Arcana at the opera: Margot la Rouge & Le Villi @ Opera Holland Park

Margot la Rouge (1902)
Lyric Drama in One Act – music by Frederick Delius; Libretto by Rosenval
Sung in French with English surtitles

Margot – Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano), Sergeant Thibaud – Samuel Sakker (tenor), L’Artiste – Paul Carey Jones (bass-baritone), Lili Béguin – Sarah Minns (soprano), Nini – Laura Lolita Perešivana (soprano), La Patronne – Laura Woods (mezzo-soprano), Totor – David Woloszko (bass)

Le Villi (1883)
Opera-Ballet in Two Acts – music by Giacomo Puccini, Libretto by Ferdinando Fontana
Sung in Italian with English surtitles

Anna – Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano), Roberto – Peter Auty (tenor), Guglielmo – Stephen Gadd (baritone)

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director), takis (designer), Jake Wiltshire (lighting), Jami Read-Quarrel (movement)
Opera Holland Park Chorus, City of London Sinfonia / Francesco Cilluffo

Opera Holland Park, London
Thursday 21st July 2022 [7.30pm]

review by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Ali Wright

Delius and Puccini are unlikely operatic bedfellows (as anyone who recalls a near-disastrous ENO staging of Fennimore and Gerda with Gianni Schicchi three decades back will surely concur), but this double-bill by Opera Holland Park has an undeniable logic given both works started out as entries in the competition for one-act operas held on four occasions by Edoardo Sonzogno to encourage young talent (so gaining the upper hand against his established rival Ricordi). That neither proved successful at the time need not detract from the merits of either and if the concept of the one is, with hindsight, as uncharacteristic as that of the other appears immature, both contain more than enough worthwhile music along with arresting stagecraft to vindicate their revival in an imaginative production such as they receive on this occasion.

At the time he finished Margot la Rouge, Delius already had four operas behind him so was hardly unequipped for the task at hand. The challenge lay rather in adapting his increasingly personal, even metaphysical approach to the hard-hitting realism – not abetted by a libretto (written pseudonymously by Berthe Gaston-Danville) which reduces its characterization to stereotypes throughout. Yet the best of Delius’s music rises well above any one-dimensional sordidness – the plaintiveness of its prelude and mounting eloquence of its love scene (both refashioned as the Prelude and Idyll which was the composer’s final collaboration with Eric Fenby) equal to anything from his maturity. Had one or another of those earlier operas been acclaimed, the chances for Margot to reach the stage would have been appreciably greater.

The simple but effective revolving set favoured by Martin Lloyd-Evans presents this drama the more effectively for its unfussiness, enhanced by takis’s set designs and Jake Wiltshire’s resourceful lighting. Casting-wise the stage is dominated, as it needs to be, by Anne Sophie Duprels’s assumption of the title-role – emotionally guarded in its earlier sullenness, before ascending to heights of rapture once her identity becomes known. Samuel Sakker evinces the necessary ardency as Thibault and though Paul Carey Jones is a little too suave to convey the viciousness of The Artist, his commanding presence is never in doubt. Sarah Minns has just the right coquettishness as Lili, while there are telling cameos from Laura Lolita Perešvana, Laura Woods and, especially, David Woloszko among those (too?) numerous smaller roles.

Whereas Delius’s opera had to wait 82 years for its premiere, Puccini’s Le Villi hit the stage within a year of completion then was revived twice before the end of the decade – by which time, this ‘opera-ballet’ had expanded to two acts. Therein lies the problem, as Ferdinando Fontana’s modish libretto seems stretched beyond its effectiveness as drama, the threadbare nature in much of the latter scenario requiring a narrative element merely to hold it together. That said, there are various opportunities for characterizing the three protagonists of which Puccini made the most, with the central symphonic intermezzo L’abbandono e La tregenda (the latter still heard as an encore) confirming a new orchestral sophistication in Italian opera. Theatrically flawed as it may be, Le Villi is an auspicious and undeniable statement of intent.

