Tuesday 30 January 2018

"A singing nation": Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Writing a brief post in the middle of the night, as I'm still on something of a high from hearing the wonderful Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir perform at Milton Court - the Barbican's young and sprightly smaller-scale venue - this evening. (I owe the title of this post to Estonia's Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, no less, who was a guest of honour at tonight's concert.)

Ever since taking a trip to Tallinn some years ago, I've had a bit of a long distance love affair with Estonia. Mrs Specs and I still haven't managed to realise our plan to go back and see more of the country - but in the meantime I've been keeping the flame alive largely through enjoying a handsome amount of Estonian music. (Particularly helpful here was the superb Eesti Fest at King's Place in London, curated by Fiona Talkington of BBC Radio 3's 'Late Junction'.)

This hasn't been strictly limited to classical works. For example, Estonia is home to some brilliantly individual folk/black metal bands, among them Loits, Human Ground, Taak and Metsatöll. I managed to see Metsatöll live when they came over to the UK, and they were astonishing. Most of the members looked as you might expect metallers to look: all hair and guitar. Yet one of them took the stage seemingly wearing every type imaginable of Estonian traditional instrument, overlaying the riffs with all manner of exotic (to me) sounds and textures.

But we're concerned with classical here. The most widely-known (and perhaps as a result, most widely-loved) Estonian composer is almost certainly Arvo Pärt. But joining him on the must-listen roll-call are Tõnu Kõrvits, Cyrillus Kreek, Veljo Tormis and Errki-Sven Tüür.

(Photo of the EPCC by Kaupo Kikkas, from the Choir's website.)

Tonght's concert was one of the year's first to commemorated Estonia's 100th birthday - and the EPCC had chosen to perform a more or less all-Estonian programme. (The exceptions were two pieces by Jonathan Harvey - both quite lovely but, in my opinion, slightly out of place.)

The first half was given over to the hypnotic serenity of Pärt's music, highlights for me being the 'Magnificat' and 'Nunc dimittis' that appear on the Choir's latest recording, along with the powerfully direct 'The Woman with the Alabaster Box'. These glorious rendition inspired a somewhat devout response from the audience, held rapt, with no applause given (or invited) until the interval. The second half was a bit more chilled out - and gave full rein to the Choir's versatility. Alongside the Harvey, we heard a pair of gorgeous Psalm settings by Kreek, and finally two pieces by Tormis. The closing song was a tour de force: the mythological, almost surreal 'Raua needmine', or 'Curse upon Iron', which gave us a pounding, ritualistic drum (one of the tenors having the time of his life), underpinning evocative and at times terrifying vocal effects. A stunning climax to an evening characterised by conductor Kaspars Putniņš's ability to draw a wide range of dynamics from his singers, allowing many of them the chance to shine as individuals amid the collective sound.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC iPlayer Radio this evening, and will stay on line for a month: so broadly speaking, if you're reading this before the end of February 2018, you can find the concert here. Please take the time to give it a listen.

Since this post will be around for much longer than a month, I tried to find versions of the pieces in tonight's set already recorded by the EPCC, to put together as a Spotify playlist. I was partially successful - here are eight selections, giving you a handy 50-minute digest. Hope you end up loving this choir as much as I do...

Friday 19 January 2018

Head girl: 'Salome' at the Royal Opera House

It's been a week since I went to see the current revival of David McVicar's production of the Richard Strauss opera 'Salome' at the ROH - and I'm possibly still recovering.

I wasn't completely new to the piece - I'd seen a powerful concert performance at the Proms with a terrifying Nina Stemme in the title role. But I was looking forward to seeing how a fully-staged version would deal with the still-shocking ferocity of the plot's action: this time, there would be blood.

The opera takes place more or less in real time, and runs uninterrupted for a single act. Herod, ruler of Judaea, keeps the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist) a prisoner in the bowels of his palace. The princess Salome - daughter of Herodias, Herod's wife and sister-in-law - slips away mid-banquet and heads downstairs. Hearing Jokanaan bellowing his sermons and curses from his cell, Salome charms the soldier Narraboth (who loves her) into letting her see the seer. Consumed with passion for Jokanaan, Salome attempts to seduce him but is harshly rebuffed. She barely notices Narraboth kill himself with grief at witnessing her display.

Herod - accompanied by his fellow diners - arrives on the scene and lusts after Salome. Initially detached and resistant, Salome agrees to dance for him when he promises her anything she desires. After the notorious 'Dance of the Seven Veils', Salome declares she wants Jokanaan's head on a silver platter. Herodias - a target of Jokanaan's invective - is delighted, but Herod - who is spiritually troubled and intimated by Jokanaan's aura of divine authority - refuses, offering untold riches instead.

