Baroque Chamber Music

St Nicolas Pevensey Saturday 12 August 2017

The Bats may not have been in the belfry but their protected status has meant that the planned restoration work at St Nicolas, Pevensey, has had to be delayed. The accruing benefit has resulted in the church being available for a summer concert from regular visitor baroque flautist Neil McLaren and baroque violinist Jane Gordon.

Their concert opened with a sonata for both instruments by Telemann. With the sun still streaming through the clerestory windows the opening Dolce seemed a perfect reflection of the gentle warmth of a summer evening. The Largo flowed with simple grace before the rapid dance rhythms of the final Vivace with its hints of hurdy-gurdy from the violin.

JS Bach’s Suite in A minor for solo flute has been adapted by Neil McLaren himself to fit the four movements written specifically for flute into the more familiar structure of a suite for solo instruments. In this case he used the opening Prelude and closing Gigue from the second suite in D minor BWV1008 for cello to telling effect. The Prelude pierced through – at times almost uncomfortably aggressive – before relaxing more into the fluidity of the Allemande and Corrente. The Sarabande is a complete contrast, its sense of yearning and sadness always to the fore. The jollier Bourree Anglaise led to the more extrovert tones of the final Gigue but the intense intimacy of the work is never really lost. Telemann’s Canonic Sonata in D concluded the second half with its hints of pastoral rhythms and formal dances.

The second half opened with one of Bach’s greatest works, but one which is probably not as familiar as it should be. The D minor Partita for solo violin ends with the great Ciaccona which is not only a monumental climb for the performer but also a highly demanding call for the listener. The long opening set of variations twist and turn their way through the most frightening of forms before suddenly emerging into the uplands of the major key variations and a sense of paradise beyond the strife. But Bach does not leave us there. He brings us back to the reality of earth but this time reflected in the knowledge that we have glimpsed heaven even if we are not there yet. It is a masterpiece as great as anything else by Bach and was subtly and wonderfully crafted by Jane Gordon.

It was, of course, difficult to follow but CPE Bach’s brief Duo for flute and violin brought the evening to its official close with the slightly tongue-in-cheek dance movements returning a smile to all. As an encore they gave us a brief movement from Rameau’s Les Indes Galante. Let us hope that the bats don’t keep them away for too long.

Stephen Page at Church in the Wood

Friday 11 August 2017

The Viscount organ in Church in the Wood can sound quite different depending upon where you are sitting as the speakers are placed throughout the building, the choir being high up in the chancel. On this occasion I sat close to the font which seemed to be a good position both for impact and balance.

Stephen Page opened with a breezy account of Herbert Murrill’s Carillon before moving on to two classical works. JS Bach’s Prelude in G major BWV541 demonstrated the bright top work on the organ and some fine articulation. By total contrast, he then gave us the delicate intimacy of a Sonata for a musical clock by Handel – the final movement deftly reflecting the familiar tones of the Harmonious Blacksmith.

George Oldroyd’s Liturgical Prelude No3 was in more romantic vein even if it maintained an obvious close connection with liturgical compositions.  Stanley Vann’s Hymn Prelude: Blaenwern enabled Stephen to demonstrate the string sounds of the organ with its gently flowing meter, before two chorale-improvisations by Karg-Elert –the first a less familiar but warmly enclosing O my soul, rejoice with gladness before the popular Nun danket. The range of tone which this organ can provide was clear in Ireland’s charming Vilanella which led into the more populist part of the evening, opening with a rousing Crown Imperial by Walton.

One of the benefits of an electronic organ is the variety of stops open to the designer and the next few pieces clearly showed the range available. C Armstrong Gibbs Dusk included piano and/or xylophone together with some theatre organ sounds, but it was Leslie Clair’s Dance of the Blue Marionettes which gave us the full Wurlitzer. But Stephen was able to top even this when Ketelbey’s In a monastery garden rang with tubular bells alongside the organ.

The evening ended with a number of familiar community songs – though The Lost Chord­ seemed a little lost on some of the audience! – and an encore, more Walton in the shape of the Spitfire Prelude.

All of the above was sandwiched between a summer evening stroll in the woods and a fish and chip supper. Who could wish for more?

The Pirates of Penzance

Opera Anywhere, Hastings Pier, Thursday 10 August 2017

I can’t recall any opera on Hastings Pier since Glyndbourne staged their first community opera here back in 1990, so an outdoor production of The Pirates of Penzance from Opera Anywhere was doubly welcome. Happily the early promised rain did not materialise and the pier was bathed in evening sunlight with magnificent views in all directions.

