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2015 – Could do better.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 31, 2016 at 10:14 am

This is more an observation of my own performance last year, than of the operas, concerts and recitals that I attended and missed.

Well, for the most part.

A change of job meant that I was unable to attend everything I had originally scheduled in the year and more often than not had to give up my tickets. The lack of time also severely curtailed not only my ability to write about music in general but also listening to music as often as I wanted to.

And this was a shame as there were a number of standout recital discs last year that gave me great when pleasure when I found did have the time. A special mention must go to John Elliott Gardiner’s new recording of the b minor mass. It was hard to imagine that a new recording could surpass his first, but I was wrong. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there were moments that were as close to heaven as music can every get. Sadly, this incredible performance also made me realise that my own pilgrimage through the cantatas of Bach once again stalled in 2015, and I remained stuck in 1714. Progress must be made this year, or I shall have to admit defeat.

And there were other artists who gave me great pleasure. These included Elizabeth Watts in Alessandro Scarlatti; Max Cencic’s Arie Napoletane; Valer Sabadus in Caldara; Ann Hallenberg’s Agrippina and arias for Luigi Marchesi, Matthew Rose singing Mozart’s arias for Benucci and Evgeny Nikitin singing Wagner. If you haven’t had an opportunity to listen to these discs then I can’t recommend them strongly enough.

By the same token, there were some recitals that didn’t personally make much of an impact – surprisingly both Christian Gerhaher and Dorothea Roschmann’s Mozart recital discs left me slightly cold, as did Rattle’s Das Rheingold. And Diana Damrau’s Fiamma del bel canto misfired, as did Dagmar Peckova’s Sinful Women.

In terms of live performances, not all were strictly speaking concerts. The two that remain most vivid in my memory are Farinelli and the King and Joyce DiDonato’s Masterclass.

I was fortunate to bag tickets for Farinelli at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. The combination of an excellent acting casting led by the masterful Mark Rylance and Iestyn Davies as the famous countertenor, made for a dramatic evening with ravishing music. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ms DiDonato’s masterclass was as compelling. Listening to her talk through the music of those students lucky enough to be on stage with her, to literally feel her enthusiasm and to hear the difference that she made to their performances was incredible. And Francesca Chiejina’s performance of Ah, chi mi dice mai still brings a smile to my face. She is a name to watch out for.

The single most exciting project launched last year was Classical Opera’s Mozart 250. I’ve just attended the most recent concert in this series – a retrospective of 1766. It was, as you would expect, excellent but of all the music performed it was Benjamin Hullet’s performance of Et incarnatus est from Haydn’s Missa Cellensis in honorem that really stood out. In 2015, Classical Opera provided enthusiastic audiences with a canter through 1765 – a year very much focused on Mozart’s tour of London with some superlative performances by Anna Devin, John Mark Ainsley and Ben Johnson and a complete performance of JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. This is a project both ambitious in its scale as well as superlative in terms of the quality of its music making. Ian Page must be heartily commended for his vision and passion, and I cannot wait for the next concert – Jomelli’s Il Vologeso.

I attended three other opera performance of note in 2015. First, a performance of Act Three of Die Walküre at the Millennium Centre Handel represented by Semele, Giove in Argo and Saul. Koenigs might be leaving Cardiff but he leaves an impressive legacy at WNO – the orchestra was well-honed and the cast led by Terfel and Theorin were incredible. The London Handel Festival opened with Semele, which offered mixed performances but it was a delight to hear both the chorus, Louise Innes and Robin Blaze. A performance of Giove in Argo followed and was exemplary not only for the standard of the singers but also the direction and stage design. I also trekked to Glyndebourne for Saul but sadly didn’t get a chance to write it up. It was in turns, exuberant, poignant, joyful and tragic. In short, it was a masterpiece, with an incredible cast led by Christopher Purves in the title role, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan and Paul Appleby as his children and Iestyn Davies as David. Smartly directed by Barry Kosky and conduced by Ivor Bolton, it is a production I could see again, and again and again.

Sadly, both the opera houses in London had mixed years and in face, both could have ‘done better’ too.

ENO remains in trouble whether you believe it is because of mismanagement and misdirection or because there are ‘barbarians at the gate’. A revival of WNO’s Mastersinger of Nuremberg reminded everyone that at its best, ENO is a marvellous company with, at its heart, singers and players who fervently believe in the importance of ‘company’. But that success has since been eclipsed – or rather overrun – by a series of problems and no end seems in sight. It’s hard to believe at times that ENO can – or should in its current form – survive. I think that we might all find out this year.

2015 ended with Covent Garden announcing the departure of Kasper Holten as Artistic Director – and his departure almost felt like the end of a grand experiment. But is it one that has gone well? It’s hard to say. On the basis of productions such as Król Roger it would have to be a yes, but the same year witnessed productions such as Guillaume Tell and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahaganny which fell way short of many peoples’ expectations. And in some ways, the same can be said of Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice – save the excellent playing of the Monteverdi Orchestra and the singing of Lucy Crowe – and and Monteverdi’s Orfeo which was marred by being sung in English for no real reason.

2016 has started well with Mozart 250 and here’s hoping that I both make the time and find the discipline to improve on last year.

And there are things planned which I would rather resign over than miss – David Hansen in Giulio Cesare in Dresden, a suite of Richard Strauss operas in Berlin and ENO’s Tristan und Isolde – and that is before I have had a real chance to look at the new seasons that are being announced as I write.

So very belatedly, I wish you all a happy new year and hope that your year is filled with much music.

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.

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