Posted tagged ‘Mozart’

Béatrice et Bénédict – Chelsea Opera Group; Elizabeth Connell and Barefoot Opera

November 28, 2011

A wonderful musical weekend.  On Saturday, to Cadogan Hall for Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance of Berlioz’s late opera, Béatrice et Bénédict.  (Thank you to the Berlioz Society for the discounted tickets!)  COG orchestra on sparkling form, conductor Nicholas Collon fantastic – precise, clear and engaged (grinning widely throughout the Overture!).  Chorus somewhat under strength but valiant.  Female soloists wonderful – Ana Maria Labin sang Héro with a lovely true soprano, Emma Carrington brought her luxuriously velvety mezzo to Ursule;  their duet at the end of Act I (delicious in matching dark blue dresses) was the musical highlight of the evening.  Liora Grodnikaite has come a long way since her days on the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme at the Royal Opera House;  she sang Béatrice (without a score) with wit, fire and musicality, her looks and gestures conveying a huge range of emotions including amusement, scorn, uncertainty and confusion.  A terrific performance.

Her Bénédict, Ben Johnson, paled somewhat in comparison, not least because he remained resolutely score-bound.  He sang very nicely, but there was no chemistry between the pair (one recalls Ann Murray and Philip Langridge at ENO all those years ago…).  Simon Lobelson and Adrian Clarke were luxury casting in the minor male roles.  Everyone’s sung French was excellent – a rare achievement.

The wise decision had been taken to ‘stage’ the concert with three actors performing a reduced version of the dialogue in English.  So we had Shakespeare interspersed with (uncredited but very witty) translations of Berlioz’s own additions to the text.  Unlike their singing counterparts, there was plenty of chemistry and flying sparks between Helen Ramsorrun and Sion Davies – both final-year GSMD students  (he should guard against dropping his voice, though – I didn’t always catch the words.)  Donald Maxwell doubled Léonato and the Notary, as well as doing all that could humanly done with the awful role (spoken and sung) of Somarone, the joke music master who writes joke bad music… oh dear.

Because the three actors covered several roles each, it wasn’t always easy to tell who was who or what on earth was going on.  A brave try, though.  Perhaps some of the dialogue could have been cut still further…

Nice that the format followed that of COG’s previous performance in 1981, conducted by Stephen Barlow (can that really have been 30 years ago?).  My only misgivings concern the piece:  dear Berlioz, bless him, can’t get his dramatic pacing right, and in Act I he never knows when to stop.  Apart from Bénédict’s Rondo, every number outstays its welcome (even the glorious nocturnal duet) – especially Somarone’s cod Epithalamion which isn’t funny anyway and which Berlioz insists on inflicting on us TWICE.  Aarrgghh!  And then Act II flashes past with undignified haste – the final duet seems over before it has begun. But all in all, a fine achievement for COG and a fun evening.

Then, on Sunday, a local jaunt to St Mary in the Castle in Hastings – a wonderful venue we hadn’t sampled before (thank you Lesley and Alistair for the heads-up).  Billed as a Gala Concert, the first half consisted of performances by members of Barefoot Opera, a new back-to-basics ensemble directed by Jenny Miller (whom I remember as a fine mezzo Cenerentola a while ago).  But they didn’t just stand and sing:  soloists appeared in different parts of the (circular) auditorium, moved among the audience, sang to each other, and generally brought their roles imaginatively to life.  Kudos particularly to the charismatic Krysia Mansfield, who not only sang Tippett and Borodin but even managed to be riveting while playing a non-singing Vitellia to Aino Konkka’s Sesto in Mozart’s ‘Parto, parto’ from La Clemenza di Tito.  (Even clarinettist Andrew Sparling – playing from memory – directed some of his obligato towards her, presumably in an attempt to soften her heart.)  Talking of which, more kudos to Andrew Sparling for putting down his clarinet and singing a weird and powerful Ravel song, ‘Les grands vents’. 

Other stars included Carleen Ebbs’ sparkling and fearless ‘Je veux vivre’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette – we reckoned we had heard it sung less well, to say the least, during the Cardiff Singer of the World week.  And Antoine Salmon, who may not possess the world’s most beautiful bass voice but was hilarious in Rossini’s ‘La calunnia’ and as Don Pasquale playing stooge to the Dr Malatesta of Nikos Penesis.  Not sure about the ensemble finale – a strange rewrite of Handel – but this seems to be part of a project they are working on.  All credit to Barefoot Opera – let’s hope we hear and see more of them.

Oh — and brava Nancy Cooley for her indefatigable accompanying!

For the second half, Elizabeth Connell took to the stage (is it ungallant to call her a ‘veteran soprano’?), accompanied by Stephen Rose.  She treated us to a hilarious résumé of her long and colourful life in opera, illustrated by knockout performances of Wagner (‘Dich teure Halle’), Mozart (‘Non più di fiori’ from La Clemenza di Tito), and Verdi (Lady Macbeth’s ‘La luce langue’.)  From low G to top B, her voice was big, true and thrilling.

She then gave us an outrageous ‘Diva Song’ written for her by Betty Roe and involving many changes of hats… I say no more,  You must try to see her for yourself.

Her encore was the immensely touching ‘When I have sung my songs to you’ by the American composer Ernest Chance. Not a dry eye in the house (even hers!).  A great lady and another great evening, rounding off a great weekend.

photo of Liza Connell (c) Clive Barda, borrowed from musicweb-international http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2008/Jul-Dec08/connell.htm

English Chamber Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall, 3 November 2011

November 6, 2011

Lovely ECO chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall on Friday. First, out trot a pair of girls with curly hair and lacy black frocks, looking for all the world like long-lost sisters… They are Stephanie Gonley (violin, highly accomplished leader of the ECO) and Katya Apekisheva (young Russian pianist, prize-winner at the Leeds Piano Competition, evidently a rising star). We are treated to Schubert’s A minor Violin Sonatina (D385), a work of extraordinary depth and subtlety by a 19-year-old composer. Exceptionally, they played both repeats in the first movement (which Schubert obviously intends you to do). Plenty of fire, passion and introspection – the slow movement was heavenly. Stirring performance of a terrific piece.

Then came Mozart’s Horn Quintet, K407, in which the solo horn is accompanied unusually by a string quartet consisting of one violin, two violas and a cello. Soloist John Thurgood was his usual poker-faced but impeccable self, playing with great wit and aplomb and enjoying the musical company of his colleagues as much as they were enjoying his. (We wondered if cellist Caroline Dale had forgotten her black dress? The only player not in black – but the bluey one she wore was very pretty.)

After the interval, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, in an exceptionally spirited (i.e. fast) and lively performance – all great fun. Caroline Dale and viola player Jonathan Barritt would catch each other’s eye and grin hugely at crucial duetting moments. Stephanie Gonley led gamely from the front. My only quibble concerned the platform layout – pianist Katya Apekisheva seemed to be stuck at the back in a world of her own (though she managed some eye contact with Stephanie, and the ensemble was well-nigh faultless). Is there not some way of positioning the string players around the piano so that everyone can see everyone else, and we can see still see them? (Remember that Gerard Hoffnung cartoon…??)

Underpinning the whole performance was the velvety sonorous double bass of Stephen Williams – another poker-faced player, but one who evidently takes great pleasure in his role. He plays a huge, impossibly gorgeous and subtly decorated instrument by Gaspar de Salo, dating from the 1580s – which I thought was before double basses had been invented. A bit of a puzzle. (Oh, all right – cue for lecture about the double bass being a member of the Renaissance viol family and thus having older parentage than the upstart modern violin/viola/cello…)

Smashing evening – thanks for the tickets, Pauline! And thanks to Caro for joining us and for your luxurious hospitality over the Berlioz Weekend (which is another story…)

The Orchestra of St Paul’s…

April 26, 2010

…at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, yesterday (Sunday 25 April 2010), conducted by Ben Palmer.

