June 30, 2020

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

So wrote the music critic of the Morning Post following a performance by the Italian cellist, Carlo Alfredo Piatti, on 12 th July 1844, as part of the third of that year’s three matinée concerts at the Hanover Square Rooms organised by the pianist Theodor Döhler (and recalled by Morton Latham in his 1901 monograph Alfredo Piatti - A Sketch).

Piatti’s Operatic Fantasy on three numbers from Bellini’s penultimate opera remained unpublished during his lifetime. It is one of three such fantasias based upon themes by Bellini (La sonnambula and I puritani being the other two operas) that cellist Adrian Bradbury and pianist Oliver Davies include on the first volume of Piatti’s Operatic Fantasies which was released on the Meridian label last year, and which has now been followed by this second volume, thereby completing the set of twelve.

Born in Bergamo in 1822, Alfredo Piatti became one of the most renowned cellists of the 19th century. His father was a violinist but the 5-year-old Piatti began learning the cello, under the tutelage of his great-uncle, Zanetti, a music teacher and cellist of considerable accomplishment. By the age of seven he was playing in the local opera orchestra, and subsequently enrolled at the Milan Conservatoire where he received lessons from Vincenzo Merighi until September 1837. A successful performance at the Teatro della Scala in 1838 furnished him with sufficient funds to undertake a European concert tour, earning acclaim in cities such as Venice and Vienna.

Alfredo Piatti, Lithographie von Eduard Kaiser, 1858.jpgAlfredo Piatti (Lithograph by Eduard Kaiser, 1858)

1843 found Piatti in Munich. He met Liszt who invited the cellist to share a concert billing in Paris, gifting him an Amati cello upon learning that financial pressures had forced Piatti to sell his cello and perform on borrowed instruments. (Piatti later own the ‘Piatti’ Stradivarius.) He travelled widely - to Berlin, Breslaw, Dresden, Paris and St Petersburg - arriving in London in 1844, where the cellist who had spent his boyhood playing in the opera orchestras of Bergamo, accompanying the finest bel canto singers of the day, eventually becoming principal cello in Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden.

In London he became a distinguished and celebrated artist and teacher. (As Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielweski explains in The Violoncello and its History, as Professor of Cello at the Royal Academy of Music, Piatti taught many of the day’s finest cellists, Hugo Becker, Robert Hausmann, William Edward Whitehouse, William Henry Squire, Leo Stern and Edward Howell among them.) He became friends with Mendelssohn, who wrote a concerto for him, as did Arthur Sullivan; he gave the British premiere of Schumann’s Cello Concerto.

Piatti’s first private performance in London took place at the house of one Dr Billing, then the medical adviser at the Opera, alongside the Italian singers soprano Giulia Grisi and tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini. The London public first enjoyed his playing on 31st May at the Annual Grand Morning Concert given by Mrs Lucy Anderson, pianist to Queen Victoria, the Morning Post reporting: ‘Signor Piatti, a violoncello performer from Milan, made a most successful debut. He played a fantasia on themes from Lucia ... His style resembles that of Servais; and a clear and liquid tone, with great equality all over the board, struck amateurs as being particularly fine … his certainty and precision were unerring.’

Invited by Döhler to play at the first of the Hanover Square Rooms matinées that year, Piatti gave a solo performance that prompted the critic of the Musical World to eulogise, ‘M. Piatti performed a violoncello fantasia in which he displayed as great a command of this instrument as we ever recollect to have heard’, and the Athenaeum reviewer to observe that Piatti had ‘obviously formed his cantabile playing on that of the singers of his own country’ - an astute comment, given that many subsequent accounts of his playing noted that his cantabile playing offered valuable lessons to vocalists.

Holl Piatti.jpgAlfredo Piatti (Frank Holl, 1871)

A month after his first public London debut, Piatti made his first appearance at a concert of the Philharmonic Society, on 24th June, following Mendelssohn’s performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with a Cello Fantasia by Friedrich August Kummer. A great raconteur, later in his life Piatti recalled that this was the only time that he heard an English audience call out ‘Bravo’ when he was mid-phrase! The Morning Post praised his ‘magnificent violoncello playing [which] won universal admiration … the perfection of his tone and his evident command over all the intricacies of the instrument’, while the Times judged him ‘a masterly player on the violoncello. In tone, which foreign artists generally want, he is equal to [English cellist Robert] Lindley in his best days; his execution is rapid, diversified and certain, and a false note never by any chance is to be heard.’

Piatti was one of the last cellists to play in the ‘old’ style, without an endpin. A fine composer he enriched his instrument’s repertoire with two concertos, a concertino, a Fantasia romantica and a Sérénade Italienne. He is best known today for his technically demanding 12 Caprices Op.25, though he wrote sonatas, songs (some with cello obbligato), themes and variations and other small works, and produced important editions of 18th-century cello works by Locatelli, Boccherini and Bach.

However, it was his fantasy compositions on operatic themes with which Piatti launched his career and which so dazzled the salons and concert halls of Europe, and it is these 12 Fantasias, many unknown and unheard since performed by Piatti himself, that Adrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies have ‘exhumed’ from the Piatti archives at the Biblioteca Musicale Gaetano Donizetti in Bergamo, edited, performed, and now recorded in this two-volume set.

Adrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies recording ©️ Richard Hughes (1).jpgAdrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies recording ©️ Richard Hughes

In conversation, I ask Adrian how this intriguing project had come about. As a boy he had loved Piatti’s music, he explains - all young cellists know and play the Caprices! - and when he was asked to perform at the Royal Academy of Music’s 2011 celebration of their 100-year long residence at their custom-built premises in Marylebone Road, whose music could be more apt than that of Piatti, who for 25 years had been the Academy’s Professor of Cello? Adrian recalls, as a child, hearing his father, clarinettist Colin Bradbury, preparing for recordings of 19th-century repertory with the pianist Oliver Davies, and having explored reviews of Piatti’s playing, he asked Oliver to prepare a score of the unpublished Fantasia on themes from Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, the autograph manuscript of which was photographed and supplied by Dr Annalisa Barzanò, co-author of Signor Piatti - Cellist, Composer, Avant-gardist (2001), and musicologist at the Library G. Donizetti in Bergamo. Oliver studied the cello solo, piano score and orchestral parts, and - taking into account the evidence that they provided of Piatti’s revisions - was able to piece together the jigsaw with considerable certainty. Alongside the Beatrice di Tenda Fantasia, at the RAM Adrian and Oliver also performed the Fantasia on Bellini’s La sonnambula, one of the few of the 12 that has been published. Enthusiastically received, the Fantasias “really lived” through their songs, Adrian suggests.

Listening to Adrian and Oliver perform ‘Souvenir de Beatrice di Tenda (Volume One), I am struck by the way Piatti fuses lyricism and drama, creating a sense that the melodic material is evolving organically and inevitably. And, I’m sure the Morning Post critic would be just as impressed by Adrian’s ability to sing with equal persuasiveness through the extensive melodic phrases, the energetic excursions to the cello’s stratosphere and depths, and the delicate intricacies and ornaments, as he was when he applauded Piatti’s ‘vanquishing’ of seemingly ‘insuperable’ difficulties - I certainly heard pitches at a frequency that I don’t think I’ve heard from a cello before, and beautifully sweet they were too! Moreover, there’s a lovely spontaneity about Oliver’s and Adrian’s playing which seems to conjure the excitement of the opera house and live performance. It’s impossible not smile during the capricious episodes, or to be repeatedly impressed at how such lighter moods segue with deceptive ease into sweet sorrow, or troubled turmoil. Oliver’s interjections are perceptive and sensitive, as if instruments in the pit were being coaxed in their turn to emerge from supportive accompaniments and join the singer in melody.

Autograph manuscript of Parafrasi sulk barcarola del Marino Faliero by Alfredo Piatti ©️Annalisa Barzanò (1).jpgAutograph manuscript of Parafrasi sulk barcarola del Marino Faliero by Alfredo Piatti ©️Annalisa Barzanò

During the following decade, the duo set about preparing all twelve Fantasias, and performing them regularly. Every few days, an email to Annalisa would prompt the swift arrival of the next set of high-resolution photographs in Adrian’s in-box. When he apologised for ‘bothering’ her so regularly, Annalisa explained she had written her book primarily so that Piatti’s music might be heard again. He will “never forget the buzz I felt the first time that I downloaded the manuscript from my drop-box, printed it and placed it on the music stand”. Oliver’s experience and knowledge of the bel canto repertory enabled him to quickly identify the arias upon which Piatti had drawn and as the prepared Fantasies grew in number, then Artist By-Fellows at Churchill College, Cambridge, they gave performances at the College.

Adrian and Oliver present the ‘Introduction et Variations sur un thème de Lucia di Lammermoor’ which so impressed the Morning Post reporter, in the second volume of Operatic Fantasies. This disc includes three other Fantasias on operas by Donizetti, who had become a friend of Piatti’s father, Antonio, whilst they were both studying with Simon Mayr in Bergamo. Piatti, who had himself played in the Bergamo premiere of the opera in 1838, selected the climactic closing aria, ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti’, as his starting point, preceding his fantasy on Edgardo’s grief-stricken plea that he might join the dead Lucia in heaven, with an Andante Lento of his own.

The piano’s dark, tense opening resonates with the horrors and histories of the cemetery in with Edgardo sings his lament, and Adrian captures both the vulnerability and despair, tapering Piatti’s drooping phrases beautifully, and the sudden, brief surges of pain and passion during which it seems as if Edgardo’s heart will burst with anguish. Plunges and peaks, supported by rumbling, oscillating octaves, sudden transmute from turbulence to tenderness, as the cello theme voices Edgardo’s transfiguring memories of Lucia’s purity and virtue. Adrian and Oliver persuasively guide the listener through the unfolding variations with an effortless lyricism and technical assurance: the cello’s double-stopped octaves and racing scales of thirds are pinpoint-true, harmonics ring brightly and whisper softly, the athletic demands are understated - but no less impressive - and the melodising unwavering.

Bradbury Hughes.jpgAdrian Bradbury ©️ Richard Hughes

Why had this music languished unheard for so long? Adrian reflects upon the reluctance of Piatti’s contemporaries to perform his music during his lifetime: perhaps they were in awe of his virtuosity and wished to avoid direct comparison? We discuss the subsequent waning of the popularity of the fantasia form, and of the bel canto style itself. Perhaps the Fantasies were just too closely associated with Piatti himself? Adrian draws attention to one Francesco Berger (1834-1933), a celebrated Professor of Piano at the RAM who invited many Italian refugees to perform at his home, noting that ‘it was the fashion then for performances of popular airs - an introduction, air and variation … how strange now.’

Why were Piatti’s Fantasies so popular, I wonder? “It’s the opera in them,” suggests Adrian, “one cannot separate bel canto from Piatti”. The Fantasies “sparkle”, but they are notable not just for their virtuosity: their musicianship is supreme. “All his life Piatti played this repertory. He performed with Verdi’s wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, he shared a stage with the finest singers of his day - Giuditta Pasta, Grisi, Rubini, Luigi Lablache, Antonio Tamburini, Jenny Lind, Maria Malibran and Michael Balfe. He wrote from the heart, but the ‘style’ is correct: the Fantasias are a delight, but Piatti was not simply ‘dabbling’. They are not a vehicle for virtuosity but, like the Caprices, works of real quality. The virtuosity was taken for granted, it was the musicianship that Piatti put first.” Whereas others cobbled together works which would showcase their skill and dexterity, Piatti took composition seriously and continued studying to the end of his life.

Adrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies performing in Sala Piatti, Bergamo (1).jpgAdrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies performing in Sala Piatti, Bergamo

One can hear just what Adrian means when listening to the only Fantasy in these two volumes which is not based upon the music of one of Piatti’s bel canto contemporaries - the ‘Impromptu on an air by Purcell in the Indian Queen’. Piatti wonderfully captures the musical spirit of the English composer, the precise rhythmic emphases that lend such a distinctive quality to Purcell’s songs and airs, the smoothly evolving melodies which Purcell - who might be described as the ‘creator’ of English secular melody - modelled on the Italian style of expressive singing that he studied and admired. But, Piatti integrates Italianate delicacies and graces, the cello interrupting the piano’s simple first phrase with some elaborate flourishes then tenderly duetting with the theme, first joining as one voice, then stroking the line with curls, trills, flights. And, just when it seems that the ground is shifting towards the Italian style, so Piatti shows one to have been deceived. This is not just an example of Piatti’s compositional skill but also of his remarkable ability to assimilate varied material. Adrian’s and Oliver’s performance of Piatti’s stylistic sleights of hand is utterly magical.

Adrian explains that Piatti’s personal experience is integral to these works. The bel canto conductor Jeremy Silver advised Adrian that the Fantasias are fascinating from a conductor’s perspective. “You can see it, for example, in the articulation that Piatti marked in the Lucia part: he uses a special articulation mark - a wavy line - a cantabile indication which he placed over all the operatic phrases. It is to be played ‘legato, almost separate’. It’s as if Piatti is imagining the singers on stage beside him.” The decorative fioritura, the declamation of the recitatives, cadenzas, cadences and ornaments: all are meticulously indicated. “Piatti inhabits a bel canto ‘skin’ in order to communicate the essence of the music.” Similarly, the fingering and portamenti are finely marked. “Even in the Fantasias that were not published [six were published by Ricordi and Schott]. Though he alone played them, we are sure Piatti was always aiming for future publication.”

Adrian Bradbury next to bust of Alfredo Piatti, Sala Piatti, Bergamo (1).jpgAdrian Bradbury next to bust of Alfredo Piatti, Sala Piatti, Bergamo

The bel canto spirit infuses every aspect of these Fantasias, Adrian believes. He found himself listening to and learning from the singing of Joan Sutherland, with regard to how to interpret the ornamentation. “The cello bow becomes the diaphragm; the double-stopping becomes duetting. It must feel as if you are singing; if not, you are in trouble,” he laughs. When the Royal Opera House presented Bellini’s La sonnambula in 2011, Oliver urged Adrian to see the production. Admitting that he had not seen the opera before, Adrian tells me of the tremendous impact that the solo arias, particularly the declamation, had upon him. Hearing the familiar melodies, it was as if he was experiencing them entirely anew, learning again and putting the tunes in context. “String players must listen to singers, and bel canto singers most of all, to learn to play cantabile.”

Adrian hopes that these recordings will lead to the Fantasias becoming valuable and wonderful additions to the repertoire. “And we can’t wait to be allowed to return to Bergamo - so devastated by Covid-19 - to hug the Piatti scholars once more for sharing their manuscripts and to present more of the Fantasias in the wonderful Sala Piatti, with the Frank Holl portrait of Alfredo Piatti looking down at us - approvingly I pray!- from the side of the concert hall.”

Claire Seymour

Adrian Bradbury (cello), Oliver Davies (piano)

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies

Volume One: Souvenir de Beatrice di Tenda*; Souvenir de La sonnambula, Op.5*; Souvenir des Puritani, Op.9*; Capriccio sopra un tema della Niobe, Op.22; Fantasia sopra alcuni motivi della Gemma di Vergy; Impromptu on an air by Purcell in the Indian Queen*

Volume Two: Introduction et Variations sur un thème de Lucia di Lammermoor, Op.2; Rondò sulla Favorita*; Souvenir de l’opéra Linda di Chamounix, Op.13; Parafrasi sulla Barcarola del Marino Faliero* Rimembranze del Trovatore, Op.21; Capriccio sur des Airs de Balfe*

*world premiere recording

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Operatic%20Fantasies%20Vol.2%20Meridian.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies” (Volume 2) product_by=Adrian Bradbury (cello), Oliver Davies (piano) product_id=Meridian CDE 84659 price=£12.00 product_url=https://www.meridian-records.co.uk/acatalog/CDE84659-Piatti.html#aCDE84659
Posted by claire_s at 7:48 AM

June 29, 2020

Live from London: first-ever global online vocal festival announced

The festival will be broadcast every Saturday for ten weeks from the 1st August 2020. It has been designed to raise money for artists, venues and promoters to cover their COVID-19 losses, and to reunite the world's many singers, and audiences with much needed live concerts.

Broadcast in HD from the beautiful VOCES8 Centre (St Anne and St Agnes Church), in the heart of the City of London, viewers will be able to pay for exclusive access to season or individual concert tickets. Award-winning artists featured include VOCES8, I Fagiolini, Stile Antico, The Swingles, The Sixteen (from Kings Place), The Gesualdo Six, Apollo5, Chanticleer (from San Francisco) and a special guest appearance by The Academy of Ancient Music. The ensembles will be performing their favourite works, and pieces for which they've become renowned, singing repertoire from the Renaissance to contemporary A Cappella.

The festival is a heart-warming display of vocal ensembles helping each other in a time of crisis. These concerts will be some of the first performances by the ensembles since the start of the lock-down restrictions at the beginning of the year. A portion of all ticket sales will be put towards funding for grassroots music education, and to addressing topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in choral music.

Season passes are £80 (£8 per concert, per household). Single concert tickets will be available for £12.50. Concessions have been crafted for students and choirs across the world, as well as special deals for promoters and venues. Artists will share income from season ticket sales, as well as individual concert income. This approach goes beyond free streaming on social media, allowing a revenue channel for promoters, venues and artists (most of whom are freelance).

Taking the lead from current sporting events, the concerts will be broadcast from a closed venue. Singers and crew will be following the strict government guidelines about safety and distancing in the workplace.

The VOCES8 team continues to lead the charge in its forward-thinking, inclusive initiatives in the choral sector. Live from London follows the online work the VOCES8 Foundation has been doing over lock-down with its #liveathome series - more than 100 broadcasts of online performances, participation events and interactive sessions. Its reach highlighting the hunger for vocal music around the world VOCES8’s 15th Anniversary is celebrated by the release of their new album After Silence on the 24th July.

https://voces8.foundation/ livefromlondon image=http://www.operatoday.com/LFL%20LDSC.jpg
Posted by claire_s at 5:23 AM

June 28, 2020

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

For, this series of 20 lunchtime recitals, live streamed via the Wigmore Hall website and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, has been very much more than a ‘good thing’: the performances have not ‘just’ been an opportunity to enjoy remarkable music and musicianship, technical mastery and expressive commitment, but also astonishingly, though not surprisingly, fulfilling and uplifting, and perhaps ground-breaking too.