Here, too, the Lloyd-Evans-takis-Wiltshire staging works to the advantage of this drama, yet without over-egging the supernatural shenanigans; credit, also, to Jami Reid-Quarrell for his utilizing the relatively restricted stage-space such that the dance element seems both alluring and more than compensates for the flailing narrative. Vocally, Anne Sophie Duprels has the measure of Anna as she traverses the gamut of emotions from diffidence, through heartbreak to revenge, with a continuity of expression not to be taken for granted. Peter Auty has made a speciality of high tenor roles, but his Roberto needs greater fervency and warmth to offset its shrillness. Not so Stephen Gadd, whose Guglielmo has a burnished humanity that commands attention on his (too few?) appearances and a clarity ideally suited to delivering the narrative.

The latter opera also gains from a typically lusty contribution by Opera Holland Park Chorus – and, in both works, the City of London Sinfonia responds with commitment to the dynamic direction of Francesco Cilluffo, who teases out the many dramatic nuances with alacrity. The orchestral reductions by Andreas Luca Beraldo have been judiciously gauged in both cases -that for Margot ironically closer to the orchestration undertaken by Eric Fenby in the absence of Delius’s score and which was soon mothballed once the original had been relocated. The relative unfamiliarity of these operas is a coup such as OHP has regularly delivered over the years, and one which is well worth the attention of more than just those drawn to rare opera.

Further performances take place on 29 July, 31 July [2pm], 2, 4 and 6 August. For more information visit the Opera Holland Park website

On record – Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music Volume Five: Transcriptions of Purcell, Delius and Van Dieren (Christopher Guild) (Toccata Classics)

stevenson-5

Delius The Young Pianist’s Delius (1962, rev. 2005)
Purcell Toccata (1955); The Queen’s Dolour – A Farewell (1959); Hornpipe (1995); Three Grounds (1995)
Stevenson Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scotch Tune’ (1964, rev ’75)
Van Dieren String Quartet No. 5 (c1925, rev. 1931; transcr. c1948-1987); Weep You No More, Sad Fountains (1925, transcr, 1951); Spring Song of the Birds (1925, transcr. 1987)

Christopher Guild (piano)

Toccata Classics TOCC0605 [80’57”]

Producer / Engineer Adaq Khan

Recorded 5 – 6 September 2020, 5 January 2021 at the Old Granary Studio, Toft Monks, Norfolk

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Christopher Guild continues his survey of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music with this volume comprising transcriptions of Purcell, Delius and Van Dieren – the latter’s Fifth Quartet fairly exemplifying Stevenson’s dedication to the spirit as much as the letter of the music at hand.

What’s the music like?

The essence of Stevenson’s re-creative approach is evident in his Purcell transcriptions, not least the Toccata with its deft changes of register and tensile rhetoric where Busoni’s benign presence can be felt. A lighter and more playful manner is evident in the Hornpipe, whereas the Three Grounds point up conceptual as well as musical links with Bach and, through their forming a ‘sonatina’ of unlikely cohesion, Beethoven. Greater license is demonstrated in the Little Jazz Variations, surely among Stevenson’s most delightful pieces in its blurring of the ‘boundary’ between transcription and composition and enhanced by its discreet take on pre-bop jazz idioms. The Queen’s Dolour looks to the poignant final aria from Dido and Aeneas for what is one of the most characteristic and, moreover, affecting Stevenson transcriptions.

All these pieces have been previously recorded, but not the remainder of this programme. A pity that The Young Pianist’s Delius is not more widely known, as this cycle of 10 miniatures drawn from across the composer’s output is a gift to pianists who have little original Delius to work with, whereas listeners who are unfamiliar with or deterred from investigating this easily misunderstood figure could hardly hope for a more representative or appealing breviary of his music. It helps that Stevenson’s transcriptions are straightforward but not in the least didactic.

Two songs by Bernard van Dieren – gravely eloquent as regards Weep You No More or deftly effervescent in Spring Song of the Birds – have secured a measure of familiarity when heard as encores. Not so the Fifth Quartet, never recorded in its original guise, whose transcription occupied Stevenson over almost four decades. Premiered in its revision in 1931, this work is among the most substantial from its composer’s later years as it unfolds from a discursive (if never rhapsodic) sonata design, via circumspect and headlong intermezzi, to a lively scherzo then soulful Adagio – before a resolute finale offers closure. Tonal ambivalence and textural intricacy are borne out in this recasting in terms of piano which lasts five minutes longer than the Allegri Quartet’s 1988 broadcast; not that Guild’s reading seems to lose focus in any way.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Stevenson’s command of keyboard technique and, moreover, his placing of this at the service of the piece in question. To paraphrase his comments on Liszt – were the classical repertoire suddenly to disappear, much it could still be accessed through those transcriptions that he made over the greater part of his career. Nor is the technique required of a consistently advanced degree, with the Delius and several of the Purcell pieces accessible to most capable pianists, though the Van Diren quartet necessitates an ability not far short of the transcriber!

