Mater Inviolata

Mater Inviolata
European music for the Christ-Child and His Mother
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
St John’s, Smith Square, 11 December 2018

The 33rd St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival has taken a slightly more eclectic approach to the traditional seasonal offerings, although its roots in early music remain, as exemplified by this concert by The Brabant Ensemble, directed by Stephen Rice. Their programme focussed on Mary, the focus for devotion in the late Renaissance era. The geographical focus was, as the group’s name suggests, the old Duchy of Brabant, covering present-day parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. The Franco-Flemish composers included Josquin, Lassus, and Josquin’s contemporary Pierre de la Rue in the 500th year of his death together with the latter composers, Clemens non Papa, Crecquillon, and Mouton, with his well-known Nesciens mater. Continue reading

ENO: Britten War Requiem

Britten: War Requiem
English National Opera
The Coliseum, 16 November 2018

English National Opera has a record of performing Benjamin Britten operas, as well as creating operas from the Bach Passions and other choral works, so it was no surprise that they would turn to Benjamin Britten’s famed War Requiem. As with the Bach Passions, when I first saw them staged, I was a little apprehensive as to what I was to see. Just how would they stage a work with such vastly contrasting moods and scenes, combining the heart-wrenching poems of Wilfred Owen and the words of a traditional Latin Requiem Mass? Britten himself accented this contrast by giving the two male soloists who sing the Owen poems their own chamber orchestra, to be positioned closest to the audience and with its own conductor. The Requiem settings are for a large chorus and orchestra and a soprano soloist, together with boys choir and accompanying organ which are to be situated some distance away from the main orchestras.

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London International Exhibition of Early Music

London International Exhibition of Early Music
Early Music Young Ensemble Competition Finals
Blackheath, 8-10 November 2018

The London International Exhibition of Early Music is the latest incarnation of an annual event organised over many years by the Early Music Shop. It has had a number of names over the years, the most recent one being the Royal Greenwich International Early Music Festival, although it had been resident in Blackheath for a couple of years. My review of last year’s festival can be found here. Concerts have always been an important addition to the musical instrument exhibition, ranging from demonstration recitals on behalf of instrument makers, Performers Platforms, competition winner’s recitals and, this year, for the first time, the Early Music Young Ensemble Competition Finals, alongside more formal evening concerts by some leading names in the early music world. This year’s complete events diary can be seen here. The instrument exhibition itself takes place in the newly restored Blackheath Halls, with the concerts taking place in nearby churches. Continue reading

Steinitz Bach Players 50th

London Bach Society’s Bachfest 2018
Steinitz Bach Players, Rodolfo Richter
St John’s, Smith Square, 6 November 2918

For the fourth and final day of their 2018 Bachfest, the London Bach Society (LBS) celebrated the 50th anniversary of their own orchestra, the Steinitz Bach Players, with this St John’s, Smith Square concert. The orchestra was founded, along with the London Bach Society, by Paul Steinitz (1909-88), one of the pioneers of the British Bach revival. Made up of leading freelance period instrumentalists, the orchestra performs under different directors during the annual Bachfest. On this occasion, they performed without a conductor, but with direction from the violin by Rodolfo Richter, a practice that I am sure Bach himself would have approved of.   Continue reading

Purcell: The Fairy Queen

Purcell: The Fairy Queen
Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh

St John’s, Smith Square. 1 November 2018

The Gabrieli Consort and Players could probably perform The Fairy Queen in their sleep, such is their experience of Purcell’s music, and this particular work, over many years. They have performed it at the BBC Proms, the Barbican, the Spitalfields Festival and many other venues around the world. They now plan to record it, along with King Arthur, early in the New Year, with the same forces as appeared in this St John’s, Smith Square performance. Their crowdfunding campaign page can be found here.