And, as Artistic Director, John Gilhooly, reassures us, although Wigmore Hall will fall silent for a few months - to allow a clearer picture to emerge as to how long this crisis will continue for live performance, and for musicians, and decisions about the autumn and winter programmes can be taken - the doors of Wigmore Hall will re-open and welcome audiences back for live performances.

This recital by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Mitsuko Uchida was, though, the final concert in this wonderful series, so it was ‘an end’ of sorts. Schubert’s Winterreise is also a journey towards an ‘end’ - rest, death, the abyss, perhaps renewal. Initially, though any opportunity to hear these two musicians perform Schubert’s song-cycle is always to be grasped, I wondered if the programming was not a little too bleak: hope rather despair, resurrection rather than oblivion, is what we long for and need. Moreover, listening at mid-day at the peak of a mini midsummer heatwave didn’t seem the most helpful circumstances in which to empathise with the chilling introspection of the traveller’s winter journey across the icy landscape, into his own psyche and beyond into nothingness.

But, I need not have feared. The soft and surreptitious tread of the piano at the start of ‘Gute Nacht’ - Uchida somehow managed to convey the slightest of propulsive swellings through the first two bars of piano breathing - was both an ending and a beginning: a gentle farewell to the present and the commencement of a journey through an emotional terrain, ever more extreme. That’s not to suggest that there was anything overly mannered about Padmore’s and Uchida’s approach. Quite the opposite. And, it was that very clarity and directness, judgement and sensitivity, that made their performance so powerful, almost overwhelmingly so, given the context. The empty seats in the Hall, the wanderer’s isolation and alienation, the cycle’s movement towards an existential void: the nothingness accrued with terrible inevitability, a terrifying echo of the cultural vacuum that occasionally casts an grim shadow on the nation’s horizon, despite Gilhooly’s confidence that the arts, which “are central to the international standing, character and wellbeing of the nation” will, play “a huge role in our national recovery”.

Padmore and Uchida brought every quality of their musicianship that we know and love, to bear upon this music. Padmore’s tenor, ever sweet, with an occasional slightness or strain at the top poignantly emphasising the protagonist’s physical and mental struggle, enunciated and inflected Wilhelm Müller’s poems with meticulous precision and perceptiveness. Uchida’s playing was thoughtful and unrushed, the elegant clarity of her playing enabling her to paint crystalline images and imagery.

There was so much to admire and which intrigued, so much detail which compelled, and so many aspects of this performance that were deeply moving, that it is almost impossible to know where to begin, or what to select, and what to omit. There was Padmore’s beautiful legato and tapered phrasing in ‘Gute Nacht’, and the sudden forcefulness and anger at the start of the third stanza which then diminished into the lingering softness of the final major-key stanza which acquired a patina of even deeper sadness from such contrast; and, a similarly dramatic and restless contrast of floating leise and assertive laute in ‘Die Wetterfahne’, and the leanness of Uchida’s textures - the snatching away of the final trill felt cruel and hard. Fire and ice were similarly, via a wonderfully expressive rubato, counterposed in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’, but always the momentum was onwards, unstoppable, frightening.

‘Erstarrung’ swirled with a torment born on the wind and through the soul: I think I held my breath from start to finish. With ‘Die Lindenbaum’ we entered a consoling vision, the fragile unreality of which was pointed by Uchida’s soft steel-edged interjections, and which was swept aside with terrifying brusqueness by the blast which blows the hat from the wanderer’s head, leaving just a tantalising, teasing dream of what might have been. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a unity of longing and frustration, pain and fury, flood through the final phrase of ‘Wasserflut’: “Da ist meiner Leibsten Haus.” Similarly, Uchida’s wonderfully/terribly dry staccato in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ made the musical imagery of the swelling under the crust of ice that coats the river - as the voice releases its fears, supported by the rich piano bass, now released from its fetters - almost impossible to bear.

With ‘Irrlicht’ - snatched fragments, poignant octaves, richer indulgences - the disintegration of the protagonist’s wholeness seemed to begin. Have the cocks and ravens that disrupt the dreams of spring ever felt more devilish? Or the whispered, silken retreat to a fantasy of love’s renewal more beguilingly dangerous? The daring temporal freedom in ‘Einsamkeit’ pressed home the self-destructive emotional excess which the wanderer bears; in ‘Der greise Kopf’, wisdom and wistfulness only just repressed upswells of painful emotion, and the darkness lingered in the uncomfortable shadows of the low-lying ‘Die Krähe’.

Padmore did, entirely forgivably, tire a little, and some of the latter songs were a touch less ‘accurate’, but this often lent them a vulnerability that was deeply affecting: in the face of the crisp rattles and barks of ‘Im Dorfe’, the protagonist’s dismissal of the dogs’ warning, and of the invitation to dream, seemed all the more dangerous. What did not ever lessen was Padmore’s acuity with regard to verbal weight and meaning: there was a heart-wrenching moment of self-awareness in ‘Täuschung’ when the wanderer recognises and condemns his own susceptibility to dreams and hope - this seemed to propel us into the abyss. ‘Das Wirthaus’ is marked sehr langsam and Uchida played the piano introduction as if she could not take a single step further - I could feel the suffocating weight on my own shoulders - and then through the burden floated the blanched but ever sweet vocal line, condemning the signs that invite travellers into cool inn.

In ‘Mut’, Padmore seemed to push forward more than Uchida expected, and now it was the pianist who seemed a little weary, though this only added to the verisimilitude. I shut my eyes during ‘Die Nebensonnen’, always the most wonderful moment of transfiguration. And, then, only the hurdy-gurdy man stood between us and nothingness. Has the imagery of ‘Der Leiermann’ every seemed more apt or painful? - “with numb fingers he grinds away as best he can”, “barefoot on the ice … his little plate remains always empty”, “No-one wants to hear him, no-one looks at him … the dogs growl”.

For the first time in this series, the silence after the music had dissolved into the void was truly appropriate and profound. But, the end of ‘Der Leiermann’ seems to beckon us into a journey of renewal, “Shall I go with you? … Will you, to my songs, play your hurdy-gurdy?” asks the exhausted wanderer. Are we propelled back to the opening of ‘Gute Nacht’, in media res? Perhaps the piano’s relentless steps have never stopped - so out of the void will come music? The hurdy-gurdy man’s abyss may at first seem an alarming metaphor for the imminent silencing of the nation’s cultural life, but perhaps his music is infinite?

Padmore himself, in his opening remarks, reminded us of Brecht’s motto to his Svendborg Poems (1939):

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

And in an essay, ‘Undefeated Despair’, written in 2006 in response to the growing crisis in Palestine, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ As the lights go out at Wigmore Hall for an unknowable length of time, let us hope, and be certain, that the bright times, and the singing about them, will return to our lives soon.

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Franz Schubert - Winterreise D911

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 26th June 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Uchida%20and%20Padmore.bmp image_description= product=yes product_title=Winterreise, Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano) - Wigmore Hall, London product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Padmore

Photo courtesy of Wigmore Hall
Posted by claire_s at 1:58 PM

June 27, 2020

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Whether singing to the birds of the Warwickshire countryside from his rural garden, participating in Wigmore Hall’s ground-breaking live lunchtime recital series, or popping up as Papageno - reliving memories of his 2017 Covent Garden performances by self-accompanying ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ with a percussion orchestra of ‘tuned’ glasses and forks - Williams doesn’t seem to have had a ‘quiet’ lockdown in any sense of the word.

Another thing that seems to have been ringing regularly in my ears of late is music from what is often termed the ‘English Musical Renaissance’, those late Victorian and Edwardian years when English composers sought, by drawing on folksong and music from the Tudor and Stuart period, to establish a contemporary national musical idiom, distinct from but equal to European traditions and styles. Williams has been a strong presence in this regard too: alongside performances of Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, Williams’ and pianist Susie Allan’s interpretations of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s song-cycles A Shropshire Lad and Maud was released by Somm Recordings in May, and now we have the opportunity to hear Williams return to Housman as set by Ivor Gurney, alongside the music of Herbert Howells, on this splendid Em Records release, Those Blue Remembered Hills.

Westernplayland Carnegie.jpg

The works presented on Those Blue Remembered Hills were all composed between 1914 and 1925, and several are world premiere recordings. This disc opens with Gurney’s The Western Playland (and of Sorrow), a song-cycle comprising eight settings of poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, in which Williams is joined by pianist Michael Dussek and the Bridge String Quartet. These instrumentalists also performed, with tenor Charles Daniels, on an earlier Em Records disc, Heracleitus, which offered another Gurney setting of Housman, Ludlow and Teme, composed in the same year. At the Royal College of Music, Gurney had studied both German lieder and French mélodie traditions, but both of these Housman song-cycles are evidently influenced by Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge (1909) which Gurney heard in 1919. They were published as part of the Carnegie Collection of British Music, Ludlow and Teme in 1923 and The Western Playland in 1926.

Gurney had revised both scores while he was a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, Kent, where he remained until his death in 1937 at the age of 47. The cycle is presented here in a new edition by Philip Lancaster, who explains (in one of several of the liner book’s illuminating articles, and elsewhere) that Gurney’s revisions were quite substantial - ‘textures were added and reworked, the scoring often wholly altered (one song originally scored largely for strings was in revision accompanied largely by piano); harmonies became more diffuse, in Gurney’s impressionistic vein; and the songs in parts substantially redrafted’ - and sometimes very problematic (in one case, leading Lancaster to return largely to the original 1920 version). Reflecting on the title, Lancaster speculates that title of The Western Playland alludes to both the Western Front and to Gurney’s home county of Gloucestershire, while ‘and of Sorrow’ which was added in 1925 may be inspired by A Shropshire Lad poem, not set here:

‘In my own shire, if I was sad,
Homely comforters I had:
The earth, because my heart mas sore,
Sorrowed for the son she bore;
And standing hills, long to remain,
Shared their short-lived comrade’s pain.’ (XLI)

As one would expect, Gurney’s musical responses to Housman’s poems are sensitive and intensely lyrical. Listening to the cycle for the first time, I heard a Brahmsian touch in the melodies, but I was struck by the flexibility of Gurney’s forms and melodies as he shapes each song and phrase precisely to the sounds and sense of the poetic text, and by the surprisingly unpredictable harmonic twists and heightenings. The instrumental accompaniments are no less diverse in timbres, texture and colour, and they serve as sonic landscapes which support the verbal meaning and emotion. The songs present considerable technical challenges for all the performers. The instrumentalists must balance ever-changing textures, while the singer must negotiate sometimes angular melodies which rove through restless rhythmic shapes and wide-ranging tessituras. The smooth legato that Williams sustains, seemingly effortlessly and always articulating the texts with precision and finely judged emphasis, is notable.

RWilliams.jpgRoderick Williams

‘Reveille’ is a stirring dawn cry, the first three stanzas opening with exhortations to “Wake”, “Wake”, “Up, lad, up, ’tis late for lying”: time passes, each moment must be lived to the fullest. But, ‘reveille’ does not just infer sunrise, it is also the word used to describe the bugle-call that wakes the military, and we hear the beat of soldiers’ drums in the firm stamp of the piano bass and cello. Williams brilliantly unites lyrical vocalism with declamatory briskness, and echoes between instruments and the voice conjure energy. Though the central section is more dreamy, with thoughts of lands untrod and beckoning hovering softly in the upper strings, up and onwards it must be. Yet, the quietude of the postlude and the poignancy of the viola’s ‘last word’ remind us, “There’s be time enough to sleep” - as Gurney himself confirmed in his own eloquent song to that ‘eternal rest’.

The theme of transience is developed in ‘Loveliest of Trees’ in which the seventh-based harmony of the opening and impressionistic progressions create a fleeting, vulnerable quality. There is such delicate melancholy in the falling motif - a blossom floating gently to the ground - which opens the piano introduction and vocal line, and which the strings, generally restrained throughout, develop in the eloquent postlude. This is the sort of song, and singing, which warms the heart even as it brings hot tears to one’s eyes. Indeed, “With rue my heart is laden” sings the poet-speaker after the strings’ tender introduction to the more folk-like ‘Golden Friends’. Williams’ often unaccompanied vocal line is wonderfully light and even, threatening at times, it seems, to disappear but softly sustaining its recollections of “lightfoot boys” and “rose-lipt girls … sleeping in fields where roses fade”, until a whispered postlude unfurls sweetly into silence.

Gurney was a keen sportsman as a schoolboy, and football and cricket momentarily keep grief at bay, sustaining a lust for life in the brief ‘Twice a Week’. Williams’ baritone may be strong and resolute but the singer’s sentiments are belied by the brusqueness of the gruff, dissonant strings and the rhythmic instability of the song (which Williams negotiates with pinpoint accuracy), especially in the final stanza where the thundering syncopation in the piano bass, mis-accented text-setting and dense string discords seem to disdainfully sneer. ‘The Aspens’ is folk-like rumination on eternal nature’s indifference to man’s transience, seen through the eyes of a widower who predeceases his second wife, thereby perpetuating the cycle of love and loss. Williams’ unaccompanied vocal entries are sweet and sure, and the long phrases - the time-signature ceaselessly changing - extend with lyrical eloquence, accompanied alternately by strings and piano, the instruments coming together when the voice is silent. Each time the singer notes the watching aspen, the vocal line rises to a peak and then falls an octave interval, and the smooth evenness with which Williams’ shapes this expressive gesture is deeply moving.

michael-dussek.jpgMichael Dussek.

Gurney eschews the invitation in ‘Is my team ploughing’ to vocally distinguish the ballad’s speakers preferring instead to oppose the text and accompaniment to underline the song’s poignancy. For example, the questions from the man who lies in the earth, “Is my team ploughing”, “Is football playing … Now that I stand up no more?” are answered by the relentless jigging, jangling quavers in the piano and strings which cruelly tease with their undeniable presence and vigour. Tension builds as the harmonies and textures complicate, but “Is my girl happy” interrupts: a pianissimo dynamic, a descending vocal phrase and the commencement of an ominous syncopated low octave pedal in cello and piano bass lead to a solo parlando question, sung with quiet but heart-wrenching directness by Williams, “And has she tired of weeping/ As she lies down at eve?” The strings’ hushed answer ‘replies’ powerfully and plaintively. This is a tremendous unity of lyricism and drama.

However, The Western Playground ends in more joyful fashion, with ‘March’, a setting of the longest poem of the eight, ‘The sun at noon to higher air’. The piano’s light arpeggio triplets, symmetrically patterned, and the strings’ concordant sweetness conjure youthfulness and optimism, while the constant lilt of two-against-three creates a naturalism and freedom that is perfectly embodied by the relaxed warmth of Williams’ baritone. There are pauses for instrumental reflection between the stanzas, and a more ambiguous mood marks the fourth stanza’s mirage-like, symbolist vision of farm girls resting in the palms’ shadows beside the pond’s and hedge’s “waving silver-tufted” wands. But, with the firm assertion that “lovers should be loved again”, Gurney closes not with loss and longing but with life and love. The lingering postlude at first seems to question such certainty, but eventually the piano’s dark reverberations, the high silvery violins and the aspiring ascents of cello and viola dissolve into stillness and peace.

If I have spent a long time describing The Western Playground it is because Gurney’s cycle, and even more so this brilliant performance by Williams, Dussek and the Bridge Quartet, make this disc an absolute must-have, not just for Gurney aficionados but for all lovers of English song, indeed all song. But, Those Blue Remembered Hills offers much more too.

There are four songs by Herbert Howells, including ‘There was a Maiden’ and ‘Girl’s Song’ from Fours Songs Op.22 (1916). In the first, Williams seems to inject a tint of wisdom into his baritonal warmth - a note of maturity to balance the shimmering melancholy of the piano’s oscillating patterns. Here, the baritone’s verbal pointings add much to the simple strophic form: “The cold wind blows across the lea”, sending a shiver through one’s spine, while the description of the maiden, “pale, so pale, with never a rose”, makes one fear for the vulnerable lass. ‘Girl’s Song’, brimming with desire and visceral feeling, may last less than 90 seconds, but Williams and Dussek offer a masterclass in musical articulation and expression. Howell’s setting of a text by Northumbrian poet Wilfrid Gibson, ‘The Mugger’s Song’, is an unpretentious, boisterous rural character-study, precisely drawn here; best of all is the compelling directness and simplicity of ‘King David’, with its ‘antique’ modal and pentatonic tints. Both Williams and Dussek rise to tremendous heights of eloquent expression.

Bridge-Quartet.jpgThe Bridge Quartet

There are further songs by Gurney too, the ballad ‘Edward, Edward’ - a setting from the Reliques of Thomas Percy, in which Williams’ has a good stab at Scots brogue - and one of Gurney’s best-known songs, ‘By a Bierside’ (a song which was orchestrated by Howells), which Gurney’s Collected Letters (ed. R.K.R. Thornton) reveal ‘came to birth in a disused Trench Mortar emplacement’ and which brings the disc to a close. Williams’ demonstrates that his wistful head voice, bold middle range, and probing deep bass-like resonance are equally affecting. I could literally feel the thunderous shine of Williams’ proclamation of John Masefield’s final words, “It is most grand to die”, pulse in my heart, before the tranquil repetition “so grand” quietened the passion. Heracleitus had included an Adagio for string quar1tet played by the Bridge Quartet, which is an earlier version of the D Minor String Quartet heard in full on this disc - a world premiere recording.

Why is it that these English poets and composers - Georgians and Edwardians - seem to speak so strongly to us still? I don’t think that it is simply that they console, or feed, a nostalgia for an Edwardian twilight, more that there are times, in any age and place, when we long for what we imagine was a simpler age.

In a letter to his friend Marion Scott (musicologist, poet, composer, violinist and more) dated December 1916, Gurney reflected on life in the trenches in France: ‘After all, my friend, it is better to live a grey life in mud and danger, so long as one uses it - as I trust I am now doing - as a means to an end. Someday all this experience may be crystallized and glorified in me; and men shall learn by chance fragments in a string quartett [sic] or symphony, what thoughts haunted the minds of men who watched the darkness grimly in desolate places.’ This recording confirms that Gurney did indeed crystallise and glorify those experiences in words and music.

