BBC Proms #7 – Soloists, La Nuova Musica / David Bates: Purcell Dido and Aeneas

Purcell Dido and Aeneas (c1689)

Dido – Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Aeneas – James Newby (baritone)
Belinda – Gemma Summerfield (soprano)
Sorceress – Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano)
Second Woman – Nardus Williams (soprano)
Sailor – Nicky Spence (tenor)
Spirit – Tim Mead (countertenor)
First Witch – Helen Charleston (mezzo-soprano)
Second Witch – Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano)

La Nuova Musica / David Bates (harpsichord)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 19 July 2022 (late night)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

After the existential confrontations of Vaughan Williams and Tippett earlier this evening, the more restrained yet no less acute expression of Dido and Aeneas came as a necessary tonic – with Purcell’s only through-composed work for the stage leaving a memorable impression.

The nature of its conception might remain as conjectural as the circumstances of its premiere, but there can be no doubt that this opera’s blazed a trail over the centuries that followed. Not the least of its attributes is a formal economy and a tensile dramatic trajectory whose ‘less is more’ aspect could scarcely be more evident. Neither is there any lack of expressive diversity in a score where elements of levity, even slapstick are aligned with a dramatic acuity which draws the three short but judiciously balanced acts into a cohesive and inevitable continuity.

Tonight’s concert performance manifestly played to these strengths. For the title-roles, Alice Coote brought gravitas and nobility of spirit to that of Dido, with James Newby an impulsive while knowingly fickle Aeneas. It was, however, Gemma Summerfield who stole the show as Belinda in rendering this most dramatically fluid of the opera’s parts with an emotional force, latterly foreboding, that was never less than captivating. Madeleine Shaw was larger than life if never overly parodic as the Sorceress, with Tim Mead a plangent Spirit whose intervention (from the organ console) seals the fate of the main protagonists. Credit, too, to Nicky Spence for an uproarious yet winning cameo as the Sailor in a scene whose Village People campery seemed entirely apposite in context and hence made this opera’s outcome the more affecting.

Directing La Nova Musica from the harpsichord, David Bates never lost sight of the dramatic continuity while ensuring an exemplary balance between chorus and ensemble. The former responded with a judicious combination of eloquence and discipline, whereas the emphasis on a continuo section of theorbos, harps and even guitar opened out but never obliterated the bracing string sonorities. Tempos were almost invariably well chosen, and though the final chorus was undeniably drawn out, this reinforced its postludial function to the work overall.

The past 58 seasons have since Dido and Aeneas given complete on four previous occasions, each time reflecting on how the opera was perceived at the time. Tonight’s performance was such a statement, and one as reaffirmed its greatness some 333 years after the first staging.

For more information on the 2022 BBC Proms season, you can visit the festival website. For more on the artists, click on the names for La Nuova Musica and David Bates.

In concert – City of London Sinfonia @ Southwark Cathedral: Origin: This is CLS

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Monteverdi arr. Wick Toccata from ‘L’Orfeo’ (1607)
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Tabakova
Frozen River Flows (2005)
Finnis
The Centre is Everywhere (2019)
Vasks
Music for the fleeting birds (1977)
Tabakova
Origin (2022) (world premiere)
Carter
A Fantasy about Purcell’s ‘Fantasia on one note’ (1975)
Tavener
The Hidden Face (1996)

Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Dan Bates (oboe), City of London Sinfonia / Alexandra Wood (violin)

Southwark Cathedral, London
Thursday 3 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood

When the young Richard Hickox assembled a performing group in 1971, his vision was an extended family of talented musicians coming together to project the enjoyment of their art onto their audience.

Just over 50 years on, Hickox may sadly no longer be with us but his vision, realised by the City of London Sinfonia, burns with an ever brighter flame. This celebration in Southwark Cathedral may have been a year late, due to the consequences of the pandemic, but it brought everything together in a programme blending the old with the new.

Great credit should go to the orchestra’s creative director and leader, Alexandra Wood, for choosing music that looked simultaneously forwards and backwards, while utilising the vast spaces offered by the cathedral in inspiring and imaginative ways.

The audience were free to roam around during the concert, which was a considerable plus, for acoustic hotspots could be found and exploited, while it was also possible to stand to one side in contemplation. The mood was relaxed but focused, with audience members chosing a mixture of both options. The only danger of this was unexpectedly finding yourself in front of a group of instrumentalists when they were about to play, meaning the focus would suddenly shift in your direction! This was a risk well worth taking, for the rewards were many.

Before the concert, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Andrew Nunn, spoke warmly of the power of music to soothe the fevered mind, giving the pertinent Biblical example of David’s harp curing Saul’s war-torn temper, illustrated vividly by a stained-glass window depiction at the back of the church. The parallels with Russia and Ukraine were unmistakeable, and before the programme started everyone stood for the Ukraine national anthem.

