Sunday, 2 May 2021

A Life On-Line: Stile Antico in Robert Ramsay, Alexandra Dariescu & London Philharmonic in Ravel, Opera North in Gluck

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice - Paula Murrihy, Opera North (Photo Justin Slee)
Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice - Paula Murrihy, Opera North (Photo Justin Slee)

This week we caught Stile Antico exploring the music associated with the short life of Henry, Prince of Wales (eldest son of King James 1 & VI), a sparkling programme of French orchestral music from the London Philharmonic Orchestra including pianist Alexandra Dariescu on terrific form, and a powerful account of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in Leeds. We also caught the on-line press launch of Opera Rara's 2021/22 season with Donizetti, Mercadante and more to look forward to (there'll be an article on the blog in due course).

Stile Antico has started a new four-part weekly series exploring the history behind four favourite pieces of music. For the first episode it was Scottish composer Robert Ramsay's How are the mighty fallen, which is part of a significant group of works by British composers which responded to the death of Henry, Prince of Wales in 1612. Henry was the eldest son of King James VI of Scotland, becoming Prince of Wales when the King inherited the English throne in 1603. The programme looked at Henry's history from birth to death (by typhoid at the age of 18), so Andrew Griffiths and Kate Ashby, from Stile Antico, discussed Prince Henry's life and times with Dr Clare Jackson from the University of Cambridge, interweaving history with music. We heard Thomas Tomkins Be strong and of good courage which was probably sung at the coronation of King James at Westminster Abbey (in a service which was rather stripped back because of the plague!) and Orlando Gibbons' setting of words by Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was in the Tower, but intriguingly he and Prince Henry seem to have had some sort correspondence.  Around the time of Prince Henry's death there was an outpouring of music with around two dozen based around the Biblical text 'When David heard that Absalom was slain' and we heard Thomas Weelkes setting, along with John Ward's Weep forth your tears and Ramsay's own Sleep Fleshly Birth.

As regular readers of this blog probably realise, I enjoy looking at the history behind piece of music and this was just the right sort of mix of talk and music, giving us a nice flavour of the history leading up to Ramsay's work. [Stile Antico's Spotlights on Showcast]

On Wednesday, pianist Alexandra Dariescu, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Fabien Gabel were in sparkling form for Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall and broadcast on Marquee TV as part of a programme which included Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and movements from the ballet Gaîté Parisienne which was arranged by Maurice Rosenthal from Jacques Offenbach's music.

We began with Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, his orchestration of a suite for piano duet each movement conjuring a fairy tale character. Sleeping Beauty was quite slow, but not stately as Gabel drew finely fluid playing from the orchestra. Tom Thumb had a delicate sound, and with the reduced orchestral forces (fewer strings) Gabel brought the wind solos into lovely prominence. The Princess of the Pagodas was all delightful textures whilst Beauty and the Beast featured a seductive waltz. And again, Gabel drew vivid textures into the drama. Finally the gorgeous sound world of the fairy garden with his fabulous climax. You felt that Gabel took a very particular view of this music, and I certainly enjoyed the results.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G is very much a light-hearted work and contrasts with the dark drama of the left-hand concerto. In the opening movement Gabel and the orchestra brought out the delightful character of the music, but this was sophisticated fun. Alexandra Dariescu brought in some lovely thoughtful moments in the piano, but could also dazzle with her fingerwork, and all worked up a terrific head of steam at the end of the movement. But this was a very classical view of Ravel's writing, and Gabel tended to play down the sleazier, jazz-inspired elements in the orchestra. In the slow movement Dariescu's lovely sense of line evolved into something undulating and rather elegantly seductive, with delicate fingerwork. Finally we had fun and excitement, dazzle and dash. 

The programme finished with a suite from Gaîté Parisienne, the ballet created by Maurice Rosenthal out of Offenbach's music and once again we could marvel at Offenbach's fecund genuis for delightful, characterful and sophisticated tunes, played with great wit and clear enjoyment. Fun all round [Marquee TV]

On Saturday, BBC Radio 3 broadcast Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice from Opera North, with Laurence Cummings conducting the orchestra and chorus of Opera North with Paula Murrihy as Orfeo, Fflur Wyn as Euridice and Daisy Brown as Amor. The recording was filmed and we caught that from the Opera North website. The performance took place in the wide open spaces of Leeds Town Hall; great for socially distanced performance, but in fact Cummings managed to draw his performers into an intimate group. 

This was the second Opera North film that we have seen in the last few weeks; two weeks ago we caught rapper Testament's Orpheus in the Record Shop which was broadcast on BBC TV as part of the 'Lights Up' season [BBC iPlayer]. A complete contrast and complement to Gluck's telling of the same tale as Testament (the sole performer on stage) drew you into a story told via narration, beat-boxing , music and more. A gifted beat-boxer, Testament is clearly a gifted and engaging performer all round.

Lawrence Cummings has been a regular visitor to Opera North and we have caught him performing both Handel and Monteverdi in Leeds, so it was illuminating to hear Cummings and the company in Gluck. The result was passionate and stylish, with plenty of lithe drama in the orchestra but still with a real classical feel, and Cummings clearly relished having a full-blooded opera chorus for the terrific scene with the furies. We heard the Vienna version (Italian text, title role written for a soprano castrato, no 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits') but without the extended ballet section at the end.

Having caught Paula Murrihy in the title role of Handel's Ariodante from Covent Garden last year, I was delighted to hear her as Gluck's hero. Passionate yet with a warm, shapely line to the music, Murrihy conveyed much without needing to push the music out of shape. She took at fluid view of the music, and it was interesting to hear the solo line so imaginatively ornamented (as would have been done at the time). Daisy Brown was a bright, intent Amor, wonderfully in control and full of style, whilst Fflur Wyn brought a sense of mature passion to the role of Euridice making the crucial dialogue with Murrihy's Orfeo into something rather gut-wrenching. [Opera North]


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Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos by Susan Spain-Dunk, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rudolph Dolmetsch, Peter Wishart from Peter Cigleris, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ben Palmer - record review
  • A disc to enjoy: William Towers and Armonico Consort in Handelian Pyrotechnics  - record review
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