Friday 31 December 2021

2021 in opera and music theatre

Beethoven: Fidelio - Adam Smith - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Beethoven: Fidelio - Adam Smith - Glyndebourne on Tour (© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

First prizes for imagination and daring must go to Opera Holland Park for their remarkable reinvention, and Nevill Holt Opera for their imaginative outdoor performances. It was, surprisingly, a good year for Wagner with Tony seeing the complete Ring Cycle in Stephan Herheim's new production in Berlin, whilst I caught The Valkyrie both launching English National Opera's new Ring Cycle, and as the continuation of the Grimeborn Festival's cycle.

Rarities including Offenbach's La Princesse de Trebizonde from New Sussex Opera, Donizetti's Roberto Devereux from Chelsea Opera Group, Rimsky Korskov's Ivan the Terrible at Grange Park Opera, Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz at Opera Holland Park, Gluck's Paride ed Elena from Bampton Classical Opera and Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena at Fulham Opera, these latter two amazingly being first London performances.

Opera continued the theme of strong Handel performances this year with a fine Amadigi di Gaula from English Touring Opera. And a shout out for Blackheath Opera's amazing achievement of bringing off a staging of Blow's Venus and Adonis with a largely non-professional company in a pandemic, in a highly ingenious staging. And there were two strong musical theatre evening, Sondheim's A Little Night Music with a strong cast from Opera North at Leeds Playhouse, and the Grange Festival's engagingly imaginative concert staging of My Fair Lady.

Thursday 30 December 2021

A chance to revisit this Summer's production of Verdi's Falstaff at Grange Park Opera

Verdi: Falstaff - Grange Park Opera 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)
Verdi: Falstaff - Grange Park Opera 2021 (Photo Marc Brenner)

Grange Park Opera is currently keeping people entertained with a daily sequence of amusements, 12 Days of Christmas, and today's is quite an event. The chance to revisit the festival's Summer 2021 production of Verdi's Falstaff. The film of the stage production is available to view free on the Grange Park Opera website.

The production, by Stephen Medcalf, was first shown in the 17th century Farnese theatre in Parma in 2011. The production's 2021 outing in Surrey, featured Bryn Terfel in the title role, with Natalya Romaniw, Janis Kelly, Sara Fulgoni, David Stout, Chloe Morgan and Luis Gomes, conducted by Gianluca Marciano.

2021 in concert reviews

Rachel Podger - Kings Place (Photo  Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Rachel Podger - Kings Place (Photo  Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

Well, what a year it has been, yet there have been some terrific evenings in the theatre and concert hall, and I have to congratulate all the performers and venues for managing to keep the artistic world moving in difficult circumstances, from Wigmore Hall and Kings Place to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. 

Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton gave the first song recital at Wigmore Hall after lockdown, and Elizabeth Llewellyn (accompanied by Simon Lepper) returned to the Wigmore Hall following her sensational debut last year. It was also a good year for Handel, beginning with early, Italian Handel from Ensemble Marysas, continuing with Samson at the London Handel Festival, and two different Messiahs, not to forget Jorge Navarro Colorado and Opera Settecento's amazing exploration of arias written for one of Handel's tenors. 

And at the Proms we had Julius Eastman and Joseph Horovitz's Harpsichord Concerto from the Manchester Collective, and Stephen Isserlis, the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski in rare Proms outings for Walton's Cello Concerto and Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler Symphony. Whilst at Opera Holland Park, we got the chance to hear song recitals alongside the opera season and the London Song Festival' strong Autumn season included a terrific exploration of the relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud.

he Manchester Collective in rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms (Photo c/o Manchester Collective)
The Manchester Collective in rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms (Photo c/o Manchester Collective)

The Christmas season wasn't just Messiah; both Gabrieli Consort and Players in Bach cantatas and Arcangelo in Schütz put a real spring in our steps.

The following list is my selection of the live concerts that we have attended. Online events and live-streams are covered in my column, A Life On-Line.

Concerts of the year

Wednesday 29 December 2021

2021 in record reviews

On DSCH: Shostakovich, Stevenson - Igor Levit - SONY

This year's list is slightly longer than usual, perhaps in part because there have been so many terrific and interesting discs, but also because we have listened to rather more discs than usual. My record of the year has to be Igor Levit's imaginative and technically brilliant On DSCH combining Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia with Dmitri Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues.

Two discs are in categories all of their own, The Call showcases six young artists from Momentum, Barbara Hannigan's project supporting younger artists at a time when opportunities have been at a premium, whilst Songs of Isolation from Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock and Alexander Soares reflected 2020 in songs written specially for the project.

Handel has done well this year, with Bridget Cunningham exploring the great harpsichord suites and La Nuova Musica focusing on Handel's virtuoso instrumentalists (and giving us some terrific singing too). Other Early Music highlights include Soleil Noir, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro's voyage around the art of Monteverdi's first Orfeo, Tara Erraught, Irish Baroque Orchestra and Peter Whelan recaptured some of the magic of superstar castrato Tenducci, and the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal brought late 17th century English composer Pelham Humfrey into focus.

Les Talens Lyriques continued their exploration of Salieri's operas with his first, Armida, and another particular highlight has to be the first fully professional recording of the unaccountably neglected John Eccles' Semele. 

The Pelleas Ensemble's debut disc gave us a series of unexpected juxtapositions in music for flute, viola and harp, whilst the string quintet Wooden Elephant returned to the music of Radiohead with unexpected results. Anneke Scott and Steven Devine took Beethoven's Horn Sonata as a starting point for an imaginative recital of music by his contemporaries. Onyx Brass joined forces with friends to record Richard Strauss' challenging and wonderful Festmusik, and Peter Cigleris explored unaccountably neglected mid-Century clarinet concertos with Ben Palmer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. 

The choir Sansara returned to the music of Marco Galvani for their striking second album, whilst Vox Luminis and Freiburg Barockconsort gave us an intimate account of Biber's Requiem.

Pianist/composer Adam Swayne focused on a significant anniversary, 9/11, with a remarkable piano recital, and Martin Jones began his survey of Elizabeth Lutyens' piano music with a disc that made you wonder why you hadn't heard this music before.