However, Salome does not waver. Eventually, Herod gives in and orders Jokanaan's execution. Salome finally crosses the line into obsessive insanity, cradling the severed head and kissing its lifeless lips. In horror, Herod has her killed as the opera ends.

(Michael Volle as Jokanaan and Malin Byström as Salome, photographed for the ROH website by Clive Barda)

The ROH staging pulls no punches. Set in a slightly 'hyper-real' modern timeframe - characters in recognisable military/fascistic garb and country-house aristo black tie, but with executions meted out by enormous cleavers and prison doors sealed with chains and pulleys - we only catch a glimpse of the decadent feast above stairs. The main action plays out in the grimy expanse of the kitchens just above Jokanaan's dungeon. No-one entering this space leaved uninfected.

The set design seems to grow organically from the interior state of the characters (this reminded me of McVicar's astonishing staging of 'Pelléas et Mélisande' for Scottish Opera, which I was lucky enough to see last year). The prison cell is sealed by a circular lattice grille, on which the smitten Salome can sprawl like a predatory spider. However, the stairs also lead from the feast down to the main kitchen space through a circular aperture, mirroring the cell and identifying the overall stage area as a larger dungeon or tomb where the protagonists are trapped.

The production also exploits the one-act structure and relentless build-up of tension to give the opera a near-cinematic feel. Nowhere is this more masterful than in the 'Dance of the Seven Veils'. This instrumental section - essentially, at face value, a striptease - must present every director of 'Salome' with a conundrum. There have been productions where the soprano has, well, gone for it - while others have used dancers, or found alternative ways to interpret or illustrate it.

In a superb visual coup, McVicar uses the Dance as the only moment we escape the main set's claustrophobia. The walls explode apart and recede, allowing Salome to lead Herod through a series of rooms in suspended, semi-darkness. It's a full-blown. filmic dream sequence. As a possibly ironic double commentary on the salacious nature of the scene, it's Salome's psyche that's laid bare, as she tries on a series of costumes that reference stages in her life up to that point, including her likely abuse by Herod at a much earlier stage of her childhood. Her disturbed nature is already in place long before the opera opens. Parallels from cinema came into my head, much more so than other opera or stage works: Polanski's 'Repulsion', say, or even Miike's 'Audition'.

(Malin Byström as Salome, photographed for the ROH website by Clive Barda)

There is as much intensity in the sound as in the visuals. The role of Salome herself is famously difficult - the ROH publicity repeats Strauss's quote that the part is for 'a 16-year old with the voice of an Isolde' - but Malin Byström is utterly convincing. Every aspect of Salome's fractured personality is there in her vocal performance - coquettish towards Narraboth, lustful with (the living) Jokanaan, steely and scornful with Herod and finally, searing, unhinged as she falls, drenched in blood, on the prophet's head. On top of that, her body language was brilliantly realised - agitated, slightly awkward (this is a teenager, after all) as she schemes to gain access to Jokanaan, but with real balletic grace for the dream-state Dance.

The support was equally fine, with Michael Volle a particular stand-out as Jokanaan. Like MB, Volle gave a memorably complete interpretation: his immense vocal power allowed the prophet to sound as commanding from deep within his cell as onstage - but physically, this John was a restless, caged animal, all shuffling, feral movements, hair mixed with brawn, barely able to tolerate the decadence around him.

An unforgettable evening, then, that will take you to dark places other than the auditorium - and as I write this, there are still some tickets left for the final three performances. Go if you can.

Saturday 6 January 2018

Retrospecstive 2017: live

Happy new year, everyone. I hope your 2018 will be full of music, alongside many other good things.

Whatever its other shortcomings, I can at least say my 2017 was packed with musical highlights. Here is my usual annual round-up of the live events (concerts and opera) I enjoyed the most. If you'd like to read about my CDs of the year, please take a look here.

In the meantime, on with the show(s)...


English National Opera: 'The Day After', 'Marnie' and much, much more...

It's hard to overstate the pleasure this company has given me over the year, so much so that I can feel my step gain some extra buoyancy whenever I'm heading for the Coliseum. Whatever difficulties they have faced behind the scenes (and there have been plenty, well-documented), there is never any question that what we see on stage is full-on, 100% dedication and commitment. I'm not trying to make out that everything they ever do is 'perfection' - you can't say that about anyone or anything - more that their hit-rate for somehow nailing exactly what I love about going to the opera is astonishingly high.

