Monday, 27 September 2021

Black History Month at Pegasus Opera

Arise: Legacy and Hope - Pegasus Opera - Greenwich Theatre

This weekend, 1 and 2 October 2021, Pegasus Opera, artistic director Alison Buchanan, is celebrating Black History Month with three concerts at Greenwich Theatre. Arise: Legacy and Hope will celebrate the legacy and hope of Black History and Diversity in a concert which will present a journey through some operatic greats and explore music inspired by the Black Diaspora.

There will be an eclectic mix of music from traditional classics in opera, Caribbean folk songs, music inspired by the black diaspora, music written by black composers including Kwabena Nketia, Errolyn Wallen and Margaret Bonds and Pegasus Opera's new commission Rush, by Des Oliver, inspired by the Windrush generation. 

Performers will include soprano Alison Buchanan, mezzo-sopranos Idunnu Münch and Yolanda Grant-Thompson, counter-tenor Joshua Elmore; tenors Alex Garziglia and Marco Titus, baritones Themba Mvula and Chuma Sijeqa, accompanied by pianist and musical director Avishka Edrisinghe

Full details from the Greenwich Theatre website.


Black History Month at the African Concert Series

the African Concert Series, artistic director Rebeca Omordia
October is Black History Month and the African Concert Series, artistic director Rebeca Omordia, is participating with a pair of events, a concert and a panel discussion. 

On Thursday 14 October 2021 there is a free lunchtime concert at  St.Olave’s Church, Hart St., Tower Hill, London EC3R 7NB with songs, chamber music and piano solos by African composers. 

Baritone Njabulo Madlala will be singing a selection of African art songs, Rebeca Omordia will give the world premiere of Moroccan composer Nabil Benabdeljalil's Nocturnes for piano nos. 4, 5 & 6, the Ubuntu Ensemble will give the premiere of Robert Matthew-Walker's piano quintet arrangement of the African Suite by Nigerian composer Fela Sowande (1905-1987), and double bass player Leon Bosch plays music from his native South Africa.

Then on 19 October, there is a panel discussion at Oxford Brookes University hosted by Professor Marius Turdă featuring Rebeca Omordia and Leon Bosch.

Full details from the African Concert Series website.

From Rinaldo to Amadigi di Gaula: a look at Handel's highly experimental early London period

Burlington House in 1690s
Burlington House in 1690s, London home of Handel's patron the Earl of Burlington

When Handel came to London in 1710 to compose an opera for the Queen's Theatre, it was certainly not obvious that he would stay in the city until his death, nor that opera and large-scale dramatic oratorio would be his focus. In the early 18th century, opera in England was a somewhat fluid affair and Italian opera was certainly not fully established. It would not be until the 1720s, with the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music with its roster of Italian composers (including Handel) that Italian opera would be produced in the capital with any degree of consistency. The operas from Handel's early years in London reflect this fluidity, each was a separate project and there is a fascinating sense of experiment with form. As English Touring Opera presents its new production of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula at the Hackney Empire on 1 October 2021, we look at the operas of Handel's early London period.

The opera that Handel came to London to stage was Rinaldo, based on an episode in Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata with a libretto by the theatre's impresario Aaron Hill. It premiered in early 1711, the first Italian opera to be composed specifically for London. Though Handel's music is something of a patchwork of existing items and the libretto is a poor thing, it wowed London audiences partly because Handel cherry-picked some of his finest music from his Italian sojourn to reuse in the opera. He could probably safely assume that none of his London audiences would have heard any of the Italian music before. As ever, with these early operas, the staging was the thing and Handel's music would have come a poor second to the spectacular sets and transformation scenes.

Marco Ricci - Rehearsal for an opera
Marco Ricci - Rehearsal for an opera (1709)
Ricci was a stage painter at the Queen's Theatre, and this singer is assumed to depict Nicolini, the house's principal castrato.

There was then something of a gap, and Handel's next opera Il pastor fido did not debut until November 1712. The opera is based on Giovanni Battista Guarini's influential play, which was written in the 1580s and published in 1590 and formed an important source for pastoral text and imagery for both operas and madrigals. The opera represents a surprising change for Handel, moving to the pastoral after the heroic, but it may have been Handel's intention to demonstrate his versatility. 

Sunday, 26 September 2021

An engaging young Papageno and fine international cast, David McVicar's production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte is in fine health at Covent Garden

Mozart Die Zauberflöte - Royal Opera House
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Royal Opera House

Mozart Die Zauberflöte; Daniel Behle, Salome Jicia, Huw Montague Rendall, Krzysztof Baczyk, Aleksandra Olczyk, dir: David McVicar/Daniel Dooner, cond: Hartmut Haenchen; Royal Opera House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
David McVicar's now quite venerable production is still in radiant health, and this run featured the fine house debut of baritone Huw Montague Rendall as a very engaging Papageno

The Royal Opera's current production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte debuted in 2003 and somehow we have so far managed to miss it, despite revival on an almost biennial basis. The current revival of David McVicar's production is directed by Daniel Dooner and performances feature a complex web of double casting. On Saturday 25 October 2021, we saw Daniel Behle at Tamino, Salome Jicia as Pamina, Krzysztof Baczyk as Sarastro, Huw Montague Rendall as Papageno, Aleksandra Olczyk as the Queen of the Night, conducted by Hartmut Haenchen. The designs by John Macfarlane are still extremely handsome and the production itself seems to be in superb health.

Mozart Die Zauberflöte - Huw Montague Rendall - Royal Opera House
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte - Huw Montague Rendall - Royal Opera House

McVicar takes quite a straightforward view of the piece, with an Enlightenment setting creating a sense of the all-male, quasi Masonic atmosphere of Sarastro's merry band, with Sarastro (Krzysztof Baczyk) himself as something of an enlightened despot of a ruler. The lighter elements are not shirked, and there is a delightful use of puppetry for the snake and for a bird which manages to foil Papageno (Huw Montague Rendall) and rather reminded me of Rod Hull and Emu! McVicar pretty much takes the plot as read, except for making Monostatos (Michael Colvin) ugly rather than black. The misogyny of the original is there, but toned down and it is clear that the women are not simply content to sit back and let the men have everything.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Lyric intensity: Gluck's Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen) receives its first London staging from Bampton Classical Opera

Gluck: Paris and Helen - Ella Taylor, Lucy Anderson - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)
Gluck: Paris and Helen - Ella Taylor, Lucy Anderson - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)

Gluck Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen); Ella Taylor, Lucy Anderson, Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Jeremy Gray, Chroma, Thomas Blunt; Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Gluck's final Reform opera in a very rare staging which brings out the focused intensity of the drama in a production with a charming injection of humour too

When it comes to British performances of Gluck's final Viennese opera, Paride ed Elena, there are a lot of maybes. Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players performed it at the Barbican in 2003, which MAY have been the work's London premiere, and this year's revival of the work by Bampton Classical Opera could well be the work's first London staging. But then even in 18th century Vienna, Paride ed Elena rather lagged behind Gluck and librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi's other two operas, so that in the period to 1800, there were more than 100 performances of Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna, compared to more than 70 of Alceste and just 25 of Paride ed Elena.

