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Saturday, 31 October 2020

The smallest ditty can feel like a marathon if it does not fit the voice: following his appearance with Blackheath Halls Opera, I chat to tenor Nicky Spence about his career and planning roles

  • Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Ashley Riches, Nicky Spence, Francesca Chiejina - Blackheath Halls Opera
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Ashley Riches, Nicky Spence, Francesca Chiejina
Blackheath Halls Opera

Tenor Nicky Spence is patron of Blackheath Halls Opera, the community opera company based at Blackheath Halls and in ordinary circumstances this year would have found him in his advisory role as an 'enthusiasm machine' whilst the company prepared and performed. Instead, he has headlined an imaginative short film, released by the company last month, a digested version of Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress directed by James Hurley [A Journey through 'The Rake's Progress' on YouTube], as well as producing a regular on-line series for the company, Thursday Nights in with Nicky Spence. The fact that Nicky and I live within easy cycling distance of each other meant that we were able to meet up recently for a socially distanced coffee and chat about his work with Blackheath Halls Opera and The Rakes Progress as well as catching up on his plans, singing more dramatic roles, the importance of diction and his love of recitals.

Nicky has sung the role of Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's opera twice before, once with British Youth Opera in 2009 (when George Hall in The Guardian described his Tom as having 'an almost indecent willingness to fall from grace') and then in concert with Scottish Opera. Now for Blackheath Halls Opera it was done as a 30-minute film. In fact, having to do it as a film was an advantage as the company would not usually be able to perform a work like The Rakes Progress because there would not be enough time to learn the complex staging needed for the chorus scenes. And having an on-line project this year meant that the members of the chorus could get something of what they were missing with live rehearsals and performances cancelled, being part of a gang and the experience of learning as group. The soloists were filmed in a socially distanced manner, though the project had contingencies on contingencies in case things changed. But in the film, this social distancing is not noticeable as the filming disguises it. In fact, they were lucky, because it turns out the opera director James Hurley has a past as a film maker, so he was able to direct the work for film.

Wagner: Parsifal - Nicky Spence, the Halle, Sir Mark Elder - York Minster
Wagner: Parsifal - Nicky Spence, the Hallé, Sir Mark Elder - York Minster

The resulting work A Journey through The Rake's Progress is very definitely a film, rather than a film of a stage performance, which has many advantages. Whilst film is not a replacement for live performance, Nicky feels that the project was a great opportunity to get people together in the present circumstances, not just the members of the chorus but the professionals too.

Friday, 30 October 2020

Half-lights and misty streetscapes: Melissa Parmenter's Messapica

Melissa Parmenter: Messapica
Melissa Parmenter is something of a polymath, combining careers as film producer and a composer, sometimes overlapping them when she writes film scores. I interviewed her in 2017 when her EP Scandinavia was released, and now Melissa Parmenter has a new mini-album, Messapica released on Globe Soundtrack and Score which features eight tracks performed by Parmenter herself on piano and cellist Harry Escott.

Parmenter was born in Italy, and spent much of her childhood there, and it is this country which has influenced the new album as Parmenter has created eight evocative sound pictures based around her own piano technique.

The music is often gentle and thoughtful, blending in and out of sound-scapes so that the opening 'Mezzogiorno' starts with the tolling of a bell and the sounds of a town, and 'Bosco Verde' starts with the sound of the sea. Other tracks such as 'Martina Franca' include Harry Escott's soulful cello. Escott is an artist with whom Parmenter has worked before, and her 2017 EP Scandinavia included a track with Escott. 

Parmenter's film background comes through in some pieces, so that 'Locorotondo' sounds like we are watching an unseen film as does the highly evocative 'Cisternino', and sometimes you wish that Parmenter could break free both of film and of the idea of writing a 'track' (the pieces on the new album are all under 4:30) and write something a little more extended, and occasionally move away from the sense of Mozartian Alberti-bass and Philip Glass noodling with an evocative line above. She has, however, a real ability to capture an atmosphere. Those on the disc are by turns evocative and melancholy; this is not an Italy of bright colours and vibrant noise, but one of half-lights and misty streetscapes.

Helen Walker's Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano

Helen Walker is a musician, composer, songwriter and record producer based in Bolton, and she has composed music, across genres, for concert, film, stage, television and radio; her Suite for Alto Flute & Piano and Two Pieces for Piccolo and Piano were commissioned the Animo Flute & Piano Duo who will be premiering and recording them. 

Her Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano was composed during lockdown and also recorded remotely. So that on this premiere recording of the work Helen Walker was joined by Stasys Makštutis, a Lithuanian clarinettist based in Lyon, France and cellist Avigail Arad from Israel.

The score can be purchased from Helen's website,  and the recording was recently released on Everyday Records and is available from iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and other streaming service.


Eboracum Baroque: from Crowdfunding Messiah to Christmas at Wimpole

Eboracum Baroque performing Messiah at Great St Mary's Church, Cambridge in 2019.
Handel: Messiah - Eboracum Baroque at Great St Mary's Church, Cambridge in 2019.

When I chatted to Chris Parsons, artistic director of Eboracum Baroque, back in July [see my interview], it wasn't clear quite what shape the end of the year would take but the chances of the group being able to put on their usual large-scale concerts of Handel's Messiah were looking pretty slim. The group has decided to take advantage of this change of pace and plan to do a recording of Messiah. The recording will help provide valuable income for the freelance musicians who make up Eboracum Baroque and, as their usual Christmas performances of Messiah support Cancer Research UK, a charity which members of Eboracum Baroque hold close to their hearts, they are donating 5% from the sale of every Messiah CD we sell, to Cancer Research UK. 

The recording is planned for 17-19 December 2020 at Horningsea Church near Cambridge, with 21 singers and instrumentalists. Do think about supporting their Crowdfunding.

Before then the group has a new collaboration with the Palisander recorder quartet, Above the Stars a programme of music from Elizabethan England including works by Byrd, Tallis, Tomkins and Dowland in new arrangements, from Elizabethan dances to The Cryes of London to Byrd's Mass for Four Voices. The programme will be filmed in Peterborough Cathedral and streamed live on 21 November 2020. Full details from the Eboracum Baroque website.

And of course, Christmas isn't cancelled it's just a bit different this year! The group will be presenting a festive programme of seasonal music filmed in Wimpole Church and Wimpole Hall on Saturday 12 December 2020, including arias from Bach's Magnificat, music by Vivaldi and Nicola Porpora, and Noels by Charpentier. Further details from the group's website.

