lietofinelondon

Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part One) – Alto Altissimus

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on May 26, 2014 at 8:15 am

(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)

Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54)
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199)

There is some discussion about what voice these two solo cantatas were written for – but I can think of no finer performances than these by Nathalie Stutzmann and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

It’s somewhat unusual that the first two cantatas that Bach would write following his elevation to Konzertmeister in Weimar would be for solo voice but there’s a newfound fluency and confidence to them – as if for the first time Bach was flexing his muscle of expression. Indeed in the case of BWV 199 there’s a heightened – almost unbridled – sense of dramatic and emotional urgency that personally I don’t think Bach exceeds in later works.

Before I go on, when listening to these two works something really came to life for me. The sheer talent and musicianship of the singers and players that Bach must have employed – either as colleagues or as itinerant musicians – must have been incredible. It is hard to believe that he would have written such sublime music if he didn’t believe not only that they could perform it, but also perform it convincingly.

The original altos that must have performed these works – for I do personally believe that these two cantatas suit the alto or mezzo voice best – must therefore have been incredible performers.

Widerstehe doch der Sünde was originally thought to be incomplete until a complete score was found. It is so perfectly formed I find it hard to see how anyone could have thought it incomplete.

The orchestration is simple – just strings – but Bach’s use of counterpoint, entwining the instrumental lines above a insistent basso continuo – almost like the pastor waving his finger at the congregation – that creates a deceptively lush sonority.

There is something quite powerful – almost risqué – that young Bach writes such sensuous music when the text is all about avoiding the temptation of sin.

The central recitative contains some wonderful word painting at Und übertünchtes Grab and the vigorous continuo line at the end to depict the stabbing sword before the final aria where Bach demonstrates his skill at counterpoint, with the subjects weaving from voice to combined violins and viola to the continuo.

It is the brevity of this cantata – almost a sense of earnestness – that seems to underline the seriousness of the text. And performed as eloquently as it is here by Ms Stutzmann with her resonant mezzo voice it is a cantata I shall return to regularly.

In complete contrast is Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199). It wears its heart quite literally on its sleeve from the beginning – My heart swims in blood.

Pain, torment and endless sorrow are deeply ingrained in the music of the first half. Not only does this cantata hint at the depths of Bach’s own religious feelings but also the confidence of a young composer wanting to show his musical mettle.

And in the skilful hands of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson it gores beyond a purely musical experience to a spiritual one. Her ability to convey not only the words but also the pain, torment and sorrow of Bach’s music is second to none.

The opening recitative – scored for the complete string ensemble – immediately sets the anguished tone that permeates the whole work.

The first aria – Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen – contrasts the eloquent oboe obbligato with an almost halting continuo and a vocal line that is so economical in contrast that it creates an uneasy tension. But what surprises most is the unexpected recitative in the middle. It’s almost as if Bach was writing for the stage – a heroine who, in the midst of her torment at some unrequited love or deceit, breaks into words.

But here the drama Bach conveys is one of religious fervour.

The second recitative leads straight into an aria that is deceptively calm. It’s almost pastoral in its simplicity as the singer admits her own remorse and guilt. And again it is all about sonority here with Bach masterfully creating a luscious bed of sound below the vocal line.

After the briefest of recitatives Bach uses a chorale – Ich, dein betrübtes Kind – as the emotional turning point of the cantata. The viola obbligato takes its thematic base from the chorale’s opening line that is intoned by the solo voice.

And this leads into – quite literally – a gigue. Wie freudig ist mein Herz, as the penitent sings of their joy in God led by the returning oboe to the ensemble, is nothing short of an affirmation of faith.

After the emotional gut punch of the opening sections, it must have had them dancing in the aisles. Or at least quietly humming the melody at home.

