opera.

Sunday 19 July 2020

A Life On-Line: Garsington Opera Unmuted, Handel times two from Göttingen, and Eboracum Baroque

Handel: Lotario - Jorge Navarro Colorado, Judd Perry - Göttingen 2017
Handel: Lotario - Jorge Navarro Colorado, Jud Perry - Göttingen 2017
We started the week with Unmute, a lovely live concert (albeit with no audience) from Garsington Opera, with Douglas Boyd conducting members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and soloists Soraya Mafi (soprano), Nardus Williams (soprano), Sam Furness (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Joshua Bloom (bass) and Brindley Sherratt (bass), along with actor Samuel West doing readings.

Things began with a selection of ensembles from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, first all six soloists in the sextet (Nardus Williams as Marcellina, Joshua Bloom as Figaro, a role he sang at Garsington in 2017, Brindley Sherratt as Bartolo, Sam Furness as Curzio, Roderick Williams as the Count and Soraya Mafi as Susanna), then the Countess and Susanna's duet (Williams and Mafi), and the Act Four trio (Mafi, Bloom, Williams), ending with Soraya Mafi singing 'Deh vieni'.

Next another ensemble, the quartet from Act One of Beethoven's Fidelio (which should have been in the 2020 season), with Soraya Mafi, Nardus Williams, Joshua Bloom and Sam Furness. The final vocal contributions were all from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, with Roderick Williams as Onegin, Sam Furness as Lensky and Brindley Sherratt as Gremin (both Williams and Sherratt sang these roles at Garsington when we saw Michael Boyd's production in 2016, see my review).

The event finished with a chance for the instrumentalists to show off, with the sextet from Richard Strauss' Capriccio. All in all a lovely concert, and we look forward to being able to hear opera live at Garsington next year. [YouTube]

For the rest of the week, we had a focus on Handel. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Internationalen Händel Festspiele Göttingen and in celebration NDR released 10 films of Handel opera productions at the festival (from 2009 to 2019). First we sampled Handel's Lotario in a production from 2017 directed by Carlos Wagner and conducted by Laurence Cummings (artistic director of the festival). Handel's 1729 opera has always been seen as a problem, because the rather compressed nature of the action can deprive the work of a sense of emotional logic. But I was impressed with the CD recording based on this 2017 production [see my review], and Wagner certainly got strong performances from his cast.

Saturday 18 July 2020

Thankful to be able to play together at all: the Engegård Quartet on recording Mozart, collaborating with Ola Kvernberg and their festival devoted to Olli Mustonen's music

The Engegård Quartet (Photo John Petter Reinertsen)
The Engegård Quartet (Photo John Petter Reinertsen)
The Engegård Quartet (Arvid Engegård, Alex Robson, Juliet Jopling, Jan Clemens Carlsen) is a string quartet based in Norway but with a developing international reputation. The quartet's debut CD won praise The Strad, and more recent discs have included works by Grieg, Sibelius and the Norwegian composer Olav Anton Thommessen (born 1946), and the complete Schumann quartets on BIS. Like everyone else, the quartet's plans for 2020 have been upset, but when I chatted to Arvid Engegård and Juliet Jopling by Zoom they were surprisingly upbeat, with cultural events in Norway planning to re-start on a smaller scale and the quartets mini-festival devoted to the music of Olli Mustonen will be going ahead in Oslo in September.

The quartet is part-way through recording Mozart's complete works for string quartet on the Norwegian Lawo label. Issued so far are discs of Mozart's Prussian quartets, and Haydn quartets, with the third volume about to be released. When complete,  the set will run to seven or eight discs (depending on whether items like the arrangements of Bach fugues are included). Whilst the quartet see it as a fun project, the idea arose with the record company, though the quartet had plans to play all of Mozart's mature quartets. The discs will include his early music, written when he was a teenager and this is a totally different world. Yet whilst the music is in a different style to mature Mozart, he is already himself and there is plenty for the listener in the music.

The quartet has other recording plans besides Mozart, though they describe plans to record all three Brahms' quartets as a slow burn project. They have an ongoing project with the Norwegian composer and jazz violinist Ola Kvernberg (born 1981), and he was written two quintets for himself and the Engegård Quartet to play, The Flight and Hypnagogia. They have toured the pieces extensively in Norway and found them popular. The quartet and Kvernberg have already recorded the works, but plans for a release with an associated tour are, inevitably, on hold.