Before listening to this disc, I could not imagine anyone who could better capture the poignancy of that suffering, and the beauty which rises from it, and transcends it, than Roderick Williams. Having listened to Those Blue Remembered Hills, I do not think that Williams has done anything finer.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Blue%20Remembered%20Hills.jpg image_description=EMRCD065 product=yes product_title=Those Blue Remembered Hills product_by= Roderick Williams (baritone), Michael Dussek (piano), The Bridge Quartet (Colin Twigg and Catherine Schofield [violins], Michael Schofield [viola], Lucy Wilding [cello]) product_id=EM Records EMRCD065 [80:52] price=£13.00 product_url=https://www.em-records.com/discs/emr-cd065-details.html
Posted by claire_s at 11:42 AM

June 26, 2020

Eboracum Baroque - Heroic Handel

The ensemble does perform in London, but it has also generated quite a presence for itself outside the metropolis, with regular concerts in York and in Cambridge, as well as performing at National Trust properties in programmes which reflect the musical history of each property. The group’s 2015 disc of the music of 18th-century composer Thomas Tudway was recorded at National Trust’s Wimpole Hall where Tudway worked from 1714 to 1726.

Since Lockdown, the group has been active online, giving a regular series of coffee concerts of solo repertoire on Zoom. But, as Chris Parsons explained when we chatted recently over Zoom, the group has been ‘chomping at the bit’ to do something larger scale. They had a live concert planned for July 2020, so as this was cancelled the group decided to do something similar, online. Thus, Eboracum Baroque's Heroic Handel concert was born, to be streamed on YouTube and Facebook on Saturday 18 th July 2020 at 7pm.

As well as giving the musicians a chance to perform, the concert represents an opportunity to provide them with some welcome financial support, as well as keeping the audience engaged. Chris points out that it is important not to forget that people are waiting to come to concerts. The group’s virtual coffee concerts, which happen every couple of weeks, have enabled the musicians to maintain links with regular supporters in the UK but also to develop an audience from all over the world. The virtual concerts arose partly out of an idea that they had had already: to do concerts which placed individual Baroque instruments in the spotlight. And, this has happened, albeit in online rather than live. Chris admits that there is a personal element, too, in the move to larger-scale repertoire; his own instrument is the trumpet and there is not too much Baroque repertoire for just trumpet and continuo.

The logistics of presenting larger-scale repertoire online have been significant, and it has been a real learning curve. Thankfully one of Chris’ friends is something of a tech whizz, but it has required Chris to mark up the music in a detailed fashion, something he would not normally need to do, so that they could create click tracks with all the tempo variations. And then there was getting used to the strangeness of playing along to just a click track. In fact, they recorded the cello and harpsichord continuo first, layering everyone else over the top. But it has given Chris and the other musicians in the group a big project to be working on, particularly as the planned concert will have about 60 minutes of music.

The repertoire for the concert, all by Handel, celebrates all the different aspects to Eboracum Baroque's performances, with the coronation anthemZadok the Priest, arias from Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare, a chorus from Acis and Galatea, a trio sonata and a recorder sonata, all starting with a March from Rinaldo. Chris describes it as a real mixed bag, and there is deliberately something for everyone.

The group is hoping to create, as closely as is possible, a concert ambience, even suggesting that audience members dress up for the occasion, and there will be an interval during which York Gin will talk about the history of gin, and be making a virtual cocktail!

The group is also working on further virtual concerts to make up for the continuing enforced live silence. Their next recording project was going to be the recorder version of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, something that Chris describes as mind-boggling. This has been delayed, and they hope it might kick off later this year or early next year.

They are also thinking about Christmas 2020. For a small group, Christmas is an important part of the calendar; performances such as Messiah in Cambridge with an audience of around 600 people effectively make the group’s other work possible. Without such large-scale performances, they are looking at other ideas, such as streaming.

Messiah - Senate House, Cambridge (1).jpgMessiah - Senate House, Cambridge.

Other projects which have been hit by lockdown included the ensemble's education work. In May 2020, they were due to be doing a schools’ projects on Vivaldi's Four Seasons at the National Centre for Early Music in York. Instead, they are looking videos and online sessions to replace these, and hope to be releasing something in the autumn.

Eboracum Baroque in fact began as a choir, and it then morphed into a mixed group which performs everything from chamber music, orchestral music and opera. It is very much a group of friends, most now in their mid- to late-20s. Chris sees the group as providing a musical platform for young musicians, performing great repertoire and valuable income for young freelance musicians. Now that that musicians are slightly, older many are also working in some of the major early music ensembles.

Around five or six years ago, the group was doing a free concert at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when Chris was approached by someone from the National Trust. They were interested in the composer Thomas Tudway (before 1650-1726), who had worked at the National Trust's Cambridgeshire property Wimpole Hall. Chris did some research and found that there seemed to be a great deal to Tudway. The upshot was a disc of Tudway's music, recorded in the chapel at Wimpole Hall and funded by the National Trust and Arts Council England.

Vivaldi in York (1).jpgVivaldi in York.

Chris would like to be able to return to Tudway as he feels that a lot of Tudway’s music is good; there is a piece for full orchestra which Tudway wrote for his graduation at Cambridge and which intrigues. Chris finds Tudway an amazing and interesting person but thinks that perhaps he was too outspoken for his own good; Tudway was organist at King's College, Cambridge for over 50 years but never managed to get a post in London.

One of the things that Chris enjoys doing with Eboracum Baroque is finding composers who need a platform. Another instance of this is the mid-18th century Suffolk composer, Joseph Gibbs (1699-1788) who was as celebrated as Handel in his native Ipswich. A lot of Gibbs’ music does not survive, and we only have his violin sonatas, but Eboracum Baroque has recorded some of them on a disc entitled Sounds of Suffolk, alongside music by Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), Gottfried Finger (1655-1730) and Charles Dieupart (1667-1740), all composers with links to Suffolk. Bononcini has links with Ickworth House where he worked for the Hervey family, while Charles Dieupart taught the Hervey children.

Another regional music making project involves looking at large-scale odes for St Cecilia’s Day with Bryan White of Leeds University (who has written a book about music for St Cecilia across the British Isles in the 17th and 18th centuries), with music by George Holmes (1680-1720), organist of Lincoln Cathedral and Vaughan Richardson (died 1729), organist of Winchester Cathedral, again lesser known names which deserve more of a platform. They have already performed some of this repertoire with Bryan White conducting the Leeds University Chamber Choir, and there are plans in the works for a CD.

Eboracum Baroque has only been part of Chris’ life; as well as freelancing on the trumpet (mainly Baroque), he also spends two days a week teaching, and he is lucky that this has continued via Zoom. He lives just outside Ely, and this has led him to develop local connections. He conducts two amateur orchestras and a choir in the area, and really enjoys working with them. Continuing rehearsing under lockdown has involved Chris in conducting rehearsals online and making virtual recordings; he describes this as an eye-opening process.

He has found that rehearsing via Zoom is good for talking about details, marking up the music and making sure that performers understand, and the orchestras have worked a lot to backing tracks. An important part of this process is that it ensures that individual players and singers are not left alone, they have something to perform along with. And the last half-hour of each session has a different member each week presenting their own version of Desert Island Discs. Whilst the process has been limiting in some ways, Chris sees it as opening up new doors, but it will be amazing when they can meet up again.

Heroic Handel - Saturday 18th July 2020, 7pm Eboracum Baroque

March from Rinaldo, HWV7
‘O The Pleasure of the Plains’ from Acis and Galatea, HWV49
‘Sibilar gli annui d’Aletto’ from Rinaldo HWV7 (with John Holland Avery, baritone)
Sonata in B Minor, Op.2 No.1, Andante and Allegro, HWV386
‘V’adoro, pupille’ from Giulio Cesare, HWV17 (Charlotte Bowden. soprano)
Recorder Sonata in F Major, HWV369
Zadok the Priest : Coronation Anthem for George II, HWV258

https://www.facebook.com/EboracumBaroque/ https://www.youtube.com/eboracumbaroque

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Posted by claire_s at 10:40 AM

June 22, 2020

Opera Rara at 50: Anniversary talk and Live Q&A

Tune in via Opera Rara’s Facebook for the talk and live Q&A here.

Posted by claire_s at 4:32 PM

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

At first glance their programme looked fairly conventional and predictable. And, as has been the case with all the other vocal recitals in the series that I’ve watched, it focused on the work of English composers, in this case from the 16th and 17th centuries - though Davies and Kenny had a few surprises up their sleeve.

But, it was with the Orpheus Britannicus, Henry Purcell, that we began. And, I can think of few who communicate the ‘essence’ of this music more movingly or perceptively than Davies. His plea for music, “Strike the viol, touch the lute, wake the harp” (from Come, ye songs of art away, the last of six birthday Odes written for Queen Mary), was a luring, liquidy invitation, the section repeats temptingly ornamented vocally and showcased by Kenny’s rhythmically taut but understated accompaniment. ‘By beauteous softness mixed with majesty’, from the first birthday Ode, offered more delicate, muted reflections, Kenny’s lute spinning a translucent spider’s web of interlocking voices and Davies’ countertenor gliding through the sequential repetitions and variants with soft smoothness. “He with such sweetness and justness reigns”: it was impossible to disagree. Davies is able to expand, colour and enrich his voice at the click of an invisible switch and to integrate such flourishes within what one would imagine to be an impossibly even line.

The duo segued into ‘Lord, what is man?’, reaching deeper into the metaphysical profundity of the seventeenth century. There was a wonderful introspective quality at the start, but as the tessitura and the emotional scope enlarged - the frequent vocal leaps were effortlessly elided - the music pushed towards the triple-time “O for a quill” acquiring an ever more optimistic tone, and finally blooming in the concluding Hallelujah section. I can imagine many of the current superb bunch of international countertenors rattling off the virtuosic runs with equal accuracy, but few who would do so in the service of the music with such insight, daring to hold back, to tempt and invite with Purcell’s bravura, rather than to dazzle. No wonder Kenny allowed herself the briefest of smiles at the close.

Kenny closed the Purcell sequence with her own arrangements of a brusque Rigadoon, a contemplative Farewell and a nonchalant ‘Lillibulero’, her playing always lucid and tender as she stroked and plucked her beautiful theorbo’s strings with care and understanding, nurturing Purcell’s music into being.

John Dowland, Thomas Campion and Robert Johnson followed. The strophic suavity of ‘Behold a wonder here’ and ‘The sypres curten of the night is spread’ beautifully illustrated the compelling unity of vocal directness and the affective tracery of the lute achieved by Dowland and Campion, respectively. Davies found particularly expressive nuance in Campion’s song, sustaining the melancholy introspection while simultaneously searching through turbulent emotions, as Kenny provided a delicate lace-work tapestry to support the singer’s sombre but silken reflections. Davies was no less musical and articulate in conveying the more declamatory rhetorical intimations of Dowland’s ‘Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears’. Campion’s agile ‘I care not for these ladies’ found the performers in more nonchalant, but no less perceptive, mood. Kenny interleaved a Fantasia by Johnson, Dowland’s dynamic King’s Galliard and a brisk Corante by the intriguing ‘Mr Confess’.

Then came the unexpected. We shifted forwards 100 years. Mozart’s songs are not usually considered central to his oeuvre (somewhat surprising, perhaps, given his mastery of every genre of contemporary opera) but the lied ‘Abendempfindung’, composed in June 1787, less than a month after his father Leopold’s death, exemplifies the art of understated eloquence. The poet-speaker sings of his presentment of his inevitable death to the Petrarchian ‘Laura’, pleading with her to shed a tear on his grave which will be the “fairest pearl” which he takes to his heavenly refuge. Kenny’s French guitar lilted lightly through the simple arpeggio-accompaniment, while Davies expressed the depth of the poetic feeling without vocal or expressive mannerism. The candour was the performance’s power.

Finally came Schubert. ‘Heidenröslein’ was deliciously light and insouciant, with some wonderfully shaped rubatos and diminuendos. Quite honestly, I could listen to Davies’ mellifluous, subtly expressive performance of ‘Am Tage aller Seelen’ on a 24-hour loop. If you needed convincing that a countertenor can make a Schubert lied ‘speak’ here was your evidence. Kenny knew absolutely where and when to come to the fore and when to recede. By this point in the recital, I’d run out of superlatives, so Opera Today readers will have to imagine for themselves, or watch via the link below.

And, an encore to close: Handel’s ‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’ from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. As Davies explained, Milton’s text expresses the hope that, after seeming to have lived a terrible dream, when man awakens sweet music will breathe, and continue to breathe. So do we all, so do we all.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available here and via BBC Sounds until 22 July. Wigmore Hall's live stream of this concert was supported by Hamish Parker.

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Elizabeth Kenny (lute)

Purcell - ‘Strike the viol, touch the lute’ (from Come, ye sons of art, away Z323), ‘By beauteous softness mixed with majesty’ (from Now Does the Glorious Day Appear Z332), ‘Lord, what is man?’ (A Divine Hymn Z192), Rigadoon (arr. Elizabeth Kenny), ‘Sefauchi’s Farewell’ Z656 (arr. Elizabeth Kenny), ‘Lillibulero’ Z646; Dowland - ‘Behold a wonder here’; Campion - ‘The sypres curten of the night is spread’; Johnson - Fantasia; Dowland - ‘Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears’, ‘The King of Denmark, his Galliard’; Campion - ‘I care not for these ladies’, Anon - ‘Mr Confess’ Coranto’; Mozart - ‘Abendempfindung’ K523; Schubert - ‘Heidenröslein’ D257, ‘ Am Tage aller Seelen’ D343.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22nd June 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Kenny%20and%20Davies.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=A live recital from Wigmore Hall by Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Elizabeth Kenny (lute) product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies
Posted by claire_s at 4:15 PM

June 18, 2020

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

Mozart was moved to compose one in the Benda style but abandoned it. Schumann got rid of the orchestra altogether and reduced the melodrama to a single instrument - the piano. What Weber, Benda and Beethoven did with melodrama was focus and magnify in a shortish scene on someone’s horror, terror, or psychological disintegration.

Richard Strauss changed all that and, it is almost universally acknowledged, not for the better. Enoch Arden certainly doesn’t lack a first-rate text - it is after all written by Tennyson. Its narrative is not without drama or emotional impact, either. Arden, a sailor, leaves his family to go on a voyage in order to financially support them (though, depending on how you read Tennyson’s poem this can be interpreted in another way). He is shipwrecked on a desert island with two companions who later die; Arden is left alone, lost and marooned for ten years. After he is rescued, he arrives back to find his wife has remarried Arden’s best friend, Philip, and has given birth to another child after long believing Arden to have perished. Rather than ruin her happiness he never reveals he is alive and dies of a broken heart. There is so much tragedy here Strauss should have been able to have made something remarkable from it. He didn’t.

Tennyson’s literary influences - almost inserted into his poem like leitmotifs, of which the piano part has many - are some of the most vivid examples of creative genius. Homer’s Odyssey, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the Biblical Enoch, and, to a lesser extent, Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. If his Arden is not a particularly mythological character, he is certainly one with masculine identities. This is an Arden who is daring, adventurous and ambiguously selfless. It is a contrast which Strauss could have used to some effect as a dramatic foil against the dependable Philip Ray, or the wife, Annie, who can barely find a husband outside a narrow triangle.

So, what went so wrong for Strauss in Enoch Arden? Length is certainly an issue (performances can run just short of an hour). There is also no Hoffmansthal to help Strauss out; rather, we have a translation of Tennyson’s verses by Albert Strodtmann, one of the twelve translators of this poem since the poem’s publication in Germany in 1867. Strauss may well have been directly influenced by the 1895 Arden opera by Viktor Hansmann or, more likely, Strodtmann’s third edition translation with Thumann’s illustrations (a picture is so often worth more than a thousand words). Another problem for Strauss might have had less to do with the masculinity of Arden himself and more to do with the characterisation of Annie and how she is developed in Tennyson’s poem.

Enoch Arden was composed in 1897 - a time when Strauss was writing his great Tone Poems like Don Juan, Macbeth, and Tod und Verklärung and yet what you get in the melodrama is some of Strauss’s soggiest and most sentimental music. Strauss would compose Ein Heldenleben just a year later, in 1898, a work with its strong feminist line in the violin solos which depict his wife, Pauline. Within a decade, Strauss would have pushed the melodramatic feminine psyche to the absolute limit and beyond in his two ground-breaking operas, Salome and Elektra. But Enoch Arden had none of this revolutionary zealousness and perhaps it simply suffocated Strauss’s creativity because of it. Viewed in Germany as “spineless”, a woman’s poem, it was perceived as a matrimonial tragedy which appealed only to the prurience of women. A view became cemented that this was a poem which celebrated bigamy and a certain kind of immorality. This would almost certainly have seemed old-fashioned to the younger Strauss who was standing at the door waiting to write some of the most radical operas to open any new century.

If the music and its structure fails what you have left are the performers and this is where Enoch Arden has been somewhat lucky. As in any melodrama it is the voice which is going to carry the poem and dating back to the first recording in 1962 with Claude Rains and Glenn Gould some quite remarkable narrators have made a recording. Almost without exception the greatest recordings of Enoch Arden have been made by actors rather than singers - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose recording followed that of Rains, Jon Vickers in 1998 (and his debut role as a speaker) and Benjamin Luxon in 2007 lack the one thing that this part needs: the ability to dramatize. You really wouldn’t want any of these singers to read a book to you at bedtime - especially Vickers. Much more interesting are the recordings by Rains, Gert Westphal, Michael York, Patrick Stewart and this brand new recording by the late Swiss actor Bruno Ganz.

I’m not sure one would ever have thought of Claude Rains as a particularly masculine actor, though the mystery he brings to his reading of Arden has everything to do with an actor who could so clearly have worked wonders in James Whale’s 1933 film The Invisible Man. Bruno Ganz, on the other hand, is an entirely different kind of actor. His Arden is a study in 1930s expressionism, but it is also borne out of Goethe’s Faust. This is probably the deepest, most tragically drawn portrait of Enoch Arden on disc, and I am not sure you have to be fluent in German to sense that.

But you also feel that Ganz is extremely comfortable here - it recalls his beautifully rendered work on Abbado’s 1993 recording of Nono’s Il canto sospeso with the Berlin Philharmonic. So much of this work is sectionalised by Strauss, that it can almost feel like trunks of text stitched rather badly to chords of piano writing and not much that joins them together. Vickers rather surprisingly finds himself out on a limb here, almost as if he has to be prompted by his pianist, the excellent Marc-André Hamelin (though this perhaps is a singer’s typical response). Rains and Ganz, on the other hand, aren’t phased by these elliptical dropouts so both their pianists seem to follow them rather than the other way around.