The programme itself began under that very window, with Stephen Wick’s excellent arrangement of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the brass filling the cathedral from back to front with sonorous colours.

The baton then passed to the strings for an unforgettable account of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This work was written for performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, utilising the space in imaginative ways – and the City of London Sinfonia responded in kind, with the work’s solo group in the round in the nave, and the main body of the strings in the centre of the church. This was a deeply emotive performance, finding the intersection between the old of Tallis and Vaughan Williams’ own sweeping melodies and added-note harmonies. In doing so a composition that is often overplayed gained fresh insight, and, for your reviewer standing at the back of the church, a magical experience.

British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova has a close association with the Sinfonia. Frozen River Flows, an earlier work from 2005, appeared here in an arrangement for clarinet and percussion which was played in the south transept. This brightly coloured piece found Katherine Spencer’s clarinet evoking graceful lines not dissimilar to Poulenc, complemented by the richness of the vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals), expertly managed by Chris Blundell.

We also heard Tabakova’s music in the world premiere of Origin, written for this concert. It was a brief but meaningful celebration placing violin soloist Alexandra Wood in the nave, with the accompanying musicians under the tower. Wood’s role was that of virtuoso, but she managed it carefully so that slower contributions from the strings and vibraphone were ideally balanced. Tabakova has a talent for the immediate creation of an atmosphere, and this may have been a relatively minimal piece but it left a lasting impression.

Complementing this was another work in the round of the nave, as 12 string players assembled for Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everywhere. This was a wholly appropriate choice, the soloists creating unusual and original sounds. On occasion the music swelled like the bellows of an accordion, then subsided to a barely audible whisper, then appeared to be reaching beyond the cathedral for the skies above. Finnis has an unusual and remarkable habit of writing music that becomes an out of body experience, and The Centre is Everywhere shows there is still so much more to achieve when writing for stringed instruments.

The programme turned to wind instruments for a timely reference to the troubles in Ukraine. Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks wrote Fleeting Birds in 1977 as an expression of his need for freedom. Restricted from travelling by the Soviet authorities, he made his feelings known through music. The City of London Sinfonia winds walked the length of the cathedral as they played, turning from joyous expressions of freedom and release to statements soured by compression, reflecting the composer’s earthbound plight.

Freedom lay in Elliott Carter’s Purcell Fantasy, richly expressed by the brass around a persistent middle C, before cutting without a break to John Tavener’s Hidden Face for a final contemplation. The stillness of this work is deceptive, achieved through great virtuosity from solo oboe and a countertenor, singing text written by Mother Maria. Oboist Dan Bates and singer Hugh Cutting were superb throughout, the latter floating his words effortlessly above the prayerful strings, whose sonorous tones were the ideal match for Bates’s keening oboe, which also scaled unfathomable heights with impressive ease.

It was a fitting way to finish a deeply felt concert and celebration, that of a performing group who continue to do their founder proud. Like their musical choices, the City of London Sinfonia look to the future, embracing new advances as well as nurturing past achievements while they do so. They deserve to continue as a treasured feature of the capital’s music making.

To read more about the City of London Sinfonia, visit their website – and for more on composers Dobrinka Tabakova and Edmund Finnis, click on their names

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

In concert – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: A Covid Requiem

mirga-grazinyte-tyla

Adès O Albion (1994, arr. 2019)
Pärt
Fratres (1977, arr. 1991)
Purcell (arr. Britten)
Chacony in G minor Z730 (c1680, arr. 1948)
Barber
Adagio in B flat minor Op.11 (1935, arr. 1936)
interspersed with poetry readings by Casey Bailey
Fauré
Requiem in D minor Op.48 (1887-90, rev. 1893)

James Platt (bass), Casey Bailey (poet), CBSO Children’s Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Tomo Keller (violin/director), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 6 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Even if live music-making has gradually been returning to how it was, the (ongoing) legacy of Coronavirus could hardly be overlooked, thus a concert such as that given this evening by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a necessary act of remembrance for all the many concertgoers to have been affected by the pandemic. As befitted such an occasion, no speeches or prefatory remarks were needed, with the darkening of the auditorium during the performance a simple but effective gesture which helped focus musicians and listeners alike.

Strings only were onstage in the first half – Tomo Keller directing a sequence as began with O Albion, Thomas Adès’s arrangement of the sixth movement from his quartet Arcadiana, whose gentle pathos made for the ideal entrée. Arvo Pärt has written numerous memorials and while Cantus might have been more appropriate in this context than Fratres, the latter’s sparing deployment of percussion as to underline its ritualistic emergence then withdrawal conveyed no mean eloquence. Surprising, perhaps, that Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony is not heard more frequently on such occasions, its expressive intensification here informed by an acute rhythmic clarity. Barber’s Adagio is, of course, a staple at these times – the visceral emotion of its climax and subdued fatalism that ensues audibly conveyed here.