Vocal recitals have been a particular delight, perhaps reflecting 2020 in the way that bringing a pianist and a singer together in the recording studio was easier than a whole orchestra. Reflecting the continuing rediscovery of 20th century Scottish music suggested by Levit's recital, there was a disc of Erik Chisholm's songs from Iain Burnside and friends that put the composer in a new light, whilst Scottish music of an earlier age was the focus of  Maria Valdmaa and Mikko Perkola's Aberdene 1662 based on the only book of secular music published in Scotland in the 17th century. And still with the Scots theme, the Maxwell Quartet combined vivid accounts of Haydn's London quartets with Scots traditional tunes.

Karen Cargill and Simon Lepper gave us a terrific recital of French song, and Elizabeth Llewllyn's debut disc (also with Lepper) explored the long-neglected songs of Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Gareth Brynmor John and William Vann gave us a very adult exploration of childhood, whilst Ashley Riches and Joseph Middleton brought seriousness and humour to A Musical Zoo. James Newby (also with Joseph Middleton) made a stunning debut with a recital centred on Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte.

Tuesday 28 December 2021

Full of the joy of Christmas: music by Heinrich Schütz and his contemporaries

Heinrich Schütz
Heinrich Schütz

Heinrich Schütz The Christmas Story; Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 December 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
Schütz's music for Christmas alongside that of his contemporaries, in an evening full of wonder and joy, vivid colours and amazing musical textures and timbres

We don't hear anything like enough music by Heinrich Schütz, so it was doubly welcome that Arcangelo (artistic director Jonathan Cohen) and Wigmore Hall decided to herald Christmas with a glorious sequence of Heinrich Schütz's music on Friday 23 December 2021. The second half was devoted to Die Weihnachtshistorie (The Christmas Story) whilst the first half was a sequence of Christmas motets by Schütz and Michael Praetorius with instrumental music from Johann Verdanck and Johann Hermann Schein.

A very full Wigmore Hall platform featured singers Miriam Allan and Zoe Brookshaw (sopranos), Alexander Chance (alto), Laurence Kilsby, Nicholas Mulroy, Guy Cutting (tenors), James Newby (baritone), Dingle Yandell and William Gaunt (bass), alongside a proto-orchestra featuring violins, viols, violone, recorders, dulcian (a sort of early bassoon), cornets, trombones, lute, organ and harpsichord.

One of the things to bear in mind about Schütz is that he was long-lived (dying at the age of 87!) and remained musically active into old age so that Die Weihnachtshistorie dates from 1660 when he was 75 (and published four years later), very much the grand old man, yet how vivid, vigorous and imaginative is the music. He had trained in Italy with Giovanni Gabrieli, and whilst his career in Germany involved much music for the Lutheran tradition, his grandest pieces written for the grand court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden (where he worked for the Electors Johann Georg I and his son, Johann Georg II) have the distinctive tang of Italian music.

Friday 24 December 2021

Season's Greetings

Robert at the Brighton Pavilion

Wishing you a Peaceful Christmas

and here's to a 

Healthy & Musical New Year 

from all at 

Planet Hugill

Our picture this year shows Robert at the Brighton Pavilion

Thursday 23 December 2021

Ad occhi chiusi

Daniela Mastrandrea is an Italian pianist and composer and her recent single, Ad occhi chiusi, is the second such released in advance of her next album Riflessi. Ad occhi chiusi (with eyes closed) conceived on a Summer evening and recorded at the Winter Solstice, 21 December 2021, by Natalia Bonello (flute), Francesco Paolicelli (classical guitar) and with the participation of Cosimo Damiano Niglio (double bass) and the LabSonic Orchestra at LabSonic Recording Studio (Matera), recorded and mixed by Francesco Altieri.

See the video on YouTube, and  Ad occhi chiusi is available on digital platforms.

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Hymns to the Virgin: the Tallis Scholars at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival

Josquin des Prez
1611 wood cut of Josquin,
copied from a now lost portrait

Hymns to the Virgin
- Lassus, Josquin, Guerrero, Martin, Stravinsky, Arvo Pärt, Isaac; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Music extolling the Virgin from Josquin on dazzling form to more modern composers, ending with Heinrich Isaac in thrilling form

The 36th Christmas Festival is in full, albeit somewhat subdued, swing at St John's Smith Square and we caught Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars' programme, Hymns to the Virgin on Tuesday 21 December 2021. The centrepiece of the evening was Josquin's Missa 'Ave Maris Stella' and surrounding it were settings of Marian texts. So we began with Lassus and in the second half moved from the Iberian passion of Guerrero and Matthew Martin's contemporary reflection of his music, to the austere simplicity of Stravinsky and Arvo Pärt addressing Our Lady of Guadalupe and finally Heinrich Isaac's extraordinary paean extolling the Virgin, written for the Holy Roman Emperor.

Apart from the Josquin this was largely five part music (SSATB) with the ensemble using their usual two singers per part. But we began with Lassus' Alma redemptoris Mater that used two five part ensembles as Lassus reflect the poly-choral techniques that he had experience as a young man in Italy. Though the two choirs were used in dialogue, from the beginning the piece had a great sense of excitement that developed during the passages where the two choirs sang together in thrilling combination.

London Sinfonietta's Writing the Future: new work by Luke Lewis, Alicia Jane Turner and Alex Paxton

London Sinfonietta's Writing the Future composers - Luke Lewis, Nwando Ebizie, Alicia Jane Lewis, Alex Paxton
London Sinfonietta's Writing the Future composers
Luke Lewis, Nwando Ebizie, Alicia Jane Lewis, Alex Paxton

The London Sinfonietta's Writing the Future programme supports young composers, allowing them to work with the ensemble over a two-year period to create new pieces of music that expands the chamber music format. Currently there are four composers on the project, Luke Lewis, Alicia Jane Turner, Nwando Ebizie and Alex Paxton [see my recent interview with Alex Paxton in advance of him winning one of this year's Ivors Composer Awards], working with the ensemble for the period 2019 to 2022 (extended because of the pandemic). And next year, we get a chance to hear what they've been doing.

