Monday, 18 January 2021

Can "High Art" Be Inclusive? American ensemble Imani Winds hosts two on-line panel discussions as part of the launch of its latest recording on Bright Shiny Things

On 5 February 2021, Bright Shiny Things will be releasing a new disc Bruits from Imani Winds (Brandon Patrick George, flute; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Mark Dover, clarinet; Jeff Scott, French horn; and Monica Ellis, bassoon) which features three world-premiere recordings, Vijay Iyer's Bruits, Reena Esmail’s The Light is the Same and Frederic Rzewski’s Sometimes,

On 5 February 2021, Bright Shiny Things will be releasing a new disc Bruits from Imani Winds (Brandon Patrick George, flute; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Mark Dover, clarinet; Jeff Scott, French horn; and Monica Ellis, bassoon) which features three world-premiere recordings, Vijay Iyer's Bruits, Reena Esmail’s The Light is the Same and Frederic Rzewski’s Sometimes,

All three works deal with current social and political issues, and tell stories about people whose lives have made a difference in our world. Vijay Iyer's Bruits was written during the the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of a young black man named Trayvon Martin, Reena Esmail's The Light Is The Same uses two contrasting Hindustani raags—Vachaspati (dark and brooding) and Yaman (light and innocent), which have almost identical notes, but when they are played sound very different and Esmail uses these two raags to symbolize “how we are so close to each other and are separated by so little".  The subject of Frederic Rzewski’s Sometimes is Dr. John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) a historian who wrote about the Reconstruction era of American history, the time right after the Civil War, “when people of color (particularly African-Americans) were first allowed to hold political offices, become judges, and had hitherto unknown economic and social freedom,”  

As part of the recording launch, Imani Winds is presenting two free Zoom discussions with panelists including members Imani Winds and composers Vijay Iyer and Reena Esmail. On 22 January 2020 the discussion is Can “High Art” Be Inclusive? and on 29 January the discussion is The Myth of “Other” in Classical Music. The discussions are at 7pm EST, which translates to 12pm UK time so they are for British night owls!

You can register for both free discussions at Zoom.

First four months of Barbara Hannigan's initiative Momentum - our future now, a huge success

Susie Allan, Kathryn Rudge, Edward Hawkins, Roderick Williams at Spotlight Chamber Concerts in December 2020 St John's Waterloo (Photo Matthew Johnson)
Susie Allan, Kathryn Rudge, Edward Hawkins, Roderick Williams at Spotlight Chamber Concerts in December 2020 St John's Waterloo (Photo Matthew Johnson)

During last Summer, Barbara Hannigan launched Momentum - our future now, an initiative designed to support young artists at a time when opportunities for live performance and recording were diminishing rapidly and what few opportunities there were went to well established artists. The idea behind the project is that leading soloists and conductors support younger colleagues by bringing them onto main stage professional engagements. The scheme was launched at Snape Maltings on 29 August 2020 with concerts at Snape Maltings with Sir Antonio Pappano and young baritone Yuriy Yurchuk.

Since then there has been a remarkable take up, with a huge roster of top artists implementing the initiative into their schedules. In December, when Sir Bryn Terfel gave a concert at Brecon Cathedral as part of Met Stars Live, he invited two rising Welsh singers, soprano Natalya Romaniw and tenor Trystan Llŷr Griffiths to join him, and when I heard Roderick Williams and Susie Allan performing Schubert's Schwanengesang at Spotlight Chamber Concerts, the baritone was joined by two Momentum artists, Kathryn Rudge and Edward Hawkins [see my review]. In April 2021, Stone Records will be releasing a new album recorded by six Momentum artists alongside the distinguished accompanist Malcolm Martineau.

In all there have been over 35 events across the UK and Europe. Sweden, Austria, Germany, France, England and Wales, even up to the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland. In 2021 Barbara Hannigan will be presented with her 2020 Léonie Sonning Music Prize, from which she has earmarked a substantial financial contribution towards Momentum.

Full details from the Momentum website.

Nonclassical launches fund to support fees for new commissions from Associate Composers

Nonclassical is about to start recruiting its four Associate Composers for 2021-22. The scheme is open to unsigned and unpublished artists who display exceptional ability and potential, emerging composers from any musical background and genre who would benefit from the support and development that the scheme offers. 

As well as taking part in workshops, being mentored by an industry professional and being part of a wider network of composers, artists and industry professionals, whilst on the scheme, the composers will be able to curate their own Nonclassical club night, have work included on Nonclassical's annual Outside the Lines EP, and receive at least one Nonclassical commission to be performed live.

Founded in 2004 by composer Gabriel Prokofiev, Nonclassical started as a clubnight focused on presenting new music in non-traditional performance spaces and has grown into  a music promoter, record label and events producer presenting the new classical, experimental and electronic music, crossing genres, supporting emerging artists and bringing new music to audiences'

This year's Associate Composers commissions will be for a new work for the Southbank Sinfonia. Orchestral commissions on this scale are rare for emerging composers, and they will get the chance to collaborate with instrumentalists from the orchestra and established conductors. Nonclassical wants to offer the composers a fee for the commission, so that they can give their time and energy to writing without financial burden. 

To help fund this, Nonclassical has set up an Associate Composer Commission Fund, anything you can give will go directly towards the composers’ fees. Full details from the Nonclassical website.

Sacred Ayres: Psalms, Hymns and Spirituals Songs by contemporary composer Paul Ayres from the chapel choir of Selwyn College on Regent Records

Sacred Ayres: Paul Ayres - Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs; the chapel choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Sarah MacDonald; Regent Records

Sacred Ayres
: Paul Ayres - Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs; the chapel choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Sarah MacDonald; Regent Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 January 2021
The contemporary composer Paul Ayres in sacred mode, lyrical and engaging music from hymn arrangements to anthems and spirituals

There is a balance to creating recording programmes devoted to a single, contemporary composer, particularly one that is not well represented in the recording catalogues. Composers want to include their best, their favourite, their unrecorded works, the performers need pieces which are performable in the time available, and the producer wants to keep costs down and not include anything too exotic. There is also the limitation of what the composer has actually written, a busy young composer with a number of other strings to their bow can find that their back catalogue is full of useful pieces, which do not always add up to a satisfying record programme.

For the new disc devoted to the music of Paul Ayres on Regent Records, Sarah MacDonald and the chapel choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, with organists Shanna Hart and Dāvids Heinze, have put together a programme called Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, which showcases 22 of Ayres' smaller works, many written to commission and for particular performers, many fitting into the category of useful music, pieces that performers want to perform, that fit into existing performing traditions, but this is not to say that the music is without challenge.

First off, I have to admit a personal connection, I sang in one of Paul's choirs in the 1990s and he conducted my ensemble FifteenB for a number of years, giving the premieres of quite a few of my choral works at the Chelsea Festival and other places.

To solve the problem of too many smaller works, the programme is divided into sections, Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, Anthems, Carols. Some works are completely original, whilst others are arrangements and Paul's writing in these is never less than imaginative. As a conductor he has worked with a number of youth choirs and many of these pieces are beautifully written for voices, clearly making them singable yet something of a challenge, so ultimately satisfying for performers and audience.

