Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May 1594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Lachrymae by Frederic Lord Leighton
07 Dec 2012

Britten’s Lachrymae at Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble’s final contribution to the Wigmore Hall’s Britten centenary series, ‘Before Life and After’, presented works for soloists and strings.

Britten’s Lachrymae at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lachrymae by Frederic Lord Leighton

 

Composed for its dedicatee, William Primrose, who premiered the work at the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival, Lachrymae once again occupied Britten in the final months of his life, when he returned to the work in order to arrange the original piano accompaniment for string ensemble, charging the relationship between soloist and accompanists with increased tension and concentration.

The viola was Britten’s own instrument and so often — as in the passacaglia in Peter Grimes, or the second movement of the two Portraits for strings, written when he was just 17 years old, or the Third String Quartet, composed shortly before his death — is seems to be the instrument through which he speaks most personally. In Lachrymae, inspired by Dowland’s melancholy song ‘If my complaints could passions move’, Britten’s own voice converses discursively with voices from the past, creating an ambience of ambiguity and mystery.

Soloist Lawrence Power conveyed the searching hesitancy of the melodic line with probing eloquence. Although the opening is tentative — a quotation from Dowland’s song is introduced and submerged in a low-lying register in the accompaniment — Power established his presence and poise, while sustaining the air of expressive mystery. The viola’s fragments of quotation from Dowland, haunting snatches of an archaic sound world, were poignant lyrical utterances when juxtaposed with the uneven, unstable, more modern instrumental fabric.

Martin Brabbins deftly shaped the unfolding exchanges between soloist and players, and within the ensemble, crafting interchanges suggestive of conversation and quotation. There was a sense of distancing and translation: from voice to viola, and from Elizabethan past to modern present. The co-presence of Dowland’s compositional voice and Britten’s idiosyncratic idiom seemed both curious and inevitable, the two held in balance and in alternation throughout.

Brabbins was concerned with the minutiae of the score but also controlled the whole form as the sequence of variations (or ‘Reflections’ as Britten called them) progressed towards the full revelation of its source. From the shadowy opening of the Lento, with its muffled tremolos and muted una corda playing, the piece built in intensity. The approach to the interruption of this evolution by the viola’s statement of the Lachrymae of the title, Dowland’s Flow My tears’, in Reflection 6 was electric; and Brabbins’ emphasis on the vivid textural contrasts, complemented by the viola’s direct utterance, made for a powerful and moving climax.

Britten’s innate and renowned sensitivity to words can seem wasted on Rimbaud’s somewhat self-indulgent poetry, which expresses the nineteen-year-old Frenchman’s sense of excitement when faced with the thrilling potential of modernity and new frontiers, and which the composer set in the instrumental song cycle, Les Illuminations. Britten himself was only 26 at the time of composition, but it is clear that he already had an ear for French idioms and rhythm. And, this was emphasised further by soprano Sandrine Piau’s beautiful, understated enunciation of her native language, highlighting by turns the languid repose and racy energy of the verse.

This was a commanding, polished performance, one which retained the sensuality of Rimbaud’s animated, colourful outpouring but which also maintained a certain distance, clarity and composure. ‘Villes’ was light and airy, Piau momentary blossoming when the poet-speaker exalts: “Old craters, encircled by colossi and palms of copper, roar melodiously in the fires”. The string lines and voice are very much of equal import, the latter often melodically subordinate to the on-going instrumental discourse; Brabbins and the players of the Nash Ensemble were firmly focused, alert to the instrumental arguments and colourings which embrace the voice. The violins’ dance-like melodies in ‘Antique’ were wonderfully undulating and sinuous, while the march-like tune in ‘Royauté’ had real rhythmic bite.

In the latter, Piau revealed her wit and humour; but she was equally at home with the more prosaic recitative of ‘Phrase’, producing an incredible gracefulness at the very top of her register, and dancing weightlessly through the glissandi, accompanied by delicate string harmonics. The virtuosic twirls and runs of ‘Marine’, “tourillons, tourillons’, and the constant and surprising shifts of mood, presented no difficulties. After the drolleries of the opening of ‘Parade’, Piau’s gleaming rich sound bloomed in the ecstatic ‘final’ phrase: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.” (“I alone hold the key to this savage parade!” Her ability to convey diverse nuances in different contexts was strongly evident here: this phrase appears in both the opening ‘Fanfare’ and the ‘Interlude’ but Piau drew completely different meanings from the phrase through tone and articulation. This was a fresh and direct performance, which received a well-deserved rapturous reception.

Fittingly, for the work received its world premiere in the Wigmore Hall in 1943, the concert concluded with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. This was an almost overwhelmingly intense rendering, both soloists — tenor John Mark Ainsley and horn player Richard Watkins — performing from memory. Ainsley was movingly expressive and eloquent; but, for me Watkins was the star of the whole evening, every note intelligently conceived and produced with supreme technical mastery, the considerable challenges of Britten’s writing for the natural horn despatched effortlessly. In the opening ‘Prologue’, Watkins manipulated the inherent out-of-tuneness of the instrument to marvellous effect. Throughout the work his phrasing was beautifully judged, nowhere more so than in the haunting echoes of ‘Nocturne’. Elsewhere his golden legato and glowing tone simply took my breath away.

Ainsley’s flexible, relaxed opening phrase in ‘Pastoral’ — rounded, perfectly placed and beautifully poised — set the bar for the rest of his performance. ‘Nocturne’ was elegant but unfussy, the dialogue between voice and horn. In the extended horn preface and postlude of ‘Elegy’ Watkins’ eerily descending semitones powerfully embodied the sense of sin which Blake’s troubling verse obliquely conveys. The darkness which settled over this number carried to ‘Dirge’, as Ainsley’s insistent, increasingly fearful tone brought the shadows of nightmare into the hall, the high keening of the tenor’s melody reiterating the mocking semitone of the ‘Elegy’, extending its terrible influence. The tension was released by the fleet hunting calls and cascading scales of ‘Hymn’, a setting of Ben Jonson’s ‘Hymn to Diana’, goddess of the moon and of the hunt. After a virtuousic cadenza at the close of this movemenr, Watkins unobstrusively left the stage; Ainsley delivered a silky if not soothing performance of Keats’ “O soft embalmer of the still midnight”. Shades of unease were latent in the high Ds of the final line, “And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul”, intimating the ultimate ‘rest’, and confirming that the disturbing dreams of the earlier movements had not fully been banished.

The Nash Ensemble strings were superb throughout, and Brabbins tempi were unfailingly well-judged. If I were to admit to one small misgiving it would be that the Epilogue, delivered by Watkins from the gallery at the back of the Hall, seemed to have too much presence, too much solidity. A more diffuse, ethereal quality — one that might have been achieved if Watkins had played off-stage, perhaps with door ajar, behind the platform — would have sustained the enduring ghostliness that lingered in so many of the movements. But, this complaint seems ungenerous when we were treated to such a wonderful evening of music-making.

Claire Seymour


Sandrine Piau: soprano; John Mark Ainsley: tenor; Richard Watkins: horn; Lawrence Power: viola; Martyn Brabbins: conductor; Nash Ensemble.

Lachrymae for solo viola and strings Op.48a; Les Illuminations Op.18; Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 4 December 2012.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):