I am an organ recitalist, based in England, specializing in early music. As well as my performing, writing has always been an important part of my musical activities. I have written many articles on organ topics and early music, as well as the little book ‘The Performance of Early Organ Music’. For 20 years, until its demise, I was the principal concert and organ CD reviewer for Early Music Review magazine. My reviewing is now on this review website. Although it generally covers early music concerts, CDs, books and editions, it also allows me to venture into broader musical fields.
Continue reading

BBC Proms: Janáček – Glagolitic Mass

Prom 1. Janáček: Glagolitic Mass
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, BBC Singers
Karina Canellakis
Royal Albert Hall, 19 July 2019

The 125th season of the BBC Proms celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of their founder-conductor, Sir Henry Wood, whose bust looks down on the orchestras and Prommers throughout the season. One of the threads through the Proms are the ‘Novelties’, Wood’s own description of various UK and world premieres that he conducted. Another theme is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. This opening concert (from the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus and the BBC Singers, directed by Karina Canellakis) acknowledged both with a world premiere and one of Wood’s novelties together with a focus on Czech composers. As well as featuring a female composer, this was also the first time that a female conductor had opened the Proms, one of the seven women conductors this season. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and on BBC2 and BBC4, and is available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards. Continue reading

York Early Music International Young Artists Competition 2019

York Early Music International Young Artists Competition 2019
National Centre for Early Music
York, 11-13 July 2019

Founded in 1985, the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition (until 2009 under the auspices of the Early Music Network) is firmly ensconced in the National Centre for Early Music in the splendidly restored former medieval church of St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York. This year was the 18th incarnation of the biennial event, which for some years has formed part of the annual York Early Music Festival and is supported by the National Centre for Early Music, BBC Radio 3, Arts Council England and Linn Records. The full list of competition rules can be seen here but, briefly, there must be a minimum of two members aged 36 years or under with an average age of 32 or under. The repertory must be from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, using historically informed playing techniques, instruments and stylistic conventions. The ten finalists were chosen from 58 applications to provide a balance sequence of concerts in the final, covering the whole ‘early music’ period.

Continue reading

York Early Music Festival

York Early Music Festival
Innovation: the Shock of the New!
10-12 July

My principal reason for going to York was to review the biennial York Early Music International Young Artists Competition which took place over the last three days of the annual York Early Music Festival. The Festival lasted from 5 to 13 July and was given under the banner of Innovation: the Shock of the New! taking inspiration from the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci. Alongside talks and community events were a range of concerts, mostly from York-connected and UK ensembles, but with welcome continental visitors including Concerto de Margherita, one of the EEEmerging groups, fortepianist Andreas Staier, the Italian/Jewish Ensemble Lucidarium, and the distinguished Belgian consort Vox Luminis. I was able to attend the last four of the Festival concerts, together with the three days of the Competition.

Continue reading

Henry Purcell: Symphony while the swans come forward

Henry Purcell
Symphony while the swans come forward
Le Sfera Armonioso, Mike Fentross, Johannette Zomer
Challenge Classics CC 72783. 78’57

In this live recording, Le Sfera Armonioso present extracts from Purcell’s History of DioclesianThe Indian QueenKing Arthur and The Fairy Queen. So far, so good. But this is a curious recording, raising questions about early music vocal and instrumental performance practice. To start with the positive: Le Sfera Armonioso clearly takes the period instrument issue seriously, to the extent that for this project they commissioned two new trumpets from Graham Nicholson, who also plays on the recording. They are replicas of the c1700 William Bull silver trumpet, owned by Purcell’s principal trumpeter, John Shore and housed in the Museum of Warwick. These trumpets have no finger holes, relying solely on the players’ lips to produce the notes, with the inevitable distinctive tunings, obvious from the start with the opening Symphony for trumpets and violins from Purcell’s History of Dioclesian. More information about the trumpets, and some extracts from the recording can be found hereContinue reading