At first the idea that the event was to be staged on the upper deck seemed a little strange but this is only because the pier itself is so vast. The upper deck easily held an audience of 100, many of them at tables, and there was still more than enough space for the company and musicians. The other great benefit was the lack of any need for amplification. With the wood panelling behind, the singing voices carried very well and there were only a few moments when spoken words disappeared, particularly if the soloists were sitting.

There was, needless to say, no full chorus, but the intimacy of the space meant that the singers made even greater impact. This was impressively so from Major Stanley’s daughters who giggled and squealed magnificently as well as singing with precision and clarity. The bluffer pirates held their own, led by Miles Horner as a suitably grandiose Pirate King. Tristan Stock’s Frederick provided a lyric tenor lead and was genuinely moving in both his duets with Susanna Buckle‘s Mabel and the stirring act two trio with Ruth and the Pirate King.  Vanessa Woodward’s Ruth allows us to laugh at her as well as with her but she never becomes the victim she so easily can. Mike Woodward’s Major General took a little while to get into his stride but his self-importance and cunning soon shone through and one of Gilbert’s most biting creations came fully to life. Mark Horner’s Sergeant of Police was as fine as I can recall, singing the part with lovely attention to detail but always remaining fully in character. It was a treat, even if he had to put up with three very giggly officers (and in night-gowns as well!)

Accompaniment was provided by Nia Williams on the keyboard with woodwind from Nick Planas who also provided the arrangements. As with the singers, it was good to have live rather than amplified sound and Sullivan’s score came across with surprising ease.

There was to be another performance on the next evening. Let us hope that the success of this outing encourages a return – and maybe Hastings will become recognised for more than just its Pirates!


Opera Anywhere: Mikado

Bayham Abbey, Saturday 5 August 2017

Just when it looked as though Saturday evening might be a wash-out the sun came through, the sky cleared and picnicking could begin at Bayham Abbey before the start of that evening’s Mikado. The event was part of this year’s Lamberhurst Festival and was by Opera Anywhere who specialise in small scale touring productions but do not skimp on musical quality. All the voices we heard were appropriate and well-focused, and the accompaniment, based around Nia Williams at the piano, included solo strings and wind. Amplification was inevitably in use but was sensitively balanced to maintain an illusion of natural voices. That the singers could probably have carried without amplification was clear when the schoolgirls entered from the back of the seating area and could easily be heard though they were far from the stage itself.

Director Miles Horner’s approach was comfortably conventional, allowing the familiar narrative to unfold without any unnecessary attempts to add additional jokes or to update Gilbert’s lyrics – with the obvious exception of Ko-Ko’s little list which ranged from cold calling to Donald Trump. Mike Woodward gave us an idiosyncratic Ko-Ko, the voice alarmingly like Ambridge’s bad boy Matt Crawford. I did wonder for a moment whether the whole production was not a nightmare in the mind of Linda Snell!

One of the finest moments was very much unplanned. At the start of Act2 Yum-Yum, Nadia Eide Storrs in fine voice, had just launched into The sun whose rays when a formation of geese languidly flew across the twilight. It was a magical moment, but capped soon after when she was able to sing the second verse directly to the full moon which hung above us. How often can a Yum-Yum do that?

David Menezes gave us a lyrical Nanki-Poo and David Jones, a late substitute, a suitably cynical Pooh-Bah. Miles Horner doubled Pish-Tush with the Mikado. Vanessa Woodward brought a sense of reserve to Katisha, rather than the more conventional blood-thirsty harridan, but one sensed there was no bright future even after Tit-willow.

The choral parts were taken by members of the company and it is one of the advantages of amplification that four voices can sound like a much greater force when they come from speakers all around you.

While a significant number of the audience drew their chairs closer to the stage, many remained at their picnic tables to enjoy the ambience of the abbey and the mist which rolled in across the fields as the moon rose. About as close to an English idyll as one could wish.


Jeremy Meager at Church in the Wood

Church in the Wood, Friday 28 July 2017

Church in the Wood have had their new Viscount organ in use for some time now but Saturday was the first time that Jeremy Meager, the Managing Director of Viscount Organs, had come down to perform and put the instrument through its paces.

He chose an eclectic range of works, which aimed to please the audience with familiar pieces and include a variety of styles to demonstrate the flexibility of the registration. He opened with a rapidly paced rendition of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and moved on to Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in E flat BWV 572. This brought us some fine top flutes and a splendidly articulated fugue.