Listening to these you can hear a variety of influences, some of the psalm settings seem to channel Arvo Part, but the lyrical voice and imaginative part writing in many of the pieces very much evokes John Rutter, a fine model for a practical composer. Yet a definite voice does arise, and I was particularly struck by his fondness for canon and for fitting melodies together.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

A Life On-Line: Julia Child and Little Tich in music, Rossini's Armida at the Met

Lee Hoiby: Bon Appetit! - Jamie Barton as Julia Child
Lee Hoiby: Bon Appetit! - Jamie Barton as Julia Child

This week's listening has been quite varied, with Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven alongside 17th century music, 20th century Spanish and Latin American songs, and an operatic rendition of the television cook, Julia Child. We also managed to catch up with a 2010 performance of Rossini's (seriously rare) opera Armida at the Met, and ended the week with an intense pairing of Tippett and Shostakovich.

On Sunday, the Phacelia Ensemble (artistic director Elisabeth Streichert) gave an intriguing programme at Conway Hall, beginning with Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet and ending with Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 (in Streichert's own arrangement) in the middle. Stravinsky's piece (written 1914-1918) represents a distillation of his own ideas, with little reflection of the tradition of writing for string quartet. The players were hardly in dialogue, instead we had music which was up front and vigorously refreshing. The middle movement seems to have been inspired by the music hall artist Little Tich, both Diaghilev and Nijinsky were fond of his act and insisted on seeing him when they were in London! 

Clément-Maurice's film of Little Tich at the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre performing his Big-Boot Dance in 1900

Hearing the Mozart concerto played by an ensemble of five strings and piano was rather striking, the performance intimate and stylish. This was a very collegial account of the work without the piano being too spotlit, and the clarity of the string playing meant there was plenty of space to allow Streichert's elegant playing through. The Brahms quintet started off with great sweep and impulse, with an intimate and surprisingly angst-free slow movement. Again there was a lovely clarity to the playing, bringing a classicism to Brahms' writing, though with plenty of muscular dramatic moments.

There was more Brahms at the latest concert on OAE Player. Recorded at Glyndebourne, the concert featured Sir Mark Elder conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a suite from Beethoven's Fidelio, with soprano Emma Bell and tenor David Butt Philip, and Brahms' Violin Concerto with Alina Ibragimova. Elder's Beethoven was brisk and muscular, relishing the timbres and textures that the period instrument ensemble could bring to the music. The considerable excitement of the overture was followed by a thrilling account of 'Abscheulicher!' from Emma Bell whose gleaming soprano was really allowed to soar. Then David Butt Philip was equally thrilling and wonderfully impassioned in Florestan's great Act Two scene, with Butt Philip managing to bring great intensity to the performance and occasionally reminding me of the lovely open tone of Jon Vickers in the role. The two soloists then joined together for the final duet.

Alina Ibragimova gave an impassioned account of the Brahms' Violin Concerto, full of lovely sung lines but with an intensity and an impulsiveness to it.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

The performer is a mirror who should serve the text and the composer: French pianist Vincent Larderet discusses his approach in the light of his recent Liszt recital 'Between Light and Darkness'

Vincent Larderet (Photo Karis Kennedy)
Vincent Larderet (Photo Karis Kennedy)

The French pianist Vincent Larderet's most recent discs have involved the music of his countrymen, notably a pair of discs of the music of Maurice Ravel. But for his latest recording he has turned to a rather different composer, Franz Liszt, and Vincent's recital, Between Light and Darkness on Piano Classics pairs some of Liszt's larger-scale mature works such as Après une Lecture de Dante and Ballade no. 2 with a selection of the more enigmatic late pieces. I spoke to Vincent by Zoom to find out more about the thinking behind the programme. Vincent is someone who thinks deeply about the music he is playing and the programmes he is constructing, and in person (or via Zoom) he is a charming conversationalist so that the results were a lively and thought-provoking hour. 

Earliest known photograph of Liszt (1843)
Earliest known photograph of Liszt (1843)
The original impulse for the recording was simply Vincent's desire to express himself through Liszt's music, and whilst Vincent has not recorded a disc of Liszt's music before, he has played Liszt for many years and the starting point of his programme was the works already in his repertoire such as Après une Lecture de Dante which he has had in his repertoire for over 20 years.

Regarding interpretation, Vincent describes himself as something of a perfectionist, he wants to take this time to develop his interpretation. He comments that performers are interpreters but not geniuses like the composer, so need time to think to get involved with the work's natural language. In an ideal situation, Vincent would practice a work, play it, put it on one side and repeat the process, each time his interpretation develops maturity, and then finally record. It is, he admits, a long process but one during which there is the possibility of reaching the meaning of the work and playing it at the highest level. He also admits that it is possible to play a work in a few months, but this is not a good strategy for him.

Whilst there are thematic links between the works on the recording relating to the light and darkness of the title, Vincent also wanted to put the great masterpieces alongside the shorter, late works which are more abstract, and Vincent found it fascinating to confront the two styles.

Our first image of Liszt is as the great virtuoso who invented the piano recital as a genre, but this is only one part of a multi-faceted composer, and Vincent sees in the late works a composer stripped of all artificiality. Thus the programme features a series of mirrored dualities, not just dark and light, but romanticism and aesthetic abstraction, passion and despair, sentimentality and religious mysticism.

Our image of Liszt the virtuoso is the composer in the first part of his life, lauded and feted, very much the modern-style superstar.

Friday, 15 January 2021

All is not happy in opera in the Land of Fire and Ice

Puccini: Tosca - Kristján Jóhannsson, Claire Rutter - Icelandic Opera (Photo Johanna Olafsdottir)
Puccini: Tosca - Kristján Jóhannsson, Claire Rutter - Icelandic Opera 2017 (Photo Johanna Olafsdottir)

All is not happy in opera in the Land of Fire and Ice. A recent meeting of Klassís, the Professional Association of Classical Singers in Iceland, passed a vote of no confidence "in the board  and opera director of the Icelandic Opera, Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, due to the institution’s management practices in recent years."

Icelandic Opera was founded over 40 years ago from a grassroots of the community of Icelandic singers, with the aim of creating a professional platform for Icelandic opera singers and for operatic performance for the people of Iceland. Singers supported opera performances in Iceland, often performing for a fraction of what they are paid for their work abroad. Initially, singers played a large role in the management of the Icelandic Opera, but their level of participation has been steadily declining and is now non-existent.

The press release from Klassis says that "the board and opera director of the Icelandic Opera have repeatedly shown a lack of interest in listening to and addressing the views, complaints and suggestions from singers and other professionals in the field of opera". 

Icelandic Opera is practically the only available work venue for opera singers in Iceland, as it is the only publicly funded institution with a brief of performing opera (it is worth bearing in mind that the country has a population of around 350,000). Unfortunately members of Klassís believe that it has repeatedly been proven that the current opera director and board do not have the interests of opera singers at heart.

Iceland's government has appointed a working group to research the founding of a national opera company, and Klassís hopes that his might be turning point in relations between management and singers.