 

'I know that my Redeemer liveth' from Handel's Messiah
Eboracum Baroque at Handel & Hendrix in London in October 2020
Charlotte Bowden (soprano), Miri Nohl (cello) and Sebastian Gillot (Harpsichord)

Echoes of Essex, exploring women composers, scientists and many more with Electric Voice Theatre's ambitious project

Electric Voice Theatre - Echoes from Essex

During lockdown Electric Voice Theatre, artistic director Frances M Lynch, and its sister company Minerva Scientifica have been working on an ambitious Echoes of Essex project the results of which are gradually going on-line with everything launching live on 30 October at the Echoes from Essex website. Whilst the project has involved exploring the work of Essex-based women composers past and present (of which there are quite a few), the project has stretched far beyond music into science as well.

Amongst the women from Essex that they have been researching and highlighting are Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673, Natural Philosopher, wrote the first science fiction novel), Elisabeth Tollet (1694-1754, lived in the Tower of London, communicated Isaac Newton's science through her poetry), Florence Attridge (1901-1975, worked at Marconi's during World War 2 and made secret spy radios) and many more. Through weekly Zoom events, many contemporary women joined the project as well.

Imogen Holst at her home in Aldeburgh, 1975 (© Nigel Luckhurst, 1975, Image provided by the Britten–Pears Foundation (www.brittenpears.org), Ref: HOL/2/11/10/7)
Imogen Holst at her home in Aldeburgh, 1975
(© Nigel Luckhurst 1975, Image provided
by Britten–Pears Arts, Ref: HOL/2/11/10/7)
Musically, the project has been exploring a whole range of composers. Imogen Holst (1907-1984) had strong links with the Thaxted Festival as well as Benjamin Britten's Aldeburgh. Through the Holst Foundation and Britten Pears Arts the project was able to record three of Imogen Holst's unpublished a capella vocal works. Further information from the website. 

Contemporary composer, and Essex girl, Cheryl Frances Hoad has been commissioned for a new mini-opera, Thinking I Hear thee Call created specifically to work live on Zoom. The piece explores the life of Florence Attridge and the spy radios she made, with Frances M Lynch and Margaret Cameron plus an evocative electronic track which resounds with codes, voices, typewriters and electronic interference.

Other composers the project has been working with include Frances M Lynch, whose new work The superposition of state was recorded, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), Nicola Lefanu, Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994), Eliza Flower (1803-1846), Elspeth Manders, and Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903-1998, daughter of composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor).

Do explore the Echoes from Essex website.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

A timely reminder of what we are missing: The Crimson Bird, orchestral works by Nicola Lefanu on new disc from NMC

Nicola Lefanu The Crimson Bird and other orchestral works; Rachel Nicholls, BBC Symphony Orchestra, RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Norman del Mar, Colman Pearce, Gavin Maloney, Ilan Volkov; NMC
Nicola Lefanu The Crimson Bird and other orchestral works; Rachel Nicholls, BBC Symphony Orchestra, RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Norman del Mar, Colman Pearce, Gavin Maloney, Ilan Volkov; NMC

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A survey of works spanning over 40 years in terrific live performances makes a fine portrait disc

When I interviewed composer Nicola Lefanu in 2017, the celebrations for her 70th birthday were going to include the premiere of her new piece The Crimson Bird. At the time, this was her first symphonic scale piece for 30 years. It was premiered by soprano Rachel Nichols, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ilan Volkov and a live recording of that first performance is at the centre of a new disc of Lefanu's work.

NMC's new disc, The Crimson Bird and other orchestral works is something of a portrait of composer Nicola Lefanu as it features The Crimson Bird from 2017, alongside two orchestral works from the 1970s, The Hidden Landscape and Columbia Falls  and a shorter work from 2014. The performers are the BBC Symphony Orchestra under conductors Norman del Mar (1919-1994) and Ilan Volkov, the RTE Symphony Orchestra under conductors Colman Pearce and Gavin Maloney, and soprano Rachel Nicholls. All the performances are live recordings.

The disc is arranged chronologically, so we start in 1973 with The Hidden Landscape which is Lefanu's first substantial orchestral work and it was first performed by Norman del Mar and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms and that is the performance we hear. Though Lefanu describes the work as being in two sections, framed by a prologue and epilogue, it plays continuously with a sense of gradually unfolding. We open in darkness, a slow emerging of timbre and texture. Throughout this work, and Columbia Falls (from 1975) the music seems to be something of a mosaic or collage, with myriad fragments coming together into one. Lefanu writes for each instrument individually, and the wind are to the fore here, so that we hear lots of small phrases which gradually coalesce. There are two shattering climaxes, with spareness and space between, and always that sense of colour and texture. Individual lines can be very virtuosic, but there is nothing for its own sake.

World Stroke Day: debut Orlando Gough's new film opera with Garsington Opera, Rosetta Life and stroke survivors

Orlando Gough: I look for the think - Garsington Opera, Rosetta Life

Today (29 October 2020) is World Stroke Day and later today a new filmed opera by Orlando Gough, I look for the think, will receive its debut for staff and patients at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Made by Garsington Opera and their partners Rosetta Life with stroke survivors, Garsington's adult community company and professional singers during lockdown, the work is about love after stroke. sixty stroke survivors, supported by pioneering arts-health organisation Rosetta Life and by their carers, worked to overcome the physical and neurological difficulties that prevent them from using tools that most take for granted: keyboards, microphones, headphones and the internet. Together with professional musicians, soloists Robert Gildon and Melanie Pappenheim, and the Adult Community Company from Garsington Opera, the participants from Bristol, Berkshire and London rehearsed and filmed a twelve-minute opera, I Look For The Think, based on the lived experience of participant Kim Fraser and his wife and carer, Sarah.

The film will be screened on Rosetta Life's Facebook page at 6pm tonight, when there will be a live Q&A with the practitioners, alongside the launch of Recovering Hope, the handbook for Stroke Odysseys, the arts health intervention that I Look For The Think is part of.

The film will be available on OperaVision.

Exclusive preview of a new video of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice from Slovenia

Amor's aria 'Gli sguardi trattieni' from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, an exclusive preview of a new live recording from Slovenia of the Vienna version of the opera. Amor is sung by Slovenian soprano Nika Gorič, Orfeo is sung by the Slovenian mezzo-soprano Barbara Kozelj and Eurydice by Belgian soprano Liesbeth Devos, with Orchestra matutina, conductor Matej Šarc. There are further previews on YouTube, of the overture [YouTube]  and Orfeo and Eurydice's duet 'Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte!' [YouTube]

The performance is based on a live concert given in Ljubljana in September in the Slovenian Philharmonic hall. The orchestra is Slovenian and it specialises in music from the Baroque and Classical eras. Its name is inspired by Bach's cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern  as rehearsals and performances tend to be in the morning.

