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Archive for December, 2014|Monthly archive page

A-Mused – Part Two

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Review – A French Baroque Diva

Carolyn Sampson (Soprano)
Ex Cathedra
Jeffrey Skidmore (Conductor)

As with my previous blog, this recital dispels an often commonly-held belief. In this case, that French baroque and early Classical music is simply a catalogue of stifling, formulaic compositions that never escaped the shadow of Lully.

And furthermore, if you are searching for that gift for the classical enthusiast that ‘has everything’, then look no further.

Carolyn Sampson and Ex Cathedra under the skillful baton of Jeffrey Skidmore have created a beautifully crafted recital disc that shows that musical life in France from the 1730s until the eve of the Revolution was incredibly rich and varied.

They take as their starting point soprano Marie Fel. She was at the very epicentre of musical life in the capital, performing in all of Rameau’s operas as well as at the Concert Spirituel and the court at Versailles and Fontainebleau. And she clearly inspired some of the most beautiful music. From the exquisitely affected style of the period to music of impressive virtuosity, Madame Fel was in demand not only on stage, but also before throne and pulpit.

This generous recital features music from six composers – Rameau, Mondonville and Lalande as well as the lesser known, for his music at least, Rousseau, Lacoste and Fiocco and also dismisses the belief that “le gout francais” was the only style in permitted in France. It might have dominated but by the 1730s Italian music was clearly jostling for a place and le Querelle des Bouffons – in which Rousseau himself took part – was not far off the horizon.

Rameau has the lion’s share of the operatic selections and it is hard not to select Un tendre intérêt vous appelle … Tristes apprêts from Castor et Pollux as a personal highlight. Ms Sampson captures perfectly the aching grief of what is in effect incredibly simple music with no effects, and Skidmore coaxes wonderfully delicate playing from Ex Cathedra, highlighting the exquisite instrumental colours of the score. At the opposite end of the Rameau spectrum comes Amour, lance tes traits from Platée with its more angular writing and runs and trills effortlessly delivered by the soprano.

Equally charming are the selections from La lyre enchantée from Les surprises de l’Amour which also included Anacréon. Juxtaposing vocal and choral movements with dances, Écoutons un doux frémissement with its doleful recorders underlines Rameau’s unique ability in creating contrasting sound worlds within very short spaces.

Lacoste’s Ah! quand reviendront nos beaux jours? from Philomèle, which opens the entire recital might fit the mold of French opera of this period, but it’s a beautifully emotive and sustained scene for soprano and chorus.

I’ve always associated Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville with religious music – especially his delightful motets. From his wonderful cantata Venite, exsultemus we have ravishing performances of Venite adoremus and Hodie si vocem – with its sustained choral writing. But we also have Gasouillats auzeléts from Daphnis et Alcimadure. Again there is an elegance to the orchestral writing and a natural fluidity to the vocal line – so very Galant – that belies Mondonville’s relative obscurity.

Michel-Richard de Lalande music written with court pomp and splendor in mind is infused with eloquence as Ms Sampson alternates with full-voiced choral writing in Regna terre. The Te Deum laudamus, opening with a Sinfonie reminiscent of Charpentier – is refreshing as is the contrast between the salon- like Tu rex gloriae and the rapture of Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem. Most commonly sung at Christmas, Viderunt omnes termini terrae has an almost rustic charm with its oboe writing and folk-like vocal line which then morphs into some truly virtuosic writing for singer and instrumentalist.

Joseph Hector Fiocco – hailing from Brussels – is the most forward-looking of the composers on this disc. Stylistically his Laudate pueri is written in an very confident early Classical style – the jaunty opening movement is followed by a heartfelt middle movement with obbligato flute and joyous Alleluia that could easily have been written by a Hasse or Bach sibling.

Remembered for his theoretical writings as well as Le devin du village, it’s surprising that philosopher Rousseau also wrote this rather charming, expertly constructed Galant-style Salve regina. The orchestration includes horns which give it an incredibly warm glow. The simplicity of the vocal line – much as with Devin – with the finely wrought motivic interplay with the violins illustrates that he was a rather accomplished composer as well as writer. The more dramatic Ad te clamamus with its declamatory opening, sighing and chromatic phrases at suspiramus and flentes demonstrate that the composer was well acquainted with all the technique for reflecting the words through the music. The closing O Clemens, o pia which would not be out of place on a stage for some lovelorn heroine, reminds me that in the Eighteenth Century the line between stage and sacristy became increasingly blurred.

