Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Trevor Pinnock (director), Rachel Redmond (soprano), Claudia Huckle (alto), James Way (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), Zürcher Sing-Akademie
Barbican Hall, 11th December 2019
The Tourist’s annual Messiah. Almost Billy No Mates. But eventually MSBDB1 stepped into the breach. For which many thanks as Messiah is best shared.
Now the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is one of the many top drawer German period music ensembles and Trevor Pinnock, where he is a principal guest conductor, needs no introduction. Since leaving the group he founded, The English Concert, now directed by Harry Bicket, he has followed a portfolio career, conducting, performing on the harpsichord and teaching. Handel and especially Bach are his specialisms apparent in the many benchmark recordings, a few of which are cherished by the Tourist.
His 1988 Messiah recording changed the way most professional outfits engage with the work in terms of instrumentation, tempi, dynamics and texture. Of course if a choir of billions is still your bag then be my guest. But trust me this is better.
He didn’t rush things here with the FBO, in contrast to some other period ensembles and Handel’s foot tapping fugal tunes were given space to breathe. Trumpets and timpani kept in reserve until required. Which added clarity to the text and allowed each of the soloists to make an impact. (Though I was marginally more partial to Claudia Huckle’s graceful alto and Ashley Riches’s, er rich, bass-baritone. Marginally mind, and Rachel Redmond belied her last minute substitution especially in …. Redeemer … ). The Zürcher Sing-Akademie was divided 8 to a part and pretty much vibrato free. No OTT operatics here. Less a punch to the gut. More a massage of the temples. Lighter, brighter and more transparent than big Brit choruses. Just the way I like it.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Katherine Watson (soprano), Rowan Pierce (soprano), Zoe Brookshaw (soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Choir of the Age of Enlightenment
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11th November 2019
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) – Stabat Mater
Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (1671-1751) – Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op.9 No.2
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) – Gloria RV 589
Last year a Pergolesi Stabat Mater with BUD from the AAM. This year the OAE take with MSBD and Katherine Watson (braving a cold) and Iestyn Davies in the soloist chairs. I’ve already banged on about Pergolesi before. This is his most famous work. Written just before his early death from TB. More than a hint of the comic opera about its style, which are, largely, his other, authenticated contributions to Baroque musical history, (I have a recording of some of his instrumental offerings). Though certainly not its serious religious subject, a C13 poem depicting Mary’s vigil at the foot of the Cross. Took the European musical world by storm and, on and off, has been a favourite ever since. Immediate, direct and very effective, it is impossible not to be carried along by the lean, melodic strings offset with deliberately nostalgic stile antico effects, (from the time before Monteverdi revolutionised Western music). These include prolonged cadences and delayed resolutions. Feel the pain. Lovely but a couple of times a year is enough for me.
Albinoni was a prolific composer, around 80 operas, 40 chamber cantatas, 60 concertos and 80 sonatas, and was, in his day, as popular as Corelli and Vivaldi. Though not quite as good IMHO. Then again he only really considered himself a violinist and, being a rich toff, didn’t have to work. SO we should applaud his industry. And, in the oboe concertos, he did come up with some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. His Op 9 set contains 4 for solo oboe and 4 for two oboes and this one, No 2 is considered the best of them. It kicks off with an elegant medium paced Allegro, follows with a sublime and generous slow movement, with an aching, bel canto solo line against a rocking string ripieno, (which MSBD was much taken with), and a bouncy, scurrying finale, which again gives the soloist plenty of opportunity to show off. And, when it comes to Baroque oboe, very few can match the OAE’s Katharina Spreckelsen.
Last live listen to Gloria was with MS and MSC at the Cadogan Hall with the ECO, so it has become something of a family affair, (even the SO and BD have grinned, and, to be fair, more than bore it, in the past. Famously AV wrote the Gloria for a full SATB choir. despite their being, at least officially, no blokes in the Ospedale della Pieta, bar carrot top himself. Which means they were drafted in, or perhaps, in the array of talents in the convent, there were females basses or at least voices low enough to take the parts, maybe with the whole pitched an octave higher. The contemporary audience would never have known, the young women being concealed behind a grills at the balconies where they performed. We had the OAE’s dedicated chamber choir, thankfully in full view, a scratch outfit of professionals perfectly matched to the OAE’s beefy sound. This I can listen to more than a couple of times a year.