Barbara Kozelj's performances have included Penelope in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria with the Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr at the Festival Enescu Bucharest and in London’s Barbican Hall [see my review], and her debut as Brangäne in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at Oper Leipzig.

Liesbeth Devos’ recent engagements have included Kate Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) for a recording with the Gulbenkian Orchestra, Belinda (Dido and Aeneas), Galatea (Acis and Galatea), Zerlina (Don Giovanni) and Euridice (Orfeo ed Euridice)

Nika Gorič studied in Maribor, Graz and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. We caught her as on of the Italian singers in Richard Strauss' Capriccio at Garsington [see my review]

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Jewish Museum Berlin to award Igor Levit & Madeleine Albright annual Prize for Understanding and Tolerance

Igor Levit (Photo Felix Broede/Sony Classical)
Igor Levit (Photo Felix Broede/Sony Classical)

Since 2002, the Jewish Museum Berlin has presented its annual Prize for Understanding and Tolerance to individuals from business, culture, and politics who have rendered outstanding service in the interest of promoting human dignity, international understanding, the integration of minorities, and the coexistence of different religions and cultures. 

This year, there will be no gala dinner, but on Saturday 31 October 2020, the director of the museum, Hetty Berg, will present the prize to  former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and the pianist Igor Levit.

Regarding the selection of Igor Levit, the jury's statement says, 'Igor Levit sees no boundaries between aesthetics and everyday life, between music and social engagement. The pianist not only criticizes the customary apolitical contextualization of classical music, he himself is among the most important political voices of his generation. With bold statements, he positions himself clearly against racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny. Nor does he allow himself to be driven off course in his engagement, although he is the object of hostility and threats because of it. For Igor Levit, it is also essential to show solidarity in his artistic activities. In spring of this year, he streamed over 50 "house concerts" amidst the corona pandemic, a gesture of togetherness.' 

Earlier this month, for his cultural engagement during lockdown, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier honoured Igor Levit with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. And Levit's experience of lockdown led directly to his most recent disc, Encounter on Sony Classical, with a programme of which includes rarely played arrangements of Bach and Brahms by Ferruccio Busoni and Max Reger including some of Brahms' final works, as well as Palais de Mari, Morton Feldman’s final work for piano.

Madeleine Albright, of course, needs little introduction, she was US Ambassador to the United Nations and from 1997 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton, she was the first female U.S. Secretary of State. Her considerable achievements are also leavened with humour, in 2009 she published Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box about her use of jewellery as a means of personal diplomatic expression.

The Jewish Museum Berlin opened in 2001 and is the largest Jewish museum in Europe and its buildings include two new additions specifically built for the museum by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Further information from the Jewish Museum Berlin's website.

Three Tributes: music by Kevin Puts, Andrea Clearfield and Gunther Schuller

Kevin Puts Quintet for Piano and Strings 'The Red Snapper', Andrea Clearfield Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, Gunther Schuller Sonata for Two Pianos, Four Hands;Innova

Kevin Puts Quintet for Piano and Strings 'The Red Snapper', Andrea Clearfield Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, Gunther Schuller Sonata for Two Pianos, Four Hands;Innova

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 October 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Three contemporary works commissioned in memory of musical parents by their musical sons

This disc of recent music by contemporary composers Kevin Puts, Andrea Clearfield and Gunther Schuller on Innova requires a little explanation. Entitled Three Tributes to our Parents, it consists of three pieces, Kevin Puts' Quintet for Piano and Strings 'The Red Snapper', Andrea Clearfield's Romanza for Violin and Chamber Orchestra and Gunther Schuller's Sonata for Two Pianos, Four Hands which were commissioned by Robert and James Freeman in memory of their parents, Henry and Florence Freeman.

Henry Freeman was a double bass player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, leading the section for many years, and Florence Freeman was a freelance violinist. Both Robert and James Freeman are both musicians, James Freeman conducts Andrea Clearfield's piece and the two brothers play Gunther Schuller's sonata.

Commissioning music in someone's memory is an admirable activity, but of course there is no guarantee of what the resulting works will be like. Commissioning is like that!

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

A digital opera for our modern age: VOPERA debuts its film of Ravel's opera

VOPERA - Ravel - L'enfant et les sortileges

Putting opera onto film too often simply consists of pointing cameras at a staged performance and letting things run. Sometimes directors get a little creative, but too often if the filmed opera does move away from staging then we lose sight of the singers too and the music becomes a mere back-drop. 

But in an era where live performance of opera is either impossible or extremely difficult, a new company VOPERA is re-thinking the way opera is filmed. Founded by director Rachael Hewer (who was associate director for Opera Holland Park's 2019 Young Artist performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, see my review), VOPERA was created specifically so that musicians, artists, creatives and technicians could be employed during the pandemic, using global Zoom auditions and rehearsals, socially distanced orchestral studio recording, individually captured audio recordings, hand-drawn set and costumes, and body-double acting using a home-made green-screen studio overlaid with the recorded casts' singing faces. 

Hewett explained:

“I wanted to make something that people can be actively and creatively involved in. We are all worried about the pressures - both health-related and financial - that the pandemic has put us under, but fundamentally the emotional impact of not working and not making music is being underestimated. I can do something about that. This project involves dozens of artists working individually and together. Singers need to sing, players need to play, and I can make that possible.”

The result is a film of Ravel's opera L'enfant et les sortileges directed by Rachael Hewer, directed by Leanne Vandenbussche and conducted by Lee Reynolds, with a cast Emily Edmonds as the child, Karen Cargill as Maman and a cast including Marcus Farnsworth, Alison Rose, Kieran Rayner, Thomas Atkins, Jane Monari, Sarah Hayashi, Chloe Morgan, Elizabeth Lynch, Claire Lees, Paul Hopwood, Shuna Scott Sendall, Jerome Knox, Michael Sumuel, Idunnu Munch, Eleanor Penfold, Elizabeth Karani, Gavan Ring, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, and Philippa Boyle. The work was recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Lee Reynolds specially produced orchestration, reducing the orchestra to 27 musicians.

Conductor Lee Reynolds commented on the complexities of the whole process:

"We've all faced a huge challenge in discovering how musicians, spread thousands of miles apart, can make meaningful music together, and this brilliantly ambitious project has demanded solutions that none of us could have dreamed of only months ago. From the smallest steps like refining how to share musical ideas, rehearse and do amazing things over an internet connection from half a planet away, right up to our 360º orchestral recording layout, this project has proven that with enough determination and pioneering creativity, opera can happen, even in these extraordinary times"

The film is released on 16 November 2020 when it will debut on the London Philharmonic Orchestra's YouTube channel, full details from the VOPERA website. There is also a Just Giving campaign in support of the opera.

