Arcana at the opera: Libuše (first UK staging) – University College London @ Bloomsbury Theatre

Smetana Libuše

Libretto by Josef Wenzig, translated by Ervin Špindler. Sung in Czech with English surtitles

Libuše – Kirstin Sharpin (soprano)
Přemysl – Robert Davies (baritone)
Krasava – Eve Daniell (soprano)
Lutobor – John Mackenzie (baritone)
Chrudoš – James Quilligan (baritone)
St’áhlav – Ben Harding (tenor)
Radmilla – Ananya Samuel (mezzo-soprano)
Radovan – William Bennett (baritone)

Chorus and Orchestra of University College London / Charles Peebles

Claire Mackenzie (director),Holly Muir (designer), Alex Forey (lighting designer), Ester Rudhart (choreographer)

Bloomsbury Theatre, London

Monday 18 March 2019

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Back in its home venue following several years’ renovation and what could more appropriate for Bloomsbury Opera than this first UK staging of Libuše, Smetana‘s ‘festival opera’ whose premiere the composer held back for almost a decade until the opening of Prague’s National Theatre in 1881? Indeed, other than a semi-staged presentation at the Edinburgh Festival two decades ago, this monument to national aspiration had never even been performed in the UK – hence making BO’s production a further feather in the cap of this enterprising organisation.

An opera so centred on Czech legend was never likely to ‘translate’ easily in cultural terms. Cecilia Stanton‘s situating of it in a “futuristic City of London” is a plausible concept which rather misfires: the interplay between Medieval myth and post-modern setting rarely seems more than a hopeful compromise; in addition, the functional quality of Holly Muir‘s designs and Alex Forey’s effective if relatively unadventurous lighting tends to reinforced the static nature of Smetana’s music, though Ester Rudhart‘s choreography certainly enlivened the crowd scenes.

The cast, however, could hardly be faulted for insight or commitment. Kirstin Sharpin found imperiousness but also humanity in the title-role; a rounded and empathetic portrayal abetted by her vocal eloquence – not least in the prophecy of fraught yet glorious times ahead for the Czech nation that forms an apotheosis of truly Wagnerian grandeur. As her consort Přemysl, Robert Davies ably conveyed the wisdom and humanity of one whose idyllic rural existence (here made into an anarcho-socialist holiday camp) is unaffected by his sudden regal status.

As Krasava, Eve Daniell gave a magnetic assumption of one whose feminine guile provokes the initial crisis yet also eventually aids reconciliation through her strength of character. John Mackenzie brought real authority to Lutobor, with James Quilligan and Ben Harding equally inside their respectively anguished and bemused roles as the brothers Chrudoš and St’áhlav. Ananya Samuel conveyed the right degree of agitation as their put-upon sister Radmilla, and William Bennett made the most of his brief though strategic cameo as the envoy Radovan.

A further enhancement was the decision to sing this opera in Czech – which may have caused passing uncertainty for the UCL Symphony Chorus, though without detriment to their energy or zeal. A pity the UCL Symphony Orchestra’s playing was sometimes undermined by issues of intonation or ensemble – but this was, after all, the first night and any such failings should hopefully be ironed out over the remaining three performances. Bloomsbury stalwart Charles Peebles conducted with a tangible conviction right across this opulent and sprawling canvas.

All in all, this was a flawed but capable and, certainly in vocal terms, distinguished rendering of an opera that is unlikely to receive further staging in the UK any time soon. Just over three decades after its memorable production of Smetana’s The Devil’s Wall, Bloomsbury Opera has once again come to the aid of a composer whose contribution to mid-nineteenth century opera rarely receives its due. In vindicating the viability of Libuše as a theatrical and, above all, musical entity, it could not have launched this new phase of its existence more potently.