Favourites: Telemann and his Subscribers

‘Favourites’
Telemann and his Subscribers
Tabea Debus, recorder
TYXart TXA18107. 66’34

Recorder player Tabea Debus is one of the most impressive young musicians of her generation. She has already featured many times in this review website for her CDs and concert performances (see here). Her latest recording is a clever combination of two genuine Telemann pieces for recorder (the Sonata in C, TWV 41:C2 and Concerto in F, TWV 51:F1) forming a sandwich with a filling of four suites of pieces collated and arranged by Tabea Debus from Telemann and three of the composers who subscribed to Telemann’s music publications. Telemann was one of the pioneers of music publishing funded by inviting pre-publication subscriptions – an early form of crowd-funding. Amongst those subscribers were Bach, Handel and Blavet, the three composers whose pieces are collected into suites on this recording. Continue reading

Claire M Singer: gleann ciùin

Claire M Singer: gleann ciùin
New Music Biennial

London Contemporary Orchestra, Clare M Singer, organ
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 5 July 2019

The New Music Biennial festival weekend in Londons’ Southbank Centre (and the following weekend in Hull) features 20 new commissions, together with other pieces composed within the last 15 years. The new works are each around 15 minutes long and are repeated after an on-stage chat with one of the BBC Radio 3 presenters. All the pieces will be broadcast on Radio 3 on their New Music Show or during the weekday 2pm Afternoon Concert slot. It is presented in conjunction with the PRS for Music Foundation and the BBC. The first of the new compositions to be performed was gleann ciùin by Claire M Singer, a composer who has used her time in charge of the magnificent 1877 Henry Willis organ in Islington’s Union Chapel to set up the annual Organ Reframed festival and to explore the more unusual sound possibilities of a mechanical action pipe organ. The occasion was also a rare outing for the Queen Elizabeth Hall’s recently restored 1966 Flentrop organ. It generally lives in a basement below the stage with a lift to hoist it up to the stage when needed – many people do not even know it is there.

Continue reading

A Fancy: Fantasy on English Airs & Tune

A Fancy: Fantasy on English Airs & Tune
Rachel Redmond, Le Caravansérail, Bertrand Cuiller
Harmonia Mundi. HMM 902296. 66’04

Rachel Redmond - A Fancy: Fantasy on English Airs & Tunes

This recording was released in September 2017, but I have only become aware of it, having heard a concert performance during the 2019 Tage Alter Musik Regensburg (reviewed here). As well as being a musically outstanding recording, with excellent singing from soprano Rachel Redmond and playing from Le Caravansérail, directed by Bertrand Cuiller, this is an intelligent way of presenting the music of the English Baroque era. Much of the music of the post-Restoration period (from the mid-17th century) was written for the theatre, where plays included lots of music to set the scene and provide interludes. The resulting pieces are often short, and can be difficult to programme into a concert setting. In this recording, Le Caravansérail has concocted what is, in effect, a five-act mini-opera taking samples of music for the theatre by composers such as Matthew Locke, Henry Purcell, John Blow to make a coherent and well-balanced whole. Continue reading

Handel: Belshazzar

Handel: Belshazzar
The Sixteen Choir & Orchestra, Harry Christophers
The Grange Festival
The Grange, Northington, Hampshire. 28 June 2019

I think that few opera-goers would argue that Handel oratorios should not be staged as operas, despite the risk of letting opera directors loose on them. They are generally full of operatic images and action and usually lack the textural and plot bafflement and cross-dressing of many of Handel’s proper operas, although their Biblical stories come with their own element of bafflement. Their English language text can be rather clunky, as it certainly is in Belshazzar, but the momentum of the music and the large role for a choir makes them a particularly effective musical and theatrical show.

