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

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

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

François Couperin: Lumière et Ombre

François Couperin: Lumière et Ombre
Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset
Barbican/Milton Court. 14 January 2018

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We are used to hearing French Baroque music in the grand style of the likes of Lully and Rameau, but the more delicate and sensitive music of François Couperin (referred to as le Grand to differentiate him from the rest of his extended musical family) is often overlooked. 2018 is the 350th anniversary of his birth, so is a good time to reassess his music. These two concerts in Milton Court, together with a panel discussion, explored some of his chamber and harpsichord music, concluding with his three Leçons de ténèbres. The two concerts were titled Lumière and Ombre, each containing solo harpsichord, vocal and instrumental music. Continue reading

Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale

Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Barbican, 9 December 2017

Monteverdi’s 8th book of madrigals, the Selva morale e spirituale (Moral and Spiritual Forest”), was published in 1641 when Monteverdi was in his 70s. It seems to have been intended as a culmination of his musical career at St Marks Venice, and contains a vast array of compositional styles, as reflected in this Barbican concert by the eight singers and eight instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants. They opened with one of the most dramatic pieces from the collection, the extended seven-voice Gloria, the clear articulation of the singers allowing the flourishes of the musical lines to shine. Here, as in many of the other pieces, the two violinists made significant contributions. Continue reading

Classical Opera @ 20

Classical Opera 20th Birthday Concert
Orchestra and Choir of The Mozartists, Ian Page
The Barbican. 9 October 2017

Classical Opera was founded in 1997 and has carved out an important place in the musical world for its exploration of music of the classical era, in particular, Mozart. He is the inspiration for their ambitious Mozart 250 project, a chronological exploration of Mozart’s life, works and influences that each year will explore the music of Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. Now joined by a companion branding as The Mozartists, their name for increasing concert, rather than opera work, they celebrated their 20th birthday with a spectacular concert in London’s Barbican. The opening sequence of pieces, interspersed with reading, focussed on themes of “birth and rebirth, compassion and forgiveness, human inspiration and . . . what Beethoven and Schiller called brotherhood”.  Continue reading

Messiah

Messiah
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Barbican, 19 December 2016

wp_20161222_18_10_35_pro-2Over the years, William Christie has done much to introduce French baroque music to British ears, and has opened our ears to Purcell. But I had not heard his take on Messiah live before. It was bound to be rather different from the usual variety of British interpretations, and it was. We are increasingly used to lightly scored performances with moderately sized choirs, in contrast to the cast of thousands of yesteryear, but this very Gallic interpretation added a layer of delicacy and dance-like joie de vivre to Handel’s music, all done in the best possible Bon Goût. Les Arts Florissants fielded a choir of 24 (quite large, by some standards today, and in Handel’s time) and an orchestra with 6, 6, 4, 4, 2 strings, together with five soloists. Both instrumentalists and the chorus were encouraged to keep the volume down, usually by a finger on the Christie lips. This seems to be in line with Handel’s intentions, as indicated by his scoring and, for example, his very limited use of the trumpets. When things did let rip, there was still a sense of restraint amongst the power. Continue reading

Vivaldi: Juditha triumphans

Vivaldi: Juditha triumphans
Venice Baroque Orchestra, Guildhall Consort, Andrea Marcon
Barbican, 2 November 2016

You can imagine the headlines in today’s gutter press. “Woman seduces man, gets him drunk, then beheads him. Claims God told her to do it”. She would probably spend the rest of her life in a institution for the criminally insane. But in the Bible (or, at least, in the Bible of the Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not the Protestants, who count the Book of Judith as apocryphal, or the Jews), she was hailed as a national heroine who lived to the age of 105. Musically her story inspired Tallis’s Spem in alium, and works by Scarlatti, Mozart and Parry. In art, she inspired the likes of Cranach, Donatello, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Goya and Klimpt (pictured). She is also the subject matter for Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernis barbariewritten exactly 300 years ago, in 1716. The story of Judith’s ‘triumph over the barbarians of Holofernes’ would have had a strong contemporary reference to Venetians, whose army had just defeated the Ottoman invaders in Corfu. Judith clearly represents Venice, and the Assyrian general Holofernes, the Ottomans.