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Christopher Guild is a resourceful and probing guide to Stevenson’s art; his Steinway D heard to advantage and his booklet notes readably informative. One final thought – the Van Dieren Quartets positively cry out for an integral recording: how about it, Toccata Classics?

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. To find out more about the composer, visit the Ronald Stevenson Society, while for more on Christopher Guild, click here

Wigmore Mondays – Alessandro Fisher & Roger Vignoles: Nordic Tales

Alessandro Fischer (tenor, above), Roger Vignoles (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

With the Coronavirus pandemic now sadly in full swing, this was the last concert at the Wigmore Hall for some time, the venue now on an enforced break until mid-April at the earliest. It served as a reminder of just how lucky we are to be able to experience live music, and how good it is to have concerts such as this preserved on the radio.

This particular concert was a fascinating program of Nordic tales through the eyes of four composers of different nationality. BBC New Generation Artist Alessandro Fisher and the superb, ever-attentive Roger Vignoles cleverly constructed a program focusing on Scandinavia. Yet we saw it not just through the eyes of one of its favourite musical sons (Grieg) but through three others with strong connections – Robert Schumann (Germany), Frederick Delius (England) and Gunnar de Frumerie (Sweden).

Schumann’s 5 Lieder date from 1840, his famed year of song, and came about from his admiration of Hans Christian Andersen’s ability to blend the childlike and the grotesque in his stories. Each of the five songs behaves in a similar way musically. Märzveilchen (The March Violets) (2:32), are aptly timed here, with an appropriately breezy and outdoor air, Fisher’s clear voice adding to the sunny countenance. In Muttertraum (A mother’s dream) (4:10) a shadow falls over the music, drawing longer as the tenor describes the ominous appearance of a raven, all to the accompaniment of a beautifully shaped single line from Vignoles (below).

For Der Soldat (The soldier) (6:56) the muffled drum is vividly described by Schumann – and Vignoles – and Fisher’s voice takes on a declamatory form but reaches stunned silence at the end, when he realises he has killed his man. In Der Spielmann (The fiddler) (9:55), Fisher’s ringing voice tells of celebration but also an untimely death, before the final Verratene Liebe (Betrayed Love) (13:14) This brief song stays in genial mood despite its subject matter.

You can learn a lot about a composer’s output from their songs, and in the case of Grieg his songs reveal the work of a skilled tunesmith and an effortless ability to set a scene in next to no time. The songs here tell of those skills, and Fisher clearly loved performing them. He begins with two early works, the affectionate To brune Øjne (Two brown eyes) (15:50) and yearning Jeg elsker dig (I love you) (16:55).

Grieg’s depiction of En svane (The swan) is held in magical suspension by both Fisher and Vignoles (19:51), its serene progress leading to the flowing song Med en vandlilje (With a waterlily) (22:26). Prinsessen (24:55) has particularly special pleading from Fisher here, the prince’s entreaties to his beloved falling on deaf ears, while Fra Monte Pincio (28:02) has an urgent delivery, thinking of good times ahead.

To Delius, who visited Norway for a number of epic walks across the country, and whose relationship with the country remained close. He was good friends with Grieg, too, so it is perhaps inevitable they should both share common ground as excellent songwriters. The selection here begins with Twilight Fancies (34:40), Roger Vignoles shading the picture with distant horn fanfares and Fisher judging his vibrato ideally. The song sets a translation of the text used by Grieg in Prinsessen, and the different responses of the composers are fascinating in comparison.

Young Venevil (38:32) strains at the leash, impetuous but ultimately unlucky in love. The Nightingale (40:35) is airy and atmospheric, its chromatic movement nicely managed, while Longing (43:24) brings with it a surge of feeling through the flowing piano and Fisher’s ringing tone.