Kirill Gerstein, like Glenn Gould before him, doesn’t do understatement and Strauss doesn’t really give this long work any kind of architectural frame to hold it up; rather, it relies on its pianist to improvise a little to disguise the work’s technical problems. Both Gould and Gerstein bring enough style and brilliance to their playing to make any shortcomings the work may have seem minor, though it would also be true to say with almost any other actor/narrator than the one each is paired with on their respective recording the dynamic of the performance would completely change. This is foremost a work which is about the narrator.

There are now some twenty or so recordings of Strauss’s Enoch Arden, most of which were recorded after the 1990s when the work really did seem to go through some kind of revival. There are versions in several languages, including English, German and Italian. No English language version comes close to the first, the 1962 recording with Claude Rains and Glenn Gould (Columbia, nla). This most recent version by Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein is a clear first choice for a German language recording of Tennyson’s poem but edges out the Rains/Gould for at least two reasons.

Firstly, Ganz brings a kind of Herzhog-like depth to his narration which goes well beyond the narrative itself. This is a reading which is as simple as the words Ganz is speaking; but it is also an inspired allegory, a map through theological symbolism, a deep rendering of one man’s elegy and tragedy. This recording turned out to be Bruno Ganz’s final work but in that one could now read different interpretations of this performance. For Kirill Gerstein, his playing lacks none of the intensity that Glenn Gould brought to his recording almost sixty years ago; what differs, is that Ganz’s darker German reading of the text allows Gerstein to follow his narrator into those rather gloomier corridors largely eschewed by others.

Strauss’s Enoch Arden was, in my view, one of those Strauss works that was shipwrecked over a century ago and has yet to be properly rescued. This Ganz/Gerstein recording is the closest - and might be the closest - we get to rescuing this long-marooned work. Just not yet, though. Just not yet.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Enoch%20Arden.jpg image_description=MYR025 product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Enoch Arden Op.38 product_by=Bruno Ganz (narrator), Kirill Gerstein (piano) product_id=Myrios Classics MYR025 [CD] price=$19.99 product_url=https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B084DHD4BQ/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B084DHD4BQ&linkCode=as2&tag=operatoday-20&linkId=3b139c07f928fd38b280603e7c533264
Posted by claire_s at 2:09 PM

June 17, 2020

Strauss – Ariadne auf Naxos

Only a few months following the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, Hugo von Hofmannsthal proposed a new opera to Richard Strauss based on Molière’s comedy-ballet, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (in German, Der Bürger als Edelmann).

As initially conceived, the work was in two parts—the first being an adaptation of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme with incidental music composed by Strauss and the second being a collision of an opera seria based on the legend of Ariadne with commedia dell’arte, which would replace the Turkish ceremony with which Molière’s play ends. The work was completed in April 1912 and premiered in Stuttgart the following October. As Charles Osborne notes:

The first night, on October 25, was something of a disaster. Though the press reports were in general favourable, the audience received the Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss mélange without enthusiasm. Those who had come to enjoy Molière were bored by the opera which was tacked on at the end of the comedy, while the opera-goers who had come to hear Strauss’s latest opera were vexed at having first to sit through a play by Molière.

[Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Strauss, London: Grange Books, 1992]

Eventually, the work was revised with the first part being entirely rewritten as a prologue to the opera. The location was changed from Paris to Vienna, all dance scenes were eliminated and the plot bears but scant resemblance to Molière’s play. The incidental music that Strauss had composed would reappear later as Le Bourgeois gentilhomme Suite (1920).

As revised, Ariadne auf Naxos premiered at the Hofoper in Vienna on 4 October 1916.



In the house of the richest man in Vienna, where a sumptuous banquet is to be held in the evening, two theatrical groups are busy preparing their entertainments. The Music Master protests to the Major-domo about the decision to follow his pupil's opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos, with 'vulgar buffoonery'. The Major-domo makes it plain that he who pays the piper calls the tune and that the fireworks display will begin at nine o'clock. The Composer wants a last-minute rehearsal with the violinists, but they are playing during dinner. The soprano who is to sing Ariadne is not available to go through her aria; the tenor cast as Vacchus objects to his wig. There is typical backstage chaos. Seeing the attractive Zerbinetta and inquiring who she is, the composer is told by the Music Master that she is leader of the commedia dell'arte group which is to perform after the opera. Outraged, the Composer's wrath is turned aside when a new melody occurs to him. The Major-domo returns to announce that his master now requires both entertainments to be performed simultaneously and still to end at nine o'clock sharp. More uproar, during which the Dancing Master suggests that the Composer should cut his opera to accommodate the harlequinade's dances.

The plot of Ariadne is explained to Zerbinetta, who mocks the idea of 'languishing in passionate longing and praying for death'. To her, another lover is the answer. Zerbinetta and the Composer find they have something in common when Zerbinetta tells him 'A moment is nothing - a glance is much'. 'Who can say that my heart is in the part I play?' Heartened, the Composer sings of music's power. But when he sees the comedians scampering about, he cries, 'I should not have allowed it.'


On the island of Naxos, where Ariadne has been abandoned by Theseus, who took her with him from Crete after she had helped him to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne is asleep, watched over by three nymphs, Naiad, Dryad and Echo. They describe her perpetual inconsolable weeping. Ariadne wakes. She can think of nothing except her betrayal by Theseus and she wants death to end her suffering. Zerbinetta and the comedians cannot believe in her desperation and Harlequin vainly tries to cheer her with a song about the joys of life. She sings of the purity of the kingdom of death and longs for Hermes to lead her there. The comedians again try to cheer her up with singing and dancing, but to no avail. Zerbinetta sends them away and tries on her own, with her long coloratura aria, the gist of which is that there are plenty of other men besides Theseus. In the middle of the aria, Ariadne goes into her cave. Zerbinetta and her troupe then enact their entertainment in which the four comedians court her.

The three nymphs excitedly announce the arrival of the young god Bacchus, who has just escaped from the sorceress Circe. At first he mistakes Ariadne for another Circe, while she mistakes him for Theseus and then Hermes. But in the duet that follows, reality takes over and Ariadne's longing for death becomes a longing for love as Bacchus becomes aware of his divinity. As passion enfolds them, Zerbinetta comments that she was right all along: 'Off with the old, on with the new.'

[Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation]

Click here for the full text of the libretto.

image_description=The Sleeping Ariadne in Naxos by John Vanderlyn [Source: Wikipedia]

first_audio_name=Ariadne auf Naxos

product_title=Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
product_by=Gabriela Benackova-Cap (Primadonna/Ariadne), Edita Gruberova (Zerbinetta), Ann Murray (Komponist), Wolfgang Schmidt (Tenor/Bacchus), Peter Weber (Musiklehrer); Das Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Horst Stein (cond.)
Live performance, 20 April 1996, Weiner Staatsoper, Vienna
product_id=Above: The Sleeping Ariadne in Naxos by John Vanderlyn [Source: Wikipedia]

Posted by Gary at 1:57 PM

Spontini – La Vestale

Music composed by Gaspare Spontini. Libretto by Etienne de Jouy.

First Performance: 15 December 1807, the Opéra, Paris

Principal Characters:
Licinius, a Roman general Tenor
Cinna, commander of the legion Tenor
The Pontifex Maximus Bass
The Chief Soothsayer Bass
A Consul Bass
Julia, a young Vestal virgin Soprano
The High Priestess Mezzo-Soprano

Setting: Republic of Rome, c. 269 B.C.E.


Act I

The young commander, Licinius, has returned to Rome in triumph. Nonetheless, he is filled with dread. He tells his friend, Cinna, that his beloved Julia joined the cult of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, while he was in Gaul. Julia asks the head priestess that she not be present during the commander’s honor; but, her request is denied. As Julia presents Licinius with the golden wreath, he whispers to her that he plans to abduct her that evening.

Act II

Julia stands watch before the sacred flame, which must never go out. She prays to Vesta for deliverance from her sinful love. Yet, she races to open the temple doors to allow Licinius entry. When Licinius arrives, he swears to free her from her obligations. The sacred flame goes out as they pledge mutual fidelity. Cinna warns Licinius to escape at once. The Pontifex Maximus arrives and accuses Julia of perfidy. He demands to know the name of the intruder. Julia refuses to name Licinius. She is then cursed, stripped of her garments and sentenced to death.


Julia is to be buried alive. Licinius and Cinna plead for mercy. The Pontifex Maximus is unyielding. Licinius confesses that he is to blame; but Julia claims that she does not know him. She is led before the altar and climbs down into the open grave. A storm envelopes the temple. A lightning bolt ignites Julia’s veil that had fallen near the altar and the sacred flame is rekindled. Licinius and Cinna rescue Julia from the grave. The High Priestess recognizes divine intervention. All are forgiven. Julia is freed from her vows. Licinius takes Julia’s hand and leads her to the altar where they are married.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Henri-Pierre_Danloux_-_Le_supplice_dune_vestale_%281790%29.png image_description=Le supplice d'une vestale (1790) by Henri-Pierre Danloux (1753-1809) [Source: Wikipedia] audio=yes first_audio_name=Gaspare Spontini: La Vestale first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Vestale1.m3u product=yes product_title=Gaspare Spontini: La Vestale product_by=Leyla Gencer (Julia), Renato Bruson (Cinna), Robleto Merolla (Licinius), Agostino Ferrin (The Pontifex Maximus), Franca Mattiucci (The High Priestess), Sergio Sisti (The Chief Soothsayer), Enrico Campi (A Consul), Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Fernanco Previtali (cond.)
Live performance, 4 December 1969, Palermo (sung in Italian) product_id=Above: Le supplice d’une vestale by Henri-Pierre Danloux (1790) [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 11:25 AM

Longborough Festival Opera launches opera podcast

The Longborough Podcast offers listeners the opportunity to hear directly from the artists and figures at the forefront of the industry. Each episode will explore a particular composer, work or role, welcoming friends from the world of opera and the arts - including singers, players, directors, conductors and more - for some thought-provoking discussions.

The first few episodes include:
1. Music journalist Richard Bratby, Longborough Music Director Anthony Negus and bass-baritone Paul Carey Jones trace Wotan’s journey through Wagner’s Ring cycle.
2. Writer and librettist Sophie Rashbrook, sopranoLee Bisset and historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough explore the roles of women in Wagner’s Ring cycle.
3. A conversation about The Cunning Little Vixen in context of Janacek’s works, hosted by Richard Bratby.
4. Opera director and librettist Sir David Pountney and Longborough’s Artistic Director Polly Graham uncover the use of comedy in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Listen to the first episode here: https://lfo.org.uk/our-story/podcast

Longborough Artistic Director Polly Graham comments: “What we hope to achieve from this podcast is a chance to open up some of the amazing works we had programmed for 2020, and to celebrate the thinking of the artists we work with. The lockdown has been hugely challenging for the performing arts, but it has given us the opportunity to think creatively about different experiences we can still offer audiences. We miss our audiences so much and cannot wait to connect with them again through live theatre and music. In the meantime, we hope this podcast will continue to feed their imagination. We are so grateful for their continued support at such a challenging time.”

The news comes following the success of Longborough’s recent fundraising campaign that generated £300,000, two-thirds of which went directly to the freelance artists involved in the postponed 2020 festival’s four productions. The remainder will help to develop further work for artists this year, as well as to help the organisation mitigate upcoming financial uncertainty. As a privately-funded charity, Longborough relies on ticket income to sustain its work.

How to Listen:

The podcast will be available free of charge at lfo.org.uk and on most podcast platforms.

Listen and subscribe at lfo.org.uk/podcast or search “Longborough podcast” on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Acast or Stitcher.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LFO%20cr%20Matthew%20Williams-Ellis%20%2816%29%20%281%29.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Longborough Festival Opera podcast product_id=Longborough Festival Opera

Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis
Posted by claire_s at 10:50 AM

100 artists across 14 countries and 4 continents stage Guildhall School of Music & Drama digital opera double bill

A 20th-century reimagining of one of the earliest English operas Dido and Aeneas - Purcell’s tragic love story featuring the famous aria Dido’s Lament - is contrasted with Respighi’s La bella dormente nel bosco, a witty take on the Sleeping Beauty story. The School’s production would have been the UK premiere of Respighi’s rarely performed work. All students, staff and guest artists have been working from wherever they have been living during the lockdown, across at least 14 countries and four continents.

From home, the opera’s cast and chorus have captured and filmed their own performances under the virtual direction of director Olivia Fuchs and movement director Victoria Newlyn, which have then been edited by the filmmaker Karl Dixon. Guildhall School instrumentalists have recorded their parts for a multi-track recording of the orchestral scores co-ordinated by conductor and Head of Opera Dominic Wheeler.

The visions of designer takis and lighting designer Jake Wiltshire have been brought to life by Guildhall School staff and students using a range of innovative technology. A 3D model of Silk Street Theatre, produced using cutting-edge lidar scanning technology, was used as the basis for the production under the expert guidance of BILD Studios. All of the behind-the-scenes work to create a regular opera production at Guildhall - construction, costume, lighting, props, scenic art, sound and video production - have been translated to the digital world.

Dominic Wheeler, Head of Opera at Guildhall School says: “ When we started this project, we had to reinvent our way of working so quickly that we felt it would put too much pressure on everyone involved to share the full finished result publicly. However, whilst the process has certainly been a healthy challenge, it has also been exciting and eye-opening. We feel that the students’ enthusiasm and commitment to telling stories meaningfully in such difficult circumstances transcends all the challenges they’ve faced, and makes us proud to share their work with everyone .”

Collaborative and interdisciplinary work is a priority across Guildhall School, and this project has integrated work by more than 100 artists from the Opera, Production Arts, Vocal and Music departments, as well as Guildhall Live Events - an innovative new department set up to act as a conduit between the professional artistic, creative and entertainment industries and the world-class educational practises of Guildhall School.

Dan Shorten, Creative Director of Guildhall Live Events says : " This wonderful cross-School collaborative project is an excellent example of Guildhall’s resourcefulness and ability to adapt. Having firm connections to industry, through initiatives such as Guildhall Live Events, allows for current technical innovation and developments to be instantly implemented into curriculum delivery, and conversely allows our students to work with, and push, our industry partners and the way we work with them commercially.”

The Production Arts department at Guildhall School has long been recognised as providing some of the most innovative vocational training in the UK and beyond, and the School is embracing this chance for students to learn cutting-edge skills and new technology working practises which are vital in today’s theatre and live events industry.

The digital opera double bill is available to watch until 1 July here .

Purcell Dido and Aeneas
Respighi La bella dormente nel bosco

Creative Team

Dominic Wheeler conductor
Olivia Fuchs director
takis designer
Jake Wiltshire lighting designer
Victoria Newlyn movement director

Streaming link: www.gsmd.ac.uk/music/virtual_opera

Posted by claire_s at 10:42 AM

June 15, 2020

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

Co-curated and introduced by Music Director, Antonio Pappano, seated at the Steinway positioned front-of-stage, it was the first of three such live streams from the House and the first live performance at Covent Garden since the curtain went down and the doors were closed on 17th March.

At least the performers, facing upstage, were spared the emptiness that confronted the viewers: a twilight auditorium of gently glowing crimson and gilt, the two thousand-plus empty seats a reminder, if any were needed, of the prevailing sense of loss that shadows the entire world at this present time.

If the audience at home were anticipating an uplifting medley of their opera favourites, then they would have been disappointed, at least until the final minutes of this seventy-minute broadcast. Instead, Pappano has devised a programme which might have been titled ‘A Celebration of British Twentieth-Century Song’. It was an ingenuous sequence which opened with a heralding fanfare and ranged through celebration and sombreness, dramatic immediacy and wistful reflection, extrovert humour and intimate longing. The sung items framed a sinuous, tactile dance newly choreographed by Wayne McGregor, since 2006 the Resident Choreographer at the House, to Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen’, the composer’s wedding present to his lifelong companion and muse, Pauline de Ahna.

A Handelian flourish of confidence got things underway, Pappano’s crystalline arpeggios rippling down the keyboard with glittering panache at the start of Britten’s ‘Let the Florid Music Praise’, the opening song of his 1937 cycle On This Island, setting five poems by W.H. Auden. The first performance of the work took place at London’s Broadcasting House, sung by Sophie Weiss with Britten himself at the piano. Here, Pappano was joined by Louise Alder whose last live performance was probably on a stage the other side of the West End, as Susanna in ENO’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro, which was forced to closed its doors after the opening night.

Alder’s soprano gleamed, rising rejoicingly through the ascending fanfares, as she and Pappano pushed forward with optimism, the pinpoint-accurate bravura hastening towards the climatic “Shine on!”, before the piano’s beautifully tailored transition led into the more muted strains of the Purcellian minor-key reflections on loss and death. Britten’s chromatic vocal curls are as complex as Auden’s elusive imagery, both melodic line and text presenting real challenges to the singer, but Alder beautifully captured the veiled intimation and privacy, Pappano’s accompaniment ever discreet. Her vocal agility was impressive in ‘Now the leaves are falling fast’, though perhaps the tempo was a little too impetuous as the text was somewhat lost amid the racing vocal undulations.

The surfeit of detail in ‘Seascape’ was brilliantly negotiated by Pappano, as Alder combined vocal sweetness with flexibility and perceptive textual interpretation. The highlight was the ‘Nocturne’, its very simplicity ensuring its intensity. Alder’s phrasing and breath control - wonderfully sustained diminuendos and finely crafted phrase-endings, so often neglected - were consummate. After the rapture, a perky conclusion, ‘As it is, plenty’ reminding us of the jazzy spirit of Britten’s ‘Cabaret Songs’.

Alder ROH.jpgLouise Alder and Antonio Pappano in rehearsal at the Royal Opera House. Photo credit: Lara Cappelli.

Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad seems to be proving a favourite among tenors and baritones during these troubling months, and here it was tenor Toby Spence who followed Alder onto the ROH stage, to sing of loss and longing, but also of regeneration and hope. ‘Loveliest of trees’ was delicate and restrained, both Pappano and Spence lingering for the tiniest of moments at the start of their first phrases, then moving forward with eloquence and composure, Spence enunciating the text with scrupulous care, Pappano subtly pointing the harmonic nuances which are more complex than the folk-like clarity of the vocal line sometimes leads us to assume. The poet’s longing for a simpler time was incredibly moving. Spence was a resonant ‘wise man’ in ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ and the subtle fading into the final doleful acknowledgement that the heart is never given in vain, but “sold for endless rue”, was brilliantly done.

