Mortal Voices: Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review ****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Christian Curnyn (director and harpsichord), Keri Fuge (soprano), Tim Mead (counter-tenor)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 15th February 2018

  • Corelli – Concerto grosso Op 6 No 1 in D major
  • Handel – Cantata HWV 230 “Ah! Che troppo inequali”
  • Handel – Cantata HWV 82 “Il Duello Amoroso”
  • Pergolesi Stabat Mater

As usual after BUD and I had chewed over the big economic, social, philosophical and political questions of the day, and reminded each other just how clever we are, as well as scoffed on some tasty, if evil, fare at the redoubtable Bad Egg in Moorgate, there was minimal time for a preview of the evening’s entertainment. Which meant that BUD got the shock of his life when Tim Mead opened his mouth in the second of the Handel cantatas in the programme. He wasn’t expecting a counter-tenor. Especially from a man who could easily pass as the next James Bond given his rugged good looks and sartorial elegance.

My what a voice though. Now if you are a fully paid up, Baroque, (especially Baroque opera), and, increasingly, Contemporary classical, music enthusiast, you are going to come across a fair few counter-tenors. I think I have heard voices with more power and range than Mr Mead’s but not as much clarity and brilliance. This was apparent in the “Il Duello Amoroso”, a decidedly dodgy tale of unrequited love between a shepherd and a goddess, where the counter-tenor and soprano voices sparred elegantly. It really came to the fore however in Pergolesi’s wham-bam, smash hit Stabat Mater.

Pergolesi didn’t get up to much musically. Dying at 26 from TB didn’t help, and, if I am honest, the bits of his output I’ve heard, (or have recordings of), beyond the Stabat Mater aren’t that memorable. Churning out lightweight, comic operas, for your ADHD aristocratic patrons is not, unsurprisingly, a recipe for a lasting musical legacy. When he hit upon this medieval Latin setting of the Christian staple of Mary lamenting her son’s suffering on the cross, he struck gold though. Just a shame it was only completed a few days before he popped his clogs. Still thanks to Bach, and others, the score was widely disseminated in the C18 and has never gone out of fashion.

That’s because, musically and lyrically, he doesn’t hang around. The 12 verses make a virtue of brevity. None is more than 5 minutes long and the whole comes in at 40 minutes. There is loads of contrast, audible human touches and plainly programmatic twists where text and music are perfectly matched, and the fusion, for that is what it is, of Baroque and early Classical, means it is easy, and very affecting, on the ear. Others have had a stab at setting the Stabat Mater, Vivald and Haydn, come to mind, but this tops the lot.

Obviously the AAM, especially the strings, nailed the score, and gave plenty of space for the two excellent soloists to capture the drama and pathos of the setting. Whether individual aria or in duet both singers seemed to really care about the music and text. Forget the religious mumbo-jumbo, this is the moving story of a Mum’s grief. Best bit. The Fac ut portem Christi mortem from Tim Mead alone. Very moving.

I was less convinced by the Handel. That’s just me and Handel though. It is always a pleasant experience listening to GFH but it never really involves me.  Even 4 hours of his operas. I hope to get lifted up and swept along but always end up earthbound. Even, whisper it, in a Messiah. He’s a flash Harry make no mistake, and all those voices, here, there and everywhere, is proper WOW, but it all feels a bit devoid of emotion. A man can only have so much bouncing bass and celebratory trumpet action. Anyway I was happy enough to go with the pleasant enough flow in these two cantatas.

The programme kicked off with Corelli’s Op 6 No 1 Concerto Grosso. You cannot go wrong with that. The 12 Concerto Grossi are like a Corelli greatest hits collection. There will always be some stunning concertante work, the two violins and the darker cello, beefed up by the ripieno players, the rest of the band. This concerto has some brutally fast semiquavers stuff for the solo cello and his violin mates and some lovely lyrical, slower dances to kick off the first couple of movements. There is plenty of room to blag which Bojan Cicic, (he really is a top violinist), Rebecca Livermore and Joseph Crouch took full advantage of. The whole band though seems to delight in playing together. That is why, even if I am not absolutely sure of all the musical ingredients, I will try to see all their London concerts.