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) – Le rappel des oiseaux
François Couperin (1668-1733) – Les fauvétes plaintives
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) – Le merle noir
Jean-Philippe Rameau – La poule
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) – On an Overgrown Path X. The barn owl has not flown away
Sir Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) – Oockooing Bird
Hossein Alizâdeh (b. 1951) – Call of the Birds
Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695) – Ground in C minor ZD221
Philip Glass (b. 1937) – Koyaanisqatsi Prophecies
William Byrd (c.1540-1623) – My Ladye Nevells Booke First Pavane
Philip Glass – Trilogy Sonata Knee Play No. 4 from Einstein on the Beach
Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – Ciacona in F minor
I am guessing Johanna McGregor started out interrogating her extensive repertoire for an hour of solo piano pieces connected with birds, then thought, sod it, why doubt I chuck some Purcell, Byrd and Glass into the mix and end with Pachelbel. Good call. This genuinely was a delight from start to finish. Not a single wasted note, even from the composer, Hossein Alizadeh, whose work I had never heard.
Whilst Ms MacGregor dips into the Romantic repertoire, notably Chopin, it is the C20 and Baroque (especially Bach) for which she is most well known. Suits me. If pushed I would say I preferred the Couperin to the Rameau when it came to the battle, though both are so elegant there was no hint of aggression, between the French Baroque masters. The Rameau comes from a suite and is comprised of two related halves. Same structure in the Couperin, which represents warblers, and the second Rameau, hens pecking away in a courtyard that Respighi went on to pinch.
It was the Messaien that enthralled me. This is the second piece from Le Petite esquisses d’oiseaux, and represents the humble blackbird. Bright chords offset its calls and movement in four changing sections. I need a recording. Let’s see what Santa brings.
The cry of the owl is a warning in Czech and other folklore and here its scary screech here precedes a fading chorale, all beefed up with Janacek’s arpeggios and ostinatos.
The Birtwistle was written when he was just 15 and shows he was already heading off into his own world, albeit here still framed in jolly Satie-ism, and maybe, though he had never heard him, Messaien himself.
Iranian musician Hossein Alizâdeh wrote his Call of the Birds for a lute-like instrument, the shurangiz, and a duduk, similar to an oboe. Ms MacGregor has created her own arrangement of its rhythmic drive. I liked it, like a Middle Eastern jig.
Purcell’s C minor ground is an exemplar of the form, the rising arpeggio of the bass line, seven bars long, in the left hand with a “catch” tune suject to variation in the right, before the bass dies. All over in three minutes like a perfect pop song. The Byrd, a Pavane from the divine Lady Nevell’s Book, one of the first written keyboard collections, is a similar structure, a ground with harmony on top, but way more ornamented. He really was a clever fellow and with a surname to match the theme of the first half.
The first Glass is the typical cycle with in a cycle oscillation of PG’s piano work but was originally scored for chamber ensemble and chorus, coming at the end of the art film by Godfrey Reggio that was a big mainstream hit. The five knee plays connect sections of Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, at five hours long, it needs some breaks, and originally was performed by violin and voices, (where it works better).
The gentle Pachelbel chaconne, a stepwise structure subject to 21 variations, was followed with a more upbeat encore, a Handel Passacaglia, that fitted the bill.
London Concert Choir, Counterpoint, Mark Forkgen (conductor), Rachel Elliott (soprano), Rebecca Outram (soprano), Bethany Partridge (soprano), William Towers (countertenor), James Way (tenor), Peter Willcock (baritone)
Cadogan Hall, 7th November 2019
Henry Purcell – King Arthur
Early afternoon spent in the company of Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s Joker before an evening listening to a semi-staged (is there any other) performance of Purcell’s semi-opera. I can categorically state that no-one else in the world will have thus spent their day.