Following on from their recent partnership with the Academy of Ancient Music for Figaro The Grange Festival partnered with the choir and orchestra of The Sixteen (celebrating their 40th birthday) for a fully staged version of Handel’s Belshazzar. the story is taken from the Book of Daniel, and recounts the fall of Babylon at the hands of Cyrus the Great and the freeing of the Jewish nation from captivity. Directed by Daniel Slater with Robert Innes Hopkins as the designer, the setting, staging and direction was, with a  few exceptions, excellent. A wall of Pink Floyd proportions was initially spread across the stage front, with the tip of a Breughelesque Tower of Babel peeking above the ramparts. Said tower swivelled through 180 degrees to reveal the internal settings. Continue reading

Tage Alter Musik Regensburg 2019

Tage Alter Musik Regensburg 2019
Bavaria, Germany. 7-10 June 2019

The Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival takes place annually from Friday to Monday over the Pentecost/Whitsun weekend, whose dates move linked to Easter. The 2019 festival, the 35th, took place over the weekend of 7-10 June, rather later than in previous years and the latest Pentecost weekend until 2030. With 15 concerts over these four days, it is a total immersion of early music performed in some spectacular buildings in Regensburg city centre. The historic city of Regensburg has its roots in the Celtic settlement of Radasbona and the Roman Castra Regina fort, remnants of which can still be seen. It was the early Medieval capital of Bavaria. The 12th-century bridge over the Danube increased its importance as a Free Imperial City within the Holy Roman Empire. It adopted the Reformation in 1542 but retained its Catholic Cathedral and Abbeys. From 1663 to 1806, it was the permanent seat of the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, the so-called ‘Perpetual Diet’. The whole of the historic city centre is now a World Heritage Site. Continue reading

Le nozze di Figaro

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
The Grange Festival

Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr
The Grange, Northington, Hampshire. 19 June 2019

What seemed to be the entire stage was visible to the arriving audience, a blank black space devoid of any scenery or clue as to the setting for the awaited Le nozze di Figaro. It was only when the Overture started that a rear curtain parted to reveal a shallow space at the back of the stage with tables set out for the servants of a great house. Said servants wandered in, some via the audience, with the usual paraphernalia of traditional country house of centuries gone, with guns and game slung over the shoulders of gamekeepers and bonny housemaids doing things with flowers. Were it not for the fact the much of adjoining The Grange mansion had long since been demolished, we could have been in the basement of the next door building.

For those who do not know The Grange, what does survive is the important early Georgian Neo-Classical cement-rendered exterior, surrounding a mid-17th-century brick house, one wall of which is now exposed following the removal of the extensive Private and Bachelor wings. The interior is in a wonderfully evocative almost completely unrestored state. At the end of the surviving screen wall of the private wing is the remains of the early 19th-century conservatory, later converted into a ballroom. In 2002, this was further converted into a magnificent multi-award-winning opera house by Grange Park Opera who were the instigators and focus of opera productions at The Grange between 1998 and 2016. They have now relocated to the new Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place, Surrey to be replaced at The Grange by the three-year-old Grange Festival. Continue reading

Art of Moog: Bach and beats

Art of Moog: Bach & beats
Waterloo Festival
The Cello Factory, Waterloo, 18 June 2019

Bach was influenced by a wide range of musical styles of his time, travelling to learn about other musical traditions and copying manuscripts of other composers. If he had been around, not in the 1700s, but in the 1960s, when the likes of Pink Floyd, Keith Emmerson, and Rick Wakeman were active; when Wendy Carlos’s ‘Switched-On Bach’ was released and, a few years later, when Kraftwerk highlighted their genre of electronic synth-pop, then he would surely have appreciated the world of synthesised music. Indeed, his own instrument, the organ, is a giant wind-blown synthesiser, with the names and sounds of most of its stops replicating Renaissance instruments. The four-strong group Art of Moog base their music on Bach, Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk under the banner of ’21st-century Hyper-Bach on Synthesizers’.

