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The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
10 May 2010
Modern English Song Alive and Well
London’s Wigmore Hall is one of the world’s great centres for art song. This recital, by Susan Bickley and Iain Burnside, specialists in the genre, showed that English language art song is alive and thriving.
Everyone’s heard Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, even if they don’t realize it. He wrote the music for the films, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Far from the Madding Crowd and Murder On the Orient Express . He embraces jazz, cabaret and show tunes enthusiastically, yet he studied with Pierre Boulez for two years. The four Dream Songs (1986) are to poems by Walter de la Mare, catching the poet’s delicate magic. “Elf-light, bat-light, touchwood-light
in a dream beguiling in a dream of wonders in a world far away”.
Susan Bickley and Iain Burnside have been working with Bennett for many years, so this performance hinted at much greater riches on offer.
Bennett, though, isn’t by any means the only English composer writing art song. There are many others less well known but very good indeed. Bickley and Burnside chose a small sample from the iconic NMC Songbook. NMC is an innovative, independent company, dedicated to promoting the best in modern British song. The NMC Songbook won the 2009 Gramophone award for Best Contemporary Recording. It’s a window on what’s happening in British music.Such a range of composers and styles! Diverse as the scene is, it’s definitely creative.
John White’sHouses and Gardens in the Heart of England sets the text of a tourist brochure. It’s hilarious, playing with the self consciously stunted Officialese. Bickley sings with mock solemnity, Burnside brings out the free flowing liveliness in the piano part. This song is so good it should be standard repertoire. Jeremy Dale Roberts (b 1934) Spoken to a Bronze Head is an elegiac contemplation of the passage of time, well paced and elegant. Julian Grant’s Know thy Kings and Queens is an exercise in downbeat humour, while in Brian Elias’s Meet me in the Green Glen, plangent lines recall plainchant. Richard Baker’s Lullaby pits jerky staccato piano against voice in brittle irony. Not a typical soothing lullaby : this baby fights back!
Bickley and Burnside have also recorded Ivor Gurney songs, so it was good to hear them perform a selection live. Gurney was quintessentially “English”, only really happy in his native Gloucestershire countryside, but bucolic he is not. There’s an edge in his work which is universal. Bickley performed the famous I will go with my father a-ploughing as if it were grand opera, but was more idiomatic in the other songs, such as the tender All Night under the Moon.
But what to make of By a Bierside, where, in the first strophe Gurney mourns the loss of life, then switches to a strange celebration of death “It is most grand to die”, emphasized by a huge arching line after momentary silence. Bickley’s voice soars triumphantly, but what kind of triumph does Gurney really mean ? Gurney’s more ambiguous than he seems.
Bickley and Burnside ended their concert on an upbeat note, with William Bolcom’s 3 Cabaret Songs (1977-85) Each song is a vivid vignette. Murray the Furrier comes alive in Bickley’s characterization. Amor is joyously camp, a cheerful parody showing that art song can, after all, get an edge on pop.