Isata Kanneh-Mason performs Clara Schumann, Coleridge-Taylor & Gubaidulina St George’s Bristol, Polyphonic Concert Club 15th April 2021 – available until 29th April 2021

www.polyphonic.club

The Polyphonic Concert Club concerts are a collaboration between television production company Polyphonic Films Ltd, artists and three leading arts venues outside of London: Bristol’s St George’s, Manchester’s Stoller Hall and York’s National Centre for Early Music.

As with all such online experiences there is the benefit of uninterrupted listening, a front row seat with excellent views and no rush to catch the last train home!

Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason brings her assured but graceful presence to the platform and draws the listener in from her opening bars. This “personal selection of poignant music” is a beautifully programmed, contrasted set of piano works from names that may be familiar but are not really mainstream. Bookended with substantial works by Clara Schumann the concert begins with the Piano Sonata in G minor and ends with the Scherzo No 2 in C minor. A varied selection of song arrangements from Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro Melodiesand the dramatic posturing of Gubaidulina’s Chaconne provide much interest. The reflective Notturno returns us to Clara Schumann before the final work.

Beautiful music in fine performances form a pianist who communicates so well. It just seemed a shame that without an in-house audience the performer receives no applause.

Stephen Page

 

The House of Life Ralph Vaughan Williams/Dante Gabriel Rossetti Opera Holland Park

The House of Life
-Ralph Vaughan Williams/Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Opera Holland Park

There are at least three good reasons for catching this short film from Opera Holland Park. Firstly, it is pleasing to encounter a work which doesn’t get many outings. Secondly, the rich resonance of David Butt Philip’s tenor voice is stunning. Thirdly, the musical rapport between him and pianist James Baillieu hits you between the eyes, especially during rubato passages.

The House of Life is a song cycle setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams of six of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most heartfelt love sonnets. RVW wrote this in 1903/4 when he was in his early thirties. The poems, addressed to Rossetti’s troubled wife Lizzie Siddal, who died in 1862, had been published twenty years earlier.

Early RVW it may be but many of the hallmark intervals and harmonies are already there, especially in the third song Love’s Minstrels. The poems are through-set: lines sung one after another like a recitation in music without any of the repetition you get, for example in Baroque settings. Consequently they seem very direct and focused.

Philip delivers the big intervals, including octaves, with charismatic eloquence in Heart’s Haven and brings both passion and precision to Death in Love, with its fanfare intro and heavy chords for the dramatic climax.

James Baillieu, whose music is bravely on a tablet, has a terrific range of moods from a thoughtful, right hand introduction to the tortured ebullience which drives several of these pieces.

Leighton House, where this film was made, has a very warm acoustic which really adds an extra dimension to the recital. It was an appropriate choice, too, since it is very close to Holland Park and Frederic Leighton and Rossetti were friends.

Rossetti’s paintings are almost as well known and loved as Leonardo da Vinci’s or Rembrandt’s. He was also highly acclaimed as a poet in his own day. I have to say that his verse hasn’t stood the test of time very well. There’s only so much “deathless dower” and “hurtling harms” that a 21st century listener can take. That could just be why this work isn’t performed very often.

Susan Elkin

Shakespeare Re-shaped – Opera Up Close

The second of a pair of coffee concerts from Opera Up Close –at a time when live audiences are not permitted – this 30 minute programme explores the links between Shakespeare and opera. It also offers a few entertaining, sometimes moving thoughts about spring, new life and hope for the future.

We start with tenor Joseph Doody and soprano Claire Wild as Nannetta and Fenton duetting a Falstaff extract from their own homes with Kelvin Lim on piano also in his own home.

This is followed by Claire Wild, smilingly cross legged on her sofa bringing oodles of youthful excitement to Gounod’s take on Juliet – the change of key and mood for the middle section sensitively negotiated before an exuberant accelerando as Gounod brings her back to the original melody.