Carolyn Sampson was born to sing this music. Coupled with incredible technique and a bright, gleaming soprano, she has an innate ability to light the vocal line from within. Her interpretation is second to none – finding the right tone and balance to suit both music and mood. From the beguiling simplicity with which she sings Tristes apprêts she effortlessly moves to the thrills and trills of Mondonville and every composer in between.

And Ex Cathedra – orchestra and chorus – similarly revel in this amazing music, directed with both grace and a complete understanding of the period’s style by Jeffrey Skidmore.

This isn’t just a recital of French music inspired by the clearly talented and love soprano Marie Fel, it is a disc to cherish and return to, constantly.

Mass Transfiguration

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on December 10, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera House, Friday 5 December 2014)

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
King Marke – John Tomlinson
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Melot – Neal Cooper
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk

Director – Christof Loy
Associate Director – Julia Burbach
Designs – JohannesLeiacker
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

Transfiguration (Def)
Pronunciation: /ˌtransfɪɡəˈreɪʃ(ə)n, ˌtrɑːns-, -ɡjʊr-, -nz-/

Meaning: “A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.”

The current revival of Tristan und Isolde is missing one thing. The programme should carry a health warning.

It’s been a while since I have left a production of such searing intensity that my senses were overloaded. And despite having seen the original production in 2009 – and loved it back then – nothing prepared me for the emotional and musical impact created that evening.

And I don’t believe I was the only one. While I seriously did think that Nina Stemme as Isolde was singing just for me – something I experienced when I saw her sing Brunnhilde at the Proms – I am sure that her performance of the Irish Princess was as overwhelming for the majority of the people sitting in Covent Garden that night.

It’s hard not to speak just of Nina Stemme’s performance but – as with the Berlin Ring cycle in 2012 – she was part of a cast that was from top to bottom, superlative.

Tristan is a challenging role but Stephen Gould’s performance was one of the most impressive I have heard in a long time. Vocally robust, as well as having the necessary heft and stamina, he also infused his singing with a musically intelligent use of colour and dynamic range. His Third Act monologue was beautifully paced and full of the dramatic impetus that is sometimes lacking in singers and in the Second Act he was wonderfully in sync with Stemme throughout.

As his companion Iain Paterson was equally impressive. His ‘brag’ in the opening act had the necessary balance of swagger and charm and his investment in making Kurwenal a believable character rather than a simple cypher was compelling at the opening of the Third Act as he moved from resignation and remorse to ultimately love and fealty even in death.

While some did not admire John Tomlinson’s King Marke, I was completely mesmerized. I have to admit if there’s a moment when my mind is apt to wander it is usually at the end of the Second Act when the King discovers the betrayal.

Not on this occasion. While his voice doesn’t necessarily have the range or lustre that it once had, there was an innate musicianship to Tomlinson’s performance and portrayal that made the King – for me – a human being.

And before we get to Isolde and her maid, a special mention of Ed Lyon. Why isn’t he seen on Covent Garden’s main stage more often. His lustrous tenor sailed out across the auditorium, beautifully clear and shaped. And in the smaller support roles, Neal Cooper as Melot as well as Graham Clark and Yuriy Yurchuk made very strong impressions.

Sarah Connolly is one of those singers who – no matter the role – pours her heart, soul and incredible talent into it. Alongside her Medea and her Octavian, her Brangane was no exception. I am currently listening to her new recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures (high recommended) and her voice has developed a noticeably richer, deeper hue that was very much in evidence on stage as well. She matched her Isolde note for note, mood for mood in the First Act, and her warnings during the lovers’ tryst soared over the orchestra from the back of the stage.

But of course it was Nina Stemme’s Isolde that dominated. She has grown in the role since 2009, there is a new depth to her hatred as well as her passion around which is wrapped the most mesmerizing – almost hypnotic – singing, not only in terms of quality and richness but also in terms of characterization. Her curse reminded me of the white heat she generated in the trio of Gotterdammerung, but it was her Liebestod – a culmination of the emotional intensity of the entire evening – that left everything in its wake. And how wonderfully she floated the closing phrase.

Magical.

I read recently that Loy didn’t have Isolde die at the end, but rather she returns to her ordinary life with King Marke. And as Isolde slowly slid into that chair, I definitely felt that sense of resignation and nostalgia for a love lost and irreplaceable.

And I admit I love Loy’s production – the way he creates two very different worlds, bound together by an incredible sense of tension. He captures perfectly the simple fact that when you are in love, nothing else – not the world around you – matters. The life that surrounds a couple in love seems slower, more muted. But at the same time he creates a real sense of emotional tension in the small gestures. The almost tangible “buttoned-up” feeling he created – so cleverly in such an open space – could do nothing but explode with the ferocity of their first embrace. The way Stemme portrayed Isolde with almost child-like naiveté filled with overwhelming excitement as she spoke to Brangane as the Second Act opened. Setting the table. The way that, as they moved into the duet proper, Tristan and Isolde moved slowly together, hands touching first before holding one another.

