Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare

Handel: Giulio Cesare
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 10 June 2018

It is no surprise that David McVicar’s 2005 production of Handel’s glorious Giulio Cesare proved to be so popular. Revived twice in the years just after its first performance, it now, after a gap of a few years, reaches its third revival. The first night on 10 June was the 38th performance at Glyndebourne, and the remaining performances are already sold out. Handel’s opera, and McVicar’s interpretation, really do tick all the boxes, added to which is the outstanding cast of the current run (three of whom survive from the original cast) and the return of the original conductor, William Christie.  Continue reading

Mozart: La finta semplice

Mozart: La finta semplice
Classical Opera & The Mozartists, Ian Page
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2 June 2018

The Classical Opera & The Mozartists’ ambitious Mozart 250 project started in 2015, the anniversary of Mozart’s childhood London visit, aged 8, and the composition of his first symphony. Each year they are programming concerts reflecting Mozart’s, and his contemporaries, compositions dating from 250 years ago. So 2018 is centred on music from 1768. Their two concerts earlier this year explored the music surrounding the 12 year-old  Mozart in Vienna in 1768 (reviewed here), with pieces by Haydn, Jommelli, JC Bach, Hasse, Vanhal, and an extract from Mozart’s La finta semplice; followed by a rare performance of Haydn’s Applausus Cantata: Jubilaeum Virtutis Palatium (reviewed here)But tonight it was Mozart’s turn, with a semi-staged performance of his first opera buffa, La finta semplice. It is all too easy to denigrate Mozart’s early works, to the extent that the chronological sequence of the Mozart 250 project could have been a risk, at least for the first few years. But it has turned out to be very much not the case. Part of the responsibility for that is the excellent performances of Classical Opera & The Mozartists, lifting what can be rather less than outstanding music into memorable performances. Continue reading

Simon Rattle – Bruckner: Symphony No.9

Bruckner: Symphony No.9
Abrahamsen: 3 Pieces for orchestra
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle
Royal Festival Hall, 30 May 2018

Although he has already taken up his appointment as Music Director to the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle’s contract with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is only just ending. In a magnificent farewell gesture, the Berlin Philharmonic escorted him home with two farewell concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. The first featured Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 in the four-movement version that Rattle has championed in recent years, using the version of the uncompleted Finale proposed by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and Giuseppe Mazzuca in 2012. This is not the forum for a discussion on the merits of what, for the time being, seems to be the final say on the Finale or, indeed whether the Symphony should end with the extraordinary third-movement Adagio. But it does seem clear that Bruckner intended there to be a fourth movement Finale. 440 bars survive in full score, with around 117 bars in sketch form. The completion by Samale, Phillips, Cohrs, and Mazzuca expands those 557 bars to 653, adding 96 conjectural bars based on existing material.  Continue reading

Purcell and Michael Nyman

Purcell & Michael Nyman
Iestyn Davies & Fretwork
Milton Court, 28 May 2018

Michael Nyman: No Time in Eternity
Purcell: Two Fantazies in four parts; Music for a While
Michael Nyman: Music after a While (world premiere)
Purcell: An Evening Hymn
Michael Nyman: Balancing the Books; The Diary of Anne Frank: If; Why
Purcell; Fantazy in four parts; Fantazy upon one note
Michael Nyman: Self-laudatory hymn of Inanna and her omnipotence

Many early music period instrument groups play and commission contemporary works, but the viol consort Fretwork is one of the most active in this field, with over 40 commissions over their 32-year life. Their latest commission is from Michael Nyman with Music after a While, an instrumental response to Purcell’s Music for a While, and given it’s world premiere during this concert. Early music, and particularly the compositions of Purcell, have been life-long influences on Nyman, as reflected for example, in his Purcell-inspired score for the film The Draughtsman’s Contract. A student of Thurston Dart, Nyman’s early career including editing Purcell and Handel, and his performing band combined period and modern instruments. He has worked many times before with Fretwork. Continue reading

Invictus: a Passion

Goodall – Invictus: a Passion
Handel – Foundling Hospital Anthem
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
Stephen Darlington, Mark Dobell, Kirsty Hopkins
Lanyer Ensemble, Oxford Baroque
St John’s, Smith Square. 25 May 2018

