Saturday, 31 December 2016

Musica Navideña in Salamanca

A Ceremony of Carols: Musica Navideña Medieval y Contemporanea

Veni, Veni Emmanuel
Angelus Ad Virginem
Orientis Partibus
Red Book of Montserrat (excerpts)
Benjamin Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

Polyphonic Choir, City Choir of Salamanca
Chamber Choir of the Municipal Music School, Salamanca
Director: Antonio Santos

San Esteban, Salamanca, 21 December 2016

This was a well rehearsed and choreographed evening of some of the finest Christmas music, both medieval and 20th century.

Director Antonio Santos took full advantage of the magnificent setting of St Stephen's church in Salamanca, Spain.  The opening Veni, Veni Emmanuel, drifted to our ears from the entrance behind the audience.  There was nice play of acoustic space between the Polyphonic Choir and The Chamber Choir on the altar. Finally, the Britten opened with the Processional sung as the choir entered down the nave.  Just the kind of aural effect Britten himself created on disc in his classic recordings.

Choral honours clearly went to the Chamber Choir.  Both as soloists and as a group they projected their sound with great accuracy and character.  Mariam Matrem from the Red Book of Montserrat a particular highlight.  Such a cavernous acoustic inevitable resulted in a loss of focus at times, but This Little Babe was wonderfully controlled by both choirs, fully deserving its reprise as an encore to round off a richly satisfying concert.

San Esteban, Salamanca - masterpiece of 17th century plateresque architecture

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Bartoli cancels Barbican recital

Cecilia Bartoli was to have been performing at the Barbican this Friday in an all Handel evening.  However today it was annnounced this would be cancelled:
'We regret that Cecilia Bartoli is suffering from a very heavy cold, and is deeply sorry that she has to cancel this concert.'

Cecilia Bartoli

Monday, 14 November 2016

Words to say how words fail

John Dowland (1563 - 1626)
All ye whom love or fortune hath betrayed
A fancy
Behold a wonder here
Come away, come sweet love;
Mrs Winter’s Jump
Time stands still
My thoughts are winged with hopes
Say, love if ever thou didst find
I saw my Lady weep
Flow my tears
Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears
Shall I strive with words to move
The King of Denmark, his Galliard
Can she excuse my wrongs
In darkness let me dwell
XV. Semper Dowland semper dolens
Go, crystal tears
Come again! Sweet love doth now invite
Now, O now I needs must part

Iestyn Davies countertenor 
Thomas Dunford lute 
Colin Hurley speaker

Wigmore Hall, London, 10 November 2016

A masterpiece of programming, Iestyn Davies devised a beautifully paced evening of John Dowland's 16th century melancholy.

Iestyn Davies
The leavening of the songs with solos for lute is commonplace enough, but here further contrast was added by Colin Hurley's recital of poetry, Dowland's letters and even an excerpt from Tolstoy's short story The Kreutzer Sonata.  Hurley strongly projected his texts, even if he seemed to ham up some of Dowland's uncertainty a little too much in the letters.

This all allowed each song to shine like the precious jewels they are, and also some beautiful melding of lute solo into song. Davies presented the evening as illustrating a man "seeking to find words to say how words fail".

Thomas Dunford
Dowland does remain something of a paradox.  Acknowledged as a master of his art in Elizabethan England, he was not taken on by the music-loving monarch.  His Catholicism for a Protestant court can't be the full explanation when this was also true of William Byrd.  As it was, he had to join the court of King Christian in Denmark before returning as court musician for James I.

Thomas Dunford's lute was unfailingly sensitive, remaining at the introspective end of the spectrum even in more courtly items such as the King of Denmark's Galliard.  Iestyn Davies was in fine voice, with strong tone through his range and wonderfully clear diction.  Almost impercetibly tension and emotion were built through the first half to set up ideally the final paring of Flow, my tears and Sorrow, stay.  
Alas I am condemned ever,
No hope, no help there doth remain,
But down, down, down, down I fall,
Down and arise I never shall.

