Recently in Performances
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
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.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
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.
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.
27 Mar 2014
Harrison Birtwistle, Elliott Carter, Wigmore Hall, London
Celebrating the 80th birthday of one of the UK's greatest composers (if not the greatest), this concert was an intriguing, and not always stimulating, mix. Birtwistle with Carter makes sense, but Birtwistle with Adams does not - or at least only within the remit of the concert series. The concert was actually entitled “Nash Inventions: American and British Masterworks, including an 80th Birthday Tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle” and was the final concert in the “Inventions” series.
So it was that Birtwistle bookended the evening. The first piece was his Fantasia upon all the notes (2012), commissioned by the present ensemble and premiered at the Wigmore Hall in March 2012. Scored for flute, clarinet, harp (the sound of the harp, although not omnipresent, was a Theseus-thread through the evening) and string quartet, the score breathed out a lyric expansiveness, its long lines fully honoured here and leading to a frenetic climax before the piece effectively disintegrated. The basis for the composition (“all the notes”) is the shifting scales of the harp, dependent on the pedals used. In this way, the harp, by no means soloistic, subtly guides the harmonic language of the piece. It was a fine example of the composer's subtle practices, and was beautifully and sensitively delivered here by members of the Nash Ensemble.
Carter and Birtwistle are of course linked by age as well as the complexities of their music (although the manifestations of those complexities are, of course, very different). There were two Carter pieces in the first half: Enchanted Preludes of 1988 and Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux of some 22 years previous. The first, Enchanted Preludes, is scored for flute and cello, here played by Philippa Davies and Adrian Brendel, respectively. It was a virtuoso performance of a sophisticated piece. Both players demonstrated superb control of their instruments in a piece that demonstrates, concisely, Carter's strengths of a consistent harmonic language and a superb ear for detail. If Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux for flute and clarinet (Davies again, this time with Richard Hosford on clarinet) was not quite as fine a piece, not as sure of itself, it nevertheless evinced a great sense of dialogue.
The Adams was the odd man out. Somehow Shaker Loops, in its chamber version for seven strings, felt rather roughly 'inserted' in deference to the American side of the concert series. It was a fabulous performance: perfectly graduated crescendi and a real sense of determination. But the piece felt over-long and frankly bloated, and was firmly compositionally outgunned by its companion pieces.
Elliott Carter's Mosaic of 2004 (for flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, string trio and double-bass) began the second half. The harp part is virtuosic but in the pre-concert talk Birtwistle had contrasted Carter's treatment of the instrument to his own: Carter does not let the instrument resonate (and therefore, by implication, be true to its own nature). The complex pedal work is impressive indeed as a performance act and one does have to wonder if this aspect is part of the piece's basis, just as the viola is asked to be contra-itself and be very forceful; very un-viola-like perhaps. It is an interesting piece, certainly, but it was overshadowed to no small extent by the piece that most people had surely come to hear, Birtwistle's recent The Moth Requiem (2012).
The BBC Singers were on absolute top form for the demands of this work, which sets a number of Latin names of butterflies interspersed into the poem “A Literalist” by Robin Blaser from his larger work The Moth Poem. The poem concerns a moth trapped in the body of a piano and which could be heard in contact with the strings. It is a lovely idea, and masterfully realised. The scoring is for 12 singers, 3 harps and alto flute. In fact Birtwistle uses the three harps as one “meta-instrument”, as he explained in his characteristically dry-witted pre-performance event. Birtwistle's years of experience enabled him to weave an intoxicating sonic tapestry. The fragmenting of texture and musical material in the work's final stages is impeccably timed. This is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Running through the concert was the sure direction of Nicholas Kok, whose clarity as a conductor was a model of its kind. A remarkable evening.