Invictus: A Passion was commissioned (at the suggestion of its composer Howard Goodhall) by the Choir of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas and their Director of Music and Fine Arts, Sid Davis. It was the second Goodall work to be commissioned by them and they gave the first performance on Palm Sunday 2018. This was its European premiere. The piece is described as “a contemporary reflection on the themes of the traditional Christian Passion story with particular attention to the role and perspective of women”. Interspersed with extracts from Æmelia Lanyer’s 1611 passion story Salve Deus Rex Judæorum (one of the first books by a female poet in the English language) are texts from “various periods of historic turmoil, written or inspired by women which eloquently portray humility in the face of tyranny”. These include Gethsemane by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Mary Magdalene and the Other Mary by Christina Georgina Rossetti and Slave Auction by Ellen Watkins Harper. Its themes include “persecution of the innocent, malevolent authority exerting itself against ideas that threaten and challenge, the redemptive power of love, and the resilience of the human spirit”.  Continue reading

Peter Williams Memorial Recital

Peter Williams Memorial Recital
David Ponsford & Ghislaine Reece-Trapp
St George’s, Hanover Square. 24 May 2018

Peter Williams (1937–2016) was a renowned Bach scholar, organist, harpsichordist, music and publications editor, and writer. His notable publications include seminal works on Bach, Bach’s organ music, and historic organs. One of his most important books was his 1966 ‘European Organ 1450-1850’. a key introduction to the different styles of the wider European organ culture, published at a time when most UK organists had little experience of continental organs. This was followed in 1993 by ‘The Organ in Western Culture, 750-1250’. His three-volume ‘Organ Music of J. S. Bach’ (Cambridge University Press 1980, revised as a single volume in 2003) is still essential reading for anybody wanting to understand the complex background of Bach’s most famous repertoire. His most recent book, ‘Bach: A Musical Biography‘ was published posthumously in 2016, a few months after his death.  Some of the obituaries can be found here and here and here.

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London Festival of Baroque Music 2018

London Festival of Baroque Music
Treasures of the Grand Siècle
11-19 May 2018

The London Festival of Baroque Music (LFBM) is now in its 35th year. Previously known as the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, it is London’s leading early music festival, not least for the number of non-UK performers that it has traditionally featured. Last year’s change in the management means that the executive director of the festival is now Richard Heason, director of St John’s, Smith Square, the festival’s principal London home. For the 2018 festival, he is joined by a guest artistic director, Sébastien Daucé. They are bringing to London a sizeable chunk of French music, musicians and culture under the title of Treasures of the Grand Siècle. Described as an “immersive exploration” of the music of the French Baroque from the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV and the Palace of Versailles, the festival features some 22 events over 9 days. It is a comparatively rare opportunity in the UK to hear French Baroque music performed by French musicians including, for the latter part of the festival, Sébastien Daucé’s own group, Ensemble Correspondances. Along with several other musicians performing, I first heard Ensemble Correspondances and Sébastien Daucé when I as reviewing at last years Ambronay festival, reviewed here.

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Baroquestock: The Haydn Boys

 Baroquestock
IstanteClassical: The Haydn Boys
Heath Street Baptist Church. 28 April 2018

One of the most exciting music venues to hit London in recent years has been a rather unassuming Baptist church in Heath Street, Hampstead. Bowing to the inevitable, they have reduced their services to Sunday mornings, but have encouraged a wide variety of activities during the rest of the week, including lunchtime and evening concerts. In 2016  a complete weekend was devoted to the ‘Hampstead Baroque Festival’ which concluded in a Bratwurst, Beer & Bach concert given by the then newly-formed period-instrument collective Istante, ‘ensemble in residence’ at Heath Street Baptist Church. Last year, this festival morphed into the more imaginatively named Baroquestock. I reviewed the opening concert when they hosted one of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s ‘Night Shift’ events, aimed at just the sort of younger-than-usual classical music audience that Heath Street had already been attracting. In an imaginative, albeit brave bit of programming, the concert was devoted to a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, complete with ‘Schoenbergers’. My review is here, noting that the “large and enthusiastic crowd was yet another indication that adventurous musical programming and providing something a little different from the normal run of musical events can draw the crowds”.