On 6 February 2022, the London Sinfonietta's event Then & Now at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, gives us a chance to catch up with what two of the composers on the scheme, Luke Lewis and Alicia Jane Turner, have been up to. Sian Edwards will be conducting the premieres of Luke Lewis' Echoes Return Slow and Tell Me When You Get Home (with soprano Ella Taylor).

Lewis' new piece is based on musical transcriptions of speech patterns, made using innovative new software, which Lewis has then transformed into music. His piece is based on Welsh miners recorded in the 1950s by the visiting American ethno-musicologist, Alan Lomax and thus the new work becomes something of a dialogue with the past.

Turner's new work is a sensory piece exploring gendered experiences of walking alone at night, with a libretto that draws on advice given by police. It will be presented in an immersive staging directed by Lucy Bailey.

Full details from the Southbank Centre's website.

There is also a chance to catch up with Alex Paxton as his new work is being premiered by the London Sinfonietta as part of Tapestries at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 31 March 2021. Paxton will be the trombone soloist with percussionist Martin France in the premiere of Paxton's new work, and there will be the premiere of a new work by American experimental composer George Lewis.

Inspired by large Bruegel and Ody Saben paintings and Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry, Paxton’s kaleidoscopic new piece is a busy and sensually colourful tapestry that depicts all aspects of our society. Written to include the sound from a series of improvisatory workshops with local schoolchildren, the piece is promised to be a riot of colour in sound.

Full details from the Southbank Centre's website.

Tuesday 21 December 2021

The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe

The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe; Nicholas Mogg, âms Coleman; Champs Hill Records

The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe
; Nicholas Mogg, Jâms Coleman; Champs Hill

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two young performers in an engaging exploration of the songs of Carl Loewe, going beyond the familiar ballads

I first came across the music of Carl Loewe back in the 1970s when Cathy Berberian used to sing his ballad Tom der Reimer in one of her recitals. At the time Loewe was hardly performed at all. More recently, singers have been exploring Loewe's ballads [I remember Matthew Rose performing three of them at the 2015 Oxford Lieder Festival, see my review], but his wider songs have not been so well explored.

On The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe on Champs Hill Records, baritone Nicholas Mogg and pianist Jâms Coleman explore both Loewe's ballads and his other songs.

Born the year before Schubert, Carl Loewe was well-known enough in his lifetime to be called the Schubert of North Germany. He wrote in a wide variety of genres (there are five operas, 17 oratorios, three string quartets and more), but it is for his songs (of which where are some 500) and notably his ballads that he is best known. Loewe's was a notable performer of his own songs, performing them to his own piano accompanied. And as a conductor, he gave the first performance of the 18-year-old Felix Mendelssohn's Overture A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 21 at a concert in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland) that included Mendelssohn's Concerto in A-flat major for two pianos (with Loewe and Mendelssohn as soloists), Weber's Konzertstuck and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Monday 20 December 2021

Focused intensity and sheer joyful elan: John Butt and Dunedin Consort perform Handel's Messiah at Wigmore Hall

Handel Messiah; Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Wigmore Hall
Handel Messiah - Dunedin Consort, John Butt at Wigmore Hall
(taken from live-stream)

Handel Messiah; Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 December 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A small-scale consort performance of Handel's oratorio, but one lacking nothing in power and intensity

When Handel premiered Messiah in Dublin in 1742, he had a choir of 16 boys and 16 men (from St Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals in Dublin) with an orchestra of strings, two trumpets, timpani and organ (his own, shipped from London). The male soloists were taken from the choir, with the soprano and contralto solos being sung by Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber, who we presume sang in the choruses as well, according to Handel's standard practice. The premiere was a charity concert and was extremely popular and so as to accommodate as many as possible "gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses". 700 people crammed into the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street.

I have no idea how big the Great Music Hall was (only the entrance façade survives, see Hidden Dublin website) but we have to assume that with 700 people at capacity, it was smaller than Wigmore Hall. With a choir of 32 (or 34) singers, strings, timpani, organ and trumpets, this means that the big choruses must have been extremely loud, and the whole would have had an 'in your face' intensity that we usually lack in Messiah performances in bigger halls. And perhaps, we might consider that the way the number of performers in the work tended to expand to fit the available space, even in the 18th century, might be partly to recreate this sense of intensity.

These thoughts came to me as we experienced Handel's Messiah performed at Wigmore Hall on 18 December 2021, with John Butt directing the Dunedin Consort, which featured an ensemble of eleven strings (led by Matthew Truscott), organ, harpsichord, trumpets and timpani, soloists Mhairi Lawson, Owen Willetts, Nicholas Mulroy and Robert Davies along with a ripieno group of six singers who joined the soloists for the choruses. Thus making ten singers, who ranged across the front of the stage in the choruses; the result, with ten adult mature professional voices, had the sort of volume and intensity that we might expect Handel would have recognised.

I don't want to make too much of the volume, this was a superbly subtle account of the work and the choruses were also some of the best sung that I have ever come across in my nearly 50 years of attending Messiah performances. But it also had a focused intensity that arose from being in such close proximity in a relatively small concert hall.

From Brahms to late-night opera in drag, the third edition of Classical Vauxhall

Classical Vauxhall
The third edition of Classical Vauxhall, pianist Fiachra Garvey's festival at St Mark's Church, Kennington, takes place from 10 to 13 February 2022. After the second edition of the festival went online in March 2021 and welcomed 15,000 viewers, Garvey and the festival are looking forward to welcoming live audiences to a festival inspired by the visionary Jonathan Tyers, who opened the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens to make entertainment accessible to everyone in the 18th century.

Brahms is something of theme for the first two concerts as horn player Ben Goldscheider and violinist Rosanne Philippens join Fiachra Garvey for Brahms' Horn Trio plus music by Schumann, Franck and Huw Watkins' 2008 Horn Trio, then cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk perform an all-Brahms programme, including the two cello sonatas. The Amatis Trio perform piano trios by Shostakovich, Schubert and the piano trio Moorlands by Swedish contemporary composer Andrea Tarrodi, which the group premiered in 2018. 