You don’t need to hear from me as to Joker. Suffice to say that I am on the side of those who consider this bleak, referential, origin story to be a stone-cold classic.
As is, in it’s own way King Arthur. A classic I mean. Not bleak. Old HP didn’t have that in him. Though, famously, stone cold, per the famous chattering strings in the Frost Scene in Scene 2 of Act 3. HP just couldn’t help himself when it came to programmatic music, word painting as we arty farty types call it, and, when it comes to combination of music and voice he has rarely been surpassed, ever, though he always stayed in his comfortable, and successful, groove during his all too short 36 years.
Now King Arthur, like must of his theatrical oeuvre isn’t really an opera. The main characters don’t sing, to hat is left to the gods, fairies and peasants, of which there are a fair few here. The Britons and the Saxons, of which there are also a fair few, are spoken roles for actors. The libretto is by none other than John Dryden, superstar Restoration poet, imagine him and Purcell as a compositional supergroup, and the first performance was at the Queen’s Theatre on the river in London in 1691. Of course by then the royal patronage that both basked in under Charlie and Jimmy Twos was over, (Dryden had even converted to Catholicism to keep the commissions rolling in), and we had a Dutchman on the throne. After his success of Purcell’s Diocletian, promoter Thomas Betterton, who had written its libretto, took a punt on King Arthur, which also went down very well.
It is very silly. It tells the tale of the battles between King Arthur and the Saxons, specifically Arthur’s mission to rescue his betrothed, the blind Cornish princess Emmeline, stolen away by the dastardly King Oswald of Kent. Merlin, his Saxon equivalent, Osmond, and various right hand men and women also get a look in, as do Cupid, Venus, Grimbald, various other fairy types and a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses. I think you can get the picture. The entertainment was intended to look as good as it sounded, with a masque in Act 3 and and variously, a sacrifice, an off stage battle, peasants dancing in a pavilion, an enchanted wood, a castle and the seas around our very own sceptred isle. Dryden used all manner of sources for his text and it shows. And, at its heart, it is shameless jingoism.
As you can see, written more for spectacle than sense, and to allow the stage-makers of the time to show off their skills. Even with a rudimentary synopsis and the explanations of our two narrators for this performance, Aisling Turner and Joe Pike. Best just to sit back and relax and let the tunes roll over. Which they did, though I have to say this didn’t really catch fire in the way I had expected. Purcell and Dryden crammed a lot in in terms of mood and message, as well as genre, so bringing it all together is tricky and maybe a bit beyond conductor Mark Forkgen. Moving choir and soloists on and off stage and to different parts of the hall, added drama but the logistics proved a little distracting. If I am honest I lost track a bit somewhere in Act 2 and never really caught up.
Which meant the focus was music and singers. IMHO the pick of the soloists was bass baritone Peter Willcock with some of the others occasionally getting lost against the muscly sound of fine scratch HIP ensemble Counterpoint. Which suited me since it is that, “oh isn’t that clever”, or “isn’t that lovely” reaction to so many of Purcell’s musical ideas, that makes it such a pleasure to listen to. Whether elaborate counterpoint, or direct homophony, invariably against the chugging ground bass continuo, with frequent arpeggios, dotted rhythms, wide spread chords, with minimal dissonance, always different, always the same, with simple structures subjected to continual reinvention.
Linbury Theatre Royal Opera House, 2nd October 2019
I have no-one else to blame for this. Having now heard a smattering of his larger scale works thanks in large part to Thomas Ades’s advocacy in his Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia, having invested in a CD of his chamber works and having thoroughly enjoyed the semi-staged version of his opera The Importance of Being Earnest at the Barbican a few yeas ago, I would certainly count myself a fan of Gerald Barry’s bracing, spikily rhythmic composition.