I've heard some fantastic lead performances: the knockout trio of Sarah Tynan, Patricia Bardon and Rupert Charlesworth in 'Partenope', the great pairing of Rebecca Evans and Tim Mead in 'Rodelinda' and Latonia Moore's powerful 'Aida'. ENO has also presented two excellent premieres. Earlier in the year, Ryan Wigglesworth's 'The Winter's Tale' featured heartrending work from Iain Paterson and Sophie Bevan... and - in my opinion - the even more exceptional 'Marnie', Nico Muhly's latest opera, which gave the superb mezzo Sasha Cooke the opportunity to shine in a complex, compelling role.

But the absolute backbone of ENO - its foundation and supports - are the fantastic orchestra and chorus. The greater the opportunity to foreground this supremely talented crew, the greater the achievements. Examples include the dramatic presentation of 'The Dream of Gerontius' at the South Bank and in particular, the ENO Studio Live performances, where the company went almost 'back to basics', taking over their rehearsal space and staging smaller works in a kind of off-the-leash guerrilla spirit. Members of the chorus took some of the lead roles in Jonathan Dove's 'The Day After', resulting in unforgettable performances from soprano Claire Mitcher. mezzo Susanna Tudor-Thomas and bass Robert Winslade Anderson.

More power to you all, ENO folk.

Leif Ove Andsnes, Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall

Simply seeing these two walk onstage together caused this piano fanboy to have a bit of a 'moment', but for all their individual star power, they played in the complete service of each other and the music. The centre pieces of the programme were Stravinsky works for two pianos - including a jaw-droppingly intense arrangement of 'The Rite of Spring'. Pleasingly, Hyperion is bringing out a CD - available in the next few weeks, I believe - documenting the collaboration.

BBC Symphony Orchestra performing 'Doctor Atomic' (Barbican) and 'Khovanshchina' (Proms, Royal Albert Hall)

Two very different - but equally brilliant - part-staged/concert performances of operas you don't get to see every day. As part of a variety of 70th birthday events, John Adams himself turned up to conduct his own work, featuring Gerald Finley (who created the Oppenheimer role), and - among a group of fine soloists, some favourite singers of mine - Marcus Farnsworth and Jennifer Johnston. The Proms performance of Mussorgsky's epic national opera simply blew me away - in particular the overwhelming power of the choral writing (performed here by four choirs!) and Elena Maximova's superb portrayal of Marfa.

Alice Coote, Julius Drake: Schubert at Wigmore Hall

One of THE great recitals at Wigmore Hall, probably in recent memory: a cherry-picked selection of many of Schubert's finest songs, brought to transcendent life by surely one of his most searching and passionate interpreters, Alice Coote. The intimacy of the venue allowed AC's abilities as an actor-singer to come across with maximum impact - from the tenderness of 'Du Bist die Ruh', through the lilt of 'An Silvia', to the horror of 'Erlkonig': all were brought to vivid, distinct life.

The musical chemistry the duo share was audible, with Julius Drake's accompaniment matching AC every step of the way. Their forthcoming Schubert CD will be an absolute must.

The December Quartets (The Harrison, London)

This was a modest, one-off event of improvised music featuring Spyros Giasafakis and Evi Stergiou of Greek band Daemonia Nymphe, cellist-composer Jo Quail from London, UK, and Belgian classical/jazz vocalist Lucie Dehli. While there is some history of collaboration - and heaps of mutual respect - between these acts, I believe this was the first time all four had shared a stage to create music together.

I only bring geography into it, because that was a key part of the evening's success. DN are an intriguing group who write music for ancient Greek instruments, and for many of the pieces they created the sound 'platform' so to speak, for the cello and vocal to dovetail and dance around. While tracks from both DN's catalogue and Jo Q's recordings provided some starting points, the feeling that anything could happen gave the concert real electricity, only made more intense in the 50-odd capacity miniature venue. It's easy to speak of 'merging or mixing genres' but for an hour or two here, it really was like catching a glimpse into music-making that managed to be classical/world/jazz all at once, with no audible joins. The warmth between the artists was visible as well as audible - and it's worth pointing out that LD could only make it to UK shores shortly before the gig... then came on and, basically, smashed it - a really vibrant, intoxicating performance that clearly wowed her onstage collaborators as well as the rest of us. Hopefully, lightning will strike twice and there'll be another December Quartets event in due course.