So it was with great pleasure that I was able to encounter Gluck's Paride ed Elena, performed in a new English translation by Gilly French as Paris and Helen, with Bampton Classical Opera's performance at St John's Smith Square on Friday 24 September 2021. Thomas Blunt conducted Chroma, with a production directed and designed by Jeremy Gray, and choreographed by Alicia Frost. Ella Taylor was Paris, Lucy Anderson was Helen and Lauren Lodge-Campbell was Amor. There were two cast substitutions, Milly Forrest was a very last minute stand-in for Lisa Howarth as Pallas Athene with Lucy Cronin (from the ensemble) standing in as the high priestess, and tenor Adam Tunnicliffe sang the chorus tenor from the wings whilst stage manager Harvey Evans acted.

Gluck: Paris and Helen - Oliver Adam-Reynolds, Oscar Fonseca - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)
Gluck: Paris and Helen - Oliver Adam-Reynolds, Oscar Fonseca - Bampton Classical Opera (Photo Jeremy Gray)

There is a lot of commonality between Paride ed Elena and Orfeo ed Euridice. Both concentrate on a trio of soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, both have a hero in a quest for his beloved and both, of course, weave in a considerable amount of dance. It is worthwhile remembering that Gluck and Calzabigi actually collaborated on four works, not just the three operas (Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste, Paride ed Elena), but their first joint effort was the ballet Don Juan and dance remains a very important element of their style. The idea was to mix the Italian and the French styles, so moving away from large-scale Italian da capo arias and incorporating choruses and dance in a flexible patchwork which owes a lot to French tragedie lyrique. 

Lucas & Irina Meachem's new disc celebrates American art songs & helps promotes representation & diversity in the arts through their new foundation

Irina and Lucas Meachem (Photo Nate Ryan)
Irina and Lucas Meachem (Photo Nate Ryan)
The American baritone Lucas Meachem's schedule for 2021 has rather reflected the changes that the pandemic has brought to the arts. His opera appearances have included appearing as Figaro (something of a signature role) in Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla in a drive-in performance from San Francisco Opera, and a relatively last-minute stand-in for the title role of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at Santa Fe Opera as the planned baritone fell foul of travel restrictions. 

Lucas has also been busy in the studio too, releasing his first recital disc. A collection of American art songs on the theme of resilience and togetherness, Shall We Gather on the Rubicon label is billed as 'A Collection of American Art Songs Celebrating Resilience and Togetherness' and it is very much a passion project for Lucas and his wife pianist Irina Meachem, who accompanies him on the disc. And all proceeds from the album are going to Lucas and Irina's new foundation, Perfect Day Music Foundation, which brings awareness to and promotes representation and diversity in the arts. I caught up with Lucas and Irina by Zoom to find out a little more.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Sara Jakubiak (Tatyana) and Lucas Meachem (Eugene Onegin) - Santa Fe Opera, 2021 (Photo: Curtis Brown)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Sara Jakubiak (Tatyana) and Lucas Meachem (Eugene Onegin)
Santa Fe Opera, 2021 (Photo: Curtis Brown)

The repertoire on Shall We Gather is eclectic, with works by Gene Scheer, Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), John Musto, Richard Hageman(1881-1966), Jake Heggie, Carrie Jacob-Bonds (1862-1946), Ricky Ian Gordon, William Grant Still (1895-1978), Kurt Weill (1900-1950), Florence Price (1887-1953), Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Stephen Foster (1826-1924), with an emphasis on 20th-century and contemporary music. 

Only half jokingly, Lucas suggests that the choice of repertoire was partly because classic songs such as those by Schumann and Brahms have already been recorded. But he and Irina wanted a project which would highlight what it is to be American. They see a rift within the world with people building walls between each other, and wanted a project which would emphasise that it is healthy to have different opinions. And as Lucas points out, in the USA it is legal to differ politically unlike in some countries in the world.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Benedetti Sessions return to in-person events at Saffron Hall with virtual sessions continuing for those unable to attend

Nicola Benedetti leading one of the Benedetti Foundation's sessions
Nicola Benedetti leading one of the Benedetti Foundation's sessions

For the first time since March 2020, the Benedetti Foundation will be running in-person Benedetti Sessions this weekend. From 24 to 26 September 2021 there are live Benedetti Sessions at Saffron Hall. During sessions will be delving into the fundamental elements of Baroque music, focusing on a new arrangement of Geminiani’s La Folia, approaching the music in a way that inspires fun and enjoyment, a greater sense of togetherness, a true abandonment of caution, and an embracing of scratches, scrapes and unapologetic flair, as well as connecting to dance and rhythm, to harmony, bass, and improvisation.

These sessions are limited to people from counties around Saffron Hall, but worry not because the foundation's on-line session are returning too and for the first time all Mini Sessions will be available to registered participants on catch up for one month. The Mini Virtual Sessions are short, focused workshops designed to provide in depth and detailed exploration on a wide variety of topics, and if anyone is unable to attend live, participants can still register and will receive a link to the recording to catch up in their own time. Teachers and students can also sign up for a ‘Sessions Pass’ to get access to all their sessions. 

Full details from the Benedetti Foundation website.

A great wind piece of a very special kind composed by Herr Mozart: Mozart's Gran Partita

Harmoniemusik was everywhere in 18th century Vienna; small ensembles of wind players performed everything, including arrangements of popular music. Typically a Harmonie ensemble would consist of six or eight wind players in pairs (two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, two bassoons) and writing for them would often having the instruments hunting in pairs during the music. Whilst there were itinerant bands (Mozart in a letter wrote about one appearing outside his lodgings and playing one of his own serenades), there were aristocratic ensembles too, including that of Emperor Joseph II.