There were plenty of knowledgeable commentators however, including the composer himself, who warned that this, his first opera from 1990, is not the most transparent of entertainments. Though it was lauded on its first showing at the Almeida, largely for the music I gather, its plot is convoluted, the libretto from Barry’s Irish countryman, and Joycean scholar, Vincent Deane is florid, bordering on the impenetrable, and the aural intensity unyielding. Barry delights in music that bears no necessary connection with character, action or phrasing. 90 minutes, even with interval, is probably as much as even the most sympathetic of listeners can take.
And yet, out of this assault on the senses, comes something which is, well if not enjoyable, is certainly remarkable. The story, whilst admittedly needing more than a nudge from the programme synopsis, is no dafter than most opera buffa, complete with a knowing meta quality which I suspect would have appealed to C18 audiences. Something that Haydn would have attempted. Though also with an underpinning of Handelian serioso that the setting of this opera, and its successor, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, (how’s that for a late C18 opera catch all title), implies. Even so GB has said “as to what The Intelligence Park is about, I have no fixed idea” though there may have been with tip of tongue in cheek.
It is Dublin. 1753. Composer Robert Paradies (bass-baritone Michel De Souza) is struggling to complete his opera on the romantic tryst between warrior Wattle and enchantress Daub. Best mate D’Esperaudieu (Adrian Dwyer) pitches up to remind him of his impending marriage to Jerusha Cramer (Rhian Lois) which is required if he is to inherit Daddy’s riches. The boys pitch up to a party at Sir Joshua Cramer’s (Stephen Richardson) townhouse. Jerusha starts singing but is interrupted by her teacher, visiting castrato Serafina (Patrick Terry) who is in attendance with his bessie Faranesi (soprano Stephanie Marshall). Paradies falls for Serafina and falls out with D’Esperaudieu.
Then it gets properly weird as the Wattle and Daub characters, complete with puppet heads (!), pitch into the real proceedings and we find out Jerusha also has the hots for Serafina. Fantasies, arguments, elopements, a series of comic (sort of) vignettes, revenge, a banquet and death all pile up as art and life collide. Though frankly, even as I had secured a better viewing perch, (a few punters gave up at the interval), it all got a bit confusing post interval. No matter. The tropes of classical opera, (and Georgian comedy), were all on show, no doubt there were allusions and quotations that went right over my head, which Nigel Lowery’s ironic, cartoonish Baroque vision, as set and costume designer, director and lighting designer, sought to play up. Think Hogarth on acid.
I also gave up on the subtitles. Not because I could make out what the cast were singing. That was impossible. Not because of any failing on their part. To a man and woman they were tremendous given the singing, acting and, critically, concentrations demands made upon them by GB’s score. Take Stephen Richardson’s bass part which keeps flipping from its lowest register into falsetto, sometimes mid line. (Hats off to repetiteur Ashley Beauchamp who certainly earned his fee). No the fact is, after a while trying to take in Mr Deane’s densely connotative text, it just became too much to take in alongside the music and the visuals. In my experience contemporary opera can veer towards the sombre and static. Not here. This is intensely theatrical.
So you are probably thinking, based on the above, that this was all a bit shit and only really shows the Tourist up as the pseud he is. Well no actually. Just because I can’t cover all the bases in terms of plot, character, message, text doesn’t make this a bad opera. The story is deliberately confusing and the music deliberately unsettling and that is what makes it interesting and intriguing. Being challenged by art is all part of the deal and opera is pretty binary when it comes to comfort or challenge. If you want the former then Handel or Mozart will probably float your boat, and I admit, often mine too. But sometimes exposing yourself, as here, to their evil twin can be bracing. Remember the first time you heard the Sex Pistols? Same thing.