I recommend you try to do the same, especially if you are new to the Baroque. And I also heartily recommend you dip into recordings of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Corelli’s Concertos if you haven’t already. You won’t regret it.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at Milton Court review ****

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Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Kaspars Putnins (conductor)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 30th January 2018

Arvo Part

  • Solfeggio
  • Summa
  • Magnificat
  • Zwei Beter
  • The Woman With the Alabaster Box
  • Nunc dimittis
  • Dopo la vittoria

Cyrillus Kreek

  • Onnis on inimene (Blessed is the Man)
  • Psalm 104

Jonathan Harvey

  • Plainsongs for Peace and Light
  • The Angels

Veljo Tormis

  • Kutse jaanitulele from Jaanilaulud (St John’s Day Songs for Midsummer Eve)
  • Raua needmine (Curse Upon Iron)

Now I gather that the Estonian people like a sing-song. Choirs are a big deal there and choral singing and national identity are tightly bound together. They even had a Singing Revolution between 1987 and 1991 as they sought independence from the Soviet Union. So this evening was an event and was graced with the presence of no less than Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas.

Now I am not going to pretend this was the main draw for me. Profound apologies Your Excellency, but what intrigued me was the opportunity to here some of the choral works of the mighty Arvo Part sung by his country men and women. Albeit mostly in Latin, with a German, English and Italian text thrown in for good measure. Now I genuinely believe that the magic of Part’s “holy minimalist” tintinnabuli can work on anyone. I believe I am right in saying he is the most performed living “classical” composer. That doesn’t mean people are whistling Speigel am Speigel on every street corner though. This is still a minority pastime, but I do think there is something in his music, (and the spaces between the notes), which can burrow into the soul of all who come across it. Not that they have souls. That is obviously mumbo-jumbo. Old Arvo might sign up to Orthodox Christianity but not me. But it does something. Even if it is just to clear the head and leave you suspended in the sound for the duration of the piece.

So it was a pleasure to rope in MSBD to the Part party. Now, in retrospect, it might have been better to break him in gently with the usual programmatic device of interspersing Part’s choral works with other contemporary composers who relish the challenge of a choir as well as selected Renaissance masters. Even I have to admit that seven of Part’s choral works back to back can induce a slowing of the heart rate that is difficult to distinguish from slumber.

The opener Solfeggio is particularly interesting. It was originally written in 1964, though I think refined in 1993, which means it actually came before Part announced himself to the world with the bang. crash, wallop of Credo for chorus, orchestra and piano in 1968. This remember was when Part was a paid-up serialist, although Credo for my money is still a cracking piece of music. Solfeggio asks the choir to trot out an ascending C major row in strict serial fashion, singing, would you believe, “do re mi … “, but you’d be hard pressed to tell it apart from the “classic” Part style which emerged in 1977 after the several year hiatus and his personal enlightenment.

Summa is a setting of the Credo from the Latin Mass, though its title conceals its origin,  composed in the pivotal year of 1977. It was, along with Part’s settings of the Magnificat (1989) and Nunc dimitis (2001) for the Anglican evensong, the most entrancing of the evening’s performances. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has a bewitching and very exact delivery with clear definition across the parts. This means the intriguing shifts that Part employs here, and the shimmering climaxes, especially in the Nunc, seemed more suited to their style. In contrast the more direct The Woman with the Alabaster Box from 1997, sung in English and which sees adjacent thirds appear under long sustained notes, was less thrilling to me than the Latin texts, which are all based on Part’s “classic” stepwise triads.

Zwei Beter, based on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican I gather, is a more complex beast, (it’s all relative mind you), with denser harmonies and sung in German. Now one way or another I have recordings of most of Part’s works, (I think some remain unrecorded), but I didn’t know this piece at all. In contrast I am familiar with Dopo la vittoria from 1996 which is also somewhat more “complex” than the Latin texts. Sung in Italian this “piccolo cantata” tells the story of the baptism of Augustine by St Ambrose, (who apparently broke into song whilst doing the necessary), the patron saint of Milan for which city it was written. There is a discernible story with defined sections, including a brisk opening and ending, and some pronounced homophony at crucial, uplifting points. Who said Part all sounds the same.

After the interval we were treated to a pair of psalm settings by Cyrillus Kreek, an Estonian composer from the generation prior to Part, and a man who devoted his life to setting the country’s rich legacy of folk songs into choral arrangements. These songs stem from the wave of Estonian nationalism that stirred in the second half of the C19. These two pieces were very easy on the ear and sung with real conviction by the choir. A pair of works by British composer Jonathan Harvey followed, from the end of his career. Harvey regularly turned to choirs alongside his electronic and chamber pieces. The Angels was set by the Bishop of Winchester to which Harvey adds a hummed accompaniment. Plainsongs is more substantial polyphony with some beautiful, gently dissonant passages across its sixteen parts.