'The Exterminating Angel' (The Royal Opera)

Based on the Luis Bunuel film of the same name, Thomas Adès's new opera presents the audience with the same enigma as the movie. An array of dinner party guests, once gathered in a single room, find they're inexplicably unable to leave. (They're not locked in, or incapacitated. The barrier is either invisible, psychological, or in some other way supernatural.) Days go by, and before one of the characters suddenly identifies a possibly way to break the spell, their veneer of society manners will have broken down completely. The work seemed to divide audiences and critics, but I recall it as a somewhat thrilling event - the score was a ruthless exercise in creating unease and mounting tension, and the need for an ensemble cast brought together a generation-spanning pantheon of dream singers, including Christine Rice, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sally Matthews, Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, Thomas Allen, John Tomlinson... all operating well outside what you might call an ROH 'comfort zone'. Blackly funny, disturbing fare.

The 'Little Greats' Season (Opera North)

Such a brilliantly-realised achievement. A series of short operas, too rarely staged, each performed with massive enthusiasm, loving attention and innovative flair. Wildly varying in style/content but given an aesthetic unity through the clever, economic production design: the more of the six you were able to see, the more connections you could make. Highlights for me were the searing, almost post-modern 'Osud' (Janacek) and the unblinking, yet tender, domestic drama 'Trouble in Tahiti' (Bernstein). By a happy coincidence, these were the two picked up for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 - still on iPlayer at the time of writing, here.

Joseph Middleton... with the Myrthen Ensemble, Clara Mouriz, Carolyn Sampson

As I previously touched on in my 'CDs of the year' post, the pianist Joseph Middleton is both a brilliant collaborator and master programmer. His art song 'supergroup' the Myrthen Ensemble performed a joyous entry in Wigmore Hall's 'Complete Schubert' series, and he also accompanied one of their number, mezzo Clara Mouriz, in a wonderful, wide-ranging lunchtime recital, 'Songs of the Antique'.

However, his ongoing partnership with Carolyn Sampson continues to deliver highlight after highlight. Their recital 'Reason in Madness' (also to become a CD in due course) presents a series of luckless heroines - Mignon, Bilitis, Ophelia - as immortalised in first German, then French art song. In a single evening, we moved from Schubert, Brahms and Wolf to Duparc, Debussy and Saint-Saens - and more besides. The climax of the evening arrived with a bravura performance of Poulenc's miniature one-woman opera, 'La dame de Monte Carlo'. The concert combined humour, tragedy, sensuality, violence, pathos - just outstanding in every respect.

'Passages' (Proms, Royal Albert Hall)

What the slightly surreal and hallucinatory Light Night Prom experience is all about - a chance to hear an atypical work in impossibly grand surroundings, and go back out into the night transported, even slightly changed. Here the collaborative album made by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar was beautifully revived, pairing sitar genius Anoushka Shankar (R's daughter) and her team of Indian musicians with the spirited and perennially up-for-it Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Glass specialist Karen Kamensek. KK's brilliant mastery of the material enabled the musicians to move past any clichéd notions of 'minimalist' playing into a deeply-felt fusion of two distinct soundworlds.

'Pelléas et Mélisande' (Scottish Opera)

Everything about this production soared. The orchestra (under Stuart Stratford) captured the almost sinister shifting shimmer of Debussy's score, and the cast shone as much for their persuasive acting as their singing - especially Roland Wood's wracked Golaud and Alistair Miles's memorable, sympathetic Arkel. But - making her role debut as Mélisande, with a complex characterisation blending lithe playfulness with unknowable pathos - it was Carolyn Sampson's evening. Her brilliance in French song must have also contributed to her sounding as natural as air in the part. Add to this a superb David McVicar production that, in the staging itself, manages to move you at the same time as pulling you up short with its dramatic intelligence - you have the perfect night at the opera.

Matthew Rose, Gary Matthewman: 'Winterreise' at Wigmore Hall

I wanted to mention one of the most powerful, heartfelt - yet unusual - 'Winterreise' renditions I've seen. Possessed of a profoundly emotive, resonant bass voice, MR is a subtle, even modest, performer to whom any notion of grandstanding seems completely alien. He sang the cycle in virtual darkness to the side of the stage, allowing us to focus on a projected sequence of beautiful images created by artist Victoria Crowe. In recognition that the 'reality' of this cycle is far removed from a besuited figure in a concert hall, this approach took us out of that space and - for all its visual allure - placed even greater emphasis on the songs themselves.

Trio Mediaeval with Nils Økland at Wigmore Hall

Trio Mediaeval's visits to Wigmore Hall tend to be red-letter evenings for me, those three pristine voices fitting that fine acoustic like a glove. Accompanied by violinist Økland, they gave a Yuletide-themed recital - ranging as ever from early music, to traditional Scandinavian folk tunes, right up to contemporary compositions: here represented by 'Lux', a new piece by Andrew Smith. Performing with no interval, a mood of immaculate beauty was maintained throughout - harmonies, sounding both familiar and alien, enveloping the audience in winter warmth.