Mozart had already written quite a number of wind serenades when in 1781, freelance and newly settled in Vienna having finally managed to engineer his sacking from his employment by the Archbishop of Salzburg, he wrote a new work for wind ensemble, Serenade No. 10 in B flat major. But this is something rather different, for a start it is written for thirteen instruments 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, 4 horns and double bass. Apart from the double bass (a more flexible instrument than the 18th century double bassoon), the wind instruments are still in pairs, this is Harmoniemusik write large.

In 1784, Mozart's friend clarinettist Anton Stadler (for whom Mozart wrote the Clarinet Concerto in 1791) put on a public concert and four movements from the Gran Partita were performed, 'a great wind piece of a very special kind composed by Herr Mozart'. Thus confusing generations of historians into thinking Mozart wrote the work in 1784 and wrote it in two parts (there are a total of seven movements).

But analysis of the paper of Mozart's manuscript confirms that the work was written in 1781, but we have no idea why. It isn't helped that at some point someone (not Mozart) has scribbled a nick name on the title page, 'Gran Partita'. In fact, his is a misspelling, but it is the name by which the work has come to be known. 

Mozart had already explored larger groups of wind instruments, in 1773 he wrote a pair of Divertimenti for a ten-piece Harmonie in Milan, though subsequent wind pieces for Salzburg would be for the more usual sextet (pairs of oboes, horns, bassoons). It is possible that Mozart started writing the Gran Partita when he was in Munich producing Idomeneo (in 1781) for Prince-Elector Karl Theodor's court opera which had recently moved there from Mannheim. Mozart was very impressed with the playing of its oboist Friedrich Ramm. He had presented Ramm with his oboe concerto in Mannheim, and wrote the oboe quartet for him in Munich.

Then again, others have suggested that the work is related to Mozart's marriage in 1782. We will probably never know for certain. 

However, there is an opportunity to hear Mozart's Gran Partita, performed in historically informed style by the new historical performance ensemble, Figure. Led by oboist Leo Duarte, Figure perform Mozart's Gran Partita at the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield on 19 November 2021.

Full details from the ensemble's website.

Red Note Ensemble's Autumn season represents a step in their plans to create a permanent, stable company of musicians rooted within Scotland

Red Note Ensemble (Photo Julie Howden)
Red Note Ensemble (Photo Julie Howden)

The Scottish Contemporary Music group, Red Note Ensemble, performs at Perth Concert Hall tonight (24 September 2021) when Geoffrey Patterson conducts them in a new work by Scottish composer James DillonEMBLEMATA: Carnival, and the performance (which includes discussion about this impressive commission) follows three days of recording two works by Dillon for Delphian Records.

The ensemble has already been performing other music by Dillon this month as they launched their Autumn season with a concert at the Lammermuir Festival on 15 September 2021 in which Jonathan Berman conducted Tansy Davies' Soul Canoe and Dillon's Tanz/Haus: triptych 2017, Red Note's own commission which won the the Royal Philharmonic Society composition award.

Red Note returns to Perth in November with Sub Mari by Martina Corsini and Manuel Figueroa-Bolvarán, a special multimedia commission for COP26 with further performances in Edinburgh and Glasgow and plans for a broadcast.

These performances at Perth are part of Red Note's new residency at Perth Concert Hall, and represent a step in the ensemble's plans to create a permanent, stable company of musicians rooted within Scotland. And they are aiming for a smaller travel-based carbon footprint, longer-term, sustainable community links, international performance excellence within Scotland, and fostering musical equality and diversity with more training and education opportunities within Scottish communities. As well as practical goals, these also serve as themes to inspire both the programming and selection of artists.  

John Harris, Red Note's CEO and artistic director, explained that they are "changing the way we work to proactively address the simultaneous challenges of Brexit, the pandemic and the climate emergency through our work. Facing these issues has led us to transform our working model. For this season, we’ll employ a core group of musicians, moving Red Note away from a project-by-project model towards a sustainable repertoire company. We’ll no longer fly our musicians in and out of Scotland on an almost daily basis. Our core players will have more stability and certainty, working with exciting guest talent to deliver a wide-ranging programme of the highest quality."

Other performances this Autumn include commissions from Ailie Robertson, Luke Styles and Edwin Hillier at sound Festival, Aberdeen, conducted by William Cole (22/10/21), James Dillon, Luke Styles and Aileen Sweeney at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, conducted by Geoffrey Patterson, (19/11/21) and Brian Irvine in Easterhouse, Glasgow (23-26/11/21).

Full details from the Red Note Ensemble's website


Thursday, 23 September 2021

On DSCH: Igor Levit combines large-scale works by two two highly independent, creative minds, the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich and the Lancastrian-born Scot Ronald Stevenson

On DSCH - Shostakovich, Stevenson; Igor Levit; Sony Classical
On DSCH
- Shostakovich, Stevenson; Igor Levit; Sony Classical

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 September 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
Two highly personal works, Shostakovich's interior monologue and Stevenson's universalist tribute to him brought together to devastating effect

Pierre Boulez wrote his Second Piano Sonata in 1947-1948, it is a work of fearsome technical demands, but whose violent character write Paul Griffiths says "is not just superficial: it is expressive of a whole aesthetic of annihilation, and in particular of a need to obliterate what had gone before", and this would lead to two of Boulez' key works in the 1950s, Le marteau sans maitre and Pli selon pli. At the same period Karlheinz Stockhausen was writing his highly complex Klavierstücke and Messiaen his Catalogue d'oiseaux. In a word, European contemporary piano music could be seen as pushing boundaries in all sorts of directions, with a particular emphasis on serialist and post-serialist techniques.

But we are now coming to understand that the 1950s and 1960s were not just decades where contemporary music went in one direction, styles were various from the highly traditional to the avant garde. For his new disc, On DSCH from Sony Classical, pianist Igor Levit has brought together two works, from two highly independent, creative minds, the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich and the Lancastrian-born Scot Ronald Stevenson. Both Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues (1951) and Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH (1963) are works which challenge the notion of what mid-Century classical music was; each composer wrote in a fiercely independent yet highly personal way. Both works are, in their way, pianistic tours de force, and few pianists indeed would consider pairing them together. This set is much more than a recital, at three substantial discs it represents a challenge to our lazy notions of how piano music developed in the mid-20th century.