Review – What An Ochs

In Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Saturday 24 May, 2014)

Marschallin – Soile Isokoski
Octavian – Alice Coote
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Herr Faninal – Mark Stone
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Valzacchi – Bonaventura Bottone
Annina – Pamela Helen Stephen
Major Domo/Landlord – Ted Schmidt
Marchande de Modes/Marianne Leitmetzerin – Elaine McKrill
Italian Tenor – Ji-Min Park
A Notary/Commissar – Eddie Wade
Vendor of Animals – Paul Curievici
Footmen/Servants – Nicholas Ashby, Paul Curievici, Edward Harrison, Joseph Kennedy

CBSO Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s been a Rosenkavalier-Fest for many reasons recently. First the magnificently refined performances under Sir Mark Elder in London featuring Anne Schwanewilms, Sarah Connolly and Lucy Crowe.

Then the opening night review of Glyndebourne’s new production overshadowed by the gratuitously vicious and uncalled for criticism of Tara Erraught.

And last night a complete concert performance at Symphony Hall. If I read the programme correctly, it’s somewhat surprising that this was the first complete performance of Der Rosenkavalier in Birmingham.

Even if it wasn’t, it was a performance of incredible musicianship, virtuosity, passion and sheer verve.

And as in London a few weeks ago, the casting of the three principles – or in this case four – was luxurious.

While it might be normal to start with the three leading ladies – and they were truly magnificent – the night ultimately belonged to Franz Hawlata’s Baron Ochs von Lerchanau.

His performance was a tour de force both musically and dramatically. Often in concert productions the directing is either intrusive or limp. On the stage of Symphony Hall it was well executed and meaningful. His Ochs was a blend of misinformed droit du seigneur and comedic timing that – for some reason – reminded me of Eric Morecombe. And securely riding above his stage presence was a vocal ability that was second to none. His voice was resonant and beautifully rounded and showed no signs of strain at either end of his range. His raison d’être in the First Act went beyond bluster to a meaningful – if misguided – Credo, and his singing at the close of the Second Act was a lesson in fine singing.

The three women were similarly impressive. Soile Isokoski is a finely nuanced interpreter of Richard Strauss but previously I have felt that her performances have lacked a certain vocal lustre. So I was incredibly pleased that her performance demonstrated that whatever ‘mojo’ she had temporarily misplaced was back. And in full force. From her first entry to her final ‘Ja, Ja’ she was a Marschallin in full control. There was a luminosity – a golden sheen – to her voice that fitted Strauss’ soaring music perfectly. From top to bottom there was a rich lustre to each and every note.

Her performance of Da geht er hin was markedly different to that of Ms Schwanewilms. As opposed to the philosophic, almost intellectual resignation of the latter, Ms Isokoski’s was firmly based in a more emotional spectrum and therefore the impact was incredibly forceful. While maintaining that aristocratic distance you really felt that at the heart if it this was a Marschallin who was very much a woman. And a woman not so much afraid of age, but of being left alone. It left a lump in my throat.

As her Octavian, Alice Coote married a beautifully bronzed and shining tone with incredible acting skill. Her comic turn and sense of timing with Ochs was brilliant and combined with the vocal splendour of her singing. There was a warmth and brilliance to her tone that didn’t bleach in the upper ranges and her technique – demonstrated in her ability to scale down her voice when appropriate – demonstrates what a unique and special talent she has.

And Sophie Bevan provided a steely Sophie. In character that is. Vocally she was equally splendid. Her lower and middle range has a beautiful smokiness to it and when she effortlessly rose to stratospheric heights in the Second Act it was breathtaking.

The remaining cast members all performed their roles with great vocal and acting aplomb. Special mention must go to Ji-Min Park’s Italian Tenor (and for his two handed farewell at the end of the evening); to Pamela Helen Stephen’s Annina and to Elaine McKrill’s Marianne Leitmetzerin. And also to Paul Curivici – his bright tenor promises a bright future.

And the final trio – let’s admit it – is often the ultimate reason for attending Der Rosenkavalier. Not only because it is the emotional pay-off we have known was going to happen from the Marschallin’s monologue in Act One, but also because it is the most sublime piece of music Strauss ever wrote.

And in Symphony Hall it was perfection.