Another fine performance is actor Lara Steward perched on a window sill doing Juliet’s “Gallop apace” speech in British Sign Language. It is eloquent, passionate, sparkily bright-eyed and is quite a treat to see BSL silently allowed to speak for itself rather than being an added-on accompaniment to conventionally spoken dialogue.

Other high spots include Joseph Doody searching for Sylvia with Schubert and, back to Falstaff, the rich-voiced baritone Rodney Earl Clarke being outrageous by 21st century standards as Ford. “Only a fool wastes his time with a woman” and “How will I make her suffer?” he sings – his top notes finding all the clarity and resonance of a massive bell.

What an inspired idea, then to follow that with Isabella’s horrified commentary on male domination in Measure for Measure. Kat Rose-Martin’s warm, Northern voice gets the revulsion and disbelief perfectly and somehow makes it seem totally topical. I liked her monologue poem too in which, as an actor, she bewails the compliance of so many women in Shakespeare. “Stop the swooning and start to sway” she advises them. It’s wryly witty but the points it makes are deadly serious.

It makes sense to finish with an upbeat  trio (Finzi’s It was a Lover and his Lass) and even though the syncing is slightly off here so that the three singers are not always quite together, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this thoughtful little concert.

Susan Elkin

Calming the Tempest – Opera Up Close

One of a series of online coffee concerts from Opera Up Close, this 30 minute offering celebrates the poetry in music and the music in poetry – and does so with verve and originality.

The high spot for me is actor Althea Stevens reciting Sylvia Plath’s poem The Bee Meeting. She is poised, impassioned and totally compelling as she articulates the words defiantly past her disability. It is a moving account of the poem by any standards as is her later rendering of an Emily Dickinson poem.

Two singers offset the spoken work. Tenor Joseph Doody sings two Guy Woolfenden Shakespeare settings written for a 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest. Mezzo Flora McIntosh sings settings of three songs by Nicholas O’Neill (who also accompanies on piano), each of them a setting of an Emily Dickinson poem.

The latter is a world premiere introduced by Fiona Shaw who explains that the three songs were commissioned by the mother of three siblings whose birthdays fall in March, April and May – a song cycle for spring, then. We see Flora McIntosh seated elegantly in a sitting room – presumably her own – as she sings these three songs. Given the rich formality of her voice it seems slightly incongruous to see her in a domestic setting, as if she were about to offer you tea, but the songs are warm and tender.
This mini concert – very loosely predicated on The Tempest – begins with Rosabella Gregory’s atmospheric piece about the storminess of the witches in Macbeth with lots of arrestingly jagged rhythm. Also included is actor Jade Anouska reading her own poem The Brave Vessel, which is a response to The Tempest.
The curation of this short concert is interesting – lots of links but nothing contrived. It is yet another tribute to pandemic ingenuity.

https://www.operaupclose.com/at-home/coffee-break-concerts

Susan Elkin

Opera North Ring Cycle – on YouTube

Peter Mumford built up Opera North’s Ring Cycle over four years – one opera a year – and I was fortunate enough to review the live performances at the Birmingham Symphony Hall for Musical Opinion. However I never encountered the cycle complete in one week – until now.

Over the Easter holiday we watched the cycle on YouTube and in many ways it is even more impressive than hearing it live.

This is far more than just a semi-staging. The cast are dressed appropriately for their characters and are at the very front of the stage. The full orchestra under Richard Farnes is banked up behind them, and above them are three large screens onto which are projected ambient vistas to reflect the action – fire, water, storm clouds etc – and a running story line, rather than a set of surtitles, which encourage the audience to listen rather than try to follow word for word.

This was the experience in the concert hall. For me, the TV/film experience was even better. The screen was frequently split into six sections. The top, smaller, three covered the conductor in the centre and the orchestra either side. The lower three were for the singers of whom there are rarely more than three protagonists at a time. Where necessary the screen images were bled behind the singers to create added atmosphere, frequently extremely effective – the fire in the immolation scene gradually engulfs Brunnhilde before the Rhine washes over her and Valhalla burns. It is rarely as effective in the theatre.