Not a happy man.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Orlando Gibbons - English Renaissance master

Orlando Gibbons
Selection of Fantasies a 2, a 3, a 4 and a 6
Selection of In Nomines
The hunt’s up (Peascod time)
Pavan and galliard Lord Salisbury
The silver swanne
Pavan and galliard a 6
Go from my window
O Lord, in thy wrath rebuke me not
Hosanna to the Son of David 
Laurence Dreyfus treble viol, director 
Emilia Benjamin treble viol 
Jonathan Manson treble viol 
Mikko Perkola tenor viol 
Markku Luolajan-Mikkola bass viol

Wigmore Hall, London, 24 October 2016

Orlando Gibbons was famously championed by eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.  For Gould, Gibbons and Wagner sat alongside eachother in their ability to make the spine tingle with "intensity and predictability".

Perhaps Beethoven and his late string quartets is the better comparison, for Gibbons had a genius for contrapuntal writing, wrote in an equivalent medium, and a consort of viols revealed itself to be as supple, fluid and beguiling as a string quartet.

Starting with two viols, more were added until we reached an impressive first half climax with Three Fantasias a 6.  With Phantasm as our guide, we were drawn into the counterpoint, moments of moonlit stasis, and the constantly shifting patterns of melody.

No-one ever said period instruments were good at staying in tune.  10 of the 100 minutes of music consisted of long tuning sessions between sets of pieces.   Thankfully even this could be enjoyed for the sheer beauty of sound these viols produced.

The introduction of more melody-led items such as The Silver Swanne towards the end demonstrated the more extrovert character of some of Gibbons' pieces.  But it was the extended ruminations of the Fantasias that stayed in the memory.  Distant reminders of the extraordinary achievement of English music in the Renaissance.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Don Giovanni at the Met

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Simon Keenlyside, Don Giovanni
Hibla Gerzmava, Donna Anna
Malin Bystrom, Donna Elvira
Serena Malfi, Zerlina
Paul Appleby, Don Ottavio
Adam Plachetka, Leporello
Matthew Rose, Masetto
Kwangchul Youn, The Commmendatore

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Fabio Luisi, conductor

The Metropolitan Opera, New York live HD broadcast to Curzon Cinemas, 22 October 2016

Having been impressed by several ballet live cinema broadcasts, this was a first try-out of opera in the cinema.  The New York Met Opera, live to Wimbledon.  Results were mixed.  Naturalistic it was not. 
Simon Keenlyside and Serena Malfi

Any cinema broadcast has to make a choice whether it is trying to reproduce the experience of being in a seat at the opera house, or created something more cinematic.  The Met seems to favour the cinematic.  First up was the sound: either all the lead singers were surreptitiously miked for the broadcast sound, or there was some heavy microphone spotlighting going on.  At any rate all the voices sang at mezzo forte and louder the whole evening, the orchestra sounded as if they sat alongside them onstage rather than in the pit, and the poor chorus was lost badly in the background.  Most disturbingly, a very un-Met auditorium reverb seemed to be added to the voices (presumably to compensate for the close miking ).  For shame.    

Add to this the cameras.  One of the pleasures of the theatre is how the set is managed to create artifice.  Does one really need cameras rising up mid-shot and gliding sideways across a character as they sing?  Maybe there was a wish to enliven what was a surprisingly drab set.  It was meant to be Seville, but a particularly dingy red-light district Seville where the various aristocrats looked distinctly out of place.

Simon Keenlyside was our Don, and eschewed any dashing allure for a more world weary attitude.  His dalliances were no longer of great thrill to him, but on no account was he going to give up his libertine lifestyle.  Maybe because of this, the emotional high point of the evening came with the cries of Viva la liberta at the end of Act 1.
Don Giovanni descends
Of the other singers, the Donna Anna and Don Ottavio of Hibla Gerzmava and Paul Appleby stood out.  Dramatically they made a formidable pair, and Don Ottavio was not the anaemic character he can often be.  Both Masetto and Leporello were huge, dwarfing the more diminutive Keenlyside.