‘Look not in my eyes’ had a lovely narrative fluency, the 5/4 tempo rolling easily onwards, Spence’s middle register warm and even. The same unmannered gentleness infused ‘The lads in their hundreds’: sad but pragmatic, the tempo relaxed and the mood never sentimental, this was a masterclass in ‘less is more’. Spence closed his eyes to inhabit the distant, departed speaker in ‘Is my team ploughing’, the soft questions rudely disrupted by a voice ardent and strong, but offering re-assurance - “be still … lie down and sleep” - then dismissing the troubling past, “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart, never ask me whose”. The piano seemed almost to plunge into the grave at the close.

McGregor’s deeply sensitive and intimate interpretation of Strauss’s ‘Morgen!’ followed, danced by two of the Royal Ballet’s Principals, Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales. A ‘real-life’ couple, Hayward and Corrales entwined with breath-taking tenderness and intensity, Corrales curving, arching, bending with astonishing smoothness, like an inky line trailing through water, Hayward as graceful as soft silk blowing in the breeze. McGregor emphasised the electricity of human touch and the human body’s engagement with space and air. As Alder and the violinist Vasko Vassilev, the Concert Master of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, caressed Strauss’s floating images of the ‘sun-breathing earth’, ‘beach, wide, wave-blue’, the dancers slowly sank into ‘the mute silence of happiness’.

Hayward.jpgCesar Corrales and Francesca Hayward. Photo credit: Lara Cappelli.

Next it was the turn of Gerald Finley, who began with Mark Anthony Turnage’s Three Songs (2000), written especially for the Canadian baritone, who created the role of Harry Heagan in Turnage’s opera The Silver Tassie. During rehearsals for that first production Finley asked Turnage if he would contribute something new to a recital programme that he was building around Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles , lively musical portraits of the animal kingdom. Turnage obliged, and the result was this set of three songs, two about cats (setting Stevie Smith’s ‘The Singing Cat’ and Thomas Hardy’s ‘Mourning’) which are followed by Walt Whitman’s ‘Last Words’ from Leaves of Grass in which the poet dreams of a life lived with and amid animals.

Turnage’s word-setting is Brittenesque, and both the verbal rhythm and the relationship between voice and piano reflects what Britten learned from Purcell. If the songs seem rather erudite and distanced, then Finley’s clarity of diction and vocal focus drew the listener in. Hardy’s sober reflections were particularly telling, as Finley stretched through the poetic lines, and revelled in the dark colours, “Till your way you chose to wend/ Yonder, to your tragic end”. His easeful crossing of wide vocal registers ensured an integration of feeling and means of communication. And, he gave us a warming, somewhat wry, smile at the close of the Whitman setting, “I think I could turn and live with animals”.

Finley demonstrated the extraordinary range of moods, emotions, colours that he can encompass in his final two solo items. Britten’s ‘The Crocodile’ (1941) ratchets up its tweeness via a series of clichéd rising modulations which here suggested that Finley could have made a fine living in the nineteenth century from musical reviews and seaside shows - though never once was the elegance of the textual delivery and vocal mellifluousness marred. The dirge from Act 4 of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun’, is more sombre and complex, and the setting by Gerald Finzi (whether it is to be sung or spoken in its theatrical context is a matter of ongoing debate) seems somehow to speak to the ‘English’ spirit: is it the hymn-like quality of the modal harmony, the folk resonances, the walking bass, spiritually redolent plagal cadences, the very measured way in which deep emotions are communicated? Who knows, but Finley ensured we appreciated Finzi’s wonderful word-setting, through the innate logic of his phrasing within the largely strophic structure. I have long been of the view that, yes, Finzi does always sound ‘like Finzi’, but that anything by Finzi is worth hearing - and Finley confirmed this here.

Finley ROH.jpgGerald Finley and Antonio Pappano in rehearsal at the Royal Opera House. Photo credit: Lara Cappelli.

And so, we swept on to the opera. First, a dazzling ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ from Louise Alder who made Morgana (Alcina) seem surprisingly human in her desires and compulsions, despite being infatuated by one who is not what he seems. The B section of the da capo offered a beautiful contrast of legato phrasing and deep sentiment, in opposition with the coquettishness wizardry of the opening, in which the ornaments were brilliantly (in every sense of the word) executed.

To close, Bizet: the final duet for Nadir and Zurga, ‘Au fond du temple saint’, from Les Pêcheurs de perles was a flowering of operatic melodising. Pappano conjured every symphonic colour that could be wrought from the Steinway and the voices of Spence and Finley blended beautifully. Okay, one had to imagine much - the theatrical context, the orchestral plushness, the emotional heightening, fullness and richness - but the shared vision of beauty and grace hit the heart hard.

And, so, what of the wider picture? Well, it was left to Wayne McGregor to note the crippling and threatening challenges faced by arts institutions of all kinds and sizes across the UK, and especially the plight of tens of thousands of freelancers who are not eligible for government support. And, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, all involved took the knee after McGregor’s new pas de deux.

But, the darkened auditorium that cast its shadow over the broadcast spoke louder than words and actions of this kind. Performers need to perform, and they need to perform to audiences: digital audiences are some recompense, but they are no substitute for the sort of inter-personal and inter-musical relationships that develop during a live performance.

This was the first of three live concerts from the Royal Opera House: it was free-to-view and is available via the ROH’s YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo channels until 27th June. There will be two further concerts on 20th and 27th June, available at a cost of £4.99. The programme on 20th June will comprise a performance of Albert Schonberg’s reduction of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with tenor David Butt Philip, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and soloists of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and a performance of the ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, featuring principal dancer Vadim Muntagirov.

Claire Seymour

Louise Alder (soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Gerald Finley (baritone), Antonio Pappano (piano), Vasko Vassilev (violin), Francesca Hayward (dancer), Cesar Corrales (dancer)

Benjamin Britten - On this Island Op.11; George Butterworth -Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad; Ballet Interlude - New pas de deux, choreographed by Wayne McGregor to Richard Strauss’ ‘Morgen!’ Op.27 No.4; Mark-Anthony Turnage - Three Songs; arr. Benjamin Britten: ‘The Crocodile’; Gerald Finzi - ‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’ Op.18 No.3; George Frideric Handel - ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ (Alcina); Georges Bizet - ‘Au fond du temple saint’ ( Les Pêcheurs de perles)

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Saturday 13th June 2020.

Image=http://www.operatoday.com/ROH%20live%20broadcast.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Antonio Pappano on the stage of the Royal Opera House

Photo credit: Lara Cappelli
Posted by claire_s at 3:55 PM

Wexford Festival Opera: Waiting for Shakespeare…The Festival in the air

Video presentation by Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi - www.wexfordopera.com

Wexford Festival Opera today announced that it has taken the difficult decision to reschedule the previously announced artistic programme to October 2021. This is due to the ongoing worldwide uncertainty regarding the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing restrictions into the autumn, and in the best interests of the health and welfare of the Festival’s audiences, artists, staff, and volunteers.

However, the spirit which enabled a small provincial town to create a world-renowned opera festival continues to this day, inspiring Wexford, with the support and guidance of its board of directors, to develop a crisis-inspired formula by presenting a reimagined, online Festival.

Waiting for Shakespeare …The Festival in the air is an online celebration of music which will still encompass many of the artistic ambitions already set out by Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi earlier in the year, principally to nurture the talents of the best young Irish singers through the mentorship of world-renowned artists who share a love of Wexford. This reimagined Festival aims to bring together audiences and the wider worldwide Wexford community through the power of music.

The Festival will now run for eight consecutive days, from Sunday, 11 October until Sunday, 18 October 2020. During this time, audiences from home and abroad will be invited to experience the magic of Wexford Festival Opera online from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Further details of where and how to join in will be announced shortly.

Speaking today in a joint statement, Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi and Chief Executive David McLoughlin said,

Wexford Festival Opera makes an invaluable cultural and economic contribution to the nation in general and to the community and businesses in Wexford in particular. The repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic are regrettably beyond our control and we fully acknowledge the impact the postponement of this year’s full festival will have on the community which founded the Festival seven decades ago. However, the indomitable spirit of Wexford Opera lives on, even in these uncertain and challenging times. We are determined to leave no stone unturned to ensure the Festival remains active, dynamic and fully prepared to welcome audiences back to Wexford to celebrate the Festival’s 70th anniversary in 2021. This year’s Festival aims to build on our pioneering digital initiatives in recent years to present an exciting and varied programme of events, safely and at no charge to our audiences across Ireland and around the world. It also presents the opportunity for the wider public to access and experience the magic of Wexford perhaps for the first time. The steadfast support of our many stakeholders is enormously appreciated especially at this challenging time, in particular the support of our principal funder, The Arts Council, in addition to that of Wexford County Council and Fáilte Ireland, all of which has been crucial to enable Wexford to present a reimagined Festival against the odds this year, as well as RTÉ, which has partnered with us in the past to expand our audiences at home and abroad. In enthusiastic anticipation of the return of our patrons to Wexford next year, we are eager to still bring to you the spirit and community of Wexford this year .”

Existing ticket holders will be contacted directly regarding ticket refunds and the option to consider converting all or part of their refund into a donation to support Wexford’s artistic mission, in particular its ongoing initiatives to develop the talents and careers of emerging Irish singers and the creation of an online musical celebration this autumn.

The inaugural Wexford Factory, a professional development academy for young Irish/Irish-based singers has been retained as a key part of this year’s reimagined Festival. Participants will be tutored by some of the most celebrated professionals in opera today, including acclaimed tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who appeared in Wexford at the very beginning of his international career, coming full-circle. Wexford Factory participants will also perform scenes from Verdi’s Falstaff from the stage of the National Opera House, streamed in an episodic format over six consecutive days.

The Festival will open with Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will close with the highly anticipated Lisette Oropesa concert. Other events will include a star-studded Gala concert, featuring some of the opera world’s top performers, most of whom performed in Wexford early in their careers, a special dinner time recital by the celebrated Irish soprano Celine Byrne, as well as a new opera by Artist-in-Residence, composer Andrew Synnott. A community element will remain with a series of pop-up performances which will take place daily in Wexford town in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

Full details of ‘Waiting for Shakespeare ...The Festival in the air’, including a personal video presentation by the artistic director Rosetta Cucchi and downloadable brochure, is available through this link: www.wexfordopera.com

Wexford Festival Opera would like to thank the Arts Council, Wexford County Council, Fáilte Ireland/Ireland’s Ancient East and the Festival’s Friends, sponsors and donors. It is only through their invaluable support that Wexford Festival Opera can, in turn continue to reach out on a global scale to enrich, entertain and enlighten audiences during these uncertain times.

@wexfordfestivalopera / @wexfordopera

Posted by claire_s at 4:49 AM

June 14, 2020

Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov

Principal Characters

Boris GodunovBaritone
Fyodor, his sonMezzo-soprano
Xenia, his daughterSoprano
Xenia's nurseLow mezzo-soprano
Prince Vasiliĭ Ivanovič ShuĭskiĭTenor
Andreĭ Ščelkalov, council secretaryBaritone
Pimen, chronicler, anchoriteBass
Pretender (False Dimitriĭ, Grigoriĭ)Tenor
Marina Mnishek, daughter of the governor of SandomirMezzo-soprano or dramatic soprano
Rangoni, conspiratorial JesuitBass
Varlaam, itinerant monkBass
Misail, itinerant monkTenor
Hostess of the innMezzo-soprano
Simpleton (Yurodivyĭ)Tenor
Mikitič, police officerBass

Time and Place

1598-1605, Russia and Poland


Boris Godunov, the regent of the young Tsar Fyodor, has arranged the assasination of the Tsar's half-brother and heir Dimitriĭ, in order to seize power. When the Tsar himself dies Boris pretends to decline the crown, but his agents incite the Muscovite crowd to acclaim him as the new Tsar. Though racked with guilt, Boris is crowned. In the monastery of Chudov an old monk Pimen is writing a chronicle of Russia. He tells his novice Grigoriĭ of the history surrounding Boris, and Grigoriĭ resolves to avenge the murdered Dimitriĭ. Leaving the monastery Grigoriĭ claims to be the dead Tsarevich and with two vagabond friars Varlaam and Misail escapes across the border into Lithuania. In his Kremlin rooms Boris learns of the pretender. His councillor Shuĭskiĭ aims to reassure him by recounting the murder of Dimitriĭ but this throws Boris into a state of hallucination.

In Poland, Grigoriĭ's lover Marina dreams of becoming tsarina and her Jesuit confessor Rangoni exhorts her to support the Catholic cause. Marina joins Grigoriĭ in a moonlit rendezvous and she drives him forward with his ambitions.

In the Kromy forest the people are in disordered revolt against Boris but rally behind Grigoriĭ's call to follow him to Moscow. A simpleton is left behind bewailing the fate of the Russian people. The boyars hold an emergency meeting in the council hall in Moscow and Shuĭskiĭ describes the Tsar's unstable mental state, confirmed when Boris enters. Pimen arrives to describe a miraculous cure performed at the tomb of Dimitriĭ, causing the Tsar to collapse. Boris bids farewell to his son, prays for Russia, and dies.

Schematic (Rimsky-Korsakov Edition, 1908)

Scene 1.At the Novodeviči Cloister
Chorus of Wandering Holy Beggars
Scene 2.Kremlin. Coronation
Act I
Scene 1.Monk's Cell. Night
Scene 2.Inn near the Lithuanian Border
Hostess' Song
Varlaam's Song
Act II
In Boris' Apartment
Song about the Gnat
Clapping Game
Boris' Recitative and Aria
Chiming Clock
Scene 1.Marina's Boudoir. Chorus of Girls of Sandomir
Marina's Aria
Scene 2.Night, Garden, Fountain
Polonaise with Chorus
Act IV
Scene 1.Near Kromy
Scene 2.Session of the Council of Boyars. Death of Boris
Pimen's Narrative
image=http://www.operatoday.com/Modest_M%C3%BAsorgski%2C_por_Ili%C3%A1_Repin.png image_description=Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) [Source: Wikipedia] audio=yes first_audio_name=Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Boris1.m3u product=yes product_title=Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov product_by=Nicolai Ghiaurov, Olivera Miljakovic, Nadejda Dobrianowa, Nikolai Gjuselev, Sena Jurinac. Ballett der Salzburger Festspiele, Kammerchor der Salzburger Festspiele, Chorus of the Croatian National Opera Zagreb, Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (cond.)
Live performance circa 1965
Click here for the complete cast list. product_id=Above: Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 7:45 PM

June 12, 2020

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

His purpose was, he explained, to put to bed the old notion that men sing ‘men’s songs’ and women sing ‘women’s song’, whatever those categories may mean. The time is ripe for change, and he wanted to encourage all singers of whatever gender to believe that the entire art song repertory was theirs to explore, perform and enjoy.

In the 19th century, repertoire gender-polarity was not a significant issue, but it’s true that, as Lawrence Kramer has suggested (in a 2011 article, ‘Sexing Song: Brigitte Fassbaender's Winterreise ’), ‘the more professionalized the performance of art song became, the more the rule of gender asymmetry prevailed. By the turn of the twentieth century it had become rigid.’ It’s generally been more common for women to adopt male personae in art song than vice versa. In 2017, Janet Wasserman (founder and executive director of the Schubert Society of the USA) published a list of 59 female singers who had recorded Winterreise from soprano Maria Ekeblad in 1910 to mezzo-soprano Ingeborg Hischer in 2014, which includes Kirsten Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann, Barbara Hendricks, Christa Ludwig, Margaret Price, Christine Schäfer and others. And, there are many more who have sung individual songs from Schubert’s song-cycle in concert and on disc.

But, if there has been no shortage of ‘courageous’ women - Alice Coote, who sang the cycle at Carnegie Hall in 2017, was thus ‘praised’ - eager to sing Schubert’s songs, and while some have been well-received, the views expressed by Matthew Gurewitsch - who asked in the New York Times in 1990 ‘Can a Woman Do a Man’s Job In Schubert’s Winterreise?’, and judged Fassbaender to have evoked ‘the adolescent hysterics of Octavian toward the end of Der Rosenkavalier’s first act’, were not atypical.

Williams would profoundly disagree with Gurewitsch’s conclusions: ‘At any rate, however astutely or partially Mozart, Goethe, Mendelssohn, Chamisso, Schumann and Loewe have penetrated the feminine psyche, no man would dream of presenting their insights in public, any more than they would impersonate the coy nymph of Debussy’s Arcadian Chansons de Bilitis.’ You just have to empathise with the protagonist’s feelings and experiences, and be able to communicate them in song, argued Williams - words not so dissimilar from Elena Gerhardt’s comment about Winterreise, ‘You have to be haunted by this cycle to be able to sing it.’

I’m absolutely on Williams’ side on this one, but there is one obvious counterargument that might be raised with respect to his Wigmore Hall programme. That is, barring one short song by Clara Schumann, the female experiences embodied in the songs he sang are not ‘female experiences’ at all, but rather male speculations and representations of imagined - perhaps desired? - female experiences. Whether poet or composer, these men cannot escape the prevailing ideology of Romantic subjectivity. The eight songs of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben are narrated by a woman but some might argue that is the man she loves and loses who is the actual ‘protagonist’ of the cycle.

One could argue this way and that for eternity, so it’s probably best just to focus on the singing itself, and this recital offered us all the pleasures and comforts that we associate with Williams’ singing: a general impression of sincerity, thoughtfulness and care; well-considered, natural diction; a lovely fresh vocal tone, by turns light and dark, but never insubstantial or overly weighty; a true and innate sense of poetic phrasing and meaning. The BBC cameraman perched in the balcony enabled us to marvel at the relaxed sensitive of Joseph Middleton’s fingers as they delicately articulated accompanying textures, sought out harmonic nuances in support of semantic inflections, and inhabited an understated but telling narratorial role throughout, but especially in the summative piano postludes, by turns restful and agitated, tragic and consoling. What I found most striking about this performance was the flexibility of the phrasing. The expressive freedom was sometimes quite marked but it never felt anything other than entirely ‘right’, indicative of a mutual appreciation of the union of poetic and musical meaning, and how to communicate this to an audience - even one far away, peering into laptop screens or reclining in an armchair beside a radio.