More than a curiosity: Malcolm Arnold's forgotten opera The Dancing Master

Malcolm Arnold The Dancing Master; Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Carby, Fiona Kimm, Ed Lyon, Mark Wilde, Graeme Broadbent, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews; Resonus

Malcolm Arnold The Dancing Master; Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Carby, Fiona Kimm, Ed Lyon, Mark Wilde, Graeme Broadbent, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews; Resonus

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 OCtober 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Malcolm Arnold's first opera makes it onto disc for the first time, and proves to be an engaging Restoration romp

I first came across Malcolm Arnold's 1952 opera, The Dancing Master, in 2015 when it was performed as part of a double bill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama [see my review]. The work is not entirely a lost masterpiece, it has popped up, but only in occasional performances and the work has never managed to make it onto the national stage. Now, we have a studio recording of Malcolm Arnold's The Dancing Master from Resonus Classics, with John Andrews conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra with Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Carby, Fiona Kimm, Ed Lyon, Mark Wilde and Graeme Broadbent.

Not only is Malcolm Arnold not well known for his operas, he does not seem to have written very much vocal music at all. There are around ten vocal and choral works, as opposed to the remarkable number orchestral and chamber pieces he wrote, not to mention the film scores (some of which, presumably, include vocal items). The Dancing Master is in fact Arnold's longest opera, his only other one being The Open Window, a 20-minute work from 1956.

He had had ideas for operas with the film-maker Joe Mendoza which did not come to fruition. Then Mendoza got in touch about the idea of doing an opera based on an adaptation of a Restoration comedy, for a television broadcast by the BBC. Mendoza already had a script adaptation of Wycherley's The Gentleman Dancing Master for a film which was never made. Something seems to have appealed to Arnold. And when Mendoza sent him a prototype libretto for comments, Arnold responded two weeks later with the full score. And this despite being inordinately busy and productive. 

Monday, 26 October 2020

An evening of thoughtful & uplifting music from Héloı̈se Werner, Kit Downes & Colin Alexander as St John's Smith Square's Autumn programme continues

Héloı̈se Werner(soprano), Kit Downes (organ) and Colin Alexander (cello)
Performing interesting repertoire within the limits of current restrictions remains a challenge, but one to which some musicians are rising in interesting ways. 

On 27 November 2020, three diverse musicians are coming together at St John's Smith Square to perform an evening of thoughtful and uplifting music.  Héloı̈se Werner(soprano), Kit Downes (organ) and Colin Alexander (cello) have solved the conundrum by planning a programme in which the three will be placed spaced at the extremes of the concert hall, surrounding the audience. Each performer will offer around twenty minutes of their own solo works, written over the last six months, and the programme will also feature five short text pieces written especially for the occasion by Errollyn Wallen, Shiva Feshareki, Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Jonathan Cole and Love Ssega.

The result should be a diverse and intriguing concert, which showcases three very different artists as well as giving us a chance to hear music written exactly to suit the circumstances. Further details from St John's Smith Square website.

The concert is part of St John's Smith Square's November programme, a line-up which also includes London Mozart Players and violinist Jonian Ilias Kadesha in Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Bampton Classical Opera in Gluck's one-act opera The Crown conducted by Robert Howarth, London Chamber Orchestra in Schubert's Octet and Louise Farrenc's Nonet, the Young Musicians' Symphony Orchestra in Brahms and much more. Further details from St John's Smith Square website.

An honourable failure or a misunderstood masterpiece? Another look at Weber's Oberon

Weber: Oberon - Lucia Elizabeth Vestris as Fatima in an 1826 etching
Weber: Oberon
Lucia Elizabeth Vestris as Fatima in an 1826 etching
Carl Maria von Weber's opera Oberon is commonly regarded as an honourable failure, the German composer's surprisingly coherent attempt to triumph over an incoherent English libretto. Yet the piece contains much of Weber's finest music and if we are to understand it and, perhaps, love it, then we need to put the music into context and try and realise what the work's librettist (James Robertson Planché) and commissioner (Charles Kemble, manager of Covent Garden) were trying to achieve.

In writing Oberon, Weber was attempting to follow up on the huge success of his 1821 opera, Der Freischütz (in fact the composer's 7th opera), with its combination of spoken dialogue, folk-opera and high-romantic melodrama,  and the conspicuous lack of success of Euryanthe (1823), with its through-composed structure yet poorly conceived libretto. He was also trying to make money; the London commission paid well and Weber knew his time was limited (he had TB). Unfortunately, trying to create a German romantic opera repertoire was tricky, librettos remained a problem. Weber fell out with writer and playwright Johann Friedrich Kind (1768-1843), who had written the libretto of Der Freischütz, and the poetess Helmina von Chezy (1783-1856) proved not entirely up to the task of creating Euryanthe [yet, the director Christoph Loy whose production of the opera debuted at the Theater an der Wien in 2019 has found much to explore in the work, see my article Towards German Romantic Opera].

Weber received the text of Oberon piecemeal, so he only gradually became aware that it wasn't what he considered an opera. 

Precisely.

That is because it isn't. Part of our dissatisfaction with Oberon is the way the libretto fails to match our expectation of a high romantic opera. We need to understand a bit more about that the text was, in fact, trying to achieve.

Weber at home: Complete keyboard duets from Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate

Carl Maria von Weber Complete Keyboard Duets; Julian Perkins, Emma Abbate; Deux-Elles

Carl Maria von Weber Complete Keyboard Duets; Julian Perkins, Emma Abbate; Deux-Elles

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A more intimate domestic side to Weber, but nonetheless full of imaginative touches and performed here with real affection

Carl Maria von Weber's output extended considerably further than his opera Der  Freischütz and the occasional clarinet concerto, not that you would know it from the limited number of his works in regular circulation. A new disc of Weber's music on Deux-Elles introduces us to a different side of the composer as pianists Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate play Weber's complete keyboard duets (piano four-hands) on a Graf fortepiano from Vienna in 1826, the year of Weber's death.