The concert began with the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, beginning with a riskily fast tempo for the ‘slow’ introduction – the spooky music for the arrival of the statue of the dead Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s supper table;  but Ben Palmer knew what he was doing, and it worked.  The ensuing Allegro was a bit of a scrabble, the strings not quite in tune yet, the trumpets and timpani drowning everything out at their entries in the echoey acoustic of St Paul’s.  (Solution?  Harder timp sticks?  Just mark all their dynamics down a bit?  Make each entry a very quick diminuendo from a fortepiano?  Shame, as the ‘straight’ natural trumpets made a great sound, as well as looking terrific.) 

And the Overture ended with an awkward and stylistically out-of-kilter concert ending (necessary because in the opera itself the Overture doesn’t ‘finish’ but segues into the first scene in a different key).  Nul points to whichever publisher perpetrated that one – there are much simpler solutions that work fine.

Next came the reason we were there – my niece Rosie Burton playing the Hummel Bassoon Concerto.  There is something of a shortage of decent bassoon concertos (well, if you don’t count the 36 or so by Vivaldi, and one that probably isn’t by Rossini); the teenage Mozart wrote one, which is famous because it is by Mozart but is really not up to much (though you wonder what the other half-dozen or so he is alleged to have written might have been like).  Weber wrote the greatest of all, in 1811;  and that’s about it, apart from a few modern ones.  No Beethoven, Brahms Dvořák or Elgar… And then there’s Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He was an interesting chap – student (and lodger) of Mozart, pupil of Haydn and Beethoven, wrote some fine (and very jolly) chamber music, including the wittiest Wind Octet ever written;  and he wrote his Grand Concerto for Bassoon in 1805.  It isn’t heard very often, because it is VERY difficult:  not only is there lots of whizzing about in semiquavers, but the writing is awkward and un-bassoony – double octaves, huge skips and ever-widening arpeggio patterns – so the piece is even harder than it sounds.

Rosie did a fantastic job, performing with note-perfect accuracy, style, polish and fun, and above all with a gorgeous sound:  warm, rich tone, smooth and nutty, and totally under control at all times.  I am very envious! – and very proud.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D – an ‘early’ work that isn’t heard as often as it should be or used to be. Ben Palmer once again went for broke in his daringly fast tempi, but they paid off.  And this time the stabs of trumpets and timpani were perfectly judged, providing Beethovenian ‘punctuation’ with point and clarity but never drowning the rest of the band. 

The gently lilting ‘slow’ movement was refreshing – special praise for Tom Hardy on bassoon, along with the other woodwind principals – though I would have preferred just a little more room to breathe for the bouncy cello theme:  the tempo is Larghetto, after all. 

Conversely, the Scherzo felt as if it could have done with being even quicker.  But it made its Beethovenian mark, especially the moment in the Trio when the unison strings say ‘We’re going to play in F sharp major now’ and the rest of the orchestra says ‘Oh no you’re not!’

The Finale was an absolute rocket, and brilliantly effective.  Occasionally it seemed to totter on the verge of rushing out of control, but never quite did.  Ben Palmer captured perfectly Beethoven’s shock tactics and rough wit in the handling of the opening ‘yah boo’ motive, and conversely the hushed moment in the Coda when pizzicato cellos and basses step down and down into new harmonic realms, ‘as if’, in the words of Sir George Grove quoted by my brother Tony in his programme note, ‘we had passed through a door and were in a new enchanted world’.

Talking of which, one small disappointment was the presence of just one double bass – who was, however, always rock solid and perfectly audible;  but even with a small orchestra one surely needs two or three basses, especially as Beethoven himself apparently preferred to have more basses than cellos. 

Nevertheless, this was the most exciting and compelling performance of Beethoven 2 I have heard in a long time, or possibly ever;  by this time the orchestra was perfectly in focus and in full steam, and Ben Palmer brought it to life and made sense of the piece in ways I had certainly never heard before.  Great concert.

more about the orchestra on their website: http://www.orchestraofstpauls.co.uk/

The Berkeley Ensemble

October 3, 2008

Another nice old London church, another concert…

This was at St George’s Hanover Square, a fine 18th-century building designed by John James in 1721-24, with connections with George Frederick Handel.  Broad, handsome, light and spacious, it is a fine church and a great venue for music (…but MIND YOUR HEAD if you’re going to the loo 😦 …)

Wednesday’s lunchtime concert was part of the Midweek Music in Mayfair series, given by the BERKELEY ENSEMBLE, a chamber group formed from members of the Southbank Sinfonia – including my niece Rosie on bassoon.

