Thursday 31 May 2018

Wigmore Wednesdays

I didn't want to let a couple of recent Wigmore Hall concerts pass by unmentioned on the blog, both providing that much-needed midweek lift on two Wednesday evenings in May. The gigs were completely separate, and in many ways couldn't have been more different (within the parameters of art song). However, both are linked in my mind by how they showcased what brilliant communicators all four of the artists are - it always feels like a particular treat when the performers seem to speak to you as well as sing.

To recall the more recent gig first: Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano, accompanied by Simon Lepper on piano, gave a performance of French melodies, along with Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder - brilliantly sustaining the theme of intense passion throughout the whole evening.

The bar was set high from the outset, with a superb performance of one of my all-time favourites, Hahn's 'A Chloris'. It's quite a forthright song - a declaration rather than a surrender - and some of the best renditions I've heard resist over-sentimentalising it. So it was here, with SL giving the accompaniment a march-like wilfulness, leaving KC to caress the air above the notes.

As you might expect from someone with so much presence on the opera stage, KC finds the character's emotional centre in every song, and brings them to life visually with seemingly second-nature expressions and body language. Her tone is so warm and generous, yet she controls the dynamics of her voice to spine-tingling effect in the Hall - unafraid to indulge in a low-key smoulder, before unleashing (in Duparc's 'Phidylé', say) its full power for maximum ecstasy. SL is an ideal foil for someone with such a rich sound (check out his Schubert disc with tenor Ilker Arcayürek) - unfailingly delicate, it's as though his piano lines dance 'through' the vocal rather than lie beneath it.

Placing the Wagner at the end of the gig was genius programming - with such a build-up of intensity, we were fully primed for the group of songs that paved the way for 'Tristan und Isolde'. Sure enough, the two themes in particular that made their way into that opera, 'Im Treibhaus' and 'Träume' were unforgettably sublime.

Rewind to the Wednesday before that: I heard Roderick Williams sing Schubert's final song cycle, 'Schwanengesang', accompanied by Iain Burnside. This was something of an event, as RW and IB had performed all three Schubert cycles at Wigmore Hall in a single season - so, it was very much part 3 of a 'trilogy' and had the pleasing atmosphere you might associate with the fulfilment of an ambition.

'Pleasing atmosphere' is perhaps not the phrase you'd associate most readily with 'Schwanengesang'. After the deliberate storytelling of 'Die Schöne Müllerin' and 'Winterreise', it's something of an oddity. While it seems clear Schubert intended the songs to be performed together, there is no real narrative: the cycle is made up of seven songs setting verse by Ludwig Rellstab that mostly deal with absent lovers, then six based on similarly bereft poems by Heinrich Heine. The cycle is now almost always performed with Schubert's very final song, 'Die Taubenpost' (words by Johann Gabriel Seidl), at its close.

The songs that make up 'Schwanengesang' were written very near the end of Schubert's life. He knew time was running out (in the end, it was his publisher who named and issued the cycle after the composer's death). So, it's natural to look for doom and gloom in 'Schwanengesang', and you will find it - perhaps most starkly in the terrifying 'Der Doppelgänger'.

But it seemed to me that RW and IB were onto something a little different, and I heard things in this performance that made me think about the cycle afresh.

RW is renowned as a masterful interpreter of English song. I wonder if performing that repertoire to UK audiences over the years - engaging the listeners head-on, sure in the knowledge they are understanding every word - has fed directly into his approach to Schubert and other art song in different languages. So personable, intimate and involving were his renditions that I felt I was with him every step of the way, feeling every syllable without needing to follow the text in the programme.

He has a baritone's 'heft', as you would expect, but there's also a kind of malleable, warm flexibility to the voice, something that conveys agility, vigour. IB's robust, fleet accompaniment drove them forward, bringing out something assertive in the more upbeat songs ('Frühlinggssensucht', 'Das Fischermädchen') and even charging the immortal 'Ständchen' with a near-spiky electricity.

Schubert died so young that, while his style audibly developed, there is no true 'mature', or even 'late' work, as we would normally understand those terms. In the hands of this duo, the energy that Schubert may have lacked in life is still vibrant in his music: writing against the dying of the light.

(All photos taken from artist or artist management sites. Credits: KC - K.K.Dundas, SL - Robert Workman, RW - Groves Artists, photographer unknown?, IB - Gerard Collett.)

Saturday 26 May 2018

Twit parade: some (more) of my favourite songs...