Their concert for the Waterloo Festival was given in the delightful Cello Factory, an art gallery in the streets close to London’s Waterloo Station. Three distinguished early-music harpsichord players (Robin Bigwood, Steven Devine & Marin Perkins) gathered around a collection of keyboards, synthesisers, vocoders and other complicated looking little boxes, together with the equally distinguished recorder player Annabel Knight, who clipped an EWI5000 (an Electronic Wind Instrument) onto a lanyard around her neck. This was not going to be a ‘normal’ period instrument early music event – indeed, we were told that what we were about to hear was “absolutely bonkers”. Continue reading

Hieronymus Praetorius: Motets in 8-20 Parts

Hieronymus Praetorius: Motets in 8, 10, 12, 16 & 20 Parts
Alamire, His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
David Skinner, Stephen Farr
Resonus: Inventa Records. INV001. 2 CDs: 57’46 + 42’39 

I have waited years for a comprehensive recording of Hieronymus Praetorius and this one ticks all the boxes. I first got to know his organ music many years ago, finding in him a very rare example of a North German organ composer from before the generation of Sweelinck students that dominated Hamburg and North German musical life in the 17th century (of which his sons were a key part). That progression eventually led to the peak of the North German Baroque, Dieterich Buxtehude. Although there were indications of the post-Sweelinck style, his musical language was distinct, if occasionally rather impenetrable, and clearly represented an important late Renaissance style of organ composition and performance. The joy of this double CD set is that several organ pieces are included, along with some of the magnificent multi-part motets, with up to 20 independent voices. Continue reading

Welcome home, Mr Dubourg

Welcome home, Mr Dubourg
Irish Baroque Orchestra, Peter Whelan
Linn CKD 532. 60’58

Welcome home, Mr Dubourg | Linn CKD532

If the compositions of Matthew Dubourg (1703-1767) are not familiar to you (and they certainly weren’t to me), this recording will remedy that, as well as taking a fascinating peek at musical life in Dublin in the 18th century. Dubourg was born in London, the son of a dancing master. He seems to have had a youthful talent, apparently playing a Corelli Violin Sonata in one of Thomas Britton’s house concerts, aged 9, and standing on a stool. He then studied with the celebrated violinist, Francesco Geminiani. From 1728 to 1764 he was based at Dublin Castle as “His Majesty’s Chief Composer and Master of the Music in Ireland”. He was a major force the musical life of Dublin, together with Geminiani, who was his friend and teacher for many years. He is probably best known for a comment that Handel made while conducting Dubourg when, after a more-than-usually extensive cadenza when, according to Charles Burney, Dubourg “wandered about in different keys a great while, and seemed indeed a little bewildered, and uncertain of the original key”, he was heard to remark as the cadential trill was played – “Welcome home, Mr Dubourg”. After the first performance of Messiah in Dublin, Handel wrote that “as for the instruments they are really excellent, Mr Dubourg being at the head of them”. Continue reading

Leonardo da Vinci: La Musique Secrète

Leonardo da Vinci: La Musique Secrète
Doulce Mémoire, Denis Raisin-Dadre

Alpha ALPHA456. CD & book. 78’05

This is the second recording I have been sent linked to this year’s 500th-anniversary celebrations of Leonardo da Vinci. I Fagiolini included a wide range of music, including newly composed pieces in their reflection, but very little music of Leonardo’s own time. This release from Doulce Mémoire makes up for that by focussing on music of the time and, notably, on Leonardo’s own instrument, the lira da braccio, here played with commendable sensitivity by Baptiste Romain. The CD is accompanied by a sumptuous 127-page book, with excellent reproductions of 15 paintings, including close-ups of many of them. In his choice of music, Denis Raisin-Dadre aims to seek out the ‘hidden music’ within these paintings. Continue reading

Aminta e Fillide & Venus and Adonis

Aminta e Fillide & Venus and Adonis
Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Milton Court. 3 June 2019

In a double bill of operas, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama puts its Opera, Music, and Production Arts students through their paces. Directed by Victoria Newlyn with designers also from Guildhall teaching staff, it featured an enormous number of students covering all aspects of opera. The two operas were well-chosen, contrasted John Blow’s English High Baroque opera (semi-opera/masque) Venus and Adonis, composed in 1683, just before Handel was born, and Handel’s youthful cantata Aminta e Fillide written when he was 22 during his Italian years in the style that would change English music for much of the 18th-century. Continue reading

