Sunday 18 April 2021

A Life On-Line: rare Vaughan Williams, unknown Venetians, Welsh language opera, vertical harpsichords


Academy of Ancient Music at West Road Concert Hall (Photo Academy of Ancient Music)
Academy of Ancient Music at West Road Concert Hall (Photo Academy of Ancient Music)

This week we moved from relatively unknown 20th century Vaughan Williams, to a rare 17th century Venetian as well as a recital on a very rare vertical harpsichord. There was also a new opera in Welsh, not to mention and more 17th century music, French this time, to bring things to a close.

On Tuesday, Opera Holland Park premiered a new film of RVW's song cycle The House of Life performed by David Butt Philip and pianist James Baillieu and filmed at Leighton House. Everyone knows RVW's song Silent Noon but the cycle from which it comes, The House of Life is less well known. A sequence of settings of sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti which RVW wrote in 1903-04, around the same period as Songs of Travel and interestingly despite setting songs throughout his life (there were four on his desk when he died in 1958) RVW never completely returned to the song cycle form. The venue, of course, was highly appropriate as Rossetti knew Leighton but what really held our attention was the passionate and beautifully crafted performance from Philip and Baillieu [Opera Holland Park]

Before Wednesday I had never heard of Dario Castello (c1602-1633) but the Academy of Ancient Music, co-directed Bojan Čičić (violin) and Steven Devine (harpsichord), put Castello's sonatas at the centre of their concert from West Road Concert Hall on Wednesday.

Called In stil moderno, the programme presented six of Castello's sonatas from Sonate concertante in stil moderno, Libro secondo. All that we know about the composer comes from the puff-piece he wrote for this. Despite claiming to be a musician at St Mark's in Venice he seems to have made little impact on the written record, but the sonatas are terrific. Wonderfully virtuoso, innovative and highly demanding, this was 17th century chamber music at its inventive best. Threaded around the sonatas were vocal music by Castello's contemporaries, performed by Helen Charlston.

Barbara Strozzi's L’eraclito amoroso and Lagrime mie both managed to pair virtuosity with intensity and passion, Strozzi uses the voice in these to convery the extremes of emotion via extremes of vocal technique. Charlston is a superb interpreter of this music, and both pieces were vivid and compelling. From Claudio Monteverdi we heard two madrigals from a 1624 publication Et e pur dunque vero and Si dolce e’l tormento, and again we sense the composer pressing the stil moderno to its limits to enhance the expressivity of the texts. 

All in all, a wonderfully life enhancing programme which paired better known pieces with music by Castello which simply deserves wider currency. [Academy of Ancient Music]

Guto Puw's opera Y Tŵr (The Tower) sets a Welsh libretto by Gwyneth Glyn based on the plays of Gwenlyn Parry (1931-1991). The opera's first performance in 2017 was a co-production between Music Theatre Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. Y Tŵr was the first ever opera commissioned in Welsh for professional performers and was Music Theatre Wales’s second work to be performed in Welsh. Y Tŵr was also Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s very first opera production. The film of the premiere, at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, was released for streaming this week. It featured soprano Caryl Hughes and baritone Gwion Thomas in a production directed by Michael McCarthy and conducted by Richard Baker.

Some of Parry's writing has absurdist leanings, and the opera sets a couple's relationship from first love to death in the context of a tower in which they gradually ascend, each ascent moving them to another stage of the relationship. Hughes and Thomas not only had to encompass the two characters as they moved from youthful exuberance to old age and the prospect of death, but they moved the sets too. This was a real tour de force of performance and ultimately rather moving. But, I felt that the works origins in a play were rather evident and wondered whether Puw and Glyn had been a bit too reverent with Parry's source material. The first scene, with the youthful couple, did not quite take flight and I felt that it got a bit too bogged down, but in middle-aged the relationship was all too real and in old age both singers rendered decline and changes to their relationship in a touching way. [YouTube]

On Friday, I caught French harpsichordist Benjamin Alard in a programme of JS Bach, Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fisher and Francois Couperin which looked at the French influence on Bach's early keyboard music. The programme came live from the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris (no on-demand I'm afraid), but what made it so fascinating was that Alard was playing a copy of a clavicytherium or vertical harpsichord. Yes, exactly what it seems, the strings run up and down. Alard's instrument was a modern copy (by Jean Tournay, 1975, and restored by Emile Jobin in 2012) of one by Albertus Delin in Tournai, Belgium (1760). 

And we stay in France for our final concert of the week, Les voix humaines from Musica Antica Rotherhithe live from Sands Films' Music Room. A lovely exploration of 17th and 18th century French music mixing names that we knew with names that were unfamiliar, and alternating fine vocal items from Jessica Eucker and Camilla Seale with some stunning viola da gamba playing from Harry Buckoke and Esha Neogy, supported by Peter Martin (theorbo) and Oliver Doyle (harpsichord).[Sands Films]

Our week also took in the opening concert in Sage Gateshead's live season, in which the Royal Northern Sinfonia was conducted by its principal conductor designate, Dinis Sousa. [Read my review]

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