Sunday 9 May 2021

A Life On-Line: reinventing Josquin, rare late Richard Strauss, early Handel on TV, Sir John Eliot Gardiner in Elgar, Britten & Tippett

Josquin: Mille Regretz - Ella Taylor,  William Towers, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Richard Dowling, Stefan Loges - English Touring Opera (taken from live-stream)
Josquin: Mille Regretz - Ella Taylor,  William Towers, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Richard Dowling, Stephan Loges - English Touring Opera (taken from live-stream)

This week began and ended with strikingly modern stagings of early music, Josquin from English Touring Opera and Rameau from Mannheim, we also caught early Handel on Sky Arts, rare late Richard Strauss and Nino Rota in symphonic mode from the London Symphony Orchestra, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Philharmonia in Elgar. The character of Phaedra was a feature too, cropping up in Rameau's Hippolite et Aricie and in Britten's very different late cantata.

English Touring Opera are releasing a series of videos as part of their ETO at Home digital season. Last week we caught Mille Regretz, a staging of music by Josquin. Conducted by Jonathan Kenny and directed by Liam Steele this brought together a group of Josquin's secular pieces with one sacred work, all performed by Ella Taylor (soprano), William Towers (counter-tenor), Richard Dowling and Jorge Navarro Colorado (tenors), and Stephan Loges (baritone), filmed in Stone Nest (the evocative interior of the former Welsh church in the West End). Whilst a number of the singers in the cast have admirable historically informed performance credentials, this wasn't a period-style performance, anything but. In the pre-concert talks Kenny talked about how he had wanted to bring out the modernism in Josquin's music.

So here were young opera singers performing Josquin accompanied by an intriguing ensemble of violin/viola (Jim O'Toole), violin (Guy Button), theorbo (Toby Carr), accordion (Ilona Suomalainen), vibrophone and percussion (Jonny Raper). Liam Steele's approach was very physical, there was a lot of movement including pieces done almost as choreographed choruses. The costumes were highly stylised with much makeup and the result had something of a look of Mad Max, a group of stylised, stylish transients gathering to sing about personal joys and griefs. And it worked.

It didn't sound like Josquin, but what I mean by that statement of course is that it didn't sound like the sort of historically informed Josquin which often performs the secular music with the same purity of style as the sacred. We don't really know what Josquin's music was performed like, but ETO's project was a wonderful reinvention [ETO at Home]

Over on Sky Arts, Handel's La Resurrezione was broadcast in a new film made at St John's Smith Square with Harry Bickett directing the English Concert with Danielle de Niese, Lucy Crowe, Lawrence Zazzo, Hugo Hymas and Brindley Sherratt. Handel's 1708 oratorio is something of a rarity in the UK, though it crops up more often in the rest of Europe. It is rather intriguing,  Carlo Sigismondo Capece 's libretto is firmly in the tradition of the Italian oratorio which by this point was veering close to opera, so it is a world away from Handel's later English oratorios. Here a group of characters use solo arias and recitative to talk about dramatic events, which generally happen off stage, yet Handel brings wonderful freshness to the genre.

Lucy Crowe made a plangent Angel, by turns affecting and  joyous, with some killer fioriture. For my taste Danielle de Niese was perhaps a little too self-consciously sexy as Mary Magdalene, whose role in this piece is as a witness to Christ's Resurrection rather than as a penitent sinner; she was musically stylish but felt as if she came from a different production. Lawrence Zazzo made a demure Mary Cleophas, playing down the cross-dressing element (women singers rarely sang in Italian oratorio) and provided a finely contrasting foil to Danielle de Niese. Hugo Hymas was an ardent John the Evangelist whilst Brindley Sherratt had great fun thundering as a very vivid Lucifer. The work was premiered in 1708 with huge forces (an orchestra of nearly 40 including four oboes). Harry Bickett and the English Concert fielded rather fewer people than this, but still brought Handel's imaginative music to life. 

I have to confess that the work is not my favourite Handel oratorio, but this performance succeeded both musically and as a piece of visual television. [Sky Arts]

Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra put together a wonderfully intriguing programme which was filmed at the LSO St Luke's and which we caught on Marquee TV. None of the music in the programme was well known, though the composers are, Richard Strauss, Franz Liszt, and Nino Rota. We began with Strauss' late Duet Concertino, then came Liszt's tone poem Orpheus and finally Nino Rota's Symphony No. 3

Strauss wrote the Duet Concertino in 1946/47 and it was premiered in 1948, the last purely orchestral work that he wrote. Its programme may be that of something like beauty and the beast (though some have argued for other inspirations). Here was had Chris Richards (clarinet) as beauty and Rachel Gough (bassoon) as the beast. From the first moments of the work it is clear this is Richard Strauss and the string writing evoked the opening of Capriccio. For the opening section Richards' melifluous clarinet interwove with Gough's bassoon in some beautifully intricate textures. This is not so much a showy piece as a tricky one! The middle section features Gough's cadenza-like musings supported by magical string textures, with the two instruments coming together for the perky charm of the finale.

Liszt's tone poem Orpheus, premiered in Weimar in 1854 as the introduction to a performance of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, proved to be surprisingly delicate with a chamber feel to the complex textures yet reaching a powerful and highly atmospheric conclusion.