One of the continuing successes of the Gabrieli’s and their director Paul McCreesh is their ability to reinvent themselves and to continually question and push boundaries in their approach to their music making. For this particular recording (and this concert) they stress that “Gabrieli also brings a forensic understanding of contemporaneous performance techniques to this repertoire, including a new bow hold for string players which transforms articulation and influences tempi; wind instruments using more basic, coarser reeds, for a more martial sound; and natural trumpets performing on instruments without holes, playing entirely through the adjustment of embouchure – a high wire act!“. This was also the premiere of a new performing edition, prepared by McCreesh and Christopher Suckling, their principal bass violinist. It was performed at the low ‘French’ pitch of 392Hz and the violins played using French bow holds.  If this suggests an academic approach to music making, the experience of this concert proved to be anything but. It was a compelling and exuberant performance, semi-staged, albeit with only one ‘prop’ – in the shape of an enormous bleached-white wig for Mopsa, aka Charles Daniels. Continue reading

Other Worlds

”Other Worlds’
London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir
Robert Ames, conductor
Barbican 31 October 2018

Giacinto Scelsi: Uaxuctum
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

It was an achievement that this concert took place at all. Giacinto Scelsi’s Uaxuctum is one of the most complicated orchestral works to perform. Although composed in 1969, nobody attempted to perform in until 1987. This was its UK premiere. The score includes four amplified solo singers and a chorus singing the most complex microtonal music in up to twelve parts. The large orchestra includes a solo ondes-martenot, vibraphone, clarinets, horns, trumpets, trombones, bass and double bass tubas, and timpani. A battery of other percussionists play instruments such as a two-hundred litre. The subtitle of Uaxuctum is ‘The Legend of the Maya City, destroyed by themselves for religious reasons’, and the music evokes that atmosphere of despair that led to the apparent self-destruction, around 900 CE, of this Mayan city (in what is now Guatemala) after a few centuries of varying fortunes since their conquest in the 4th century, . Its five movements move from evocative mysticism to violent outbursts in an arch form, the final movement reflective of the first. It last just over 20 minutes.  Continue reading

Echoes of Venice/NCEM Young Composers

‘Echoes of Venice’
The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble
Turner Sims, University of Southampton. 30 October 2018

As part of their 25th-anniversary celebrations (which also included the release of this excellent CD), The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble (ECSE) joined with the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) in the 2018 NCEM Young Composers Award. UK composers aged 25 and under were invited to compose a piece to be performed by The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble. Composers were”encouraged to “look to Venice for inspiration, and to treat the cornetts and sackbuts as ‘wordless voices’, closer in spirit to a vocal ensemble than to a modern brass ensemble“. They were offered this brief outline of Venetian art and writing. During the final of the award in May, the ECSE performed the six shortlisted pieces and helped to select two prizewinners, one for those 18 and under, and one for 19 to 25 year-olds. All the finalist’s pieces can be heard on the NCEM Young Composers Award website here. The two winning pieces were performed during this Turner Sims concert: ‘Bridge of Sighs’ by Lilly Vadaneaux (18 years and under) and ‘Isole’ by Andrew Blair (19-25 years). Extracts from the concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show at 2pm on Sunday 18 November and will be available for a few weeks after that. Continue reading

Festival d’Ambronay/Festival eemerging: 2018

Vibrations: Cosmos
Festival d’Ambronay/Festival eeemerging
Centre culterel de recontre d’Ambronay
28-30 September 2018

The 39th Festival d’Ambronay saw the conclusion of an annual triptych devoted to the theme of Vibrations, in this case with the subtext of ‘Cosmos’. Spread over four weekends, it was described as “An evocation in music of a cosmos alternately spiritual or material, intimate or grandiose, in-depth or elevation … An evocation of the stars, elements and spirituality, a look at the harmony of man and the universe“. As well as hosting the annual festival, the Centre culterel de recontre d’Ambronay is also the base for the eeemerging project (Emerging European Ensembles), a European Union-wide cooperation project dedicated to the selection, training and promotion of young early music ensembles. It brings together partners from the UK, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia, Italy and Germany in a four-year cooperation project. Alongside festival events, the third weekend of the four-weekend festival was devoted to the ensembles selected for the 2018 eeemerging round, with six young groups of musicians performing, alongside one of the previous eeemerging ensembles and one of the most established groups in recent history. The comparison between the young musicians and some of the more established performers in the festival was of particular interest, leaving me with the view that the latter, with few exceptions, have a lot to learn from the former.

