Monday 14 September 2020

A Life On-Line: BBC Proms in Cardiff, Igor Levit's live Encounter, chamber music at Hatfield, Simone Kermes on Dreamstage

Tim Mead and La Nuova Musica (taken from videostream)
Tim Mead and La Nuova Musica (taken from videostream)

Whilst this week has been notable for live performances in peron, there has been plenty happening on-line with the final week of the BBC Proms, as well as the start of the on-line Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, and we also caught up with a new platform aimed at helping artists, Dreamstage.

Tuesday 8 September 2020 saw the BBC Proms go to Cardiff for the first time when Ryan Bancroft conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW) at Hoddinott Hall. Bancroft is the BBC NOW's new principal conductor and this was his first official engagement, and his proms debut. The concert was titled American Dreams, and featured a group of 20th century, mainly American works for large ensemble/small orchestra (socially distancing the players of the BBC NOW doesn't fit all that many into Hoddinott Hall), with Martinu's Jazz Suite, John Adams Chamber Symphony, Samuel Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915 (with Natalya Romaniw) , and Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite (in the original version for 13 instruments). But in typical BBC Proms style, in the middle of this was inserted the premiere of Gavin Higgins' Rough Voices; Higgins has just been announced as the orchestra's composer in residence, so the piece made sense in a way but in style it was very different from the music around it.

Martinu's Jazz Suite dates from his time in Paris when jazz was featuring quite a lot in his work. It was a delightful find, spiky, characterful and very virtuosic (at times the music reminded me of that of Jacques Ibert), with a fast, furious and almost orgiastic end. John Adams' Chamber Symphony (where Schoenberg famously meets Looney Tunes) is actually remarkably similar in character, lively, mad and very virtuosic, full of vivid textures and a sense of multiple things happening at once. And a fast, furious and orgiastic end. Both works made fine show-pieces for the individual players of the orchestra. 

Gavin Higgins' new work was rather striking, though it would have been helpful if the announcer had told us more than that it was inspired by poetry! Starting with the alternation of powerful chords and quiet sustained moments, the work explores these two with the powerful music at first getting the upper hand, building to another orgiastic climax (are we starting to see a theme here?), before the vivid, fast textures dispersed and the quiet opening material returned, yet somehow changed.

It is usual for Barber's Knoxville to be performed by quite light, lyric soprano though Natalya Romaniw is exploring somewhat more dramatic repertoire but Eleanor Steber, who premiered the work in 1948, also sang a similar repertoire to Romaniw which makes you think. Romaniw's performance was notable for the way she kept her voice in check, I did wonder whether there was a hint of inhibition here, but there was lovely vibrant tone yet quite a laid back feeling, which is just right. She sang with an American accent, and with good diction. The orchestra complemented her with a fine chamber feel to the piece.

For the final work in the programme we went to Copland's suite from his ballet Appalachian Spring, but performed in the version for chamber ensemble rather than his later orchestration. I have a confession, I have a limited appetite for Appalachian Spring and find the full ballet soon palls. However, the more digested suite, especially in this wonderfully concentrated chamber version with a fine and intense performance from the players of BBC NOW managed to hit the spot. [BBC iPlayer]

Igor Levitt's latest disc from Sony, Encounter, arose directly out of his experiences of lockdown when he started doing regular performances streamed live from his home. On Wednesday he had what he described as an 'Improvised, weird release party' for the disc, on-line of course. After talking about the album (in German and then fluent English) he performed music from the disc, Busoni's arrangements of Brahms' Chorale Preludes. Brahms wrote them for organ in 1896, some of the last music he ever wrote, and in 1902 Busoni did an arrangement for piano of six of them. [Encounter on Amazon

On Thursday, dashing home from live chamber music in Battersea Park [see my review] we caught the TV broadcast of Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon's performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 at the BBC Proms, which I had heard live on Monday [see my review]. It was great to encounter the performance again, especially in the more sympathetic acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, and Nicholas Collon and Tom Service's exploration of the music beforehand was very illuminating. [BBC Proms]

On Friday, the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival opened. All was as usual, we were welcomed by Lord Salisbury (whose family built the house), and heard performances of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn from cellist Guy Johnston (artistic director of the festival), pianist Melvyn Tan and clarinettist Julian Bliss, with pre-concert talk from Stephen Johnson. Except of course, it was all on-line. To take advantage of this, the performances were intercut with discussions between Lord Salisbury and Dr Emily Burns about the collection, including case the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I which was hanging behind the performers.