Williams began with three songs by Schubert and, in some ways, it seemed to me that he was most ‘himself’ here. Perhaps it was the dark tone which ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ and the less well-known ‘Die junge Nonne’ share, but the rich colours of Williams’ mid to low range were complemented by Middleton’s plunging resonance in all three songs. ‘Gretchen’ was perhaps the most overtly ‘dramatic’ song of the recital and Williams swept us immediately and magnetically into its agonies. The varying tempi, rubatos and fermata of ‘Der Tod’ were consummately handled, and here Williams was a chilling figure of Death, enticing and commanding the maiden to take the hand of her ‘Friend’ and sleep in his arms. Middleton’s energising staccato bass injected ‘Die junge Nonne’ with compelling urgency while Williams’ taut but quiet baritone captured the protagonist’s fear of the night, as dark as the grave. The harmonic shifts were brilliantly shaped by Middleton, and Williams’ major-key, even, self-composed closing “Allelulia”s suggested spiritual transfiguration rather than earthly fulfilment.

In the six songs by Brahms, Williams was appropriately lighter of voice, capturing something of the protagonist’s naivety and vulnerability. At times I wondered if the inevitable octave transposition of the vocal disturbed the registral relationship of voice and piano: in ‘An die Nachtigall’, for example, a woman’s voice would be cushioned within the generally high-lying, gentle piano rocking, whereas Williams’ baritone formed a ‘bass line melody’ in a way. I’m not sure if this matters, but it came to mind especially in the closing episodes as Middleton’s falling cascades rippled with graceful tenderness. I loved the way Williams expanded the breadth of his tone and emotive suggestiveness in the final stanza of ‘Mädchenlied’ - “Die Tränen rinnen/ Mir übers Gesicht -/ Wofür soll ich spinnen?/ Ich weiss es nicht!” (The tears go coursing/ Down my cheeks—/ What am I spinning for? I don’t know!), powerfully conveying the agony of burgeoning, not yet understood, passion and desire.

In contrast, ‘Das Mädchen spricht’ pushed forwards with impetuousness and curiosity - and with subtle temporal nuances, a certain wryness - as the young girl questions the swallow about its marriage plans! Middleton’s dancing dotted rhythms were light as air and one could imagine the girl tossing of her tresses with the staccato snap of the final terse cadence. I don’t think I’ve heard ‘Salamander’ before, and though it was brief it made a mark, in no small part due to the perspicacity of Williams’ exploitation of the text but also the piano’s concluding tumult. The contrast between the chirpy song of the insouciant nightingale at the start of ‘Nachtigall’ and the slightly ‘spiky’ melodic and rhythmic disintegration of the bird’s song at the minor-key close, as the protagonist urges the nightingale to cease tormenting them with ‘love-kindled songs’ - “Fleuch, Nachtigall, in grüne Finsternisse,/ Ins Haingesträuch,/ Und spend’ im Nest der treuen Gattin Küsse;/ Entfleuch, entfleuch!” (Fly, nightingale, to the green darkness,/ To the bushes of the grove,/ And there in the nest kiss your faithful mate;/ Fly away, fly away!) - was wonderful. One could surely hear in Middleton’s playing in this song the Brahms of the late piano intermezzos.

Clara Schumann’s ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, though flowing and sweet was slightly lost, embedded as it was within these Brahms songs. Perhaps if Williams had really wanted to take some risks, he would have included all of Clara’s contributions to this Op.12 set? But, Clara’s was the prevailing spirit in the recital’s main work, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. This really was stunning singing and playing. If the martial spirit of ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ always leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable at Schumann’s self-representation, as he manipulates the beloved’s thoughts and feelings to accord with his Romantic sense of ‘self’, then Middleton’s brilliantly shaped and defined bass line, never heavy, always singing, balanced the books in that song! True partnership characterised ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben, which needs to be simultaneously fast and precise, without heaviness, and was - with the added expressivity of some well-considered ebbs and flows of the tempo.

‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ is one of my all-time favourite songs - nothing to do with the sentiments and everything to do with memories of playing through Schumann’s songs as a student in order to understand harmonic structure, nuance and meaning - and the duo did not disappoint, conjuring a mood of peace and solemnity. The bright energy of ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ conveyed the bride-to-be’s impatience and joy; in the closing stanza she takes leave of her ‘sisters’ with both sadness and joy, and Middleton’s beautifully placed cadence, closing on a first-inversion chord, wonderfully both confirmed her happiness and suggested her movement forwards into a new life. After the almost delirious rapture of ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’, Wiliams’ baritone was firm but intense in the final song of the cycle, ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’. Middleton wrought every drop of harmonic inference from Schumann’s twisting, shifting colours, before the final piano postlude reminded us, with bittersweet beauty, of that innocent love, now lost, forever, along with life itself: “Ich zieh mich in mein Innres still zurück,/ Der Schleier fällt,/ Da hab ich dich und mein verlornes Glück,/ Du meine Welt!” (Silently I withdraw into myself,/ The veil falls,/ There I have you and my lost happiness,/ You, my world!)

The first performance of Frauenliebe und -leben was given by baritone Julius Stockhausen, and, further suggesting that he, and perhaps his contemporaries, had no notion of a gender-dichotomy in art song, in 1873 one of his pupils, Johanna Schwartz, sang songs from Winterreise in a recital that Stockhausen had organised for his students. Recalling his own student days, Williams described having learned Brahms’ ‘Sapphische Ode’, which was loved and recommended by one of his first teachers. It was the song that ‘kicked the whole thing off’, he explained: having submitted Brahms’ song as part of a competition programme, he was told that he could not perform it. Why? It was a ‘woman’s song’. He dedicated his encore to his first two teachers, Valerie Heath Davis and Janet Edmunds.

Claire Seymour

This recital is available to view at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtU4lsVcHas

The series continues for two more weeks, until 26th June. For further information and to view previous concerts in the series click here .

Roderick Williams (baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Franz Schubert - ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ D118, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ D531, Die junge Nonne’ D828; Johannes Brahms - Vier Lieder Op.46 No.4 ‘An die Nachtigall’, Fünf Lieder Op.107 No.5 ‘Mädchenlied’,Sieben Lieder Op.95 No.1 ‘Das Mädchen’; Clara Schumann -3 Songs Op.12 No.2 ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’; Johannes Brahms -Fünf Lieder Op.107 No.3 ‘Das Mädchen spricht’, No.2 ‘Salamander’,Sechs Lieder Op.97 No.1 ‘Nachtigall’; Robert Schumann - Frauenliebe und -leben Op.42.

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 12th June 2020.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Middleton%20Williams%20WH.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Woman’s Hour: Roderick Williams (baritone) and Joseph Middleton (piano) at Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Joseph Middleton and Roderick Williams
Posted by claire_s at 4:11 PM

June 11, 2020

First recipient of Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship to start at the Royal College of Music

Designed to open the door to gifted singers from around the world who wish to study full time at the RCM, the Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship waslaunched in November 2019during a visit to the College by legendary musician Andrea Bocelli and representatives from the Andrea Bocelli Foundationand Community Jameel , the global philanthropy, including the founderMohammed Jameel KBE andFady Jameel, President, International of Community Jamee

The scholarship is awarded to talented musicians chosen both on merit assessed at audition and their need for support to overcome barriers and access world-class training at the RCM.

Clara Barbier has been studying violin and choral singing since the age of six. In 2016, she began her Bachelor studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Leipzig and has since given recitals in the Netherlands and Germany and developed a rich and diversified song repertoire, performing numerous solo soprano parts in concert. Clara has also appeared on the opera stage in La Petite Bande Summer Academy in Italy in 2015 and 2017, at the Klassik für Kinder festival in Leipzig, and the Verbier Festival Academy 2019.

Clara comments: ‘It is an honour to be the first Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel scholar. It has been my dream to study at the RCM for many years but personal circumstances meant I was unable to afford the tuition fees myself. This scholarship will give me the opportunity to refine my craft with some of the most renowned vocal professors and operatic coaches in the world. I am so excited to begin my studies and I am grateful to the Andrea Bocelli Foundation and Community Jameel for this wonderful opportunity!’

Stefano Aversa, Chairman, Andrea Bocelli Foundation, stated: ‘As the Andrea Bocelli Foundation continues on its mission to empower people and communities worldwide, we are proud to support Clara Barbier as the first recipient of the Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship. We look forward to watching this talented soprano further develop her skills and fully express her potential at one of the world’s greatest conservatories.’

Fady Jameel, President, International - Community Jameel and Founder and Chairman - Art Jameel, said: ‘The Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship combines two pillars of Community Jameel’s activities - promoting creative arts and culture around the world through Art Jameel, and supporting students in their personal and educational development via our Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) at MIT.’

The Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship was founded as part of the RCM’s More Music: Reimagining the Royal College of Music Campaign. More Music represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the conservatoire and double the size of its South Kensington campus. Along with building brand new facilities, the RCM is fundraising to expand its scholarship programme and ensure that no talented musician is denied an RCM education for want of funds. In the 2018/19 academic year the RCM gave £3million in scholarships to over half the student body.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Clara%20Barbier%20Serrano%20%28c%29%20Sofia%20Pinto%20%281%29.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=First recipient of Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship to start at the Royal College of Music product_by= product_id=Above: Clara Barbier Serrano

Photo credit: Sofia Pinto
Posted by claire_s at 7:03 AM

English Touring Opera: In Conversation with Themba Mvula

On Wed 17 Jun at 5pm (duration: 40 mins), James Conway will be joined by baritone, Themba Mvula. Themba was scheduled to perform in our Autumn 2020 season, covering the lead role of Eddie in Greek (Mark-Antony Turnage) as well as the role of Mel in The Knot Garden (Michael Tippett). Among his achievements he's a winner of the Gordon Clinton English Song Prize, was awarded second prize in the Bologna International Vocal Competition, and was a finalist in the inaugural By Voice Alone competition.

To watch the live conversation, simply reply to this email and let us know, we'll then send you a link for you to use on the day. You can send your questions in advance to admin@englishtouringopera.org.uk or ask them as the conversation happens.


Skating Rink.jpg

Watch Garsington Opera's 2018 production of The Skating Rink, Garsington Opera’s acclaimed new commission by leading British composer David Sawer with award-winning playwright Rory Mullarkey, based on the novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Click here to watch .

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Themba%20Mvula.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=ETO: In conversation with Themba Mvula product_by= product_id=Above: Themba Mvula
Posted by claire_s at 6:48 AM

Tête à Tête Airs Programme for a Real Opera Festival in an Imaginary World

2020’s festival returns with a majestic array of operas that will both take place in the realm of the imagination, and hopefully make it into the real world too. Since the 2020 festival will partially take place in the space of the imagination as outlined in Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones’ Manifesto, it is only fitting that several operas are grounded in imaginary worlds:

The Minutes of the Hildegard von Bingen Society for Gardening Companionsreanimates a queer, feminist gardening society founded by 12th century mystic and musician Hildegard von Bingen, an opera of playful seriousness underpinned by extensive historical, musicological and imaginary, speculative research.

Tiresias is a unique one-woman sci-fi opera set in the far future, in which Tiresias 2.0 wanders a desolate landscape and asks a flower-pot how the fate of the earth came to be

The Trilobite. Or The Fall Of Mr Williams , an opera played out in mid-air, gravitates around a geography teacher / trilobite stealer who falls off a cliff

Beethoven Was A Lesbian is a show paying homage to the American Composer Pauline Oliveros in extravagant temporal drag, through the blending of academic lecture, piano music, sonic meditations, poetry and the distribution of postcards. The subsequent show, Nous, continues the homage to Oliveros while exploring near-death experiences

One of the highlights of the festival this year, The Bridge Between Breaths, concerns visibility and accessibility. Deaf and hearing audiences meet in the connected space between breaths, whilst a painter responds to the sounds with brushstrokes on canvas. This art-making explores whether live visual art can make opera more accessible to deaf audiences. The show as a whole represents Tête à Tête’s particular effort over recent years to welcome more disabled artists, many of whom are collaborating with Tête à Tête this year in less overt ways

Other gems include Fruit Bowl, an absurdist opera which unpeels the story of a Kiwi and a Lime as they rot together in a fruit bowl while an evening of jazz, gin and partying swirls around them, Karakoram - A Contemporary Opera, a yeti-based opera set amidst mountains involves a pub, a wise old monk and a monster’s pursuit, all working to capture the fear of the unknown. Elsewhere, the comic musical Last Party on Earth takes us to a post-apocalyptic world, where, in the aftermath of fire, flood and virus, two survivors happen upon a self-isolating, stockpiling Queen of Cans in a bunker, who invites them inside for an accordion-fuelled party.

Several operas make use of the theme of time, asking us to journey through it and see time in a new light:

The Manna Threshold , an opera set in 2270, locates us in a future where time is abolished while an immortal and a long-lived mortal debate their respective ways of life

We Sing / I Sang , an improvised science fiction opera, follows the Mind journeying across the stars, revisiting past memories proffered by the audience that are so terrible it begins to schism and crack

Elsewhere, politics are rife: Bread and Circuses presents live wrestling, using the world of professional wrestling to unpick the political culture which enabled the Trump presidency while Minutes to Midnight: A Nuclear Opera sees two missileers sitting in a nuclear bunker 50-feet below ground, awaiting the call to initiate a launch amid the 2016 US presidential election. Then, The Agency presents an eco-noir socialist-feminist time-bending detective opera looking at the histories of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and capitalist repression.

Stories are sustenance, and it comes as no surprise that, this year, several of the operas in the festival are woven from literature: Siddhartha, based on Hermann Hesse's allegorical novel, is a mystic, minimalistic and psychologically oriented operatic tale which observes the title character acquiring self-knowledge; Paradise Lost presents a stripped back version of Milton’s epic poem consisting of Lucifer / Satan’s text alone, with countertenor Lawrence Zazzo offering such a fascinating perspective as the antagonist that we find ourselves sympathising with the devil; Olga’s Story, based on the book by Stephanie Williams, follows one woman’s remarkable escape to England during revolution in Siberia and war in China, a tale elevating the importance of family and human connection, and Song of Isis, inspired by Christine Aziz’s poem, is a powerful reimagining of the story of Isis, an ancient Egyptian Goddess whose heartfelt lament mourns her murdered husband.

Elsewhere, inspired by Graham Greene’s The End of The Affair, Rain chronicles the obsessive love affair between a sinister novelist and a married woman, set against the background of the London Blitz and The Buddha, The Monkey King and the Monk of the River , adapted from one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature combines Chinese and Western musical instruments, Chinese folk religion and mythology to tell the story of one Buddhist who journeys West and encounters the Monkey King.

Amongst the myriad of operas this year, a few are particularly aimed at children. Bubbles the Zebrafish & The No. 8 Bus explores ecological issues in a tale featuring all things sparkly and magical, ice cream, the Pacific Ocean, a flamboyant royal dressmaker Zebrafish and storms of plastic, while Goblin Market, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem, is a chamber opera of high energy physical theatre involving fruit, sisters, goblins and temptation.

Tête à Tête has created a web page for each opera premiere, a space where artists are encouraged to share their creative processes and thus is already a festival of vision, whether or not it makes it to real-world performances. In a blog post, Bill has stated that this will be a platform where artists are free to upload videos, sound recordings, images, interviews, draft libretti, storyboards and the various literary and visual influences that inspire their work.

Artists will also share the developments of their operas in offline ways, in order to reach those without access to the online world. They are already inspiring each other with creative ways to do this using the telephone, post, existing networks, crisis networks, outdoor socially distanced manifestations and no doubt many more ideas to come

Tête à Tête hopes that the operas will take place in very real venues as planned. If, on this occasion, logistics limit this plan, then Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is delighted nevertheless that artists’ imaginative vision and the creative curiosity of audiences will still have a space to connect.

Tête à Tête is urging for donations to help protect its artists in this time. With many early career/emerging artists and all forging portfolio careers, these festival artists are among by far the most vulnerable of the many making their lives in the arts. This year, the company is splitting 75% of any donations (plus Gift Aid income where applicable) evenly between each festival companies to share between their artists, while allocating the remaining 25% to giving them all a secure and safe environment to perform in. If you are able to, please consider making a donation to Tête à Tête to support its artists.

Tête à Tête is continuing to provide worldwide community-building in opera, through its YouTube channel #MyNewOpera which launched in 2018 to provide a digital collection of videos of opera.

If you would like to be notified when tickets go on sale, please sign up to Tête à Tête’s mailing list here.


image=http://www.operatoday.com/NadineBenjamin.jpg image_description=Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 product=yes product_title=Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 product_by= product_id=Above: Nadine Benjamin

Photo credit: Claire Shovelton
Posted by claire_s at 6:34 AM

June 9, 2020

A Celebration of Aldeburgh Festivals, 12-28 June 2020

Highlights include:

• ‘Opening Night’ broadcast of Britten on Camera on BBC Four followed by Struan Leslie’s Illuminations - a staging including circus performers of Britten’s Les Illuminations - seen for the first time on Britten Pears Arts’ YouTube Channel
Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be available on BBC iPlayer later this month
• Create your own Aldeburgh Musicircus experience online
• BBC Radio 3 to broadcast six archive performances from Aldeburgh Festival between 19 - 26 June • Aldeburgh Festival invites audiences to share their memories from its 72 festivals

BBC Four: Britten on Camera
Commissioned for Britten’s centenary in 2013, Britten on Camera, narrated by James Naughtie, presents some of the highlights of Britten’s broadcast legacy. He was one of the great classical composers of the broadcasting age and his music was regularly performed on radio and television throughout his working life. This documentary explores the dynamic relationship he developed with the BBC to bring classical music to wider audiences. Contributors include David Attenborough, Michael Crawford, Humphrey Burton and Nicholas Kenyon (Fri 12 June, 7.30pm, BBC Four).

Film premiere: Illuminations
The 2016 Aldeburgh Festival opened to great critical acclaim with Illuminations, a new work for soprano, string orchestra and an ensemble of circus performers. Inspired by the sensuality and symbolism of the poems by Rimbaud set in Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations, director Struan Leslie created a newly-commissioned staging fusing music and contemporary circus performance. Soprano Sarah Tynan joined an ensemble of nine international circus performers, Aurora Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon in a devised performance. On Friday 12 June, Aldeburgh Festival will broadcast the premiere performance of Les Illuminations on Britten Pears Arts’ YouTube channel at 9pm and it will be available on demand for the following 30 days.