Described on the title page of the score as a ‘sacred military oratorio’, Continue reading

MacMillan: Seven Angels

MacMillan: Seven Angels
Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore, Martha McLorinan
St Giles Cripplegate, 15 October 2016

The first of a two Sunday Barbican concerts focussing on the choral music of Sir James MacMillan took place on Saturday afternoon in the medieval church of St Giles Cripplegate, on the opposite side of the Barbican lakes from the main concert hall and theatre. It featured the London premiere of MacMillan’s Seven Angels, commissioned by the Birmingham based Ex Cathedra and its director Jeffrey Skidmore, and first performed in Birmingham last year. The piece stemmed from an informal discussion between MacMillan and Skidmore, both Elgar fans, on the uncompleted ‘Last Judgement’ conclusion of Elgar’s intended trilogy, which started with The Apostles and The Kingdom.

Although bearing no relation to Elgar’s surviving sketches, MacMillan took similar inspiration from the Book of Revelation, one Continue reading

Academy of Ancient Music: The Bach Family

The Bach Family
Academy of Ancient Music, Lucy Crowe, Reinhard Goebel
Barbican. 18 June 2016

Unfortunately this concert will be remembered by me because, not for the first time, I found the behaviour of conductor Reinhard Goebel disturbing, both on and off stage. This started with his pre-concert talk, an event he totally dominated, arriving with his hands fumbling all over the hapless female AAM communications manager before announcing himself, and then suggesting that his much-handled companion also announce him. She then managed to ask one very simple question, which led to a rambling, incoherent, and often incorrect 30 minute monologue on practically anything but the question asked. For some reason, that probably didn’t reduce his ego, there was only one chair provided, meaning that the unfortunate communication manager ended up sitting at his feet on the floor at the edge of the dais. Amongst Goebel’s more alarming contentions was that Bach didn’t compose anything in the last two decades of his life, an extraordinary error that he only partially reined back on later in his talk. He also described Bach as a ‘nasty person’ who ‘hated the world’.

In the concert itself, Goebel pranced onto the stage clad in a clownish bright red cummerbund and matching bow tie and, bizarrely, carrying two batons. Continue reading

Clara Sanabras: A Hum about Mine Ears

Clara Sanabras: A Hum about Mine Ears
Concert: Britten Sinfonia, Chorus of Dissent, Vox Holloway, Harvey Brough
The Barbican. 6 March 2016
CD: Britten Sinfonia, Chorus of Dissent, London Voices, Nigel Kennedy
Smudged Discs SMU607. 44’50

Singer Clara Sanabras arrived in London from her Barcelona home about 20 years ago to study music, despite not speaking a word of English. I first reviewed her shortly after her arrival in one of the many early music groups that she went on to perform with, noting that she has “an evocatively sensual and focussed voice, rich with harmonics . . . her voice is ideal for much of the early repertoire, particularly from the medieval and early renaissance”. She has since built an enviable reputation as an eclectic singer/songwriter with a wide variety of musical styles, notably in the broadly folk/blues tradition. I wrote in a later review that “I hope that Sanabras is not lost to the early music world”. She hasn’t been, and has certainly not lost the clarity, purity and superb intonation of her evocative and sensuous voice. But there aren’t many early music solo singers who could fill The Barbican hall for a concert of her own compositions, complete with over 200 supporting musicians.

