Out of the Shadows

Monday, 24 May 2021

A Life On-Line: reinventing Machaut, exploring harmoniemusik and Ethel Smyth's teacher

Machaut: How can I forget? - English Touring Opera (Image taken from live stream)
Machaut: How can I forget? - English Touring Opera (Image taken from live stream)

This was a week when we cautiously welcomed audiences back to concert halls and opera houses. Whilst we have caught some live performances, we have also been catching up on-line, with Harmoniemusik from the Academy of Ancient Music, Machaut from English Touring Opera, music by Ethel Smyth's from Opera North and a viola da gamba trip up a mountain with NextUs.

The Academy of Ancient Music's concert from West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, Harmoniemusik: From field to table was part of AAM's on-line offering but also had a live audience. The programme was directed from bassoon by Peter Whelan, and featured four works by Mozart, Beethoven and Franz Krommer which showed how the style of harmoniemusik was adopted by composers. Mozart wrote a number of works for wind ensemble which come under the banner of harmoniemusik, which was a particular form of the wind ensemble popular in Austria using pairs of instruments and often played outdoors. Everything was arranged for such ensembles (Mozart has fun with this in Don Giovanni), but composers also wrote specific works. 

Mozart's Divertimento for winds in B flat was written in 1777, probably for his employer the Archbishop of Salzburg. In four movements, fast, slow, minuet, fast, we could hear Mozart relishing the contrasts in timbres and textures between the pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons (with a double bass adding reinforcement at the bottom). This was playing full of character and wit, enjoying the lively imagination of the composer. What followed was far more compact, a duo for clarinet and bassoon which is probably a very early work by Beethoven. Delightfully written for just the two instruments, it was surprisingly engaging and imaginative. Then came Beethoven's Sextet, a work he later came to depreciate but which was extremely popular. Written for two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons, it started out with that feeling of harmoniemusik, the instruments hunting in pairs, but Beethoven then introduces ideas from chamber music making the ideas more complex and encouraging dialogues and discussions. The slow movement featured a lovely chestnutty (and rather romantic) bassoon solo for Peter Whelan, whilst in the minuet the two horns cantered away in hunting mode, though the rest of the instruments had other ideas.

Finally, a really luxurious work, two oboes, two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons plus a bass part (written for contra-bassoon but here played on double bass) by Franz Krommer. A delightfully exuberant first movement, full of lovely ideas, led to a robust minuet which certainly went with a swing, and a slow movement which rather revelled in the luxurious textures, ending with a perky Alla polacca. [Academy of Ancient Music]

English Touring Opera, on the ETO@Home on-line channel, presented another of their re-inventions of Early Music; this time Guillaume de Machaut. How could I forget? directed by James Conway, brought four singers (counter-tenor James Hall, tenor Thomas Elwin, tenor David Horton, bass Simon Dyer) and a harpist (Aileen Henry) together in the former Welsh chapel (now Stone Nest), to sing of love and loss. Machaut experienced both the 100 Years War and the Black Death, and you feels that his complex, haunting and expressive music has a lot to say to us today. Conway and his performers brought the music firmly into the present and like ETO's Josquin film, the singing was firmly four opera singers with the vibrancy one might expect, yet extraordinary fluency alongside tenderness and, at times, painful intensity. [ETO]

The current intake at the National Opera Studio (NOS) has been on a week-long residency at Opera North, working on a series of opera scenes with director Olivia Fuchs. We got chance to see the results when they performed the programme, Illuminating Darkenss from NOS' Blackburn Hall on Wednesday where there was a small live audience as well as the programme being live-streamed. What we heard was an engaging sequence of scenes, all dealing with the eternal operatic questions of love and death, moving from Donizetti's L’elisir d’amore to Rossini's Barber of Seville to Mozart's Così fan tutte to Handel's Giulio Cesare to Donizetti's Lucia di Lamermoor to Britten's The Rape of Lucretia to Mozart's Idomeneo to Puccini's Le Villi to Britten's Billy Budd, ending with the Act Two sextet from Mozart's Don Giovanni