Barry has described The Intelligence Park as being set an an “unsettling diagonal”, a fair description. TIOBE, and Alice’s Adventures Underground which will appear next year on the main ROH stage courtesy of WNO, in part because we know what we are looking at (even through the looking glass) and because they are funnier, (deadpan humour is a big part of GB’s shtick), are easier fare to digest but GB’s musical language is still a long way from most of his historical, and contemporary, peers. Opera, however daft or reactionary the plot, insists that the participants really mean what they are singing. Emotions run high, feelings are big and bold. GB undercuts, though doesn’t subvert, all of that with his music normally going out of its way to upset the expected code. Shifting time signatures. Voices careering across the register. High notes when there should be low and low when they should be high. Stopping mid line. Repetition but of the wrong word at the wrong time. Exaggeration at points of banality or curious indifference at points where emotions should be highest. Unusual accentuation as GB terms it. The plot may be linear. The music is not. There is steady pulse and rhythm often at a fairly brisk lick, with one beautiful lyrical passage excepted, and there is plenty of noise when required. But none of the “divine” interplay of music, libretto and emotion that Mozart and da Ponte conjured up. These obsessive characters are not in control of the music, they are being attacked by it.
This relentless energy and manic aggression is tiring and sometimes frustrating but it is undeniably thrilling and there are so many brilliant, unpredictable musical ideas that it is better to go with it than set your will against it. After all, whilst there may be dissonance, there is harmony, lots of it, just not always pretty. Needless to say the London Sinfonietta took the score in their stride, they thrive on stuff far more challenging than this, but it takes a conductor of guts to take this on. Jessica Cottis is rapidly becoming the opera conductor of choice for challenging new and recent opera and here she wisely promoted vigour and animation over precision.
After the six performances, (same number as for next year’s sold out Fidelio – go figure), at the Linbury this Music Theatre Wales/Royal Opera co-production went on to Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham. So bravo to them for reviving this, bravo to everyone involved to bring it to fruition despite its challenges and, why not, bravo to all us who listened to it.
No need to delay too long on the JSB. Last seen and heard a few months ago from the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. These are superb pieces of music but put them all together and, well, concentration can lapse. 4 and 3 (here taken first and last) are in the same key D major, where they stay for most of the first, Ouverture, movements and for a few of the dance movements which follow. this is to accommodate the natural trumpet sound of the Baroque, (here splendidly handled by Paul Sharp, Simon Munday and Brendan Musk though I think on “baroque” trumpets with venting). Overall whilst there was a rhythmic jauntiness throughout the DC’s performances, and John Butt certainly knows his Bachian onions, the suites rarely caught fire, though this may be my problem, beset, as I was by some overly vigorous head-bopping and finger tapping from the seat next to mine. Nothing wrong with that but in the RAH Circle, where the seats are a byword for cozy and where your neighbours are often in the sightline, it can be distracting. Moreover the RAH’s cavernous acoustic is not particularly sympathetic to HIP Baroque bands.
Now the whole idea of this concert was to re-create one of the Bach nights that characterised the early years of Sir Henry Wood’s programming (Wagner and Beethoven were the other composers awarded such and honour). Here though the twist was to offer up 4 new compositions, to punctuate the suites, written in response to them. Now I am generally a big fan of Nico Muhly but here Tambourin, his response to the 4th suite, and picking up on the trumpet semiquaver runs of the Rejouissance finale felt like it had been dialled in. I enjoyed Ailie Roberston’s Chaconne which filters Scottish folk dance through that Baroque form though not too much goes on. Stevie Wishart’s The Last Dance? had a little more to say by taking a tango with figured bass to allow for a short harpsichord cadenza and overlaying some recorded hoots from the critically endangered Argentine hooded grebe, which caused no little consternation initially in the hall. Stuart MacRae’s Courante was probably the most sympathetic to the Bach it preceded (No 3) taking the slow triple metre of that form, varying its speed, contrasting with typical JSB “running” fast notes and squeezing in some discordant rising fourths, all in the allotted couple of minutes.