There is more background (in English) at Iceland Review. We saw Puccini's Tosca performed by Icelandic Opera, with Claire Rutter and Kristján Jóhannsson, in 2017 [see my review]

Northern Ireland Opera re-launches its Opera Studio, widening the range of those supported and trained

Rossini: Hidden Extras (La Cambiale di Matrimonio) - Northern Ireland Opera Studio 2018
Rossini: Hidden Extras (La Cambiale di Matrimonio) - Northern Ireland Opera Studio 2018

Northern Ireland Opera set up its Young Artist Programme in 2011 and thirty-nine emerging opera singers from across the island of Ireland have benefited from vocal coaching, mentoring and performance opportunities from Northern Ireland Opera. Now, in a gesture of immense support for young artists, the scheme is being re-launched in March 2021 as Northern Ireland Opera Studio, and alongside the existing year-long programme of development opportunities for emerging opera singers, there will be new paid opportunities available for conductors, repetiteurs, directors, stage and costume designers, stage managers, choreographers and stage technicians.

Applicants need to be domiciled on the island of Ireland now and aged between 21 and 35 when the programme begins in April 2021.  Applications are invited by 29th January and successful applicants will be invited to auditions and/or interviews towards the end of February, public health restrictions allowing.

Northern Ireland Opera’s Artistic Director Cameron Menzies, said "Northern Ireland Opera understands that it takes an extremely diverse array of highly skilled artists across many specific disciplines to create an opera. To acknowledge this, we believe the NI Opera Studio should also reflect this in relation to the breadth of its training. We look forward to opening our doors and seeing what amazing talent comes our way."

Further information from the Northern Ireland Opera website.

City Music Foundation & Barts Heritage present concert series in Great Hall of St Bartholemew's Hospital

The Hidden City - Photo Emile Holba
City Music Foundation’s Director Clare Taylor and Artist Manager Latana Phoung
From Emile Holba's The Hidden City

The City Music Foundation (CMF) has joined forces with Barts Heritage, an organisation dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the historic buildings at Barts Hospital so that for 2021 the lunchtime recitals from CMF artists will take place in the Great Hall of St Bartholemew's Hospital and be live streamed public and waiting areas in the hospital on the information screens, and available on patient held iPads which can be requested by in-patients. The importance of music and heritage in health and wellbeing is well known - and CMF and Barts Heritage will be collaborating to exploring this in more depth.

The first recital takes place on Wednesday 27 January 2021 with 2018 CMF artist, cellist Ariana Kashefi and guitarist Andrey Lebedev, 2015 CMF Artist (details from CMF website) and then run monthly throughout the year with pianist George Fu to come on 24 February. Full details of the season from the CMF website.

St Bartholomew's Hospital was founded in 1123, and the historic buildings on the site include the main square designed by James Gibbs in the 1730s with the North Wing (from 1732) which includes the Great Hall, which is accessed via the Hogarth Stair with its two huge Hogarth canvases (Hogarth was born in nearby Bartholemew Close and offered to decorate the stair free to prevent an Italian artist from doing so). Barts Heritage is currently undertaking a project to repair and conserve the Great Hall and the North Wing in time for the hospital's 900th anniversary in 2021.

Donizetti on the cusp: never a success in his lifetime, Opera Rara reveals much to enjoy in the composer's 1829 opera Il Paria

Donizetti Il Paria; Albina Shagimuratova, René Barbera, Misha Kiria, Marko Mimica, Britten Sinfonia, Sir Mark Elder; Opera Rara

Donizetti Il Paria; Albina Shagimuratova, René Barbera, Misha Kiria, Marko Mimica, Britten Sinfonia, Sir Mark Elder; Opera Rara

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 January 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Despite its weak dramaturgy, there is music of richness and daring in an opera written a year before Donizetti's first big success

12 January 1829 was a big day for Gaetano Donizetti. Aged 32, he was making his debut as Director of the Royal Theatres in Naples, a post previously held by Rossini (until 1822), with the premiere of Il Paria (something like his 29th opera). It wasn't Donizetti's first opera for Naples, but Il Paria would be the first one written as Director. Royal protocol ensured that the reaction to the first night was muted, but the opera only lasted for a few performances despite the starry cast (Adelaide Tosi, Giovanni Rubini and Luigi Lablache) and was never revived. Donizetti always intended to return to it, but never did, though he used the opera as a source for other operas in the 1830s.

Now we can hear for ourselves, as Opera Rara has released a new recording of Donizetti's Il Paria conducted by Sir Mark Elder, with Albina Shagimuratova, Misha Kiria, René Barbera, Marko Mimica, and the Britten Sinfonia. [The same forces performed the opera at the Barbican following the recording and you can read a review of the live performance at Classical Source.] The recording is the company's 26th Donizetti opera recording (and there are around 80 Donizetti operas in total).

The libretto for the opera was by Domenico Gilardoni, who wrote the librettos for many of Donizetti's Neapolitan operas (11 between 1827 and 1831!), but Donizetti's greatest operas of the period such as Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia were with another librettist Felice Romani. The libretto for Il Paria is not poetic in the manner of Romani, but it is quite a sophisticated construction.

Donizetti: Il Paria - Albina Shagimuratova, Marko Mimica, Misha Kiria, René Barbera, Thomas Atkins, Kathryn Rudge, Britten Sinfonia, Opera Rara Chorus, Sir Mark Elder - Barbican 2019 (Photo Russell Duncan)
Donizetti: Il Paria - Thomas Atkins, Kathryn Rudge, Marko Mimica, Misha Kiria, René Barbera, Albina Shagimuratova, Sir Mark Elder
Britten Sinfonia, Opera Rara Chorus,  - Barbican 2019 (Photo Russell Duncan)

Unfortunately, to modern eyes and ears, the plot leaves something to be desired. The setting is exotic, taking place in and around a temple in Benares though the fashion for exoticism in music had not yet hit and Donizetti's music makes no attempt, thankfully, to set the scene with exotic-style music. The plot is something of a cross between Verdi's Aida and Delibes' Lakme.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

All About Bach! - Only Stage's new on-line festival

Gabriel Prokofiev
Gabriel Prokofiev
The artist management company Only Stage has certainly been busy. Having recently announced a conducting competition, the company has also launched an on-line music programme. Entitled All About Bach!, it is a weekly series of recitals of Bach's music, sometimes given straight and sometimes Bach providing the inspiration for something new.

The series began last week with violinist Charlie Siem in music for unaccompanied violin (on YouTube) and Siem returns at the end of series (5/3/2021). To come we have cellist Luca Franzetti Cello Suites Nos. 2 & 3 (15/1/2021), pianist Jan Bartos in keyboard music (22/1/2021) and pianist Oliver Poole in the Goldberg Variations (12/2/2021).  

Different aural perspectives are provided by Massimo Mercelli flute and Nicoletta Sanzin harp in sonatas by JS Bach and CPE Bach (29/1/2021), Gabriel Prokofiev on electronics in a new version of The Musical Offering (5/2/2021), and Boris Andrianov cello and Dmitry Illarionov guitar in Cello Suite No. 5 (19/2/2021).

A particular highlight will be Maxim Rysanov on the viola in Cello Suite No. 1, plus two-part inventions with Barnabas Kelemen violin.

