Monday, 13 November 2017

CD Reviews - November 2017

The latest release in Chandos’ ‘Music in Exile’ series features chamber works by the Polish-born composer Szymon Laks (1901-1983).  Born in Warsaw, he settled in Paris in his twenties, but was interned and later sent to Auschwitz following the Nazi occupation of France.  There he survived by auditioning as an orchestral musician and then working as a music copyist to avoid the hard labour.  He conducted the Auschwitz orchestra, but in a post-war autobiography wrote about how music was used by the Nazis as an instrument of control, and to indulge the officers’ pretensions.  He survived the war and returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life.  Yet he rarely expressed the trauma of these times in his music, which is often melodious, jazzy and highly engaging. The Canadian ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory, Toronto) perform here in works for a wide variety of musical forces.  The String Quartet No. 4 of 1962 has a jazzy, quirky feel in its opening movement, a smooth, but darkly eerie central slow movement, and a driving rhythmic finale.  Another quartet follows, but this time a Divertimento for the unusual combination of violin, clarinet, bassoon and piano (it also exists in another version for flute, violin, cello and piano).  Its opening movement is relaxed and expansive, yet still with that quirkiness.  Here the slow movement is mournful, mysterious and wandering, and it is played with beautifully understated tenderness.  The work ends with a twisting, turning dance, given great energy here. The only pre-war work here is a Sonatina for piano from 1927.  It has the same wandering, jazzy harmonies of his later works, with a clear French influence.  Pianist David Louie executes the sliding chromatic harmonies smoothly, and enlivens the skittering scherzino and the wild, swirling dance that finishes the work.  The Concertino for oboe, clarinet and bassoon is more complex and technically challenging, making great use of the three contrasting instruments.  The three players rise to its challenges here, with very precise nagging, bird-like trills in the finale giving this great character.   The Passacaille, in the version for clarinet and piano once again has that meandering, walking pace, with a mournful slow clarinet melody over and almost chorale-like piano.  It builds to a central climax with heavy piano chords and the clarinet reinforcing the melody on top, before a slow decline, finally settling on a major chord to finish.  The most substantial work, the Quintet for piano and strings on Popular Polish Themes, closes the disc.  Another rearrangement from a different work (his String Quartet No. 3), this is a lively and invigorating piece, full of swirling dances, mazurkas and rustic folk melodies, but those jazzy, bluesy harmonies are here too, particularly in the second slow movement.  The stamping dance of the third movement, with quirky pizzicato strings is great fun, surrounding a central delicate mazurka.  The beautifully simple folk melody of the finale, led by the viola, is contrasted with a second more rustic tune, with drone-like underpinning, making a lively conclusion to this enjoyable piece.  The ARC Ensemble players excel here in this fascinating and varied selection of works, well worth exploration.

Richard Tognetti directs the Australian Chamber Orchestra from the violin, and on this live concert disc, they perform selections from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, and Tognetti’s own arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130, with the famous Grosse Fuge as the final movement.  Bach’s The Art of Fugue had no indication of his intentions in terms of performing forces, and it is unclear whether it was purely an academic, educational exercise.  However, it is unlikely he would ever have envisaged a full chamber orchestra, complete with oboes and horns, and even the voices of the ACO players who discretely join in in the fourth Contrapunctus.  This effect might have worked in live performance, but on disc it is rather too gimmicky to survive repeated listening.  Nevertheless, the fugal lines are presented with great precision, and the overall sound is straightforwardly clear, if rather bass-heavy in places.  Their Beethoven had more to offer, although here there were still balance issues for me, with the bass line dominating in the first movement particularly.  They certainly produce a hefty sound, which worked for some of the time, but their Mahlerian Cavatina, whilst moving, lacked the aching fragility of Beethoven’s original.  The Grosse Fuge had brutal attack, and here the control and energy of the ACO really paid off.   All in all, this is one of those live discs that one possibly had to be there to fully make sense of, but Tognetti and the ACO are to be commended for never playing it safe. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, November 2017)

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Strong ensemble cast gives fizz to Glyndebourne's touring Barber

Laura Verrecchia (Rosina) & Tobias Greenhalgh (Figaro)
© Bill Cooper

Glyndebourne Tour 2017

Ben Gernon (Conductor)
Annabel Arden (Director)
Sinéad O'Neill (Revival Director)
Joanna Parker (Designer)

Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra
Glyndebourne Chorus

Laura Verrecchia (Rosina)
© Bill Cooper
Michael Wallace (Fiorello)
Jack Swanson (Count Almaviva)
Tobias Greenhalgh (Figaro)
Laura Verrecchia (Rosina)
Marco Filippo Romano (Dr Bartolo)
Janis Kelly (Berta)
Anatoli Sivko (Basilio)
Adam Marsden (Officer)

Joffre Caraben van der Meer (Actor)
Steve Johnstone (Actor)
Maxime Nourissat (Actor)

Sunday 8 October 2017

Glyndebourne, East Sussex

Anatoli Sivko (Basilio) &
Marco Filippo Romano (Dr Bartolo)
© Bill Cooper
Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia
(Libretto by Cesare Sterbini)
Sung in Italian with English supertitles

'Pleasing to the eye and entertaining throughout'.

'Laura Verrecchia (Rosina) has a full, rounded mezzo voice, yet is still agile enough to negotiate Rossini’s fiendish coloratura'.

'(Tobias Greenhalgh's) Figaro had swagger, but was utterly charming from the outset, proving to be the linchpin of a strong ensemble cast'.

'In an enjoyable if somewhat incoherent production, ... it is the team of lead singers that shine here, with Tobias Greenhalgh standing out as one to watch'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Brighton Early Music Festival 2017 - Preview

The theme for this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival is ‘Roots’, with the aim of discovering the tangled origins of what today we call classical music.  To that end, and building on the success a couple of years ago of their first major foray into opera, this year includes new productions of not one but two operas.  Monteverdi’s Orfeo was among the earliest of operas as we know the form today, and BREMF’s production, directed by Thomas Guthrie, with musical direction from BREMF Co-Director Deborah Roberts, will include a wonderful young cast of emerging soloists, together with the Monteverdi String Band and the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble (8, 11 & 12 November, The Old Market). 

The second opera, Rameau’s Pygmalion comes from the other end of the Baroque period, and has been brought to life by BREMF Early Music Live scheme alumni, the Ensemble Molière.  Karolina Sofulak’s staging uses animated film and simplified texts, taking the action into the streets of 21st century Paris (28, 29 October, Sallis Benney Theatre).  The Ensemble Molière also manage to squeeze in a concert of ‘Dance Sweets’, examples of French baroque dance music, between two performances of the opera (29 October, Sallis Benney Theatre).
Musica Poetica
Alongside opera, the other developing form explored this year is the oratorio, with Carissimi’s Jephte, often seen as the first great example, receiving a performance by Musica Poetica, alongside motets and cantatas by de Wert, Cozzolani, Caccini and Frescobaldi (4 November, St George’s Church).  Then concluding the festival is an early Christmas present, Bach’s wonderful Christmas Oratorio, perfo rmed by the festival’s own BREMF Singers & Players, directed by John Hancorn (12 November, St Martin’s Church, Lewes Rd).

Taking the ‘Roots’ theme further afield, the Ensemble Tempus Fugit present an intriguing evening, ‘Calcutta’, which explores the collision of English music by Purcell and Locke with Indian song and dance in late 18th century Calcutta.  With music performed by both Indian and western classical singers and instrumentalists, this promises to be a fascinating mix of musical worlds (5 November, St Bartholomew’s).

Musica Secreta & Celestial Sirens
The BREMF Consort of Voices, together with the Laycock Scholars, explore the journey from plainsong and ancient chant melodies to the masterpieces of polyphony, including a performance of Tallis’ wonderful 40-part motet, Spem in alium (28 October, St Bartholomew’s).  And following on from their groundbreaking recording earlier this year (check out my review in March’s GScene), Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens bring us music from the great convent choirs of Ferrara, with music by Josquin, Gombert and works probably composed by Lucretia Borgia’s daughter, Leonora d’Este (3 November, St Paul’s Church).

L'Avventura London & Old Blind Dogs
The Consone Quartet explore the roots of the classical string quartet (28 October, St Paul’s), whilst the acclaimed English folk duo, The Askew Sisters investigate the links between expressions of nature in folk and early music (2 November, Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham-by-Sea).  Two ensembles, L’Avventura London & Old Blind Dogs bring Orpheus Caledonius, the first publication of traditional Scottish songs and their melodies, to life, joined by the BREMF Community Choir (27 October, St George’s).  And it’s back to Scotland, as Ensemble Hesperi delve into the world of Scottish baroque music and the connections with folk music (4 November, Friends' Meeting House).  Then the Chelys Viol Consort unravel the origins of renaissance melodies, re-used and borrowed by composers through history (10 November, St George’s). 

The Telling
So where to next?  Well, retiring BREMF Co-Director, Clare Norburn’s ensemble The Telling are in Spain, looking at the collaboration of Christian, Muslim and Jewish musicians at the 13th century court of Alfonso el Sabio, followed by the later exiling of Jews (9 November, St Paul’s).  Back to Italy, there’s more Monteverdi, and music from contemporaries, exploring the vocal and instrumental sonata, with Gawain Glenton (cornetto), Oliver Webber (violin) and Claire Williams (harpsichord) (11 November, The Old Market).  And for younger audiences (and others) the Little Baroque Company tell the tale of The Pigeon and the Albatross, with music by Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi and Biber (11 November, Komedia and South Portslade Community Centre). 

The Gesualdo Six
BREMF Live! showcases this year’s crop of Early Music Live scheme ensembles.  The Gesualdo Six male vocal ensemble has already begun to attract widespread attention, and are not to be missed.  They are joined by recorder duo Flauti d’echo, chamber ensembles Istante and Improviso, and Rumorum, who perform songs from medieval Germany.  These showcases offer a great opportunity to these young ensembles, and give audiences the chance to catch them at the start of their careers (4 November, St Paul’s).  And at the BREMF Clubnight, you can hear highlights from the showcase in a more informal setting (4 November, The RoseHill Arts Hub).

OAE Tots
And if you’re quick of the mark, there are a few pre-festival events worth checking out.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment bring one of their innovate interactive ‘ OAE Tots’ concerts, ‘The Apple Tree’ to Brighton – ideal for 2-5 year olds but younger children also welcome (7 October, Friends’ Meeting House).  With choral workshops on Monteverdi (14 October, St Martin’s Church) and the Chorales from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (15 October, St Paul’s), and a Lute workshop led by Toby Carr (22 October, The Rose Hill Arts Hub), there are lots of opportunities for you to join in too.  And if you want to hear more, with talks, performance tasters and discussion on the Roots theme, don’t miss the BREMF introduction and preview Day, ‘Exploring the Roots of Western Music’ (21 October, Brighton Unitarian Church).

As ever, BREMF have managed to pack an awful lot into just a few weeks, and have managed to present a programme of incredible variety, whilst also giving the festival a coherent theme throughout.  With such an eclectic mix, there is surely something here for everyone.

For details, times and tickets, visit  Tickets are also available from the Brighton Dome Ticket Office (01273 709709).