Perkins and Abbate's careers span two worlds as Julian Perkins is best known as a harpsichordist and director of Cambridge Handel Opera and Sounds Baroque, whilst Abbate has made a career delving into contemporary and 20th century music for piano. But they were bequeathed a copy of Weber's keyboard duets by their late friend, the composer Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013) and decided to explore. The result is this disc which presents Weber's Six Petites Pieces Faciles, Op.3 (from 1803), Six Pieces, Op.10a (from 1810) and Huit Pieces, Op 60 (from 1820), alongside Mozart's Andante and Five Variations in G major, K501

Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate (Photo Paul Lehane/Theatrical Photography)
Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate (Photo Paul Lehane/Theatrical Photography)

The pieces thus span Weber's career, and they introduce us to a sound-world which is surprisingly classical. For all Weber's Romantic credentials with Der Freischütz (from 1821) and Euryanthe (from 1823), he had a strongly classical vein running through him. Born eleven years before Schubert, Weber was a cousin of Mozart's wife (Constanze Mozart was the daughter of Weber's father's half-brother). The two composers never met, but it is an intriguing link. There is another link too, one which is less relevant to this disc but which is fascinating nonetheless.

Premeres of two new song cycles by Iain Bell at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and at the London Song Festival

Thom Gunn (Photo Ander Gunn)
Thom Gunn (Photo Ander Gunn)
The forthcoming weeks see the premieres of two song cycles by Iain Bell, in Salzburg and in London. Both setting texts by poets based in the USA, albeit 100 years apart, and both examining gay themes. 

We Two, setting poems by Walt Whitman, will be performed by American bass baritone Douglas Williams and pianist Levi Hammer at the Mozarteum in Salzburg on 27 November 2020, and The Man with Night Sweats, setting poems by Thom Gunn, will be performed by baritone Jarrett Ott and pianist Nigel Foster at the London Song Festival on 4 December 2020.

We Two sets eight poems by Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass and explores the twin passions of Whitman's work; the joy and wonder of nature and the ecstasy of male physical contact. Williams and Hammer's recital also includes Kurt Weill's Whitman songs, Leonard Bernstein's Whitman setting from Songfest, and music by Alban Berg, and Cole Porter. Further information from the Mozarteum website.

Rather darker in tone, The Man with Night Sweats sets a sequence of poems by Thom Gunn, from his eponymous collection which centres around the death of friends with AIDS. Bell describes the work as a 'near monodrama in song-cycle form' as he has fashion a narrative from Gunn's poems, that of a man seeing those around him dying of AIDS, whilst being aware he too is HIV+. The cycle was commissioned by the London Song Festival and the premiere will be filmed and broadcast by Artist Digital on the London Song Festival’s YouTube channel. Further information from the London Song Festival website.

Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was early on associated with poets such as Ted Hughes, and Philip Larkin. In 1954, he emigrated to the USA to be with his partner. During the 1960s and 1970s his poetry became bolder in its exploration of drug taking, homosexuality, and poetic form. Edmund White described him as "the last of the commune dwellers [...] serious and intellectual by day and druggy and sexual by night".

Sunday, 25 October 2020

A Life On-Line: A Feast in the Time of Plague, an oboe concerto in time of war, an Arcadian Academy in Surrey

Sevak Avanesyan in the recently bombed Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi (Artsakh)
Sevak Avanesyan in the recently bombed Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi (Artsakh)

Quite a busy column this week, as our short holiday in the West Country slowed things down somewhat and there was no column last week. We finally caught up with the London Mozart Players concert from Fairfield Halls as part of their Classical Club, originally broadcast on 15 October. Conducted by Mateusz Moleda, the orchestra performed Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Richard Strauss' Oboe Concerto with oboist Olivier Stankiewicz. 

The Mendelssohn was wonderfully lithe and propulsive; working with rather fewer strings that might be usual (owing to space constraints on stage) the balance was less string dominated than in some modern symphony orchestra performances, and Moleda clearly fed off this and encouraged an impulsive and dynamic performance full of lovely instrumental detail. The second movement continued the sense of onward movement with a graceful flow to the third. The finale was vivid and vigorous, with a great sense of tension and expectation in the quieter passages.

French-born Olivier Stankiewicz is currently the principal oboist with the London Symphony Orchestra and one of YCAT's artists. Strauss' concerto is a remarkable, and unlikely work; the result of the personal engagement between a young American serviceman who, in another life, played principal oboe in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the elderly composer. Despite the wartime circumstances, it is a gorgeously lyrical work which brings out a side to the oboe not often heard. And for all the busy detail of the Strauss concerto's opening movement, there was a lovely relaxed quality to Stankiewicz's playing, as he combined shapely phrasing with mellow tone. In the second movement he made the solo line beautifully tender, with a perkily impulsive finale where, at the end, all the players seemed to be swaying to the music. [London Mozart Players]

Another work we caught up on was Alex Woolf's new opera A Feast in the Time of Plague from Grange Park Opera. Earlier in the year I interviewed Alex to talk about how the opera had come about. The libretto is by David Pountney and was written, on spec, in direct response to the pandemic. Wasfi Kani commissioned the work for Grange Park Opera and it was performed at the company's Surrey theatre with a strong cast, Claire Booth, Peter Hoare, Anne-Marie Owens, Soraya Mafi, Susan Bullock, Simon Keenlyside, Janis Kelly, Jeffrey LLoyd Roberts, William Dazely, Clive Bayley, Sarah Minns, Harry Thatcher, conducted by Toby Purser,  with Alex Woolf at the piano.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Everything via Association: composer Vic Hoyland on his 75th birthday

A recent photo of Vic Hoyland at home in Yorkshire
A recent photo of Vic Hoyland
at home in Yorkshire
The composer Vic Hoyland was due to celebrate his 75th birthday this year with a concert at Kings Place, and my interview with him was organised to coincide with the concert. This latter, alas, has had to be postponed but this year is still Vic's 75th birthday and there is plenty to celebrate and talk about, so we went ahead with the interview. Vic was born in Yorkshire and studied at Hull and York Universities, going on to become Haywood Fellow at the University of Birmingham where he became Professor in Composition until his retirement in 2011. His music has been much influenced by European composers such as Luciano Berio and Franco Donatoni.

As a boy, Vic wanted to be a painter, he loved drawing and in fact still does. A cousin of his, John Hoyland was a well known painter in the 1960s, and Vic's grandmother had had a career as a painter and a musician, though she had died in 1940s. But a new music master came to his school (Normanton Boys Grammar), who had studied at Manchester in the 1950s, an exciting time to be studying music with luminaries such as Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle and John Ogdon. The music master inspired Vic with a love of music and introduced him to European repertoire, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and music by Webern and Berg, all of which the young Vic was hearing for the first time. So at the age of 15 or 16, Vic started to write music and found that he could do it. 

Vic's parents had wanted him to work, but against their wishes he went to university. He did his undergraduate degree at the University of Hull, it wasn't marvellous but it enabled Vic to meet with students of like minds. After his degree, the same school master advised Vic that he ought to go to York University, to the music department there which had been established by composer Wilfrid Mellers (1914-2008). And, having seen Vic's work, Mellers was keen for him to go. But there was difficulty getting funding for composition degrees at the time, and it was Vic's former headmaster who helped with the funding.

