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

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’.

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.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

06 Nov 2018

For the Fallen: James Macmillan's All the Hills and Vales Along at Barbican Hall

‘He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude.’ So, wrote fellow war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley of the last sonnets of Rupert Brooke.

For the Fallen: Marking the First World War Centenary, Ian Bostridge (tenor), Gianandrea Noseda (conductor) London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain at Barbican Hall, London.

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Charles Hamilton Sorley

 

There is nothing sentimental about Sorley’s own poetry which, like that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, looks with sardonic objectivity upon themes such as duty and the glory of war, and does not shy from examining, with frank intensity and authenticity, violence and death in relation to private and public commemoration.

This concert at the Barbican Hall was one such public commemoration. James MacMillan’s oratorio, All the Hills and Vales Along, for solo tenor, chorus, brass band and orchestra was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and 14-18 NOW. It sets five poems by Sorley who, aged just 20, was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos in 1915 (a smaller-scale version of the work, for string quintet and solo winds was presented at MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival in Ayrshire last month).

The sight of the eighty or so members of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain crowding around the London Symphony Orchestra and beneath the London Symphony Chorus on the Barbican Hall stage was both tremendous and somewhat troubling. After all, many of these young musicians are little younger than Sorley himself and the millions of others who died in the conflict.

The opening moments of Macmillan’s setting of ‘All the hills and vales along’ exacerbated this unease. The pastoral intimations of the poem’s title are disregarded; landscape is an indifferent onlooker here. Macmillan begins with an eerie ‘noise’ that brings to mind Owen’s image in his poem ‘Exposure’, of the ‘air that shudders with black snow’ as the men wait, in terrible anticipation of the forthcoming battle: ‘Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,/ But nothing happens.’ The bows of the LSO strings seemed unmoving and no pulse gave life to the dry, grey huskiness which emanated, until the still, cupped hands of conductor Gianandrea Noseda opened and the brassy vigour of a march burst forth. The summons of the side drum and the measured thump of the bass drum inspired fortitude and focus, countered by crescendo-ing blares and rhythmic shifts which conjured both excitement and peril. (At the Cumnock performance, the ironic medley of marches and hymn-like melodies was played by the Dalmellington Band, founded in 1864, in which MacMillan’s coal-miner grandfather played euphonium.)

The unison entry of the male voices of the London Symphony Chorus were lifted aloft by the beating drum, their marching song robustly declaimed but lacking in hope: ‘And the singers are the chaps/ Who are going to die perhaps’. The full choral voices rang with a stirring hymn, ‘So sing with joyful breath’, though more honest spirituality was evoked by the quieter description, accompanied by vibraphone, of an ‘Earth that knows of death, not tears.’ The return of the title line, this time sung by the soft female voices evoked the distance between those who march away and those who remain, with only memories and echoes to comfort them: ‘Earth will echo still, when foot/ Lies numb and voice mute.’

There is no deceit or denial in Sorley’s poem, which urges the marching men onwards, ‘To the gates of death with song’, and which concludes with the cynically trite couplet, ‘Strew your gladness on earth’s bed./ So be merry, so be dead.’ Macmillan captures this unflinching honesty in his setting, and in the subsequent movement ‘Rook’, for tenor and orchestra which was sung by Ian Bostridge with soul-piercing focus. So often, in lieder recitals, Bostridge seems to ‘live’ the experience of the poetic protagonists; here, though his engagement and communication were no less emotive or affecting, he retained a certain detachment and poise - the experiences and lives described where not so much ‘lived’ as felt and communicated. The vocal challenges that Macmillan presents are considerable, and at the top and bottom of his range Bostridge did not always seem at ease but, characteristically, the tenor did not once shy from full commitment to the vocal embodiment of poetic meaning. The first word, ‘There, where the rusty iron lies’, was a shout of pained bewilderment, the sound ironically sweet and clean above tremulous string fluttering. The violas’ counter-melody seemed to push the questioning, wondering voice upwards - ‘Perhaps no man, until he dies,/ Will understand them, what they say’ - as Noseda summoned ever greater intensity, driving towards the climactic statement: ‘The world is half content.’ This declaration marked a change: gentle, soaring explorations by the strings, and the stuttering pianissimo triplets which whispered as the players lightly dropped their bows onto the strings, suggested a motionlessness which was complemented by the chiasmus of Bostridge yearning reflection on ‘the soul that flies/ From day to night, from night to day.’

These first two movements created a powerful and disturbing impact which I did not feel was wholly sustained in the subsequent parts of the oratorio. The thunderous bass drum roll that introduced Sorley’s sonnet, ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’, was succeeded by a chamber group of solo strings whose timbres and harmonies recalled the elegiac wistfulness of the music of those - Howells, Finzi, Ireland - who themselves experienced the conflict. However, Macmillan does inject growing energy, and uses dynamic contrast effectively as the Chorus relay the poet-speaker’s instructions to ‘Give them not praise … Nor tears … Nor honour.’: ‘Say only this. “They are dead.”’ And, the distorted muted ‘fanfares’ at the close were aptly disconcerting, for: ‘Great death has made all his for evermore.’

