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Sunday, 31 January 2021

A Life On-Line: Mental Health at Wigmore Hall, Holocaust Memorial from Opera Holland Park, Britten & Shostakovich from ETO

David Webb
David Webb at Wigmore Hall


This week features tenor David Webb and friends supporting mental health at Wigmore Hall, Nicky Spence and Opera Holland Park commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, Britten setting Russian and Shostakovich setting British poets from English Touring Opera, James Newby in Hamburg and more besides.

During January, tenor David Webb intended to cycle from Cornwall to London, combining the 300-mile trip with three performances of Schubert's Winterreise (in Truro, Exeter and the Wigmore Hall), all in aid of mental health charities MIND and Music Minds Matter (Help Musicians UK). The current lockdown restrictions put paid to that but Webb, who has been open about his own struggles with mental health, was nothing undaunted and so during January he cycled 500 miles, in laps from his own home, and then on Friday 29 January Webb was joined by a group of friends for a performance of Winterreise at Wigmore Hall. David Webb (tenor) shared the platform with Alessandro Fisher (tenor), Rupert Charlesworth (tenor) and Benedict Nelson (baritone), with Iain Burnside at the piano.

The four began and ended together, sharing out the verses of Gute Nacht and Der Leiermann, whilst in the middle each did a group of songs. In terms of performing the cycle complete, Nelson is the most experienced having performed it a number of times. By sharing the songs out the piece became less of a journey and more of an exploration, four young men opening up about their emotional turmoil. It was fascinating to hear four different voices side by side, from those that prized interior stillness to those who favoured a more operatic approach. But there were certainly plenty of moments when I wanted to hear more, so I hope that we'll be getting full performances of the cycle from the members of this group.

All sung from memory, simply to the camera (no audience at the hall bar John Gilhooly and announcer Catherine Bott), the whole rather moving.

David Webb has raised nearly double his intended amount and is approaching £10,000. If you haven't already, do visit his JustGiving page. [Wigmore Hall]

Wednesday was Holocaust Memorial Day, and to mark it Opera Holland Park released a video of tenor Nicky Spence, the Navarra Quartet and pianist Lada Valešová performing Pavel Haas' song cycle Fata Morgana, Op. 6, directed from the piano by Valešová. Pavel Haas (1899-1944) was born in Brno and studied with Leoš Janáček, but in 1941 Haas was interned in Theresienstadt, and his life ended in Auschwitz in 1944.  Interestingly, his younger brother Hugo was a film actor, having a distinguished career in Czechoslovakia (Pavel wrote music for the film Kvočna which Hugo directed), and being famous Hugo was able to escape and went on to have a career in B movies in Hollywood. Read more at the Classical Iconoclast blog.

Pavel Haas' song cycle Fata Morgana was written in 1923, just after his period of study with Janáček and it sets a sequence of poems by Rabindranath Tagore (very much in fashion in the period. and Janacek had set some Tagore in The Wandering Madman in 1922). The poems, from The Gardener, are set in Czech translations and deal with the poet's desire for an ephemeral lover, but what we really notice are the textures as Haas makes imaginative use of his instrumental forces, with suggestions of influence both from Janáček and from French composers. The same forces made the work's first recording [on Resonus Classics in 2017, see my review], and this was a moving account of a terrific work. [YouTube]

English Touring Opera's final film on Marquee TV, paired song cycles by Shostakovich and Britten. First we had Shostakovich's Romances on British Poetry, sung by Edward Hawkins with Sergey Rybin, piano, and then Britten's The Poet's Echo sung by Jenny Stafford, again with Rybin; both staged
by James Conway. So a Russian composers setting British poetry and a British composer setting Russian, both works rather astonishing. 