Because of Wilfrid Mellers, contemporary European and American composers such as John Cage (1912-1992), Steve Reich, Bruno Maderna (1920-1973) and Luciano Berio (1925-2003) came to visit the York music department. Vic's first teacher at York was Robert Sherlaw Johnson (1932-2000), as a tutor Sherlaw Johnson was not entirely successful for Vic except that Vic learned about the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992).  His second teacher was Bernard Rands, and this relationship was far more successful and Rands became a friend for life.

Also thanks to Mellers' influence, the director of Universal Edition in Vienna became a regular visitor to York, and the company took Vic on at the age of 26, the youngest composer on Universal Edition's books. A BBC Proms commission followed, In Transit; this had been intended for Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), but he was unable to conduct it so the performance went to the composer and conductor Péter Eötvös (who conducted it at BBC Proms the in 1987 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), who went on to have an important input into Vic's career.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Welcome to the high energy world of Irish composer Ed Bennett: Psychedelia from NMC

Ed Bennett Psychedelia; RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, David Brophy, Kate Ellis, Decibel, Daniele Rosina, Orkest de Ereprijs, Wim Boerman, Jack McNeil, Eliza McCarthy; NMC
Ed Bennett Psychedelia; RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, David Brophy, Kate Ellis, Decibel, Daniele Rosina, Orkest de Ereprijs, Wim Boerman, Jack McNeil, Eliza McCarthy; NMC

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A disc of music for orchestra and for ensemble by Irish composer Ed Bennett makes for an exciting ride, full of energy

Welcome to the high energy world of Irish composer Ed Bennett. Bennett's new disc on NMC, Psychedelia features five of Bennett's pieces, Freefalling, Song of the Books, Psychedelia, Organ Grinder and Magnetic played by RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Brophy, Bennett's own ensemble Decibel with Kate Ellis (cello) and Daniele Rosina (conductor), Orkest de Ereprijs and conductor Wim Boerman, Jack McNeill (bass clarinet) and Eliza McCarthy (piano). All the pieces, in their various different ways, explore Bennett's seeming fascination for rhythm and energy, insistent textures and rhythmic contrasts.

Freefalling starts us off with a bang. The work is an evocation of Felix Baumgartner's 2012 world-record free-fall, performed here by RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Brophy. Bennett does not assail the ear, he is fascinated by multiple moving lines and creates his sense of movement and energy from remarkably simple means. This work introduces us to a number of Bennett tropes on the disc, polyrhythms, the use of blocks of colour and texture, and a fascination for applying instrumental glissandi to cut across horizontal textures of rhythm. The resulting sound has a massiveness but a sense of propulsion too. After the initial rush there are quieter moments, but the excitement is never far away.

Recitals with attitude: Wimbledon International Music Festival's 2020 on-line celebration

This year's Wimbledon International Music Festival will be a series of filmed performances which are being streamed on-line from 13 to 22 November 2020. But these will be more than just filmed performances, and each artist will explore their personal relationship with their chosen works.

The music of Beethoven is a theme running through the festival and the opening event is pianist Paul Lewis in Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. Then cellist Raphael Wallfisch and pianist John York will explore Beethoven cello sonatas. Founder members of London Winds, Michael Collins and Robin O’Neill are joined by pianist Michael McHale to discuss Beethoven’s chamber music and perform the Trio in B flat major OP. 11. The Solem Quartet will perform Beethoven's Quartet no. 13 in B flat major, op. 130  and, Piers Lane (piano) and Tama Matheson (actor) will join forces for Matheson's new drama which explores Beethoven's piano sonatas.      

Other music in the festival includes pianist Clare Hammond who will be talking about  the appeal and the challenges of each work in her programme, violist and painter Rivka Golani is joined by pianist Michael Hampton to explore the importance of colour in her life with music by Kreisler, Elgar, Dvorak, Brahms and Schumann, and The Telling bring their drama  Vision: The imagined testimony of Hildegard of Bingen. The festival ends with Florilegium,  Ashley Solomon (flute), Bojan Cicic (violin), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba) & Julian Perkins (harpsichord), in a programme which the performers discuss the allure and quirks of their instruments which they illustrate with short solos as they explore the relationship between J. S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. 

Full details from the festival website.

Music and architecture combined in The Sixteen's A Choral Odyssey

A Choral Odyssey- Credit to Tonwen Jones (www.tonwenjones.co.uk) and Tilly (runningforcrayons)

This time of year we are usually looking forward to The Sixteen's forthcoming Choral Pilgrimage, the choir's annual tour round cathedrals and churches of the UK, usually performing music that was originally written for the spaces and often including contemporary works. Inevitably, whatever plans the group had for a Choral Pilgrimage in 2020/2021 have had to be shelved.

Instead, The Sixteen are presenting A Choral Odyssey, an on-line series of five-programmes which will combine music and architecture. Presented by Simon Russell Beale, each will take an in-depth look at a wide-ranging selection of choral music in locations that are relevant to the music and which inform the theme and choice of repertoire. Starting on 18 November 2020, episodes will be released every Wednesday, all available to watch on demand until 31 January 2021. The series will culminate in an ‘as live’ stream of The Sixteen’s Christmas at Cadogan concert (23 December). 

The series begins at  Magdalen College, Oxford with music by two late 15th/early 16th century composers, Richard Davy and John Sheppard, who both held the post of Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College. Then we move to the Roman Catholic church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory in Soho, built 1789-90 on the site of a Catholic chapel (originally part of the Portuguese Embassy and subsequently the Bavarian Embassy) pillaged during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, and here we have a programme of music by Spanish Renaissance composer Francisco Guerrero.

At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe we have music by Henry Purcell, and at Hatfield House there is music by William Byrd (contemporaneous with the house) and by another Roman Catholic in difficult circumstances, Arvo Pärt. Hatfield House is also the home of the Marquess of Salisbury who is patron of The Sixteen.

At Penshurst Place in Kent, which King Henry VIII used as a hunting lodge and it is believed that he may well have spent Christmas there one year, we hear a programme of early and traditional carols including one by Henry himself (only the chorus survives so Cecilia McDowall has written new verses), and music by William Walton. Finally, The Sixteen's annual Christmas concert is being live-streamed from Cadogan Hall.

Full details from The Sixteen's website.