BBC iPlayer: Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach
In 2013 as part of Britten’s centenary celebrations, Aldeburgh Festival presented an unforgettable open-air staging of Britten’s Peter Grimes on the very beach that inspired the opera, set against the dramatic backdrop of the North Sea. The cast was led by Alan Oke in the title role and Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford. Steuart Bedford conducted the Britten-Pears Orchestra and the Choruses of Opera North and Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It became one of the most talked about events of the year. Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach will be available later this month.

An Aldeburgh Musicircus
A memorable event took place in 2014 when Aldeburgh Festival presented a version of John Cage’s Musicircus which took over the town of Aldeburgh for two hours. Cage’s concept was to invite anyone to perform anything they want to at the same time. Cage famously said, ‘You won’t hear anything: you’ll hear everything’. The Aldeburgh Festival performance featured around 1,000 performers, from artists and ensembles featured in the Festival to local bands and community music groups - the largest ever gathering of musicians in Aldeburgh with performances all over the town. Audiences can now create and mix their own Musicircus with an interactive digital experience based on the 40 performances that were filmed.
This web app will be available at https://musicircus.brittenpearsarts.org from 12 June.

BBC Radio 3
BBC Radio 3 has been broadcasting from the Aldeburgh Festival for more than 50 years, and delves into the archive to broadcast six memorable concerts from the last decade.

John Wilson conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a concert from 2018 which explored Britten’s wartime experience of America, the relationships that took him there and echoes of home. The programme features the first performance of Colin Matthews’ orchestration of Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo with tenor Robert Murray, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Copland’s Quiet City and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety with pianist Cédric Tiberghien (19 June, 7.30pm, BBC Radio 3 in Concert).

Netia Jones’ new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened the 2017 Festival bringing to life the captivating tale of lovers, rustics and fairies. Conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, it features a cast of internationally renowned singers including Iestyn Davies (Oberon), Sophie Bevan (Tytania), Matthew Rose (Bottom), Clive Bayley (Theseus) and Andrew Shore (Quince) (20 June, 6.30pm, Opera on 3).

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) in a performance of Messiaen’s Etexspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde from the 2011 Festival. He is joined by soloists Magdalena Kozena and Michael Schade (23 June, BBC Radio 3 in Concert).

In 2018 Cédric Tiberghien and the period strings of the Chiaroscuro Quartet explored chamber music by German romantic greats with a programme including Schumann’s Fantasy Op. 17 and his Piano Quintet alongside Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Op. 12. (24 June, 7.30pm, Radio 3 in Concert).

In 2017 Lionel Meunier and his award-winning Belgian early music vocal group Vox Luminis made their Aldeburgh Festival debut. This programme from Blythburgh Church marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation and includes two Bach Cantatas set alongside Schütz’sMusikalische Exequien, (25 June, 7.30pm, BBC Radio 3 in Concert).

Oliver Knussen had a long-standing relationship with both the Aldeburgh Festival and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This performance was Knussen’s final concert. One of Knussen’s typical programmes, it features the world premiere of Philip Cashian’s The Book of Ingenious Devices, a piano concerto in a single movement performed by Huw Watkins, Morton Feldman’s Structures and music by Aaron Copland - Music for a Great City, and the Appalachian Spring Suite (26 June, 7.30pm, BBC Radio 3 in Concert).

Aldeburgh Festival Memories Britten Pears Arts is using the space created by the current lockdown to celebrate the remarkable history of a Festival which is renowned for its intimate feel and the special place it has in audience’s hearts. The organisation is now collecting people’s memories of as many of the 72 Festivals as possible, inviting anyone who has a story to tell about a Festival visit to post their memories, using this online form. A timeline documenting the memories will be displayed at brittenpearsarts.org throughout the Festival.

There will also be podcasts, articles and social media projects (including an “On This Day” feature) giving insights into the extraordinary breadth and quality of the Festival over the years.

Aldeburgh Festival is one of the world’s most significant classical music events, set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Suffolk coast. The Festival was founded in 1948 by composer Benjamin Britten, tenor Peter Pears and the librettist/producer Eric Crozier.

Posted by claire_s at 6:03 AM

English Touring Opera: Autumn 2020 Season Update

For this reason, we have had to put aside for the moment the ambitious season of three twentieth century British operas (The Turn of the Screw, The Knot Garden and Greek) which we were scheduled to produce this Autumn. Instead we hope to create a series of lyric monodramas, made of 20th century operas and song cycles composed for solo singer and accompanist by composers such as Dominick Argento, Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Michael Tippett. We hope to be able to bring full news of the challenging and unusual repertoire soon. The programme will feature some wonderful artists due to perform in our planned Autumn 2020 tour.

We are excited about exploring new ways to produce and tour opera and overcome the sizable challenges ahead. We expect to present work in venues well known to us and our audiences, as well as non-traditional performances venues, to reach as many people as possible, in communities that we have served across the country for decades. This new approach is designed for our longstanding, enthusiastic supporters and new audiences, whose appetite for live music has never been greater.

We have hugely enjoyed keeping music in people’s lives this spring, through our programme of digital work, curated and delivered by our freelance artists, which includes performances, insight talks, skills sharing and singing lessons and are delighted to have reached over 56,600 viewers through that programme, from across the globe, with 34 films. The overwhelming response to the programme has made us more committed than ever to bringing live music back to our towns and cities, as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.

We are grateful to all of our partners and funders with whom we will collaborate to make this season possible, not least Art Council England for their leadership and support of the sector in unprecedented times.

If you have booked for a performance at Hackney Empire, the venue will contact you regarding your booking shortly.

Posted by claire_s at 5:38 AM

June 7, 2020

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

But the unprepared dissonant ninth created by the entry of the second soprano that Francisco Valls exploited for expressive effect in the Gloria of his 1702 Mass triggered, in 1715, a furious debate which raged for eight years, involving more than 60 Spanish musicians with celebrated composers from other European nations including Italians such as Alessandro Scarlatti and Vaz Rego from Portugal having their say too.

Today, while the musical glories of the Spanish Renaissance - by Victoria, Morales, Escobedo and others - are deservedly celebrated, the names of Valls (c.1672-1747) and his Baroque contemporaries remain largely obscure, their music neglected. There are several reasons for this, as José López-Calo, whose 1978 edition for Novello was the first modern edition of Valls’ aforementioned Mass, has explained. [1] Most significant was the Spanish liturgical practice which obliged every cathedral mestre de capela to provide new music for each feast day, and insisted that sacred works in the vernacular could be performed only once. Archives of 16th-century masses psalms and motets were mined; where particular local practices did not make new native works unsuitable for use elsewhere, they were disseminated within Spain, usually in hand-copied form since there was no ‘market’ for these compositions. The result, inevitably, was the end of the rich musical interaction Spanish musicians had enjoyed with their counterparts in France and especially Italy, and the prevalence of a conservative musical style and compositional practice.

In this context, Valls’ reputation for musical experimentation and daring seems rather surprising, and it’s true that his music is not consistently characterised by innovation. However, his riposte to his detractors in 1715 is interesting:

‘I concede that the entry of the second soprano is against all the prescribed rules. I concede that the Ancients did not use it and that I am, therefore, its inventor; let us see if it should not be granted praise rather than blame. Can anyone deny that the entry is something new, a rare means of heightening the melodic expression? If the use of dissonant intervals and chords is permitted (to give variety to music), why should not this entry be accepted, since it achieves, in its harmonic resolution, both variety and [the] consonance ...?’

Expressive heightening of this kind is powerful and affecting in this fascinating new recording of the 1740 Missa Regalis by the Choir of Keble College Oxford under their director Matthew Martin and the Academy of Ancient Music, made possible by the new edition of the Mass which has been prepared by Simon Heighes.

Like many of Valls’ works, the Missa Regalis remained unpublished and its manuscript preserved in the Biblioteca Central in Barcelona (during Franco’s rule these manuscripts were not available for inspection, exacerbating their neglect). Though his place of birth remains uncertain, Valls spent most of his career as mestre de capela at the city’s Cathedral, a post to which he was appointed to on 17 December 1696 after a short spell at Sancta Maria del Mar parish church. Valls’ appointment is striking for two reasons: first, at 24-years-old he was very young to gain such an illustrious and profitable post, and second, contrary to convention, he was awarded the position without any interview or examination process. It seems that his reputation must have been superlative, although in a letter to the Musical Times in 1978, Geraldus Warmodiensis (the editor of a Missa Scora Maggiore for Barcelona University Press’s complete edition of Valls’ works) suggested that evidence had come to light that ‘from an early date he was a spy in the service of the French court, a fact which accounts for his having been offered the Barcelona post without even having to apply for it. When his activities were discovered in the 1720s, he was persuaded to retire ‘for health reasons’’. [2]

For whatever reason, on 22 February 1726 Valls did indeed make an application for retirement. The remaining years of his life were largely devoted to writing a theoretical treatise, Mapa armónico (1742), a defence of Spanish practices against Italian and French compositional styles and the publication for which, until recently, he has perhaps been best known. However, Valls did not stop composing after his retirement. The Missa Regalis was dedicated to King John V of Portugal and its fairly small vocal forces (SSATB), which are accompanied by just continuo, attest to the practices at the Portuguese Royal Chapel where the concertante style was prohibited.

The Mass is a hexachord mass, the foundation of each movement, as in the Missa Scala Aretina, being the six-note sequence known as the ‘scala aretina’, so-named by Guido d’Arrezo. Valls’ contrapuntal ingenuity and invention are immediately notable in the Kyrie. After a majestic homophonic opening statement, lightened initially by its commencement on the second beat of the bar and subsequently by a glorious enrichment of texture and colour - which rings triumphantly in the acoustic of Keble College Chapel - the Kyrie’s movement from the simple rising line sung by the first sopranos, echoed by the tenors, into a flowering celebration of intertwining statements and variants of the cantus firmus, now ascending, now descending, ever-more rhythmically dynamic, enlivened further by syncopation and melodic elaboration, is uplifting. The Keble College voices are bright, buoyant and joyful. There is the slightest, and most telling, shading when the music takes a brief turn towards a fairly distance minor key.

The ‘Christe eleison’ turns the cantus firmus into a triple-time dance, a brief running quaver motif that rises and then falls then switches direction. However complex and rich the interplay, this motif shines through, even in lower registers and inner parts. The section cadences into the concluding ‘Kyrie eleison’, transforming the dancing motif into a 4/4 statement of greater stature and the Keble Choir sustain the growth and momentum persuasively. If there is nothing ‘radical’ here, there is unceasing interest and perhaps a sign of Valls’ harmonic expressiveness in the hints of subdominant tonality which persist almost to the final bar.

The Gloria is more restrained at the opening, fittingly so for its blessing of peace and good will to all men on earth. This is lovely lyrical, legato singing. Animation begins to infuse when the voices praise and bless God, the melismas flowing warmly, smoothly and with increasing energy. “Adoramus te, glorificamus te” propels the music onwards and conveys conviction. The alternation of homophony and polyphony makes “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris” a statement of both affirmation and rejoicing, but there is a dramatic change of mood at “Qui tollis peccata mundi” where the falling lines, introduction of chromaticism and slower note-values combined with harmonic excursions through various minor-key tonalities create a sombre tone. This gravity is only partially alleviated by the crescendo-ing ascent of the plea, “deprecationem nostrum” (receive our prayer), which remains coloured by strange, overlapping seventh and ninths, though the strong pedal bass promises assurance of resolution. The vocal lines are clean and crisp, the diction superb: but, even it were not, Valls’ unmannered ‘painting’ of the religious sentiments leaves one in no doubt of the text’s meaning.

In the Credo we begin to understand why Valls’ contemporaries might have been so perturbed by his harmonic innovations. No matter how intricate the counterpoint of the opening section, director Matthew Martin keeps things airy and flowing, saving the magnificence and weight for the concluding “descendit de caelis”. But, with the “Et incarnatus”, the knives begin to pierce and twist: the dissonances are astonishing! After multiple hearings I still could not discern exactly what was going on, other than the ninths seem to pile up, and that the dissonant notes do not themselves resolve but rely on the movement, often torturously delayed, of the parts around them, denying the resolution of any real assuagement. Martin resists the temptation to over-egg this passage, allowing the music to speak for itself - and it does so with tremendous impact. The portrait of Christ’s crucifixion, suffering and death has a few more surprises up its sleeve, but in the rest of the movement, the singers are kept on their rhythmic toes as each textual phrase has its own metrical character. Martin melds them together convincingly, and the music of the concluding phrases are conciliatory though the familiar sequences, harmonic cycles and cadences - even in the final Amen - never go exactly when one expects them to.

The Sanctus is fairly short (and there is no Benedictus) but not lacking in intriguing details, not least the swift modulation from major to minor within the phrase “Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua”, the disconcerting immediate repetition of this phrase a lurching semi-tone higher, and the temporal tugging of three against four in the closing “Hosanna in the highest”. All such details are immaculately performed. The Agnus Dei has a tempered dignity, the cantus firmus returning to the foreground, in its falling intervallic forms, and creating chains of dissonances and delayed resolution until the final homophonic declaration, “dona nobis pacem”.

The balance between organ (Edward Higginbottom) and choir is excellent, though I have to say that the other continuo instruments - bass violin (Joseph Crouch) and ducian (Inga Klaucke) make little obvious impression, perhaps inevitably so given the nature of the music and the acoustic in the College Chapel. The Gloria, Credo and Sanctus are each followed by organ music by two seventh-century Spanish composers, Francisco Corrêa de Arouxo and Juan Bautista José Cabinilles. It is played on the organ in the Chapel of St John’s College, Oxford by Matthew Martin, and described in a liner book article by Stephen Farr. As always, this is a handsome package from the AAM and that article appears alongside two by Mark J. Merrill, on the ‘tiento’ form illustrated by the works chosen here and the development of early Spanish organs, another by Álvarez Torrente informing us about Valls’ life and career, and Simon Heighes’ account of the manuscript, editing process and Valls’ music.

On the title page of the manuscript of the Missa Regalis, Valls described this late work as his ‘swansong’. Listening to this fine recording, surely many choirmasters and directors of music will long to perform this Mass, and hopefully it will encourage others to delve into those Barcelona archives and provide us with opportunities in the future to hear much more of the music by Valls that preceded it.

Claire Seymour

[1] José López-Calo, ‘The Spanish Baroque and Francisco Valls’, Musical Times 113 (1972), 353-56.

[2] Geraldus Warmodiensis, Musical Times 119/1625 (1978), p.586. Warmodiensis adds a further entertaining anecdote: ‘His brother Escamillo was a well-known bullfighter and the model for the famous character in Carmen.’

image=http://www.operatoday.com/AAM008-Valls-COVER-3000px.jpg image_description=AAM008 product=yes product_title=Francisco Valls: Missa Regina product_by=The Choir of Keble College Oxford (Matthew Martin, director), The Academy of Ancient Music product_id=AAM 008 [CD] price=£12.00 product_url=https://www.aam.co.uk/product/valls-missa-regalis/
Posted by claire_s at 10:01 AM

June 2, 2020

Opera Holland Park: Un ballo in maschera streaming postponed until Wednesday 3 June, 7.30pm

This is a free to air broadcast to our patrons and will be seen only once before being removed. We have also arranged for VocalEyes to provide an audio-described service for the film for blind and partially sighted patrons.

We are individually and as a company committed to equality and we understand the desire of the music industry to make a strong statement about this issue.

We will therefore broadcast Un ballo in maschera on Wednesday 3 June at 7.30pm.

We hope this doesn't cause too much inconvenience and that you will be able to join us tomorrow for the broadcast.

Posted by claire_s at 10:50 AM

A breath of fresh air: Opera Holland Park announces 2021 season

OHP is monitoring the COVID-19 situation carefully and will take any measures necessary and possible next summer to ensure the safety of audiences, performers and staff. The company still hopes to mount the 2020 productions at a later date, as the pandemic and artist schedules allow.

OHP is extremely grateful to its patrons, who have stepped up with generosity of both spirit and purse, following the postponement of the 2020 season. Of those individuals who had bought tickets before performances were cancelled, over 40% made either a full or part donation of the ticket value, the majority with the benefit of Gift Aid, and many also made an extra donation. Another 6% left funds with OHP as a credit for use at a future date. A number of other individuals and institutions have made generous donations to help in the current situation. This largesse has helped OHP to meet some of the cost of paying a percentage of fees to all those contracted for the 2020 season.

Inspire, OHP’s International Opera Award-winning education and outreach project, is continuing to work throughout the current health crisis with local partners including Age UK, using digital technology to reach isolated communities. There have been musical afternoons and tea parties for older audiences, and workshops for local schoolchildren. The annual Open Day went ahead on Saturday 23 May, albeit virtually, with interactive online workshops, music and activities for all the family.

OHP is tonight giving a free one-off screening for all of the acclaimed 2019 production of Un ballo in maschera, originally filmed as part of Inspire to reach members of the community unable to attend the theatre in person. Watch from 7:30pm via OHP’s website or YouTube channel.

Posted by claire_s at 10:44 AM

Grange Park Opera launches summer season of free-to-view brand-new work featuring stars such as Sir Bryn Terfel & Tamara Rojo

She has devised a season of entirely new work (nothing from the archives) available solely online, entirely free at


• 15 performances free to view online
• Superstars Sir Bryn Terfel and Sir Simon Keenlyside give concerts from their homes in Wales, tenor Joseph Calleja sings from Malta
• Eight new performances take place inside the Theatre in the Woods - a repertoire picked to embrace the new social distancing rules
• English National Ballet dancers - and Tamara Rojo - amongst more than 70 artists taking part
• Season live from 4 June 2020 (until 12 July)
• Bringing opera to as many people as possible - old fans and new - at this difficult time.

Highlights include…
• Tamara Rojo CBE, English National Ballet’s Artistic Director, introduces a pas de deux from lead principal Erina Takahashi and first soloist James Streeter on the Grange Park Opera stage, followed by an interview
• Violinist and a winner of BBC Young Musician of the Year, Coco Tomito, appearing alongside her fellow locked-down colleagues from the Yehudi Menuhin School
• The climax of The Found Season is Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, composed during the closing months of World War Two. Strauss took up his pen the day after the Vienna opera was destroyed and his music mourns the loss of culture. With 23 string players from London Symphony Orchestra, English National Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Grange Park Opera’s large theatre stage offers each player 5.37 square metres of playing space.