The gentle tones of Malcolm Archer’s Elegy gave way to a bombastic account of Handel’s Overture to the Occasional Oratorio before returning to the lyricism of Bach’s Bist du bei mir BWV508. The first half ended with Vierne’s familiar Carillon de Westminster.

The second opened with a Trumpet Tune – though not one of the more familiar wedding choices. This one was by Tambling and showed us the brashness of the organ’s trumpet stop. Franck’s reflective Prelude, Fugue and Variations followed with the dynamic changes during the fugue impressing. S S Wesley’s Choral Song is equally familiar though not the accompanying fugue which, on this occasion sang with aplomb.

R Goss-Custard’s Chelsea Fayre is a real lollipop and moved us gently into Parry’s Chorale Prelude on Eventide – better known to most as Abide with me. This brought us to the inevitable concluding item – the Toccata from Widor’s 5th Symphony. Jeremy Meager raced through this to the delight of the audience, even if some of the notes seemed to get lost along the way.

As an encore he played Herbert Sumsion’s Ceremonial March – about as English and CoE as one could wish. He has promised to return and will obviously be very welcome.

Hastings Philharmonic

St Clements Church, Hastings, 16 July 2017

Marcio de Silva is certainly not averse to taking risks. Many choirs find it difficult to attract enough male singers for normal choral settings. To commence a performance with an unaccompanied setting for double chorus for male voices only was certainly a risk but, in the event, totally justified.

Biebl’s Ave Maria was written in 1964 but has a lyrical quality which harks back to the previous century with its rich harmony and romantic lyricism. The men of the chamber choir filled the church easily with their warm and well-balanced rendition, proving a fine start to a rewarding evening.

The ladies of the chamber choir then joined them for three short motets by Monteverdi. The settings regularly split into six parts, with complex polyphony throughout. If Domine ne in furore is more introspective, the flamboyant settings of Cantate Domino and Adoramus te filled the church with glowing tone.

The final item before the interval was the most unusual. Nunes Garcia was born in Brazil but heavily influenced by the European enlightenment in terms of his settings. The Judas Mercaor Pessimus has a splendidly dynamic impact with great variety of tone colour, which the choir handled with aplomb.

After the interval, the full choir gave us Durufle’s Requiem. The clarity of text was impressive and the Kyrie beautifully crafted. The sudden outpouring of the Hosanna was thrilling in its impact and the Sanctus had a warm lightness of touch. Marcio da Silva himself provided the baritone solos and Lin Westcott brought us the single soprano solo with a gentle lyricism. The unaccompanied Lux aeterna showed the continued confidence of the choir and the deft handling of their conductor.

Throughout, they were supported from the organ by Douglas Tang who was standing in at short notice and seemed to have a very good grasp of St Clement’s instrument.

This was the final event of a full and highly successful season. The new one opens at St Mary in the Castle on Friday 13 October with an all-Beethoven evening.


Barefoot Opera: Ecco Monteverdi

St John, Pevensey Road, Hastings, 17 June 2017

A charming conceit to recreate the music that may have been heard at Monteverdi’s baptism four hundred and fifty years ago. This formed the first half of Barefoot Opera’s concert at St John’s last weekend, with Cantemus, under the direction of Christopher Arnold, singing liturgical settings by Josquin des Prez and Marc’Antonio Ingegneri.  Of these, Ingegneri’s mass setting was particularly impressive with its gently enfolding lines and reflective harmonies. Between these a cappella items Nigel Howard played three pieces by Andrea Gabrieli, with a bright Canzona Ariosa at the heart of the performance.

After the interval the soloists of Barefoot Opera, under the direction of Jenny Miller, brought us a narrative worked around six of Monteverdi’s Madrigals. The texts nearly all refer to the anguish of the lover, often coming close to death because of the pangs of love, but by the end the song of the Nightingale leaves us all on a happier note. The use of movement was very telling and often voices came across with more precision because of their place within the nave. This was especially true of the final moments when they were singing from the centre of the nave, with the voices gently ringing all around us. It was a bold undertaking which certainly paid off.

The evening closed with the two groups coming together to sing Monteverdi’s Adoramus Te, and leaving us wanting more.

Hastings Philharmonic: Don Giovanni

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, 3 & 4 June 2017

The 2017 Opera Academy brought us two different casts of young singers to St Mary in the Castle last weekend for a concise and well-focused presentation of Mozart’s masterpiece. The small orchestral ensemble provided excellent support throughout, even at the end of act one where Mozart assumes there will be three orchestras available! The musicians were placed behind the action, which made timing more complex but it was much to Marcio da Silva’s credit that there were very few slips in either performance.