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French Baroque music meets Indian Classical Dance

French Baroque music meets Indian Classical Dance
BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music, Sofi Jeannin
Sanskriti UK & Ankh Dance
Milton Court, 19 October 2018

Lully: Te Deum 
Rameau: In convertendo Dominus;
extracts from 
Les Indes galantes, Les fêtes d’Hébé Castor et Pollux 

In what was a rather brave bit of programming for a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast, the BBC Singers and the Academy of Music, directed by Sofi Jeannin, the new Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers, presented an evening of French Baroque music, the second half of which was accompanied by two contrasting forms of Indian dance. The first half was of liturgical pieces, starting with Lully’s jubilant 1677 setting of the Te Deum. This was first heard at Fontainebleau and later became the piece that led to Lully’s death after he stabbed himself in the foot with his conducting baton during Chapel Royal celebrations for the Sun King’s recovery from surgery – surgery that Lully decided, fatally, to refuse. No such calamity occurred here as Sofi Jeannin demonstrated her commendably straightforward style of conducting, her focus clearly on the music itself rather than on any sense of self-aggrandisement. She coped well with the complications of this particular occasion, which included a late start after an overrun of the previous Radio 3 show, and complicated coordination between dances, singers, instrumentalists, a BBC announcer and the paraphernalia of a live BBC broadcast.  Continue reading

Bach: St Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion
English Touring Opera
Temple Church, London. 18 October 2018

English Touring Opera (ETO) is an ambitious organisation that run extensive annual tours of staged operas around the UK, alongside one-off projects like their current adaptation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. They start their tours in London, usually at the Hackney Empire, where they have just staged Radamisto and a triple-bill of Dido and Aeneas, Carissimi’s Jonas, and Gesualdo madrigals. Details of their current tour can be found here. For the Matthew Passion, as in previous such projects, they enrol local amateur choirs, community groups, and schools. For their London performance, these were the Collegium Musicum of London Chamber Choir (whose musical director is assistant organist at The Temple Church) and an almost exclusively female flock of children from the Holy Trinity and Saint Silas Church of England Primary School in Camden. The orchestra was the professional period instrument Old Street Band. Continue reading

ENO: Salome

Richard Strauss: Salome
English National Opera, Martyn Brabbins, Adena Jacobs
The Coliseum, 3 October 2018

In a production that veered from My Little Pony, via Lolita, to the Texans Chainsaw Massacre, there were two clear winners: the music of Richard Strauss, given a superb reading by Martyn Brabbins and the Orchestra of English National Opera, and mezzo Allison Cook in her strangely compelling and insightful interpretation of the complex role of Salome – a role and ENO debut. Usually depicted as the archetypical seductive femme fatale, for most of this production, directed by Adena Jacobs in an ENO debut, she seemed far more like a confused, hormone-ridden teenage girl, becoming increasingly fragile, delicate, and in need of protection. Perhaps I was viewing it through the mind of a father, rather than a voyeur, but it was an incredibly powerful image. Her first appearance was as a black-clad, demanding and confident long-haired princess arguing to see the imprisoned Jokanaan. As events unfolded, she mutated into a slight and vulnerable bare-breasted child-woman in minuscule schoolgirl gym knickers and with makeup smeared all over her face.

