Daily Classical Music News
Opera Holland Park, London
Period instrument ensemble Figure’s semi-staging of an abridged version of Serse was full of good ideas and strong singing
This was the first opera from the new period-instrument ensemble Figure, and it was billed as a semi-staging, a description that did no justice to Sam Rayner’s production. Who needed sets, when Rayner effectively had six pieces of human scenery to play with? And play is the word: these six actors and acrobats moved in often mischievous ways, constantly changing the space and the energy around the singers. One moment they were obsequious courtiers, then they were forming themselves into a horse on which King Xerxes went riding, then they climbed on each other’s shoulders to become the plane tree, the unlikely subject of the king’s glorious first aria. Later, out came a unicycle and a tightrope, and they were a private circus representing the desperation with which he was trying to impress poor Romilda. It was fantastically detailed stuff, intrinsic to the storytelling.
This wasn’t a full performance of Serse: a lot had been cut, including the subplot involving the jilted Amastre, and while most Handel operas thrive on a degree of red pencil this felt a little drastic, adding glitches into the musical flow and presenting an even slighter story than the one Handel set, and one that needed its ending tweaked to couple Xerxes up with a different woman. And so the Xerxes of the impressively secure-sounding, mellow-toned US mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall ended up not with the absent Amastre but with Anna Cavaliero’s sweet-voiced but scheming Atalanta. Meanwhile, Sarah Tynan and James Laing made stirring and at times touching work of the music for the “genuine” couple, Romilda and Arsamene.Continue reading...
Ries has been overshadowed by his master, but the pianist/composer had plenty of talent – and ego – of his own, as these chamber works show
Ferdinand Ries was not only Beethoven’s pupil and amanuensis but one of his first biographers – so to some extent he has himself to blame if our view of Beethoven as one of history’s “great men” has eclipsed any memory of musicians such as himself. In Beethoven’s Vienna and later in Regency London – his home for a decade or so – Ries was celebrated both as a pianist and a prolific composer, and there are dozens of chamber works the Nash Ensemble could have chosen for this recording.
Ries often played his own music in ensembles, and when he did he made sure he was the star. In the Grand Sextet in C – the first of the four works here – the piece has barely begun before the piano scurries off into its own solo. From then on the piano is always in charge, not least in the slow movement, where it spins a wistful, song-like melody out of the sombre opening. There’s an expansive, almost orchestral breadth of sonority to the music, thanks in part to having a double bass in the lineup alongside the standard string quartet plus piano. The Nash Ensemble’s performance comes alive because the other musicians never quite seem to accept their secondary status, challenging the pianist Benjamin Frith with playing that bristles with pent-up energy.Continue reading...
Dominic Raab’s attack on the Labour frontbencher’s attendance at Glyndebourne says more about our class-ridden approach to culture than it does about her
It wouldn’t happen in Germany, and certainly not in Italy. It wouldn’t cause as much as a raised eyebrow in the US or even in Russia. Only in Britain would a political leader going to the opera stir a controversy.
The fact that the opera was at a country house in the Sussex countryside, with a black-tie dress code is part of the story, of course. That the politician in question is a Labour figure, a woman and working class probably even more so.Continue reading...
Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Welsh National Opera’s staging of six stories of migration is a brave and far-reaching exercise in collaboration and diversity, with a heroic effort from composer Will Todd
In a week when dozens of migrants perished in a truck in Texas, as Rwanda continues to be the UK government’s preferred destination for asylum seekers and the country’s new protest laws came into effect, the premiere of Welsh National Opera’s Migrations was timely. As a massive exercise in collaboration and inclusivity, and for its engagement with the fundamental concept of freedom, Migrations was a significant and brave venture, even if, in the end, it was compromised by its overarching ambition.