New artistic director for Northern Ireland Opera

Cameron Menzies
Cameron Menzies
It certainly is all-change for opera in Northern Ireland, hot on the heels of the creation of Ulster Touring Opera, artistic director Dafydd Hall Williams (see my article), comes the announcement that the Australian-born director Cameron Menzies to be artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera.

Menzies whose career has spanned both Europe and Australia, has worked in opera, music theatre and cabaret as well as directing the premieres of several children's operas.. He was associate artist with Diva Opera for whom he has directed productions including Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Strauss' Die Fledermaus and Puccini's La Boheme. In 2016 he received a Sydney Award for the best direction of Pecan Summer Australia’s first Indigenous Opera.

Northern Ireland Opera was founded in 2010 to provide high-quality opera throughout Northern Ireland, whilst promoting young talent from the region and forming partnerships with arts organisations from Northern Ireland. Its first artistic director was Oliver Mears who is now director of opera at the Royal Opera House. 

Further information from Northern Ireland Opera's website.



Thursday, 22 October 2020

From the whole earth dancing to a day in hell: chamber music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad

The Whole Earth Dances - Cheryl Frances Hoad; Champs Hill Records

The Whole Earth Dances
- Cheryl Frances Hoad; Champs Hill Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 October 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Chamber music spanning 20 years in what feels like a very personal disc from composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad

The Whole Earth Dances is the third disc of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's music to appear on Champs Hill Records, a suitable 40th birthday present which has something of a retrospective feel as the disc includes music ranging from the title track, The Whole Earth Dances written in 2016 to The Prophecy written in 1998, with performed by The Schubert Ensemble, the Gildas Quartet, Rozenn Le Trionnaire, Francesca Barritt, Sholto Kynoch, David Cohen, Daniel Grimwood, Rebecca Gilliver, Sophia Rahman, Yshani Perinpanayagam, Sara Minelli and Fenella Humphreys. The music on the disc features chamber music in a variety of forms from duos to large-scale ensembles, but perhaps significantly none has a traditional title.

The disc begins with The Whole Earth Dances a quintet performed by the Schubert Ensemble (William Howard, piano, Simon Blendis, violin, Douglas Paterson, viola, Jan Slmon, cello, Peter Buckoke, double bass). Using the same forces as Schubert's Trout Quintet, the work was commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble as a companion piece and premiered by them at the Spitalfields Music Festival in 2016. The work is inspired by the landscape around Frances-Hoad's house, and by the poetry of Ted Hughes. It is a single movement work divided into five continuous parts, thistles, ferns, thistles, ferns, thistles! Whilst the harmonic language is different, the way Frances-Hoad uses the strings playing long lyrical (sometimes unison) lines and has the piano reverberating against them rather reminded me of Messiaen in his Quartet for the End of Time. And Frances-Hoad's music has a certain rhapsodic, transcendental feel which seems to take it beyond mere descriptions of the countryside into another realm.

BCMG celebrates the centenary of Paul Celan with its first live concert since lockdown

Paul Celan
Paul Celan

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) is launching its 2020/21 season on 22 November 2020 with a concert at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham which will the group's first live concert for five months (and will be available on-line as well). Words from Abroad will celebrate the centenary of Romanian-born poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) with three world premieres from Spanish composer Francisco Jose Andreo Gázquez and Italian composers Andrea Sordano and Caterina Di Cecca, written in response to the international call for scores launched in collaboration between BCMG, Ensemble O/Modernt, Gehrmans Musikförlag and the Goethe-Institut Schweden earlier this year,  the 2019-20 O/Modernt Composition Award. The concert also features music by Param Vir, Christopher Fox and Donghoon Shin. There will be two performances at 1pm and 4pm on 22/11/2020, with a live stream at 4pm.

Further ahead, on 13 December BCMG will give the  live world premiere of A Dust in Time (Passacaglia for Strings) by New York-based Chinese composer Huang Ruo. Inspired by the symbolism of the Tibetan sand mandala intertwined with the European tradition of the passacaglia, the work is a musical reflection on the lived experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Full details from the BCMG website.

The Soldier's Return: Opera Sunderland takes its latest community opera on-line

Austin Gunn, Andri Bjorn Robertsson, Magnus from Meerkat filming The Soldier's Return
Austin Gunn, Andri Bjorn Robertsson, Magnus from Meerkat filming The Soldier's Return

Opera Sunderland's 2020 project was The Soldier;s Return, a new opera by the Spanish compser Marcos Fernandez-Barrero (who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Royal College of Music) inspired by present day war veterans’ real life experiences. The piece was due to be premiered by professional soloists and a community chorus, but no sooner had the 40-strong intergenerational community chorus been recruited than the UK went into Lockdown in March. The result was a re-think, and The Soldiers Return was re-cast as a film which will premiere on Remembrance Sunday.

Opera Sunderland's artistic director Alison Barton explains, "We decided to collaborate with award-winning North East film makers Meerkat Films and sound engineer Ian Stephenson at Simpson Street Studios to produce The Soldier’s Return as a film instead of a live production. Social distancing rules have meant taking an approach more akin to producing a pop video than an opera, but although it’s quite an experimental approach in the classical music world, it is tried and tested in other genres such as pop and rock. It’s a case of the show must go on, and it will!” 

The Soldier’s Return is drawn from interviews with local people involved in past, recent and ongoing combat situations. It explores the impact of conflict when soldiers return home, not only on the soldiers themselves, but also their families and their relationship with the wider community. The opera features music by Marco Fernandez-Barrero with a libretto by Jacob Polley, directed by Annie Rigby, musical director Marco Romano, with a cast including Ian Priestly, Katherin Aitken, Austin Gunn, and Andri Björn Róbertsson, and a community chorus, filmed by a team from Meerkat Films.

The Solider's Return premieres on 8 November 2020, further details from the Opera Sunderland website.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

The case against Wagner - David Faiman's Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer

David Faiman Giacomo Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer; Gefen Publishing House

David Faiman Giacomo Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer; Gefen Publishing House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 October 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A popular introduction to the composer's work which casts light on the way anti-Semitism affected his reputation

The case of Giacomo Meyerbeer is a strange one. One of the most popular composers of the 19th century (perhaps the most popular in Paris), his music fell out of favour in the 20th century alongside most of the operas of his almost exact contemporary Gioachino Rossini. But with the post-war Italian bel canto revival, there was no parallel Meyerbeer revival. The 2018 production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Paris Opera [see my review] was the first new production there since the 1930s, yet between 1836 and 1936 the company gave over 1000 performances of the opera. The new book from David Faiman, Giacomo Meyerbeer: The Deliberately Forgotten Composer published by Gefen Publishing House, is a deliberate attempt to explore the reasons why Meyerbeer fell from view.