On Saturday 12 February, there is a one-night only appearance from Kimchilia Bartoli (countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim) in a late night drag performance that pays tribute to the Vauxhall's unique queer heritage including Princess Serafina (John Cooper) who danced in a masquerade at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1732 and the gender fluidity of opera's trouser roles. Kim was the first countertenor to appear as Cherubino at the Royal Opera House in 2019. In The Royal Opera House is burning, Kimchilia Bartoli performs arias from Vivaldi's Griselda and Bizet's Carmen to the musical theatre of Stephen Schwartz's Wicked and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, accompanied on the piano by Fiachra Garvey.

Closing the Festival on Sunday 13 February, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper bring an assortment of arias from Verdi's Otello and Luisa Miller to Britten's Peter Grimes, and art songs by Puccini, Chausson and Strauss.

The venue for this year's festival, St Mark's Church, Kennington, was built in 1824 on on the site of the old gallows corner on Kennington Common. 

Full details from the Classical Vauxhall website.

Conway Hall's Spring 2022 season, from the Echéa Quartet to a Hugh Wood memorial

Echéa Quartet

Conway Hall's 2022 Spring season has just been announced, with a wide range of chamber concerts at the hall from January to May. Things kick off on 16 January 2022 with the Echéa Quartet in Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven, and the season ends on 29 May 2022 with a memorial concert for the composer Hugh Wood (1932-2021). Other concerts in January include the London Bridge Trio in Schumann, Mendelssohn and Colin Matthews, and cellist Robert Max in all of Bach's Cello Suites. I will be giving a pre-concert talk before Robert Max's concert, talking about the background to Bach's Cello Suites and the mysteries that still surround them.

Highlights in February include the Resol Quartet in quartets by both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and the Linos Piano Trio in Rebecca Clarke's Piano Trio, a work that she preferred to her better known Viola Sonata, and the trio will also be performing music by Lili Boulanger. And in March there is a rare chance to hear Ethel Smyth's chamber arrangement of her Violin and Horn Concerto, the Trio for violin, horn and piano which is performed by Calum Smart (violin), Ben Goldscheider (horn) and Richard Uttley (piano). 

Music performed ranges from Bach and Vivaldi, through Classical and Romantic composers, including rarities such as Czerny, Hummel, Bottesini and Parish Alvars to contemporary composers Clive Jenkins, James Shearman, and Helen Grime, Later in the season, I will be giving a pre-concert talk in advance of the Tippett Quartet and pianist Emma Abbate's performance of Elgar's Piano Quintet on 3 April 2021.

Tickets for under 26s are free, thanks to the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust. The concerts will also be streamed on YouTube Live, thanks to the hall's state of the art equipment. Of course, if government guidelines change and attendance in person is not be possible, events may be livestream only.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

Sunday 19 December 2021

Music and meaning: Handel's Messiah from Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge and Britten Sinfonia with conductor David Watkin at the Barbican

The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, where Messiah was first performed
The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, where Messiah was first performed in 1741

Handel Messiah; Harriet Eyley, Jess Dandy, Stuart Jackson, James Newby, Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, Britten Sinfonia, David Watkin; Barbican Centre

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 December 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A team of young soloists and a young choir in a performance that relished the litheness of the instrumental forces and reinforced the real message of Charles Jennens' selection of texts

Feeling like something of a little miracle in its own right, Britten Sinfonia brought their performance of Handel's Messiah to the Barbican on Friday 17 December 2021 (the second of three performances in Norwich, London and Saffron Walden). David Watkin conducted the Britten Sinfonia and Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge (director Richard Pinel who played the organ in the performance) with a fine team of young soloists Harriet Eyley (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto), Stuart Jackson (tenor) and James Newby (baritone).

We heard the familiar Watkins Shaw edition, and there were cuts (four numbers in Part Two, and three numbers in Part Three), bringing the performance in at a little over two hours 30 minutes. The whole had a compact, lithe feel to it with the Britten Sinfonia fielding eleven strings (led by Thomas Gould) and the choir of Jesus College (with women and men) fielding 25 singers. All clearly relished the clarity this brought and there was a vivid litheness to the orchestra's playing that never felt underpowered, quite the opposite in fact as with out the luxuriant sheen of myriad strings the result had a strength and vibrancy. From the opening notes of the overture, it was clear that whilst that was an historically inspired performance the players were intelligently in the modern era, with fine phrasing and articulations to suit the instruments.

I was heartened to see Britten Sinfonia using a team of talent young artists rather than reaching for the familiar, distinguished older faces. All four singers brought something special to the performance, each strongly characterised their music. But it was as if they had got together at the beginning and decided that the most important thing was the text and its message. This is entirely true, of course, Charles Jennens' assemblage of Bible texts for Messiah had a didactic purpose, the idea of bringing the word to people in the concert hall.

Saturday 18 December 2021

Something more raw, that goes back to the origins of the stories: I chat to composer Glen Gabriel about his new album, Norse Mythology

Glen Gabriel
Glen Gabriel

The Swedish composer Glen Gabriel is best known for his film and commercial work, with more than 20 feature films including James Cameron's The Game Changers as well as some 700 episodes for television shows. He also works as a music producer and recent work includes pianist Jennifer Thomas' The Fire Within (for which Glen was nominated for the Hollywood Media Awards). He wrote Passing By for Zurich Ballet in 2014, and his music has been used for the World Figure Skating Championships 2021, and by Russian and South Korean gymnasts at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. 

Glen Gabriel: Norse Mythology - Audio Network
But he has also produced a series of albums, including Silent Decisions and Scandinavian Folklore, on Audio Network, the latest of which, Norse Mythology, also released through Audio Network, features Glen's musical re-working of Norse myth with an orchestra recorded at Abbey Road Studios. The album features eight tracks, each exploring themes from the myths from The First Gods, to the Death of Ymir and Creating the Earth. I recently spoke to Glen to find out more.

Whilst there are countless different interpretations of the Norse myths, Glen thinks that many of the good ones tend to sway into something rather different to the original myths, and part of his reasons for writing the music was that he wanted to create a version that was more raw which went back to the origins of the stories; he has choses to explore in music go back to the early myths rather than the popular tales.