They played two pieces:  Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K581, and the Octet by Howard Ferguson (1908-1999) – surrealistically misprinted in the programme as ‘Maynard Ferguson (1928-2006)’, a jazzer who did indeed have an octet but didn’t write this one.

The Mozart featured John Slack on clarinet – one of the current breed of ultra-cool clarinettists, which is nice because he doesn’t intrude when it isn’t his solo, but he seemed almost too laid back to the point of disappearance on occasion, and it took him a while to warm up to pitch (which is odd:  shouldn’t the strings have tuned to him?).  Oddly, the first violin, Tatiana Bysheva, also seemed to disappear at times, but that might just have been from where I was sitting.  Otherwise the strings provided a rock-solid support, warm, dependable and very pleasing – Rebecca Mathews on 2nd violin, Dan Shilladay on viola (relishing his ‘sighing’ moment in the second Trio of the Minuet:  I always imagine that this part was originally played by Mozart himself), and, above all, Gemma Wareham holding everything together from below with her authoritative (but discreet) cello playing.   [click here for biographies of the players]

I came away thinking (as always) ‘What a wonderful piece this is’, which was the right reaction!  The clarinet (as played in the 1780s and 90s by Anton Stadler) brought out the best in Mozart;  I can never quite work out whether the thematic unity of the Quintet is deliberate, or if Mozart just came out with the same thematic shapes whenever he imagined the sound of the clarinet.  Either way it makes for a most satisfying and tightly-knit experience.

Then the Howard Ferguson:  I have to confess (more…)

Proms: RSNO/Deneve, Chicago Symphony Orch/Haitink

September 11, 2008

Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now seriously back at work full-time so no time for lengthy blog, alas.  However, I must celebrate the end of my Prom-going season which ended with a couple of crackers!

 

Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Saturday) gave a stunning performance of Debussy’s La Mer – dazzling orchestral detail, lovingly shaped, deeply felt.  Denève (conducting without a score) may have lingered slightly over some of the significant turning points, but I felt this was absolutely ‘his’ music and he was totally inside it.  Lovely orchestral playing, especially the finely-tuned woodwind and acutely pointed trumpets (if you see what I mean).  Unbelievably quiet pianissimos when required, and blazing loud passages that seemed to point to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (never thought that about La Mer before).  (But where were the disputed fanfares in the last movement?)

 

(Going backwards through their programme…) The less said about their Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough the better.  Hough was having an off night (nerves?), stumbling and hurrying all over the place.  The orchestra was stodgy, dull and ragged.  It felt like a bad ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ performance.

 

Thea Musgrave’s ‘Rainbow’ was nice – pretty, simple, appropriately colourful, did what it said on the tin.

 

Albert Roussel’s Bacchus and Ariadne Suite No. 2 was a revelation – great music, chirpy, quirky, powerful and dangerous.  Lovely stuff.

 

On Tuesday it was Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – I couldn’t make the Mahler 6 the previous night, so this one was not to be missed (and very crowded it was too).

 

One rarely hears ‘big-orchestra’ Mozart these days – although it could be argued that (more…)

Southbank Sinfonia (twice)

March 14, 2008

sbs2.jpg The Southbank Sinfonia is a brilliant idea – a ‘semi-professional’ orchestra employing young instrumentalists between college and a professional career.  To judge by their list of alumni now in orchestral positions, it works.

The orchestra is the brainchild of conductor Simon Over.  It has no state funding (surprise surprise!) and is maintained by a large roster of generous supporters and huge amounts of goodwill, particularly through partnerships with ‘grown up’ orchestras such as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who provide coaching, playing opportunities and ‘sit-ins’ alongside professional players.  And imaginative sponsors like accompanist Malcolm Martineau who provides free refreshments at concerts – hooray!

Monday’s concert was part of the lunchtime recital series at the Royal Opera House, though moved into the spacious (and echoey) surroundings of the Paul Hamlyn Hall (formerly the Floral Hall).  A slightly rum programme…

It began with a Vivaldi Concerto for Two Trumpets, bravely performed without a conductor.  The soloists (Christopher Seddon and Rob Wallace) were two cool dudes to whom evidently nothing was a problem – they enjoyed every minute and played faultlessly, stationing themselves antiphonally either side of the band.