Andris Nelsons daringly took the trio at a slower tempo than I’ve heard in a while. But he never lost control of its various strands, unfolding the glorious music with an authority that demonstrated he clearly knew the overall architecture of this opera. And not once did he allow the singers – as is often the case – to drown one another out. Each of the three vocal lines was clear and distinct as he drew them to that crushing climax at the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen at which point the singers – and the audience – were overwhelmed by the orchestra. As Strauss wanted.

How anything could follow that was impossible to consider but Mesdames Coote and Bevan then performed the most sublime Ist ein Traum, scaling their voices back to the finest pianissimi I’ve ever heard.

Supporting the singers was the CBSO – players and singers adult and junior. The Chorus was suitably full-throated and the Youth Chorus revelled in their role – especially manhandling Hawlata off stage. I hope the girl who fell over in the excited exit was okay.

And the orchestra – after a somewhat hesitant start – demonstrated that they actually have this music music not only in their bones but in their hearts. Under Nelsons’ superlative direction they had that European depth of tone – not only in the strings but also that elusive timbre in the woodwind and brass – that is vital in Strauss. Even more than usual, Nelsons and his players found that often-missed vulgarity in the Second and Third Acts and that necessary lilt in the waltzes that permeate this opera.

As the final notes died away, the audience could barely wait for the final notes to die before showing their appreciation for an incredible evening of music making and drama.

The ovation was a fitting tribute.

In Gottes Namen please record this.

Ja, Ja.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 10, 2014 at 9:25 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Excerpts) & Mozart Symphony No. 38
(Barbican Hall, Thursday 8 May 2014)

Marschallin – Anne Schwanewilms
Octavian – Sarah Connolly
Sophie – Lucy Crowe

Additional singers – Gerard Schneider, Thomas Atkins, Johannes Kammler and David Shipley.

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)

What a magnificent evening of performances that made me fall in love with Der Rosenkavalier all over again.

But before the sumptuous world of Richard Strauss, Elder and the orchestra gave us a taut yet beautifully shaped performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38. Within its three movement structure there are hints of Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro – a smart piece of programming alluding to love, intrigue and lust on which Strauss’ own opera set in roughly the same era is based.

If the orchestra played with grace and vitality in the first half, then in the second they launched into the introduction of Der Rosenkavalier with unabashed vigour and enthusiasm. There was no doubt in Elder’s mind what was going on in the Marschallin’s bedchamber as the curtain rises.

I don’t think I have heard the LSO sound – well – so European in some time. The string playing was warm and luscious, the winds luminous and the brass – and especially the horns – exultant.

They literally reveled in Strauss’ music. When accompanying the singers they were sensitive to the mood and the words but when needed the sound they produce was prodigious. The waltz interlude at the beginning of the Third Act extract, for example, was both vulgar yet triumphant.

And rising above Strauss’ opulent orchestration was a trio of singers who could not be bettered.

While it is hard to single them out individually, I must admit that Anne Schwanewilms established herself as the pre-eminent Strauss interpreter. I have long admired not only her concert and stage performances, but also her recordings and cannot fathom why she does not perform more often in the UK.

Our loss significantly.

As the Marschallin at the Barbican she was vocally formidable. But not only did she display a vocal authority – scaling down to the smallest yet still distinct softness as well as soar above the orchestra without a break in tone or vocal colour – but also a depth of understanding of how to communicate the Hoffmansthal’s words. Her crystal clear diction was coupled with an innate sense of the conversational nature of Strauss’ vocal line when needed – lingering on words that demonstrated an insight and level of musicianship that is hard to match today.

Da geht er hin was an incredible performance both in terms of her singing and her characterization. Her Marschallin was a woman of small, measured – almost calculated – gestures but they were gestures that spoke volumes. At Die Zeit im grunde, she literally bled her voice to a vocal pale that was chilling.

Sarah Connolly was her equal as the boisterous Octavian so acutely in lust – not love – with her. Connolly again reveled in Strauss music, effortlessly rising and falling with the vocal line, with a lustrous tone that sparkled.

And as Sophie, Lucy Crowe immediately captured the essence of the very short extract from the beginning of Act Two. A devilish part there was no hint of stress or strain as Strauss sent her into the vocal stratosphere.

