Sunday 20 December 2020

A Life On-Line: Messiah at the Barbican, celebrations in Russia, Beethoven at the Mansion House, Christmas in 17th century Bolivia

Handel: Messiah - Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr - Barbican (Photo Mark Allan/Barbican)
Handel: Messiah - Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr - Barbican
(Photo Mark Allan/Barbican)

On the day that it was announced that London and the South-East would be plunged into Tier 4 there was, at least, one bright spark on the inter-web. The Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) live-streamed Handel's Messiah from the Barbican (as part of the Live from the Barbican series). Directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr, the performance featured soprano Rowan Pierce, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Ben Johnson and baritone Ashley Riches, with the AAM's choir. Socially distanced, the performers filled the Barbican stage. It has been announced that Egarr is stepping down as music director of the AAM in 2021, so presumably this would be his last Messiah in that role.

I have to confess that, without an audience, the work flowed far better and Egarr brought a real sense of dramatic pace to the whole work. We often forget, given that Messiah is full of so many musical plums, that the origins of the work were in librettist Charles Jennens' desire to tell a particular story. And Handel does that brilliantly, without ever introducing individual characters. In this performance that sense of a musical narrative came over, particularly as all four performers really brought out the text.  This was a performance where words mattered. Yes, Rowan Pierce was poised, warm and communicative, Iestyn Davies sang with his familiar beauty of tone yet could be wonderfully trenchant, Ben Johnson sang with a firm yet vibrant sense of line, and Ashley Riches did a nice line in dark mystery with brilliant focus in the passage-work, but all conveyed the words too. Egarr's speeds were sometimes on the swift side, but none of the singers showed any degree of strain and the chorus was brilliantly fleet, so that  'His yoke' was superbly crisp and the long sequence of choruses in Part 2 had a dramatic flow to them.

We had a fairly traditional edition of the score, and a reasonably full one too which was lovely. There was a substantial interval talk in which included Rowan Pierce, Nicholas Kenyon and Ruth Smith and was full of insights into the background of the work. [Barbican]

It was, of course, a week of anniversaries. Beethoven loomed large, and the Hanover Band celebrated with the culmination of its series of films of Beethoven's symphonies and chamber music.

Last-minute problems with travel meant that Sir Mark Elder had stepped into the breach as conductor, with soloists Sophie Bevan (Soprano), Madeleine Shaw (Mezzo), Ed Lyon (Tenor), and Darren Jeffery (Baritone). Recorded in the Mansion House, the space was not big enough to cope with the orchestra, soloists and chorus all distanced, so Sir Mark conducted the orchestra and soloists, and the chorus was added at a later session. For the last movement the film intercut between soloists, conductor and orchestra, and images of the chorus all wearing headphones. 

The results were surprisingly successful, and Sir Mark clearly relished the less richly upholstered sound that the period instrument orchestra made, full of timbres and textures. Rhythms were sprung, speeds were fleet yet the innate drama of the work was still present. The soloists fitted into this lither conception of the work; the sound of Ed Lyons in the drinking song with the period contra-bassoon bouncing underneath him, the first entry of the soloists where on her first entry soprano Sophie Bevan did not swamp mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw as commonly happens (a friend of mine used to judge Beethoven Nine performances on this moment), and Darren Jeffery's sense of drama at the opening. [Hanover Band]

There was another anniversary too, the Russian National Orchestra is 30 and under its founder Mikahil Pletnev the orchestra gave a gala concert at the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, with a stellar array of soloists. The programme was arranged to show off as many people as possible so there were a series of movements from multi-instrument concertante works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms, but the orchestra got to show off too with a stunning account of the overture to Rossini's William Tell. The introductions were all in Russian, so I am a bit hazy about who was playing what, but there was no doubting the sense of atmosphere and occasion. [Meloman]

On Thursday, the group El Parnaso Hyspano took us on a trip to 17th century New Spain. Singers Rafael Montero (leader), Kate Smith, Verónica Chacón, Simone Ibbett-Brown, John Sloboda, and instrumentalists Jamie Akers, Reiko Ichise, Kanti Quen performed 17th century Bolivian Christmas songs called “negrillas” which showed the cultural assimilation of black Africans and black music with the Spanish and Native American society. This was highly engaging music, which mixed indigenous influences with those of the Spanish tradition of popular religious song (just think of the Cantigas de Santa Maria). The concert was live-streamed from Brickworks Community Centre, a brand-new community centre in Islington, and part of the Octopus Community Network. A delightfully engaging, and thought-provoking programme which made you wish you could have been there. [YouTube]

Never ones to shy away from the idea of political engagement, Song in the City's season offering was another thought-provoking programme, this time looking at music and climate change. There were works by four contemporary composers, Kamala Sankaram, Ben See, Judy Twedt, and Raymond Yiu with Donna Lennard (soprano), Ronald Long (violin), and Gavin Roberts (piano). Raymond Yiu's song cycle looked at issues of bio-diversity, setting a variety of texts from John Clare and William Wordsworth to Charles Darwin. Ben See's piece was for solo voice, and originally had been a community work, whilst Kamala Sankaram's work for voice and violin looked at an Alaskan island threatened by rising sea levels. Judy Twedt is both a composer and climate scientist, and her piano solo was based directly on data from the Arctic ice, showing how it is declining. [YouTube]

With the lack of live performances and relatively limited other opportunities, a number of young performers are creating their own moments. DEBUT, founder soprano Lizzie Holmes and mezzo-soprano Joanna Harries, brought together a fine array of young singers including Ella Joy soprano, Camilla Kerslake soprano, Charlotte Diamond mezzo-soprano, Dominic Bevan tenor, Guy Elliott tenor, Kieran Rayner baritone, and Andrew Tipple bass-baritone for its Horizon Project, performing a series of impressively staged scenes (no sets, minimal costumes but plenty of music-drama) from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi's Rigoletto, Rossini’s Cenerentola, Bellini’s Norma and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and Bernstein’s Candide. [DEBUT]

Another group of young performers admirably making it onto the screen is Gabriella Teychenné and Sinfonia Humanitas, a lively group (single strings and harpsichord) who perform an intriguing programme which combines lesser-known Vivaldi with new work; three of Vivaldi's concertos for strings, plus two new pieces by composer Jamie Mann (written specially for the performers) and ending with Vivaldi's substantial motet Nisi Dominus, with mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston in wonderfully trenchant form. The project is available through Sands Films, where their music room is hosting a variety of events [Sands Films]

The United Commonwealth Covid Music Project has come to fruition with its rendition of Simple Gives performed by members of the Dionysius Ensemble with musicians from all 54 commonwealth countries. [YouTube] And in a Christmas mood, mezzo-soprano Bethany Horak-Hallett joined with the English Chamber Orchestra in a new arrangement, by H Winstanley, of the traditional song I saw three ships, recorded at Cadogan Hall. [YouTube]. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was joined by Robert Howarth, soprano Anna Devin and violinist Alina Ibragimova for its Christmas concert, with music by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel and Bach [BSO]

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