The concerts are available free on the OnlyStage Facebook page and YouTube channel. Full details from the Only Stage website.

A beguiling disc: Aberdene 1662 from Maria Valdmaa & Mikko Perkola on ERP explores songs from the only book of secular music published in Scotland in the 17th century

Aberdene 1662, Songs from John Forbes' Songs and Fancies; Maria Valdmaa, Mikko Perkola; ERP

Aberdene 1662
, Songs from John Forbes' Songs and Fancies; Maria Valdmaa, Mikko Perkola; ERP

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 January 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Engagingly refreshing: An Estonian soprano and Finnish gamba player collaborate on performing a selection of songs from John Forbes Songs and Fancies, published in Aberdeen in 1662

Generally, music-making in 17th century Scotland rarely features very highly in music histories. Despite 17th-century Scots having a relatively high level of education, the combination of the Calvinist Church of Scotland's attitude to music making in church and the fact that King James VI of Scotland moved his court to London after being made King of England meant that there was neither elaborate church music nor significant domestic music making. But there were exceptions to this general view.

A new disc from Estonian Record Productions (ERP), Aberdene 1662 with soprano Maria Valdmaa and viola da gamba player Mikko Perkola features eleven songs from Song and Fancies a book published by John Forbes and son in Aberdeen in 1662. This was the first and only collection of secular music to be published in Scotland in the 17th century, and revised editions were published in 1666 and 1682, so it was clearly popular. We don't actually know which Forbes (elder or younger) was actually responsible for the book.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

The Only Stage international Conducting Competition launches with an entirely on-line competition

Only Stage International Conducting Competition
A new conducting competition which is open to musicians of any nationality and with no age limit. The Only Stage International Conducting Competition has been created by Only Stage, a London-based artist management company, in cooperation with Classics Management Budapest, and with the support of Arts Council England. 

The competition seems to be the first conducting competition created by an artist management company. They will need to work hard to avoid the suggestion of favouritism (a problem which has dogged a number of competitions recently), but given the calibre of the jury members (see below), this is something that has hopefully been thought of.

Candidates can apply from 8 January 2021 to 31 March 2021, and the results will be announced in May. Judging will be done based on the candidates CV and submitted videos (both of performances and, for the final round, a presentation). 

The jury includes Andrea Amarante - Artistic Director or Luzerner Sinfonieorchester, conductors John Axelrod and Oleg Caetani, Zvonimir Hacko - Artistic Director of Oregon Music Festival, Ruben Jais - Artistic Director of LaVerdi Symphonic Orchestra, Milan, Michael Rosewell - Director of Opera at the Royal College of Music, György Lendvai, Managing Director of MÁV Symphony Orchestra Budapest, Piero Romano - Artistic Director of the Magna Grecia Orchestra.

Full details from the competition website.

Virtuosity and Protest: Frederic Rzewski's Songs of Insurrection receives its first recording

Frederic Rzewski Songs of Insurrection; Thomas Kotcheff; Coviello Classics

Frederic Rzewski Songs of Insurrection; Thomas Kotcheff; Coviello Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 January 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The American pianist/composer applies his virtuoso technique to seven protest songs, musical meditations on protest transferred to the concert hall

American pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski's piano music often includes references to political matters. His best known work is perhaps the piano solo The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, which uses a song by Sergio Ortega inspired by socialist Chileans protesting the military takeover, whilst Coming Together, for narrator and ensemble, uses text by Samuel Melville—one of the leaders of the revolt against police brutality at Attica Prison in 1971. Often there can be an historical element to the work, so that  Four American Ballads [recorded by Adam Swayne on his disc (Speak to me), see my review] were inspired by the folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger, and Rzewski bases each ballad on an American popular, traditional work or protest song. But Rzewski combines these elements with music that requires a powerful virtuoso technique; Rzewski's own piano technique is evidently stupendous. It is as if Franz Liszt had applied his considerable piano technique to creating works based on the street songs from the Paris Commune.

On a recent disc from Coviello Contemporary, Los Angeles-based pianist and composer Thomas Kotcheff performs Frederic Rzewski's 2016 piano solo, Songs of Insurrection, a substantial seven-movement work based on a variety of songs associated with different protest movements in different eras. Amazingly this is the work's first recording.

The title comes from Walt Whitman's Songs of Insurrection, first published in the 1871 Leaves of Grass and the opening lines are:

STILL, though the one I sing, (One, yet of contradictions made,) I dedicate to Nation- ality, I leave in him Revolt, (O latent right of insurrection! O quenchless, indispensable fire!)

Given the date these lines link to the American Civil War, but perhaps also the continuing ferment of post-Revolutionary France and the European year of revolutions, 1848.

Monday, 11 January 2021

New Year, new sessions: the Benedetti Foundation continues to keep string players active

The Benedetti Foundation - New Year Sessions

The Benedetti Foundation is continuing its campaign to keep string players active, despite lockdown, with a new series of virtual sessions. Beginning on 16 January 2021, the foundation has announced the New Year Sessions, a new programme of on-line sessions for children and young people of school age, music students and recent graduates, adult learners and teachers.

The programme starts with a weekend of sessions (16 and 17 January 2021) for beginner, intermediate and advanced string players of school age, all delivered live on Zoom. Beginner Strings will work on a new piece by Joelle Broad, and Intermediate Strings will work on a movement from Holst's Brook Green Suite. Advanced Strings will work on the first movement of Elgar's Serenade for Strings, participants will have the opportunity to work both together and in individual sections looking at ensemble skills, the structure and story of the piece, harmony, interpretation, and healthy playing, as well as the technical details within each instrumental part.

Full details from the Benedetti Foundation's website

Wind, Sand and Stars: OOTS' new digital concert explores the early days of aviation in the person of French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This evening, 11 January 2020, the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), artistic director David Le Page, releases the latest in its series of Night Owl digital concerts. Entitled Wind, Sand and Stars the filmed concert explores the early days of aviation in the person of French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of Le Petit Prince. OOTS interweaves music by  Ravel, Satie, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Piazzolla, and Charles Trenet with passages from Saint-Exupéry's autobiography, Wind, Sand and Stars read by Graham Padden.

The first concert in the series, Luna, was inspired by planet Earth’s mysterious neighbour – the moon, combining words by James Joyce, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong with music by Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy, Paul Simon, and Schoenberg.

Full details from the Orchestra of the Swan website.

Re-inventing Kurt Weill: How Lotte Lenya's performances of her husband's music in the 1950s, born of expediency, came to define how the songs were performed

Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill in 1928
Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill in 1928

Lotte Lenya's recordings of her husband, Kurt Weill's music effectively defined the performance style for a generation or more. Lenya's low, almost gravelly voice, the prominence of the text defined our way of think about Weill's Berlin works. Yet if you listen to Lenya's few pre-war recordings made in Berlin, [see the excerpt from the 1931 film of Die Dreigroschenoper on YouTube, or the recordings re-issued on Warner Classics], then the style is very different indeed, she has almost a soprano, soubrette voice, however still the same attention to the text. In order for her to perform Weill's music after his death in 1950, roles were transposed down to suit Lenya's voice at the time, giving rise to a Kurt Weill performance style which owed a lot to the changes in his wife's voice.

Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht: Die Dreigroschenoper - Lotte Lenya in the 1931 film
Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht: Die Dreigroschenoper
Lotte Lenya in the 1931 film

Lotte Lenya (1898-1981) was an Austrian actress working in Berlin, and she sang the role of Jessie in Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's first collaboration, Mahoganny Songspiel (1927), though by this time Lenya and Weill were already married having been introduced in 1924 by the playwright Georg Kaiser with whom Weill was collaborating on the operas Der Protagonist (1926) and Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (1928). The rest of the singers in Mahoganny Songspiel were trained operatically, which meant that Lenya's voice set her apart and it was not until she was cast as Jenny in Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Die Dreigroschenoper, which premiered at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928, that she achieved a secure place in Berlin's theatre scene. Though she is associated with her husband's work, she appeared in quite a number of major theatre productions. 

After Brecht and Weill's opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny premiered in Leipzig in 1930, it was rejected by all the opera houses in Berlin and Weill simplified the role of Jenny so that Lenya could sing it in the production at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm.

It is important to remember that Weill's work in Berlin extended beyond his iconic collaborations with Bertholt Brecht, and in fact the two rather diverged over politics and Weill's final major Berlin stage works are the opera Die Bürgschaft, with a libretto by Caspar Neher which premiered in Berlin in 1932 with Lenya as the protagonist's wife, and the play with music, Der Silbersee, with Georg Kaiser.

With the Nazi seizure of power following the Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933, Weill (as a Jew) and Brecht both left Germany. Despite being estranged and soon to be divorced (in 1933), Weill wrote the title role of Anna I for Lenya in his ballet chanté Die sieben Todsünden. Written in exile in Paris, this was also his final work with Brecht. The result of a commission from the dancer Boris Kochno and the patron Edward James (best known for his support of the Surrealist movement), exile seems to have brought about a change to Brecht and Weill's relationship, leading to some sort of reconciliation and the work on Die sieben Todsünden. Anna I would be another role that was re-created in a lower key for Lenya's post-war performances.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

A Life On-Line: Britten and John Donne, Rossini and Sir Walter Scott, Bach for Christmas

Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne - Bernadette Iglich, Richard Dowling (Photo Beki Smith/Britten Pears Arts)
Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne - Bernadette Iglich, Richard Dowling
(Photo Beki Smith/Britten Pears Arts)

This week the twelve days of Christmas came to an end and Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli's performances of the six parts of Bach's Christmas Oratorio reached a triumphant conclusion. I have to confess that, like a lot of people, I am rather less familiar with the second half of Bach's work (too often performances seem to concentrated on parts one to three, and possibly six). 

So it was great to have the second half in such engaging and engrossing performances, not only stunning singing from Anna Dennis, Carolyn Sampson, Helen Charlston, Tim Mead, Hugo Hymas, Jeremy Budd, Roderick Williams and Ashley Riches but a superb commitment to the text and a great sense of collegiality in the performance rather than a sequence of solo moments linked by recitative. And the instrumentalists were part of the group too, making the whole something to treasure. I also enjoyed the chorale performances from the various schools, and can't help but admire the commitment of staff and pupils to getting the music out and videoed at this challenging time.

Perhaps we could do the same for Bach's St Matthew Passion at Easter? [Voces8's Live from London]

We made two virtual visits to Wigmore Hall this week. On Monday, Macedonian mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, was joined by pianist Malcolm Martineau for an eclectic recital (one that we were supposed to be seeing live) which included two composers (both women) who were new to me. We moved from Schubert to Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) to Dvořák (his In Folk Tone, which I also did not know), to Ana Sokolovic (b.1968) to Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) to Britten, ending with Five Advertising Songs by Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995). It was a selection of songs which showed great imagination and demonstrated how to be creative in bringing out music which has been undeservedly neglected. [Wigmore Hall]

We went back to the hall at the end of the week for the debut of Wigmore Soloists in Schubert's joyous Octet. The ensemble, led by violinist Isabelle van Keulen and clarinettist Michael Collins, also featured Laura Samuel violin, Timothy Ridout viola, Kristina Blaumane cello, Tim Gibbs double bass, Robin O'Neill bassoon, and Alberto Menéndez Escribano horn. Schubert's Octet was commissioned in 1824 specifically as a companion work for Beethoven's popular Septet from 1802 and in fact a number of the musicians who premiered Schubert's work had given the premiere of the Beethoven, including violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Schubert follows Beethoven's structure and many of the key relationships, and creates a serenade which is both bubblingly joyous and sublime. [Wigmore Hall]

Rossini's opera La donna del lago, inspired by Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake, is a tricky piece. Rossini wrote it for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples where he was director of music, and where the opera company received lavish support from the King. This mean that Rossini was able to write complex music for a crack ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, and also to experiment. La donna del lago has many features that we now take for granted in 19th century opera, so that the finale to Act One features orchestra, soloists and three separate choruses (which were expected to move around the stage), whilst musically Rossini brings multiple tunes together. The result is exhilarating, and is the sort of dramatic writing which came to define Italian opera in the 19th century.

And yet. What are we to make on stage of a story about warring Scots dressed in anachronistic kilts, and there is even a chorus of bards! No wonder directors struggle. I still remember the laugh that the entrance of Marilyn Horne received at Covent Garden when she made her entry in doublet and hose in Frank Corsaro's 1985 production, whilst John Fulljames' 2013 at Covent Garden successfully mined the idea of the 19th century re-inventing history [see my review]. The Metropolitan Opera's video offerings this week featured Paul Curran's 2015 production there (the work's premiere run at the Met). Curran took a relatively traditional view, we had kilts  and blue daubed bards. The result, particularly when seen in close-up on film, highlighted the anachronism a bit too much and you felt that fewer realistic details would have been helpful. There were, however, terrific performances from Joyce DiDonato as Elena, Daniella Barcellona as Malcolm, Juan Diego Florez as Giacomo and John Osborn as Rodrigo, conducted by Michele Mariotti. [Met Opera]

English Touring Opera released the second of its films on Marquee TV, taken from the company's Autumn programme at Hackney Empire. For this film, Bernadette Iglich directed and danced, whilst Richard Dowling (tenor) and Ian Tindale (pianist) performed Britten's The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Britten seems to have written the cycle in response to seeing the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Britten had stood in at the last moment as pianist for violinst Yehudi Menuhin's 1945 post-war tour of Germany where they gave a concert at Bergen-Belsen to the survivors who were waiting there to be repatriated. In the audience was cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Britten's solution to dealing with the horrors of Bergen-Belsen was to set a sequence of John Donne's Holy Sonnets in which the poet deals with personal distress and the texts seem to move between Donne's struggles with sexual tensions and his relationship to God. The result is not comfortable music, and Richard Dowling gave an astonishing performance, intense yet often lyrical, creating a clear arc through the nine songs, making them a personal experience. Was it about his relationship with the dancer (Bernadette Iglich), we were never sure but that tension kept us on the edge of our seats. [English Touring Opera]

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Mysteries: Luxembourg-born pianist Sabine Weyer on how combining music by a Soviet Russian composer and contemporary French one made a satisfying new disc

Sabine Weyer
Sabine Weyer

The Luxembourg-born pianist Sabine Weyer is releasing a disc this month on the ARS Produktion label, entitled Mysteries, combines the music of Russian / Soviet composer Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950), celebrating his 140th anniversary, and the contemporary French composer Nicolas Bacri (born 1961), celebrating his 60th birthday. It is not an obvious pairing of composers, though neither is perhaps as well known as they ought to be and in fact it was Bacri who introduced Sabine to Mysaskovsky's music (Bacri dedicated one of his piano sonatas to Myaskovsky's memory). I caught up with Sabine by Skype to find out more.