Finally the EPCC treated the audience to two works from Veljo Tormis, who passed away last year, after actually retiring in 2000. Slightly older than Part, but possibly even more renowned in his homeland, with a huge body of choral work to his name. Most of the settings stem from Estonian folk songs and I gather it is fair to say he has inspired multiple generations with his music. He was born during Estonia’s short lived inter-war period of independence, lived through the German and Soviet annexations and the Socialist Republic, and through to independence again. He mixed with all the big names during his musical education in Russia and was “honoured” with his own KGB files.

The first piece belongs to a cycle which describes the important Midsummer celebrations. It starts simply enough but builds into something more sophisticated. The Germanic influence is clear. But this was just a taster for the extraordinary Curse of Iron which followed. Apparently this gets a fair few airings outside Estonia and it isn’t difficult to see why. To the rhythm of a simple drum beat throughout, and with solo bass and tenor parts, Mr Tormis sets a story based on a Finnish epic, but sung in Estonian. It is, like it says, a curse on iron, as you do, and it is very dramatic. A ritual with repeated ostinatos, I have never heard anything like it. Neither had MSBD. Imagine a kind of shamanistic chant which ends up with sopranos warning against nuclear proliferation. Can’t. Well go and hear it then. It’s on I-Player since the concert was recorded for Radio 3.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir concert recording

A riveting way to end the concert and unsurprisingly the EPCC, and especially their Latvian conductor Kaspars Putnins, were having a ball during it. If I were part of the Estonian guest party I would have found it pretty difficult not to get up and join in. Pride in their country but pride in Europe too methinks. Great stuff.

“Italy in England”, Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review ****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Frank de Bruine (oboe)

Italy in England: When Handel Met Corelli, Milton Court Concert Hall, 19th October 2017

  • Corelli – Concerto Grosso in D major Op. 6 No. 4
  • Handel – Concerto for Oboe No. 3 in G minor
  • Geminiani – Concerto Grosso Op. 5 No. 3 (after Corelli)
  • Sammartini – Sinfonia in G major
  • Avison – Concerto Grosso in D minor No 3 ‘The garden of harmony’ (after Scarlatti)
  • Sammartini – Concerto for Oboe in E flat major
  • Handel – Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 5

We don’t know too much about Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). From the late 1670’s through to his death though he was a big noise in Rome, heralding a great leap forward in violin playing and an instrumental (ha ha) influence on the sonata and concerto form. Unless you are a Baroque nutjob, (there are more of them than you might think), you may only be peripherally aware of him. Yet you will certainly have heard snatches of his most famous composition the Op 6 12 Concerto grossi. Odds are if you hear Baroque music on a telly or film soundtrack, (and it isn’t Vivaldi Four Seasons or a blast of Handel), then it will be Corelli.

If you are just an occasional dipper-in to the Baroque canon, or just fancy some nice background stuff, get your hands on a recording of his Op 6. You won’t regret it. Here he is. Poodle wig and all. Fine looking fellow.

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By the late C17 Italy was the bees knees for all things musical, (as it had been in art for a couple of centuries), albeit with stiff competition from the French. Europe was stuffed with on trend Italian musicians and performers. Printed music was now ubiquitous assuming you mixed in the right circles. This concert from the consistently brilliant Academy of Ancient Music under its new(ish) leader Bojan Cicic sought to show how the the Italian Concerto grosso form, perfected by Corelli, and here his compatriots Geminiani and the Sammartini brothers, influenced composers in England, especially the mighty GF Handel. Both Geminiani and the elder Sammartini, Giuseppe, an oboist, ended up living in London, jus as Handel did. Handel had travelled to Italy from 1706 through to 1710  to learn from both Corelli and the other great master (of the keyboard especially) Scarlatti.

The Concerto grosso, as its probably not too complicated to surmise, is a piece of music where a small group of soloists, maybe a couple of violins and another instrument, called the concertino, pass the ideas between themselves and a larger orchestra, the ripieno. Simples. Mind you this is the Baroque so the orchestra is still pretty tiny by later standards. It is the forerunner of the single instrument concerto with orchestra we see today and which developed in the later Classical period. Vivaldi set the ball rolling with his acres of beautiful single violin (and other single instrument) concerti though the musical patterns are similar to his mates elsewhere in Italy.