At the core of the book is a valuable summary of Meyerbeer's life, career, and operatic works, something that is badly needed. Whilst there is plenty of learned coverage of Meyerbeer (notably Robert Ignatius Letellier's writings), there is little in the popular line. Faiman provides a very effective summary, extensively quoting the composer's contemporaries to give us a sense of how highly regarded Meyerbeer and his music were. 

We also get a handy summary of the operas and whilst many will at least know of one or two major operas there are plenty of others!

The piano trio and beyond at Conway Hall

Linos Piano Trio (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Linos Piano Trio (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)

Having given us the Mithras Trio in Haydn, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky [see my review], the Conway Hall Sunday Concerts series continues with further explorations of the piano trio in their live-streamed concerts, and for the first time this season the hall will also be welcoming a socially distanced live audience. 

Over three concerts (1/11/2020, 29/11/2020 and 13/12/2020) the Linos Piano Trio, Greenwich Trio and Rautio Piano Trio will perform music ranging from JS Bach and CPE Bach to Kaija Saariaho.

The Linos Piano Trio has recently released a disc of the complete piano trios by CPE Bach. Dating from a period when the genre was developing, these are works by a highly inventive composer, and the Linos Piano Trio will be performing one at their recital, alongside their own arrangement of Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 and Brahms' final Piano Trio in C. Brahms' wrote just three piano trios, though he seems to have sketched out a number of other works in the genre which he was dissatisfied with. The trio's final work will be Light and Matter by the contemporary Paris-based Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho.

Brahms is currently the focus of the Greenwich Trio, as the group is recording the complete Brahm's Piano Trios. At Conway Hall, the group will be performing two trios originally written in different instrumentation. Brahms' Trio in A minor Op. 114, which was originally for clarinet, cello and piano and one of the group of late works inspired by the clarinet playing of Richard Muhlhausen, and the Trio in E flat Op. 40, originally for horn, violin and piano. Brahms allowed both works to be published in versions for piano trio as that was a highly popular and hence lucrative when published.

For the final concert, the Rautio Piano Trio are joined by Robin Ashwell (viola), and Leon Bosch (double bass) for a concert which moves from piano trio to piano quartet and to quintet. They open with Bach, arranged for piano trio, and then comes Schumann's Piano Quartet. Far less well known than the Piano Quintet and written the same year, 1842, Schumann's Piano Quartet is no less fine a work. The concert finishes with Schubert's Trout Quintet, written specifically for a patron who wanted a reference to Schubert's song and wanted an instrumental line up to match an existing work, hence the slightly unusual violin, viola, cello, piano, double bass. It is one of Schubert's most genial works.

As well as welcoming a socially-distanced audience, all the concerts are live-streamed, using Conway Hall's new state-of-the-art equipment. Full details from the Conway Hall website.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas and more, in historically informed performances from cellist Viola de Hoog and pianist Mikayel Balyan

Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas, Piano Trio No. 1; Viola de Hoog, Mikayel Balyan, Marten Root; Vivat

Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas, Piano Trio No. 1; Viola de Hoog, Mikayel Balyan, Marten Root; Vivat

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Uncompromising colours and a wonderful directness characterise these period performances of Mendelssohn's chamber music

For much of the second half of the 19th century, Mendelssohn's Cello Sonatas were the epitome of the cello sonata, though with the dimming of the composer's reputation their presence on the concert stage diminished until the revival of the composer's reputation in the late 20th century. On this disc, from Vivat, we get the chance to hear Mendelssohn's Cello Sonatas performed by two fine period instrument specialists, Viola de Hoog (cello) and Mikayel Balyan (piano), and the filling is equally intriguing Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 in the composer's version for flute, cello and piano.

Viola de Hoog plays a Guadagni cello from 1750, and her tone combines a rich dark expressive quality, with a certain directness. There is a forthrightness to the sound quality here, which is complemented by the piano's striking tones (Balyan plays an 1845 Erard). This historically informed playing which seeks to elucidate the sound-world of the period rather than trying to ingratiate the music with the listeners. There is something forthright about the style of the disc, with De Hoog's highly speaking tones finding a rather different character in Mendelssohn's sonatas than many playing in a 21st century manner.

Beethoven and Black muses at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Stephan Loges
Stephan Loges

Before Beethoven
/ An Imperfect Tapestry; Stephan Loges, Eugene Asti, Gweneth Ann Rand, Simon Lepper; Oxford Lieder Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 October 2020
The final day of the festival, when I catch Beethoven, his contemporaries and predecessors at lunch, and an imperfect tapestry of black muses, composers and performers at tea time

Saturday 17 October 2020 was the last day of this year's Oxford Lieder Festival, and I caught two concerts live from the Holywell Music Room. At lunchtime, baritone Stephan Loges and pianist Eugene Asti performed Before Beethoven, a programme of songs by Beethoven, his contemporaries and predecessors, J.C. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Zelter. Then for the early evening concert, soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and pianist Simon Lepper gave us An Imperfect Tapestry, ‘a personal reflection of Black voices and muses, stretching back in time to the Black Venus, who inspired the poetry of Baudelaire’ with music by Debussy and Ravel, alongside Abel Meeropol, Harry Sever, Errollyn Wallen and Adolphus Hailstork.

Gweneth Ann Rand
Gweneth Ann Rand
With Before Beethoven, rather than presenting us with a random selection of Beethoven's songs (his song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte was performed earlier in the festival), Stephan Loges and Eugene Asti paired Beethoven's songs with those of his contemporaries and predecessors, allowing us to experience Beethoven in context rather than sitting against the sophistications of late Schubert. In song, Beethoven rarely breaks the classical bounds, in the way he does in other genres, so the comparison with contemporaries and predecessors was valuable.

We began with a songs by JC Bach (1714-1788) and Beethoven, four prayers setting texts by Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-1769). Bach was a great influence on Mozart, and whilst Grusse Gottes in der Natur and Bitten both seemed rooted in the Baroque there were forward-looking hints too which linked to Beethoven's intense Vom Tode and the powerful Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, a song which could not but be by anyone else.

Next came a group about relationships, setting mainly texts by Christian Felix Weisse (1726-1804) from the charm and character of Haydn's Die zu späte Ankunft der Mutter and Mozart's Die Verschweigung to Haydn's more sober Lob der Faulheit and the distinctly perky charm of Beethoven's Der Kuss.

For love songs, we had a compare and contrast as Beethoven's rather civilised and classical Andenken was followed by Schubert's touching Adelaide, setting the same text as Beethoven's well-known song. Mozart's Das Traumbild returned us to classical charm, whilst Schubert's Seligkeit was delightfully dancey.