Sibelius: States of Independence

Sibelius: States of Independence
Elgar, R Straus, Sibelius

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Thierry Fischer, Alina Ibragimova
Royal Festival Hall, 31 May 2029

Elgar: Serenade for strings
R Strauss: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.8
Sibelius: Symphony No.2

We are used to period instrument performances of music of the Baroque and Classical era but not yet, perhaps, so familiar with 19th and 20th-century repertoire played on instruments that the composer would have known. Prominent amongst the promoters of this manner of performance is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, most notably in their more recent foray into the 19th-century repertoire, including recent performances of Mahler and Liszt. They have now moved the explorations forward into the early 20th-century with this focus on Sibelius’s 2nd Symphony, composed in 1902. It was contrasted with Elgar’s 1892 Serenade for strings and Richard Strauss’s rarely performed 1882 Violin Concerto. The whole concert spanned just 20 years of a period of rising European nationalism and raised issues of the contrast between national and international music. It closed the OAE’s 2018/19 season under the banner of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness which, in turn, is part of their six-year ‘Chapters of Enlightenment’ season that started in 2017. Continue reading

Gluck: Bauci e Filemone & Orfeo

Christoph Willibald Gluck
Bauci e Filemone & Orfeo (from Le feste d’Apollo)
Classical Opera/The Mozartists. Ian Page
Queen Elizabeth Hall. 29 May 2019

As a continuation of their Mozart 250 project, Classical Opera travelled back 250 years to explore the year 1769 with extracts from Gluck’s Le feste d’Apollo, composed for the wedding celebrations of 15-year-old Ferdinand, Duke of Parma and the 23-year-old Austrian Archduchess Maria Amalia, youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I. She was against the idea of this dynastic match from the start, not least because she was in love with a Bavarian Prince, who was deemed socially beneath her. Given that background, it must have been a bit of a strain for her to sit through the three short operas that make up Gluck’s Le feste d’Apollo, two of which were performed in this concert. The opening extract Bauci e Filemone is a rather soppy story of the power of love, whilst the well-known story of Orfeo tells a similar, but rather darker tale of love and relationships. Continue reading

Lasso: Lagrime di San Pietro

Lasso: Lagrime di San Pietro
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, Peter Sellars 

Orlande de Lassus (or Orlando de Lasso, as he was referred to in the Barbican programme notes) ranks alongside Palestrina and Victoria as amongst the finest composers of the Renaissance. Born in the Hapsburg Netherlands around 1530, he travelled around many European centres of music before settling, aged about 26, in Munich in the court of the Duke of Bavaria where he stayed for the rest of his life, dying in 1594. He probably taught both the Gabrieli’s and attracted attention from many influential figures. He was ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian II, and knighted by the Pope. His Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of St Peter) was composed in 1594, just weeks before his death. It is the culmination of his compositional career. It sets 20 of Luigi Tansillo’s poems reflecting on the remorse felt by Peter after his denial of Christ, and his memory of Christ’s response. The 20 poems are set in the form of madrigali spirituali, with a concluding Latin motet Vide homo, quae pro te patior. Number symbolism is strong. The 21 verses are composed for 7 voices, form 3 times 7 pieces, and move through 7 of the 8 church modes in order, omitting the 8th tone, but using the rare tonus peregrinus for the final motet.  Continue reading

The Real Traviata

The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis
René Weis
Oxford University Press
Softback. 400 pages, 216x142mm, ISBN 978-0198828297