The music of Gunnar de Frumerie is seldom heard, but he is highly regarded among 20th century Swedish composers. The Songs of the Heart cycle features deeply intimate music, its subject matter woven into natural allegory. The six songs begin with the contemplative, almost rapturous When You Close My Eyes (47:58), then the pure You Make Everything Beautiful (50:10), which feels whiter than white. Blessed It Is To Wait (52:36) carries a feeling of impatience despite its title, before the profound From The Depths Of My Soul (54:16). You Are My Aphrodite (57:05) surges forward with great passion and intensity, Fisher’s effectively surfing the turbulent waves of the accompaniment. Finally Like A Wave (58:24) carries a Debussy-like humidity, sultry and ardent.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schumann 5 Lieder Op.40 (1840)
Grieg To brune Øjne Op.5/1, Jeg elsker dig Op.5/3 (1864), En svane Op.25/2, Med en vandlilje Op.25/4 (1876), Prinsessen (1871), Fra Monte Pincio Op.39/1 (1869-84)
Delius From Seven Songs from the Norwegian (1889-90): Twilight Fancies (34:40); Young Venevil (38:32); From Five Songs from the Norwegian (1888): The Nightingale (40:35); Longing (43:24)
de Frumerie Hjärtats sånger (Songs of the Heart) Op.27 (1942, rev. 1976) (47:58)

As an encore, once the Radio 3 microphones had departed, Fisher and Vignoles gave a brilliantly rendered account of Ian VenablesFlying Crooked, a comical but rather accurate portrayal of the flight of a butterfly, in this case a Cabbage White.

Further listening & viewing

Alessandro Fisher has not yet recorded the music given in this concert, but each song is included on the playlist below, in leading versions that include Anne Sofie von Otter’s account of Songs of the Heart:

Grieg’s songs are particularly worthy of further exploration, and these recordings from soprano Claire Booth and pianist Christopher Glynn are a great introduction to his craft:

von Otter meanwhile has recorded a disc of Swedish songs which include the works by Gunnar de Frumerie:

Finally Delius and his Norwegian connection, brilliantly explored in this vocal and orchestral collection from Danacord:

Live review – English Music Festival opening night: BBC Concert Orchestra & Martin Yates play Robin Milford, Stanford, Vaughan Williams & Arnold

Sergey Livitin (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra / Martin Yates

Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames
Friday 24 May 2019

Berners Portsmouth Point (1918) [World premiere]
Arnold Serenade Op.26 (1950)
Stanford Violin Concerto in D major (1875) [First public performance]
Vaughan Williams orch. Yates The Blue Bird (1913) [First public performance]
Delius A Song before Sunrise (1918)
Milford Symphony no.2 Op.34 (1933) [World premiere]

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Picture of BBC Concert Orchestra (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke

The 13th English Music Festival got off to an impressive start this evening, with Martin Yates presiding over the BBC Concert Orchestra for a substantial and wide-ranging programme that brought together the hitherto unknown and the relatively familiar in appropriate EMF fashion.

Who else would provide a platform for a first public performance of the Violin Concerto in D major that Stanford wrote at Leipzig in his mid-20s but which, despite the seeming approval of Joachim, remained unheard before being recorded two years ago. Admittedly the first movement rather outstays its welcome, the themes lacking memorability and a solo part not ideally contrasted with the orchestra, but the slow Intermezzo has an appealing poise; its cadenza artfully made an extended transition into the final Rondo (a procedure likely taken over from Wieniawski’s Second Concerto – the model in several respects), its winsome second theme brought back as a lingering coda prior to the closing flourish. Sergey Levitin proved an able and sympathetic soloist in a piece which, whatever its stylistic limitations, was certainly worth rehabilitating.

As too was the incidental music Vaughan Williams devised for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, idiomatically orchestrated from the piano score by Yates. This is essentially a ballet (or rather mime) sequence for the end of the first act, its series of thematically related dances striking a fantastical note such as the composer tellingly (if unexpectedly?) conveys. It may well have proved too ambitious in its original context though makes for a lively and imaginative suite, into whose whimsical spirit the BBCCO entered with evident enjoyment.

Malcolm Arnold’s Serenade exemplifies this composer’s early maturity with its pert melodic writing, harmonic ambiguity and rhythmic impetus. A Song before Sunrise is less often heard than other Delius miniatures, but its ruminative mood – barely ruffled by passing shadows, is no less characteristic. It could not have been more different from Lord Berners’s Portsmouth Point, redolent of early Prokofiev in its mechanistic aggression that, if it lacks the ebullience of Walton’s later overture, still packs an uninhibited punch when presented as a curtain-raiser.

