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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