Sunday 15 November 2020

A Life On-Line: Baroque in Wiltshire, Stravinsky in Chelsea, Beethoven in Poole

Telemann's Cantata 'Der am Olberg Zagende Jesus' - Roderick Williams, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Photo Southbank Centre /BBC Radio 3 /Mark Allan)
Telemann: Cantata 'Der am Olberg Zagende Jesus' - Roderick Williams, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
(Photo Southbank Centre /BBC Radio 3 /Mark Allan)

This week, our listening and watching has moved from Handel, Bach and Telemann, through rare Beethoven, to Stravinsky's war-time tale and a celebration of the art of American poet Emily Dickinson in song, 

Our week began with London Mozart Players' Remembrance Sunday offering, Igor Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale from the chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea and conducted by the hospital's music director, William Vann, with the actor Tama Matheson as the narrator. Stravinsky's ever inventive piece is a remarkably apt work for our times, written during the restrictions of World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic, the work's moral is to be happy with what you have 'Un bonheur est tout le bonheur / Deux, c'est comme s'ils n'existaient plus'.

Tama Matheson very effectively played the multiple roles (the work was intended for three actors - the soldier, the devil and a narrator - plus a dancer for the princess), and he proved an engaging story-teller whilst keeping us aware of the rhythms between the text and the music. For all Stravinsky's weaving of popular rhythms into the score, it is not a fun piece, and under William Vann's direction LMP's performance combined rhythmic vitality with spikiness and a certain seriousness of intention. [London Mozart Players]

On Monday, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment launched its OAE Player with a concert of cantatas by the three great contemporaries, Telemann, Bach and Handel, with baritone Roderick Williams and soprano Rowan Pierce. The material was a mix of recordings from concerts without an audience at the Southbank Centre, and a live concert at the Wiltshire Music Centre. We started with Telemann's Cantata 'Der am Olberg Zagende Jesus' with Roderick Williams conducting and singing the solo baritone role. Telemann wrote a remarkable number of cantatas, many of which do not survive, and they are a neglected area, fertile for discovery. With no audience and with Roderick Williams facing the ensemble, this was a very intimate performance and the players matched the chamber-like nature of Williams' singing. A moving account of Christ on the Mount of Olives, you wondered why the work was not better known.

It as followed by Bach's Cantata no. 82, Ich habe genug, this work is far better known and the fast speed of the opening movement seemed to be designed to get away from a sense of the routine. William's melifluous baritone was joined by superb oboe playing from Katerina Spreckelsen. A lovely second aria, with no worries about speed here, led to the joyous finale. Not, perhaps, the deepest or most intense of performances but one which was certainly beautifully wrought.

Finally, Handel's cantata Apollo e Dafne, written towards the end of his Italian sojourn and completed in 1710 in Hanover. It is the largest, and most dramatic, of Handel's cantatas and perhaps suggests the way he was moving towards operatic drama. The work's overture has not survived so we had a movement from one of the concerti grossi instead. Rowan Pierce made a poised Dafne, slightly cool and untouchable yet unquestionably lovely of tone and, in the context of the piece, highly desirable. Perhaps Williams did not capture the character's real nastiness, but then did Handel and the librettist really see Apollo as nasty? But Williams brought a lovely swagger and sense of entitlement to the role of Apollo, and I loved the moment when she erupts and, all ice and steel, says no whilst he is puzzled. There was no staging, and we don't need one (though Covent Garden used the piece in its multiple bill of small-scale operatic project last month). [OAE]

Also on Sunday, but we caught up later, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques gave a live concert from the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, broadcast on Arte Concert, with soprano Sandrine Piau and mezzo-soprano Eve-Maud Hubeaux in an all-Handel programme, music from Agrippina, Alcina, Tamerlano, Il pastor fido and Giulio Cesare. Once you got over the slight oddity of an all-French performance of Handel's Italian music written for London, then this was terrific. Both Hubeaux and Piau proved apt at giving each of the arias a sense of real, individual drama. Both proved to have wonderful facility in the passagework, and some of Rousset's fearsome tempos held no terrors. The result was full of vividly dramatic moments, superb singing and gut wrenching drama. I longed to hear the two in a scene together, but we had to wait until the end with the joyous final duet from Giulio Cesare. [Arte Concert]

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's concert this week, live from the Lighthouse in Poole (and also on BBC Radio 3), re-united the orchestra with its chief conductor, Kyrill Karabits for part of the orchestra's Beethoven 250 celebrations. But not central repertoire, instead one of the by-ways, a much welcome account of Beethoven's ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, preceded by the UK premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Absence. The Lindberg was a BSO co-commission and was intended as a response to Beethoven 250, striking and intriguing without ever having to resort to pastiche. 