‘A hundred thousand million mites we go’ is quite cinematic in its initial bracing string rush, and brutal snap-pizzicato representation of the curses that ‘snap the air’. Both the rhythmic style and text-setting reminded me of Britten. (Echoes of the timeless observations of the Male and Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia seemed discernible in Macmillan’s settings of the lines, ‘And nations, ankle-deep in love or hate,/ Throw darts or kisses all the unwitting hour/ Beside the ominous unseen tide of fate:’.) Indeed, it was Bostridge’s characteristically discerning and intense delivery of the text which gave this movement its power. Elongated vowels were weighted, as the soldiers set off ‘Wheeling and tacking o’er the endless plain’, and later swayed ‘Writhing and tossing on the eternal plain’. As the vocal line sank, Bostridge’s tone became blanched, ‘Some black with death’; melodic ascents gained intensity, accompanied by the strings’ horrid scurrying. Consonants were viciously enunciated, ‘And some are mounted on swift steeds of thought’; a violently rolled ‘r’ infused the poem’s final question with agonised inconclusiveness: ‘Who brings us home again?’

In 1914, prior to taking up his place at Cambridge University, Sorley visited Germany, and when war broke out he found himself troubled by divided loyalties, which he made public in ‘To Germany’. This seemed to me the weakest of the movements, redolent not just with a Shostakovich-like bitterness - the angular unison string exclamations brought to mind the Fifth Symphony - but also with an Elgarian nostalgia, even nobilmente in the hymn for chorus and tenor which dominates the movement. Macmillan does return to the raspy whisper which began the oratorio, disturbing the dry murmur with blasts of brass and string tremolandos as Sorley describes ‘the storm,/The darkness and the thunder and the rain’ which will precede the coming of peace. But, I did not feel that Macmillan fully re-established the sardonic tone or emotional lucidity of Sorley’s poetry, which shows just how profoundly the young Scottish poet had grasped the truth about war - a truth he expressed with wariness and honesty.

There is much that is both sardonic and ‘heroic’ about Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, which requires the largest instrumental forces of any of the composer’s symphonies. It was begun in September 1935 and completed in May the following year, during which time the composer came under attack when Pravda accuses him of creating ‘Confusion instead of Music’ in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Shostakovich withdrew the symphony in December 1936, while it was in rehearsal, and it was not heard until the Khrushchev era when, having been revised by the composer, it was premiered in Moscow on 30th December 1961. Moreover, the symphony represents the young Shostakovich’s ambitious endeavour to reconcile his developing musical language with traditional symphonic form.

This is music that requires immense intellectual and physical effort, and Noseda made these creative forces palpable in the Allegretto poco moderato, emphasising the quasi-mechanistic relentlessness of the profusion of material, and balancing the motoring rhythms with the espressivo violins and the bassoon’s wry but elegant solo reflections (bassoonist Rachel Gough played superbly throughout and thoroughly deserved the cheer of acclaim she received). The long movement never felt disjointed - unruly at times, perhaps, but Noseda suggested that he could tame the beast. This was a physical onslaught, even assault, but there was delicacy too, and the woodwind - especially the clarinet, bass clarinet and cor anglais - painted vivid colours. Noseda took risks, pushing the sound towards vulgarity at times, and launching the strings’ fugato at a crazily precipitous tempo - the terrific LSO fiddles raced like a runaway train but amazingly stayed firmly on the tracks. The more conventional form and lighter scoring of the short Moderato con moto ironically allowed the conductor to playfully tug at the rhythm and tempo and knock the regular occasionally out of kilter. And, Noseda did not try to hide the Mahlerian presence at the start of the Largo while the final Allegro accrued an unstoppable momentum into which Noseda integrated moments of lightly scornful parody.

Perhaps Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony embodies a ‘battle’, or several battles, that cannot be won, its immensely imaginative but ultimately unreconcilable discourse never fully ‘conquered’. But, Noseda and the LSO communicated, almost viscerally, the truly heroic dimensions of that discourse.

The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 8 November at 7.30pm.

Claire Seymour

For the Fallen: Marking the First World War Centenary

James Macmillan: All the Hills and Vales Along (Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, with the world premieres taking place at The Cumnock Tryst festival (chamber version) on 6 October 2018 and LSO (orchestral version) on 4 November 2018); Shostakovich: Symphony No.4 in C minor Op.43.

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), London Symphony Chorus (Simon Halsey, chorus director), National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, London Symphony Orchestra.

Barbican Hall, London; Sunday 4th November 2018.

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):