There are two more opportunities to see Libuše at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, on Friday 22 and Saturday 23 March. For more information head to the University College website

The only available recording of Libuše, conducted by František Jílek, can be heard on Spotify below:

Wigmore Mondays – Jeremy Denk plays Bach & Schubert

Jeremy Denk (piano)

J.S. Bach Partita no.5 in G major BWV829 (1726-1730) (1:35 – 16:37)
Schubert 4 Impromptus D935 (1827) (19:16 – 54:07)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 18 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If you know anybody who is sceptical of the music of J.S. Bach, point them in the direction of the link above, and Jeremy Denk’s account of his Partita no.5. This sparkling display of virtuosity showed beyond doubt the composer’s ability to write instinctively with humour, a playful Partita where the only regret was the pianist’s decision not to use all the written repeats applied to the dance-based movements.

The reason for this would almost certainly have been time constraints, with Denk’s wish to combine the Bach with the Four Impromptus Schubert completed in 1827, his last full year. The two made a very satisfying coupling, giving listeners in the Wigmore Hall and to BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert an hour of fluidly written and brilliantly played pieces.

The Bach first, beginning at 1:35 on the broadcast link with a lively Praeambulum, then moving almost without a break into the traditional sequence of dance movements the composer reserved for pieces such as this. With the mood defined Bach presents an elegant Allemande (3:54), a light footed Corrente (7:35) and then a slower Sarabande (8:52), which features attractive doubling of the melody.

These slower dances always present a pause for thought within Bach, an intake of breath before more dancing – which here includes a Minuetta (11:34) where Bach puts a delightful ‘two against three’ set of rhythms together, the dance stumbling attractively. It’s over all too soon unfortunately, but the straight faced Passepied (12:38) has a stately feel, before the triple-time Gigue (13:48), with its centrepiece, a fugue that Denk masters most impressively, building the momentum to a thrilling conclusion.

Angela Hewitt has spoken of how the key of G major ‘always seems to inspire Bach to write music of great radiance, joy, gentleness and technical display’ – and that is on view throughout Denk’s spring-like account. He delighted in asides to the audience throughout, letting them in on his enjoyment of the music.

The Schubert presented a very different range of emotions. Published as a set of four pieces in 1839, twelve years after composition, the Impromptus work in isolation and also as a quartet, their themes crossing over but not as rigidly as a sonata might demand. This spirit of relative freedom runs through the four pieces.

The first Impromptu, in F minor (19:16 on the link) is a substantial piece that immediately brings Beethoven to mind with its call to arms – Schubert’s contemporary having not long died. The second theme of this impromptu (20:51) is soft and hymn-like, reflective yet with strength in depth when repeated and magnified, in development. This intense passage is cleverly worked, coming back around to the relatively stern main theme at 24:25, though Denk enjoys the more optimistic strains of the major key as it soon takes over. The ‘hymn’ recurs in this key at 26:08 – but as befits the uncertainty of this music, Schubert can’t resist more harmonic movement right through to the turbulent end.

The second Impromptu (29:43) is in F minor’s ‘relative’ key, A flat major, and starts in wonderful stillness. This main theme is restated on a number of occasions, resisting any of the louder interventions trying to derail it. A central section (from 33:05) is faster and flowing, but once again takes a turn for darker waters as Schubert alternates between major and minor key. This only heightens the soft contentment of the main music when it returns at 35:17, wonderfully handled by Denk.

The third Impromptu is similarly light and shade, but this time much more in favour of brighter thoughts. From its opening (37:27) it sets out a theme very similar to a famous melody from Schubert’s Rosamunde stage music, which the composer proceeds to take as a base for several variations – just as he did in an earlier String Quartet in A minor. This unfolds beautifully – with impeccable technique from Denk, and impressive depth in the minor key fourth variation (41:44). The twinkling figure of the final variation (45:30) looks to finish the piece in high spirits, but a final statement returns us to quiet thought.