Friday 17 December 2021

The comfort of the familiar mixed with the intriguing, the lesser known and the downright unfamiliar: The Sixteen at Christmas

The Sixteen at Christmas: The Holly and the Ivy; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall
Harry Christophers & The Sixteen

The Sixteen at Christmas: The Holly and the Ivy
; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Cadogan Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Bob Chilcott's Advent Antiphons and Magnificats from Victoria and Arvo Pärt anchor a programme that mixed the familiar and the unfamiliar, the serious and the popularly traditional

We caught the second of the two performances of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen's Christmas programme, The Holly and the Ivy at Cadogan Hall on Thursday 16 December 2021. The programme mixed traditional carols with music by Victoria, Guerrero, Howells, Dom Gregory Murray and Alec Roth, plus Bob Chilcott's Advent Antiphons and Arvo Pärt's Magnificat.

The programme, themed around a message of hope in renewal, had perhaps a slightly more serious cast to it than some years, with the whole anchored around Bob Chilcott's settings of the seven great O Antiphons based on the seven plainchant antiphons used as Magnificat antiphons at the end of Advent. Chilcott's settings were written in 2004 for Reykjavik Cathedral.

The Enniscorthy Christmas Carol

Strange Wonders, the second volume of Caitríona O'Leary's exploration of The Wexford Carols, was released earlier this year on Heresy Records and we featured it in this year's Christmas disc round-up

Now Heresy Records has released a lovely video of O'Leary's haunting version of The Enniscorthy Christmas Carol on YouTube.

Poetic imagination: Andri Björn Róbertsson and Ástríður Alda Sigurðardóttir in songs by Árni Thorsteinson & Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann Liederkreis Op. 24 & Op. 39, Árni Thorsteinson songs; Andri Björn Róbertsson, Ástríður Alda Sigurðardóttir; Fuga Libera

Robert Schumann Liederkreis Op. 24 & Op. 39, Árni Thorsteinson songs; Andri Björn Róbertsson, Ástríður Alda Sigurðardóttir; Fuga Libera

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Schumann combined with the Icelandic composer Árni Thorsteinson in this darkly poetic and highly imaginative disc

Robert Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 24 and Op. 39 are two of the astonishing products of his year of song, 1840. On this disc from Icelandic bass-baritone Andri Björn Róbertsson and pianist Ástríður Alda Sigurðardóttir on the Fuga Libera label, Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 24 (setting poetry by Heinrich Heine) and Liederkreis Op. 39 (setting poetry by Joseph von Eichendorff) are paired with a selection of songs by the Icelandic composer Árni Thorsteinson.

Schumann would turn to Heine both for the Liederkreis Op. 24 and for Dichterliebe Op 48; the poet's extremes of elation and despair, mingled sentimentality, self-pity and ironic self-mockery, drew a strong response from Schumann. Liederkreis Op. 24 comes first, to be followed by the other great cycles, Myrthen,  Liederkreis, Op. 39, Frauenliebe und -leben and Dichterliebe. The nine poems have a clear thematic and narrative sense, though Schumann's title (Circle of Songs) is rather abstract. The love affairs that inspired Heine's poems were all blighted, and Schumann's music is gentler than one might expect from text (the composer would similarly smooth Heine's bitter irony in Dichterliebe). But we should remember that though 1840 culminated in his marriage to Clara, success was not obvious and much of the music from the year alternates between elation and despair.

41 First performances, 11 first UK performances: 73rd Aldeburgh Festival in June 2022

Oliver Knussen (Photo Mark Allan /BBC)
Oliver Knussen, whose 70th birthday is celebrated at the festival (Photo Mark Allan /BBC)

With the last two festivals cancelled and Tom Coult's new opera Violet (due to be premiered in 2020) still lacking a first performance, the Aldeburgh Festival has announced that the 2022 festival will run for an extra week, from 3 to 26 June 2022. Other contemporary composers at the festival include Bushra El Turk, Gregor Mayrhofer, Ryan Wigglesworth, Oliver Knussen, Mark Simpson, Gavin Higgins, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Owain Park, Dobrinka Tabakova, Aine Mallon, Judith Weir, Hilary Campbell, Omri Kochavi, Laura Bowler, Liza Lim  and the festival features 41 first performances, 11 first UK performances and 19 Britten Pears Arts commissions - the most significant representation of new music in the history of the Aldeburgh Festival.

Composer Tom Coult and librettist Alice Birch's new opera Violet (a first opera for both) will open the festival. Developed at Snape Maltings as part of its Jerwood Opera Writing Programme, it features a heroine, Violet, whose life of routine changes when time quickens, an hour is lost every day, long-held certainties evaporate and ordered society falls into disarray. Andrew Gourlay conducts the London Sinfonietta, with Elizabeth Atherton, Richard Burkard, Frances Gregor and Andrew Mackenzie Wicks, in a production directed by Jude Christian. Other Tom Coult works at the festival include I Find Planets, setting  tweets from a social media account which every hour announces the discovery of a new planet, performed by the Hermes Experiment, and Coult's piano trio, The Chronophage performed by Trio Mazzolini.

Other contemporary composers at the festival include Bushra El-Turk. Her new work for percussion is given its UK premiere by Vivi Vassileva and the Britten Sinfonia, the Adelphi Quartet performs two of El-Turk's quartets, and Ostina-bush-to for solo piano receives its first UK performance played by Clare Hammond. Vivi Vassileva is also the soloist in Gregor A Mayrhofer's Recycling Concerto with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by the composer.

Ryan Wigglesworth will be conducting the Knussen Chamber Orchestra in a programme that includes the first public performance of Wigglesworth's Five Waltzes, with Lawrence Power (viola), and Britten's Phaedra with Sophie Bevan (soprano). Oliver Knussen would have been 70 in 2022 and Wigglesworth’s tribute to Oliver Knussen for solo cello will be given its first performance by Anssi Karttunnen, and Wigglesworth also conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the first performance of Knussen’s Cleveland Pictures as well as music by Respighi and Mussorgsky and Knussen's Horn Concerto with soloist Martin Owen.

Composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson is joining forces with the Solem Quartet for Simpson's and Mozart's Clarinet Quintets, and Simpson will be joined by friends for his own Geysir and Mozart's Gran Partita. Simpson will join pianist Tom Poster for Simpson's Echoes and Embers, and will feature as clarinettist in Bartok's Contrasts, and Messiaen's Quartet for the End of  Time with Nicola Benedetti (violin), Laura van der Heijden (cello) and Tom Poster (piano).

