Lost in translation

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 4, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Review – Orphée et Eurydice (Royal Opera House, Saturday 3 October 2015)

Orphée – Juan Diego Flórez
Eurydice – Lucy Crowe
Amour – Amanda Forsythe

Directors – Hofesh Shechter & John Fulljames
Designer – Conor Murphy
Lighting Designer – Lee Curran
Choreographer – Hofesh Shechter

Hofesh Shechter Company
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists

John Eliot Gardiner (Conductor)

It’s a shame that Gluck is not performed more often in London. Rameau, thanks to be English National Opera and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, doesn’t do too badly, but Gluck does miserably. So I was excited to see this production and was fortunate – in some ways – to be able to see the final performance following an unexpected change in my diary.

So it was a tad disappointing that, despite a clear intention, that the Royal Opera House production of Orphée et Eurydice is a hit and miss affair. And that the misses could so easily have been avoided, as they were very few.

But first, simply how magnificent were the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner? There was a vibrancy, energy and sheer simplicity to both playing and singing that cut straight to the original intentions of Gluck. No frills. No affectations. Just simple, beautifully articulate performances of music they clearly love and cherish.

If one single moment in the opera stands out, it was the opening of the second act as the chorus confronted Orphée’s attempts to enter Hades. Their physicality perfectly matched the music, as did their subsequent yet gradual change of heart.

From the orchestra itself, Gardiner coaxed wonderfully pliant and magical playing from the flute and oboe soloists as well as unearthing the right timbre for the brass throughout.

Playing and singing of that calibre is all to often missing from the opera houses in London at the moment. Let’s hope that Covent Garden ask the ensemble to return again, although hopefully within a more inspiring production.

Of the singers, while there was great anticipation for Signor Flórez, the laurels – despite the all-too-expected adoration of the Covent Garden audience who more often than not cheer a well-known name rather than talent – rightfully belong to Lucy Crowe. What an eloquent, impassioned performance she gave. Vocally Ms Crowe was simply splendid. The simplicity of Cet asile amiable et tranquille was more than off-set by the emotion with which she infused her subsequent duet and air with her lacklustre spouse.

Similarly, Amanda Forsythe made an excellent and brightly voiced Amour – elegantly dispatching Si le doux accords de ta lyre and Soumis au silence. Sadly, in the final scene she was only slightly let down by the direction at the close of the opera, playing her syncopated vocal line for laughs rather than the sincerity that Gluck originally intended.

I admit that I am not a fan of Juan Diego Flórez. I had originally intended to see Michele Angelini but a change of plans meant I had to swap my ticket. Personally I think that Flórez more often than not sounds too forced vocally and as a result his singing is rather bland and one dimensional. There’s no doubting that he negotiated the role of Orphée but it was ‘Flórez’ not Orphée on stage. It was only when he shared the stage and the singing with Lucy Crowe that his performance lifted above a more usual stand-and-deliver norm. Clearly Covent Garden felt they needed a name rather than the right performer to sell the tickets.

If Flórez was one part of the equation to get the tills ringing, I have to wonder if Hofesh Shechter was the other.

The production – the brainchild of Shechter and Fulljames – was visually interesting and perhaps they should consider putting the orchestra on stage for ‘period’ operas more often. But a desire to fill every single moment with movement obscured the simplicity of Gluck’s drama.

I have absolutely no problem with dancing being integral to a production – you only have to look at the success of the Rameau project with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – but when it adds little to the drama, and indeed seems superfluous to it and even distracting, then I have to question what purpose it serves. In the Eighteenth Century, ballet was an integral part of opera, playing an essential narrative role. In the programme, Shechter talked about bringing out the simplicity of the opera. It started well but then the choreography just began to resemble the mania of Trainspotting. I remember being absolutely mesmerized and moved by Pina Bausch’s Iphigenie auf Tauris – the elegance, the commitment to not only reflecting, but also amplifying the drama seemed to come naturally. Shechter is no Bausch. What he gave us was messy, uninvolved and ultimately undermined what Gluck had intended – dance fused with the music and the drama to tell the story.

At the end of the opera, the suite of dances should feel like a natural extension of what has gone before. I would have been happier to have just sat back and listening to the glorious playing of the English Baroque Soloists rather than be subjected to the maniacal thrashing about presented at the front and back of the stage.

Indeed, had they dispensed with Shechter’s choreography, overall the simplicity of production would have won out.

Glücklich? Not really.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1715 – Cantata Psychology

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on August 2, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31)
O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165)

There is some debate about Bach’s first cantata for 1715 – Alles, was von Gott reborn (BWV 80a). Some of the music is lost and Bach later expanded it into Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott in 1730. Therefore I shall return to it when – and hopefully not if – I reach that decade.