Finally the fourth Impromptu (47:49) returns us to the F minor world of the first, though here Schubert is in the mood for a dance, evoking the Hungarian cimbalom with spicy harmonies and some daring passagework for the right hand. This finishes the piece acrobatically in the run up to 54:07, a feat superbly realised by Denk here.

As a completely irreverent encore, breaking Schubert’s spell but proving a superbly entertaining sign-off, we had the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser well and truly sent through the boogie-woogie and blues wringer by Donald Lambert (from 55:55 – 58:21)

Further reading and listening

If you enjoyed Jeremy Denk’s Bach playing, there is a disc of Partitas he released back in 2011 for Azica Records. You can hear it on Spotify here:

Denk’s latest release is an intriguing exploration of music from 1300 to the present day. You can hear it here:

Meanwhile to explore more Schubert Impromptus and pieces, the peerless Alfred Brendel is strongly recommended. This album includes all the Impromptus for solo piano as well as some attractive German Dances, the elusive but compelling 6 Moments Musicaux and the darkly tinged 3 Klavierstücke:

Live review – Anna Vinnitskaya & CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla perform Shostakovich

Anna Vinnitskaya (piano, above), Jonathan Holland (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 16 March 2019

Shostakovich
The Limpid Stream: Suite Op.39a (1935)
Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor Op.35 (1933)
Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Anna Vinnitskaya (c) Gela Megrelidze

With Birmingham Opera Company’s staging of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk having finished its run, an all-Shostakovich concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony was not just apposite but underlined the rapport between the orchestra and its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

The programme centred on Shostakovich’s music before and after an infamous Pravda article irrevocably altered the composer’s evolution. Attacks on The Limpid Stream were admittedly gratuitous; this last of his ballets finds Shostakovich at his most accessible – as witnessed by the suite devised several years later. Starting with a suave Waltz (which found fame as title-music for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), this continues with a vigorous Russian Dance then breezy Galop. The highlight is an Adagio whose soulful cello melody was eloquently rendered by Eduardo Vassallo. A deft pizzicato Polka was a rather inconclusive ending: the uproarious final dance (which follows-on almost continuously) would have made for a more decisive conclusion. No matter, this was still an engaging sequence and captivatingly played.

Shostakovich conceived his First Piano Concerto for his own pianism. Influences derive more from stage and screen than any earlier concertos, but its formal ingenuity is undeniable. Anna Vinnitskaya gauged ideally the first movement’s volatile tempo changes, while the Lento had poignancy and no mean vehemence at its climax; the ensuing intermezzo an upbeat to a finale whose high-jinx were teasingly held in check. Jonathan Holland was engaging in the obligato trumpet part, and the CBSO strings retained their articulation even in the hectic closing pages.

Whether or not an explicit response to that condemnatory Pravda article of January 1936, the Fifth Symphony is crucially important for moving the emphasis within Shostakovich’s output away from the theatrical. Nothing reinforces this more than the opening Moderato, with its individual take on sonata design that Gražinytė-Tyla handled with real assurance – keeping the exposition in motion with a fleeter than usual second subject, before eliding seamlessly into a purposeful development then an anguished reprise and desolate coda. The Scherzo had ironic wit without heaviness, whereas the slow movement impressed through its inevitability of progress towards a central episode of rapt inwardness; after which, the searing climax did not pre-empt the coda with its musing interplay of harp and celesta against suspended strings.

The finale offers the greatest challenges but Gražinytė-Tyla had its measure too, her fast yet never inflexible tempo for the surging initial stages segueing into the central episode with its heartfelt recall of earlier ideas then ethereal searching towards a crowning peroration. Neither wantonly triumphal nor turgidly defeatist, this was a thoughtful yet decisive conclusion to the overall emotional trajectory; maybe those searching trumpet dissonances could have sounded even more baleful, though a sense of coming through against the odds was never in doubt.