Here, in addition to the violin led concerti on show from Corelli himself (the very jolly No 4), Geminiani, based on material from one of Corelli’s works, and Handel (No 5 from his own Op 6), we also had the same from Charles Avison, new to me, but I gather a big favourite of the cogniscenti. This was based on some of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas and was really absorbing. The oboe of Frank de Bruine joined the AAM in two other concerti and we had a sinfonia from the younger Sammartini Giovanni, a form that would develop further into the Classical period. Like the Avison I really enjoyed this and will investigate further.

Now I deft anyone now to get perked up by these pieces. They are dramatic, with vibrant rhythms, the typical motoric underpinning from cello and double bass, the continuo underpinning of the harpsichord, and the immediately catchy tunes from the other strings. It is dead easy to follow, the movements are short and sweet and the tempi unwaveringly fast-slow-fast.

The playing of the experienced AAM was pretty much faultless. We even had a moment of high drama (sort of) as Frank de Bruine had to simultaneously play and re-order his music in the Sammartini piece. I could listen to hours of this stuff, especially in this hall. Can’t wait for the next fix.

Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court review *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime

This is Rattle, Milton Court Hall, 20th September 2017

  • Purcell – Fantasia Upon One Note
  • Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthews – A Purcell Garland
  • Helen Grime – Into the Faded Air
  • Oliver Knussen – Cantata
  • Helen Grime – A Cold Spring
  • Thomas Ades – Court Studies from “The Tempest”
  • Benjamin Britten – Sinfonietta
  • Igor Stravinsky – Dumbarton Oaks Concerto

Composer Helen Grime must be in seventh heaven having been chosen by Sir Simon Rattle to curate this concert and to open his first concert as Music Director of the LSO with her Fanfare. I had not heard any of her works before but on the strength of these two pieces, particularly the string sextet, Into the Faded Air, Sir Simon’s faith in her is more than justified. The other curators, Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades, drew their programmes from a similar creative wellspring, though Sir Harrison’s was suitably idiosyncratic, but Ms Grime’s offering held the most interest for me. The four composers span the decades of contemporary British classical music and show clear influences, one upon another. I note Helen Grime is also the resident composer at the Wigmore Hall.

The Purcell is, unsurprisingly, an imaginative piece, with one of the 5 parts held in middle C throughout (hello Terry Riley), allegedly so that Charles II could join in. A Purcell Garland was commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival in 1995 for his tercentenary, with three British masters arranging and invigorating Purcell fantasias for a mixed chamber group. Oliver Knussen’s fantasia directly echoes Purcell’s as the note playfully shifts around the ensemble, George Benjamin’s piece uses a celeste alongside clarinet and the two strings to create haunting textures and Colin Matthews takes an unfinished fantasia and extends it, mixing modern and baroque to great effect (this was my favourite sequence, Mr Matthews being especially adept with this instrumental combination).

We then had Helen Grime’s string sextet Into the Faded Air from 2007, made up of a short pair of opposing trios in the first movement, followed by a slow viola duet, a spiky, pizzicato driven third movement and a mournful chorale to conclude. Shades of Stravinsky certainly and Bartok for me. I really liked this piece.

I was less persuaded by Knussen’s “cantata” for solo oboe which has ten very short linked episodes searching for the high C resolution. Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring is another immediately appealing piece with a dance for a pair of clarinets, followed by an introspective horn “concerto”, and ending with a Stravinskian climax for the whole group. The Thomas Ades Studies take from material from his opera The Tempest and are scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. In just 8 minutes it sketches out the four shipwrecked aristos from the play and is brimful of energy and contrasts. Now I love Thomas Ades work as composer and performer and this was no exception.

Britten’s Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra from 1932 was his first numbered work, composed in just 3 weeks when he was a student at the RCM. I had forgotten just how clever this was – like a who’s who of composers from the previous three decades – but still recognisably his work. Whilst the first two movements have a pastoral, English feel about them to my ears, the final movement Tarantello bears the closest resemblance to Stravinsky. And Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat is where we ended. This was commissioned in 1939, just before Stravinsky fled to the US, for a certain Mrs Bliss, and blissful she must have been on receiving this. It takes Brandenburg 3 as a jumping off point and then frankly matches the genius of Bach. Igor Stravinsky. What a clever fellow. Still casting a long shadow over all art music today.