In the heady, halcyon days of autumn 2016, I joined in when some of the classical music folk I know and love on Twitter started sharing some of their favourite songs, using the entirely sensible hashtag #SomeOfMyFavouriteSongs. Everyone occupied the hot seat for a week, posting a song a day - then, seven selections later, would hand the baton onto someone else.

I archived my choices in a blog post here, with a few sneaky 'bubbling under' inclusions bringing the playlist up to 10.

This year, we all pitched in for a second round. I still tried to keep to my arbitrary rules (essentially: choose a different composer every day, to avoid just posting Schubert). But even without my trying or consciously thinking about it, I drifted towards a few more selections away from the usual voice/piano template - so this time round, there's two guitars, two orchestras, and a lute.

As before, here are my choices saved for posterity - along with another three extra songs for added value! I hope you enjoy them.


Ireland: 'Sea Fever', performed by Roderick Williams and Julius Drake.

Britten: 'The Big Chariot', performed by Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Wang.

Hahn: 'Néère', performed by Véronique Gens and Susan Manoff.

Schubert: 'Nachtstück', performed by Christoph Prégardien and Tilman Hoppstock.

Cara: 'Fugga pur chi vol amore', performed by Carolyn Sampson and Robert Meunier.

Glass: 'Evening Song', performed by Douglas Parry (from 'Satyagraha').

Adams: 'Batter my heart', performed by Gerald Finley (from 'Doctor Atomic').

Bonus tracks!

Schubert: 'Suleika I', performed by Gundula Janowitz and Irwin Gage.

Chausson: 'L'albatros', performed by Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Daniel Blumenthal.

Simon & Garfunkel: 'For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her'. (This feels to me as much an 'art song' as a pop or folk number. I think it's because it travels exactly where it needs to.)

Monday 14 May 2018

Class act: 'Lessons in Love and Violence' at the Royal Opera House

The 2012 opera 'Written on Skin' is a modern phenomenon. Already widely produced, with the Royal Opera House reviving it a mere four years after its first run there, its place in the repertoire seems assured. And no wonder: it's such a striking, original work - I feel sure that its stature will only grow further as the years pass.

'Written on Skin' was composed by George Benjamin, with words by Martin Crimp. (Crimp describes his contribution as 'text for music', rather than a libretto.) Although they had worked together before, it was their first full-length opera. Quite a debut.

Now, their new collaboration, 'Lessons in Love and Violence', is in its premiere run at Covent Garden. I could not have been more excited about seeing this, than if you'd wired me up to an excitement machine and turned it up to 'maximum excitement'. At the same time, I realised that I was a little concerned - how do you follow up something so well-received? Reproduce it, almost? Or 'reject' it and go to another extreme? A halfway-house?

In the end, I needn't have worried: I think their solution is clever, intriguing and masterful.

The source story is essentially the tale of Edward II - possibly most familiar as depicted in Christopher Marlowe's play (although I won't forget certain parts of Derek Jarman's film adaptation in a hurry). In Crimp's treatment, a number of key characters remain the same, but King and kingdom are unnamed, and the action is pared down with scalpel-like precision.

While society seems on the brink of collapse through war and poverty, the King lavishes endless riches and attention on his favourite - and lover - Gaveston. Isabel, the Queen, appears at first to tolerate - if not relish - the situation. The army supremo Mortimer tries to make the King see sense, but Gaveston manages to provoke Mortimer into seeming disloyal. The King promptly banishes Mortimer, setting in motion a chain reaction of horrific events where no character escapes the consequences of their actions.

(The brilliant production photos are by Stephen Cummiskey, copyright ROH. Here is Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as the King, and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston.)

The opera is so new, I'm actually reluctant to include specific 'spoilers'. If you don't know the story of old and resist reading the programme's synopsis beforehand, you'll reap the benefit in extra suspense.

The whole approach of 'Lessons', I think, is interesting in itself. The key creative team returns from the first production of 'Written on Skin': that is, as well as Benjamin and Crimp, we have the same director, Katie Mitchell, and set/costume designer, Vicki Mortimer. Covent Garden regulars will no doubt remember her 'split-screen' production of 'Lucia di Lammermoor' (with the stage divided in two, so you saw what the 'off-stage' characters were doing on one side, with the main events unfolding on the other). which along with 'Written on Skin' showed an interest in controlling and compartmentalising the vast space of the ROH stage. With 'Lessons' it's no different: this time, the space significantly reduced almost to a widescreen cinema screen size, emphasising the claustrophobic dead-ends the characters find themselves in. The compact staging also allows the main room, where we see most of the action play out, to 'move' between scenes, changing our view of what is - and isn't - 'on-screen'. You could also suggest that the casting of soprano Barbara Hannigan, who created the role of Agnès in 'WoS', is a further point of reference between the two - but more of that a bit later.