The Art of British Song

Nathan Williamson & James Gilchrist
Nathan Williamson & James Gilchrist
Tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Nathan Williamson are in the middle of a three-volume project on SOMM Records, One Hundred Years of British Song, exploring the diverse wealth of British song (see my review of volume 2). This has now led to the creation of a larger project, The Art of British Song (TABS), artistic director Nathan Williamson, which aims to encourage the celebration of British song through creating education projects, commissioning recordings and developing collaborations with composers and poets. The intention is that The Art of British Song be dissociated from any specific artist, place, venue or event and the idea of British song can encompass any specific musical style or practice

Last night (22 September 2021) there was a launch event for the project which included a recital from James Gilchrist and Nathan Williamson, who performed songs from the first and third of their discs for SOMM. So we began with Gustav Holst, two songs which were completely unknown to me, A Vigil of Pentecost and The Floral Bandit, followed by Gurney's Down by the Salley Gardens and Sleep, Rebecca Clarke's June Twilight (another fine song I had not heard before) and The Seal Man, and Frank Bridge's wonderful Humbert Wolfe setting Journey's End.

We then moved to more recent composers, with songs from the third disc which is due for release next year. First off Peter Dickinson in quite serious mode with Look, stranger and What's in your mind, then John Woolrich's terrific cycle, from 1998, The Unlit Suburbs setting three short, almost aphoristic poems by Matthew Sweeney, and finally two of Madeleine Dring's John Betjeman settings, Upper Lambourne and The Song of a Nightclub Proprietress, this latter perhaps one of my favourite songs ever.

Future projects include plans to record previously unpublished songs of Gustav Holst, in association with the Holst Society, and to record the complete songs of Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999), in conjunction with the Pitfield Trust. There are also plans for a study day at the University of Surrey

The evening also saw the launch of a supporters group, The TABS Collective.

Full details from The Art of British Song website and Nathan Williamson's website.

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

A Baroque Christmas and Messiah by Candlelight: Eboracum Baroque returns with a lively Autumn season and a new recording

Eboracum Baroque
Eboracum Baroque

Not only is period performance group Eboracum Baroque returning to live performances with audiences, but they have a new disc out. The result of a successful Crowdfunding campaign, their recording of Handel's Messiah conducted by the group's artistic director Chris Parsons, will be launched with three performances of Messiah by candlelight during December in Great Malvern Priory, Great St Mary's Church, Cambridge, and St Andrew's Church, Wimpole, all in aid of Cancer Research UK.

Their busy Autumn season also includes more Handel, his Dixit Dominus is paired with Vivaldi's Gloria and an oboe transcription of one of his violin concertos in Cambridge (23/10/2021, Great St Mary’s, Cambridge). And their Baroque Christmas programme, which features music by Telemann, Bach, and Charpentier will be performed in York (3/12/2021, York Mansion House), Stamford (4/12/2021, St Martin’s Church, Stamford) and Norwich (21/12/2021, St John’s Church, Norwich).

And if you can't make any of these, then An Eboracum Christmas will be released online on 23 December on YouTube and Facebook, featuring a variety of seasonal pieces including some choral performances filmed at Canons Ashby Priory in 2021.

Full details from Eboracum Baroque's website.

Die stille Stadt: Dorothea Herbert's debut recital explores songs by three Viennese contemporaries, Alma Mahler, Franz Shreker & Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Die stille Stadt - Alma Mahler, Schreker, Korngold; Dorothea Herbert, Peter Nilsson; 7 Mountain Records

Die stille Stadt
- Alma Mahler, Schreker, Korngold; Dorothea Herbert, Peter Nilsson; 7 Mountain Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
For her debut recital, soprano Dorothea Herbert explores songs from early 20th century Vienna but treading an interestingly alternative path

Under the title Die stille Stadt, this recital from soprano Dorothea Herbert and pianist Peter Nilsson on 7 Mountain Records brings together songs from the Vienna of the early 20th century, by two composers who were contemporaries Alma Mahler and Franz Schreker, and one composer who is from the younger generation, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The disc is Herbert's debut recital and, incidentally, she will be singing the role of Leonore in Glyndebourne on Tour's new production of Beethoven's Fidelio which opens on 8 October.

Daughter of a painter, Alma Mahler (nee Schindler) studied music with Zemlinsky, and married Mahler. A composer herself, her ambitions were supported by the first, but rather quashed by the latter. She destroyed all but 17 of her songs and never returned to composition despite Mahler's tentative support towards the end of his life. Thereafter, married first to architect Walter Gropius and then to writer, Franz Werfelshe, she became something of a muse for artistic Vienna, seeming to live through other artists. Interestingly, none of her surviving songs set female poets.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

What's Next for Opera?

Everyone who is interested in opera has an opinion on the question 'What's Next for Opera?'. The American not-for-profit the National Institute of Social Sciences (NISS) is hosting a webinar on the subject on 23 September 2021 which draws together luminaries from the opera world including soprano Angel Blue (who is a trustee of NISS), mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (who needs no introduction), counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (who appeared in English National Opera's recent production of Philip Glass' Akhnaten), James Robinson (former General Director of Opera Theatre St. Louis), David Lomeli (artistic administrator of the Santa Fe Opera and casting director of Bayerische Staatsoper) and moderator Marc Scorca (CEO of Opera America). 

The webinar will cover the future of opera, innovation in opera, safety as we move forward with live performances, and "to stream or not to stream” in addition to other items and listener questions and discussion.

Angel Blue stars in Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 27 September 2021, directed by James Robinson and Camille A Brown. This will be the the first opera by a Black composer ever performed by the Met. 

The webinar takes place at 12pm, EST which is 5pm UK time. Full details from the webinar registration page.


Returning to performance: three young ensembles join forces for immersive performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion - Scherzo, The Strand Consort, Mozaique Baroque Ensemble, Matthew O'Keeffe
Three young ensembles are coming together to present an ambitious project designed to re-engage the public after the pandemic. Scherzo Ensemble (director Matthew O'Keeffe), the professional development platform for young singers, The Strand Consort (director Joseph Fort), a choir which draws its singers from an elite pool of alumni from the UK’s top musical institutions, and Mozaique, a young international ensemble Mozaïque has its roots at the University Mozarteum Salzburg, will be combining to perform Bach's St Matthew Passion in London, Winchester and Bromley.

Conducted by Matthew O'Keeffe, the performances take place at the chapel of King's College, London (28 October 2021), Winchester College Chapel (30 October 2021) and St Mark's Church, Bromley (31 October 2021) and will include soloist Maria Hegele, mezzo-soprano, Michael Ronan, bass-baritone, Lauren Lodge-Campbell, soprano, and Ruari Bowen, tenor, plus Mozaique Baroque Ensemble and The Strand Consort. The performances will will feature the exhibition of artwork, curated by Dr Imogen Tedbury, which responds to elements of Jesus’ passion story, displayed sequentially during the performance. What’s more, audiences will be invited to sing the chorales with the chorus and to attend a Come & Sing rehearsal half an hour before each concert.

