Sunday 14 March 2021

A Life On-Line: Forgotten Voices from SWAP'ra, 18th century elegance at Conway Hall, Szymanowski in Bristol, a birthday at Wigmore Hall

SWAP'ra Forgotten Voices

SWAP'ra celebrated International Women's Day this week with its Forgotten Voices project (in collaboration with Hera), where singers from the UK's conservatoires (and the National Opera Studio) performed songs by women composers. Some of the names of the composers were known, others not, and many of the songs were unknown. Things kicked off on Saturday 6 March (though we only caught it on catch-up later) with a live recital from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Songs by three Welsh women and one Scott, Elaine Hugh-Jones (born 1927), Grace Williams (1906-1977), Morfydd Owen (1891-1918), and Claire Lidell (born 1937).  Elaine Hugh-Jones, who was a pupil of Lennox Berkeley, was entirely new to me and her approachable yet complex songs were intriguing and made you want to hear more. It was lovely to hear more of Morfydd Owen's work, having heard some of her music last week for St David's Day. Some songs approached the Edwardian parlour but others had striking and often touching moments. Grace Williams is more of a known quantity, though I have to admit to being unfamiliar with her songs. We heard two, one clearly inspired by her teacher RVW but the other far darker and more complex. Claire Lidell was represented by two of her Orkney scenes, imaginative and evocative.

The songs were given terrific performances by singers Rhys Meilyr, Charlotte Forfar, Molly Beere, Esyllt Thomas, Nicole Dickie, Kira Charleton, Chloe Hare-Jones, and Maisie O’Shea, with Nicola Rose (piano), all coached by Kitty Whately. Everyone embraced the music with a will, giving fine confident and expressive performances of music that was probably as unfamiliar to them as it was to us.

And throughout the week, the SWAP'ra Forgotten Voices jukebox has been going, giving us short recitals from singers from the other conservatoires and from the National Opera Studio exploring women composers across the ages. Yes, we've heard of Clara Schumann, Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Augusta Holmes, but who could say their music was familiar, and there are many more who are undeservedly unfamiliar. Credit must go to everyone for making this happen, not just the logistics during lockdown but the finding of the music in the first place (including the not inconsiderable task of locating performing editions!) and of learning it. [SWAP'ra Forgotten Voices]

Sunday saw the Zoffany Ensemble giving a benefit concert for Conway Hall Sunday Concerts. It was wonderfully expansive programme themed around the late 18th century.

The five players, Karen Jones (flute), Alison Alty (oboe), Manon Derome (violin), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Anthony Pleeth (cello), came together in a variety of instrumental combinations for a highly imaginative programme. We began with everyone in Boccherini's Quintet in C, a wonderfully civilised work, rather like a serenade with great interplay between the performers.Then came early Beethoven, a Serenade for flute, violin and viola. An intriguing combination of instruments, written with the amateur market in mind but Beethoven drew them together in some imaginative textures and tricksy rhythms. A Haydn string trio came next, though this was an arrangement of a piano sonata by an anonymous hand. In two movements the first was beautifully elegant and the second nicely perky, though you felt Haydn might have added a bit more imagination to the textures if he'd done the arrangement himself. Mozart's Oboe Quartet  came next, a stunning work which was designed to show off the oboe player and shine Alison Alty did. Finally, another quintet JC Bach's Quintet in D which was very, very Mozartian in its feel with some lovely writing for all the instruments, the real interplay of five voices [Conway Hall]

On Thursday, violinist Jennifer Pike and pianist Petr Limonov launched a new on-line concert series, The Polyphonic Concert Club with a recital from St George's Bristol. The Polyphonic Concert Club is a project of Polyphonic Films (founded in 2006 by Robert Hollingworth, John La Bouchardiere and Greg Browning) and features weekly recitals from a group of non-London concert halls (Colin Currie from the Stoller Hall and I Fagiolini from the National Centre for Early Music in York coming up next)