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Ensemble Tempus Fugit: Calcutta

Calcutta
Ensemble Tempus Fugit
Tara Theatre, Earlsfield. 22 April 2018

I’ve often wondered what the distinctive little building next to Earlsfield Station was as my fast train into London thundered past. It turns out to be the Tara Theatre (the home of Tara Arts, founded in 1977) an Indian-influenced extension to what was originally an 1891 drapers store. It was a very appropriate venue for Calcutta, the innovative music & theatre project created by Ensemble Tempus Fugit, with musical direction from harpsichordist Katie De La Matter and stage direction by Francesca Bridge-Cicic.

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The concert was based on life in Calcutta (now Kolkata, and the capital of West Bengal state) around 1780. Developed from three villages in the late 17th-century (and named after one of them), Calcutta soon became a thriving fortified port under the British East India Company, eventually becoming the capital of the British Indian territories up until 1911. British residents (or, perhaps more accurately, their wives) brought musical instruments out with them, including harpsichords, but soon became fascinated by the local musicians and Indian classical music. Ensemble Tempus Fugit’s research revealed two such East India Company officer wives: Margaret Fowkes, who invited local Indian classical musicians into her front room, and her friend Sophia Plowden, who arranged for some Indian tunes to be written down.  Continue reading

LHF: Mr Handel’s Vauxhall Pleasures

Mr Handel’s Vauxhall Pleasures
London Handel Festival
London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham
St George’s, Hanover Square, 4 April 2018

 

London Early Opera have released two CDs reflecting the musical life of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens during the mid 18th century (reviewed here and here). Their London Handel Festival concert drew on music from both CDs with a backdrop of projected contemporary images and a spoken text setting the scene. Pleasure Gardens like Vauxhall were a focus for musical and other entertainments in 17th and 18th century London, including ‘music, food and amorous dalliance’. Such amorous dalliances were explored in the spoken commentary, given by Lars Tharp, including a diary entry from an American noting a meeting with one of the young Vauxhall ladies, who he ‘rogered twice’ and then forgot to say his prayers. As the Air from the Water Music played, we heard a description of a river journey to Vauxhall from Westminster. It was followed by Handel’s bubbly Sinfonia to Acis and Galateathe source of a couple of later arias.  Continue reading

Bach: B Minor Mass

JS Bach: B Minor Mass
Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh
St John’s, Smith Square. 1 April 2018

The St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival concluded with an Easter Sunday performance of the B Minor Mass. it is a piece not normally associated with Holy Week, but it reflects in glorious musical form the belief system of the Christian believer. It is one of Bach’s last works and one that he clearly wanted posterity to hear, even though he never heard it performed himself. In fact, it wasn’t performed complete until a 100 years after Bach’s death. Its compositional background is complex, with versions of some individual movements dating back to 1724 (the Sanctus) and the Kyrie and Gloria (the Missa) completed in 1733 and presented to the new Saxon Elector with a view to getting the title of Composer to the Electoral Saxon Court, which he eventually got three years later. In the last few years of his life, Bach extended the Missa to include the full Latin Ordinary of the Catholic Mass by adding the Credo (the Symbolum Nicenum), Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the concluding Dona nobis pacem, the latter a repeat of an earlier Gloria movement. Even its current title is misleading, not least because only a few of the movements are actually in B minor. Continue reading

Bach: Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Padmore
The Anvil, Basingstoke. 31 March 2018

During Easter Saturday, I watched a broadcast from Berlin of the powerful Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars staging of the St Matthew Passion that I had reviewed back in 2014 at the Proms. And in the evening, an unstaged, but equally powerful Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performance in Basingstoke’s Anvil. The common factor was Mark Padmore, appearing as the Evangelist and, in the case of the OAE, as director. I don’t object in principle to stagings of the Bach Passions. Sellar’s use of the space in and around the orchestras was very effective, and I also liked Jonathan Miller’s inspiringly human reading in the mid-1990s, and Deborah Warner’s 2000 ENO staging of the St John Passion, which drew the audience directly into the unfolding drama. But sometimes just being presented with the music itself, without additional layering, is the way to focus on the complex human emotions that Bach portrays.  Continue reading

