Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.



23 Feb 2020

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

The Sixteen sing Dowland and Byrd at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Harry Christophers

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve


Published in 1593, Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman reminds us of one of fundamental philosophical and cultural tenets of the Elizabethan age: the close, perhaps inextricable, relationship which was held to exist between the art of music and the art of spoken rhetoric. And, it was that bond of music and word - which composers exploited to ‘move’ the listener by cultivating grief, melancholy, joy and faith - that this programme of music presented by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall was designed to reflect.

But, the self-conscious rhetoric of the lute ayre, with its quasi-metaphysical tensions and its strange intensity and elusiveness, is quite a different thing from the nature of the musico-poetic relationship that we see William Byrd crafting in his 1611 collection, Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets. When Byrd declares his music as being ‘framed to the life of the words’ he does not mean that his songs are a musical embodiment of a poem’s central conceits, such as we find in John Dowland’s 1612 collection, A Pilgrimes Solace. Byrd is concerned not with elusiveness but with clarity; his music reinforces the formal contours of the poetry which thereby acquires a rhetorical force so that the listener may appreciate its meaning more directly and powerfully. The Sixteen, led by their conductor Harry Christophers, proved more comfortable exploring Byrd’s expressive formal rhetoric and madrigalian detail than Dowland’s illusive tropes and dialectic.

The items by Dowland offered individual singers an opportunity to step from the ensemble and perform as soloists, accompanied by lutenist David Miller. Soprano Katy Hills sang ‘Disdain me still’ with directness, purity of tone and some attentiveness to the words, but her delivery lacked the flexibility required to convey the erotic tension of the text which opposes desire’s fulfilment with its self-destruction: “Disdain me still, that I may ever love”, begins the poet-singer, concluding, “Love surfeits with reward, his nurse is scorn”.

These songs require considerable performative presence. Perhaps the presence on the platform of the other singers and Christophers, the latter perched on a high stool, was inimical to the recreation of the intimate context for which these courtly songs - intended for a specific, intellectually sophisticated and socially elevated status - were composed. That said, the ensemble was necessary for the choric conclusions to ‘Welcome black night’ and ‘Cease these false sports’, which suggest that these songs were performed within a masque or similar entertainment. The florid melismas of the latter were elegantly sung by bass Ben Davies, although he did not communicate the nuances and inferences of the text, which he articulated clearly, as the poet-speaker bids “Goodnight” to his “yet virgin bride”. Jeremy Budd’s tenor was fittingly light and buoyant in ‘Up merry mates’, though in characteristically melancholy fashion, Dowland concludes with a minor-key choral lament, “A dismal hours,/ Who can forbear,/ But sink with sad despair.”

Alexandra Kidgell revealed the richly colour lower register of her soprano at the start of ‘In darkness let me dwell’, but she seemed uncertain how to negotiate the irregularity of Dowland’s phrase structures and his inventive approach to text setting which capture the idealisation of sorrow and death in these elegiac ayres, embodying as they do the notion of inexpressibility and the dissimulation, concealment and ambivalence which are the essence of the courtly pose.

The stillness and serenity of soprano Julie Cooper’s performance of ‘Sweet stay awhile’ was compelling, and bass Eamonn Dougan made much of the repetition of the final couplet of ‘Shall I strive with words to move’: “I wooed her, I loved her, and none but her admire./ O come dear joy, and answer my desire.” Here there was a real sense of human complexity, contradiction and desire. The Dowland songs were accompanied in a rather restrained manner by Miller, tasteful and no doubt idiomatic, but with little sense of the mercurial and ‘strange’ that more elaborate renditions may intimate. Miller and tenor Mark Dobell had the stage to themselves for a sequence of three songs, ‘Thou Mighty God’, ‘When David’s Life by Saul’ and ‘When the poor cripple’. Dobell’s soft even tone was apparent from the first unaccompanied “Thou”, and the vocal line was well-focused as it twisted through the chromatic contortions and the aching repetitions of “misery and pain”.

The members of The Sixteen seemed more comfortable singing as an ensemble, and the idiom of William Byrd’s Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets, ‘Some solemne, others ioyfull, framed to the life of the words: fit for voyces or viols of 3.4.5. and 6. parts’, is a natural fit for Christophers’ approach to words, rhythmic form and temporal expression.

There was a gradual heightening of intensity in the opening ‘Retire, my soul’, while the ever denser textures of ‘Come woeful Orpheus’ were beautifully strengthened by the eloquence of the middle voices, culminating in the urgent chromaticism of the closing appeal: “Of sourest sharps and uncouth flats make choice,/ And I’ll thereto compassionate my voice.” A ‘wiry’ nimbleness characterised ‘Come, let us rejoice unto the Lord’ and this energy swept through and beyond the final phrase, Christophers briskly snatching away the concluding avowal, “in psalms let us make joy to him”. The way Byrd’s uses formal rhetoric to communicate verbal, often moral, meaning was well-illustrated at the close of ‘Arise Lord into thy rest’, the melismatic ‘leans’ of “Let the priests be clothed with justice ” being sharply superseded by the staccato dance, “And let the saints rejoice”.

I found some of the lighter lyrics presented in the second half - ‘Sing we merrily’, ‘Come jolly swains’ - a trifle too tinged with the diction and tone colour of the English cathedral school tradition; but, ‘This sweet and merry month of May’ had lovely flexibility, the triple-time “pleasure of the joyful time”, giving way to the expansive awe and adulation of “ O beauteous Queen”, before a celebratory surge to the close. The “Amen” at the end of ‘Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles’ was warm and florid, opening its petals like a budding flower releasing its scents and welcoming the sunlight. Some of the ensemble songs were accompanied by Miller but, at least from my seat at the rear of Wigmore Hall, the lute was practically inaudible.

‘This day Christ was born’ had made for a buoyant conclusion to the first half of the concert, “rejoice” blossoming melismatically before a majestic “Glory be to God on high” was answered by a triple-time “Alleluia”. Christophers manoeuvred the structural and temporal shifts with masterful control and ease. Similarly, the seamless polyphony of the final item of the concert, ‘Turn our captivity, O Lord’, built persuasively towards the confident assertion, “they shall come with joy”, and the broad assurance, “carrying their sheaves with them”.

Claire Seymour

The Sixteen: Harry Christophers (conductor)

Byrd - ‘Retire my soul’; Dowland - ‘Disdain me still, that I may ever love’; Byrd - ‘Come woeful Orpheus’; Dowland - ‘Welcome black night/Cease these false sports’; Byrd - ‘Come, let us rejoice unto our Lord’, ‘How vain the toils’, ‘Arise Lord into thy rest’; Dowland - ‘Thou mighty God’; Byrd -‘Make ye joy to God’, ‘This day Christ was born’, ‘Sing we merrily’; Dowland - ‘In darkness let me dwell’; Byrd - ‘Come jolly swains’; Dowland - ‘Up merry mates’; Byrd - ‘Crowned with flowers and lilies’; Dowland - ‘Sweet stay awhile’; Byrd - ‘This sweet and merry month of May’; Dowland - Preludium, ‘The Frog Galliard’; Byrd - ‘Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles’; Dowland - ‘Shall I strive with words to move’; Byrd - ‘Turn our captivity, O Lord’

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 21st February 2020.

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):