Full details from the Scherzo Ensemble website and the Strand Consort website.

I, Spie: The Telling's new concert/play mixes John Dowland, espionage and Elizabethan music

Clare Norburn: I, Spie - The Telling
The early music/theatre group The Telling is returning to live venues with a six-date tour next month featuring the premiere of Clare Norburn's latest concert play I, Spie [read my interview with Clare in which we chat about her new work including I, Spie and her award-winning online series, Love in the Lockdown]. 

Directed by Nicholas Renton and featuring three actors and five musicians, I, Spie tells the story of Elizabethan composer John Dowland's brush with espionage.

I, Spie is centred around an extraordinary letter which Dowland wrote to Queen Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Robert Cecil in 1595.  At the time, Dowland was travelling Europe, having taken umbrage in having not secured a court post as a lutenist when one fell vacant.  Cecil had signed Dowland’s travel papers and probably told him to "keep his eyes and ears open". So when, as a Catholic Englishman abroad, Dowland was approached by English ex-Pats living in Florence and Rome, who were plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, Dowland sent the information on the plot and key players to Cecil. In I, Spie, Norburn uses her imagination to fill in the gaps in what we know about Dowland's life at that time – what led to the moment of his writing that letter - but also what happened in the aftermath.  

The tour of I, Spie consists of six dates, stopping in North London (Stroud Green Festival), Brighton (Brighton Early Music Festival), Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria and West London from Wednesday 15th October to Sunday 24th October.

The Telling is currently crowd-funding to help support the tour. Please do consider supporting them so that the tour can take place. Further information from the Crowdfunder page.


A very personal sound commentary: Tim Corpus' MMXX

Tim Corpus MMXX; Attacca Publishing

Tim Corpus MMXX; Attacca Publishing

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 September 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Contemporary American composer Tim Corpus explores the themes of 2020, public, political and personal, in a distinctive new album

Looking back 2020 was an eventful year, not just in terms of the pandemic but in politics, society and much else besides. During the year, American composer Tim Corpus was also dealing with major changes in his career and a divorce, and one of his responses was to write the music for a highly personal album, MMXX which is available via Bandcamp. Featuring performances by Tim Corpus alongside Timothy Archbold (cello), Alyssa Arrigo (piano), Matthew Bronstein (French horn), Chris Davis (trumpet), and Derek Fitting (trumpet), MMXX features ten tracks which explicitly or implicitly explore themes from 2020.

Corpus was born in the Chicago area and studied percussion at Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University and composition at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford. As a composer his work has included classical works alongside film scores, commercials and sound design for the podcast She the People. But, like many young artists, Corpus has a diverse career in the arts and is also an arts administrator, as well as performing percussion, guitar and bass guitar.

The titles of the ten pieces on MMXX all hint at the themes of the album, exploring the various events (personal and public) that took place during the year, though sometimes tangentially. So we have 'Grandma's Piano', 'Is this Science Fiction?', 'Is Today, Tuesday, Friday or Saturday?', 'See the Sun', 'Screen Time', 'This is What Democracy Looks Like', 'Elegy for Justice', 'Cabin Fever', 'Saying Goodbye', and 'Together Again'. Some titles are highly evocative, but Corpus doesn't do more than give us the title, it is up to us to listen.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Prioritising the musicians: new boutique, artist-led record label and streaming platform, October House Records launches next month

October House Records
October House Records (OHR), which launches on 1 October 2021, is a new venture by composer and cellist Colin Alexander which will run as both a record label and a paid-for subscription streaming/download platform. It is a boutique online record store run by musicians, whose releases will not be available on any other platform or website

OHR's funding model is intended to prioritise the artists and 85% of royalties will go to artists. Releases will happen four times per year, with coordinated batches of new releases by multiple artists with each of them contributing to each other’s PR efforts by working together with the name 'October House Records'.

OHR will offer listeners the option to stream all releases for a monthly subscription fee whilst also being able to download EP’s and albums for a fee. Downloads will also be available to non-subscribing guests too, as will gift purchases, and a radio channel, playing our entire collection (in a constantly randomised order), will also be available to subscribers. 

The label has an artistic panel whose role form an advisory body which will guide the direction of the label’s output whilst having the opportunity to release their own individual projects and collaborations as and when they wish. Currently the panel is Colin Alexander (coordinator), Max Baillie, Bishi Bhattacharya, David Buckley, Mira Calix, Kit Downes, Shiva Feshareki, inti figgis-vizueta, Antoine Francoise, Jas Kayser, Soosan Lolavar, Zoë Martlew, Misha Mullov-Abbado, Lauri Porra, Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Love Ssega, Shri Sriram, Héloïse Werner and Ayanna Witter-Johnson.

Releases are confirmed for October 2021 and January 2022. October sees releases by Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Zoë Martlew, Colin Alexander, Love Ssega, Max Baillie & Leafcutter John, Héloïse Werner, Max Baillie & Colin Alexander, Kit Downes & Shiva Feshareki, Ongemang, and David Buckley.

Full details from the October House Records website.

In support of Afghan musicians

Recent image from an Afghan music department
Recent image from an Afghan music department

Ulla Benz is a German violinist who teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts, and is also a medical Doctor in Munich working on a voluntary basis for Cultures in Harmony via founder William Harvey who is concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra in Mexico and Emeritus Professor of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.

The situation in Afghanistan for musicians and artists is tragic, and extremely dangerous. In the past weeks the Taliban have been destroying instruments, and now musicians are also being persecuted, their homes burned and people killed.

A WhatsApp group of over one hundred and sixty Afghan musicians is full of cries for help which Ulla and William see on a daily basis. Some of these musicians have also been victims of previous ISIS bombings. Ulla is personally connected to one young musician - seventeen years old - who’s violin was burnt by the Taliban and then she was seriously injured in the Kabul airport bombing, and is now in hospital. Two of her friends were among the fatalities.

This story in the Hindustani Times is representative; other musicians had their houses searched by the Taliban and have had to flee and spend the night in the open, others have already been killed.

The hoped-for solution is to rescue these musicians from Afghanistan and offer them a safe country to live in. Ulla has a compiled a list of more than three hundred musicians and, currently, this list is available from the foreign ministries of Mexico, Italy, Germany and the USA. We know that not one government can take them all these musicians in, so we want to try to get help from everywhere.