That happened in the launch concert for the CD of her folk-opera, ‘A Hum about Mine Ears’, part of the Barbican’s Shakespeare400 Weekend. As the name suggests, the music is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s the Tempest, Continue reading

Handel: Orlando

Handel: Orlando
The English Concert, Harry Bicket
The Barbican. 1 March 2016

In the past I have been rather frustrated by The Barbican’s habit of promoting concert performances of operas, largely because I have known that most of them had been fully, and often very sumptuously, staged on the continent. But I gradually grew to appreciate the ability to concentrate on the music without the distraction of staging, scenery and sometimes weird directorial instructions to the singers. And, to be fair to The Barbican, there have been some staged operas in recent years from the likes of William Christie. The English Concert started a series of concert performances of Handel operas last year, and continued with their production of Orlando. Judging by this outstanding performance of Orlando, they really have got the practice of concert performances down to a fine art. Continue reading

Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr
Barbican, 29 September 2015

The Academy of Ancient Music completed their trilogy of Barbican performances of Monteverdi operas with Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria in what was build as a ‘concert hall staging’, but was as close to a fully-staged opera as you could get without props or scenery. Rather like the recent Monteverdi Choir / London Baroque Soloists production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at the Royal Opera House, the stage depth was divided into three parts, with the instrumentalists occupying the centre ground. The Gods spent most of their time on the higher level behind the orchestra, with mortals at the front of the stage. Both had forays into the audience, accompanied by rather overdone spotlights brightly illuminating those of the audience sitting near the aisles. Continue reading

Vivaldi’s “L’Oracolo in Messenia”

Although initially sceptical, I have grown to respect the Barbican’s tradition of concert performances of operas.  Without the distraction of staging or directorial imposition, there is the chance to concentrate on the music itself.  One fine example of this came with the performance of Vivaldi’s pasticcio opera L’Oracolo in Messenia of 1737 (20 Feb).

Vivaldi’s habit of living and travelling with his former pupil Anna Girò (some 32 years younger than him) seems to have been instrumental in the genesis of this work, after the Archbishop of Ferrara refused him entry to his city on the grounds of his companion.  Vivaldi hurriedly arranged a season at Venice’s Teatro S Angelo which opened with L’Oracolo in Messenia.  As with so many of Vivaldi’s operas, only the libretto exists, but Fabio Biondi has reconstructed the musical score from clues as to the pieces that Vivaldi collected together, drawing on the Giacomelli work that Vivaldi used as the basis for his pasticcio.  

As is often the case in Vivaldi (and indeed in many other composers), the real musical interest often lay in the accompaniment, rather than the vocal line.  That said, there were some spectacular showpiece arias, the most extraordinary coming towards the end of Act 2 when Trasimede (the young Russian Julia Lezhneva, in one of the three trouser roles) who had hitherto had a relatively quite time suddenly burst into a stunningly virtuosic aria (Son qual nave, originally written for Farinelli by his brother Ricardo Broschi) that not only produced by far the loudest audience applause but also a young man who leapt onto the stage from the audience to present her with a bunch of flowers – not, I think, a spur of the moment thing, but nonetheless well deserved.

In a very strong vocal cast, the stand-out singers were Magnus Staveland (despite his voice sometimes seeming rather too nice for the villain Polifonte, who has murdered the previous King and all but one of his children and is now after his widow, Merope), Marianne Beate Kielland as the tragic heroine Merope, notably with her impressive mad scene, Vivica Genaux as Epitide, her clear voice having a fine lower register, albeit with rather too much vibrato for my taste, and Franziska Gottwald as the ambassador Licisco, making much of one of the lesser roles.  Of the remaining cast, Marina de Liso’s persistent vibrato was a turn-off, and Robert Enticknap, playing another nasty chap, struggled to demonstrate his ability in such a strong cast.  It takes a bit of a culture shift to appreciate the 18th century love of pasticcio opera, but this was certainly an effort by Fabio Biondi that was well worth while.  He also impressed as a director, leading his excellent group Europa Galante with his violin, and showing great respect for his singers and fellow musicians.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/vivaldis-loracolo-in-messenia/]