Gavin Higgins' new cantata The Faerie Bride is premiered by Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martyn Brabbins, and Higgins' string sextet, Ekstasis is premiered by the Piatti Quartet with Sara Roberts (viola) and David Cohen (cello).

Other new music at the festival includes Laura Bowler’s Houses Slide, for soprano Jessica Aszodi and the London Sinfonietta, and the Riot Ensemble in Liza Lim's Extinction events and dawn chorus. Other performers at the festival include Anna Lapwood whose organ recital features her own arrangements of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Messiaen’s Vocalise-Etude as well as works by Elgar, Owain Park and Cheryl Frances Hoad. And Lapwood directs the choir of Pembroke College, Cambridge in in performances of music based on plainchant, from composers including Bach, Britten and Dobrinka Tabakova,

The festival is marking HM The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee with a visit to Bury St Edmunds Cathedral for a performance by the ORA Singers directed by Suzi Digby, in music from the 16th and 21st centuries including a new piece by Aine Mallon. The BBC Singers conducted by Owain Park perform a collection of short choral pieces by English composers created to celebrate HM The Queen's coronation in 1953, and also sing Britten’s Sacred and Profane, an anthem by Judith Weir, and world premieres by Hilary Campbell and Britten Pears Young Artist, Omri Kochavi,

Full details from the Britten Pears Arts website.

Thursday 16 December 2021

A hitherto unknown sea song celebrating Nelson's victory at Cape St Vincent discovered in one of Lady Hamilton's songbooks at the Museum of London

Museum of London librarian Lluis Tembleque Teres with one of Emma Hamilton's songbooks (Photo John Chase/Museum of London)
Museum of London librarian Lluis Tembleque Teres with one of Emma Hamilton's songbooks
(Photo John Chase/Museum of London)

Last year the Museum of London librarian Lluis Tembleque Teres was exploring a set of songbooks owned by Emma Hamilton (best known as Nelson's lover). Amongst the songs found in the books was a sea song, originally sung after the battle of Cape St Vincent (1797) and transcribed by Nelson after hearing it chanted by his crew. The lyrics were already known, thanks to a letter from Nelson to William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry, but the new discovery gives us the music for the song and a new chorus that the Duke added; a personal friend of Emma Hamilton, his authorship of the piece is recorded in Emma’s own hand. Lluis Tembleque Teres talks about the discovery on YouTube.

The songbooks are manuscript collections which were compiled by Emma Hamilton (1765-1815) both in Italy (where she lived in Naples when she was the wife of Sir William Hamilton) and in London. One volume is a score for Haydn's Creation, the other two contain over twenty pieces including one sea shanty, another cantata and two hymns which are dedicated to Lord Nelson’s naval victories at Cape St. Vincent (1797), Aboukir Bay (aka Battle of the Nile, 1798) and Copenhagen (1801), 

These four were all hitherto unknown and each piece was written by a personal friend of Emma and it is likely that each gave their scores to her as a gift. As well as the sea song, there is another song written by Michael Kelly (best known for singing Don Curzio and Don Basilio in the premiere of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro) in April 1801, within hours of the news of Britain’s victory over the Danish fleet reaching London. Its performance at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was reported by the press of the time. There is also an 1805 cantata by composer Giacomo Gotifredo Ferrari (1763-1842), with lyrics by the poet Peter Pindar, which was commissioned by Emma Hamilton to celebrate Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay (1798). Ferrari was an Italian composer largely based in England and France and four of his operas and two of his ballets were premiered at the King's Theatre in London between 1799 and 1817.

Now there is the chance to hear the music as earlier this week students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama performed music from the songbooks, including four hitherto unknown songs, and this will be available to watch in full as an online event from Tuesday 21st December 2021 

Full details from the Museum of London website, and you can also book for the online event.

Bird Portraits: Edward Cowie's amazing musical exploration of birdlife

Edward Cowie Bird Portraits; Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Roderick Chadwick; METIER

Edward Cowie Bird Portraits; Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Roderick Chadwick; METIER

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Composer Edward Cowie's amazing exploration of the birdlife around his house, transformed into music

This new disc from violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved and pianist Roderick Chadwick on Metier features composer Edward Cowie's new 24 movement work, Bird Portraits a work which arose directly out of lockdown.

When we think of birds in music, then we immediately think of Olivier Messiaen but Cowie explains in his introductory article that his approach to combining music and birdsong is somewhat different. The music started from the notebooks that Cowie kept on his walks with his wife last year. They live in South Cumbria and one of the benefits of lockdown was the discovery of the large amount of bird life in and around their house. In his article, Cowie describes himself as a patterner, incessantly drawing patterns out of nature, both bird song and the natural background, the habitat. 

Whereas, in Messiaen, the birdsong is the musical starting point for complex musical development, here Cowie is much more like Schumann in using the notated music as the core of a character piece. Each of the 24 movements is an independent piece, but they form a cycle and there are conscious and unconscious links between the movements and a sense of dramatic flow. The number 24 has significance for Cowie, he has written several other pieces of music in 24 movements, and birdsong too has occurred before; he reckons that around a quarter of his catalogue is birdsong based.

Wagner's Die Walküre to receive its Icelandic premiere in Icelandic Opera's first Wagner opera for 20 years

Julia Burbach's production of Wagner's Die Walküre in Bordeaux - Evgeny Nikitin (Wotan) - Opéra National de Bordeaux (Photo Eric Bouloumie)
Julia Burbach's production of Wagner's Die Walküre in Bordeaux - Evgeny Nikitin (Wotan) - Opéra National de Bordeaux (Photo Eric Bouloumie)

Julia Burbach first directed Wagner's Die Walküre at the Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2019 in a co-production with Icelandic Opera. The production's Icelandic debut in 2020 had to be postponed and will finally be presented at Harpa in Reykjavik in February 2022. In the meantime, of course, Burbach has directed a new production Wagner's Die Walküre in Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick's reduced version at the Grimeborn Festival [see my review, and see also my interview with Julia]

February's performances at Harpa will be the Icelandic premiere of Die Walküre and Icelandic Opera's first Wagner opera since Der fliegende Holländer in 2002. One significant difference between Icelandic Opera's performances and the production in Bordeaux is that, owing to the relatively small size of the pit in Harpa, the players of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra will be seated on the stage. 