LHF: Handel Singing Competition

Handel Singing Competition: Semi-Final
London Handel Festival
Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair, 28 March 2018

The annual Handel Singing Competition was founded in 2002 as an integral part of the London Handel Festival (LHF). This year it attracted 116 applicants, seemingly down in numbers from the 150 that the LHF quote as the norm. A private first round was held over several very snowy days around the end of February, although sound files could be submitted by those unable to be there. Eleven of the 116 made it through to this, the public semi-final, held on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Perhaps holding the semi-final of a singing competition during one of the busiest of the year for singers was not the brightest idea – I know of singers that did not enter because they knew they would inevitably be busy that week.

The competition is open to singers between 23 and 33 years old on 1 February 2018. The prizes are first: £5000, second: £2000, audience: £300, finalists: £300. All finalists are guaranteed lunchtime recitals during the 2019 London Handel Festival, and many past finalists are also asked to perform solos in other prestigious concerts during the Festival and abroad. The 2018 London Handel Festival, for example, includes 20 previous finalists.

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Harmonic Spiritual Theatre

Harmonic Spiritual Theatre
Sacrifice, betrayal, passion – The Birth of Oratorio

Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
St John’s, Smith Square, 26 March 2018

Following the mostly secular early evening concert by the Choir of Royal Holloway (reviewed here), the St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival continued with a more sacred, although not entirely Holy Week based, concert by the Birmingham based choir Ex Cathedra. The first part of the rather complex three-part title of the event comes from the title of Giovanni Anerio’s 1619 Teatro armonico spirituale di madrigal (Harmonic Theatre of Spiritual Madrigals)14 of the 62 pieces are in the form of dialogues, and two examples opened each half of the concert, Rispondi, Abramo, setting the story of Abraham and Isaac to music and Sedea lasso Gesù, reflecting the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

The latter part of the concert title reflected the early days of the development of the early Baroque oratorio, inspired by the Roman Oratory of Filippo Neri, and consisting of semi-theatrical presentations of Bible stories through the musical use of recitative and arias with continuo accompaniment. As well as the Anerio’s examples, each half of the concert ended with large-scale oratorios by Charpentier (Le reniement de St Pierre) and Carissimi (Jepthe). Inserted between these early oratorios were two groups of the sometimes very secular Monteverdi madrigals ‘made spiritual’ by Aquilino Coppini, published between 1607-9 a few years after the original publications of Monteverdi’s madrigal Books IV and V. A close friend of Monteverdi, Coppini wrote that he saw in Monteverdi’s music “… a wonderful power to move the passions exceedingly”. His alteration of the texts is extremely well done, matching Monteverdi’s original use of vowel sounds and textural accents.

The unforced tone of the ten singers of Ex Cathedra was attractive, although it occasionally came over as a little reticent, notably in the chorus sections. There were some excellent individual contributions. particularly from soprano Angela Hicks, the unaffected clarity of her voice and her impressive use of ornaments proving ideal in her portrayals of the boy Isacco in Rispondi, Abramo, the Samaritan woman in Sedea lasso Gesù and as soloist in the Monteverdi/Coppini Ure me, Somine. Tenor Declan Costello was a gentle Jesus in the Charpentier oratorio on the denial of Peter, while Greg Skidmore provided a solid bass in Charpentier’s Narrator and in Jephte.

Katie Tretheway portrayed the unfortunate daughter of Jephte, notably in the concluding lament as she bewails her virginity prior, so she thought, to becoming a burnt offering to God. In her virginal circumstances, and given her concerns, I can think of more interesting ways of spending your last two months on earth. Carissimi doesn’t even give her the biblical redemption in his oratorio, so the evening finished with the weeping children of Israel.

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for an unspecified future broadcast.