So a mixed evening production-wise.  But nothing can take away from this masterpiece its almost overwhelming magnificence.  One marveled at its musical and dramatic depth.  And almost agreed with Kierkegaard, who thought the character of Don Giovanni in the opera to be music personified, and that only music could express the life within him.  Of the opera itself; it was simply the greatest thing ever written, by anyone, in any genre, anywhere. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

B list Philharmonia

Richard Wagner: Overture, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Sergey Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.2 
Gustav Holst: The Planets

Philharmonia Orchestra
Damian Iorio conductor
Ronan O'Hora piano
City of London Choir

14 October 2016, Royal Festival Hall, London

The story goes that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra reached its nadir a decade or so back when it was performing on the same night in London and Manchester.   The Philharmonia is hardly in crisis, but lends its name and a B list to evenings such as this.

While it's off the books of its official season, nothing was disastrous, or memorable, from this Philharmonia OrchestraA general adequacy prevailed.  Its counterpart was an audience of insistent applauders, destroying every atmospheric coda, and presumably as welcome as an internet troll for the conductor.

In many ways the Wagner was the most cogent performance of the evening.  The Rachmaninov featured a fluid soloist in Ronan O'Hora, and an unwelcome star performance from an alarmingly loud clarinet in the AdagioThe clarinet threatened to overwhelm our unpreposessing pianist - surely a Rachmaninov first.  But it could not spoil a movement in which O'Hora bewitched an audience otherwise prone to distraction.   

Holst's The Planets could not help but engage, with Saturn particularly finely done.  But orchestral balance was a constant problem for conductor Damian Iorio.  The conclusion of Mars was white noise plus timpani.  Jupiter was jolly, and unwieldy.

Bizarrely, tickets for this were more expensive than the real Philharmonia concerts.  So if no musical memories will linger, I can feel a charitable donation has been made to the orchestra's balance sheet for the year.  

Sunday, 24 July 2016

High farce Die Fledermaus

Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus

Ben Johnson, Gabriel von Eisenstein
Susanna Hurrell, Rosalinde
Jennifer France, Adele
Joanna Marie Skillett, Ida
Peter Davoren, Alfred
Gavan Ring, Falke
Robert Burt, Dr Blind
John Lofthouse, Frank
Samantha Price
, Prince Orlofsky
Ian Jervis, Frosch

John Rigby, Conductor
Martin Lloyd-Evans, Director
City of London Sinfonia

Opera Holland Park, London, 23 July 2016

This most famous of operettas was given a full English update at Opera Holland Park to marvellous effect.

First up was the setting, moved to 1930s England and enhanced by Alistair Beaton'sfree but  vivacious English translation.  Singing in English brought obvious benefits in conveying the wit of the comedy, and allowed some contemporary references to despised Brexit politicians to be folded in. 

Some creativity came with the adaptation, most of it trumphant.  The 4 London bobbies dancing with their Prison Chief, a stunned reception to the night's exotic dancers, and lashings of broad English humour and innuendo, almost Carry On at times.  This linked to a nice framing of the Eisenstein/Falke tension as stemming from Oxbridge antics.

Curiously the amorous Alfred was played as an Italian with an accent so massive it was almost Australian.  More seriously, the night's Prince Orlovsky was anything but dominant vocally and physically, and Gavan Ring's Falke placed the Prince quite in the shade.  This was perhaps the most light hearted Orlovsky ever seen, in little need of encouragement to laugh, which did nothing for dramatic impetus.  At various other points there seemed a similar disregard for the plot in the search for gags. Adelle's famous Laughing Aria, when she is protesting to all she is indeed a high born princess, had her openly kneeing Eisenstein in the groin. 

The acting was excellent and suitably over the top throughout.  Vocally, some of the big numbers fizzled slightly.  Susanna Hurrell's Czardas did not catch fire. Of the singers, Jennifer France as Adelle was the most spectacular, her high notes ranging from whispers to ringing floods of sound above the choruses.  Through it all, John Rigby directed a fine, punchy performance from the City of London Sinfonia, tight but with a willingness to relax at key moments. 

So a very fine evening, and such a pleasure to see an adaptation done so well.  It may have lost the elegance of the Viennese original, but it quite intentionally chose an English farce instead.