Shostakovich's cycle, written in 1941, sets Walter Raleigh, Robert Burns and Shakespeare (here sung in the original English/Scots) and the composer makes something dark and brooding from it,passionate settings which seem to explore the pain of life. Conway's production seemed to have Edward Hawkins awaiting the fateful call, and the result was profoundly moving. Britten's Pushkin settings, The Poet's Echo, are very much linked to the voice of Galina Vishnevskaya (Vishnevskaya premiered them in Moscow in 1965 with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich at the piano). Here Jenny Stafford, singing in Russian, made the work's her own and the performance made you wonder why we don't hear this cycle more often. [Marquee TV]

There was further unusual repertoire from the Bergen Philharmonic as part of its Wintermezzo on-line festival. The orchestra was conducted by Edward Gardner and joined by soprano Lise Davidsen for Sibelius' songs Opus 36 and Opus 37. Sibelius wrote the songs for voice and piano in 1899/1900 and would later arrange some of them for voice and orchestra, the performance included the world premiere of Kalevi Aho’s orchestration of 'Lasse Liten', though I wasn't clear whether Sibelius was responsible for all of the orchestrations. Whatever, they are terrific songs and it seems strange that they are not better known in this form. The concert concluded with a fine account of Sibelius Symphony No. 1. [Bergen Philharmonic]

The viola did not feature much as a solo instrument in 19th century music, but viola player Rachel Roberts and pianist Tim Horton's recital at Conway Hall on Sunday traced and interesting line, from Robert Schumann's Märchenbilder to Brahms' Sonata for viola and piano in F minor, Op.120 No. 1 to Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata. Brahms wrote his pair of late sonatas originally for clarinet, and it was probably his publisher who urged the viola versions (to garner more sales), but the composer did it and thus leaves us with a pair of major sonatas for viola. Rebecca Clarke was a pupil of Stanford and was heavily influenced by Brahms so you can feel a line continuing right up to Clarke's terrific sonata. A lovely recital indeed [Conway Hall]

The City Music Foundation started its monthly series from the Great Hall of Bart's Hospital, with a recital from cellist Ariana Kashefi, which began with unaccompanied Bach, then moved to unaccompanied Kodaly via Deborah Pritchard's contribution to the BBC's Lockdown series, Postcards from Composers. Then Kashefi was joined by guitarist Andrey Lebedev (an alumnus of the CMF Young Artist programme) for Piazzolla. All in the beauty of James Gibb's fine interior. [YouTube]

Baritone James Newby was due to be doing a series of recitals with pianist Joseph Middleton celebrating the recent release of their disc I wonder as I wander, but lockdown and travel restrictions put paid to that, alas. However, Newby was able to get to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg where he joined up with pianist Marcelo Amaral for a programme of songs by Clara and Robert Schumann. First Clara Schumann''s Sechs Lieder, Op. 13 from 1844; in fact the first time that any of her songs had been performed at the Elbphilharmonie! The songs were all written as gifts for her husband, and whilst Robert's influence can be heard, there is also a sense of Clara as a composer. Here approach to words was somewhat different to her husband, and even the textures can be different with Clara less inclined to double the vocal line in the piano Newby and Amaral concluded the recital with a fine account of Robert Schumann's Kerner Lieder

Despite the lack of an audience, Newby seemed to have real presence on the platform, and though there were plenty of moments of great beauty, he displayed a remarkably wide range of tone and expression. A terrific recital and one I regretted not being present in person [Elbphilharmonie]

Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra have been continuing their series of recitals from Wyastone Studios, this time it was under the title of Inspired by Mahler. Starting with Woods' chamber version of Mahler's Das irdische Leben (with soprano April Fredrick), the programme then explored later composers under Mahler's influence with Mieczysław Weinberg's remarkably neo-classical Concertino for Violin and Strings and Erwin Schulhoff's wonderfully lively Suite for Chamber Orchestra with its movements based on popular dances, ending with Woods' chamber orchestra version of Viktor Ullman's Third String Quartet, a serious and intense ending to an imaginative concert. [English Symphony Orchestra]

It hasn't just been listening to music, I also caught the latest episode of the podcast Where's my freaking dressing room. Run by mezzo-soprano Helen Daniels and countertenor Alexander Simpson, it is a look at music and the music business from the inside. This episode (number seven) was a lively look at New Year's resolutions! [Where's my freaking dressing room]

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