“A young woman of exquisite demeanour . . . chaste oval features, gorgeous dark eyes, a nose of the most exquisite and delicate curve” was how Marie Duplessis (1824-1847) was described in an obituary after her death aged just 23. The writer went on to describe her “beautifully turned feet” and “soft skin, the texture of camellias”. Such gushing homilies might be considered a trifle over-enthusiastic, but Marie Duplessis’s ultimate legacy to history was becoming the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas the younger’s novel La Dame aux Camélias and later Verdi’s La traviata, based on an 1852 play of that book. The Real Traviata, first published in 2015 and now available in paperback, tells the story of this remarkable young woman. Continue reading

Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier I

Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier I
Steven Devine, harpsichord
Resonus Classics RES10239. 2 CDs. 55’06+56.13

This is the first of two double-CD volumes of Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), and covers the Preludes and Fugues 1 to 24 (BWV846-869) that form Book 1 of ‘The 48’. This musically intelligent and absorbing recording by Steven Devine demonstrates that performing Bach (or any music, for that matter) is far more the merely playing all the notes in the right order. His subtle use of articulation and rhetoric and his understanding of the Baroque idea of building up musical ideas from small motifs make for an absorbing recording that will invite repeated listening. He manages to negotiate that fine line between presenting a personal interpretation and those over-mannered performances that might be fine for a live recital but is usually off-putting on the repeat listening that a recording allows. With obvious respect to Bach and these extraordinary miniatures of musical craft, Devine brings a wide range of interpretations, matching the underlying mood of each Prelude and Fugue perfectly. Continue reading

London Festival of Baroque Music

London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square, Grosvenor Chapel. 10-18 May 2019

The 2019 London Festival of Baroque Music is the 36th in a festival series that for most of its life was under the banner of the Lufthansa Festival. It is now managed by Richard Heason, director of St John’s, Smith Square, its principal venue. This year’s theme was ‘Crossing the Border’, exploring themes of travel and discovery. The festival website notes that “Throughout history musicians and musical ideas have crossed borders freely and frequently. Although national styles and identities have always developed and often have been celebrated in music, the musicians who have created and performed this music have honed their skills and talents by exploring influences and characteristics from a wide range of influences”. In these complex UK times, it was a timely reminder of the importance of travel for music and musicians. The Baroque era was a particularly important one for international cultural influences, not least in the UK where many continental musicians moved to England, and the aristocratic Grand Tour, one result of which was the foundation of the art collections of many 18th-century country houses.  Continue reading

The Duarte Circle: Antwerp 1640

The Duarte Circle: Antwerp 1640
Transports Publics, Korneel Bernolet, Thomas Baeté

Musica Ficta MF8028. 68’02

What a delightful recording! Even without reading any of the notes, or knowing nothing of the backstory, the music on this disc will enchant you. The fact that it has such a fascinating background just adds to the magic. The music is based on concerts given in Antwerp in the years around 1640 in the household of the Duarte family, a wealthy Portuguese/Jewish family who lived as Catholics whilst maintaining their own Jewish heritage and faith. Amongst their number was the composer Leonora Duarte (1610-1678), whose seven surviving Sinfonias for five viols form the backbone of the recording. Information about the instruments and the pieces the family played comes from a letter from somebody who was at one of those concerts.

The Duart family left Portugal to escape the Inquisition, setting in Antwerp and becoming wealthy jewellery and diamond merchants. Leonora’s parents were trained as musicians and, amongst others, knew the famed harpsichord Antwerp maker, Ruckers. They mixed comfortably with the artistic and influential circles of Antwerp, counting Vermeer, Rubens, Huygens, and the influential English aristocrat, William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle.  Leonora was around 30 in 1640, one of six children, all well trained in music, although Leonora is the only one with any surviving pieces. Continue reading

LHF. Handel: Athalia

London Handel Festival
Handel: Athalia
(HWV52)
London Handel Orchestra & Singers, Laurence Cummings.
St John’s, Smith Square, 29 April 2019