Therefore the first extant cantata of the year is Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31) for April 1716 and Easter. Despite the innocently sounding Sonata title for the first movement, it is anything but a quiet affair. Opening with timpani and trumpets but scored for an orchestra including oboes and strings and including some delightful interplay with the trumpets, its moto perpetuo rhythmic drive must have had them literally tapping their feet, if not wishing they could dance down the aisle of the church. The first chorus, Der Himmel lacht! continues the joyousness of the opening movement and yet Bach conveys a sense of frantic, almost raucous, joy as the chorus sing of rejoicing and laughter. But this is suddenly and dramatically cut short at Der sich das Grab zur Ruh erlesen (He who chose the grave for rest) before an earnest canonic section brings the movement to a close.

Following a recitative for the tenor, the first aria s in contrast to the opening movements, is written for bass and continuo only but remains a intensely rhythmically driven both in the vocal line and the continuo. The tenor returns for the second recitative and the second aria accompanied by strings only. The final aria, preceded by a recitative for the soprano, features an oboe obbligato. There is an almost pastoral feeling to Letzte Sunde, brich herein (Last hour, break forth) which is only tempered by the interjection of the strings with the chorale melody Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist.

Here is an example of what I will be calling Bach’s “Cantata psychology”. The aria, on the surface, urges the congregation to prepare for Jesus’ “gleam of joy”, and as they sat there listening to the first time to this beautifully crafted aria, they would have been surprised to hear the melody of a hymn they would have known well from singing in the church as well as at home – If the hour of my death is at hand. Bach, himself an incredibly religious man by all accounts, would have realized the power of music to remind the congregation of their own – and his – mortality. And Bach reinforced this message in the closing chorale by using the same melody.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Bach had a clear intention in mind when writing this cantata. It was to celebrate Easter and the glory of God, but to remind the congregation – and himself –that no matter how great their rejoicing should be, ultimately they should remember their mortality.

O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, (BWV 165) – first performed in June 1715 – is much more modest both in terms of the forces Bach employed by also scale. The first movement for soprano – no introductory instrumental piece – with its weaving counterpoint in the strings and the melismatc vocal line convey the flowing water of the text. An aria for alto, post a simple recitative for bass, is scored for continuo only. The compound time signature reinforces the sense of quiet confidence of the text, of a belief in Jesus’ love for the celebrant. The succeeding recitative, scored for strings and arioso in nature leads into an aria for tenor with unison strings. I can’t help but think that the moto perpetuo of this movement – so different from the opening movement of the preceding cantata – refers to the Heilschläglein of the text before bringing the cantata to an end with a simple chorale.

Despite being very different in structure and nature, in these two cantatas we continue to see Bach flexing his musical and thelogical muscle, increasingly finding ways to bring his congregation closer to God – through both grandeur and contemplation – through his music.


In Baroque, BBC Proms, Classical Music, JS Bach, Review on August 2, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Review – Partitas & Sonatas for Violin (BBC Proms, Friday 31 August & Saturday 1 August 2015)

Alina Ibragimova (Violin)

Vibrato or not? It’s a debate that has been going on since the authentic performance movement began and continues to be discussed – thankfully in a civilized manner – as well as to inform performance. Indeed, Roger Norrington, an early exponent of authentic performance has performed Mahler without vibrato. Leopold Mozart condemned it, yet Martin Agricola was writing about its ability help convey emotion in the 1520s.

It was also interesting on the first night of this two-event recital to hear that this was the first time that the BBC had programmed the solo violin partitas and sonatas in their entirety at the Proms, and that they had not already done so at Cadogan Hall. These performances also form part of a triptych with solo recitals by András Schiff and Yo-Yo Ma later in the season.

Any reservations that Alina Ibragimova might be swamped in such a gargantuan space were immediately dispelled with the first flourish of the first Partita in g minor. And despite standing right at the front of the stage, Ms Ibragimova created an immediate sense of hushed intimacy on both evenings.

The sound she produced was of the purist clarity and enabled the multiple voices written into Bach’s music – and beautifully weighted and balanced in every movement – to be clearly heard. For example in the second movement Fuga of the g minor partita, the opening movement of the C Major Partita or the simply glorious Andante from the Partita in a minor. Personally speaking, this is one of the most sublime movements written by Bach.

A momentary lapse in the Partita in d minor on the second evening resulted in a compelling – almost driven – performance of the entire work with performance of the closing Ciaconna of incredibly intensity.

But Ms Ibragimova also demonstrated incredible virtuosity. The vivacity and aplomb of the opening E Major Partita – which he later transcribed for organ and orchestra – and the closing of the A minor with its echo motif for example.

Personally, I am ‘pro vibrato’. The added dimension it gives to music – especially works such as these – even when doled out in the smallest amounts can invest the music with added emotional intensity. There is no denying Alina Ibragimova’s virtuosity, musicianship and clear love for these works have ensured that the ambition to perform the sonatas and partitas will be memorable. And yet, as I listened to her performances – and thought of those performances I own which I truly cherish such as those of Isabelle Faust, Elizabeth Wallfisch and Arthur Grumiaux – I have to admit that I wonted for even the smallest hint or suggestion of vibrato.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

( A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 104 other followers