That moment when Octavian and Sophie’s eyes meet over the rose was beautifully timed.

Also there was a real sense of luxury in having four male voices and again they all sang their small roles exuberantly.

But of course it was the trio that the audience was waiting for. And thankfully Elder and his performers gave us the necessary lead in into what must be Strauss’ most glorious pieces of music, and one of the most glorious scenes in opera.

That moment when the winds strike their chord and Octavian turns to Marie Theres’ was magical. And listening to Ms Schwanewilms unfurl that magnificent melody of resignation I would venture, broke a few hearts in the audience.

Definitely mine.

And as the three singers weaved around each other, Elder masterfully edged them closer and closer to that thrilling climax with the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen leaping out clearly over the orchestra.

I’ve said before that for me the most critical words in this opera are the final words sung by the Marschallin.

And here, Anne Schwanewilms filled that single phrase– Ja, ja – with such emotion that in the final closing duet – with Strauss’ tangy harmonies in flutes and violins – Elder captured the sense of uncertainty of the young lovers future.

Indeed, it was an evening when the singers and the orchestra, marshaled by Elder, managed to create the same level of excitement and emotional weight as if we had watched the entire opera.

And I only wish we had.

But these extracts from Der Rosenkavalier will remain with the audience for a very long time.

And perhaps we shall see more of Anne Schwanewilms in the UK.

A Greek Chorus of Approval

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 4, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Review – Thebans (English National Opera, Saturday 3 May 2014)

The Chorus of English National Opera
Oedipus – Roland Wood
Creon – Peter Hoare
Tiresias – Matthew Best
Jocasta – Susan Bickley
Stranger from Corinth & Haemon – Anthony Gregory
Shepherd – Paul Sheehan
Messenger & Theseus – Christopher Ainslie
Antigone – Julia Sporsén
Polynices – Jonathan McGovern
Eteocles – Matt Casey

Director- Pierre Audi
Set Designer – Tom Pye
Costume Designer – Christof Hetzer
Lighting Designer – Jean Kalman

The Orchestra of English National Opera

Frank McGuinness (Libretto)
Julian Anderson (Composer)

Edward Gardner (Conductor)

English National Opera is to be congratulated for their commitment to new works. They don’t always get it right – Nico Muhly’s Two Boys being a case in point – and they have yet to commission an opera that will stand the test of time.

And this is also true of Julian Anderson’s new opera, Thebans. Will it survive beyond a revival that ENO is almost beholden to schedule in the 2016/17 Season?

It’s not that Anderson’s opera isn’t impressive on many levels, gut-wrenching on at least one occasion or watchable throughout. It’s the fact that it ultimately lacks emotional substance or weight.

It’s difficult not to compare new works – even when they resemble each other so little. But compared to Written on Skin and even Anna Nicole, Anderson’s opera doesn’t ultimately leave me many questions except it is really an opera?

Anderson is an incredibly talented composer. Works such as his Alhambra Fantasy and The Discovery of Heaven – and more significantly – his Book of Hours demonstrate a lively and inquisitive use of rhythm and timbre.

But where I think Thebans falls short – as in some of his other works – is Anderson’s avoidance for the most part of motivic development. In smaller scale pieces that may work, but in the broader architecture of a three(ish) act opera it makes it more difficult to sustain any sense of architecture.

Ultimately therefore, Anderson’s Thebans isn’t an opera but rather a three movement tableaux – almost a vocal symphony – where only the narrative of the libretto binds it together.

And I say ‘three(ish)’ because three acts feels like an artistic indulgence when the second act is so short – yet so emotionally direct – and the final act lingers slightly too long.

I am also not convinced that basing the story on the chronology of when Sophocles wrote the plays – rather than when the events contained therein happened – works. There is some evidence that Antigone was written first – before even Oedipus the King – and he returned to the Oedipus legend at the end of his life not as an adieu to his ‘career’. Rather he wrote the episode at Colonus as a savage indictment of contemporary Athens and a warning of the political and artistic disaster that was about to engulf the city.

