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

Iford Arts: Partenope

Handel: Partenope
Contraband, Christopher Bucknall
Iford Arts, 23 June 2018

Since 1995, Iford Arts have been promoting the summer opera season in the magnificent Peto Gardens of Iford Manor, just south of Bradford-upon-Avon. The manor was the home of the Edwardian architect and landscape designer Harold Peto from 1899 until his death in 1933. Peto created the Italianate gardens that clamber up the hillside above the classically-fronted mediaeval Iford Manor, with terraces littered with architectural bits and bobs, including a recreation of an Italianate cloister. The cloister is turned into an intimate opera venue, with the hillside gardens providing a spectacular setting for pre-opera picnics and mid-opera biscuits. Sadly, this year is the last year that Iford Manor will be hosting Iford Arts and Opera at Iford, and the search is on for a new venue for them to continue to build their impressive Young Arts and Education Outreach programmes and to continue providing high standard opera in the Bath hinterlands. This year they presented three operas, Candide, Madam Butterfly, and Handel’s Partenope, alongside other events.

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Handel’s Partenope is an entertaining venture into cross-dressing, sexual and political intrigue, disguise, and, in the original 1730 production, some impressive special effects, including a battle that employed a stage army. The story is a slight, but attractive one, with scope for drama, betrayal, humour and sexual goings-on. Partenope is Queen of Naples. She has three princely admirers: Arsace, Armindo, Eurimene (a newcomer), and later, Emilio, heading an invading army, bent on a marriage alliance or war. Soon after the opera opens, Partenope’s favourite, Arsace, notices the striking similarity between the curious ‘Armenian’ Prince Eurimene to his former lover, Rosmira, not realising that it is indeed her, but disguised as a man. As a man, Eurimene becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections whilst, as a woman and ultimately only recognisable to Arsace, she proceeds to mock and goad Arsace to the extent that the Queen demands that they fight a duel. Arsace, wanting to reveal Eurimene’s true identity, demands that they should both fight topless. Unfortunately for any pervs in the audience, Eurimene gives in at this point and reveals herself as Rosmira. It was first performed in February 1730, in the King’s Theatre. Continue reading

Tage Alter Musik Regensburg: 2018

Tage Alter Musik Regensburg
18-21 May 2018

Seventeen concerts of early music in just four days is the promise of the Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival. It is held annually over the Pentecost/Whitsun weekend, alongside non-musical Regensburg celebrations, including a beer festival and fairground that brings the local youth out in their distinctive Bavarian outfits. Tage Alter Musik takes place within the architectural and historic delights of this beautiful city on the Danube – the entire city centre is a World Heritage site. Venues for the concerts include austere Gothic, glittering Baroque/Rococo, and the historic Reichssaal in the Altes Rathaus, for centuries the permanent seat of the Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. The weekend runs from Friday evening, with two concerts, followed by five concerts on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the latter including a concert that started at 00:15 in the morning!

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Handel’s Agrippina at The Grange

Handel: Agrippina
Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth
The Grange Festival, Hampshire. 16 June 2018

Handel’s Agrippina was first performed in 1709 during the Venice Carnival when he was just 23. It was towards the end of his three-year stay in Venice and used a considerable amount of borrowed material from Handel and other composers. It was an immediate success, with a further 26 performances, but was not revived again until modern times. It is now considered his first major operatic success. With its story of intrigue, rivalry, and deception in historic Rome, Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto for Agrippina is said to reflect his own political rivalry with Pope Clement XI. The plot tells of Agrippina’s ruthless plan to usurp her husband Emperor Claudius and place her son, the youthful Nerone, on the throne. The sexually provocative Poppea joins in the fray in a complex plan to undo Agrippina’ plot, not least in her attempts to discredit Ottone, who Claudius wants to create Emperor as a reward for saving his life. It certainly had many political and cultural undertones at the time, and perhaps still does today.

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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