English National Opera
The Coliseum. 26 October 2017
I avoid checking back on my past reviews before going to an opera revival, but will sometimes do so after the event to see if my views have changed. In the case of this revival of Richard Jones’ production of Handel’s Rodelinda, they haven’t. A very popular production at the time, and gaining enthusiastic applause from the opening night of the revival, this left me less than inspired, with a few specific exceptions.
To start with the positive exceptions, I cannot praise the ENO orchestra high enough for their absorption of period style in recent years, despite remaining a modern instrument band. It has been a long road, aided by the influence of a series of inspirational conductors, the most recent being the excellent Christian Curnyn (who also conducted the first run in 2014). He is the current ENO go-to conductor for Handel, succeeding Laurence Cummings who did so much to start the ENO period performance revival. The orchestra played with stylistic conviction, and Christian Curnyn continued to confirm his reputation as a leading interpreter of Handel – his control of the pacing was exemplary. Continue reading
Spitalfields Music: Shakespeare in Love
The English Concert, Harry Bicket, Mary Bevan, Tim Mead
Shorditch Church, 7 December 2016
The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival is one of the highlights of the London musical calendar, sensibly positioned in early December just before the Christmas musical silliness takes hold. Founded in 1976, initially to raise interest and money for the restoration of the fabulous Nicholas Hawksmoor Christ Church Spitalfields, Spitalfields Music has grown to became a major arts and community organisation working throughout the year in the East End of London. It’s 40th year included 15 new commissions, programming more than 65 performances across East London, enabling some 5000 local people to take part in free musical activities, and working with communities ranging from 1500 local school children to care home residents. The week-long festival ranged from contemporary jazz, a Bollywood show with ‘a tuba the size of Belgium’, a show for toddlers, musical dinners in a hidden Masonic Temple together with the usual array of top-notch classical music events, with the usual focus on early and contemporary music.
I missed the first few days (including Gothic Voices in the Tower of London, The Sixteen, Melvyn Tan, and a dance and music theatre show. So for me, the festival started with The English Concert’s tribute to the music inspired by Shakespeare in his own anniversary year. A cleverly designed programme focused on Purcell’s Fairy Queen and Handel’s Guilio Cesare in the two halves, and featured soprano Mary Bevan and Countertenor Tim Mead, two of the finest singers around. Continue reading
BBC Prom 63: Bach B minor Mass
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2016
However many times I hear Bach’s B minor Mass, I never stopped being amazed at its compositional history. Almost certainly never heard during his lifetime, and with many of the sections lifted from earlier compositions, it was cobbled together over many years, the first part with the aim of securing a royal appointment in the Saxony Court. Despite all that it is one of the most, and arguably, the most extraordinary piece of music ever composed. So it was no surprise that more than 5,00o people wanted to hear its performance at the BBC Proms in the Albert Hall.
And therein lay the problem. How to perform a work, intended to be performed in an (albeit sizeable) church by the normal Baroque orchestral and choral forces, in a vast auditorium designed (if indeed it was designed for anything) for enormous forces. Nowadays most period instrument groups makes few concessions to the space and acoustics, and play the music in the way they normally do. This is what William Christie did, with a 24-strong choir and a typical Bach orchestra. This will not produce a sound to fill the hall. But it will produce a sound that Bach might recognise. And for me, that is the key thing. Prommers are, by and large, pretty intelligent people, so should be used to letting their ears adjust to the relatively subdued volume. Continue reading