This was an impressive account of a symphony which has been much harder to interpret once its ultimate ‘message’ became a matter for debate. Gražinytė-Tyla provided no easy answers; instead, her presenting the work as a cohesive and integral whole was its own justification.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Anna Vinnitskaya‘s recording of the Shostakovich with Kremerata Baltica:

On record: Briggs Piano Trio – Hans Gál & Shostakovich: Piano Trios (Avie)

Briggs Piano Trio [David Juritz (violin), Kenneth Woods (cello), Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)]

Gál
Piano Trio in E major Op.18 (1923)
Variations über eine Wiener Heurigenmelodie Op.9 (1914)
Shostakovich
Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor Op.67 (1943)

Avie AV2390 [63’05”]

Recorded 11-13 March 2018 at Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
Producer/Engineer Simon Fox

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The reappraisal of Hans Gál (1890-1987) continues with his music for piano trio, performed by musicians who have been consistent advocates of the Austrian-born Scottish composer.

What’s the music like?

Both of Gal’s contributions emerged relatively early in his career, when he fast establishing a reputation in his native Vienna as composer and teacher. The Piano Trio is typical in terms of the subtle ingenuity Gál brings to this deceptively orthodox structure. Thus, the Tranquillo opening of the first movement alternates with faster material such that its underlying sonata design becomes cumulative in its formal cohesion. There follows a propulsive scherzo, itself contrasted with an insinuating trio, then a finale whose eloquent theme initiates a series of variations which deftly extends the music’s expressive range on the way to a headlong coda.

Lighter in tone, the Variations on a Viennese ‘Heurigen’ Melody itself wrests a surprisingly varied sequence from a ‘street tune’ whose evidently unprintable text is wittily evoked here.

It was almost inevitable, even so, that Gál’s works should be outfaced by the Second Piano Trio of Shostakovich. Inscribed to the memory of the composer’s friend and confidante Ivan Sollertinsky and inspired by reports of atrocities committed during the Nazi invasion, this may also have been influenced by his recent friendship with Mieczysław Weinberg in its drawing on Jewish folk inflections – particularly in a finale whose ‘dance of death’ material creates an inexorable momentum that is powerfully in evidence here. Nor is there any lack of conviction in the first movement’s gradual intensifying of motion, the scherzo’s sardonic gaiety then the Largo’s simmering pathos in this most direct of Shostakovich passacaglias. The work’s closing bars, too, are all of a piece with what before in their fateful resignation.

Does it all work?

Indeed. The Briggs Piano Trio is an excellent ensemble, and as at home with the methodical elaboration of the Gal as it is with the more intuitive unfolding of the Shostakovich. Earlier recordings of the former are outclassed by this new version, while that of the latter can rank among the finest of recent years. It helps that the sound has a combination of spaciousness and immediacy ideal for this difficult medium, with Kenneth Woods‘s own notes providing a succinct though informed overview to help set these pieces within their rightful context.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. If neither Gál work represents his earlier music at its finest (for which turn to his first two string quartets or the Second Symphony) they offer rewards aplenty, while the Shostakovich is a version to reckon with. Further releases by this group are keenly awaited.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the release on the Avie website, while the video below gives a preview of the disc:

Wigmore Mondays – Belcea Quartet: Recollections of Hans Keller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello)] Photo (c) Marco Borggreve

Haydn String Quartet in D minor Op.76/2 ‘Fifths’ (1797) (4:27 – 25:22 on the broadcast link)
Britten String Quartet no.3 Op.94 (1975) (28:18 – 56:35)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Hans Keller was one of the great musicologists and musical writers of the 20th century, and this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall marked the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday.

Despite his obvious talents as a writer and analyst Keller was a divisive figure, his forthright views often creating controversy, but the notes for the program accompanying this concert reflected a deeply passionate listener who simply loved the music of Haydn and Britten.