Director David Pountney’s epic began as a project for 2020 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers’ flight from persecution, but was expanded to become an examination of the age-old necessity of seeking change. With six different narrative threads, five authors from differing backgrounds and the heroic effort of a single composer, Will Todd, the crisscrossing of stories across time avoided becoming confusing thanks to section titles and surtitles. It did, however, become unwieldy.Continue reading...
A terrific cast and the fiery precision of conductor Carlo Rizzi brought this rarity to the concert stage 180 years after its premiere
Saverio Mercadante’s Il Proscritto (The Outlaw) was first performed in Naples in 1842. Drawing a blank in its day, it was never revived, and has had to wait 180 years for its rediscovery by Opera Rara and this concert performance conducted by Carlo Rizzi.
A cosmopolitan in an era of growing nationalism, Mercadante (1795-1870) radically pushed against the formal boundaries of Italian opera by introducing harmonic, orchestral and dramatic innovations largely derived from French models, Meyerbeer in particular. In Il Proscritto, however, the amalgam doesn’t always work, and it’s an uneven piece.Continue reading...
Pier Pavilion and All Saints Church, Penarth, Glamorgan
The calibre and mutual understanding of musicians from far and wide produces intimate and welcoming music for friends
Bold programming by co-directors cellist Alice Neary and violinist David Adams makes their four-day summer festival a most attractive event and it’s clearly also a factor in their attracting fellow musicians from far and wide to join them. Chamber music is always considered to be the music of friends, and the Penarth audience is made to feel included.
Winning new friends for less familiar works is also part of the strategy and, in this context, there was persuasive advocacy of Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1 Op 9. A landmark piece in 1906, originally scored for 15 instruments, Schönberg’s concern that its particular character should be better understood prompted various arrangements. He encouraged his pupil Anton Webern to adopt the same line-up as his Pierrot Lunaire so that the two could be played in Barcelona in 1925. Schönberg conducted it then, a precedent often followed, but it was testimony to the calibre and mutual understanding of these players – Adams and Neary with pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips, flautist Matthew Featherstone and clarinettist Robert Plane – that they needed none. In a thrusting performance of great clarity, only the central adagio section offered moments of expressive languor before the fierce overall momentum was reinforced. In the relative intimacy of Penarth Pier Pavilion, it was a bracing experience.Continue reading...
Classical home listening: Roderick Williams; Mother, Sister, Daughter; and BBC concerts from Wigmore Hall
A rich democracy of talent soars on a voice and string quartet album; Mother, Sister, Daughter’s vespers from Italian convents; plus lunchtime piano recitals
• On This Shining Night (Somm), songs for voice and string quartet, explores music for this (mainly) mid-20th-century medium by Frederick Delius, Peter Warlock, Samuel Barber and Sally Beamish, played by the Coull Quartet with top-quality singers: soprano Sophie Bevan, tenor James Gilchrist and, predominantly, baritone-composer Roderick Williams. The mood ranges from wistfulness to folk, from the potent beauty of Warlock’s Corpus Christi (“Lully, Lullay”) and Sorrow’s Lullaby to the conviction and sophistication of Barber’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. The album’s title comes from another Barber setting, Sure on This Shining Night (to a poem by James Agee), one of four new arrangements by Williams. The expressive five-part Tree Carols by Sally Beamish (b1956), to poems by Fiona Sampson, was written for Williams and suits his ever-lyrical range. Bevan and Gilchrist may have less to do, but their contributions are distinctive and characterful. This is a rich and enchanting democracy of talent.
• As a pioneering collective, the ensemble Musica Secreta, founded 31 years ago, has brought to light music written by women in the 16th and 17th centuries, much of it anonymous. These forgotten composers range from nuns to courtiers, courtesans and actresses, often writing in secret. The ensemble’s guiding light, as scholar and director, is Laurie Stras, who has incomparable knowledge of this music and how to reconstruct it for performance. Mother, Sister, Daughter (Lucky Music Limited) brings together vespers of St Clare and St Lucy from convents, in Verona and Florence (well explained by Stras in her CD booklet note). The six female singers have a lightness and flexibility of tone; three instrumentalists (playing organ, harps and viol) add supportive variety. The disc also includes the group’s first commission: The Veiled Sisters by Joanna Marsh, an empathetic, soaring setting of two contrasting texts exploring the enclosed life.Continue reading...