In what must have been an extraordinary week of music in Oxford, in July 1733 Handel was invited by Oxford University to provide musical entertainment (for his own profit) during the so-called, and rarely enacted, ‘Publick Act’, a higher degree ceremony and general benefactor’s shindig. Over an eight-day period, Handel presented Esther, the Utrecht Te Deum, and Deborah in the Sheldonian Theatre, and Acis and Galatea in Christ Church College. Alongside those performances was the premiere of the oratorio Athalia, given in the late afternoon of 10 July after the Vice-Chancellor’s speech, and repeated the following morning at 9.30 before the presentation of honorary degrees. This performance was the closing event of the 2019 London Handel Festival, and was conducted by their Artistic Director, Laurence Cummings with their house band and choir, the London Handel Orchestra & Singers. Continue reading

Baroquestock. Rameau: Dardanus

Baroquestock Festival
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Dardanus
OperaVera, IstanteCollective, Jonathan Williams
Heath Street Baptist Church, Hampstead. 3 May 2019

Under the banner of “Early music and home-made food” the now annual Baroquestock festival in Hampstead’s Heath Street Baptist Church set off on a week of music and food with a delightfully ambitious concert-performance of Rameau’s opera Dardanus. This is part of conductor Jonathan Williams’ Rameau Project and follows a fully staged 2017 performance that he conducted for English Touring Opera. This was a wonderful opportunity to hear French Baroque opera, an unfortunate rarity in Handel-dominated UK opera circles. On this occasion, we had the privilege of being able to concentrate on the music itself, without the distraction of staging, scenery, costume, or directorial interference. The intimacy of the Heath Street church, combined with an impressive acoustic to make for a very different, and very welcome, alternative to the full-blown opera house experience. Further Baroquestock events this week (under the overall title of ‘Fine Lines’) include Mozart & Haydn with Royal Tiramisu, BeerBachFocaccia, a Jacket Potato Ceilidh, a Zelenka marathon, and folk music.

Continue reading

Leonardo: Shaping the Invisible

Leonardo: Shaping the Invisible
I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth, Martin Kemp
Milton Court Concert Hall, 28 April 2019
CD Coro COR16171. 71’34
I Fagiolin Leonardo.jpg

The latest I Fagiolini touring concert programme and CD is based on the Leonardo da Vinci 500th anniversary.  They launched the CD in London’s Milton Court with a talk by Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor in History of Art at Trinity College Cambridge illustrated by examples of Leonardo’s work and extracts from the I Fagiolini CD. The title ‘Shaping the Invisible’ comes from Leonardo’s own description of music. It is often forgotten how important music was in his life – indeed, despite his achievements as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, pioneer of flight, anatomist, scientist, Vasari records that music was probably the focus of his first job outside Florence when he moved to Milan.  ‘Shaping the invisible’ is also the title of the new commissioned piece by Adrian Williams and poet Gillian Clarke, reflecting Leonardo’s scientific investigations and fascination with flight. Continue reading

LHF: Handel Venceslao

London Handel Festival
Handel: Venceslao
Opera Settecento, Leo Duarte
St George’s, Hanover Square, 26 April 2019

As the London Handel Festival (LHF) draws towards its closing events, they presented the last, and one of the more interesting of Handel’s three pasticcio operas (the other two being Elpidia and Ormisda in 1724/5. These were made up of music pinched from other composers and loosely gathered together into a single opera. Venceslao was first performed in 1731 and contained music ‘borrowed’ from Giacomelli, Hasse, Lotti, Orlandini, Porpora, Porta, and Vinci. The Venceslao of the title is Wenceslas, but not the one that looked out on the Feast of Stephen. This one was Bohemian King Wenzel (1271-1305) who became King of Poland as Wenceslas II. He also appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy, but in very unflattering form. He was a descendant of St Wenceslaus I, the 10th-century Duke of Bohemia who inspired the Christmas carol – he posthumously upgraded to King.