Then we come to the singers. Wagner took most of his life completing the cycle and managed to write Tristan and Meistersinger between the second and third acts of Siegfried. As a consequence characters develop and where an opera house mounting the cycle will understandably prefer to keep one singer one part, the slow build-up over four years enabled ON to match voices to parts with much more subtlety. One simple example; Wotan changes considerably across the first three operas. Michael Druiett’s young, pushy Rheingold god is clearly headstrong and careless of longer term outcomes, whereas Robert Hayward’s Walkure god is far more troubled and introspective, making his act two scenes with Brunnhilde very moving. Béla Perencz is a gnarled, worldly-wise Wanderer in Siegfried and one who is all too ready to see the end as inevitable and actually welcome.

Of the smaller parts Jeni Bern is a charmingly agile Woodbird, Claudia Huckle a very youthful Erda and Mats Almgren as black a Hagen as one could ask for.

Yet it is the Siegfried and Brunnhilde that were really outstanding. We had met Kelly Cae Hogan as the Walkure Brunnhilde where she certainly made her mark but she really came into her own in Gotterdammerung, radiant in act one, fierce as hell in act two and simply overwhelming in the immolation scene. Alongside her Mati Turi is as totally convincing a Siegfried as one could wish for, with his changes in emotion keenly felt at all times and the voice as heroic as one might wish for. This is a Ring to be proud of – any chance of a DVD!

 

 

Oxford Lieder Winterreise

All the way from the resonant arpeggios of Gute Nacht to the haunting, wistful A minor pianissimo of Der Leiermann, this is an elegant, thoughtfully judged Winterreise. We are taken, very effectively, on the final journey.

Dietrich Henshel is an admirably unshowy performer. He stands simply beside the piano without swaying or arm waving. The drama is entirely in his voice and face but there’s plenty of it. His Der Lindenbaum is warmly impassioned, his Fruhlingstraum finds a lovely lilt in the opening bars and his high notes and big intervals  are nicely controlled in Letzte Hoffnung. I found his Die Wetterfahne a bit breathy but it’s a fairly minor quibble.

Warmest praise too for Sholto Kynoch’s work on piano. These pieces are – when performed as sensitively as this –  definitely duets rather than songs “accompanied” by piano. In Der Wegweiser, for example, Kynoch’s exquisite playing really highlights the breathless effect.  Interestingly Kynoch manages his music by technological alchemy – a tablet on the music stand, presumably controlled by a left foot blue tooth pedal. It’s a neat way of precluding the need for a human page turner in close proximity in these Covid-compliant times – if you’re brave enough.

The concert began with emerging artist Anna Cavaliero singing two Schubert songs. Her singing is crisp and warm and she, too, has a tightly integrated rapport with Kynoch on piano.

It’s good to be back in the Holywell Room, with Petroch Trelawny as the ever urbane, competent, knowledgeable link man. I wish, however, we didn’t have to have those lights decorating the balusters behind the piano which, when you watch digitally, connote all the gaudiness of cheap Christmas decorations.

An advantage of watching digitally, though, is the way the subtitles are now managed. You are given the whole poem at the side of the screen with a moving highlight so that you know exactly where you are and a line by line translation at the bottom of the screen. As a non-Germanist I like this although I suspect purists might find it irritating. It’s new technology for Oxford Lieder so I’ll make allowances for the couple of times when the performance moved to the next number but the printed text didn’t.

Susan Elkin

HPO – Piano Trios

Christ Church, St Leonards, 13 December 2020

There seemed to be a strange coming together on Sunday evening. As we waited for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and their constant oscillation between hope and despair, we heard three Piano Trios, each of which have darker undercurrents running through them even if the final bars allow for some hope.