(Warner Classics, two CDs)
Olivier Messiaen’s ‘colossal saga’ enjoys a personal but unsentimental performance that ranges from ferocity to exquisite colour
For what is unquestionably one of the great landmarks in 20th-century piano music, Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jésus) has received relatively few outstanding recordings in the three-quarters of a century since its first performance, given by Yvonne Loriod, who would later become the composer’s second wife. Loriod’s own recording, made in 1956 under Messiaen’s supervision, has a unique authenticity, but of more recent versions the two that standout, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (a former pupil of Loriod) and Steven Osborne, are both now more than 20 years old.
Perhaps the sheer scale and difficulty of the two-hour cycle has deterred some pianists from tackling Messiaen’s biggest single keyboard work (the Catalogue d’Oiseaux is longer, but was assembled piecemeal over a number of years), but for Bertrand Chamayou the Vingt Regards has been part of his musical life since he was nine. He calls it “a colossal saga, an odyssey”. “What really shines through”, he says, “Is the triumph of evidence, a sense of beholding a certain truth.” That may be a valid way to approach Messiaen’s only explicitly religious piano work (though in a profound sense everything he composed was informed by his faith), but it is obviously not the only one; Aimard’s performance, for instance, relates the piano writing to the music of the post-1945 generation of composers, many of whom studied with Messiaen, while Osborne roots the cycle in the great romantic tradition running back through Liszt.Continue reading...
Michael Chioldi/Ellie Dehn/Hilary Ginther/Odyssey Opera/Gil Rose
(Odyssey Opera, four CDs)
Seekers of operatic rarities take note, this three-hour-plus recording is capably sung with grandeur
Camille Saint-Saëns composed 13 operas, but only one of them, Samson et Dalila, is now part of the regular repertory. However, during the composer’s lifetime at least, Henry VIII, first seen in Paris in 1883, rivalled Samson’s popularity; there were performances across Europe, and even though it has only been staged a handful of times since Saint-Saëns’s death in 1921, it remains the most often performed of his other operas.
The libretto is based on Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play La Cisma de Inglaterra (The Schism in England), though Saint-Saëns and his librettists also incorporated incidents and characters from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The action focuses on the English king’s determination to divorce Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, and the split with the Roman church that provoked, though Calderón introduced another dramatic element with the Spanish ambassador Don Gómez de Feria’s love for Anne, and Catherine’s efforts to protect her rival from Henry’s jealousy. In many ways Catherine, who dies at the end of the opera, is more obviously the central character than the king, and she is certainly its most sympathetic figure.Continue reading...
A BLM placard in New York encouraged a conductor in London to discover more about this 16th-century pioneer of European classical music
I didn’t learn about Vicente Lusitano at school. On Saturdays, hanging out with my pals in HMV, I didn’t find his music when I slipped quietly into the classical section. Nor did I encounter him when I studied for a music degree, or during a career dedicated to early music.
And yet Lusitano was the first Black composer to have his music published. I first saw his name during the summer of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, when flautist and composer Alice H Jones tweeted a picture of the placard she had carried with her to a protest in New York City: a list of Black classical composers and their dates, starting with Lusitano, who, in the middle of the 16th century, predated the “first” acknowledged Black composer – Ignatius Sancho – in any music history I knew by more than 200 years: “I brought my music classroom to a protest today,” tweeted Jones. Three thousand miles away, I sat down and learned.Continue reading...
The bass is singing Gurnemanz in Wagner’s epic final opera. How do you get to grips with the challenges of such a demanding role – and still not get the best dressing room?