The concert ended with its most intriguing item. Long considered a miniaturist (at least in his expressive scope), Robin Milford was not lacking in ambition – as reinforced by his Second Symphony (so designated following the rediscovery of its predecessor from six years earlier), admired by Vaughan Williams but only now receiving its first complete performance. Its four movements ostensibly reflect classical archetypes, but the first of these modulates ever more stealthily as it unfolds, while the scherzo’s latter trio unexpectedly opens-out the expressive range. The highlight is undoubtedly a slow movement of sustained and cumulative emotional depth, closer to Nielsen than Sibelius in tonal follow-through; after which, the (intentionally?) concise finale barely manages to provide a decisive resolution without seeming perfunctory.

Not in doubt was the commitment of the BBCCO and Yates in realizing this dark horse among British inter-war symphonies. A fitting end to an absorbing event: good to hear that orchestra and conductor will be returning for the 14th EMF – scheduled for May 20th–22nd next year.

Further listening

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on a date as yet unknown. Much of the music is not currently available in recorded versions on Spotify. However EM Records, the label who run the festival, made this enterprising release of Stanford‘s Violin Concerto no.2, coupled with Robin Milford‘s Violin Concerto no.2, both with soloist Rupert Marshall-Luck:

For more Robin Milford this album on Toccata Classics provides great insight into his writing for chamber music forces:

Meanwhile the following playlist includes the Malcolm Arnold and Delius works, the more familiar version of Portsmouth Point by Sir William Walton, and Arnold’s Symphony no.1:

On record: Mark Bebbington, RPO / Jan Latham-Koenig – Grieg & Delius: Piano Concertos (Somm)

Mark Bebbington (piano), Irene Loh (piano duet), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig

Delius
Piano Concerto in C minor (final version) (1907)
3 Preludes (1921)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (arr. by Peter Warlock for two pianos, 1913)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op.16 (1869)
Sketches for Piano Concerto no.2 in B minor (1881) (edited / orchestrated Robert Matthew-Walker

Avie SOMMCD269 [74’59”]

Recorded 1-2 August 2017 (Grieg) and 22 October (Delius)

Producers Siva Oke (Grieg), Paul Arden-Taylor (Delius)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Mark Bebbington continues his recording schedule for Somm with this enterprising coupling of concertos by Grieg and Delius, heard alongside shorter pieces and an unexpected novelty.

What’s the music like?

The novelty is the extant sketches for a ‘second piano concerto’ on which Grieg worked in the early 1880s, and which amount to some 150 bars. Robert Matthew-Walker has put these into performable shape, but it cannot be pretended the outcome is of more than passing interest. Bebbington also renders the sketches as a solo item and this might prove viable in terms of a recital addition or encore.

There are good things in his account of the A minor Concerto, the limpid interplay between soloist and orchestra in the central Adagio or raptness of response to the finale’s central episode with its ineffable flute melody, but the first movement is for the most part earthbound and the work’s apotheosis not free from bathos. Bebbington plays with scrupulous regard for dynamic nuance and timbral subtlety though, as in his recent account of the Gershwin concerto (SOMM260), the performance feels conscientious rather than inspired.

Fortunately. the remainder of this disc is far more persuasive. Heard here in its final version, Delius‘s Piano Concerto is a three-movements-in-one design whose occasional awkwardness of transition and tendency to rhetorical overkill is more than outweighed by the resourceful evolution of its ideas and the allure of its melodic contours. Bebbington duly responds with playing of sensitivity and panache, reinforcing the not inconsiderable claims of this work to a place in the standard repertoire.

Also featured here are the Three Preludes, their rhythmic vitality and improvisatory freedom more than usually in evidence, and a duet transcription by the teenage Peter Warlock (aka Philip Helseltine) of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring that is alone worth the price of the disc: its ruminative vistas deftly and unerringly uncovered.

Does it all work?

For the most part. Bebbington is up against several decades of stiff competition in the Grieg, and his reading does not offer any great revelations. The Delius, however, is arguably a front runner for this final version, while the fill-ups are of similarly high quality.

Is it recommended?

With reservations. The playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Jan Latham-Koenig is never less than responsive, with Irene Loh an able partner in the Delius. Sound is spacious if a little too resonant in tutti passages, and Matthew-Walker’s notes are a model of informed insight.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the release on the Somm Recordings website