Musicians and politicians from the UK are needed to help support this project to rescue musicians from Afghanistan – can anyone help?

Contact for more information - Ulla Benz


Berkeley Ensemble launches Conway Hall's 2021/22 Sunday Concerts season with Imogen Holst, Lennox Berkeley, John Ireland and Beethoven

Berkeley Ensemble (Photo Louise Mather)
Berkeley Ensemble (Photo Louise Mather)

The Conway Hall's long-running Sunday Concerts series starts its 2021/22 season on 26 September 2021, a welcome return to weekly, in-person concerts at the venue, though all the concerts will be available to watch live-streamed as well. 

The season opener is a pair of concerts from the Berkeley Ensemble with three rare 20th century British works, by Imogen Holst, Lennox Berkeley and John Ireland, followed by Beethoven's youthful Septet, a work whose popularity the composer resented as he felt it overshadowed his later works. The season at Conway Hall continues with the Greenwich Trio, and a chance to hear the Norwegian Engegård Quartet [see my interview with them]. 

17 October sees the final of the Conway Hall's re-launched Clements Prize for Composers when the Piatti Quartet will perform works by seven young composers, Jacob Fitzgerald, Alex Groves, Vivek Haria, Noah Max, Emily Pedersen, Alexander Verster, and Dominic Wills, and a distinguished jury will select a winner. The concert also includes a performance of Joseph Phibbs' String Quartet No. 1.

Other performers during the season include pianist Maria Canyigueral in an all-Bach programme, the Eusebius Quartet, the Fidelio Trio mixing Haydn and Schubert with Robert Saxton, the Coull Quartet, the Galliard Ensemble with pianist Simon Callaghan (who is the series' artistic director), the Alauda Quartet, and violinist Callum Smart and pianist Richard Utley.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

'After the end of the dark Nazi era, everyone was so hungry to take in the new' - WDR celebrates 70 years of its Musik der Zeit concert series in Cologne

Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, and Karlheinz Stockhausen at Musik der Zeit in Cologne
Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, and Karlheinz Stockhausen at Musik der Zeit in Cologne in 1958

In October 1951, Igor Stravinsky travelled to Cologne to conduct a concert of his own music, this would be the first concert in the Musik der Zeit concert series which celebrates its 70th anniversary in Cologne this year. The Cologne of 1951 was still a city in ruins, the Hohenzollern Bridge lay destroyed in the Rhine but musical life was developing thanks to the founding of the Northwest German Broadcasting Corporation, out of which came the present WDR which still runs the Musik der Zeit concert series. 

On 2 October 2021, in the WDR Funkhaus, Cologne, Enno Poppe conducts the WDR Symphony Orchestra in a concert celebrating the 70 years of Musik der Zeit with music by Xenakis and Boulez, plus premieres of works by Klaus Ospald and Justė Janulytė. The evening continues with short, celebratory concerts at a variety of venues in Cologne, culminating at 11pm in Cologne Philharmonie with music by Ligeti, Dayia Maminova and Stockhausen.

On 3 October WDR will be broadcasting a long night-time celebration (from midnight to 6 am) of the music performed during the concert series' 70 years including Stockhausen, Zimmermann, Boulez, Nono, Xenakis and Cage, all of whom made the debuts at the Cologne Funkhaus, and alongside these new and radical young composers of the times. Ligeti came to Cologne in 1956, after the Hungarian uprising, and he remembered "After the war, after the end of the dark Nazi era, everyone was so hungry to take in the new.

Full details of at the WDR website.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Combining Western classical with Native American musical culture: I chat to composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate

Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate: Lowak Shoppala' - premiere in 2009
Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate: Lowak Shoppala' - premiere in 2009 

The composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate is both a citizen of the USA and the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and his music reflects this dual heritage, combining the Western classical tradition with that of Native American cultures. His work, Lowak Shoppala' (Fire and Light), expresses Chickasaw identity through classical music theatre. Lowak Shoppala' premiered in 2009 and the premiere recording was released in June 2021 on Azica Records, featuring Jerod conducting Chickasaw Nation Children's Chorus and Nashville String Machine with baritone Stephen Clark, sopranos Chelsea Owen and Meghan Vera Starling and narrators Richard Ray Whitman, Lynn Moroney, and Wes StudiI recently chatted to Jerod by Zoom to find out more about the work.

The Chickasaw Nation is a federally recognized Native American nation, with headquarters at Ada, Oklahoma. They are indigenous people of the Southeastern Woodlands and the Chickasaw language, Chikashshanompa’, is primarily an oral language. Today the Chickasaw Nation is the thirteenth largest federally recognized tribe in the United States with a population of 38,000, the majority residing in Oklahoma.

Jerod's father is a Chickasaw lawyer and tribal judge as well as being a classically trained pianist and baritone,  whilst his mother is of Manx descent and was a professional choreographer and dancer. This resulted in the young Jerod growing up on a diet of theatre, from classic to modern to ethnically diverse. He loves Irish musical culture and fell in love with Riverdance, and the way the work modernised traditional Irish music resonated with Jerod. He liked what they were doing and felt that similar things were happening with Native American culture.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate at the recording sessions for Lowak Shoppala'
Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate at the recording sessions for Lowak Shoppala'

Not just a fine debut recital: Julian Van Mellaerts & James Baillieu are joined by family & friends for their exploration of Songs of Travel and Home on Champs Hill Records

Songs of travel and home - Quilter, Bridge, Gareth Farr, Ravel, RVW; Julien Van Mellaerts, James Baillieu, Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Sofia Castillo, Raphael Wallfisch; Champs Hill Records

Songs of travel and home
- Quilter, Bridge, Gareth Farr, Ravel, RVW; Julien Van Mellaerts, James Baillieu, Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Sofia Castillo, Raphael Wallfisch; Champs Hill Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A debut recital which explores baritone Julien Van Mellaerts' diverse origins, what home means and explores identity through song

For a young artist, the question of programming their debut recital disc is a large one, the balance between making something personal and making something which forms a musically satisfying whole. For his debut recital on Champs Hill Records, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts is joined by pianist James Baillieu, viola player Bryony Gibson-Cornish, flute player Sofia Castillo and cellist Raphael Wallfisch for a programme of music by Roger Quilter, Frank Bridge, Gareth Farr, Maurice Ravel and RVW.