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Academy of Ancient Music: Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, Thomas Guthrie
The Barbican, 2 October 2018

For anybody who was not already familiar with the story of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Academy of Ancient Music’s semi-staged performance (directed by Thomas Guthrie) at The Barbican opened with something of a plot-spoiler. The first half was a 40-minute exploration of the funeral rites of the dead Dido, albeit a couple of hours or more before she was ‘laid in earth’. Actually, laid in earth she wasn’t, instead lying on a funeral catafalque over which Belinda, Aeneas and assorted mourners (the AAM chorus, who opened the show with some rhythmic drum bashing) acted out their reaction to her death as they remembered her. And when I write ‘she’ in fact it was a half-size puppet of the upper half of Dido who represented her throughout the evening. The full panoply of puppets came to the fore in the second half performance of Dido and Aeneas itself where the entire cast of soloists and chorus sported puppets – torsos for Dido and Aeneas, heads and gauze cloths for the rest. Continue reading

RFH International Organ Series: Renée Anne Louprette

Renée Anne Louprette, organ
Royal Festival Hall, 19 September 2018

JS Bach: Prelude and Fugue in G
Marin Marais: Suite from Alcyone (arr. Louprette)
Jehan Alain: Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin
Ad Wammes: Mytò
Nadia Boulanger: Improvisation from 3 Pièces
Duruflé: Suite, Op.5

The Royal Festival Hall’s ‘International Organ Series‘, most of which is made up of UK, rather than international organists, made up for that fact by replacing an indisposed UK performer with Renée Anne Louprette, an American organist who spent some of her student days in London. She has held posts in several important New York churches, alongside academic posts, and is now University Organist and Coordinator of the Organ Department at the Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Jersey.

Her largely French programme opened with Bach’s flamboyant Prelude and Fugue in G (BWV 541), a distinctly non-French piece. From the very first few notes, it was clear that Renée Anne Louprette is an outstanding Bach interpreter. Her sense of touch, rhetoric and the way she sensitively articulated the opening flourish and the repeated notes in both Prelude and Fugue showed a real (and sadly rather rare) understanding of Baroque concepts such as the hierarchy of the bar. Her choice of registration was spot-on. Continue reading

BBC Prom 74: Handel – Theodora

Handel: Theodora
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Royal Albert Hall, 7 September 2018

Of all Handel oratorios, the one that is probably most likely to put you off Christianity (or put you even further off Christianity) is Theodora. Set during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, the story is of two love-struck Christians who refuse to honour the Roman gods, and then vie with each other as to which of them is to be put to death as a result, each insisting on taking the place of the other until the exasperated Valens, President of Antioch, has them both sent to their heaven. It was unusual for an opera or oratorio to end badly for the leading lights, which perhaps explains its lack of success at the time. The text doesn’t bear much scrutiny either, the earlier arias of the Christian contingent and their confidence that the Lord would provide protection ‘here and everywhere’,  and the chorus’s response that the Everlasting One was ‘Mighty to save in perils, storm and death’, seemed a little ill-judged in the forthcoming circumstances.   But, setting aside the silly plot, the text and music express aspects of love, religious freedom, bloody-mindedness, and the assumptions that Christians are far more musically intelligent than ‘heathens’. The latter is a particular feature of Handel’s music, with the choir switching between Heathen and Christian to distinctly different music, the former generally rather four-square, clumpy, and harmonically unadventurous, the latter tuneful and svelte.  Continue reading

BBC Prom 73: Tallis Scholars

Before the Ending of the Day
Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips
Royal Albert Hall, 6 September 2018

The late-night concert on 6 September, following the Britten War Requiem, was a quasi-liturgical performance of the service of Compline, the concluding service of the daily eight canonical hours in Catholic liturgy. After the concluding litany of the War Requiem: “Let us sleep now” it was an appropriate add-on. Traditionally followed in monastic settings by the ‘Great Silence’ that lasted until the first service of the morning, its roots go back to St Benedict at the beginning of the sixth century. The name of the service comes from the word ‘complete’ reflecting the completion of the working day – or, in this case, for most of us, the end of a musical day.  Continue reading