Nino Rota's Symphony No. 3 dates from 1956, two years after his film score for Fellini's La Strada and a year before the score for Le notte di Cabiria. In four movements, it is a highly neo-classical work evoking a distant cousin-ship to Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, yet with a very French wit and style in the first movement. The lyrical slow movement was almost a distant cousin to RVW, then a characterful third movement and a vivid finale. It was striking to hear Rota in concert mode, and judging by his lively introduction it is a work that Gianandrea Noseda enjoys (and he recorded it for Chandos in 2011). [Marquee TV]

The Philharmonia's concert this week was equally intriguing, not so much for the programme (Tippett, Britten and Elgar) but for the conductor. Recorded at the Royal Festival Hall, Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducted the Philharmonia (working with the orchestra for the first time since 1998) in Tippett's Fantasia on a theme of Corelli, Britten's Phaedra (with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote) and Elgar's Enigma Variations. Whilst Gardiner is most associated now with his period ensembles and with music of the early Romantic period (a Schumann symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra) his background is more varied with a period spent as music director of Lyon Opera House and a deeply personal connection to English music. The composer Balfour Gardiner was his great-uncle and, as we learned from the interval talk, Michael Tippett was a friend of Gardiner's father. 

Tippett's piece, of course, brings deliberate evocations of the Baroque concerto grosso, but here we appreciated the spaciousness of Gardiner's approach, it never felt sluggish but there seemed to be lots of scope for bringing out Tippett's complex detailing. I really enjoyed the clarity of textures combined with the lovely tone and phrasing from the strings. The Baroque influences continued in Britten's late cantata Phaedra. Alice Coote's diction was superb, and she really made the work a mini-opera, bringing out the development of Phaedra's mental state leading to a wonderfully chilling end. Gardiner and the orchestra brought out the way Britten coloured the orchestra and the whole was vivid indeed.

Finally, Elgar's Enigma Variations in a performance which seemed to bring out Gardiner's comment that Elgar was a very European composer. It started beautifully intimate, and though there were vivid moments this was a performance where intimacy and detail counted. When it was expansive, the music was never pompous, the image of the Edwardian gentleman that Elgar was fond of projecting was a long way away, and the emotional side of the composer was to the fore. [Philharmonia]

Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie - Sophie Rennert as Phèdre - Nationaltheater Mannheim
Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie - Sophie Rennert as Phèdre - Nationaltheater Mannheim

We ended the week in Mannheim where we caught Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie in a staging from the Nationaltheater Mannheim directed by Lorenzo Fioroni and conducted by Bernhard Forck. This was a very modern take indeed, not just Fiorini's iconography but the fact that the planned staging in 2020 was cancelled due to restrictions and this performance (recorded on 21 and 24 April 2021 without an audience) was a reworked version of the production enabling the opera to be given safely. 

I have to confess that I found some of the iconography of the production confusing and the distressed theatre setting (set design Paul Zoller and Loriana Casagrande) rather messy and distracting. But what cannot be denied was the power and emotional focus of the performance. The dramaturgy of Rameau's operas is not the most focused or clear, and I often find that despite the power of his music, the drama can sag. Not here; I presume there were cuts, but Fiorini drew intense performances from all his performers, Amelia Scicolone as Aricie, Sophie Rennert as Phèdre, Charles Sy as Hippolyte, Nikola Diskić as Thésée, and we followed the roller-coaster of the plot with intensity. Fiorini even managed to make the second Act (where Thésée goes down to the underworld) dark and threatening, keeping the drama tight, rather than it feeling like a diversion. [OperaVision]

We are continuing to enjoy Stile Antico's Spotlights series. This week it was Alonso Lobo’s luscious Versa est in luctum written for the obsequies of Philip II of Spain, and the programme explored the background to this event along with the more general theme of music for the Hapsburgs, with Dr Owen Rees from the University of Oxford. [Stile Antico]

Update: Apologies for initially getting the wrong singer for Mary Cleophas in La Resurrezione

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Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Celebrating Latvia's centenary with music: the State Choir "Latvija" records 16 new works from a project creating a grand total of 77 new pieces by Latvian composers - record review
  • Vaughan Williams' folk songs; Albion Records continues its exploration with a second volume including 15 world premiere recordings  - record review
  • Hymns of Kassiani: Cappella Romana explores the music of the earliest known female composer - record review
  • The Sultan, the Siege of Rhodes, the Secretary to the Navy Board and his lover  - feature
  • Songs for a Broken World: American composer David Chesky discusses the way contemporary and historical issues intersect in his new album  - guest posting
  • The perfect lockdown piano concerto: pianist Mark Bebbington on recording Poulenc's Aubade and Le Bal masqué for Resonus Classics - interview
  • Bach's Goldberg Variations in a winning new arrangement for violin, guitar and cello - record review
  • Science Fiction, AI, music and collaborative creation: the Lim Fantasy of Companionship for piano and orchestra  - record review
  • Wild Blue Yonder: new disc of chamber music by Eleanor Alberga - record review
  • Spring song continues: Leeds Lieder with Fleur Barron, Gerald Finley, Benson Wilson, Sarah Connolly and many more - concert review
  • A new film inspired by George Orwell's 1984 has Mihkel Kerem's powerful new orchestral score at its heart  - film review
  • The balance between a perfect art form & giving people what they want: conductor George Home

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