I’m singing in a Wagner opera and I’m having a ball. Once I never thought I’d say that – I was always a little intimidated by his operas and also by those who sing them. Even though I’ve now sung in quite a few of these epics, I still feel I’m walking on hallowed ground. Much of this is, of course, nonsense. Wagner’s operas may require something different to Mozart’s operas from both the singer and the listener but it doesn’t mean that they are “better” or indeed more “special” than the rest – in fact I’m far from alone in thinking that Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is perhaps the most perfect opera ever written.
But for many others, Parsifal would give it a run for its money, and it is this, Wagner’s last great work, that I am part of now.Continue reading...
It scooped the Golden Lion at Venice and now the beach-set spectacular is bringing its burned-out workers and decadent globetrotters to the UK. But why does no one clap?
Drizzle falls from porridge-coloured skies as I hurry from the station to an abandoned gasometer on an industrial estate on the wrong side of Rotterdam. Inside, though, the sun never stops shining. I climb steps to a circular promenade and look down. Below, more than 20 holidaymakers are sunning themselves under cloudless skies. The beach may be fake, the sunlight artificial and the sartorial colour-coding unremittingly pastel, but at least seagulls won’t be dive-bombing to nick anyone’s picnic.
Welcome to Sun & Sea, the opera-performance devised by three women that, ever since it earned Lithuania the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, has toured Europe and America. It comes to London later this month, trailing rave reviews. The New York Times wrote: “Within a single hour of dangerously gentle melodies, [the work] manages to animate a panoramic cast of characters whose stories coalesce into a portrait of an apocalyptic climate crisis.”Continue reading...
Madama Butterfly is one of many landmark works to embody offensive beliefs – but there are sensitive ways new productions can tackle these without cancelling them
Madama Butterfly, a nasty story about an American naval officer’s seduction and subsequent abandonment of a 15-year-old Japanese geisha, is a problem for opera houses today, despite its immense and enduring popularity. Puccini, in his work that was premiered in 1904, did what the best opera composers do: craft the most potent of dramatic situations and collisions to wring the maximum emotion from an audience, while writing music of unbearable emotion and dramatic effect.
But in 2022, opera houses are nervous about programming the work and some are even cancelling productions. There seems to be concern that representing bad behaviour could be seen as endorsing it (a fallacy that especially affects opera today). More importantly Butterfly’s racial dimension feels just too hot to handle. Yet plenty of other operas contain content that is troubling for modern sensibilities, for example Così Fan Tutte and its overt misogyny, the Ring Cycle’s incest, and Tosca’s troubling depiction of sexual assault. Notwithstanding their subject matter, these operas are masterpieces. Instead of cancelling them we should find creative ways to live with them – their indestructible openness to interpretation being the key to their future.Continue reading...
Grange festival, Hampshire
Two superb countertenors enact the love-hate relationship between the emperor and his rival in Daniel Slater’s superbly acted and sung production
An examination of the psychology of power, Tamerlano, first performed in 1724, is one of Handel’s greatest operas, and arguably his darkest. We know its title character better in English as Tamburlaine the Great, the central Asian warlord and emperor, whose life and career were famously dramatised by Christopher Marlowe. Here, as in the play, Tamerlano has overcome the Ottoman empire, but in place of Marlowe’s violent militarist, Handel gives us an unnerving portrait of a sadistic psychopath, playing lethal mind games with his unwanted fiancee, Irene, and also with the deposed Ottoman emperor, Bajazet; the latter’s daughter, Asteria; and Andronico, Asteria’s lover and one of Tamerlano’s unwilling political allies.