But there is no denying the power both of some of the music and the performances themselves. When I listen to Anderson I hear hints of Honegger, Britten, Bartok and even Stravinsky. And the same is true of Thebans.

Cleverly – or coincidentally – both McGuinness and Anderson recognized that as in Greek drama, the chorus is integral to the plot – commenting not only on the action but on the emotions as well.

So central to the success of this opera is the music that Anderson writes for the chorus. And he delivers music of magnificence and emotional weight that is the cornerstone of this work.

And as ever the chorus of English National Opera surpassed themselves, not only with the sheer power and beauty of the sound they produce, but also how they effortlessly intuit the emotional temperature on stage. From their opening chorus – beseeching Oedipus their King – to their condemnation of Creon, Thebans was their opera.

It is why I have listed the Chorus of English National Opera at the top of the characters. If this opera succeeds, it will do so for the strength of the choral writing and the chorus who perform it.

The chorus is almost certainly the main attraction. And the chorus’ ‘invisibility’ in the final act is this opera’s greatest flaw.

The music written for the main characters underlines how difficult it can be in modern opera to write vocal lines that convey any sense of emotion. But it is possible – Written on Skin for example. Even moments in Anna Nicole.

Here I picked up few moments when Anderson really got to the emotional heart of the characters through his vocal writing. For me there was the moment in the Third Act when Antigone and her brother Polynices sang “We are lost” and briefly in her ‘death song’ in the preceding act.

But it was the magnificent Susan Bickley who truly revealed the emotional content of her character, reveling not only in the music but finding a connection between what Anderson had written and who Jocasta was.

Roland Wood – despite illness – was very strong as Oedipus although his music failed to give him the traction he needed to develop his character. Similarly Peter Hoare’s Creon was too-often a character singing loudest although the unaccompanied opening of the Second Act was marvelous. Almost Britten-esque, in that moment Anderson’s writing exposed Creon’s character and isolation so simply.

Tiresias – resonantly sung by Matthew Best – was for me and after Jocasta, the most rounded character. I am not quite sure why he was dressed like Nina Simone – perhaps a reference to the Oracle in some oblique way – but the stentorian vocal line convinced of the character’s tragic gravitas.

Anthony Gregory and Christopher Ainslie both performed their dual roles eloquently. Gregory was particularly effective as Haemon and Ainslie’s countertenor was particularly suited to the off-worldly voice of Theseus.

For me, Antigone rather felt like a half-finished character. I wonted for more in Julia Sporsén’s ‘death song’ that was marred by a distracting vibrato and her singing in the final act – particularly as mentioned earlier – was precise rather than emotional. In fact in the closing moments I felt like I was watching a truncated characterisation of Strauss’ Salome/Elektra.

In terms of direction, Pierre Audi and his team supplied what was ultimately a ‘pack and go’ production destined as this is for Bonn.

While it didn’t lack a sense of scale, in many ways it was a very traditional vision of the tragedy.

There were no distracting gimmicks and no unpleasant surprises. In the first act I liked the way the lighting at the back of the stage was used when the gates were opened, and in the second the use of computer imagery to reveal Oedipus’ face was also smart without being intrusive. Perhaps in the final act, with its war-blasted trees, Audi could have been a little more audacious rather than having Oedipus just walk off stage considering the emotional coup Anderson and McGuiness were clearly aiming for.

And a word on the libretto. Frank McGuinness should write more of them. Not a word was wasted. Genius.

And in the pit, Gardner demonstrated that he is as comfortable in new music as he is in old. Under his baton the orchestra negotiated Anderson’s score with both enthusiasm and complete proficiency and there was never any loss of balance between the players and the singers.

So what next for Thebans?

A revival without a doubt. There’s no denying that it’s a bold and interesting work.

But it doesn’t feel like it has longevity. Not as an opera. But I have to admit that as I left the London Coliseum last night I did wonder if it would be more effective without staging – as an oratorio.