If the programme seems, at first, somewhat diverse, then Van Mellaerts explains in his introductory note how all the pieces link to his own diverse origins. Born in New Zealand, his mother's family has been in the country since the 1840s, but his half British/half French father immigrated in the 1970s. So, in a way, the programme explores the idea of identity through song.

There are other links too, viola player Bryony Gibson-Cornish is a friend of Van Mellaerts from 'back home' and they performed Frank Bridge's songs for voice, viola and piano together when studying at the Royal College of Music. The song cycle Ornithological Anecdotes was commissioned by Van Mellaerts and Baillieu for a tour of New Zealand with words by the country's first poet laureate, Bill Manhire, and music by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr [see my review of a recent disc of Farr's Cello Concerto: Chemin des Dames]. And the cycle examines some of the unusual birds which are unique to the country. Van Mellaerts is not only part French, but did his university dissertation on Ravel, and the Chansons madécasses gives him a rare chance to perform with his partner, flute player Sofia Castillo, as well as cellist Raphael Wallfisch with whom Van Mellaerts worked in 2018 for the Royal Ballet.

The whole would not work if it were not for Van Mellaerts superb performances, aided and abetted by Baillieu and the others. He sings with an engagingly firm sense of line along with a lovely flexibility and admirable freedom in the upper repertoire, plus superb diction so that you never have to worry about checking the words. 

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Sheer diversity: The Boulanger Legacy - music for violin and piano from the Boulanger sisters and three of Nadia's pupils, one Polish, one American, one Argentinian

The Boulanger Legacy - Lili Boulanger, Grazyna Bacewicz, Astor Piazzolla, Leonard Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger; Merel Vercammen, Dina Ivanova; TRPTK

The Boulanger Legacy
- Lili Boulanger, Grazyna Bacewicz, Astor Piazzolla, Leonard Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger; Merel Vercammen, Dina Ivanova; TRPTK

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An imaginative selection of music for violin and piano from sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger alongside that of Nadia's pupils

Nadia Boulanger's pupils were so many and varied, from Aaron Copland to Jean Françaix, from Philip Glass to Daniel Barenboim, from Elliott Carter to Quincy Jones, from Bert Barcharach to John Eliot Gardiner, that each recital looking at their music will inevitably take a different route. 16 September is Nadia Boulanger's birthday, so it seems a good point to consider her legacy.

A disc released earlier this year, The Boulanger Legacy on the TRPTK label by Dutch violinist Merel Vercammen and Russian pianist Dina Ivanova places the music of Nadia Boulanger and her sister Lili Boulanger alongside that of three of Nadia Boulanger's pupils, Grazyna Bacewicz, Astor Piazzolla and Leonard Bernstein, providing three very different takes on what a Nadia Boulanger pupil might be.

We begin with Lili Boulanger's Nocturne and Cortege, the first originally written for flute and piano and the latter published as a companion piece. Nocturne has nothing to do with night (the title is the publisher's), it is a lovely sung melody with Spanish hints in the piano, with just enough to suggest a passionate night time serenade, whilst Cortege is a delightfully fleet piece. Both works show Lili Boulanger's debt to other French composers but also her imagination and her own voice.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Light and shade: In Soleil Noir, tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro takes us on a voyage around the art of Francesco Rasi, the first Orfeo in Monteverdi's opera

Soleil Noir: arie per Francesco Rasi; Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Louise Pierrard, Thomas Dunford, Flora Papadopoulos

Soleil Noir: arie per Francesco Rasi
; Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Louise Pierrard, Thomas Dunford, Flora Papadopoulos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 September 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A spectacular and engaging voyage around the tenor Francesco Rasi who not only created the title role in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo but was associated with a number of other early opera composers

The tenor Francesco Rasi (1574-1621) is best known for creating the title role in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in 1607, and we know the sort of feats of which he was capable as the ornamented version of Orfeo, notated alongside Monteverdi's plainer original, is Rasi's. But Rasi was a lot else besides, a composer, a noted interpreter of music by other composers associated with the development of opera, Rasi was also prosecuted for murder and attempted murder!

On this disc the ensemble I Gemelli - tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Louise Pierrard (viola da gamba), Thomas Dunford (theorbo), and Flora Papadopoulos (harp) - perform Rasi's music alongside his contemporaries, Giulio Caccini, Marco da Gagliano, Giuseppino del Biado, Sigismondo d'India, Andrea Falconieri, Carlo Gesualdo, Claudio Monteverdi, and Jacopo Peri. There is nothing from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, you will have to turn to Gonzalez Toro's recent recording of the work for that, instead we have a voyage round Rasi's art and voice, with music by composers with whom he was intimately associated.

Born in Arezzo, Rasi seems to have studied with Giulio Caccini as well as Jacopo Peri, both of whom would be involved in the creation of the first operas. In the 1590s, Rasi seems to have been in Gesualdo's retinue but by 1598 he was working for the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua, and stayed with them for the rest of his life. He travelled widely, and took place in the first performances of Jacopo Peri's Euridice and Giulio Caccini's Il rapimento di Cefalo in 1600, and in 1608 sang in the first performances of Marco da Gagliano's La Dafne. In Florence, Rasi would meet a wide variety of musicians, in contact with the wide circle of composers, musicians, writers and philosophers that went into the boiling cauldron that created opera, monody and much else besides.

In 1610 he and some accomplices attempted to kill Rasi's stepmother and killed her servant in the process. He was sentenced for the murder but the support of the Gonzagas seems to have enabled the sentence to be annulled.

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival - highlights from this years festival broadcast on-line

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival might have finished its live performances for this year's festival, but the jollity is not over as on Friday 17 September 2021 the festival is broadcasting films of three of the highlights from this year's festival. 

Things begin with The Venus Bushfires, a watch party with the creative collective which has multidisciplinary artist Helen Epega at its centre. Then comes Alastair White's latest fashion-opera, RUNE. This is the third in a sequence of works which White has been producing [see my interview with him], and RUNE features performances from Patricia Auchterlonie and Simone Ibbett-Brown, an ensemble of three grand pianos, contemporary dance with interactive sculpture, and high fashion by Ka Wa Key. Finally, the evening concludes with The Castle of Crossed Destinies with words by Giovanni Privitera and music by Matteo Fania, an adaption of Calvino's novel that shows us knights in Times Square, legendary alchemists, and invisible kings, and in an event that combines animation with live performance.

Further details from the Tête à Tête website.