Julia Burbach directs Wagner's Die Walküre with Tal Rosner as video designer and co-director. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Eva Ollikainen, the orchestra’s recently appointed chief conductor and artistic director. Soprano Iréne Theorin sings Brünnhilde and having previously sung Alberich internationally, Icelandic baritone Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson makes his role debut as Wotan. British tenor Christopher Ventris, sings Siegmund with British soprano Claire Rutter as Sieglinde [in 2017 we caught Claire as Sieglinde at Grange Park Opera, see my review, and in the title role of Tosca with Icelandic Opera, see my review]. German mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer makes her Icelandic Opera debut as Fricka and Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson sings Hunding. The Valkyries are performed by eight singers from Iceland. 

Full details from Icelandic Opera's website.

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Barber Opera presents the premiere of Michael Zev Gordon's Raising Icarus

Jacob Peter Gowy's The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637)
Jacob Peter Gowy's The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637)

Those with long memories might remember Michael Zev Gordon's Icarus - Extract being performed ten years ago at Tête à Tête [there is even a video, available via the Tête à Tête website]. Now the piece is completely finished and Michael Zev Gordon's Raising Icarus, with a libretto by Stephen Plaice, will be premiered at Birmingham Repertory Theatre on 28 April 2022 by Barber Opera. The work will be directed and designed by Orpha Phelan and Mads Boyd, and conducted by Natalie Murray Beale with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Raising Icarus is the latest in a rich history of Barber Opera, produced by Barber Concerts at the University of Birmingham. Traditionally focused on baroque revivals, Barber Concerts was the first British company to return Handel operas to the stage, with a production of Handel’s Xerxes in 1959. This production of Raising Icarus will be followed by a revival opera by Stradella in April 2023.

Raising Icarus is a chamber piece that aims to break open the ancient myth to reveal its contemporary themes, how parental expectation and aspiration risk doing harm to our children. We are promised a mesmeric world of curious mechanical devices, dark labyrinths and ingenious workshops in which increasingly dysfunctional relationships eventually bring tragedy

Michael Zev Gordon is a British composer of Jewish ancestry. He studied composition at King's College, Cambridge with Robin Holloway, and subsequently with Oliver Knussen and John Woolrich, and in Italy with Franco Donatoni. He was a composition pupil of Louis Andriessen from 1989 to 1990. He is currently professor of composition at the University of Birmingham.

Michael Zev Gordon's Raising Icarus is a Birmingham Repertory Theatres from 28 to 30 April 2022. Full details from the University of Birmingham website.

Tuesday 14 December 2021

Love Singing

Love Singing
Love Music is a is a music education and inclusion charity based in Scotland. Like many such ensembles, Love Music’s own 300+ community choir at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh was hit hard by the pandemic and by challenge physical isolation. Creative solutions to the challenges of singing together online and staying connected helped support their community and the success of that first term led to Love Music's Love Singing project.

The aim of Love Singing was to provide a structure to support and engage with the wider community singing sector during difficult times, to share learning and inspire others to take a creative leap of faith. After a national call, five community choirs from across Scotland were chosen to collaborate with five professional songwriters, to meet online, to challenge each other, and to each make a new song that spoke of this moment but also would last.

On Friday (10 December 2021), Love Music launched the five new songs now available for all choirs to access free of charge.

But it wasn't just the choirs being challenged. There is a lack of accessible new music written especially for and with the input of community singers;  the project also wanted to provide opportunities for professional songwriters to develop their skills while writing and arranging for community choir.

Five choirs were involved, with five song writers:

  • Stonehouse Male Voice Choir from Lanarkshire, which started as a lunch time sing-along in a builders’ yard, was paired with Penny Stone
  • Sing Mor, a homespun singing collective in the West Highlands of Scotland, engaged with social and environmental justice while writing with Debbie Armour
  • Freedom Of Mind Community Choir from Falkirk, who sing for the physical, social and emotional benefits that singing can bring, joined with Danish board Hannah Fredsgaard-Jones
  • Earnsong, a vibrant and fearless rural singing community in Perthshire joined forces with French-Cameroonian singer songwriter Djana Gabrielle
  • Fochabers Community Sing combined with Elm Music Therapy to learn and share signing with Makaton for their song written in collaboration with Zac Scott
The song resources are available on Love Music's website, as are the videos made by each of the choirs.

Celebrating the 300th anniversary of their publication in 1720, Bridget Cunningham records Handel's Eight Great Harpsichord Suites

Handel Eight Great Harpsichord Suites HWV 426-433; Bridget Cunningham; Signum Classics

Handel Eight Great Harpsichord Suites HWV 426-433; Bridget Cunningham; Signum Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 December 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
At once magisterial and engaging, harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham brings a dynamic imagination to bear on Handel's still relatively neglected keyboard works

Performing at the keyboard (whether harpsichord or organ) was an important part of both Handel and Bach's performing lives, yet their legacy as keyboard composers is very different. Both were great improvisors. For Handel, improvisation was an essential part of his compositional make-up, much of his keyboard music that survives in manuscript needs the application of a creative imagination to bring it to performance, and even published works need ornamentation and elaboration. With Bach, though he improvised, his composed works have a greater worked-through element to them, perhaps because there was often a strong didactic element to Bach's art, creating important exemplars.

Perhaps for this reason, major keyboard players have not been in a hurry to record Handel's keyboard works. Now the tide seems to be turning, thankfully. Last year, French harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï recorded four of Handel's 1720 keyboard suites [see my review], and now Bridget Cunningham has recorded Handel's complete 1720 Suites de Pièces on Signum Classics, along with a selection of the composer's operatic arrangements.

Cunningham's two-disc set is issued as part of her continuing Handel series on Signum with her London Early Opera, but the set also celebrates the 300th anniversary of the printing of Handel's Suites de Pièces in November 1720.

Harry Sever has been appointed as Longborough Festival Opera's inaugural Ring Cycle Conducting Fellow

Harry Sever
Harry Sever

Up-and-coming conductor (and composer) Harry Sever has been appointed as Longborough Festival Opera's inaugural Ring Cycle Conducting Fellow. Sever will be working alongside conductor Anthony Negus (Longborough's music director and conductor of its forthcoming Ring) for the next three seasons as they build towards the Ring Cycle in 2024. 