Royal Holloway: Into the Night

Into the Night
Choir of Royal Holloway
St John’s, Smith Square, 26 March 2018

As part of St John’s, Smith Square’s Holy Week Festival, the Choir of Royal Holloway College (part of the University of London) gave an early evening recital of a programme that was probably better suited to a later time slot. Their programme, ‘Into the night’ featured sacred and secular music by contemporary composers from Latvia, Lithuania, and the USA, reflecting issues of night and death. They opened and closed with music by Ēriks Ešenvalds. Evening evokes the ‘shimmering sound’ of birds at sundown, with little snatched rhythmic phrases floating above evocatively scrunchy harmonies, ending with a delightfully sung soprano solo and the line ‘Oh let me like the birds / Sing before the night’. The closing Ešenvalds piece was Long Road, with two recorders and the tinkle of little bells added to the choral clusters and a final descent into sleep. Continue reading

LHF: Handel – Amadigi di Gaula

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula
London Handel Festival
Opera Settecento, Leo Duarte
St George’s, Hanover Square. 24 March 2018

Amadigi di Gaula (HWV 11) is a rarely performed early opera by Handel, composed in 1715 while he was staying at Burlington House (pictured), the London home of the young Earl of Burlington, Richard Boyle. It is now, in altered form, the home of the Royal Academy. Boyle had inherited the house and adjoining estate aged 10. He was around 9 years younger than Handel and was to become an influential amateur architect in Georgian London, notably for Chiswick House. By 1715, he had already completed the first of his ‘Grand Tours’ and was fast becoming a major patron of the arts and music.

Burlington_House_1698-99.jpgAmadigi di Gaula is a curious and complex tale, based on a late 14th-century Castillian chivalric fantasy romance that also inspired Don Quixote. The tale involves Princess Oriana (not to be confused with the hero of Felix the Cat), a fictional heiress to the throne of England (the ‘Fortunate Isles’) and her protector knight, the Scottish born Amadigi of Gaul, who is love with her, as is his companion Dardano, Prince of Thrace. The evil sorceress Melissa is infatuated with Amadigi. To this end, she imprisons Oriana in a tower and Amadigi and Dardano in a nearby garden. She tries various spells to attract Amadigi, who, initially together with Dardano, is trying to rescue Oriana. After a complex series of deceptions, betrayals, jealousy and sorcery, Amadigi and Oriana are finally united, but not before Amadigi has killed Dardano and Melisa has stabbed herself as her supernatural powers fail against the power of love.

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LHF: Mr Handel’s Scholars

‘Mr Handel’s Scholars’
London Handel Festival
London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings
Anna Devin, Maria Ostroukhova, Nathan Vale, Derek Welton
St George’s, Hanover Square, 23 March 2018

The Handel Singing Competition was inaugurated as part of the London Handel Festival in 2002, and counts several well-known singers amongst the past finalists, if not always amongst the past winners. Several former finalists have become regular performers at subsequent festival events, and this concert was one such. It featured four past finalists, three from 2006/7 and one far more recently, from 2016: two first prize winners, one 2nd prize winner and two winners of the audience prize. Handel was known to have encouraged younger singers, and the title of ‘Mr Handel’s Scholars’ refers to the name by which his young proteges were known. Each half opened with an overture, following by a range of extracts from Handel operas and oratorios, several of which are standard fare at singing competitions.

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LHF: Handel – Acis & Galatea

Handel: Acis & Galatea
London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings
St John’s, Smith Square. 21 March 2018

The first of the London Handel Festival’s anniversary events was a performance of Acis and Galatea, first performed in 1718 at Cannons, the palatial mansion north-west of London where James Bridges, by then the Earl of Carnarvon and later to become Duke of Chandos, demonstrated the enormous wealth he had gathered through his position as Paymaster General to the army. Cannons became the only example in England of a Germanic-style princely court orchestra (24-strong) outside the royal family. Handel was house composer from 1717-19 working under Pepusch. It had originally been a small-scale masque, probably performed outdoors, with a small orchestra and five singers, who together formed the chorus. Considering it was the anniversary of the 1718 premiere, it was rather curious that the work was here presented in its 1739 incarnation – one that Handel himself never heard.