Worlds Apart.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 3, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Zaïs (Sunday 27 April 2014, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London)

Zaïs (Jeremy Budd), Zélidie (Louise Alder), Cindor (Ashley Riches), Amour (Katherine Watson), Oromazès (David Stout), La grande Prêtresse (Katherine Manley), Une Sylphide (Anna Dennis) & Un Sylph (Gwilym Bowen).

Choir of the Enlightenment
Les Plaisirs des Nations (Ricardo Barros, Annabelle Blanc, Damien Dreux, Hubert Hazebroucq, Guillaume Jablonka, Fenella Kennedy, Adeline Lerme & Flora Sans)

Edith Lalonger (Choreographer)
Jonathan Williams (Conductor)

and

Arias for Farinelli (Monday 28 April 2014, Wigmore Hall)

Ann Hallenberg (Mezzo Soprano)
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset (Director)

Last week I attended two concerts containing music written within roughly a decade or so of each other that couldn’t have been more different but of equal and incredible musical stature.

The first was Rameau’s Pastorale héroïque, Zais and the second was a musical biography of arias written for the famous castatro, Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi better known as Farinelli.

Both composer and singer are gaining in popular currency in terms of performance – for example at both ENO and Glyndebourne and recordings ranging from the exquisite recital discs of David Hansen, Philippe Jaroussky and Sabine Devieilhe.

And rightly so.

Rameau changed forever the direction of French opera and Farinelli inspired some of the most beautiful and audacious arias of his century.

Rameau’s operas are exceptional not only for the sheer delight of their musical invention and dramatic scale but also because of the intellectual dimension to his operas.

Rameau wrote his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733 and it literally shook the musical establishment. Zaïs followed fifteen years later in 1748 and between he rewrote Hippolyte as well as composing Castor et Pollux and Dardanus. For anyone interested in his works, I would heartily recommend Charles Dill’s book Monstrous Opera: Rameau and the tragic tradition – which proposed as theory as to why Rameau rewrote – in some cases – substantial parts of his operas.

It’s simply brilliant that Jonathan Williams, Edith Lalonger and other colleages are leading the charge with The Rameau Project, using research and theory and performances to attain a better understanding of the composer and his works.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the orchestra and chorus were placed at the back of the stage, with the front part left tantalizing empty for the dancers.

The depiction of Chaos at the beginning and the creation of the world by Oromazès immediately sets this opera beyond the merely pastoral and in many ways it pre-empts Die Zauberflöte with its own masonic connections so much so that it will be interesting to see if the Rameau Project reveals any connections between the composer and an organization that was very active in Eighteenth Century France.

As with much Rameau there were moments of incredible beauty and poignancy throughout. Anna Dennis as une Sylphide was one of the highlights of the evening and it was a shame that we heard so little of her. Her opening number, Chantez les oiseaux was beautifully sung, with great control and elegance. Her voice, even throughout its range, had a bright ringing top and I am looking forward to hearing her on Handel’s Siroe which is released soon.

Of the two main characters, Louise Alder’s Zelidie was similarly impressive. With her bell-like soprano she displayed an instinctive sense for Rameau’s vocal line and Coulez mes pleurs – with its haunting flute – was the highlight of the evening. I was not as convinced with Jeremy Budd’s hero. Notwithstanding his constant use of a vocal score, I didn’t think that his voice was well-suited to Rameau’s music. Granted the notes were all there and sung, but I didn’t feel that there was enough nuance or colour in his singing. Both Katherines – Watson and Manley – however were also magnificent. Katherine Watson delivered just the right sense of arrogant bearing in her performance and together with Ms Alder, Katherine Manley added to the dramatic scale of the trio and chorus calling on Amour to descend from Heaven in the First Act.

Of the remaining men, Cindor, was mellifluously sung by Ashley Riches and his confidently held the stage during his temptation scene. I also think that Gwilym Bowen could be a name to watch out for in future French baroque performances.

I have some strong opinions about the use of dance in opera – especially when it serves no purpose– but here Les Plaisir des Nations delivered not only some graceful and exquisite dancing, but dancing that was central to the development of the plot. Rather than stopping the unfolding action, Edith Lalonger’s thoughtful and elegant choreography added extra depth to the emotions being portrayed by the singers.