Friday 17 July 2020

Live and on-line: the International Music Festival Koblenz

Schloss Burg Namedy - one of the locations for this year's IMUKO
Schloss Burg Namedy - one of the locations for this year's IMUKO
The International Music Festival Koblenz (IMUKO) is taking place at the moment, with a remarkable group of artists performing concerts in the open air in locations ranging from a private garden to the courtyard of a castle. Many of the concerts are repeated, given the limitations placed on audience numbers, and for international audiences you can catch them all on the new platform Stage Hub.

For the first concert, earlier this month, cellist Benedick Kloeckner performed the three Bach cello suites alongside new pieces writing during the current crisis by composers from across the globe, including Dai Fujikura, Howard Blake and Elena Kats Chernin (worry not, you can catch the concerts on Stage Hub)

Looking ahead, at future concerts Kloeckner is joined by violinists Yury Revich, Tianwa Yang, and Kirill Troussov, pianists Louis Schwizgebel, Benjamin Grosvenor, Alexandra Troussova, Dane Dorken and Mario Haring, the Trio Sora, Ragnhild Hemsing on violin and hardganger fiddle, and many more with concerts stretching until September.

Full details of the programme from the festival website, and full details of the concerts on Stage Hub.

2020/21 cohort of Young Artists and Emerging Artists at the National Opera Studio

The National Opera Studio (NOS) has announced its cohort of Young Artists for 2020/2021.
The National Opera Studio (NOS) has announced its cohort of Young Artists for 2020/2021. Those Young Artists in the 2019/2020 cohort have continued training despite lockdown, albeit in a modified form and missing out on several planned concerts and residences. In the light of this, the NOS will be inviting all 2019/20 Young Artists back to attend auditions and events, take advantage rehearsal space and recording facilities, and will be giving a number of those staying in London a package of coaching support which they can use around any work opportunities that they may have. Freelance artists at the start of their careers have been hit hardest financially, and the NOS hopes to help by continuing to offer training.

The 2020/2021 Young Artists are Monica McGhee (soprano), a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and the Royal College of Music (RCM), Arlene Belli (mezzo-soprano), who studied at the Malipiero Institute, Padua, and Santa Cecilia Conservatoire, Rome, Judith Le Breuilly (mezzo-soprano), a graduate of the RCS and RCM, Philip Cleve (tenor), a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Monwabisi Lindi (tenor) who studied at Vocal Department at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Pretoria, Jolyon Loy (baritone), who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and RCS as well as being an alumnus of the Verbier Festival's Atelier Lyrique, Jevan McAuley (baritone), who studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Thomas Hopkinson (bass), a graduate of the RNCM, along with repetiteurs Marlowe Fitzpatrick, an Australian who recently completed a residency as Organist of St Mark’s English Church, Florence, Nadia Kisseleva, who studied at the Gnessins' Russian Academy of Music and the RNCM, Aeron Preston, who read Music at St John's College, Cambridge,  and Maria Tataru, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Under a new scheme, there are also two Emerging Artists, placements provided especially for two singers from under-represented backgrounds who show significant talent and will benefit from a year of bespoke NOS training. This year's Emerging Artists are Molly Barker (mezzo-soprano), who initially studied Agriculture before training at the RNCM, and Neil Balfour (bass-baritone) who studied at the RNCM.

The 2019/20 Young Artists were deprived of their end of year celebratory concert, and instead have put together an on-line which is available on YouTube for a limited time.

String quartets in Islington: the Corran Quartet live

Corran Quartet - Melody Lane concert
The Corran Quartet will be giving its first post-lockdown concert on Sunday 9 August 2020, in a socially-distanced outdoor event in Islington.

The programme for the concert is Haydn's String Quartet in C major, Opus 20, No. 2 from a set of quartets published in 1772 and seen as some of Haydn's finest quartets, Mozart's String Quartet No. 12 in B flat, from a set published in 1773 and seen as being very influenced by Haydn's Opus 20 quartets, and Beethoven's String Quartet in A major Opus 18, No. 5, from his first set of string quartets published in Vienna in 1801 and still very much influenced by Mozart.