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The interior of St John’s, Smith Square (built at the same time of the premiere of Acis) was transformed by director Martin Parr into a cross between some sort of down-market 1980’s rave and a children’s party, with a pall of dry ice engulfing the audience as they entered, party balloons hanging over the mist enveloped orchestra, and rather innocuous drapes suspended from scaffolding, for no apparent reason. It was the first of many production issues that I felt really didn’t work. That said, and more anon, musically it was well worth the trip.

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London Handel Festival (LHF): Guildhall Cantata Ensemble

Guildhall Cantata Ensemble
London Handel Festival
St George’s, Hanover Square. 21 March 2018

This is the first of a series of forthcoming reviews of the 2018 London Handel Festival (LHF).  The theme for this year is ‘Handel in London’ and is exploring Handel’s musical output as well as his wider entrepreneurial and philanthropic life in Georgian society. The wide-ranging month-long programme of concerts and events includes anniversary performances of two works that Handel composed during his 1718 residency at the future Duke of Chandos’s mansion at Cannons: Acis and Galatea and Esther. It has been traditional for many years to include lunchtime events by student and younger groups of musicians. The first of this year’s such recitals took place in the usual base for LHF events, Handel’s own church of St George’s, Hanover Square. It featured students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, with their programme of music by Buxtehude and Handel. Continue reading

Haydn: Applausus

Haydn: Applausus: Jubilaeum Virtutis Palatium
The Mozartists, Ian Page
Cadogan Hall, 15 March 2018

In what was almost certainly the first live UK performance of Haydn’s Applausus Cantata (Jubilaeum Virtutis Palatium, Hob XXIVa:6), the Mozartists (the concert-performing wing of Classical Opera) opened the 2018 season of their ambitious Mozart 250 project. This started in 2015, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s visit to London where, incidentally, he stayed not far from the Cadogan Hall in Ebury Street, and wrote his first symphony, aged 8. The aim is to annually explore the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously.

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In 1768, this year’s focus, Mozart was 12 years old and Haydn 36 and well settled into the princely Esterházy court where he directed most of the musical life of the court. He received an invitation from the wealthy Abbey of Zwettl, about 120km west-north-west of Vienna to write an ‘applausus‘ cantata to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their abbot Rainer Kollmann, first taking his monastic vows. Although composed in quasi-operatic style, with a series of accompanied recitative leading up to da capo arias, a duet, quartet and a final chorus, there is no plot in any operatic or literal sense. The four Cardinal Virtues of Temperance, Prudence, Justice and Fortitude sing the praises of the Abbot in a convoluted Latin libretto, probably written by one of the monks. A personification of Theology/Wisdom moderates some of their utterances. I am sure the text meant something to the 17th-century monks of Zwettl, but I found its vaguely moralistic meanderings completely incomprehensible. The repeated references to a ‘Palace’ perhaps reflected the wealth of the monks of Zwettl, whose medieval Abbey buildings had been thoroughly reconstructed in the Baroque style a few decades earlier, complete with one of the largest and most expensive organs in Austria (1731, Egedacher) – all still existing. “How blessed I am to be an inhabitant of this building!’ is one of Prudence’s utterings, to which Justice notes that “our Palace is celebrated in the eyes of the highest”. So that’s all right then! Continue reading

Handel: Rinaldo

Handel: Rinaldo
The English Concert, Harry Bicket

Barbican. 13 March 2018

Rinaldo is a curious opera. Cobbled together in early 1711 from some of Handel’s greatest hits from his time in Italy, it was intended a calling-card both for Handel and for the style of Italian opera that was just beginning to make its way on the London musical scene. It was the first such opera composed for the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, where the theatre’s director (Aaron Hill) was keen to promote Italian opera. As Richard Wigmore wrote in the programme note (accessible here), Hill’s priorities were “variety of incident and spectacle, with dramatic coherence a distant third”. Dramatic coherence is certainly missing from the splot, a loose version of one of Tasso’s tales of Crusader derring-do in Gerusalemme liberata. The “incident and spectacle” was certainly to the fore in the original productions, with its dramatic staging with mermaids, various flying machines, fire-breathing dragons, and a flock of live sparrows, the latter producing the inevitable results and some sharp criticism for contemporary reviewers. Continue reading