See Wasfi Kani talking about how the season came about here.

image_description=Grange Park Opera
product_title=Grange Park Opera
product_id=Photo credit: Richard Lewisohn

Posted by claire_s at 10:31 AM

Tête à Tête Launches a Manifesto for A Real Opera Festival In An Imaginary World

In Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival’s world, it is not unusual for Shakespeare’s Macbeth to decamp with a pantomime camel, for the bones of humans to transform into violins, for penguins to play clapping games in parks or to have endless growth of the hair atop your head. If there’s one thing for sure, you can count on Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival for its unbounded imagination.

Because it’s so outrageously good at all things imaginative, the Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 will go ahead by the act of imagination itself, until the possible becomes the actual and a cornucopia of new operas can be shared in real time and in a real space. This vision for a real opera festival in an imaginary world has been set out in a Manifesto on Tête à Tête’s website. The Manifesto asserts that the festival is a collaboration between artists and audience; the artists affect the audience and their audience affects their artists in real time, in a living, breathing space. You fuel their imagination just as they fuel yours.

They will not make art in isolation. All of the projects Tête à Tête artists and companies are currently working on will see the living light of day, or, perhaps, some dazzling stage lighting, or maybe even just the glorious light of the imagination. In a blog post on the Tête à Tête website, Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones expands on this Manifesto, saying ‘what we love about theatre is coming together, not being apart’. Until Tête à Tête can welcome you once more into a real space in real time, the festival and its artists and companies will share with you their creative processes, dreams, challenges and much else besides as they build their imaginary operas in anticipation of the eventual live performance. Tête à Tête is committed to its artists and companies, whose premieres they will eventually stage. Through this commitment, Tête à Tête will be able to extend and develop its usual mentoring for each company and group of artists, offering help where they need it, with dramaturgy, musical issues, casting, administrative and technical challenges.

As always, the Festival will create a web page for each opera premiere. This year, artists are urged to use these to open up the process of creating an opera to fellow artists and audiences. In his blog post, Bill has stated that artists will share the creative work behind their operas, including videos, sound recordings, draft libretti and scores, designs, storyboards and the literary and visual references that inspire and feed into the productions. The sharing of the developments of the operas will take a myriad of forms, both online and off. In the manifesto, Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival artists pledge to do their utmost to make sure their work will also reach those without access to the online world.

They are calling upon every ounce of their imagination to make sure the festival happens in this real world; that will hopefully be at the Cockpit Theatre this September, Cubitt Sessions this Summer, or its famous pop-up operas, scattered periodically and spatially over the next year. If, on this occasion, this vision has to be curtailed, then Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival believes that its imagined manifestations will still have a very great, very real value.

In his blog post, Bill Bankes-Jones has stressed that by having a real opera festival in an imaginary world the festival has the advantage of having a fully formed programme. This means that if the Cockpit performances have to be delayed, for example, then Tête à Tête will be able to reschedule the festival must faster than they otherwise would, and will be able to transfer the programme en bloc.

Ultimately, Tête à Tête: A Real Opera Festival in An Imaginary World is designed to display what the company is really good at; connecting with people in real time and inspiring them and nurturing its artists. The imaginary festival is a true statement of what the company really likes to be doing, rather than a programme of work comprised by circumstance that does not reflect the company’s values. Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones said: 'Our festival might not be able to take place in real space and time this year, but it can certainly exist in an imagined world. Since time immemorial creativity and art has drawn its inspiration from the wild space of the imagination. Come and meet us there! Many have preceded us in this; the artist Damien Hirst's exhibition of artefacts from an imagined shipwreck, the imagined poet Ossian who triggered a whole genre of Ossianic Literature, capturing imaginations in the eighteenth century before ‘online’ was even dreamed of, and director Peter Greenaway's imaginary character, Tulse Luper, with the ever-fascinating contents of his suitcases. Like these artists and writers who've gone before us, we want to share our work with you and inspire you. We collaborate with artists and share the work in one space with our audience - that is why we will never make art in isolation. Let’s meet in the space of the imagination, until we can be all together in the same physical space.’

Tête à Tête : The Opera Festival is famous (and notorious) for giving artists and companies a platform to experiment with unconventional new forms of opera. Tête à Tête is continuing to provide worldwide community-building in opera, through its YouTube channel #MyNewOpera which launched in 2018 to provide a digital collection of videos of opera.

More information on the Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 will be released soon. If you would like to be notified when tickets go on sale, please sign up to Tête à Tête’s mailing list here here .


Posted by claire_s at 10:14 AM

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

Somervell, who studied with Stanford and King’s College, Cambridge, and was, during his subsequent RCM studies, a private pupil of Parry, was in his day a composer of some repute but is now more renowned as a music educator. He served as Inspector of Music on the Board of Education from 1901-28.

His commitment to English song indicates both a strong feeling for these Victorian poets, all of whom (again excepting Housman) had died when Somervell set their poetry, and also a belief in what he described as ‘power of national song in the formation of character’: ‘I believe three generations of Englishmen, familiar from childhood with Irish song and story, and three generations of Irish, equally familiar with English song and story, would produce two nations who would understand one another and would be able to agree how to live, either together or apart.’ Such views were embodied by The National Song Book which Stanford published in 1906 with Somervell’s support. Moreover, elsewhere Somervell, in accord with the views of the contemporary ‘English musical renaissance’, wrote of ‘the suppression of national musical expression’ and ‘the blight of the foreign exploiting musician’.

Trevor Hold, in English song Parry to Finzi: Twenty English Song-composers, describes Somervell’s Maud (1898) as ‘the first successful English song-cycle … one of the masterpieces of English song’. It was perhaps a surprising choice of text as Tennyson’s poem, published in 1855 at the height of the Crimean War, had been and still was at the end of the century one of the Poet Laureate’s least popular works. Its unstable narrative voice and perspective were criticised as obscure; the religious doubt expressed was suspect; and, in an article in Quarterly Review, William Gladstone condemned its apparent glorification of the war in Crimea. To make the narrative clearer, Tennyson added extra lines to later editions; interestingly, Somervell too found it necessary to add a thirteen song to his original twelve for the same reason, adding Song 6, ‘Maud has a garden’, in 1907.

Tennyson-Alfred-lithograph-The-Modern-Portrait-Gallery-1890 Jupiter images.jpgLord Alfred Tennyson. Lithograph. The Modern Portrait Gallery (1890). © Jupiter Images.

But, in many ways, the mental anguish of Tennyson’s unstable, possible insane, poet-speaker, who has loved and lost and who seems to long for a visionary reunion with the dead, is ideal song-cycle material. The poem unfolds in the present tense and thus has intimacy and immediacy. The narrator’s strange, ambiguous ravings create emotional and dramatic intensity. Tennyson’s stanza- forms are diverse and ever-changing, like the restless flux of the narrator’s mind, and this furnishes a composer with rich range of potential musical forms.

Somervell’s published score contained a prefatory note which summarised Tennyson’s poem and explained the place of each song within the narrative, thereby enabling him to excise sections which furthered the ‘plot’. He set only 234 of Tennyson’s 1324 lines (verbatim, with just two very minor alterations), omitting fifteen poems and reducing all but two of those he retained.

Maud-copy BL.jpgTennyson’s fair copy of Maud © British Library.

The poet-speaker is tormented by the death of his father, which took place in ‘the dreadful hollow’ (suicide is implied but never confirmed). He falls in love with his father’s rich friend’s daughter, Maud (to whom, in the poem he has a hazy memory of having been betrothed), and although her brother disapproves, he wins her love. He visits her garden, his mind darkened by the curtained house which makes him think of death. Though he is not invited to the dance which is taking place inside, he is ecstatic at the thought of her arrival at their appointed meeting. He hears her coming but her brother follows her; a duel ensues during which the brother is killed, again in the ‘dreadful hollow’. He flees, sinks into insanity, and in his absence Maud dies. He longs to hold her in his arms and sees a vision of her in his dreams, where she speaks of her ‘hope for the world in the coming wars’. He accepts his duty of service and ‘embraces the purpose of God, and the doom assigned’.

In this new Somm label recording, baritone Roderick Williams suggests that, in contrast to Tennyson’s contemporary readers, nowadays we might be more inclined to view the traumatised protagonist as “a victim of circumstances rather than a malevolent perpetrator” but admits that he still found himself “uncomfortable with Somervell’s beautiful music initially as I couldn’t square it with the disturbed state of mind of the speaker”. These are not “‘conventional’ love songs”, he observes.

Indeed, although they are conventional, or at least conservative, in other ways: in terms of the musical style of many of the songs, the Victorian parlour song comes to mind. That they assume a far greater, richer and stature in this recording is in no small part to the astuteness of Williams and his frequent musical partner, Susie Allan, in intimating the musical and poetic undercurrents.

Roderick-Williams-3-Groves-Artists.jpg Roderick Williams. Photo courtesy of Groves Artists.

Somervell does not miss a rhetorical trick in the opening song. Gothic cascades sweep up and down the piano keyboard as the narrow arioso saves its flourishes for the “silent horror of blood” and the Echo’s answer, “Death”. Williams and Allan do well to keep the melodrama of this short prelude in check, but the mood changes markedly when the poet-speaker introduces us to Maud, as “A voice by the cedar tree”, singing of “men that in battle array”, of “Death, and Honour that cannot die”. Williams perfectly conveys the instability of the speaker’s psyche. With gentle evenness he captures his joy and delight in her sweetness; Maud’s martial song inspires dynamic and strength of colour; a dark, diminishing descent from a high head voice evokes his vision of despair, “myself so languid and base”, before Allan pushes forward once more, pulling him from his self-destructive inertia.

Somervell Maud Titlepage.jpgTitlepage of Somervell’s Maud, Boosey & Co. (1898).

Without mannerism, in ‘She Came to the Village Church’ Williams uses thoughtful diction and carefully placed vocal nuances to make us feel us the intensity of the poet-speaker’s psychological tussles. If long piano postludes sometimes restore calm, then a sort of wild optimism begins to accrue: “What matter if I go mad,/ I shall have had my day.” (‘O let the solid ground’) he boldly, defiantly declares. This hope propels him into Maud’s garden: the frolicking piano paints a picture of the twilight birds and woodland lilies, and of his light heart as his woos her with a kiss placed upon her slender hand. This uplift ripples through ‘Maud has a Garden’, but as the vocal urgency grows, so it tips towards dismay: the sight of the “death-white curtain drawn” tugs the poet-speaker into disillusion, the piano’s reversing, tumbling minor-key arpeggio landing with an ominous shudder, “the sleep of death”.

There’s a slight desperation beneath the trotting blitheness of ‘Go Not, Happy Day’, with its red images of roses, blushes and cedar-trees. Then, in ‘I have led her home’ the self-assuring repetition of superlatives - “There is none like her, none”, “never yet so warmly ran my blood/ And sweetly” - suggests an infatuation, the danger of which is wonderfully intimated by the interrupted cadence which shatters the song’s - perhaps the poem’s - highpoint of tranquillity, as the poet-speaker feels “close on the promised good”. ‘Come into the garden, Maud’ is the peak of his hopes, a twirling waltz that lifts his spirits high. With tremulous elation, Williams exults, “She is coming, my life, my fate”, but the poem’s final image of the poet-speaker’s century-old “dust” trembling beneath Maud’s feet, “And blossom in purple and red”, is a portentous one and the piano’s surging apotheosis is one of delusion, not fulfilment.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Soul_of_the_Rose,_1903 .jpgPhoto credit: ‘The Soul of the Rose’, John William Waterhouse (1903)

The changes that Somervell makes in his adaptation of Tennyson’s poem are small in nature but significant in effect. Most marked is his reversal of the order of songs 11 and 12 with respect to their position within the poetic text. The poet-speaker’s dream of resurrected love, ‘O that ’twere possible’ (Somervell’s song 12), follows not his expression of guilt for the death of the brother, ‘The fault was mine’ (10), but the grief and despair of Maud’s loss, ‘Dead, long dead’ (11). The dreadful listlessness of ‘The fault’, evoked by the piano’s tolling ostinato and Hadean steps, is deepened by occasional flourishes recalling the horror of the first song. Here, the clarity of Williams’ diction reveals the perceptive power of his musical and poetic insight, as the poet-speaker looks in self-loathing at “this guilty hand!” and laments Maud’s “cry for a brother’s blood” that will “ring in my heart and ears, ’till I die, ’till I die.” Is it too fanciful to hear the piano’s major-key closing cadence as a glance ahead at the submission into death in the final song? There seems to me, too, something reminiscent of Britten’s word-setting in this tremendous song.

Indeed, Williams conjures an almost Grimes-like mania in ‘Dead, long dead’, the turbulent clamour of the imagined horses’ hooves beating into his scalp and brain as his bones “shaken with pain” are thrust “into a shallow grave” culminating in a literal shout of fury, a vocal fist of frustration and despair: “to hear a dead man chatter/ Is enough to drive one mad.” Why have they not buried me deeper, he anguishes; surely some “kind heart will come/ To bury me, bury me/ Deeper, ever so little deeper”. Williams’ whispers the final word, its syllables broken pronouncedly, like two last breaths, with heart-breaking sombreness.

No wonder the brief snatch at a dream, “O that ’twere possible … To find the arms of my true love/ Round me once again!”, cannot banish the deathly defeatism and derangement of the preceding two, much longer songs. The futility is made more poignant still by the beauty and earnestness of the vocal line and tender piano support. The sparseness of the cycle’s longest song, ‘My life has crept so long’, and the repetitions of a ponderous descending melody in both voice and piano confirm that hope and reason have drained away. All that is left is loss. Memories of the “one thing bright” do stir a resurgence, but it is a false dawn. The dream has vanished and only a brutal reality remains: “We have proved we have hearts in a cause, we are noble still./ I have felt with my native land. I am one with my kind”, sings the poet-speaker with bold and unflinching acceptance of his duty - one that will enable him to embrace “the doom assign’d” and be again, in death, with Maud.

Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Hulton-Deutsch Collection.jpgA.E. Housman. Photo credit: Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection.

Somervell’s A Shropshire Lad (1904) is, as Hold points out, the first Housman song-cycle and may even be the first Housman setting, composed as it was just eight years after the poem’s publication (Stephen Adams, the alias used by Michael Maybrick, published a single song, ‘When I was one-and-twenty’, in the same year). It follows much the same narrative and psychological trajectory as Maud. Although Housman presents no coherent narrative, Somervell’s selection and arrangement of the poems takes us from the protagonist’s youthful reflections on nature, life and love, through the sadness of fractured love, to loneliness and desolation, and finally to his departure, as a soldier, to do his duty. Housman does not offer the composer the sort of elaborate imagery to which Somervell responds so evocatively in Maud, and I feel that in this cycle, which is certainly lyrical and melodious, the composer was not so alert to the ironic undercurrents of Housman’s text. Instead he prefers a more literal representation of its images and sounds, from the buoyant soldiers’ march of ‘The street sounds to the soldiers’ tread’, in which a realistic diminuendo and sparseness depict the redcoats as they recede into the distance in piano postlude, to the single-note beating which we hear in ‘On the idle hill of summer’, “the steady drummer/ Drumming like a noise in dreams”.

There are more strophic settings, such as the opening song, ‘Loveliest of trees’, in which the mellifluousness of Williams’ baritone and the melodiousness of the song seem a perfect match: the very simplicity of the setting and the singing here are its merit. ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ has a cheery breeziness but it’s a pity that Williams, unlike Allan who clips the rhythms very tightly, is a bit lazy with the dotted rhythm in the first line of each stanza, since this gesture captures the irony of an older poet-speaker’s wry glance back at his cocksure younger self.

Susie Allan (c) Bill Wyatt.jpgSusie Allan. Photo credit: Bill Wyatt.

There are many adroit switches of mood: from dark melancholy of ‘There pass the carless people’ to the carefree charm of ‘In summertime on Bredon’: in the latter, Williams’ lovely relaxed head voice is tempered with the poet-speaker’s remembrance of loss, before reassurance returns. Similarly, the duo switch between martial tautness and hymn-like solemnity in ‘On the idle hill of summer’, before an appropriately grandiose conclusion. Both performers are agile in ‘Think no more, lad, laugh, be jolly’, where nuances of harmony, the wide vocal range and subtleties of tempo do inject irony. In contrast, stillness is the core of ‘Into my heart an air that kills’: Somervell sets the first part of the poem on a monotone Bb, and the sustained evenness is wonderful, all the more so because Williams and Allan resist the temptation to turn up the temperature in the second part of the song when the melody expands. But, why does Williams move (I think?) from this Bb for a single note at the end of the second poetic line, “From you far count-ry blows”, to an A natural to accord with the piano harmony, when surely the point of the dissonance is to highlight the speaker’s introspective abstraction from reality as he reflects upon “the land of lost content” which he sees “shining plain”?

But, it really feels as if, in noting such minor details, I’m trying to find something to criticise! There is a lovely ease in ‘The Lads in their hundreds’: we hear in this song Williams the master story-teller. Best of all is ‘White in the moon the long road lies’. I feel that the musical rhetoric is more sophisticated here but, in fact, the sheer beauty of Williams’ singing is what really beguiles: the duo show how telling a pianissimo and silence can be, and the poignancy of the ironically consoling postlude which follows the singer’s concluding lines, “White in the moon the long road lies/ That leads me from my love”, is deeply touching.

Each of the two cycles is followed by a single song: ‘The Kingdom by the Sea’, a setting of Edgar Allan Poe, follows Maud, while the disc concludes with a setting of the ‘Shepherd’s Cradle Song’.

I’ve had this lovely recording playing on loop for days. And, it has sent me back to my well-thumbed copies of Tennyson and Housman. I can’t praise it highly enough.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/SOMMCD0615-cover-1024x1024.jpg image_description=SOMMCD 0615 product=yes product_title=Sir Arthur Somervell: A Shropshire Lad, Maud product_by=Roderick Williams (baritone), Susie Allan (piano) product_id=SOMMCD 0615 [62:24] price=$18.99 product_url=https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08673L2RZ/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B08673L2RZ&linkCode=as2&tag=operatoday-20&linkId=51dcd5659d697973c175b96ea5e342ed
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