Two quibbles:  how could anyone think it’s OK to perform any kind of baroque concerto without a keyboard continuo??  Just because it ‘sort of’ works to have just a cello and bass accompanying the soloists, that doesn’t make it right.  And no, the slow movement is not just ‘a mere six bars long… a passage of modulation played by the strings alone’ – which is how they played it, earnestly and meaninglessly:  no, it’s the basis for something – keyboard improvisation?  Violin improvisation?  (Probably not the trumpets, as they need the rest.)  Something has to happen, and somebody has to take a decision about what.  Awful sinking feeling that STILL nobody in the music colleges is taught anything beyond the received nineteenth-century ways of playing things.

They need to read a certain series of helpful books…

The orchestra was joined by Australian soprano Anita Watson, a rising star in the ROH’s firmament and a radiant smiling presence (I previously enjoyed hearing her in Donizetti’s Rita – read more here).  Her choice of arias – Mozart’s ‘Nehmt meinen Dank’ and the ‘Et incarnatus’ from the C minor Mass, and Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen’ – suited her to perfection.  Lovely violin solo in the Strauss, from leader Tatiana Byesheva.

In between Anita Watson’s items, Graham Sheen conducted his arrangement of five Danzas Gitanas by Joaquin Turina.  The rather vague programme note did not describe the individual movements or even tell us what forces Graham had arranged them for.  As far as I could see, it was a wind decet (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns) with extras – piccolo, cor anglais – plus two trumpets and a double bass.  Smashing arrangements, full of vivid colours and rhythmic life.  I slightly felt that the clarinets had a raw deal – perhaps because the trumpets had grabbed their share of the melodic interest?  Very nice anyway, and must have been great fun to play.  I hope they’ll be published.

And a definitely rum item to finish – Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Popular Songs, but with no singer!  Hamlet without the Prince?  I am reliably informed that it was never intended that Anita Watson should sing these.  But they sounded distinctly ‘so-what’-ish in their orchestral guise.  Ah well.

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stjohnswaterloo.jpg

Then yesterday (Thursday) – (more…)

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra, Sunday 13 January 2008

January 17, 2008

stmaryathill.jpg

Another concert, another nice old church…

The church of St-Mary-at-Hill, off Eastcheap in the City of London, is hidden away down a side alley, landlocked and invisible among other buildings (not to mention impenetrable – as they forgot to unbolt the doors until five minutes before the concert!).  Built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677, it lost its box pews and much of its beautiful woodwork in a disastrous fire in 1988, but has been magnificently restored, with a bright, clean and uncluttered interior.  Resonant yet intimate, it makes a lovely concert venue for a small orchestra (strings 9.8.6.6.2, for those who care about such things) and a small audience.

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1966, and has been a guiding light of my life (and many other people’s lives) ever since.  In past decades I have been privileged to play with them on a number of occasions:  now chances are rare, apart from the annual phone call from Brynly which goes – ‘Jo, I’ve messed up my diary.  Can you do HCO for me on…?’  Sadly, because of my own crazy diary, the answer is nearly always ‘no’ (the last time I managed it was in 1999 – a great experience). 

The orchestra has worked with many distinguished conductors and soloists (an early revelation to me was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony conducted by a very young Andrew Davis), and on Sunday it was directed from the leader’s desk and/or solo position by Paul Barritt, who was evidently enjoying himself as much as they were, hot-foot from gigs in Belgium and Tring.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal’s Cave’ Overture (The Hebrides) – sonorous, energetic, un-muddy and a delight (notwithstanding Paul Barritt’s cheeky viola joke in his introductory words).  I became aware of details I’d never heard before – always a good sign – such as the single oboe note that is held throughout the chugging harmonic sequence which may or may not, as Paul suggested, represent the sound of the paddle-wheel on Mendelssohn’s Hebridean ferry.

Then came Haydn’s all too rarely heard Sinfonia Concertante (more…)