Prom 70 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, Hugh Brunt (conductor), Daniel Pioro violin), Katherine Tinker (piano), Jonny Greenwood (bass guitar, tanpura), Nicolas Magriel (tanpura)
Royal Albert Hall, 10th September 2019
Biber – Mystery Sonata no 16, Passacaglia in G minor
Penderecki – Sinfonietta for strings, Vivace
Jonny Greenwood – Three Miniatures from Water No 3
Jonny Greenwood – 88 (No 1)
Steve Reich – Pulse
Jonny Greenwood – Horror vacui for solo violin and 68 strings
Bit misleading to only put Jonny Greenwood’s name in the title since as you can see there were a whole host of collaborators on this fascinating evening, but then again it was the floppy haired, mercurial JG who put the thing together and was the main draw for the just-about full house.
And a smart programme he conjured up too. I will be brief. Daniel Pioro kicked off with a fine, sharp, rendition of the Passacaglia from Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. I have banged on about this exquisite piece of music before, a Baroque bestseller. Hopefully a few more punters were turned on by it.
It is not difficult to see what Krzysztof Penderecki should be one of JG’s favourite composers and a major influence on his classical, and I would contend, film-score, work. The more Penderecki I hear, and I have heavily invested in recent months, the more I like. It might be modernism for muppets but it works. The Vivace from the Sinfonietta is a kind of moto perpetuo fugal thing. with a clear link back to Bach and Vivaldi, based on a simple note pair. Again hopefully a gateway for some of the audience into KP’s stronger stuff.
JG’s Three Miniatures for piano come from material originally intended for a more substantial string piece, inspired by a Larkin poem. He added a violin line and the drone of a couple of Indian tanpuras, here played by himself and the master of the instrument, Nicolas Magriel. They use a simple octatonic scale much enamoured of Messaien, chaconne like, and are impossible not to like.
Better still though was 88 (No 1) from 2015 which JG aptly instructs on the score as “like Thelonius Monk copying Glen Gould playing Bach”. Clever Jonny. Pick three of the greatest keyboard sound makers of all time, take another Messaien symmetrical scale structure, create a Bachian fugue and then add Monkian dissonant improvs. Then switch to glissandos and scales so violent that Katherine Tinker, for whom I think this was written, had to wear fingerless gloves. Subtle it ain’t but the audience, rightly, was very impressed. As was I. With music as well as performance.
Given that I am a disciple of all things Reich I never thought I would say this. but Pulse was, on this evening, (well late night actually since the whole thing kicked off at 10.15pm – all right for you student-y, creative types but a stretch for us oldies, even those who are economically inactive), the least interesting thing on show. Pulse dates from 2015, and is, despite the title, a long way from the minimalism of the 1970s. Melodic canons, with a whiff of bebop, shift through changing chords which then start to unravel, all anchored with JG’s throbbing bass “line”.
Finally the world premiere of Horror vacui, a substantial, near half hour, for pretty much all of the BBCNOW and BBC Youth Ensemble’s string sections and Daniel Pioro as soloist, or maybe, “leader”. Penderecki, like so many modernist peers started off studying electronic music. JG wanted to take live acoustic orchestral string sounds and replicate the soundworlds of early electronica. Horror vacui is the fear of open space. Good title as the sound never lets up. DP creates a line and the string orchestra then “manipulates” it with reverbs, echoes, resonances and stretches, each of the 7 movements mimicking a classic electronic sound technique. As experimental music brilliant. As an exercise in concept, idea and technique brilliant. As an entertaining sound world brilliant. OK so maybe some of the ideas were over extended, and maybe this is written with as much commercial as artistic purpose but it still did it for me. JG, unlike just about every other rock and roller who has a stab at it, can compose for an orchestra, (he trained as a violinist before Colin invited little bro into the band), that much is obvious from the film scores. But increasingly it is clear from his super serious works. Yet this is still easy enough to grasp and enjoy.
And remember as I think I may have remarked previously on these pages I don’t like Radiohead. Even though literally everything about me should say otherwise.
Terrific evening. More of the same next years please BBC Proms people.
Just one more thing. Jonny. If you are reading this get yourself a nice, crisp white shirt for next time eh, son. If the BBCNOW and Youth Ensemble members can go to all that trouble it wouldn’t hurt you to dump the T shirt.