Longborough will be performing its new production of Siegfried in June 2022, with Anthony Negus conducting, and for his first performance in the post, Harry will conduct Siegfried at Longborough on Friday 3 June 2022. 

Conducting the Ring is hardly something that can be eased into, and as Sever commented, "Opportunities to work on a Ring cycle are few and far between, so this really is a dream come true for me!” So the opportunity seems ideal.

For the audition process for the post, eight emerging conductors worked with Anthony Negus on the first scene of Siegfried. An expert and experienced panel observed the process, including Anthony, Polly Graham (Longborough Artistic Director), Isabel Murphy (Longborough Artistic Advisor for the Ring) and Brenda Hurley (Royal Academy of Music’s Head of Opera, and previously Director of the International Opera Studio in Zürich).

Full details of the 2022 season from the Longborough Festival Opera website.

Monday 13 December 2021

A festive feast of Bach for Christmas: Gabrieli Consort & Players at Wigmore Hall

Bach: Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kommt BWV151 - Rowan Pierce, Morgan Pearse, Daniel Norman, Anna Harvey, Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh at Wigmore Hall
Bach: Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kommt BWV151 - Rowan Pierce, Morgan Pearse, Daniel Norman, Anna Harvey, Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh at Wigmore Hall (image taken from live-stream)

Bach Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kommt BWV151, Mass in G BWV236, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag BWV63; Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 December 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The Gabrieli Consort & Players is sparkling form present a delightful selection of Bach's music for Christmas, from a mass re-using cantata movements to a festively grand cantata with four trumpets

In a suitably festive concert at Wigmore Hall on Friday 10 December 2021, Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli Consort & Players presented a programme of the music Bach wrote for Christmas services in Leipzig. Singers Rowan Pierce (soprano), Anna Harvey (alto), Daniel Norman (tenor, replacing Jeremy Budd at very short notice) and Morgan Pearse (bass) joined an instrumental ensemble including three oboes and four trumpets, performing the cantatas Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kommt BWV151 and Christen, ätzet diesen Tag BWV63, plus the Mass in G BWV236 and two organ solos.

Unlike in modern times, the Advent period in Bach's churches in Leipzig would have been anything but festive, the season was one of contemplation and penitence and music was austere. All this changed with the music for the Christmas period, running strictly from Christmas Day to Epiphany. And music played a significant role; services lasted around three hours with a sermon of about an hour and Bach's music lasted for an hour too, with pieces chosen or created to complement the theme of the sermon.

The concert began with William Whitehead playing an organ solo, the Allemande: Allegretto grazioso from Pastorale in F BWV590; lyrical and pastoral but with elaborate textures and contrapuntal lines.

For the third day of Christmas in 1725, Bach wrote his small-scale cantata Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kommt BWV151 for four soloists, flute, oboe and strings, with the vocal ensemble only being needed for the final chorale.  It is about the comfort that Jesus' birth brings, and though there are no explicit Nativity references the pastoral feel is significant. The gently lilting opening aria featured a lovely pastoral flute complementing Rowan Pierce's poised soprano, bringing out both the words and the sense of thoughtful joy. A vivid recitative from bass Morgan Pearse, led to the second aria for mezzo-soprano Anna Harvey. Here she and a solo oboe duetted vigorously, in a robust dance, Harvey's warm mellow sound complementing the rich timbre of the oboe. Tenor Daniel Norman's slower recitative led to the final choral with all four soloists and both wind players.

Bach's Cantata 169, featured an opening sinfonia which duplicates material from his Harpsichord Concerto in E major, though both are probably based on a lost oboe concerto. We heard the sinfonia, with the perky solo line played on the organ by William Whitehead, the whole being delightfully toe-tapping.

Luther allowed the use of Latin settings of the Kyrie and Gloria on major feasts, and such settings were used in Leipzig at Christmas (in Advent the Gloria was usually omitted), and Bach wrote several. His Missa brevis in G BWV236 dates from 1738 or 1739 is made up of music recycled from earlier cantatas, though whether from a shortage of time or simply a desire to not allow good music to go to waste, we don't know. Written for four soloists, strings and two oboes (one doubling oboe da caccia), the work features arias for tenor and bass plus a duet for soprano and alto. The Kyrie was a substantial, sober fugue, the instruments doubling the voices and adding brilliance and colour. The Gloria opened with a busy ensemble movement. This went with a swing, rich textures, full of character and enjoyment. Morgan Pearse sang the 'Gratias agimus' full of lilt and swagger, but with busy passagework too. 'Domine Deus' was a duet for Rowan Pierce and Anna Harvey, the voices flowing easily over a rhythmic violin line. Daniel Norman's aria 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' was a duet with oboe, and the final 'Cum sancto spirito' moved from a stately introduction to a madly vigorous main section.

The second half opened with another organ solo, this time based on Luther's hymn Vom Himmel Hoch BWV701 and surprisingly perky with cascades of notes surrounding the basic melody.

In 1723, for Bach's first Christmas in Leipzig he re-used a cantata that he had written nine years earlier, for the court at Weimar. Christen, ätzet diesen Tag BWV63 has lavish scoring, three oboes (one doubling oboe da caccia) and four trumpets.  Its scoring very suitable to launch the Christmas celebrations, and with its reference to dance in clear sympathy with Luther's regard for dance. The trumpets only appear in the opening and closing choruses, and in between is a sequence of more intimate arias, duet and recitatives.

There was a joyful zest to the opening chorus, with the voices almost alternating with the orchestral ritornelli. This was followed by a striking slow accompanied recitative, where Anna Harvey's mellow voice was very expressive. Next came duet, for Rowan Pierce and Morgan Pearse; lyrical voices in a secular feeling not quite love duet, and a busy solo oboe wandering in and out. A dramatic recitative from Daniel Norman led to a duet between him and Anna Harvey; a piece with a lovely lilt to it sung with joyful enjoyment. A vivid accompanied recitative from Morgan Pearse led to the final chorus where the trumpets returned to striking effect.

The concert is available online at the Wigmore Hall website.

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