Renaissance Singers: Portuguese penitential music

I heard a voice from heaven
Portuguese penitential music
The Renaissance Singers
St George’s, Bloomsbury, 10 March 2018

The Renaissance Singers are one of the most impressive of London’s amateur choirs, always coming up with well-planned and well-presented and exceedingly well-sung concerts of Renaissance music. The latest of these was a programme of early 17th-century Lenten music from Portugal. Featuring composers born between 1550 and 1610, the concert was based around extracts from Duarte   (Requiem) with motets by Pedro de Cristo, Filipe de Magalhāes, Aired Fernandez, and Manuel Cardoso and concluding with João Lourenço Rebelo’s extraordinary setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Intelligently written programme notes by choir member Tony Damer explored the background of the intense and expressive music composed during a period when Portugal was breaking away from the Hapsburg Spanish Empire to become an independent state under King João IV, an important patron of the arts and music.  Continue reading

Louise Farrenc & Beethoven

Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Louise Farrenc: Symphony No 3
Insula Orchestra, Laurence Equilbey
The Barbican. 8 March 2018

A phrase that I occasionally use when reviewing a revival of music by a little-known composer is that the composer was “plucked from well-deserved obscurity”. That is a phrase that definitely cannot be used to describe the music of Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), the focus of the Barbican concert give, appropriately, on International Women’s Day by the Insula Orchestra, all wearing suffragette ribbons, apparently made by the same company that made the original purple, white, and green colours.  Born six months after Berlioz, she was a pioneering French composer, pianist, and teacher. Although she was highly esteemed during her lifetime, her impact was almost certainly reduced by not managing to write an opera, a requisite for Parisian composers in her time. Her work was almost entirely forgotten after her death until very recent years, when the long-awaited recognition of female composers and musicians led to some recordings and concerts of her composition.

Studying, working, composing and teaching at a time when the female contribution to arts, and life in general, was given little prominence, Farrenc resolutely ploughed her own course as a teacher and composer. At the time, females were not allowed to join the composition class at the Paris Conservatoire, so she took private lessons with the teacher. But she eventually became Professor of Piano at the same institution, remaining as such for 30 years, although only achieving parity of pay with her male colleagues for the last 20, and that after campaigning.  Continue reading

CF Abel & JC Bach Quartets

“Georgian quartets among Palladian columns”
The London Abel Quartet
Marble Hill House, Twickenham, 4 March 2018

The London Abel Quartet was formed, as the name implies, to explore the music of Carl Friedrich Abel and his contemporaries. Abel was a German composer and viola da gamba player. He was born in  Köthen, where his father worked in JS Bach’s court orchestra. He later became a student at Bach’s Leipzig Thomasschule. After a spell in Dresden, he settled in London around 1759. He was joined in 1762 by Johann Christian Bach, Bach’s youngest surviving son. The pair soon started the famed Bach-Abel concerts in Soho, the first subscription concerts in England. Abel and JC Bach are both buried in buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, just behind St Pancras station. Continue reading

Bach and Handel: Great Balls of Fire

Bach and Handel: Great Balls of Fire
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Steven Devine
Kings Place. 1 March 2018

Handel: Organ Concerto Op. 4 no. 1
Handel: 
Organ Concerto Op. 7 no. 5
Bach:
 Brandenburg Concerto no. 5

Under the banner of the Kings Place ‘Turning Points’ series (which aims to explore the hidden secrets of the great composers) and a very silly concert title (‘Great Balls of Fire’), the OAE presented three examples of the 18th-century keyboard concerto, contrasting two of Handel’s Organ Concertos with Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto. Composed for entirely different audiences and occasions, the Bach and Handel pieces reflect key moments in the development of music. A pre-concert talk by the chief executive of the OAE, given in the rather booming style of a schoolmaster (I use the gender-specific term deliberately) lecturing a lower-sixth general studies course, gave some background to the concert and the three pieces were to hear. The concert itself lasted just one hour, without interval. It was followed by a Q&A session with the performers and an encore, voted for by the audience from a list of three.  Continue reading