Sabine Weyer: Mysteries - ARS Produktion
Along with many other works (his work-list is most impressive), Nicolas Bacri has written nine piano sonatas, and when Sabine first came across his music she listened to it and liked it, finding the piano sonatas fascinating. She started studying Bacri's music and travelled to Brussels to play for him. During this meeting he told her about the music of Nikolai Myaskovsky, whom Bacri regarded as his favourite composer. Bacri dedicated his Sonata No.3, Opus 122 ‘Sonata impetuosa’, which Sabine includes on her disc, to Myaskovsky's memory and Sabine found a number of links between the music of the two composers. Combining them on a disc seemed obvious.

Part of the attraction of Myaskovsky for Sabine is the way his music evolved over time, at first Romantic and then becoming more expressionistic, but later on because of the rigours of the Soviet regime his music become more Romantic again. She finds that he was always struggling to be true to himself, fighting against the Soviet regime. She sees Myaskovsky as always taking care of his inner voice in his music, and a great example of what an artist should be. 

Friday, 8 January 2021

The missing link: romances by Alexander Dargomyzhshky, a friend of Glinka and an influence on a later generation of Russian composers

Alexander Dargomyzhshky Romances; Anastasia Prokofieva, Sergey Rybin; Stone Records

Alexander Dargomyzhshky Romances; Anastasia Prokofieva, Sergey Rybin; Stone Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 January 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A chance to explore songs by a composer who is an important link between Glinka and the Russian composers of the later 19th century

When we think of Russian song in recital, it tends to be songs by Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), and Rachmaninov (1873-1943) that performers reach for first, and even then, quite a small group of songs by each composer. But on disc, things are starting to get more interesting, in 2016 Katherine Broderick and Sergey Rybin recorded a disc of Mussorgsky songs which explored the links between the composer and French Impressionism [see my review], then in 2018, Anush Hovhannisyan, Yuriy Yurchuk, and Sergey Rybin recorded a disc of Romances by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) [see my review], and now pianist Sergei Rybin is joined by soprano Anastasia Prokofieva on Stone Records for The Secret Garden, Romances by Alexander Dargomyzhshky, a selection of 26 of the composer's songs.

Alexander Dargomyzhshky (1813-1869) is one of the missing links between Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and the composers of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky's generation. Dargomyzhshky's father was the illegitimate son of a nobleman, and the young Alexander was musically talented early and his teachers would include one of Hummel's pupils. In 1833, Dargomyzhshky met Glinka who encouraged the young man and Glinka would be a mentor and friend for 22 years. It was Glinka's influence that encouraged Dargomyzhshky to consider composing as a profession, rather than simply something for the salon. Though like the composers born in the 1830s and 1840s, Dargomyzhshky also had a day job in the civil service.

Whilst he was heavily influenced by French Grand Opera, and spent six months during 1844 travelling to Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Vienna when it came to Russian music Dargomyzhshky was looking for a deeper truth. He was interested in the way words were set, would experiment with declamatory, recitative-like writing which would heavily influence later generations of Russian composers. Perhaps because he didn't write 'ear flattering melodies', his music never quite got the attention that it deserved. He wrote almost exclusively for the voice, leaving four complete operas, two incomplete operas and nearly 100 Romances. His songs trace his stylistic evolution from classical through Romantic towards Realism, first songs for the salon, then Russian folk songs, larger-scale ballades and realistic, satirical scenes.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

If Haydn went to Scotland: the Maxwell Quartet continues its exploration of Haydn's London quartets alongside 18th century Scots traditional tunes

Haydn String Quartets Op.74, Folk music from Scotland; Maxwell Quartet; Linn Records

Haydn String Quartets Op.74, Folk music from Scotland; Maxwell Quartet; Linn Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 December 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The young Scottish quartet continues its engaging exploration of Haydn's later quartets, imaginatively paired with folk music from Scotland

The Maxwell Quartet's previous disc on Linn Records combined Haydn's String Quartets Opus 71 with folk music from Scotland, and the quartet's new (released 8/1/2021) generously filled disc for Linn follows this up with Haydn's String Quartets Opus 74 and further folk music from Scotland, including music by Niel Gow, Nathaniel Gow, Isaac Cooper, William Marshall and Sine NicFhionnlaigh.

The two discs make a neat pairing because Haydn wrote his Opus 71 and Opus 74 quartets as a set of six, it was the publisher who split them up. The quartets arise directly from Haydn's changing circumstances. In 1790 his employer of nearly 30 years, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, died and the Prince's successor drastically reduced the musical establishment. Haydn was now free and in 1791 he accepted an invitation from the impresario Johann Peter Salomon for a visit to London to perform his music at Salmon's concert series there.

Thanks to the music publishing industry Haydn was famous. He might have been marooned for much of the time in the Prince's palaces, but his music was published and disseminated, and since the late 1770 thanks to a revised contract with the Prince, Haydn could directly benefit from sales of his music. The visit to London had another effect on Haydn, he heard his quartets performed at public concerts. In Vienna, the string quartet was an intimate medium, played to a small group, but in London virtuoso instrumentalists played them to a public audience. So when the composer returned from London in 1792, he wrote his sequence of six quartets full of brilliance and energy, orchestral textures and dramatic effects.

The Maxwell Quartet say in the programme note that Haydn never went to Scotland, but of course he did have a relationship with Scottish music. During the late 18th century there was a movement to collect and publish Scottish folk-songs in versions suitable for performing in the parlour. Between 1791 and 1804 Haydn created hundreds of arrangements of folk songs for George Thomson, the Edinburgh folksong collector, and for other publishers in London and in Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

A weekend of genre-bending events inspired by Baroque music - Baroque at the Edge returns on-line

Baroque at the Edge - No Walls
This weekend the Baroque at the Edge festival is planning to give us another blast of its genre-bending Baroque music inspired events. Running on-line from 7 to 10 January 2021, the festival will be featuring a mixture of concerts recorded at LSO St Lukes and live Zoom events.

So there will be Bach on the Moog synthesizer, guitarist and lutenist Sean Shibe mixing 17th century dance tunes with music by Ravel and Poulenc, recorder player Eliza Haskins joining forces with percussionist Toril Azzalini-Machecler, violinist Rachel Podger on the use of classical rhetoric in Baroque music, performance poets Abena-Essah Bediako and Isaiah Hull presenting poems in response to Baroque music, Nicholas Mulroy on the musical affinities between the giants of 1960s Latin-American song-writing and the composers of 17th-century Europe, and for the finale Lucy Crowe, Tom Moore and La Nuova Musica explore the role folk song and dance has played in European art music.