Pike and Limonov began with Mozart's Violin Sonata in G major K301, a work which revolutionised the genre by treating both instruments equally, rather than the violin playing along with the piano.  The two gave a full blooded yet elegant performance, with Pike displaying a lovely sense of line but there were some finely perky rhythms too, ending in a delightful Allegro. Next came the dark and haunting Lullaby by Szymanowksi. This was followed by his Violin Sonata, which was more formal than the Lullaby, yet still richly romantic with some lyrical, impressionistic textures. Pike produced some lovely singing tone in the slow movement, and both performers collaborated throughout ending with a passionately vivid Allegro molto presto. Szymanowski's arrangement of Paganini's Caprice No. 20 came next, a really gorgeous piece. Finally, the Meditation from Massenet's Thais. This was beautifully filmed, and it made it a real film rather than a filmed concert. [Polyphonic Concert Club]

There were some terrific concerts from the Wigmore Hall this week. I interviewed soprano Claire Booth in December last year to chat about her performances as Elle in Poulenc's La voix humaine so even though we caught Claire in the role for Grange Park Opera in July 2020, it was great to be able to see her performance again with Christopher Glynn at Wigmore Hall. Booth performed Richard Stokes' imaginative translation (all of Elle's interactions with the telephone operators and others are in French, only her conversation with Lui is in English). 

This is very much a work for our time, about the fragility of communications and our inability to do so. Booth performed it without any props, simply emoting to camera which made it all the more intense and compelling. This was a stylish yet visceral 50 minutes, and whilst I will always prefer the orchestral version having Booth and Glynn performing it together was mesmerising. [Wigmore Hall]

Then on Friday we were back at the Wigmore Hall to celebrate pianist Steven Osborne's 50th birthday. Rather than give a solo recital, Osborne had put together a lovely programme of collaborations with friends and family. First off was Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock with clarinettist Jean Johnson (Osborne's wife) and soprano Ailish Tynan. This was a lovely subtle performance, with all three performers making it more chamber music than a showy soprano cantata. Then came Schubert's glorious Fantasie in F minor which Osborne played with pianist Paul Lewis. The final two works were both by Ravel, first a sophisticated and subtle account of 'La vallée des cloches' from Miroirs and then the hauntingly hypnotic Piano Trio with violinist Alina Ibragimova and cellist Bjørg Lewis (Paul Lewis is her husband). [Wigmore Hall

One of the fruits of lockdown (I think) is BBC Radio 3's increasing willingness to put films of concerts on BBC iPlayer when the concerts are played on BBC Radio 3. So it was lovely to be able to see cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason in Dvorak's Cello Concerto with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from Glasgow City Halls. The work was played in a somewhat reduced orchestration by George Morton, which benefitted Kanneh-Mason's collegial approach to the work. And he seemed to be able to sing effortlessly yet give us plenty of sprung rhythms too. An imaginative programme paired this with a striking piece by Augusta Read Thomas Plea for Peace for flute, oboe, trumpet and string and James Macmillan's early orchestral piece, Tryst a real tour de force which orchestra and conductor certainly enjoyed (as did we). [BBC Radio 3]

Opera company podcasts are back. Opera North's Thinking with Opera (a collaboration between Opera North and the University of Leeds) has a fascinating episode in which Poet Laureate and Professor of Poetry at the University of Leeds, Simon Armitage and composer Gavin Bryars consider the fraught question what happens when their respective art forms are brought together, [Thinking with Opera] Welsh National Opera's O Word (available in Welsh or English) returned with an episode in which soprano Natalya Romaniw explores how the early experiences of classical music in youth can shape the perspective of an artist, and she is joined by soprano Rhian Lois, Abigail Kelly (WNO Youth Opera Leader in Birmingham) and Ruth Rosales (Bassoonist & Animateur). [O Word]

Violinist and all-round creative performer Jorge Jimenez has launched an on-line series, Re-thinking Bach which looks at Bach's Goldberg Variations and Jimenez' journey towards the work with his own transcription of it for violin. [Rethinking Bach] The Horniman Museum has a stunning collection of musical instruments and in normal times they run a series with musicians playing instruments from the collection. This has now gone on-line, and I enjoyed catching Katarzyna Kowalik on a square piano, and Marilyn Harper on an 18th century organ. Both artists playing music suitable for the instrument and also talking about playing it. The square piano has a narrow compass, a remarkable lively bright tone and a selection of stops, plus the ability to apply dampening pedal to only half the keyboard, whilst the organ requires the player to pump it themselves, via their right foot. [Horniman Museum]

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