Friday, 10 September 2021

Faced with the lack of representation of their own experiences in the traditional song repertoire, soprano Samantha Crawford and pianist Lana Bode set about creating their own programme

Lana Bode and Samantha Crawford performing dream.risk.sing (Photo Frances Marshall)
Lana Bode and Samantha Crawford performing dream.risk.sing (Photo Frances Marshall)

Faced with the challenge of finding song repertoire which reflected the diversity of their experiences and frustrated by the lack of representation in traditional song repertoire, British soprano Samantha Crawford and American pianist Lana Bode have set about doing it for themselves. The two have created a programme that tells women's stories from a woman's perspective. The result, dream.risk.sing was developed during 2020 and Crawford and Bode will be presenting a pared down version of the recital at the Oxford Lieder Festival on 22 October 2021 at a late-evening concert which will also be live-streamed and available on the festival's website until 30 November 2021.

The centrepiece of the recital is the premiere of a song cycle by composer Charlotte Bray and poet Nicki Jackowska. Crossing Faultlines explores the topic of women in the workplace, perhaps the first song-cycle so to do. Also in the programme are two new piano arrangements of songs from Judith Weir's orchestral song cycle, woman.life.song which was originally written for Jessye Norman in 2000 and the cycle formed the inspiration for dream.risk.sing.

There are songs by Carson Cooman, about women oppressed through religious fundamentalism, by Ricky Ian Gordon, his tribute to his mother, by Helen Grime, songs from her cycle about motherhood, and by Michele Brourman, about passing the torch to future generations of women. There are also older songs, Dvorak's Songs my mother taught me and Florence Price's The Heart of a Woman.

Crawford and Bode are also recording a fuller version of the programme for Delphian records, and the disc will also include songs by Libby Larsen, Rebecca Clarke, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler.

Further details of the concert from the Oxford Lieder Festival website.

Mixed blessing: Bach's St Matthew Passion at the BBC Proms with never quite solves the problem of how to fill the Royal Albert Hall with this profoundly contemplative work

Bach: St Matthew Passion - Arcangelo in rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall - BBC Proms
Bach: St Matthew Passion - Arcangelo in rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall - BBC Proms

Bach St Matthew Passion; Stuart Jackson, Matthew Rose, Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Hugo Hymas, Roderick Williams, Arcangelo, choristers of St Paul's Cathedral, Jonathan Cohen; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 September 2021
Jonathan Cohen brings together a fine array of soloists and instrumentalists for a very traditional style performance with moments of great musical beauty

The first performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion at the Proms wasn't until 1968 (with Karl Richter as conductor) though Sir Henry Wood had conducted highlights from the work earlier in the century. And Wood was no stranger to the complete St Matthew Passion as he conducted it at the Sheffield Festival in 1908 with a chorus of 300 and an orchestra including 'eight flutes, eight oboes and eight bassoons', a practical and effective solution to using a huge choir to perform a work written for quite tiny forces.

This question of how to, or whether to, expand the size of the St Matthew Passion to fill the space is one which hangs over every performance of it at the Royal Albert Hall. On Thursday 9 September 2020, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo performed Bach's St Matthew Passion with relatively traditional period forces including Stuart Jackson (Evangelist), Matthew Rose (Christ), Louise Alder (soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Hugo Hymas (tenor) and Roderick Williams (baritone). So we had two orchestras of around 18 players each, two choirs of 17 singers each, plus the boys from St Paul's Cathedral Choir, director of music Andrew Carwood, for the ripieno. All well and good, and all traditional.

Except, of course, that it isn't. Such a style of performance is a modern invention. Bach's passions were written to be performed during the Lutheran services in Leipzig, where there was a tradition of using a small group of soloists. In 1994, Joshua Rifkin directed the St Matthew Passion at the BBC Proms with just a group of soloists, who sang everything. This is a style of performance that Bach would have recognised, and even if he had used more than eight singers (eight soloists and eight ripieno would work well), the arias would be sung be singers who were also singing the choruses and chorales, both the Evangelist and Christ sang arias as well. The result is brings an element of communality to the performance.

The question nowadays, particularly with large venues and big choirs, isn't so much whether Bach would have performed the work with just eight singers, but what decisions he might have made to expand the performance. Within 30 years of Handel's death, a tradition had grown up of performing his oratorios with larger choirs plus soloists. Many of these works were premiered with relatively small choral forces and with the soloists singing in the choir, so when expanding the forces the 18th century musicians simply factored everything up, including those oboes and flutes. Sir Henry Wood's performance is starting to look a lot less retrograde.

Haydn heard one such Handel commemoration performance in London in the 1790s, which led to his oratorios and the idea of using large forces. Mozart would re-work Handel to make him fit 18th century conventions, but the music of Bach disappeared until the revival in the 19th century. Both Mendelssohn and Schumann reworked Baroque music to suit the forces available (large choirs and halls with no organ, hence the extra instrumental parts). Bach's passions were presented as part of this large-scale oratorio tradition. And this style of performance still influences us today.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

A Companionship of Concertos: Tedd Joselson returns to the studio for concertos by Grieg and Rachmaninov

Grieg Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2; Tedd Joselson, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Arthur Fagen; Signum Classics

Grieg Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2; Tedd Joselson, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Arthur Fagen; Signum Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 September 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A rare return to the studio for the distinguished Belgian-American pianist with a pair of classic concertos

This new disc of Grieg's Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 from pianist Tedd Joselson, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Arthur Fagen on Signum Classics comes as something of a companion to the Lim Fantasy of Companionship for piano & orchestra which Joselson released earlier this year.

Belgian-American pianist Tedd Joselson auditioned for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was only 17. The result would be a critically acclaimed sequence of six albums on RCA [reissued in 2019 by Sony Classical]. But he retired from public performance in 1999 and mostly resides in Singapore, so this disc represents a rare return to the studios in two of his favourite piano concertos made as part of a project to record both the Grieg and the Rachmaninov alongside the new work, the Lim Fantasy of Companionship all with Arthur Fagen conducting but each with a different orchestra.

We begin with Grieg's Piano Concerto, written in 1868/1869 and premiered in 1869, a rare excursion into large-scale symphonic writing for a composer who often wrote on a somewhat smaller scale. Grieg seems to have been a composer who could, on occasion, write for large scale symphonic orchestra (witness his incidental music) yet rarely felt impelled to. Schumann's Piano Concerto, which Grieg seems to have heard when he was student in Leipzig with Clara Schumann in the solo part, remains a key inspiration alongside Norwegian folk-music. The result is, perhaps, a concerto which (like the Schumann) has been expanded in modern performance from its classical roots into a large scale Romantic piece.

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