Full details from the Baroque at the Edge website.

A surprisingly complex work: Puccini's late Verismo classic, Il Tabarro, in a new studio recording from Dresden

Puccini Il Tabarro; Melody Moore, Brian Jagde, Lester Lynch, Dresdner Philharmonie, Marek Janowski; PENTATONE

Puccini Il Tabarro; Melody Moore, Brian Jagde, Lester Lynch, Dresdner Philharmonie, Marek Janowski; PENTATONE

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 January 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A new studio recording continues Marek Janowski and his Dresden orchestra's series of Verismo operas with a young American cast

During the 1880s and 1890s, Italian publishers were making a concerted effort to find a successor to Giuseppe Verdi who, however, remained a towering force in Italian operatic life. The major publishing house of Ricordi supported several younger composers, notable amongst whom was Giacomo Puccini, but his first two operas Le Villi (1884) and Edgar (1889) failed to make a strong impression, and it was Ricordi's rivals, Sonzogno, which seemed to have the biggest success. As a result of Sonzogno's one-act opera competitions, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana ushered in a new style, Verismo, and the success of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci seemed to confirm this new style.
Puccini viewed Leoncavallo and Mascagni's success enviously, but when he did reach the heights with La Boheme in 1896, it was not quite in the Verismo vein. Whilst Puccini would use elements of this new style, with dramatic plots, melodramatic effects, an emphasis on through-composed dialogue, fast pacing, and big soaring melodies, he would also learn lessons from composers like Massenet and thread his orchestral writing with leitmotifs which brought a richness and complexity to the scores.

By 1904, Puccini had the idea for three one-act operas (perhaps inspired by the success of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci as a double bill), but his publishers were not keen, partly because of the expense of staging three operas and partly because the genre was inextricably linked to rivals Sonzogno and their competitions.

When Giulio Ricordi died in 1912, Puccini managed to get his way and Il Trittico premiered in 1918, three contrasting operas, one melodramatic with gritty realism, Il Tabarro, one sentimental and religious, Suor Angelica, and one comic, Gianni Schicchi. For Il Tabarro, Puccini looked back to Verismo, which by the 1910s was something of a past phase, none of the Verismo composers from the 1890s was writing in the style. But Puccini wrapped this Veristic style in his own technique, to create a deceptively complex work.

For years, the only way to see Il Tabarro was in tandem with one or all of the operas from Il Trittico but now have learned to love it for its own sake. This new recording of Puccini's Il Tabarro from Pentatone features Marek Janowski conducting the Dresdner Philharmonie (of which he is the chief conductor), with Melody Moore, Brian Jagde and Lester Lynch. The set is a follow up to the same team's recording of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana which was released on Pentatone last year.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Love's Fever: Written after the Black Death in Florence, this 14th century song proves remarkably prescient.

Deh Lassa La Mia Vita

This new film from opera and theatre director Eric Fraad, Love's Fever, takes a text from the end of Day Seven of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) in a contemporary setting by Lorenzo da Firenze (died 1372/73) and gives it a modern twist performed by Caitríona O’Leary, an Irish singer known both for her performances of early music and of Irish traditional music. 

Boccaccio wrote The Decameron after the Black Death hit Florence in 1348, and the 100 tales in the book are structured around a group of people in a villa who have fled Florence and the plague. The song, rather aptly, refers to the fear of never being able to return to life as we once knew it.

Alas, my life’s forlorn!
Oh, shall it ever be that I’ll regain
The place from which I had to part in grief

Dowland transmuted: Time Stands Still from Portuguese composer Nuno Côrte-Real

ohn Dowland, Nuno Côrte-Real Time Stands Still; Ana Quintans, Ensemble Darcos, Nuno Côrte-Real; Artway Records

John Dowland, Nuno Côrte-Real Time Stands Still; Ana Quintans, Ensemble Darcos, Nuno Côrte-Real; Artway Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 December 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An intriguing synthesis of contemporary and Renaissance as Portuguese composer Nuno Côrte-Real interweaves the music of John Dowland with his own voice

This new disc from Portuguese composer Nuno Côrte-Real on Artway Records features a mixture of Côrte-Real's music and that of Renaissance composer John Dowland performed by soprano Ana Quintans with Ensemble Darcos. But the disc is not so much a selection of music by Côrte-Real and by Dowland as a synthesis.

Nuno Côrte-Real has taken seven songs by John Dowland, orchestrated them and interwoven them with his own interludes to create what he sees as an integrated work which he calls Time Stands Still. The Dowland songs are 'Come again sweet love', 'Flow, my tears', 'Awake, sweet love', 'I saw my lady weep', 'Shall sue', 'Weep no more, sad fountains', and 'Time stands still', and around these have been wrapped eight movements by Côrte-Real, 'Mr. Sérgio Azevedo’s Prelude', 'Mr. António Pinho Vargas his Pavan', 'Mr. Artur Ribeiro’s Air', 'Mr. Mats Lidstrom his Fantasia', 'Sir Christopher Bochmann his atonal transition', 'Mr. Eurico Carrapatoso’s Fugue', 'Lady Maria João’s Improvisation', and 'I know not what tomorrow will bring'

The original impetus for the work was an invitation to Côrte-Real to write a new piece for a Shakespeare festival in Lisbon (the work was commissioned by Centro Cultural de Belém for Dias da Música em Belém 2019 Festival). Côrte-Real thought of Dowland partly because the composer was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and partly because as a former lutenist Côrte-Real knew Dowland's songs. He describes Time Stands Still as 'a tribute to Dowland’s songs, also to my past and my relation to this music, which had a strong influence in what I became as a musician and a composer'. The Dowland pieces on the disc are all somewhat nostalgic and melancholy, and the whole work has a sense of looking back, Côrte-Real describes it as 'a sort of revisitation and getting back to my own past, remembering beautiful times which of course will never return'.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Calling all young composers: Conway Hall announces the Clements Prize for Composers

Alfred J Clements - memorial at Conway Hall
Conway Hall Sunday Concerts has announced the Clements Prize for Composers, inviting young composers (35 or under) to submit works for string trio (violin, viola, cello) with up to eight works to be selected to be performed at the final on 16 May 2021 by members of the Piatti Quartet.

Alfred J Clements (1858-1938) was the organiser and secretary of the South Place Sunday Concerts (predecessor of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts) from their inception in 1887 until his death. In the first half of the twentieth century the competition bearing his name encouraged the composition of new chamber works, establishing a tradition which set Conway Hall right at the centre of British contemporary music.

In order to support young composers and new music after the disaster wrought on the music industry by the coronavirus in 2020, Conway Hall Sunday Concerts has re-launched the Clements Prize. As well as the competition itself, scores from the original competitions in the 20th century will be available for the first time via the Conway Hall website, and a selection exhibited before the final round of the competition. The project is supported by  Cockayne – Grants for the Arts and to The London Community Foundation.

The deadline for submission is Friday 26 February 2021, 5pm, full details from the Conway Hall website.