BBC Prom 72: War Requiem

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian
Huddersfield Choral Society, RSNO Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus
Erin Wall, Allan Clayton, Russell Braun
Royal Albert Hall, 5 September 2018

As we approach the centenary of The Armistice that ended the First World War, it was an appropriate moment for The Proms to programme Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. It is a piece that has had fluctuating enthusiasm over the years since its first performance in May 1962 in the new Coventry Cathedral, designed by Basil Spence, and built alongside the ruins of the medieval cathedral building, destroyed during the 1940 Battle of Britain. A committed pacifist and almost certainly agnostic or atheist, Britten was perhaps not the most obvious choice to compose a requiem, but this combination of personal beliefs led to one of the most powerful of all compositions related to war. Combining the traditional Catholic Latin Requiem Mass with the poems of the war poet Wilfred Owen, resulting in an often heart-wrenching combination of pleas for peace with reflections on the horrors of war.  Continue reading

Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik 2018

Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik 2018
Innsbruck, 23-25 August 2017

The Innsbruck Festival of Early Music runs annually for about three weeks during August. It was founded in 1976 and has traditionally focussed on Baroque opera. In recent years it has included three each season, including the Barockoper:Jung. This uses singers chosen from the finalists of the previous year’s International Singing Competition for Baroque Opera Pietro Antonio Cesti, named after Antonio Cesti, a 17th-century Italian singer and composer who served at the Innsbruck court of Archduke Ferdinand Charles of Austria. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend for three days but those included two of the operas and the Cesti final.

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Salterio Italiano

Salterio Italiano
Franziska Fleischanderl, Il Dolce Conforto, Romina Basso
Christophorus CHR77426. 62’16

Sonatas for Salterio by Fulgenzio Perotti, Florido Ubaldi and Vito Ugolino
Cantatas by Giovanni Battista Martini and Girolamo Rossi

One of the most impressive concerts that I heard during July’s Itineraire Baroque (reviewed here) was given by Austrian musicologist and performer Franziska Fleischanderl, demonstrating and playing the Salterio, a delightful little instrument related to the psaltery or dulcimer.  Playing her own restored original instrument, dating from 1725, she explored the many different sounds of the instrument, created by playing battuto (using wooden or leather-covered little mallets) or pizzicato (plucked by the fingers). The Salterio was very popular in Italy during the 18th-century, principally amongst aristocratic players. Her own researches into the instrument and repertoire have revealed a wealth of information and many surviving original instruments. For example, in her excellent liner notes, Fleischanderl mentions a college in Bologna where forty young aristocrats studied the instrument, her researches discovering a change in playing style (from battuto to pizzicato) around 1735, based on the students’ purchasing records. You can read more about the instrument, and Franziska Fleischanderl’s research here. Continue reading

Antwerp: Laus Polyphoniae 2018

Laus Polyphoniae 2018
1618 / BEFORE
Antwerp, Belgium. 16-20 August.

This year’s Laus Polyphoniae festival (part of the Festival van Vlaanderen / Flanders Festival) celebrated two anniversaries. It is 25 years since the festival first started, and 400 years since the opening of the former St. Augustine’s Church (in 1618), now the home of AMUZ (Augustinus Muziekcentrum), the hosts of Laus Polyphoniae. The festival lasted from 16 – 26 August, and I was invited for the first four days, from the opening concert on Thursday 16 August to the lunchtime concert on Monday 20 August. Taking the date of 1618 as the hinge, the Laus Polyponiae festival ‘1618 / Before’, was the prelude to a further series of concerts under the title ‘1618 / Beyond’, the English names being original, not translations.

Focussing on music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the programme covered repertoire from the year 800 up to the early 17th century, when the early Baroque style began to emerge from the tradition of Renaissance polyphony. It featured musicians from Flanders and beyond, with a wide-ranging programme of concerts and events, the International Young Artist’s Presentation, and various associated events included a study day exploring the recently discovered Leuven Chansonnier and other educational activities. Unless otherwise noted, all the concerts took place in AMUZ.