Interspersed between these pieces were poems by Casey Bailey, currently Birmingham Poet Laureate and whose readings were undeniably affecting in their sincerity – whether the heady reportage of 23.03.21 (a date no-one in the UK could hope to forget), the intimate evocation of Weight or graphic remembrance of Once. His appearances on stage were precisely judged as to segue into then out of the music either side and it was a pity when he did not take a call at the end of this first half, alongside the CBSO strings, given his contribution to proceedings.

Tomo Keller remained for the second half – adding ethereal counter-melodies to two of the sections in Fauré’s Requiem, whose 1893 version is without violins but with divided violas and cellos along with reduced woodwind and brass to make for a reading closer to the initial conception and certainly more apposite tonight. Her credentials in the choral repertoire well established, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a real sense of this work’s essential poise but without neglecting any deeper emotions. James Platt brought a ruminative warmth to the Hostias and Libera me, and it was an inspired touch to have the Pie Jesu sung in unison by the Children’s Chorus; its plaintiveness offsetting those richer tones of the Youth Chorus and CBSO Chorus, while opening-out the music’s textural and expressive range accordingly.

In one sense it would have been better had this concert not had to take place, given the legacy it commemorated (as was witnessed by the personal recollections occupying five pages of the programme) and yet, as those ethereal strains of the In Paradisum receded beyond earshot, a feeling of the Covid crisis having been recognized then overcome was palpable on the part of those present. Moreover, the CBSO’s next event is a performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – surely as transcendent and life-affirming an experience as could be hoped for.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Casey Bailey, click here, for James Platt click here, and for Tomo Kellner here

BBC Proms – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin : Knussen, Ravel & Benjamin

george-benjaminPierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin

Knussen The Way to Castle Yonder Op.21a (1988-90)
Purcell
(transc. Benjamin) Three Consorts (1680) [World premiere]
Ravel
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31)
Benjamin
Concerto for Orchestra (2021) [BBC co-commission: World premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 30 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The cancellation of last year’s Proms meant the loss of several pieces by George Benjamin in recognition of his 60th birthday. Tonight’s concert, featuring the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with whom this composer-conductor has often collaborated, provided something of a redress.

The programme (its hour-long duration not unreasonably given without interval) began with The Way to Castle Yonder, a brief yet potent ‘potpourri’ from Oliver Knussen’s second opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! as amply conveys the aura of winsome yet ominous playfulness that suffuses the larger work. While they enjoyed a 40-year friendship, Benjamin’s own aesthetic is appreciably removed from that of the older composer so that a detachment, even aloofness was evident – without, however, detracting from this music’s always deceptive whimsicality.

Transcriptions of Renaissance and Baroque sources have been a mainstay of post-war British music, Three Consorts following an established pattern with Benjamin’s take on these Purcell miniatures underlining their intricate textures and piquant harmonies. The (to quote Benjamin) ‘‘visionary moment of harmonic stasis near the middle’’ of In nomine 1 went for little, with the ‘‘mesmerising intersection of line and harmony’ in Fantasia 7 effecting a Stravinskian objectivity, but the understated humour of Fantasia upon One Note was tellingly delineated.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard then joined Benjamin and the MCO in a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major that, though it had precision and refinement in abundance, was almost entirely lacking in the qualities that define this music’s essential persona. The opening Allegramente evinced a desiccated manner with such as the blues-inflected coyness of its transitions or the heart-stopping stasis prior to the reprise of the second theme going for little, while the central Adagio took on an all-enveloping inertia as it unfolded – the inward rapture of its expressive apex then the pathos of its ensuing cor anglais dialogue all too enervated in their repose. The closing Presto drew an incisive response from pianist and orchestra alike, but here again any sense of this music’s more provocative demeanour was absent from the prevailing stolidity.

Aimard returned for an animated reading of Benjamin’s early Relativity Rag which provided an admirable entree into the world premiere of the latter’s Concerto for Orchestra. Unfolding as a continuous span (a pause just past its mid-point may be structurally meaningful) across a little over 15 minutes, this is typical of Benjamin’s recent music in its systematic – but rarely predictable – formal trajectory and alluring emotional reticence. The various instruments are highlighted singly or in groups in what becomes an intensifying progression, albeit without a tangible momentum, to a climax which brings first violins to the fore, before subsiding into a close of serene equivocation. Superbly realized by the MCO, for whom it was written, this is a thoughtful addition to a genre in which ‘display’ has all too readily become the watchword.

One final thought – at his untimely death, Oliver Knussen had several large-scale orchestral works in progress and maybe even nearing completion. Might it not still be feasible to bring at least one of the pieces to performance? The UK music scene would be all the richer for it.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Sir George Benjamin, and on the performers’ names for more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.