Aysen Ulucan, violin, Oliver Mansfield, cello and Francis Rayner, piano, opened with Beethoven’s early Op1 No1. This was not, of course, Beethoven’s first composition but the one he wished the world to take note of. It opens with a lyrical fleetness, led strongly from the piano, and is highly technically challenging. The second movement flows on easily from this and brings a gentle cantabile, before the greater intensity of the third. Here, the trio drew strongly on the dark under-currents even as the lighter moments occasionally flowered. The final movement picks up on the ferocity and pace of the opening with even more demands on the pianist – a part which the composer had of course written for himself.

Brahms C minor Trio Op101 was written almost a century later and is intensely dramatic, even when it allows for sudden romantic outbursts of captivating melody. The short second movement is even more disturbing in its constant sense of unease, though the answer and response sections of the third movement bring a sense of relief and calm. The final movement returns to the dramatic impact of the opening and is wedded to the minor keys right up to the end when the sudden burst of concord hardly brings any lasting encouragement.

After a brief interval, we heard Dvorak’s Dumky Trio. Written only four years after Brahms’ trio it is a world away with its rapid changes of mood and texture. There are frequent moments of exhilaration which become almost hedonistic, contrasted without any linking material with passages of deep reflection – often with fine solo writing for the cello. The third movement brings an unexpected polka at its heart but it has a dark edge which is never quite thrown off. A jolly March with rapid changes of tempi leads to a more extrovert, if not quite bracing, Allegro before the final Lento maestoso with its supressed tension and often frenetic outbursts. Here the violin solo comes into its own as Dvorak allows each instrument to find its own voice.

An engaging, if often troubling, performance, but maybe exactly what we needed on the night.  The real joy was the way the three soloists encouraged us to engage fully with the music, even at its most disturbing.

CBSO in lockdown

Birmingham Symphony Hall, Thursday 10 December 2020

Birmingham Symphony Hall has been my favourite concert venue since it first opened and it was a pleasure to sit in on a digital concert with the CBSO, and some of my favourite composers. This was the third digital concert, given over this time to Brahms and Mendelssohn, with the works becoming increasingly unfamiliar as the evening progressed.

Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture has been a favourite since I studied it for O level. One of the unexpected benefits of lockdown is that I was able to sit with my laptop, head phones on, and sing Gaudeamus igitur at the top of my voice at the end – with nobody to complain and Sally not digging me in the ribs to keep quiet!

Conductor Alpesh Chauhan brought a freshness and vitality to his conducting which continued into Mendelssohn’s first piano concert with Stephen Hough the engaging soloist. He knows the work well and his technical finesse and sparkling articulation brought the work to scintillating life, with fine fluidity in the final movement. There was also some beautiful solo cello work in the second movement.

The final work was Mendelssohn’s First Symphony. Overshadowed by the more familiar later symphonies this one bubbles with life and energy, even the more romantic slow movement and the trio second of the third. The final Allegro con fuoco seemed to sum up the whole performance bringing the attack and angst of sturm und drang together with the romanticism that early Mendelssohn creates.

The symphony hall was entirely empty and the extended platform allowed for comfortable social distancing without any loss of impact or sense of ensemble. As we noted earlier in the year with the BBC in an empty RAH, there are actually some benefits in not having an audience!

More details of ongoing, online events on the CBSO website.

 

International Interview Concerts

The International Interview Concerts came on line for the first time on Sunday 6 December to link up musicians across Europe to play and talk about their experiences and memories of Christmas. The event was hosted by Timothy Chick, who also did a valiant job linking up the various artists as well as interviewing them as the evening proceeded.

Of course, like so many events today, we were not only at the mercy of the legal restrictions but also the available technology. For some of the time this worked well but there were other occasions when the sound quality did not do justice to the professional standing and competence of the players.

The evening opened with violinist Kamila Bydlowska playing versions of  ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’ & ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’, with some fine double-stopping on display. This was folloed by the Bukolika Piano Trio (Gabriela Opacka  violin – Joanna Gutowska cello – Anna Szalucka piano) bringing us a suite of arrangements of familiar carols –  ‘The First Noel’, ‘Stille Nacht’, ‘Jingle Bells’and the traditional Polish: ‘Lulajze Jezuniu’ (‘Lullaby Jesus’).