Whilst Beethoven's ballet might not be that well known, it is surprising how familiar the music is. Whilst it was seen by contemporaries as non-typical ballet music, for modern concert goers the piece is full of colour and engaging moments. Karabits and his players gave a wonderfully lithe performance, one of the things I am enjoying about the present social distancing rules is that orchestras are playing with reduced string sections thus forcing a welcome recalibration of the sound and the balance. The BSO's performance was full of warmth, and rhythmic vigour. One of the curiosities of the work is that in all the plans for Beethoven 250 (pre-pandemic restrictions), there wasn't a rush of danced dramatisations of this terrific work. [BSO@Home]

Nigel Foster and his London Song Festival have responded to lockdown by going into the studio. We caught Will there really be a morning?, a terrific programme devoted to the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), performed by soprano Anna Patalong, actress Sarah Lawrie and pianist Nigel Foster. As a person, Dickinson remains a slightly distant, off-centre figure and Foster's programme wisely eschewed any biographical explanation in favour of interleaving song with Lawrie speaking Dickinson's words, but a judicious mixture of poetry and her letters, thus introducing us to the major themes of Dickinson's writing from nature and a quirky view of God, to her passionate friendship with her sister-in-law. 

The programme was full of composers I was barely familiar with, so that as well as the better-known songs of Aaron Copland (1900-1990), we had music by Richard Hageman (1881-1966), Ernst Bacon (1898-1990), John Duke (1899-1984), Robert Owens (1925-2017), Andre Previn (1929-2019), Richard Pearson Thomas (born 1957), Julian Philips (born 1969), Jake Heggie (born 1961), Raymond Yiu (born 1973), and Lori Laitman (born 1995). All the composers fitted loosely into a tradition that one might call tonal, but within this there was remarkable variation, giving us a sense of a vigorous tradition of song, particularly from the 20th century, running alongside the modernism of much 20th century classical music. An intriguing and wonderfully imaginative programme [YouTube]. Also on YouTube, is the festival's Beethoven 250 offering, Seizing Fate by the Throat with baritone James Cleverton, pianist Nigel Foster and actor Robert Morgan in a programme of Beethoven's words and music, including An die ferne Geliebte [YouTube]

Other items on the web this week have included the young Newcastle composer Benjamin Fitzgerald performing his own evocative Epoché, deftly controlling piano and synth in a live session at Blank Recording Studios in Newcastle [YouTube]. The Kings Return is a gospel-based group from Texas, and following the US elections for president they released a remarkably fine, a cappella version of God Bless America [Twitter]

Southrepps Festival released a lovely video of tenor Ben Johnson and guitarist Sean Shibe in a programme of love-songs by Beethoven, Schubert, Philip Rossiter, and William Walton, alongside traditional songs arranged by Lucy Broadwood and Benjamin Britten. It is the sort of intimate recital, just voice and guitar, which responds to being brought straight into your living room, especially in performances as engaging as these. [YouTube]

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has started a new podcast, Off Stage, where saxophonist and presenter YolanDa Brown will be chatting with members of the orchestra to take the listeners behind the scenes.[London Philharmonic Orchestra]

The broadcast on BBC 2 of Mozart's Requiem from the London Coliseum with Elizabeth Llewellyn, Sarah Connolly, Ed Lyon, Gerald Finley, the orchestra and chorus of English National Opera, conductor Mark Wigglesworth was a triumph of intention and will over adversity. Intended to be the first live event at the London Coliseum since March, the second lockdown put all in doubt. Even the logistics of getting the whole ENO chorus and orchestra on stage in a socially distanced manner was a triumph. Wigglesworth's interpretation took no prisoners and this was a remarkably dramatic account of the work, yet profoundly moving. [BBC iPlayer]

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