As usual the Britten Sinfonia, under their remarkable leader Jacqueline Shave, were on top form. They are utterly compelling under Thomas Ades in his ongoing Beethoven cycle (please try to see/hear this), but it is in contemporary music where they are without peers in this country. It is not easy to make this music immediately accessible, even to those of us laypeople that want to hear it, but the Britten Sinfonia do so effortlessly. Bravo.

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review *****

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Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry, Britten Sinfonia

Milton Court Concert Hall, 30th May 2017

  • Beethoven – Septet in E Flat Major Op 20
  • Gerald Barry – Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park
  • Beethoven – Piano Trio in E Flat Op 70/2

I’m guessing that composer heaven is a miserable place. All those blokes (the world of classical composition, at least until the mid C20 is, like pretty much every other sphere of human activity, a damning indictment of the patriarchy), sitting at their pianos with a rictus grin unable to conceal their seething of the one bloke who wears a permanently beatific smile. He is called Ludwig van Beethoven and he is smiling to himself (cast that famous scowling portrait of him out of your mind) because he knows he is better, way better, at his job that all the rest of them. And they too know it.

I suppose it is possible to spend a life without Beethoven. I might have done and I know plenty of people who do. And I realise how much of a pretentious pr*ck I sound for saying it. And that I am implicitly asserting the cultural supremacy of Western and “high” art by doing so. This is not my intention. The thing is, his music is just so very, very good. Pulse, beat, rhythm, melody, harmony all perfectly laid out. To quote the zeitgeist there is always an “emotional journey” in our Ludwig’s pieces, sometimes trivial, sometimes on a grand scale. But more importantly there is musical logic. I can’t read music and don’t really understand the language. But I know that this music is, at its best, perfect and can conjure up that sensation of “nothing else mattering but the music” like nothing else.

So I was looking forward to my week of concert going which was basically just one long Ludwig love-in, largely, though not exclusively, in the company of Thomas Ades, and his fellow contemporary composer, Gerald Barry. Mr Barry is a self-confessed Beethoven nut. Mr Ades, whose work betrays his chameleon-like snaffling of the history of Western art music culture, is also a champion, as revealed by this three year cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Britten Sinfonia, which has just kicked off. I really like Mr Ades as a composer, witness my review of the Exterminating Angel below. But now I have been bowled over by his skill as a performer and conductor as well.

The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House review *****

This chamber concert ahead of the symphonies, kicked off with Beethoven’s Septet. Old Ludwig gave this a right pasting in his life-time as he considered it a bit of a trifle compared to all his later “serious” stuff. Far be it from me to disagree but I think he was wrong on this. It certainly easy on the ear with six movements all based on dance forms, and it unmistakably still Classical, but it is still full to the brim with ideas. Direction is provided by the solo violin and here Thomas Gould was excellent, supple, yet still candid, in his playing.

Mr Ades and Mr Barry then took to the floor for a two piano version of Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park, Mr Barry’s first opera. I have seen performances of his last two operas, The Importance of Being Earnest and Alice’s Adventures Underground (semi-staged and conducted by …. one Thomas Ades), and I bloody loved ’em. Anyone who thinks contemporary opera isn’t for them should see Importance – it is a hoot.

Anyway this piano piece delivers excerpts (literally) from his earlier opera which showcase his rhythmic power and use of comfortable dissonances contrasted with quieter, simpler, almost lyrical passages. It is this bold rhythmic attack that I like as well as the bawdy humour that seems to break out. Mr Ades composes in a similar vein even if the influences are a little more diverse. Their music doesn’t require a PhD to grasp and there is far less of that long, drawn-out, slow movement, plinky-plonky, atonal musing that has turned me off other contemporary composers. I can’t call it easy listening, but it is easy to understand. So seeing them bash the bejesus out of the pianos was a joy.

In the final piano trio, Mr Ades was joined by Thomas Gould on violin and Caroline Deamley on the cello. Op 70 no 2 is a little less well-known that no 1 the “Ghost”, but I prefer it. By now Beethoven was well and truly in his brave new world as he starts shifting us all over the place in terms of mood and tempo but still basically serving up a robust structure amidst all the “how did he do that moments”. Now Mr Ades is a big fella and he packs a punch (as the previous piece had shown) and he did’t hold back here. This contrasted with the more measured reading of violin and cello to great effect (for me if maybe not the purist). But this power is what I think Ludwig heard. There is a perfectly formed skeleton, there is flesh on these bones, and there are pleasing, delicate features. But for me the one abiding characteristic of Beethoven is muscle. And this performance suggests Mr Ades agrees.

I think I am going to like the symphonies.