So.... why are we opera-goers (those of us in the UK / London, at any rate) being invited - dared, even - to deliberately compare 'Lessons' with 'WoS'? Is it meant to be a kind of sequel? Did 'getting the band back together' seem like a safe option? I think there's considerably more to it.

Obviously, I've no idea what they'll do next, but it seems to me there's a 'Benjamin and Crimp project'. I've always been drawn to authors, composers and artists that repeatedly explore ideas that matter to them in myriad different ways (off the top of my head: the novels of William Golding, the music of Philip Glass, the photographs of Andreas Gursky), and I wonder if we are seeing something similar develop here. It isn't just the themes they choose to explore - the relevance that distant, historical crimes can still have to our behaviour today; the turmoil of confused sexuality; the terrible, hereditary effects of abuse; what strength and weakness really are; what happens when the line separating life and art goes out of focus...

GB and MC also seem to be fashioning their own 'form' of opera. I think it's telling, in a genre that has traditionally venerated the composer over the librettist, that GB and MC are very much seen as a partnership. (I think - love 'em or loathe 'em - that you can see a similar relationship in recent years between John Adams and Peter Sellars, working towards a kind of impressionistic 'reportage' version of the genre that's entirely their own patch.) Benjamin's music and Crimp's words are so closely-linked that the score clings to the vocal lines like hands around a twisting rope, and the never-ending tense rumble of the orchestra (on terrific form) veers as much into sound design as any kind of conventional musical accompaniment. A brief example - as many of you will recall, often before going in to see a play or opera with some violence in it, you'll see a 'Warning! Act 1 contains a gunshot' sign, or similar, and sure enough, when the moment comes you get an almighty bang of a sound-effect. Although a gun is fired onstage in 'Lessons', the sound is made entirely within the orchestra itself. Elsewhere, as characters collapse or go off the rails, the score seems to 'break' along with them, like a coiled spring finally snapping. In another section, what I'll only refer to as the 'palm reading' music, for a matter of seconds, plays like a soundtrack might, forcing you into a state of terrible anticipation...

Voices in similar registers blend and clash - the intimacies of the male lovers are expressed by two baritones as King and Gaveston, while further sexual tension is generated between Isabel (soprano) and Mortimer (tenor) - so every duet feels very 'close', narrow and intense. At times, it feels there is barely any room to breathe.

Along with Mitchell, Benjamin and Crimp have created a universe of sorts, which is characterised by a sense of the detached supernatural - 'Wos' had its angels struggling to make sense of the protagonists' impulses, 'Lessons' gives Gaveston an enigmatic aura that moves from his ability to manipulate the King into something even more dangerous. Mitchell and Mortimer (Vicki, not army chap) use certain devices - characters slow their movements down to freeze time, clothes and one's state of dress/undress take on symbolic significance - that echo the earlier opera, without re-playing it.

I rate both operas so highly that I honestly couldn't express a preference - especially after only one 'listen' to the new one. But there are plenty of ways where 'Lessons' arguably takes a great leap forward in the execution. For sure, it doesn't have a figure to touch the heart in the way that Agnès did in 'WoS'. However - it has bent a 'bigger' source (the relatively well-known source material) to its purpose; it's more relentlessly paced; and its plot is more ruthlessly logical - instead of self-sacrifice, the characters unwittingly engineer their own fates.

I will be fascinated to see these operas - I hope - in ten or twenty years' time, when each has gone down its own path and we perhaps see wildly different productions of each, by different creative teams. I feel that 'Lessons' as we now have it can certainly stand by itself - at the same time, I think knowing 'WoS' inevitably adds a few extra layers to the experience that it doesn't necessarily need, but which resonate nonetheless.

(Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Peter Hoare as Mortimer.)

I should add that for the first run, Benjamin wrote each role specifically for this superlative cast. Everyone involved is a compelling actor as well as singer. If I had to pick stand-outs, it would probably be the three leads. As ever, Barbara Hannigan's astonishingly fleet, utterly driven vocal characterisation is complemented by how physically fearless she is - in Isabel, there's initially self-control, a surface-level femme fatale in chic outfits, never without a drink or a smoke... but the steady falling-apart on the inside is all there in the increasingly loose body language and brittle gestures. Peter Hoare (Mortimer) has been one of my favourite singers for some years. (For his performances in ENO's 'Jenufa', 'The Queen of Spades' and 'Thebans', I would personally offer him the keys to the city.) His ability to sound both passionate and sinister marks him out as a truly distinctive voice and dynamic stage presence. Stéphane Degout finds vulnerability and tenderness in the deeply-flawed King, without ever losing sight of the steel the character must once have possessed.

There are a few performances left if you act quickly, with tickets still available for them all. (Click here for the 'Lessons' page on the ROH website.) I'm also really pleased to see that it's being filmed on a couple of nights... with luck, then, a DVD might follow.

Sunday 13 May 2018

Intimate settings: Julia Kleiter, Christoph Prégardien & Julius Drake at Middle Temple Hall

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest in all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

Although this concert took place some time ago now, Julius Drake has two more recitals lined up for 'Temple Song 2018' - with Angelika Kirchschlager on 24 July (performing Schubert's 'Winterreise') and Gerald Finley on 2 October (performing final songs by Brahms and Schubert). Click here for more information.


Songs by Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn

Middle Temple Hall is an exciting, unconventional space for a song recital. Somehow austere and ornate all at once, it generates a self-contained, imposing atmosphere before a note is even played.

Its layout also gives many of the audience members a slightly different relationship to the performers. I think of most venues – especially other prominent chamber venues in London like Wigmore Hall or Milton Court – as having a ‘portrait’ shape: rows of seats roughly matching the width of the stage, stretching back a certain distance. Middle Temple Hall, when set up for concerts, is ‘landscape’. The artists take their positions at the centre of one of the long walls, and the listeners spread out to the sides. As a result, more of the audience than you might expect are close to the action – and closer to the sound.

This intimacy really does change everything. My companion and I managed to sit only a couple of rows back on the left side – as piano obsessives, we were delighted at the perfect keyboard sightline and the privileged view it gave us of Julius Drake’s performance. And for these emotional, highly-charged song choices, it was at times overwhelming to be only a few feet away from the singers, to feel their voices at a near-physical level.

And what voices. During the opening selection of Schubert songs, Julia Kleiter’s rich, versatile soprano ranged from a searching tenderness in ‘An den Mond’, to an arresting desperation at the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’. Christoph Prégardien must be one of the finest lieder singers of our age, able to convey warmth and clarity even when hitting the ground running in the very first song of the evening, ‘Wilkommen und Abschied’.

Julius Drake curates recitals regularly for the ‘Temple Song’ series, and this programme was expertly put together to bring out the best in all three musicians. I was surprised at first that the evening began with a Schubert ‘hits’ set of sorts, but it soon made perfect sense. Allowing the singers to take turns at appropriate points and pace themselves, the selection in fact highlighted JD’s virtuosity. I’ve described him in the past as one of the most purely exciting accompanists to catch live – and so it proved again, as we heard ‘Wilkommen…’, ‘Gretchen…’, ‘Versunken’ and ‘Der Musensohn’ carried off with such facility and flair, while never upsetting the balance between piano and voices.

The evening then built in intensity. The Schubert half of the programme was all Goethe settings, the final seven lieder a dramatic sequence combining the ‘Mignon’ and ‘Harper’ songs drawn from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjarhe. After the stand-alone choices, these mournful, moving laments had a devastating, cumulative effect until finally we heard, for the first time in the evening, the two voices together in one of only two song duets Schubert composed. A masterful change of mood, allowing us some welcome time to reflect during the interval.

Part 2 brought another change of approach. First, CP took centre stage to perform four settings of Heine by Schumann which were essentially rejected ‘out-takes’ from ‘Dichterliebe’. Then both signers sang Schumann duets. This pattern was repeated for Mendelssohn – however, JK took the solo section (again, based on Heine texts) before we heard more duets. While these songs had their fair share of heartbreak, this part of the concert was less concerned with lingering, brooding angst – instead giving us the joy of contrast between Schumann’s near-hyperactivity and Mendelssohn’s more stately reserve. CP and JK – who happen to be uncle and niece – looked and sounded especially comfortable when performing the duets, treating us to suitably special interpretations of lieder that one doesn’t get to hear as often as one would like. Their encore, a glorious version of Schubert’s other duet, the sublime ‘Licht und Liebe’, brought the evening full circle in the loveliest way imaginable.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Seasonal cheer: 2018/19 at ENO

It's no secret (well, not to anyone who regularly reads this blog, anyway) that I'm a card-carrying champion of English National Opera's endeavours - so their yearly season announcement is the one I look forward to the most.

This week, we heard what ENO has to offer during 2018-19 - and I'm genuinely excited by what's in store. Especially given the fact that it's still building back up to full strength (see posts and news stories over recent years, ad infinitum), it has pretty much everything I'd look for in a new season, from my punter's point of view. One of my favourite productions of all time is returning; there are pieces I have never seen at all; there's a brand new opera to look forward to; and at least one heroically 'out there' idea. Here's the line-up for the 'main season' at the Coliseum.
  • Strauss: 'Salome' - 28 September to 23 October 2018
  • Gershwin: 'Porgy and Bess' - 11 October to 17 November 2018
  • Donizetti: 'Lucia di Lammermoor' - 25 October to 5 December 2018
  • Britten: 'War Requiem' - 16 November to 7 December 2018
  • Puccini: 'La bohème' - 26 November 2018 to 22 February 2019
  • Glass: 'Akhnaten' - 11 February to 7 March 2019
  • Lehár: 'The Merry Widow' - 1 March to 13 April 2019
  • Mozart: 'The Magic Flute' - 14 March to 11 April 2019
  • Bell: 'Jack the Ripper - the Women of Whitechapel' - 30 March to 12 April 2019
In fact, it's difficult to decide what I'm most excited about.

When Phelim McDermott's production of 'Akhnaten' debuted in 2016, I really thought it was akin to perfection. Loving Glass's music helped, of course (I know he divides opinion). But ENO's Orchestra really have the measure of this composer, oiling its clockwork rhythms and injecting a soul into the machine. Up on stage, the ENO Chorus mastered not only the vocal demands but also intricate, tightly choreographed movement (juggling included!) that gave the score an extra dimension. With several of the cast returning - including the superb Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role - this promises to be unmissable a second time round. I'm going again. At least once. Ideally with everyone I've ever met.

Also worth mentioning the return of 'The Magic Flute' in the shape of Simon McBurney's brilliantly inventive production - and featuring the irresistible lead pairing of Lucy Crowe and Rupert Charlesworth.

'Salome' is a particularly intriguing prospect, kicking off a season that artistic director Daniel Kramer says will explore masculine/feminine relationships and question or interrogate the patriarchy. This new production will be directed by Adena Jacobs, renowned for theatrical work very much in line with the season's theme. Can't wait to see what she does with her terrifying lead character.

I am thrilled to have the chance to see 'Porgy and Bess' - I feel like I know and love almost all the songs (although in truth, I'm probably more familiar with the Miles Davis album than the original work). While I confess most of the cast are not known to me, ENO-watchers will no doubt jump at the chance to hear Latonia Moore again, after her superb performance as Aida last season. And it will be good to hear Americana enthusiast extraordinaire John Wilson - well-known for his show-tune revivals and extravaganzas at the Proms but, top tip, check out his Copland CDs on Chandos - conduct at ENO for the first time.

'Porgy and Bess' requires a specially-assembled chorus - but obviously, I look forward especially to productions that make the most of ENO's own Chorus. Apparently, both these ensembles will join forces for the staging of Britten's 'War Requiem'. Britten, like Glass, is another composer for which ENO has a definite 'affinity' - and this is a signature project for the new creative team, with Kramer and music director Martyn Brabbins joining forces. (This is also the first season they have programmed together since their appointments.) Add to that the involvement of Wolfgang Tillmans - a photographer who, in my opinion, makes a great deal of startling, powerful work - plus soloists Emma Bell, David Butt Philip and Roderick Williams... it's a must.

(Also pleased to note that 'Lucia', 'Merry Widow' and 'Bohème' all feature Choral input! The first two will also lift the hearts of ENO regulars for featuring the wonderful Sarah Tynan in the lead roles: her recent star turns as Partenope and Rosina still linger happily in the memory.)

The same leadership team of Kramer and Brabbins are collaborating on Iain Bell's new opera focusing on the women living in fear for their lives during Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. We're promised a 'showcase for the entire ENO ensemble' (according to the season brochure), not to mention an incredible cast. Also good to see that this is a co-production with Opera North, another admirable company, and an alliance that could see new operas like this get an extended lease of life around the UK and hopefully a stronger push into the repertoire.

During the summer, ENO goes walkabout with two collaborations:
  • 'Dido', a new version of Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' for teens upwards at the Unicorn Theatre from 11 May to 2 June 2019.
  • A production of Britten's 'Noye's Fludde' at the excellent Theatre Royal Stratford East, with local talent performing alongside the professionals!
If you're an ENO 'Solo' Friend (sounds a bit lonely, but there are lots of us), you can start booking from 8 May. Yikes, 'tis nearly upon us. Otherwise, booking opens to the general public from 22 May.

Here's a link straight to the ENO website - go take a look. I hope you will join me in seeing as much of the season as possible.