The Corran Quartet is a young group, consisting of one Portuguese player and three Scots, and they had been planning a complete Beethoven quartet cycle for 2020.

Tickets for the event are bookable via email, see the poster above.

Almost sacred opera: the French group Les Accents in an engaging account of one of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorios for 17th century Rome

Alessandro Scarlatti Il martirio di Santa Teodosia; Emmanuelle de Negri, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Renato Dolcini, Anthea Pichanick, Les Accents, Thibault Noally; APARTE
Alessandro Scarlatti Il martirio di Santa Teodosia; Emmanuelle de Negri, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Renato Dolcini, Anthea Pichanick, Les Accents, Thibault Noally; APARTE

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 July 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Scarlatti's oratorio gets its first recording in an engaging performance, which opens a valuable window onto the world of 17th century Italian oratorio

From the mid-17th century, oratorio in Italy started to move away from its sacred roots and take on elements of opera. Whilst there were still oratorios in Latin, those in Italian developed and instead of narrator and chorus the works relied on the interaction between characters (Biblical, historical or allegorical) in a sequence of arias and recitatives. This arose particularly in Rome where staged performances of opera were intermittently banned, leading to the development of oratorio as something of a replacement.

Giacomo Carissimi wrote some of the best known Italian oratorios of the period, including Jephte (1648), so it is perhaps not surprising that his probable pupil Alessandro Scarlatti should also write quite a number of oratorios.

A new recording of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio Il martirio di Santa Teodosia has been issued on the Aparte label performed by Les Accents, directed from the violin by Thibault Noally, with soloists Emmanuelle de Negri (Teodosia), Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Arsenio), Renato Dolcini (Urbano), and Anthea Pichanick (Decio).

We do not know who commissioned Il martirio di Santa Teodosia nor who wrote the libretto, but it is postulated that the work was premiered in Rome in 1683 and it was presented in Modena two years later, and the libretto printed in Modena in 1686 (with no mention of the names of the composer or the librettist).

Thursday 16 July 2020

Live music returns: Opera Holland Park announces details of its concert in Holland Park

Opera Holland Park
Exciting news that live performance (with an audience) is returning to London, albeit in reduced format. Opera Holland Park have announced details of its event on Saturday 25 July 2020, when there will be a programme of opera arias performed in front of the ruins of Holland House.

The temporary theatre will not be there, but there will be seating, and we are promised performances from Natalya Romaniw, David Butt Philip, Yvonne Howard, Lauren Fagan, Nardus Williams, Anne Patalong, Alison Langer, Samuel Sakker, Clare Presland, Blaise Malaba, Ross Ramgobin, and Kiandra Howarth, with the City of London Sinfonia.

No word on the programme yet, but that hardly matters does it, the sheer idea of hearing live music again is quite wonderful. Congratulations to Opera Holland Park for bringing this together so quickly.

Full details from the Opera Holland Park website, and public booking opens tomorrow.

The Marriage of Figaro in the Cotswolds

The Marriage of Figaro at The Hewletts
Composer and conductor Louis Mander will be conducting a concert performance of highlights from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in the grounds of The Hewletts near Cheltenham on Saturday 5 September 2020. Directed by Maria Jagusz, the performance features a young cast with Peter Edge and Megan Strachan as the Count and Countess, Matthew Siveter and Florence Cain as Figaro and Susanna, Maria Jagusz as Marcellina.

The audience is invited to bring a picnic and a deck-chair and enjoy the live opera in this idyllic location. Further details from Louis Mander's website.  

Music when no-one else is near: Michael Mofidian and Julia Lynch live from Glasgow City Halls on BBC Radio 3

Michael Mofidian performing at the Classical Opera and the Mozartists Gala Concert, Goldsmiths' Hall. Photo credit Roger Way
Michael Mofidian performing at the Classical Opera and the Mozartists Gala Concert, Goldsmiths' Hall. Photo credit Roger Way
Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, RVW; Michael Mofidian, Julia Lynch; BBC Radio 3/Glasgow City Halls

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 July 2020
The first of BBC Radio 3's concerts live from Glasgow saw the young Scottish-Iranian bass-baritone in Music when no-one else is near

