09 Nov 2009
Philip Langridge at Wigmore Hall
As an interpreter of Benjamin Britten, Philip Langridge has long been esteemed as the natural successor to Peter Pears;
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
As an interpreter of Benjamin Britten, Philip Langridge has long been esteemed as the natural successor to Peter Pears;
his long-standing commitment to the work of Harrison Birtwistle has served the composer admirably; and as a sensitive, skilful communicator of the nuances of narrative through music and words, Langridge’s performances of Vaughan Williams and Schubert are justly revered. This carefully chosen programme clearly had great personal meaning to Langridge; and the Wigmore Hall was a fitting venue to celebrate both his 70th birthday and the achievements and joy of a life in music.
Framing the recital with Schubert — excerpts from Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise — was a brave decision; as ever, Langridge’s diction was superb, but while he embraced the German language with ease and assurance, his voice no longer has the depth of tone and secure focus of old. Lyricism was exchanged for emotional intensity: the dynamics fluctuated rather wildly, as the tenor frequently resorted to a wispy head voice in the upper registers, an overly dramatic effect perhaps for these intimate songs. A few cracked high notes revealed the strain but, although the voice perhaps now lacks the bright flexibility of youth, there was no doubting Langridge’s emotional and dramatic engagement with the songs’ mournful narrative. Most successful were the sentimental, more restrained songs: in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (‘Thanksgiving to the Brook’) pianist David Owen Norris’s delicate but assertive rippling motif literally conjured the natural world and metaphorically tormented the young miller with its ambiguous murmurings. Owen Norris was a thoughtful, responsive partner throughout this recital, ever alert to subtle nuances, enhancing — through dynamic gradations, rubati and ever-changing textures and articulation — the melodic narrative. Occasionally the dynamic contrasts may have been a little too sudden or exaggerated, the sforzandi a touch strident, but the accompaniment matched the drama of Langridge’s delivery. Fittingly, a haunting delivery of ‘Der Leiermann’ brought the recital to a close; here, the subtle variations of tempi produced a tension between the rigidity of the piano’s droning, bare fifths, the coiling right-hand and the plaintive melancholy of the voice.
Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge found Langridge in more comfortable and relaxed mode. This was a bracing interpretation perfectly suited to the folksong derivation and ambience of Vaughan Williams’ striking Housman settings. Tempi were perfectly judged. The brisk eponymous opening song was propelled by the string tremolos and dynamic, rocking piano motif which launches the cycle, and this momentum was sustained in ‘From far, from eve and morning’. Alternations of instrumentation — first voice and piano, now strings, then full ensemble — introduced a note of poignancy into the third song, ‘Is my team ploughing?’, most apt for a song that reflects with gentle nostalgia on loss and love. The members of the Doric Quartet enjoyed the narrative role played by the instrumental lines, the elongated triplets of the inner strings enhancing the mood of yearning tinged with resignation. ‘Bredon Hill’ is the emotional centre of the work: with crystal clear intonation, the strings’ slowly rocking, divisi chords created a remarkable, icy serenity, capturing the stillness and transparency of the bleached landscape as piano bells echoed through the emptiness. The ensemble gradually built up to a frightening intensity and Langridge, bitterly defying the tolling bells, spat out the final words of the closing verse, ‘I hear you, I will come’. This was superb ensemble playing, as Owen Norris and the Doric Quartet magnificently supported and complemented Langridge’s varied palette of colours.
Langridge has a long association with Birtwistle’s music: in 1986 he created the title role the opera The Mask of Orpheus and also starred in the 2008 premiere of Minotaur. ‘From Vanitas’ was specially commissioned by the Wigmore Hall; a miniature for voice and piano, Birtwistle’s sparse, delicately crafted score follows the long, drawn-out lines and accumulating images of the text by David Harsent, his long-term librettist. Langridge’s sensitivity to the sinuous, unfolding poetic lines was superlative; voice and piano intricately interweave, as a rocking figure played by the piano grows ever more urgent, reaching a tempestuous climax before sinking to a deathly silence: ‘the window a mirror perhaps, the room a wilderness.’
Britten’s Who are these children? demonstrated why Langridge is considered a master of English song. The riddling rhymes of William Soutar’s poems, with their Scots dialect and angular rhythms, are not inherently ‘musical’ but Langridge brought melody and coherence to these lines. He doesn’t project the text at the expense of the musical line — there are no ugly exaggerations or distracting mannerisms; rather, a relaxed unfolding in which musical and dramatic narratives are truly one.
The deeply appreciative audience at the Wigmore Hall were not likely to let Langridge go without some ‘extras’. The first encore was a brief mock-tragedy, delivered with mischievous insouciance; this was followed by a boisterous rendering of a ditty from G&S’s ‘Utopia Limited’, oozing ease and charm and demonstrating why Langridge is such a natural on the operatic stage. Both performers clearly enjoyed themselves. This concert may have celebrated the passing years, but Langridge possesses the energy and spirit of a young man, and such musicianship and generosity was justly cherished by the warm, admiring audience.
Schubert — Die schöne Müllerin (selection)
Vaughan Williams — On Wenlock Edge
Birtwistle — From Vanitas (world premiere)
Britten — Who are these Children?
Schubert — Winterreise (selection)