Kamila returned to play the Polish carol ‘Oh Tiny, Tiny Baby’.

As a contrast we now heard from Mexican singer Jorge Carlo Moreno accompanied by Varvara Tarasova at the piano. They opened with the Spanish carol ‘La Virgen Lava Pañales’ followed by a piano solo – Tchaikovsky’s ‘December’ from The Seasons – and ended with ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ sung in Spanish.

Kamila followed this with another Polish carol arranged for violin but the final items fell to pianist  Olga Paliy who brought us Holst’s ‘Chrissemas Day in the Morning’, Debussy’s ‘The Snow is Dancing’, and concluding with a fine arrangement of the ‘Carol of the Bells’.

In between Timothy Clark chatted to the artist about their own experience of Christmas music and particularly of their earliest memories of Christmas. It was fascinating to hear the very personal memories from across continents and the different traditions they keep within their own families.

Let us hope that the technical side can be improved so that the experience is closer to a live event in future as the venture itself was certainly engaging.

 

 

 

 

Handel: Messiah

Christ Church, St Leonards-on-Sea, Saturday 05 December

HPO Singers, Ensemble OrQuesta Baroque
Helen May soprano
Isabelle Haile soprano
Laura Fleur mezzo-soprano
Nathan Mercieca countertenor
Kieran White tenor
Thomas Kelly tenor
John Holland-Avery baritone
 
Marcio da Silva conductor/baroque guitar

This was the first live concert I have attended for ten months so I think I may be forgiven for shedding several tears when the notes of the “Sinfonia” died away in the atmospheric half light and Kieran White opened with “Comfort ye my people”. It set the tone for the whole evening: a lot of fine singing, respect for some of the most arresting, uplifting music ever written and – given the privations of this strange year – an unusual sense of warm gratitude in both (distanced) performers and audience.

Working with a small group of singers – only four basses – and conducting, with a lot of originality, from his baroque guitar Marcio da Silva found much clarity and precision in the chorus numbers although the necessary spacing created a challenge – the basses were to the right of the orchestra at the front with tenors to the left and sopranos and altos at the back. This placed the band in the middle of the choir and meant that sopranos were a long way from the basses, and the altos from the tenors. Inevitably there were occasional timing glitches but none of them detracted from the overall achievement.  The unaccompanied “Since by man came death” was perfectly, movingly together, however and the understated opening to “Amen” worked really well because it left so much scope for joyful crescendi as it developed all the way to that magical, climactic top A from the sopranos, nine bars before the end.

It was a concert full of ideas too. First there was the use of a tiny Baroque orchestra who played impeccably on original instruments (or replicas)  with Marcio da Silva on guitar and Petra Hajduchova on harpsichord.  I grinned to see Marcia da Silva morph into percussionist and singer during “Hallelujah”, leaving Edmund Taylor to direct from the first desk. Versatility is everything at the moment.  I also liked the idea, in this of all years, of sharing the solo work among seven soloists rather than four: more opportunities for more talented people.

Among the many high spots was Laura Fleur’s smiling “O thou that tellest”. She has a lower register like spiced hot chocolate. The contrast she later brought to the stark agony of “He was despised” was outstanding. I also admired the elegant, measured decoration from countertenor, Nathan Mercieca in “He shall feed his flock” and John Holland-Avery is a very arresting, dramatic singer in “The Trumpet shall sound”. Then there was the “sounding” itself with Louis Barclay’s on natural trumpet – another delightful moment.

Well it isn’t Christmas without hearing a decent Messiah and for a long time it looked as though this was going to be my first Messiah-less Christmas for many decades. So thanks HPO for making this happen, despite all 2020’s problems, and for the stunningly beautiful Christ Church which supports HPO by allowing them to use the premises without charge.

Susan Elkin