It was lovely to catch bass-baritone Michael Mofidian and pianist Julia Lynch in the first of BBC Radio 3's live recitals (without an audience) from City Halls Glasgow on Tuesday (14 July 2020). The four lunchtime recitals this week are all being given by artists who are living within and hour of Glasgow, and Mofidian and Lynch launched things in fine style with a programme entitled Music when no-one else is near, very apt for the current circumstances, with songs by Schubert, Ravel and Tchaikovsky, plus RVW's Robert Louis Stevenson settings, Songs of Travel.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Jonathan Dover's The Monster in the Maze: the Grange Festival Community Chorus takes its performance on-line

This week the learning team at The Grange Festival was supposed to be presenting a community performance of Jonathan Dove's The Monster in the Maze (and we were due to be going to see it on Saturday). All cancelled, alas you might think, but in fact elements of the project have been going ahead, on-line. Singers from The Grange Festival Community Chorus have come together on-line, along with singers from Longborough Festival Opera and Dutch National Opera, there have been on-line workshops, and they have learned a part of the opera.

The result is a short video, where the chorus is joined by Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano), Xavier Hetherington (tenor), James Longford (piano) and Stephen Fry (the voice of Minos). The stage director for the project was Thomas Guthrie, who directed the UK premiere of The Monster in the Maze at the Barbican in 2016, conducted by Simon Rattle, also with Yvonne Howard [I chatted to Thomas in March about the project and about his work in community opera, see our interview All opera is community opera]

Further information, along with a video introducing the project, on The Grange Festival website.

Vienna 1910: the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien in sophisticated and vibrant accounts of works by Mahler, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss

Mahler Adagio - Symphony No. 10, Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No.1, Strauss Der Rosenkavalier: Suite; Alban Berg Ensemble Wien; Deutsche Grammophon
Mahler Adagio - Symphony No. 10, Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No.1, Strauss Der Rosenkavalier: Suite; Alban Berg Ensemble Wien; Deutsche Grammophon

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 July 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Three contrasting works from Vienna just before the First World War in chamber versions which bring out both the contrasts and the commonalities between these works, in sophisticated and vibrant performances

The decade before the First World War can often be portrayed as some sort of Golden Age, Stefan Zweig portrayed it as such in his memoir The World of Yesterday, written however whilst he was in exile in America during the Second World War. And historian Barbara Tuchman, having written a book exploring the first month of the First World War, The Guns of August (published in 1962), proceeded to write another book The Proud Tower (published in 1966) to explore exactly that, looking the fractured era from 1890 to 1914 to find out whether it was such a golden age via topics as diverse as the Dreyfuss Affair, anarchism, German art and culture, and socialism.

Musically, the split between the culture of a later age and an earlier one can be seen to be marked by two fracas, both taking place in 1913. In March 1913, Arnold Schoenberg conducted a concert given by the Vienna Music Society in the Musikverein, Vienna, of Anton Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, Alexander von Zemlinsky's Four Orchestral Songs on poems by Maeterlinck, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, and two of Alban Berg's Altenberg lieder. The audience began rioting and the concert concluded prematurely. And two months later, in Paris, the audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées famously rioted at the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, perhaps objecting to Igor Stravinsky's music, perhaps to Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography.

Yet, neither of these events is quite as clear cut as might be seen. Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 had been successfully premiered in Vienna in 1907, and the premiere of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, conducted by Franz Schreker, at the Musikverein in Vienna in February 1913 had been a huge success but the composer refused to acknowledge the applause, offended by the attitude of previous conservative audiences. And the reaction at the March 1913 concert was to a certain extent in retribution! Similarly, there have been suggestions that the extreme reaction in Paris was engineered for publicity, and certainly Diaghilev's company went on to give five performances of the ballet in Paris and four in London. It was in fact the events of the First World War which conspired to cause the ballet to be dropped and by the time the company came to revive it in the 1920s, Nijinsky's choreography had been forgotten and it was re-worked by Leonid Massine.

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Photo Andrej Grilc)
Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Photo Andrej Grilc)
Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 is a work which looks both backwards and forwards, giving a prescient hint of the composer's later styles but also linking through to the work of his predecessors. It is the work where Schoenberg first started to part company from the late Romantic musical world of late-Wagner, and move on towards 12 tone music and serialism.

On this new disc (released 17 July 2020) from the Deutsche Grammophon, the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien has assembled three works from this period, the Adagio from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 10 and Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite, Op. 59, both written in 1910, and Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1 from 1907.

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