For Keller, Haydn was ‘musical history’s greatest thematic economist’ – a point borne out by the String Quartet in D minor Op.76/2. The nicknames applied to some of Haydn’s best-loved works are evocative, even if they do relegate some more deserving works to the sidelines. The ‘Fifths’ for this quartet refer not just to the melodic intervals in the first theme of the first movement (from 4:27 on the broadcast), where Corina Belcea’s first violin took an authoritative lead in this performance, but to the second theme too.

The discourse of the first movement was extremely satisfying in this performance, the Belcea Quartet lingering on one particularly spicy chord () while providing energy and passion. The second movement Andante (11:45), more a graceful minuet than a slow movement, had some lovely moments of radiance from all four players, with a lightness of touch carrying the whole way through.

In complete contrast the Menuetto itself (17:42) wore a stern expression, dramatically poised as its canon played out between upper and lower parts. It did relent a little however for its trio section (18:58), Haydn slipping into the major key for a rustic dance. Here the Belcea Quartet judged the speeds just right, leaning on the down beat perfectly, before the gruff Minuetto theme returned (20:16).

The finale, marked Vivace assai (21:11), began with a hushed urgency, the main theme a little flighty in Corina Belcea’s hands, but by the time Haydn transported the music into the major key the quartet had an assertive grip on the performance.

Hans Keller, as captured by his wife, the artist Milein Cosman

Benjamin Britten loved the music of Haydn, declaring ‘If I feel down when I go to bed, I take a Haydn quartet with me. It’s all in there.’ His own contributions to the string quartet have proved to be long lasting, but the third – dedicated to Hans Keller who had been persisting that Britten write it – is an extraordinary piece.

Britten conceived it in five movements which might look unconventional on paper, but which translate to an extremely clever interpretation of the traditional sonata form, impressing his friend Keller greatly. However the technical achievements are not at the expense of emotion, as the Belcea Quartet showed here. The first movement, Duets (28:18) pairs second violin with viola – Axel Schacher and Krzysztof Chorzelski beginning authoritatively – before first violin and cello add their thoughts (Belcea and Antoine Lederlin in similar unity of voice).

A scabrous Ostinato movement follows (34:24), the quartet stretched to their limits by Britten’s ‘multiple stopping’ (several notes played at once on each instrument) and on the edge emotionally, but brilliantly played here.

It felt like time ceased to exist for the Solo movement (38:04), Belcea finding a radiant calm in a hall so silent that even a passing tube train could be heard underneath. This was a deeply felt but incredibly free account from the violinist, its central section like a swift on the wing with no restrictions of movement or direction until pure stillness from 42:31.

Following this the forthright Burlesque (43:38), with its elements of Shostakovich, came as something of a shock – but led inevitably into the final Recitative and Passacaglia, subtitled La Serenissima (46:23). The shafts of bright light at the opening are unmistakeably linked to Aldeburgh, and here the quartet found yet another higher plain, Britten’s last substantial work playing out his last days but taking his leave in music of great restraint and beauty.

The reassuring rising motif of the Passacaglia (from 49:22) sets a firm base, from which Britten spins a number of variations. It ends openly (56:08), on a remarkable chord – as Keller says ‘a non-end’, Britten effectively declaring ‘I’m not dead yet’. It is a calling card for his music, restraint packed with hidden emotion – and the Belcea Quartet found its heart unerringly.

Further reading and listening

For more on Britten’s String Quartet no.3, you can visit this entry on the Good Morning Britten blog – an anniversary tribute to the composer from 2013 from yours truly.

Meanwhile the music played in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below, including the Belcea Quartet’s own recording of the Britten:

The six works making up Haydn’s Op.76 represent the pinnacle of his writing for string quartet, and can be heard below in one of several fine available versions, this one from the Hungarian Takács String Quartet:

Britten’s contribution to the string quartet repertoire is hardly negligible itself, mind, and Keller was in great awe of the String Quartet no.2 in particular. Here is a link to the Belcea Quartet’s recordings of that, the extrovert D major String Quartet no.1 and the youthful but assured 3 Divertimenti: