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.

It almost seemed as if she and Elder were egging each other on. This made for a gripping performance, giving the music a real sense of drama. Ibragimova was playing on gut strings and used vibrato sparingly, but she was very much her own woman and mesmerising. Though at times, I did wonder what Joachim had sounded like in the concerto, would he have played it with more classical style? And what of the role of portamento, modern performances frequently ignore this element, with commentators disagreeing about how much might have been used. [OAE Player]

At Baroque at the Edge, Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo & guitar) and Toby Carr (guitar) came together for Cubaroque a lovely recital which mixed 17th century music with 20th century Spanish and Latin-American songs. The performers freely moved between the two musical worlds, putting together groups of songs which spoke to each other of similar concerns. The only instrumental change being that Toby Carr moved from baroque guitar to modern one. The result was delightful and intriguing. I have admired many of Mulroy's recent performances and love hearing his voice in Monteverdi, and here we heard Monteverdi, Purcell, Jose Marin (17th century Spanish) and Barbara Strozzi, all with that bright sense of line, vivid ornamentation and great diction. And Mulroy and his companions applied the same virtues to the 20th century songs, giving us an engaging and intriguing programme. More please! [Baroque at the Edge]

One advantage of the way performers are using the internet is to upcycle and recycle performances that might have been missed. It is a great way to catch up. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton filmed Lee Hoiby's one-woman opera Bon Appétit! in July 2020, and the delightful 20-minute diversion has been on a number of different opera feeds. We caught up with it at Opera Philadelphia. Lee Hoiby (1926-2011) wrote it for his friend, actress Jean Stapleton who premiered it in 1989. The opera sets a conflation of two scripts from Julia Child's well-known 1960s cooking show. In the opera Child (Jamie Barton) is making an elaborate chocolate cake. Barton has sung the role for a number of years, and this film was directed by Ryan McKinney and made in his kitchen! And Barton really did cook, melting chocolate, beating eggs and seeming to have great fun. A real musical and dramatic tour de force, yet an amusing delight too. [Opera Philadelphia]

We also caught up with Rossini's Armida in a broadcast of a 2010 performance from the Metropolitan Opera with Rene Fleming, John Osborn, Lawrence Brownlee and Barry Banks, conducted by Riccardo Frizza and directed by Mary Zimmerman. The opera is unusual for Rossini, for a start there is only one soprano role (taken in 1817 by Isabella Colbran, the reigning diva at Naples opera), and there are six tenor roles (though a lot of doubling) with the famous (and unique) trio for three tenors in Act Three. The middle act moves from the 'real' world to Armida's magical realm, complete with a ballet sequence, all relatively unusual in Rossini and he clearly enjoyed writing seductive and varied music. Yet apart from Armida (Fleming) and Rinaldo (Brownlee), no-one else gets much air-time and the tenor roles are often doubled. Here Barry Banks did duty, in two unlikely wigs. Armida does not pop up very often, and here it was clearly a star vehicle for Fleming (who first sang the role in Pesaro in 1993). [MetOpera]

The third of English Touring Opera's films debuted this week on Marquee TV, pairing Tippett's song cycle Boyhood's End with Shostakovich's Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva. Tippett wrote Boyhood's End in 1943; a setting of an autobiographical text by naturalist William Henry Hudson, it was written for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (though they may not have premiered it). Lyrical and rhapsodic, Tippett takes the remembrance of boyhood and makes it about a land of lost content as the result of war, something that choreographer Rae Piper brought out. The work was danced by Paul Chantry and vividly sung by Tom Elwin with Ian Tindale on piano. The words of Shostakovich's Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva date from roughly the same time period as the Tippett song cycle, as the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941. But Shostakovich did not set the songs until 1973, this is powerful and challenging late Shostakovich. The cycle was performed by mezzo-soprano Katie Stevenson and pianist Ian Tindale, and directed by Rahel Vonmoos with dancer Bernadette Iglich.   Enigmatic and uncompromising, the work uses Tsvetaeva's poems about the purpose of art to create something disturbing. A challenging choice for a staging, but a rewarding one. [English Touring Opera]

Having interviewed Edmund Aldhouse, director of music at Ely Cathedral, last year [see my interview], it was great to catch up on BBC Radio 3 with the cathedral and the choir for Epiphany Evensong (actually recorded in November!), with music by Warlock, Clucas, Mendelssohn, and Herbert Sumsion [BBC Radio3]. Handel & Hendrix in London posted a lovely video of the current group of Handel House Talent, recorded in concert at the Handel House in December. We heard music by Handel, Bach, Corrette, Boni and Monteverdi, a lovely mix including one of Corrette's delightful Symphonies de Noël, something from Messiah and from the Christmas Oratorio, ending unseasonably but deligtfully with the final duet from L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Performers were Abel Balazs (violin), Lucia Capellaro (cello), Katie Lewis (oboe), Jonatan Bougt (theorbo), Anna Cavaliero (soprano), Frances Gregory (mezzo-soprano) & Pawel Siwczak (harpsichord)  [YouTube]. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's latest programme, recorded in November at the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, featured music by Dvořák, Martinů, Pavel Haas and Hans Krása, much of it not as well known as it ought to be. A lovely programme [YouTube]

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