We heard the slow movement from Beethoven's Trio in B flat, Opus 11 for clarinet, cello and piano, a magical, effortless performance opening with Johnston's singing cello and then finely matched by Bliss' clarinet. An account of the work full of poised beauty which suspended time and made us wish we could have heard the whole work. Melvyn Tan then performed Schubert's Impromptu, Op. 90 No. 2; a delightfully fluid account, with Tan's light yet distinctive touch. Finally, Mendelssohn's Cello Sonata No. 2, with Tan and Johnston, one of the masterpieces of the repertoire yet one relatively unknown. The first movement plunged straight in, with impulsive vigour and an amazing sense of onward flow. The delightful second movement was, unusually, not Mendelssohn in fairy mode, whilst the third was powerful and rhapsodic, with a busy finale which was pure Mendelssohn in style. [YouTube].

Dreamstage is a new on-line platform presenting live performances, and these really are live not films and once they are gone they are gone, there is no catch-up facility. You have to purchase a ticket, as the site is aimed at helping out artists who are otherwise unable to perform. We missed the Dresden Festival Orchestra's debut on the platform on Saturday as we were at Tête à Tête [see my review], but caught soprano Simone Kermes' recital on Sunday with pianist Jarkko Riihimäki. Kermes began with the sort of repertoire that we tend to associate her, an aria from Vivaldi's Griseldis and then 'Ombra mai fu' but not by Handel, but from Giovanni Bononcini's Serse, rather striking and quite similar in atmosphere to the Handel. Kermes is always a characterful performer, and the technical aspects (including very fast passages in the Vivaldi) were superb. She also moves to the music, which can be unnerving in closeup, and her dress was simply remarkable. Rather neo-baroque with a huge collar, it was more neo than baroque and combined a train with showing a remarkable amount of leg!

We then moved onto Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa, but done as a solo with piano rather than having the male voices backing the soprano! Two delightful song by Rossini followed, along with pianist Jarkko Riihimäki's own fantasia for piano on themes from Rossini. French song came next, Hahn's lovely A Chloris sung with fragile tones, though she did not entirely avoid a tendency to croon, then Faure's strikingly intense Prison and Delibes' Les filles de Cadiz which was full of character rather than simply being a coloratura showcase.

Next came a more curious leap in the repertoire, a pair of Marlene Dietrich songs including Lili Marlene, sung more as art song than cabaret. Sting's Fields of Gold was giving a similar treatment, followed by a striking aria from Bononcini's  oratorio San Nicolai di Bari and then finishing with an amazing neo-Baroque arrangement of Lady Gaga's Pokerface!

The recital was introduced, in German, and throughout there was a lot of chat between the interviewer and the performers. This lent a pleasantly casual atmosphere to the performance, but there was no help for non-German speakers, and there was frankly too much talk which padded a 60-minute performance out to over 90 minutes. [DreamStage

 Each year, the Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival runs the Peter Reynolds Composers' Studio for six emerging composers. This year happening on-line, you can hear something from each composer, Daniel Wyn-Jones, Florence Anna Maunders, Angela Slater, Euchar Gravina, Cameron Biles-Liddell, Thomas Metcalf at the festival website, do explore.

La Nuova Musica, artistic director David Bates, has started an on-line series, Purcell's Finest Verses, the first video features counter-tenor Tim Mead, with them in If music by the food of love [YouTube] On a lighter note, Kate Semmens and Steven Devine are back with another delightful song, On Holiday [YouTube]

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