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

Elizabeth of York [Source: Wikipedia]
11 Dec 2014

Mary, Queen of Heaven, Wigmore Hall

O Maria Deo grata — ‘O Mary, pleasing to God’: so begins Robert Fayrfax’s antiphon, one of several supplications to the Virgin Mary presented in this thought-provoking concert by The Cardinall’s Musick at the Wigmore Hall.

Mary, Queen of Heaven — Sub-plot: Elizabeth of York

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elizabeth of York [Source: Wikipedia]

 

In the late-medieval period, Christian thinking centred on the belief that the surest route to eternal peace was through the agency of the Blessed Virgin. Choral music repeatedly invoked her aid; in the Eton Choirbook she is frequently beseeched and, indeed, Eton College had been founded by Henry VI in 1440 as ‘The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor’. Yet, Tudor dynastic politics was never wholly absent from either the religious or cultural life of the age, as The Cardinall’s Musick under the direction of Andrew Carwood intriguingly revealed.

Fayrfax was one of the most pre-eminent English musicians of the early-sixteenth century, holding many important positions during the kingship of Henry VII and the early reign of Henry VIII. A member of the Chapel Royal, he accompanied Henry VIII to the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. Subsequently, his talents have perhaps been undervalued: he has been seen as a musical ‘conservative’, emulating the style and methods of Dunstable at a time when Flemish musicians such as Josquin de Près were experimenting with new complex polyphonic techniques.

Fayrfax’s Mass, O quam glorifica, is one of most complex masses of the period, and the Gloria opened the evening’s performance. The mass was probably written as part of Fayrfax’s doctorate submission to the University of Cambridge c.1502, and was thus designed to show off the Fayrfax’s technical skill and musical invention — as well as his mastery of the perceived intellectual foundations of the art of composition, such as the mathematical patterns which underpin the formal structure and metrical arrangements.

The ten singers of The Cardinall’s Musick gave a polished and purposeful account, Fayrfax’s fluent note-against-note counterpoint and conjunct melodies, with only occasional dissonance, resulting in a mellifluous mass of sound. Great dignity was evoked, and interest generated, by the perpetual re-voicings and re-positionings of Fayrfax’s expansive chords of full harmony. Moreover, just as the textural patterns were handled very expressively, so the metrical complications — the mixed meters, irregular phrase lengths and complex syncopations — were pointedly and judiciously articulated.

Interestingly, The Cardinall’s Musick presented not a perfectly blended sound but one in which individual voices retained their distinct timbre and character; such individualism is perhaps at odds with the contemporary ‘spirit’ of the age, but it is an approach which — complemented by Carwood’s subtle changes of tempo and slight rubatos — nevertheless helped to highlight and shape the points of imitation, and it brought animation and colour to the textures.

Fayrfax’s beautiful melodic writing was noteworthy in the simple motet Ave lumen gratiae (Hail light of grace), a litany of praise in which each line begins with the uplifting address, ‘Ave’. But, it was the five-part motet, Eterne laudis lilium, which brought the full vocal voices together for the concluding work of the programme, which most was most compelling and also most strange. After a hymn of praise to the Blessed Virgin, there follows a genealogy of the Holy Family, tracing the female lineage from Mary to St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The two sections announcing the list of names, pairing the tenor first with the treble and then with the bass, were excitedly swept aside by imitative entries for all five voices when ‘Elizabeth’ was announced. Records show that on 28 March 1502, Fayrfax received twenty shillings from Elizabeth of York, the consort of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII, for setting ‘an anthem of oure Lady and St Elizabeth’. Clearly this motet was intended as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth of York who was mortally ill at the of the work’s composition — indeed, the first letter of each line forms an acrostic reading ELISABETH REGINA ANGLIE — and here the repetitions of the Queen’s name were finely and expressively sung.

The Cardinall’s Music also performed compositions by Fayrfax’s contemporaries and friends. William Cornysh’s short votive anthem, Ave Maria, mater Dei, is one of the composer’s eight contributions to the Eton Choirbook, and characteristically addresses Mary as the intermediary through whom one may find eternal rest: ‘mother of God, Lady, queen of heaven, empress of hell’. The singers made much of the harmonic nuances and complex rhythms, and especially relished the shifting vocal textures. After the opening declamatory invocation for four voices, trio and a duet sections followed, making the return to full voices for the prayer ‘miserere mei’ which ends first part most striking; the rich textures of the final Amen were similarly dramatic.

Walter Lambe’s four-voice Stella caeli (Star of heaven) was an interesting inclusion. It contrasts with the other Marian texts in that rather than seeking spiritual salvation it implores the Virgin for protection against a more mundane but deadly reality: plague. Mary, addressed as a celestial power, is entreated to ‘be gracious and restrain the heavens, whose attacks bring our people low with fierce and deadly wounds’.

There were some unfamiliar names too. John Plummer’s Tota pulcra es (You are altogether beautiful), is a setting of text from the Songs of Songs and looks ahead to the reign of Edward VI during which Plummer flourished. Here we enjoyed some seductively smooth, conjunct melismas, the continual shifts between two- and three-voice textures adding further appeal. George Banaster was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the 1470s. His antiphon ‘O Maria et Elizabeth’ continued the unification of religious and political sentiment, moving from traditional supplication to a prayer for the monarch and for the good fortune of the country.

Secular works were interspersed between the spiritual compositions. Fayrfax was represented by two gentle love songs, ‘Most clere of colour’ and ‘To complayne me’, while the less well-known Edward Turges’s ‘Enforce Yourself as God’s Own Knight’ for soprano, alto and bass, allowed the singers to demonstrate their vocal agility and control in the long, florid melismas which conclude the syllabic, homophonic verses.

It was intriguing to listen to this music in a present-day concert hall, a situation far removed from the devotional contexts in which it was performed 600 years ago. As the sound swelled, a ‘gravity’ was conveyed by the grand choral effect, suggesting a spiritual certainty which is less frequently encountered in the modern age.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

The Cardinall’s Musick: Andrew Carwood, director; Julie Cooper, Cecilia Osmond (soprano); David Gould, David Martin (alto); Steven Harrold, Nicholas Todd (tenor); Robert Evans, Robert Rice (baritone); James Birchall, Simon Whitely (bass).

Robert Fayrfax: Gloria from Missa O quam glorifica, Most clere of colour, O Maria Deo grata, Ave lumen gratiae, To complayne me, Eterne laudis lilium. Walter Lamne: Stella caeli. William Cornysh: Ave Maria mater Dei, Gaude virgo mater Christi. Gilbert Banaster: O Maria et Elizabeth. John Plummer: Tota pulcra es. Edward Turges: Enforce yourself as God’s own knight.

Wigmore Hall, London, Monday, 8th December 2014.

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):