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BBC Prom 33: Thea Musgrave & Brahms

Thea Musgrave: Phoenix Rising
Brahms: A German Requiem
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Richard Farnes
Royal Albert Hall, 7 August 2018

I was surprised to find that, despite being composed 21 years ago, this was the first time that Thea Musgrave’s Phoenix Rising (a BBC commission) had been performed at the Proms. It made for a fascinating pairing with Brahm’s German Requiem in this performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Richard Farnes, making his Proms debut. Phoenix Rising represents the conflict between the forces of evil and good, darkness and light. The title came during composition and is taken from a sign outside a coffee shop in Virginia. At its core, it is a double concerto for horn and timpani, set within a dramatic kaleidoscope of symphonic colour and texture. The horn player, Martin Owen, is supposed to be offstage, but at the Royal Albert Hall there is always the risk that he would never be seen again, and was therefore positioned high up on the far left of the stage, behind timpanist Antoine Bedewi, and in front of one of the four percussionists spread out across the rear stage.

Thea Musgrave.jpgThea Musgrave. © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
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Prom 29/30: The Brandenburg Project

Prom 29/30: Brandenburg Concertos Project
Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard
Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2018

One of the more unusual of this year’s BBC Proms were two related concerts given by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under their conductor Thomas Dausgaard. Over an afternoon and evening Prom, they performed all six Bach Brandenburg Concertos, each accompanied by companion pieces, commissioned by the orchestra, to partner each of the Brandenburgs. An ambitious project, that got close to working, but ultimately, from my point of view, didn’t. As an early music specialist, I do find modern instrument performances of Bach problematical. Although they certainly didn’t over-romanticize their interpretations, the sound world was one I wasn’t used to, at least, not since my youth. And with so many composers eager to write for period instruments, I think a real opportunity has been missed, from the Proms point of view, although the project has certainly done the Swedish Chamber Orchestra no harm.

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Itinéraire Baroque: 2018

Itinéraire Baroque en Périgord Vert
26-29 July 2018

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The annual Itinéraire Baroque en Périgord Vert festival is now in its 17th year. It is based around the towns of Ribérac and Verteillac in the northern part of the Dordogne-Périgord region of western France. It was founded by Robert Huet and Ton Koopman, the former a local resident and director of the organising committee, the latter the artistic director and occasional import from The Netherlands, along with musical friends and family. It started as the one-day event that gave the festival its name – the Itineraire Baroque, a musical tour of some of the little-known Romanesque churches of the region. It was intended as much to draw attention to these often locked churches as for any musical intent. It has now expanded to cover four days over the last weekend in July. The theme for this year’s festival was ‘Looking towards Spain’, although only a few concerts made more than a casual nod in that direction. In fact, as a weekend dominated by Netherlanders, it was no surprise that several of the concerts focussed on the historic battles between the Dutch and the Spanish, viewed from a Dutch point of view – perhaps ‘Trying to get rid of Spain’ would have been a more accurate title. The programme for this year’s festival can be found here.

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BBC Prom 26: Serpent and Fire

Serpent and Fire
Il Giardino Armonico, Anna Prohaska
Royal Albert Hall. 2 August 2018 

Serpent and Fire is probably a better concert title that ‘Two Suicidal African Queens’, but Anna Prohaska’s exploration of the musical characters of Dido and Cleopatra certainly delved the emotional issues that caused both Queen’s demise. Despite her plea to ‘forget my fate’, Dido’s end is etched in all music-lovers minds, and it closed this late-night BBC Prom. Purcell’s Ah! Belinda providing the opening, introducing the Anna Prohaska’s beautifully clear and pure voice, and her use of the gentlest of vocal inflexions, quite correctly, as an ornament, for which I will readily forgive her the occasional tendency to slightly slur notes together. She later joined the very rare catalogue of early music singers who can produce a proper trill, rather than just relying on vibrato. The curious pauses in Ah! Belinda were the first of a number of directorial oddities provided by conductor Giovanni Antonini.