Loy’s production brings Tristan und Isolde into the real world, amplifying emotions and turmoil that most people would fear to feel or express. I sincerely hope that – as the BBC don’t seem to be broadcasting it on BBC Four despite an apparent new commitment to the arts – Covent Garden are taking the opportunity to film this production for posterity.

And Pappano directed the orchestra with incredible fervor. The tempo at which he too the opening Prelude set the tenor for the entire opera. There was a noticeable ferocity to the playing in the First Act that was beautifully counterbalanced by the luxuriant sound world he created for the Second. And in the final Act, he slowly built on the bleak, drained sound created in the orchestra for Tristan’s monologue to created crashing waves of glorious – almost technicolour – sound for those closing moments.

And as the music slowly faded, I have no doubt that it was a performance that quite literally transfigured many of the people who had witnessed it.

Capital(ist) Flute

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on December 2, 2014 at 8:57 am

Review – Die Zauberflöte (Royal College of Music, Britten Theatre, Saturday 29 November 2014)

Tamino – Nick Pritchard
Papageno – Timothy Connor
Pamina – Sofia Larsson
Die Konigin der Nacht – He Wu
Sarastro – Matthew Buswell
Drei Damen – Gemma Lois Summerfield, Angela Simkin & Maria Ostroukhova
Drei Knabe – Louise Fuller, Katie Coventry & Polly Leech
Papagena – Turiya Haudenhuyse
Monostratos – Peter Aisher

Director – Jean-Claude Auvray
Designer – Ruari Murchison
Lighting Designer – Michael Doubleday

Royal College of Music Orchestra

Michael Rosewell (Conductor)

The Britten Theatre was the perfect venue for a very strong production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte by the students of the Royal College of Music under the direction of Michael Rosewell.

There’s something almost ‘life affirming’ about attending a performance of such high musical, vocal and instrumental standards, performed with such passion, commitment and – in the case of Timothy Connor’s Papageno – cheeky verve.

While they have years ahead of them to forge the refine their vocal talents, the cast were uniformly strong but the stand out performers for me was Nick Pritchard’s Tamino and Timothy Connor’s Papageno. While he may have tired mid-way through the Second Act his tenor was bright and forthright but he also displayed that oft-missing subtlety of tone and dynamic control that even today’s more tenured tenors lack. He shaped his phrases beautifully and also exuded that naivety that is essential for Tamino. Timothy Connor played his unwilling side-kick very well, finding the right balance between slapstick humour and pathos. His diction – even when speaking – was very good and like Tamino, he elegantly shaped the vocal line intelligently. His duet with Pamina – Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen – similarly displayed that he has a natural ability to blend with other singers.

As Tamino’s future bride, Sofia Larsson demonstrated that she had all the notes for the role with a bright top and the ability to spin the most sensuous legato line. Over time I have no doubt that she will increase her range of colours but like Pritchard, I think they are destined for a bright future. He Wu and her three ladies were all equally impressive – with some of the best ensemble singing and acting I have seen by the Three Ladies – Mesdames Summerfield, Simkin and Ostroukhova and I particularly enjoyed the latter’s smoky, resonant singing. Ms Wu was a formidable Konigin, with pin-point accuracy in the coloratura but also investing overall in the precision of her singing and with excellent diction. Again, as her voice matures she will be able to colour what is – quite clearly – an remarkable instrument. Matthew Buswell’s Sarastro deployed a notable bass voice – both rich and resonant – but I did feel that sometimes there was both a lack of clarity in his diction and his singing.

In the pit, Michael Rosewell drew exemplary playing from the student orchestra, with especially fine and pungent playing from the brass. His ensured that the music was transparent and clear but I did feel that some of his tempi were a little fast.

And I am not quite sure that “Greed Is Good” was quite the moral that Mozart intended for Die Zauberflöte, which was the conclusion that I drew from Jean-Claude Auvray’s production. But while the idea of lauding of wealth as the answer for wisdom might seem a strange approach, I did enjoy his simple, no-nonsense approach. The idea of ‘revelation’ through the opening and closing of the central set was smartly done and surprisingly didn’t feel over-used or tired by the end. And the Drei Knaben caught the awkwardness of youth very smartly.

The entire production made for a very rewarding evening and I look forward to seeing their production of Handel’s Giove in Argo in 2015.

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