Two singers appeared on both evenings, which may have eased their rehearsal time, and they certainly provided some of the most polished performances. Wagner Moreira was an exemplary Ottavio, not only in the lyricism he provided, but also in his naturalistic approach to his stage presence. It was a pity he was not allowed Dalla sua pace in Act 1 though he gave us a fine Il mio Tesoro in Act 2. Similarly Vedat Dalgiran’s Commendatore made a strong impact given the limited time he is on stage.

On the first evening Camilla Jeppeson and Timothy Patrick were well paired as Zerlina and Masetto, creating a very credible relationship which allowed us to experience their shifting emotional patterns with ease. Her Batti, batti was a highlight of Act 1. The next day, Gislene Ramos and Will O’Brian made an equally positive impact with Vedrai carino gently seductive on a slow burn. We could see why this Zerlina was no push-over.

Gheorghe Palcu gave us a personable, wide-boy Leporello though his diction was often lost in the acoustic of the building. Of the nobility, Rosemary Carlton-Willis’ Elvira raged impressively and there was a subtle integrity to Eleni Komni’s Anna. Her handling of Non mi dir brought clarity to the complex relationship she has with Ottavio.

On the first night Neylson Crepalde conducted, stepping in to play guitar for the serenade, and doing both jobs with admirable skill. Marcio da Silva’s own precise conducting style kept the ensembles tightly together and gave us a convincing tableau at the end.

The main focus of the event was to give these singers a platform and, as noted above, many took it with fine demonstrations of the operatic art. Hopefully their careers will blossom.



Brighton Festival

The Dome, Brighton, Sunday 28 May 2017

Clearly somebody decided to end this year’s Brighton Festival with a bang. The works chosen, by Copland and Adams, must be some of the loudest classical music available and were almost too loud within the relative limits of The Dome.

Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is very familiar but rarer live so that its raw edge and bombast strike somewhat uncomfortably, particularly when the brass is not fully coordinated at the start. The composer’s Lincoln Portrait followed. An equally crowd pleasing work, the orchestral sections from the Britten Sinfonia were well handled by conductor Diego Masson, but the text from Maryann Plunkett, despite being amplified, was often inaudible.

Thankfully the second half fared much better. John Adams Harmonium may be an early excursion into minimalism but it is highly effective. The opening setting of John Donne’s Negative Love is unexpectedly extrovert for so complex a text but full of shifting harmonies which were negotiated with aplomb by Brighton Festival Chorus. The following poems by Emily Dickinson seem more in keeping with Adam’s approach and Wild Nights is particularly successful. The intense sense of sexual tension building, like the storm, to a massive explosion is brilliantly captured and, on this occasion, as well executed. The rapid heart-beats continue in the double basses until the last seconds die away. A fine end, eventually,  to the festival.

Brighton Festival: Les Talens Lyriques

Dome, Brighton, 21 May 2017

With the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth it was understandable that there would be celebrations this summer, but Brighton has excelled itself. After I Fagiolinni’s magnificent Vespers at Glyndebourne come Les Talens Lyriques with secular works. Surprisingly, after the opulence of the liturgical settings, these vocal pieces – settings of  classical age stories – are far more sparse in their orchestration and harmony, with an intense attention to the text and emotional detail.

They opened with Ballo delle ingrate, a court scene which would originally have involved members of the audience in costume. Here we had to concentrate simply on the score, but what a wonderful piece of understatement it is. Valeria Girardello’s moving Venere pleads with Nathanael Tavernier’s hard-edged Pluto to allow the shades of arrogant women, doomed to eternity in the gloom of Hades, to be allowed out to warn their living relatives. It is a none-too subtle piece of social engineering but so masterfully sung it almost convinces us.

Magdalena Pluta’s Arianna is far more open in her emotional turmoil and genuinely moving. The constant gentle return to O Teseo makes us realise that she will never let go of her love for him. Given the simplicity of the orchestration this is a miracle of detail.

After the interval we heard Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Though more familiar, the setting still surprises with the intensity of its emotional changes and the ferocity of the writing. The narrative was succinctly handled by Nicolas Maraziotis’ powerful and precise diction. The final baptismal scene alone allows for gentler tones from the organ and strings.

There was a time when the Brighton Festival would have brought us fully staged versions of Monteverdi’s operas. Perhaps the costs are too high today – but if we had had to swap either of these events for one of the more familiar operas it would have been a great loss.