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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.
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Glyndebourne: Saul

Handel: Saul
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings
Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 22 July 2018

Glyndebourne’s new production of Handel’s Saul was one of the highlights of the 2015 season, gaining rave reviews from, amongst others, me – see here, which also gives more background to the oratorio and the production. Glyndebourne has a long tradition of staging Handel oratorios, and I have no problem at all with that, subject to my normal reservations about what some some opera directors get up to with their productions. This was not entirely devoid of some concern on those grounds, but the sheer spectacle of Barrie Kosky’s direction and the musical integrity of Ivor Bolton’s direction allayed most of my concerns. The same applies to this revival, at least musically, on this occasion conducted by the equally distinguished Laurence Cummings, directing the same Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne’s resident period instrument orchestra.

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West Green Opera: Candide

Bernstein: Candide
West Green Opera, 21 July 2018

According to the pre-event announcement from somebody at the front of the stalls, West Green Opera are one of only three permitted staged productions of Candide in the UK during this ‘Bernstein 100’ anniversary year. If so, that is quite an achievement for one of the lesser known summer opera venues. But West Green Opera are already looking forward and upward, this year featuring the first appearence of a smart new, albeit commercially loaned, opera house construction trialling a possible site for a more permanent addition to West Green House, a few miles east of Basingstoke. Leased from the National Trust, the gardens and the summer opera season have both blossemed in recent years, and their ambitions are clearly not yet satisfied. The earlier opera venue was in a tent blocking the view of the house elevation pictured below.

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The new opera house is beyond the ha-ha in the corner of an adjoining field. It is much larger than its earlier incarnation, and they have yet to build an audience large enough to fill it completely, at least for this performance of Candide. But this new accommodation is certainly an improvement on the previous tent, although one of the hottest days of the year did test audience, and presumably, cast stamina somewhat. The back-stage provision is a vast improvement on the earlier Heath Robinson affair, and the stage and orchestra area is much larger.

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Garsington Opera: The Skating Rink

The Skating Rink
David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey
Garsington Opera, Wormsley. 14 July 2018

Just days after the world premiere of a new opera (at Grange Park Opera, reviewed here), here is another one, this time The Skating Rink, performed at Garsington Opera, now firmly established as a feature in the spectacular landscape of Wormsley Park. Their new commission was written by David Sawer to a libretto by Rory Mullarkey, based on the novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Set in a small seaside town on the Costa Brava in the late 1990s, the story is based around the beautiful young ice skating champion, Nuria, and her relationships first with Remo Moran and then with the obsessive and much older Enrico. Political machinations during the run-up to a local election year provide background intrigue, including such lines, presumably aimed at the well-heeled Garsington audience, as “I’m not a monster / I’m a Socialist” and the repeated refrain of “Fuck this Country/ Fuck the Government”. Getting rid of illegal immigrants runs through the storyline, focussed on an opera singer, Carmen, who has fallen hard times and the young girl Caradad, attractive beneath the shabbiness of her clothes. A large community cast provided further ‘vagrants’ and scene-shifters.

Gaspar, a local poet and an illegal immigrant himself, is at the bottom of a food chain hierarchy and is tasked with evicted Carmen and Caradad from the campsite at which he is the night watchman. He quickly falls for Caradad (pictured below), but she soon goes missing, running off through the audience. His search for her brings him into the murky world of what turns out to be a murder plot, combined with embezzlement, deception, lust for power, and obsession.

