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

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

JS Bach/JC Bach/CEP Bach: Magnificats

JS Bach, JC Bach & CPE Bach: Magnificats
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Hyperion CDA68157. 76’48

This recording has the same programme as the concert in St John’s, Smith Square in October 2015. The CD was recorded a few days after the concert, in the church of St Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, but has only recently been released. The acoustics of this large Gothic church (with its wide nave and tiny side aisles) are more generous than St John’s, Smith Square, giving an added bloom to the sound, although the spacing of the musical forces sometimes gives more of a sense of distance that the more compact London stage avoided. Unlike the concert performance, the CD opens with JS Bach’s 1733 reworking of his earlier E flat version, written for his first Christmas in Lübeck in 1723. It is given a forthright performance without the irritating gaps between movements that I mentioned in the concert review.  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

George Benjamin: Written on Skin

George Benjamin: Written on Skin
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 13 January 2017

Since it premiered in 2012, Written on Skin, George Benjamin’s first full-length opera (to a text by Martin Creed), has been hailed as one of the masterpieces of the contemporary opera world, bringing such accolades as “the work of a genius 0326 WRITTEN ON SKIN PRODUCTION IMAGE c ROH. PHOTO STEPHEN CUMMISKEY.jpgunleashed”. This 90 minute work was composed over two years of concentration and virtual isolation, while Benjamin eschewed all other composition, teaching, and conducting work. It was commissioned by the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, along with the Royal Opera House and opera houses in Amsterdam, Toulouse, and Florence. A request to base the opera on something related to the Occitan area of Provence led to a mediaeval tale about a troubadour employed by a local lord who has a love affair with the lord’s wife. When he finds out, the lord kills the troubadour, cooks his heart and feeds it to his wife. When she finds out what she has eaten, she swears to never eat or drink again to keep her lover’s taste in her mouth. She avoids the lord’s anger and his sword by leaping from a window to her death. Continue reading

Iestyn Davies: Bach Cantatas

Bach: Cantatas 54, 82, 170
Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Hyperion CDA68111. 64’52

Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust BWV170, Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV54, Ich habe genug BWV82, Sinfonias from Cantatas BWV52 & 174. 

With an appropriate sense of timing, this CD was released on the day that it was announced that the distinguished countertenor Iestyn Davies was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s honours list. For non-UK readers, this is the archaically entitled ‘Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ and is awarded for ‘outstanding achievement’. There are at least four higher categories of ‘British Empire’ awards for him to look forward to. This is the third recording he has made with Arcangelo for Hyperion, but this one is very clearly a recording designed specifically to promote Iestyn Davies. His name is given stronger emphasis on the CD cover than the likes of Bach, let alone Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen, all also pretty good musicians. 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

Three Bach Magnificats

Three Bach Magnificats
Arcangelo
St John’s, Smith Square, 1 October 2015

JC Bach: Magnificat a 4 in C Major W.E22
JS Bach: Magnificat in D major, BWV 243
CPE Bach: Magnificat in D major H.772 (1749)

Concert or CD programmes that contrast JS Bach with his contemporaries, including members of his own family, can be tricky affairs. It is rare that the best of other composers’ work comes near to the quality of one of JS’s everyday pieces, churned out for the following Sunday services. In their St John’s, Smith Square concert, Arcangelo managed to pull it off, albeit to the detriment of the first composer, Johann Christian (the ‘London’ Bach), who opened the evening with his 1760 Magnificat a 4 in C Major. Written during his early years in Milan (where he was cathedral organist) two years before his conversion to Catholicism, it is firmly rooted in the Italian operatic tradition with occasional hints of the forthcoming Classical style. Contributions from the four soloists are slight, the chorus being prominent as is the often bustling orchestral accompaniment. His nod towards Dad’s music came with the grand final fugal Et is saecula saeculorum. Continue reading

Glyndebourne’s Saul

Glyndebourne’s Saul
Glyndebourne Festival Opera.  6 August 2015

I don’t normally read other reviews until I have seen for myself, but I was aware that Glyndebourne’s new production of Handel’s Saul had gone down well. And well it should. It is one of the most successful productions that I have seen. Directed by Barrie Kosky, with designs by Katrin Lea Tag and lighting by Joachim Klein, the sumptuous settings and costumes would inevitably tick most opera-goers’ boxes. Of course, Saul isn’t an opera, but one of his finest oratorios, written in 1739 and the first of his collaborations with Charles Jennens. There is now a long tradition of staging oratorios, not least at Glyndebourne, dating back to 1996 and Peter Sellars’ Theodora. And with its dramatic story of family intrigue, love and hate, a youthful hero and a king loosing his mind, it certainly has all the dramatic possibilities of opera seria.

Saul, Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Christopher Purves (Saul). Photographer Bill Cooper. Continue reading

Purcell & Charpentier: Te Deum

Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School
Spiritato!  Iestyn Davies
St John’s, Smith Square. 29 April 2015

Purcell: Suite from Abdelazer, Jehova Quam Multi Sunt Hostes Mei, Te Deum and Jubilate in D. Rameau: Suite from Les Indes Galantes, Charpentier: Te Deum

I wouldn’t normally review a concert given by a boys’ school choir, but the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School is well-known for their music education and performances.  The Schola Cantorum supports the liturgy of the school services, but is better known as one of the few school choirs that are regularly called upon for professional engagements. These have ranged from the Harry Potter films to a recent live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of James MacMillan’s complex St Luke Passion. Individual boy singers are also often to be heard at Covent Garden and the Coliseum.

Continue reading