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]

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