Brewery Band: Rolling in the Barrel

Rolling in the Barrel
Brewery Band

Antenna Studios, Crystal Palace, SE19. 25 February 2018

The latest in the monthly events run under the banner of Classical Transmission (at Crystal Palace’s pleasingly ramshackle Antenna Studios) featured the Brewery Band, a collective of early and folk musicians – Morag Johnston, fiddle, Emily White, fiddle/sackbut, James Risdon, recorders, Matthew Wadsworth, theorbo, and Kate Bennett-Wadsworth, viola da gamba. They describe themselves as “a new and flexible collective who enjoy being difficult to define. Their shared musical backgrounds and professional work mean you might hear a Shetlandic set segue into music from the 17th-century theatre, a medieval dance followed by a contemporary improvisation“. Continue reading

SJSS: Muffat Festival

Muffat Festival
The Brook Street Band
St John’s, Smith Square, 25 February 2018

With four concerts, a dance workshop and a talk spread over a weekend, the St John’s, Smith Square Muffat Festival focussed on Georg Muffat (1653-1704), that most innovative of composers, and the music that both influenced him and was, in turn, influenced by him. Curiously, of the 26 works played during the weekend, only six were actually by Muffat, a sadly missed opportunity to highlight more of his music, much of which is underperformed. The first concert (23 February) concentrated on the German Violin School, with pieces by Schmelzer, Biber and Krieger following the opening Muffat Sonata 2 from his 1682 Armonico Tributo. Dance was the focus of the second concert (24 February), with Muffat sharing the honours with Lully, Handel and Bach. The Italian Influence was explored in the first of two Sunday concerts (25 February), with pieces by Corelli and Handel and a Muffat Violin Sonata. The weekend finished with a focus on the Concerto, with more Bach and Handel along with Geminiani, all at least one generation younger that Muffat. It concluded with Muffat’s Sonata No. 5 in G from Armonico Tributo with its extraordinary extended concluding Passacaglia – one of the highlights of Muffat’s orchestral output.  Continue reading

Music in New France & Québec

Music in New France & Québec
Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal
St John’s, Smith Square, 15 February 2018

The Canadian choir, Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal (SMAM) was founded in 1974 by Christoper Jackson. For their UK debut, they presented a programme of music from Québec and the area of the North Americas generally known between 1534 and 1763, as ‘New France’, the northern part of which is now in Canada. In similar, if less flamboyant fashion to the Spanish and Portuguese Christian conquerors in Central and South America, the imported French musicians adopted some aspects of the aboriginal music styles, represented in this concert by a series of anonymous pieces sung in Abenaki, an almost extinct indigenous language.  The programme also included some of the earliest motets and plainchants composed in French North America alongside polyphony introduced by the first French settlers, whose only surviving sources are now in Québec libraries. As well as the early pieces, we also heard the European premiere of Ja de longtemps by Québec composer Maurice-G. Du Berge, setting an eyewitness account of the early explorations of the St. Lawrence River. Continue reading

Philip Glass’s Satyagraha

Philip Glass: Satyagraha
English National Opera, Improbable
Coliseum. 1 February 2018

One of the surprises of the contemporary opera world is that the 2007 ENO premiere of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha broke all box office records, becoming the most popular contemporary work to be performed by ENO. Its uncompromising approach to text and music seems to have appealed to the public, to the extent that it has just opened for its third revival. It follows ENO’s 2016 revival of Akhnaten, the third of a trilogy of operas, of which Satyagraha is the second. It is a difficult work to categorise. It is not a conventional opera, sung throughout in Sanskrit without an understandable libretto, in a sequence of seemingly unrelated tableaux, in random time frames, each with its own musical timbre. Through-composed, it switches from lengthy solos and ensemble pieces to enormous chorus scenes, in this production backed by spectacular visuals. The orchestra only uses strings and woodwind.

ENO Satyagraha Toby Spence ENO Chorus (c) Donald Cooper

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