There was no axe to grind, simply a fine sequence of young artists engaging us. It is invidious to highlight individuals when all the performances were strong, but two performances stayed in the memory afterwards. Joylon Loy's powerful account of Billy in the Darbies from Britten's Billy Budd and Arlene Belli's performance as Britten's Lucretia really hit home. [YouTube]

On Friday, I caught the penultimate of Opera North's Whitehall Road Sessions, live-streamed concerts from the company's rehearsal studios in Leeds. This programme featured two quintets for piano and wind, Mozart's Quintet in E flat major and Heinrich von Herzongenberg's Quintet in E flat major. An intriguing combination of works which really drew my attention. Mozart's quintet, written in 1784, was unusual for the time with its combination of oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano. Here we had a wonderfully immediate and engaging account of the work, with lots of interplay between the instrumentalists. It was lovely to catch the players from the orchestra in the spotlight for once. Whilst Mozart's quintet seems to have inspired Beethoven's work for the same line-up, the programme went for something a little more unusual, the 1888 work by the Austrian composer, Heinrich von Herzogenberg. 

Von Herzogenberg and his wife, Elisabet, were friends of Brahms and she was one of Brahms' pupils. Von Herzogenberg is often seen as a pale imitation of Brahms, but on the showing of this quintet he was certainly not just that. The music had a certain Brahmsian cast in places, but a lot of the time there was the sense of the presence of a very definite personality and certainly the performance made me want to explore Von Herzogenberg's music more. I know his name mainly because of Ethel Smyth. When she went to study in Leipzig she found the teaching at Leipzig Conservatory unsatisfactory and studied privately with Von Herzogenberg and became friends with him and his wife. It is perhaps fanciful, but I thought that Von Herzongenberg's quintet had that unbuttoned quality to it which you find in Smyth's music. [Opera North]

The NextUs festival has been running during April and May. An enterprising on-line festival devised by a group of young European artists, this has a format which enables single artists or small groups to contribute recitals which build together to create something rather greater than the whole. The recitals are grouped into themed days, and if you listened live there was the chance to catch discussions with the artists and more. Saturday 24 April was B'rocking Classical, and this week we caught up with a couple of the recitals. Viennese viola da gamba player, Christoph Urbanetz presented Baroque on the Rock, an engaging sequence of Baroque solos for viola da gamba which he linked to his love of walking in the mountains, making a sense of narrative to what could have been a disparate programme which included music by Abel, Tobias Hume, Marais, and Telemann. His spoken introductions were done from the mountains, a lovely idea. Still in the Baroque mood, Olga Rodon - recorders, Azzurra Raneri – Baroque cello and Fernando Olivas – Baroque guitar & theorbo (a Spaniard, a Mexican and a Sicilian who met in Germany) performed The Journey of the Phoenix which was a tour round Europe with music such as an anonymous fandango and dances by Michael Praetorius, Scots songs arranged by Francesco Barsanti, Bach and Marcello. The players brought a lively imagination both to their arrangements and the way they played the music, bringing out the contrasts in timbre between the instruments and giving us a great sense of the sheer fun of playing together.

Our final visit to the festival was extremely contemporary as soprano Danae Eleni performed a programme of songs, almost all of which were written for her. We began with Miguel Ochosa's striking unaccompanied May Diyos sa Tahimik -There’s a God in the Silence, and then Rob Keeley's Three poems of Emily Dickinson, which was written for clarinettist Alex Roberts and Eleni in 2018/2019 and was being performed with the two performers recorded in different countries. Then Eleni accompanied herself in a short aria from Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges, followed by Guy Newbury's setting of Christina Rosetti, Italia, io ti saluto. Σ'αγαπώ"- I love you, written in 1887 by Greek composer Spyridon Samaras (1861-1917) which Eleni had recorded with her brother Kimon Pallikaropoulos. We finished with Nadine Benjamin's Bright Star from 2020. This was a recital full of new and unknown works, performed engagingly and with so much of it being unaccompanied was an imaginative solution to current restrictions. [NextUs Festival]



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