Toruń_-_Wacław_Czeski.jpg

Continue reading

Rameau: Les Indes galantes

Rameau: Les Indes galantes
Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, György Vashegyi
Glossa GCD 924005. 2CDs 60’45+62’56

CD I
Prologue
Première Entrée: Les Incas du Pérou
CD II
Deuxième Entrée: Le Turc généreux
Troisième Entrée: Les Sauvages

The place to go to hear fine performances of French Baroque music appears to be Budapest, Hungary, where the pan-European named Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra and their director György Vashegyi have their home base in Müpa Budapest. I first heard them live there in 2017, and have since praised a number of their CDs. The latest is this recording of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Opéra-ballet: Les Indes galantes. It was first performed in Paris in 1735, but with only the Prologue and two of the ultimate four entrées. Thereafter it had a curious career, with several different variations performed in different years. The version used in this recording is from 1761, with Rameau’s various improvements since its première, but with the third entrée (Les fleurs) and a scene from the second entrée (Le Turc généreux) omitted. It was recorded in the days preceding a live concert performance in the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall of Müpa Budapest. Continue reading

The journey to the cross: Music for Maundy Thursday

The journey to the cross: Music for Maundy Thursday
The BBC Singers, Sir James MacMillan
St John’s, Smith Sq. 18 April 2019 

MacMillan: Strathclyde Motets; Choral Sequence from the St John Passion
Gesualdo: Responsories for Maundy Thursday

The BBC Singers invited the celebrated Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan to devise and conduct a programme of choral music for Maundy Thursday in celebration of his 60th birthday. MacMillan chose to contrast selections from his Strathclyde Motets with movements from Gesualdo’s Responsories for Maundy Thursday. It concluded with MacMillan’s dramatic Choral Sequence from the St John Passion. The Strathclyde Motets started as an initial commission for one motet for the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir. Between 2005 and 2010 it was expanded into the current 28 communion motets on Latin texts, intended for amateur choirs, but far from straightforward in the vocal techniques needed.

Image result for sir james macmillan Continue reading

Sansara: Northern Rites

Northern Rites
Sansara, Tom Herring
St John’s, Smith Sq. 18 April 2019

As an early evening prelude to the main event of music by Sir James MacMillan, the young vocal group Sansara gave a short concert of music by MacMillan and contemporary Scandinavian composers, including arrangements of Scandinavian songs, many with roots in ancient Celtic traditions that influenced MacMillan’s compositions. The very effectively segued sequence of pieces opened with Bengt Ollén’s evocative arrangement of Trillo, a song calling seafarers home. The sounds of the waves were vocalised by the female singers on the stage, while the male singers recreated the sound of foghorns from the sides of the hall. Several of the later pieces had an aural texture of chord clusters, drones and high soprano voices, including MacMillan’s setting of Robert Burns’ The Gallant Weaver. His Child’s Prayer was dedicated to the 16 children who died in the 1996 Dunblane Massacre, here represented by 16 repetitions of the word ‘Welcome’; the texture peaking at the word ‘Joy’. The use of a text that welcomed Jesus “with joy and love in my heart / on this glad Communion day” was a curious choice to recognise the murder of 16 schoolchildren. Continue reading

Bach: St John & Matthew Passions

JS Bach: St John Passion
 The Choir of Westminster Abbey, St James’ Baroque, James O’Donnell
Westminster Abbey. 16 April 2019

JS Bach: St Matthew Passion
Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
St John’s, Smith Square. 17 April 2019

Hearing Bach’s two best-known Passions on successive evenings in two nearby venues, and with contrasting performers, gave me a chance to compare aspects of the two Passions and performing styles. One was given by a choir with a 600-year history, the other by a choir approaching its 50th anniversary.  Both used period instrument orchestras. They were given in very different conditions to the performances of Bach’s day, and to very different groups of people – Bach to an involved congregation with a reasonable unified belief system, us as a passive audience with a variety of beliefs. However much a present-day believer might know the story that Bach sets to music, few will understand the context of early 18th-century Lutheran theological thought in Saxony. Non-believers or doubters will find the text at best puzzling, and at worse an illogical fabrication based on generations of earlier and equally illogical myth-makers. Continue reading