8Garsington Opera 2018 Susan Bickley (Carmen), Claire Wild (Caridad), Sam Furness (Gaspar) credit Johan Persson_0.jpg

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Pushkin – the opera

Pushkin – the opera
Konstantin Boyarsky & Marita Phillips
Orchestra and Chorus of Novaya Opera, Jan Latham-Koenig
Grange Park Opera, West Horsley Place, 12 July 2018

We all have a great many great-great-great grandparents, but few of us are able to write an opera about two of them. Marita Phillips is one such, a descendent of the scandalous elopement and 1891 marriage between the grandson of Tsar Nicholas I and the granddaughter of Pushkin. Pushkin and Nicholas were born within 3 years of each other in 1796 and 1799 respectively. While exiled by Nicholas’s father, Tsar Alexander I, for writing the poem Ode to Liberty, Pushkin wrote Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin. Ode to Liberty was seen as influencing the 1825 Decembrist Uprising that followed Nicholas’s unexpected appointment as Tsar, creating an uneasy relationship between the two men, at the core of this opera, which opens with the gruesome nooses that followed the Decembrist Uprising.

Written over an astonishing 15 years period, the story covers key aspects of Pushkin’s life in and around the court of Nicolas I, with an emphasis on the complex relationship with his wife Natalia Goncharova. She was around 13 years younger than him. They met when she was just 16, and already a renown beauty. She attracted the attention of the sumptuously monikered Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès, the adopted son of the Dutch Ambassador. The relationship between the two was open to some discussion, leading in Phillips’ text to the accusatory question of “buggery or incest”. Perhaps unfortunately, this question was reinforced by the fact that Georges d’Anthès looked remarkably like outrageously camp Mr Humphries from the 1970s television sitcom Are you Being Served, making his later attraction to Natalia a bit of a surprise. He pursued Natalia to the extent that a duel between him and Pushkin, leading to Pushkin’s death, his depiction as the ‘white wolf’ predicted by the exotic character of the gypsy.  Continue reading

Rameau: Complete solo keyboard works

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Complete solo keyboard works
Steven Devine, harpsichord
Resonus RES10214. 3CDs 79’26, 65’45, 73’28

This important recording of the solo keyboard works of Jean-Philippe Rameau brings together in a three-CD set, pieces previously only available as separate downloads from the Resonus website. For those who haven’t kept up with these recordings, or who want a hard copy of these performances, this three-for-the-price-of-one package is a must-buy. The three discs were recorded in St John the Evangelist, Oxford in December 2013 and April 2014, and in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in August 2017. All use the same double-manual harpsichord by Ian Tucker based on a 1626 Andreas Ruckers of Antwerp, with a ravalement added in 1763 by Hemsch of Paris. The pitch is  a=415, and it is tuned in the non-specific Tempérament Ordinaire, in this context presumably meaning a modified meantone temperament. The three CDs follow a sensible order, giving an excellent overview of Rameau’s stylistic development from 1706 to 1747. Sadly, the title of ‘Complete solo keyboard works’ is correct: although he spent much of his early life as an organist, unlike many other French composers of the period, he left no compositions for the organ, although there are modern transcriptions available, in score, and on CD.  Continue reading

The Abduction from the Seraglio – Grange Festival

Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio
Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Jean-Luc Tingaud
The Grange Festival, 24 June 2018

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The fledgeling Grange Festival, now in its second year, followed its impressive production of Handel’s Agrippina (reviewed here) with a pantomime interpretation of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, here under the title of The Abduction from the Seraglio in its new English translation by David Parry. The veteran director John Copley (the 85-year-old honoured with a very old photograph in the programme) kept things light and frothy, doing nothing to make up for the perceived the lack of character development in Mozart’s comic Singspiel. The replacement of sung recitative with spoken text meant the sequence of arias and consort numbers were not part of an unfolding musical fabric, and the rather light direction meant that it got close to the style of present-day musical theatre. Judging by their response, it suited the tastes of the Hampshire audience well, with little to trouble their intellect or to take their mind off the long dinner interval or the spectacular scenery outside. How they giggled at moments like judging girls on the grounds of being “not too fat”, or Osmin’s calling Pedrillo a “mincing little nancy”, albeit on this occasion because he was (counterintuitively) “ogling women that you fancy”: a triumph of rhyme over rhetoric. Continue reading