Slowly and insidiously accumulating tension, it is a difficult work to get right in the theatre, though Daniel Slater’s new Grange festival staging admirably captures its intensity and sombre ambiguities. Slater hauls the work forward to the present, setting it in a labyrinthine bunker-cum-palace, strikingly designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, where Raffaele Pe’s Tamerlano – charismatic, if deadly, in leather, brocade and bling – toys with the lives and liberties of his prisoners and victims, his manipulations breeding deceit and equivocation in a world in which only Paul Nilon’s morally principled Bajazet values his integrity over his life. Feigning compliance, Sophie Bevan’s Asteria secretly plots murder, while Andronico (Patrick Terry) alternately fawns sycophantically and bribes Tamerlano’s henchmen for the sake of his own and others’ survival. By the end, though, it is apparent that Angharad Lyddon’s proud, calculating Irene will prove more than a match for the man she is determined to control in her turn.
In rep at the Grange festival, Hampshire, until 3 July.Continue reading...
Premiere recordings abound on livewire soprano-composer Héloïse Werner’s new album of solos and duos; and the Danish String Quartet reach Prism IV
• The point where language and music collide is an abiding preoccupation for the French-born, London-based Héloïse Werner, whose new solo album, Phrases (Delphian), displays her versatility as a singer and composer, but as musical catalyst too. The 12 tracks, mostly premiere recordings, include works by Elaine Mitchener (the sensuously surreal Whetdreem); Nico Muhly’s prayer-like Benedicite Recitation, with beautiful solo flute; Oliver Leith’s Yhyhyhyhyh, an exploration between voice and detuned cello; Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s tiny scena Something More Than mortal; and Josephine Stephenson’s hypnotic Comme l’espoir/you might all disappear, with guitar.
Werner’s four songs (including Syncopate, with Zoë Martlew), from vocal acrobatics to verbal confession, and Récitations by the Greek experimental composer Georges Aperghis complete this distinctive album. Werner is joined by her first-rate regular collaborators: Colin Alexander (cello), Amy Harman (bassoon), Calum Huggan (percussion), Lawrence Power (viola), Daniel Shao (flute) and Laura Snowden (guitar).Continue reading...
The celebrated Romanian pianist has died aged 76. We pick five of his greatest recordings; tell us in the comments what would be your own choices
We have the Leeds Piano Competition to thank for first showcasing the unique poetry of Radu Lupu’s playing: the young Romanian pianist won first prize there in 1969. That success launched his international career, but as the years went by he became a more and more reticent performer, both in the concert hall and on disc. Yet every rare opportunity to hear him was a reminder of just how special a pianist he was, in a repertory that extended from Mozart and Beethoven to Bartók and Janáček, and who was quite peerless in Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Here are just a few examples of his art.Continue reading...
Andrew Clements on Harrison Birtwistle: An utterly distinctive composer who wrote music of delicate beauty | Andrew Clements
Our chief classical critic knew Birtwistle, who died this morning, for more than 40 years. He pays tribute to a musician whose creativity and imagination knew no bounds
‘When you or I look out a window we’ll see more or less the same things”, a leading British composer once said to me, “But if Harry looked out of it, he would see something entirely different.” The utter distinctiveness of Harrison Birtwistle’s music came from his utterly distinctive view of the world. He was a very singular creative figure, one of the greatest in the history of British music, I would maintain, but he and his music were never predictable or easy to pin down. I knew him for more than 40 years and never ceased to be surprised by what captured his imagination, whether it was the intricate 18th century Dutch still life in a US gallery that interested him more than any of the great 20th century paintings on show, or discussing the French fondness for eating ortolans, and the now illegal techniques employed for trapping these tiny songbirds.
For a composer whose music was rooted firmly in early 20th century modernism, in Stravinsky, Webern and Varèse, and whose work was often held up by reactionaries as an example of all that was unapproachable and difficult about contemporary music, Birtwistle’s personal tastes could be surprisingly Catholic. When he was a guest on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions his choices included a song by Roy Orbison, and he once confessed to me his love of the music of George Butterworth, especially the Shropshire Lad Rhapsody, and how much he admired Gustav Holst’s Egdon Heath.Continue reading...
He has created some of the most memorable film scores of all time, including Jaws, Star Wars and ET. Is it time he was regarded as a great composer?
There is a story that John Williams was working on Schindler’s List when he suggested to Steven Spielberg that he needed a better composer for his overwhelming Holocaust drama. “I know, but they’re all dead,” replied the director.
The anecdote is redolent not only of Williams’s humble view of his handiwork but also speaks to the traditional gulf in perception between the populist Williams – he has the most entries of any living composer in Classic FM’s hall of fame – and the vaunted masters of classical music. Celebrating his 90th birthday on 8 February, Williams has a body of film work that encompasses blockbusters (nine Star Wars movies, four Indiana Joneses, three Harry Potters, two Jurassic Parks and the first Superman film) and serious historical fare (JFK, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln).Continue reading...
Born in Lagos and raised in the US, she swapped medical training for arias – and has learned to embrace the pressure of being a leading voice
Francesca Chiejina began her year as a ghost, ended it as an enchantress, and took in a goddess, a princess, a pauper and an acclaimed Proms appearance along the way. Covid might have meant an enforced pause for many musicians, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have derailed this radiant and versatile soprano. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I’ve had a crazy year.”
The Nigerian/American singer, 30, has been based in London since 2014, studying at Guildhall and then winning a place on the Royal Opera House’s prestigious Jette Parker Young Artists programme. We talk over Zoom as she’s in Nigeria for her first visit in more than three years. “It’s lovely to be here,” she says. “Being on the same soil where I was born. I’ve been reflecting a lot, re-remembering and rediscovering who I was, who I am and who I want to be.”Continue reading...
Expanding the classical canon brings us incredible music and extraordinary stories, not least that of Ethel Smyth, whose compositions and pioneering energy filled England in the interwar years
In 1934, all of musical England gathered to celebrate the 75th birthday of one the country’s most famous composers – Dame Ethel Smyth. During a festival spanning several months, audiences crowded into the Queen’s Hall, London, to hear her symphonic cantata The Prison, or settled in at home to listen to the BBC broadcasts of her work. At the festival’s final concert in the Royal Albert Hall, the composer sat beside Queen Mary to watch Sir Thomas Beecham conduct her Mass. By this point, Smyth was nearly completely deaf, and could barely hear a note of her own music. But she could understand the uproarious applause that surrounded her when the concert ended, acknowledging the lifetime she had given to music.
After her death in 1944, Smyth spent several decades out of the limelight, but she is now coming back on to concert programmes and recording schedules. The CD release that blew me away this year was Chandos’s world premiere recording of The Prison, delivering stellar performances from Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, James Blachly and the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus. And Smyth is not alone in enjoying a resurgence of interest. Thanks to decades of work by campaigners, performers, and musicologists, diversity is now firmly on musicians’ agendas. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it feels as if we might be reaching a turning point. The BBC and Classic FM have been running programmes about composers of colour, publishers are turning their attention to figures currently absent from their catalogues, and both #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have led to institutions being held to account on their commitments to gender and racial equality.Continue reading...
Our series ends in the German capital with Berg, Busoni, Bowie and Bernstein.
In putting Berlin under the microscope in the last of our post-Brexit tours of the great cities of Europe, it seems that all roads lead to Kurt Weill. “Berlin will forever be associated with the turbulent times of the 20th century,” says @abkquan, whose suggestions have been a mainstay of these surveys. “The Weimar period produced the definitive Berlin work – Weill’s Threepenny Opera with its many familiar tunes, especially with Lotte Lenya singing Jenny.”
The Threepenny Opera, a collaboration between Weill and Bertolt Brecht based on 18th-century dramatist John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, was premiered at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928, and after some initial resistance was a great success, vindicating Weill’s ambition to reclaim opera as an art form for the people (though Berlin’s elite of course delighted in its scabrous tale of cutthroats and prostitutes).Continue reading...