There were moments of uncertainty and rhythmic untidiness in the orchestra – perhaps but the Enlightenment chorus was impressive performing with both clear diction and rhythmic finesse.

If there was one small distraction, it was the fact that the singers did resort to using scores when in the ‘performance’ area of the stage. While some of the singers actively engaged with the dancers, carrying around the music meant the others – in particular Budden’s Zaïs – was further dramatically hampered.

As a great innovator and experimenter, I think that Rameau would have approved of the ambitions of this performance and I look forward to seeing Pigmalion and Anacréon this October.

If France was hermetically sealed in its highly-mannered Baroque summer in 1748 the rest of Europe was galloping towards the Classical era. And this was demonstrated by an excellent evening at Wigmore Hall with Ann Hallenberg and Les Talents Lyriques under Christophe Rousset.

If Ms Hallenberg was indeed suffering from a cold – as Twitter claimed – then it was hardly noticeable except in the occasional shying away from greater ornamentation in the returning da capos. But from the start she established her vocal credentials and musical intelligence.

Not surprisingly, the recital started with two arias by his own brother, Riccardo. Son qual nave ch’agitata was written for Hasse’s Artaserse in London. Full of coloratura passages as well as vocal leaps and bounds it is impressive but rather outstays its welcome. Ombra fedele anch’io – made famous in the film – is once again well written without being exceptional. You do have to wonder if Riccardo didn’t somewhat hang off the coat tails of his brother.

Yet Ms Hallenberg performed these arias with incredible aplomb and bestowed on them performances that lifted their own lacklustre creativity.

Geminiano Giacomelli – who features on Joyce DiDonato’s Drama Queens recital disc – was one of the most famous composers of his generation. From Adriano in Siria, both arias demonstrated that the composer was at least fluent in the art vocal writing. In Già presso al termine the mezzo again skillfully negotiated the coloratura, while Passagier che incento was also scored with a concertante part for the principle violinist and was delightfully performed here.

Farinelli’s teacher Porpora was represented by Se pietoso il tuo labbro (Semiramide riconosciuto) and Alto Giove from Polifemo. Whlie there is no disputing the elegance of the former aria, surely Alto Giove must rank as one of the most beautiful arias of this age. If in the first aria Ms Hallenberg spun out the vocal line and the delicate embellishments with an incredibly light touch, her performance of the latter was simply ravishing. All too often this aria can been taken a tad too quickly but on this evening Rousset gave the music time to breathe and pulse, filling the entire hall.

And Ms Hallenberg was simply radiant. Her voice caressed the music, seamlessly from phrase to phrase with just the right balance of embellishment. Rightly recognized by the audience, it was the highlight of the evening.

The final two arias in the recital were from Catone in Utica by Leonardo Leo. With a slightly more baroque bent, Che legge spietata was smartly constructed with a single-minded opening that was contrasted with more legato sections. On the other hand, Cervo in bosco was an impressive simile aria – with gentler middle section – with rowdy horns and weighty coloratura, magnificently thrown off by Ms Hallenberg.

During the recital itself, Les Talent Lyriques also performed JC Bach’s Symphony in g minor from his Opus 6 and the overture to Cleofide. I must be honest that live I wasn’t too impressed with the Bach. Having listened to it again on iPlayer I have to admit it wasn’t as disappointing as I first thought. However compared to the Hasse it didn’t have any sense of the weight or grandeur that is much needed in JC’s symphonies and overtures. The overture to Cleofide was another matter altogether – confident, bright and simply more alive.

Her encore was Handel’s Sta’ nell’ircana from Alcina. Technically I don’t think that Farinelli ever sang for Handel in London but rather for Popora’s rival company but it was a performance of such vocal bravura and bravado that it made a fitting end to an incredible evening.

I hope that Ms Hallenberg return to London more often in future. She has a rare and exceptional talent and the audience loved her.

Subitolove

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

OBERTO

Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera