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 Reviews

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

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.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

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).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

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.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

24 Jun 2016

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, Wigmore Hall London

A review by Claire Seymour

 

The philosophical profundity and the floridity of the linguistic conceits may offer partial explanation; or perhaps it is simply that there was a dearth of compositional talent. Whatever the cause, Gilchrist is seeking to redress the imbalance by commissioning three new settings of English Romantic poetry - from Sally Beamish, Julian Philips and Jonathan Dove - each of which is to be paired with a song-cycle by Schumann: the two Liederkreis cycles Opp. 39 and 24 and Dichterliebe.

Sally Beamish’s West Wind, premiered by Gilchrist during this Wigmore Hall recital with accompanist Anna Tilbrook, is a companion piece to Schumann’s Op.39 Liederkreis cycle. It sets texts by Joseph Eichendorff which Gilchrist describes as quite Gothic: ‘The poetry is full of misty, veiled night-time scenes where one is not quite sure what is going on - there are knights and maidens and strange happenings down in the valley.’

Certainly the deep rumbles of the piano bass in the opening bars of Beamish’s work, which ripple upwards like a fantasia of wind, and whisper and blast through the composition, are a dark portent of the tempest which is both ‘destroyer and preserver’. As Tilbrook conjured this ‘Wild Spirit’, Gilchrist was heard off-stage and his slow entry - as if in sympathy with the dead leaves, ‘pestilence stricken multitudes’ - increased the air of foreboding. The tenor’s line retreated, ‘cold and low’ like the ‘wingèd seeds’ which lie like ‘corpse[s] within [the] grave’, while Tilbrook’s eerie rustles intimated the Spring breeze to follow. The vocal line, combining declamation and lyricism, and featuring frequent fourth intervals, recalled Britten in its dramatic tautness and the precision of its response to Shelley’s text.

Gilchrist’s subsequent slow, low lament to the ‘dirge of the dying year’ was dragged down further by the piano’s repetitive bass pedal but the image of the ‘vast sepulchre’ from which would burst forth ‘vapours, from whose solid atmosphere/ Black rain, and fire, and hail’ initiated fresh impetus. Here, and throughout, Beamish skilfully conveyed Romantic dualities - destruction and creation, faith and doubt - and in the indecisive final phrase, ‘O hear!’, as in the opening part of the work, faded fragilely into inconclusiveness.

Tilbrook’s delicate pianissimo wonderfully evoked the dreamy exoticism of the third section of Shelley’s poem. The accompaniment’s sparse textures and ‘barely-there’ gestures, anchored by a steady quaver pulsing, were a perfect support for the tenor’s incantatory lyricism. His diction superbly crisp, Gilchrist made much of the imagery, ‘sea-blooms and oozy woods’, which Beamish treats with madrigalian mimicry at times: ‘Thy voice’ was a cry of fear, the piano’s rushing cluster the ‘tremble’ of the natural world. At this central point ‘Oh hear’ disappeared, merging with Romantic nothingness as embodied by the piano’s enigmatic commentary.

In the following section, the poet-speaker’s identification with the wind was suggested by imitation between the piano and voice, and Gilchrist again revealed Beamish’s attentiveness to the poetic text, emphasising details such as the long-held darkness of ‘dead leaf’, and the flourish of ‘mightiest’, while the image of a ‘wave to pant beneath thy power’ released a tumult of energy that matched the momentum of Shelley’s enjambment. The growing positivity and peace felt by the speaker was conveyed by a focused but relaxed mezzo forte as Gilchrist imagined himself as ‘The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven’.

The final section injected renewed determination and urgency: ‘Make me thy lyre’ commanded the tenor, accompanied by astringent harmonies and parallel chords. The address to the ‘Spirit fierce, my spirit’ brought a response in the form of a varied reprise of the piano’s opening squall. True to Shelley’s appeal, ‘Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth/ The trumpet of a prophecy’ (here a beautiful, unaccompanied declamation), the voice’s apostrophe, ‘O Wind’, summoned the sounds of the airy lyre, then plummeted for the poet-speaker’s reverential hope, ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ In the closing bars, Gilchrist quietly left the platform.

Beamish’s text-setting recalls Britten and Purcell in its alertness to the rhythmic potential of the words and the clarity of the sometimes angular melodic line. Gilchrist proved himself the perfect proponent of the work, communicating with a naturalness and directness which complemented the easy, conversational flow of Shelley’s iambic pentameter. I hope that we have the chance to her West Wind again soon, but we will have to wait for subsequent Wigmore Hall seasons to hear how Philips brings Schumann’s Heine settings (Liederkreis Op.24) into company with the poetry of John Clare, and whether Gilchrist persuades Dove that either The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Byron’s Manfred is the perfect partner for Dichterliebe.

West Wind was preceded by five songs by Mendelssohn, a composer often criticised for failing to probe the Romantic subjectivity of his chosen poetic texts in the manner of Schumann or Schubert. Gilchrist began with ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ (On wings of song), a prime candidate perhaps for accusations of saccharine superficiality. Gilchrist’s tenor was warm and sweet, Tilbrook pedalled judiciously, and the duo used the minor-key inflections expressively, but they could not quite overcome the ‘Victorian parlour’ ambience. In a letter of 1842 to a former student, Marc André Souchay, Mendelssohn rebutted criticism that his Lieder Ohne Worte were songs ‘missing’ the poetry, declaring that ‘So much is spoken about music and so little is said. For my part I do not believe that words suffice for such a task … They [too] seem so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music … because the same word never means the same thing to different people’. Gilchrist, though, made much of the text, and the songs had directness and animation. ‘Keine von der Erde Schönen’ (There be none of Beauty’s daughters) was particularly compelling with the tenor making a sustained effort to convey the poetic spirit of Byron’s verse in which the poet-speaker reflects on the magic of his beloved’s beauty.

Tilbrook was an evocative accompanist, the piano’s syncopated throbbing embodying the distant tolling bells in ‘Nachtlied’ (Night song), and the fairy horses and elves of ‘Neue Liebe’ (New love) conjured by the accompaniment’s sprightly staccatos and measured-trill figures. In the latter, Gilchrist accurately negotiated the demanding contours of the swooping, leaping vocal line and the nuanced pacing of the final stanza in which the poet-speaker cautiously wonders if the elfin queen’s smile heralds a new love, or death, was skilfully controlled.

The Liszt songs which followed the interval were similarly attentive to detail and engagingly performed, but I found Gilchrist’s tenor a little too light and pure - even, dare one suggest, today of all days, rather ‘English’ - to capture the expressive agitation of some of these songs. That said, ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ (In the Rhine, the beautiful river) was gentle and dreamy and in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (You are like a flower) the tenor’s mezza voce floated blissfully. Gilchrist had the power, even low in the voice, to match the heroic gestures of the accompaniment to ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ (There was a King in Thule). Best of the pick was ‘Loreley’ which was notable for the duo’s masterly control of the song’s musical and dramatic form, and its rhetorical impact.

Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39 closed the recital. Gilchrist’s performance of the cycle was characterised by even vocal production, sustained intensity and expressive commitment that did not veer into melodrama. These qualities were compellingly present in ‘Waldesgespräch’ in which Gilchrist enacted the meeting between a knight - confident and focused of tone - and a mysterious beautiful woman - a restrained half-voice - as Tilbrook’s ‘hunting horns’ and rustling leaves evoked the nocturnal forest scene. The piano postlude created an unnerving sense of mystery, as the human figure was engulfed by the forest’s embrace, never more to be seen. Gilchrist can make his tenor seem quite ethereal at times and in ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit night) there was a lovely spaciousness as the beloved appeared to the poet-speaker, ‘as though Heaven had softly kissed the Earth’. ‘Wehmut’ (Sadness), too, was sensitively shaped. In contrast, ‘Frühlingsnacht’ (Spring night) ended the recital in a spirit of joyful refulgence.

Claire Seymour

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available via the BBC website ( Broadcast ) until 21 July.

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano.

Mendelssohn: ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ Op.34 No.2, ‘Schlafloser Augen Leuchte’ WoO.4 No.2, ‘Keine von der Erde Schönen’ WoO.4 No.1, ‘Nachtlied’ Op.71 No.6, ‘Neue Liebe’ Op.19a No.4; Sally Beamish: West Wind (world première); Liszt: ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ S272/2, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ S287, ‘Die Loreley’ S273/2, ‘Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam’ S309, ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ S278/2; Schumann: Liederkreis Op.39.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 22nd June 2016.

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):