The pocket watch and the news periodical: how the public concert developed in 17th and 18th century London

Hanover Square Rooms
Hanover Square Rooms

In 1672 John Banister, a former violinist at the court of King Charles II, set up a concert room in his house and started giving what seem to be some of the first public concerts in Britain. Given that classical music has been part of Western European culture since the Middle Ages, it is perhaps surprising that that public concerts, something that we rather take for granted as an essential part of contemporary classical music, are such a relatively recent phenomenon.

Classical music at this period was very much in the hands of patrons, whether kings, princes or aristocrats, performances were often invitation events, whether they be a grand display as part of a prince's magnificence, or a simpler salon. To hold a public concert series, you need the confluence of at least four notable features  - sufficient musicians of a calibre that people might want to hear them, an audience interested and affluent enough to pay, a method of communicating to people the when, what and where of the concerts, and accurate enough timekeeping so that people can assemble at the correct time.

These latter two are necessary indeed. The fact that public concerts developed in London in the late 17th century is partly because the production of newspapers gave a means of advertising the concerts, and the increasing availability of pocket watches meant that people had a means of telling the time accurately enough. Portable watches developed considerably in the 17th century, intially as pendants and by the 1670s Charles II's introduction of the waistcoat into Britain is said to have led to men keeping watches in pockets. Whilst, regular news periodicals developed in late 17th century Britain partly because of changes to controls in the right to print, and the London Gazette (published from 1665) became the first official journal of record, thus offering regular place for advertising.

Of course, these contitions predispose that you have persons of a certain quality; early concerts were certainly not mass entertainment and the history of mass entertainment in classical music is an entirely different story.

That London satisfied my first two criteria is partly down to politics and partly to its size and its increasing commercial success.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

A Life On-Line: Christmas with Bach and Rossini, plus a New Year's Day in the Roaring 20s


Tippett: The Heart's Assurance - Tom Elwin, English Touring Opera
Tippett: The Heart's Assurance - Tom Elwin, English Touring Opera

The week leading up to Christmas Day got off to a great musical start with the final two concerts from Wigmore Hall. First off was Stile Antico in music for Christmas from the Spanish Golden Age, mixing the sacred and the secular. To avoid the usual Christmas salmagundi, the ensemble wove the programme together via a complete performance of Alonso Lobo's richly textured six-voice Missa Beata Dei Genitrix,  and interspersed within this were motets by Francisco Guerrero (Lobo's teacher) and Christobal del Morales, plus lighter Christmas songs in Spanish by Guerrero and Matteo Flecha.  The concert is still available to watch on the Wigmore Hall website, and if you want a more permanent reminder, the ensemble's programme was based on its 2019 disc, A Spanish Nativity.

The Cardinall's Musick, director Andrew Carwood, then rounded off the Wigmore Hall season nicely a programme of Italian and German sacred music for Christmas. Like Stile Antico, The Cardinall's Musick centred the programme around a single mass, Palestrina's Missa O Magnum Misterium, performed as a single work, interspersed with plainsong, and preceded by the composer's motet on which the mass was based. Then the focus moved to Germany for two works by Heinrich Schütz, setting German texts and written for Lutheran worship but still managing to evoke Italy, where Schütz had trained. The programme was rounded off by a Christmas magnificat by Heinrich Praetorius, where the movements of the magnificat were interspersed with two popular Christmas songs, Josef lieber, Josef mein, and In dulci jubilo, given in an arrangement by JS Bach. The concert is still available to watch on the Wigmore Hall website.   

Glyndebourne released the video of its 2005 production of Rossini's La Cenerentola as a Christmas treat for us all, with it free to watch on the Glyndebourne website until 4 January 2021. Directed by Peter Hall and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, the production feature Ruxandra Donose as Cenerentola, Maxim Mironov as the Prince, Simone Alberghini as Dandini, Luciano Di Pasquale as Don Magnifico, Nathan Berg as Alidoro, and Raquela Sheeran and Lucia Cirillo as the Ugly Sisters. Hall took the work quite seriously, but both he and Jurowski brought out the character of the piece, not looking for laughs that were not there; it was in the ensembles, crisply sung and imaginatively staged, that the comedy really came out. Donose was poised, charming and elegant as Cenerentola, and Mironov made a handsome and personable prince, the two conveyed the young lovers' growing relationship beautifully, yet perhaps I would have liked a smack of temperament in this. Alberghini made a terrific Dandini, hamming it up something rotten whilst Cenerentola's family were all characterfully drawn.

There was more Schütz on 28 December, when James Way and the Assembled Company (including Elizabeth Karani, Thomas Elwin and Trevor Eliot Bowe) performed The Christmas Story. As far as I am concerned you can never have too much Schütz, and it was lovely to get this intimate, small-scale performance of his fine telling of the story of Christmas, put together thanks to Equilibrium Young Artists and Harrison Parrott's Virtual Circle. Unfortunately it was only live-streamed, so you can't watch it on-line.

Throughout Christmas, we have been treating ourselves to the large-scale musical re-telling of Christmas with Bach's Christmas Oratorio performed by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players as part of Voces8's Live from London Christmas Festival. A terrific way of being able to hear the work as Bach originally intended, six cantatas spread over the 12 days of Christmas. McCreesh uses an ensemble of eight solo singers, Carolyn Sampson, Anna Dennis, Tim Mead, Helen Charlston, Hugo Hymas, Jeremy Budd, Roderick Williams and Ashley Riches, with four singing in each cantata and of course no chorus. The result flows beautifully, and with just four singers providing solos, duets, choruses and chorales, Bach's flexible use of his forces makes a lot more sense, particularly with such fine, communicative performers. Each cantata is preceded by a chorale recorded by members of Gabrieli with contributions from young singers from Gabrieli Roar patched in, a brilliant way to incorporate the young singers' performances into the event. As I write we have heard four cantatas, and I look forward to the final two. [Voces8's Live from London]

As readers of this blog may have gathered, I am a bit of an unbeliever when it comes to Johann Strauss's waltzes and always give the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's New Year's Day concert a miss, if I can. So it was a delight this year to be able to stream Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra's imaginative concert (released on New Year's Eve) which juxtaposed music from the 1920s, both jazz and ragtime alongside music inspired by jazz from Erwin Schulhoff and Darius Milhaud. The orchestra seemed as if they were having fun, and it made an engaging and thoughtful programme. [English Symphony Orchestra].

It was a great delight to discover that having been deprived of a live performance of English Touring Opera's imaginative Autumn programme, the company had managed to record the performances at Hackney Empire and were releasing them as three videos on Marquee TV, each is free to view for the first week.  On Friday we had Tom Elwin in Michael Tippett's The Heart's Assurance and Katie Stevenson in Benjamin Britten's A Charm of Lullabies, both accompanied by pianist Ian Tindale. These were staged song cycles, imaginatively directed by Bernadette Iglich. I was particularly taken with the Tippett, which received a terrific performance from Elwin and Tindale. It is not an easy piece, either technically or emotionally as it is full of Tippett's melismatic, rhapsodic complexity (he wrote it whilst working on A Midsummer Marriage) and the text mixes love and war in a difficult way. Britten's work is, perhaps, even odder being a group of lullabies, none of which you would really want to sing to a baby. Here Stevenson was haunting, hinting at darker concerns. Catch it while you can, the second programme is next Friday. [English Touring Opera]

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