Friday, 28 September 2012

Brighton Early Music Festival 2012

The 10th BREMF runs from 26 October to 11 November, and despite losing Arts Council funding this year (boo!), this year's festival promises to be one of the most exciting and innovative yet.  The theme of Celebration (in honour of the festival's 10th birthday) is definitely appropriate - the festival is indeed a celebration of the diversity of early music repertoire, as well as the creativity and ingenuity of the best performers in the field.

So I thought I'd pick out a few of the highlights that I'm looking forward to.  I have to admit to a vested interest here, as I'm singing in four concerts this year - but I promise to point out a few other delights that the festival has in store too!

Credit: Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars return to the festival on Friday 26 October at St Bartholomew's Church, with a concert entitled The Field of the Cloth of Gold - Celebrating a Great Treaty.  This refers to the meeting between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France in 1520.  It followed the treaty of 1514, and the aim was to cement a bond of friendship between the two monarchs, and as a result, the two countries.  The two Chapels Royal were present, and attempted to outdo one another with music composed by Jean Mouton (c.1459-1522) for the French, and William Cornysh (1465-1523) for the English.  The Tallis Scholars, under their director, Peter Phillips, appear fresh from their recent slightly unexpected chart success, thanks to a certain 'grey' novel.  

Borromini String Quartet
On Saturday 27 October, BREMF offers two free concerts (one at 8.30pm, one at 10.30pm), again in St Barts, Autumn Lates: BREMF 10th Birthday Celebration - Journeys through Europe.  No tickets are required, and you can come and go during the performances as you please.  Five young performing ensembles will be showcased.  Musica Poetica London are a period instrument baroque ensemble, specialising in 17th century German repertoire, and will be performing music by Becker, Biber & Buxtehude.  The Borromini String Quartet again perform on period instruments, but moving into Spanish and Spanish-inspired repertoire, with 'Noches de España'.  The Ensemble de Trianon take us on to France, with a programme entitled 'Les Plaisirs de Versailles', with music by Rameau & Leclair.  Flauguissimo, a flute and guitar duo, conjure up an intimate encounter with 'A Nightingale in the Salon', with music by Schubert and Paganini.  Finally, Oxford Baroque explore chaconnes and passacaglias by Monteverdi, Schütz and J. C. Bach, in 'Perpetual Motion'.

Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas joins the BREMF Singers and BREMF players, conducted by John Hancorn, in a Celebration of the Italian High Baroque, on Sunday 28 October at St George's Church, Kemp Town.  Domenico Scarlatti's beautiful Stabat Mater and Antonio Lotti's famous Crucifixus a 8 (here performed within the Credo in F from which it comes) are the choral highlights, whilst the string players will also perform music by Corelli & Vivaldi, including Vivaldi's La Follia trio sonata.  

And now for the spectacular, slightly crazy experience that will be The 1589 Florentine Intermedi.  You can catch this twice, once at 5pm, and again at 9pm, on Saturday 3 November, back at St Barts.  The music is by Luca Marenzio, Cristofano Malvezzi, Giulio Caccini, Emilio Cavalieri and Jacopo Peri - probably new to many.  The six Intermedi originally served as interludes between the acts of the play La Pellegrina (The Pilgrim Woman) by Girolamo Bargagli.  The play was performed on the occasion of Ferdinando Medici's marriage to Christine of Lorraine - by all accounts and incredibly extravagant and lavish affair.  This production, as well as drawing on the forces of two choirs - the BREMF Consort of Voices, together with the Renaissance Singers - will include a whole host of great soloists, including Mark Tucker, Emily Gadd and Katy Hill.  The instrumentalists include members of the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, the Monteverdi String Band, and the Chordophony Lute Ensemble.  And last but not least, aerial dancers Zu Aerial will perform in the vast space that is St Barts - with lighting and sound effects - definitely not one to be missed.  All conceived by, and miraculously held together by director Deborah Roberts.  

From the large scale and spectacular to the opposite end of the spectrum - the intimacy that is the Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach, performed by Steven Devine on the harpsichord.  You can hear this in the Ralli Hall, Denmark Villas, Hove at 3pm.

Later that same evening, BREMF Consort of Voices return for Celebrating Gabrieli, in honour of the 400th anniversary of Giovanni Gabrieli's death, and they are once again joined by the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble - 7.30pm at St Barts.  More wonderful music, and lots for multi-choirs, exploiting the spacial effects of Barts.

The Orlando Consort's turn to celebrate next, and they're Celebrating Food, Wine and Song in a cabaret-style picnic concert.  The quartet of Matthew Venner, Mark Dobell, Angus Smith and Donald Greig perform medieval and early renaissance music by Guillaume de Machaut, Dufay, Binchois, and others.  You can even download authentic recipes to try - so bring along your picnic!  Friday 9 November, 8pm at St George's Church, Kemp Town.  

Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens explore the secrets of what nuns got up to in the middle of the night (!) in Secret Carnivals, Saturday 10 November, 7.30pm at St Michael and All Angels Church, Brighton.  Their performance includes chant and polyphony from the daily Office, with works by Palestrina, Victoria and Rore - but they also celebrate their secret carnival in the dead of night, building to a dance of the Seven Sisters.  So the secrets of the nuns will be revealed!

The final day of the festival, Sunday 11 November, promises two great concerts to end in style.  Firstly, at 3pm in Ralli Hall, The Burning Bush perform their infectious mix of klezmer, Ottoman and Sephardi music in L'Chaim! (To Life!): Music and Dance to Celebrate the Old Jewish World.  The 6-strong band includes Lucie Skeaping (of BBC Radio 3's The Early Music Show) and husband Roderick Skeaping, together with Ben Harlan, Robin Jeffery, Jon Banks and Robert Levy.  Instruments include the oud, the rebec, the laouto, the darabukka and the kanun - if you don't know what any or all of these are, then go along and find out!

And the festival comes to a close with Celebrating Coronations - and a Diamond Jubilee.  The International Baroque Players are joined by the BREMF Singers, directed once again by John Hancorn, in coronation music by Boyce, Purcell and Handel, as well as Zelenka's Concerto a 8.  The International Baroque Players wowed audiences when they performed with Emma Kirkby in the 2010 festival, and their debut CD of Concertos from Dresden by Pisendel and others has won universal acclaim (review here). Sunday 11 November, 7.30pm, St Georges

So here's to the next ten years of the Brighton Early Music Festival - Congratulations to directors Deborah Roberts and Clare Norburn, and Happy 10th Birthday!

You can book tickets online for all the concerts here or at the Brighton Dome Ticket Office, New Rd, Brighton ore by phone: 01273 709709. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Selected CD Reviews

Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is now on the second volume of his planned complete Chopin collection, and this disc, as with the first, mixes and alternates Nocturnes with more substantial works – here we have the four Ballades, with the Barcarolle and Berceuse.  This approach makes for a much more satisfying listen, with pieces following in connected keys and flowing together more appropriately than the usual systematic working through of all the Nocturnes, say, in numerical order.  Lortie’s style is less overtly dramatic than some other Chopin interpreters – in fact, he allows the music to speak in a way that many other pianists do not achieve.  That is not to say that these are totally passive performances – virtuosity is certainly on display, and the Ballades in particular receive full-blooded expression.  I think it’s just that you’re left with a sense of ‘this is the wonder of Chopin’, rather than solely ‘this is an amazing pianist’, which is so often the case – and paradoxically, that is the sign of a truly great pianist.

Chopin, Frédéric. Louis Lortie plays Chopin, Volume 2.  Louis Lortie.  2012.  Compact Disc.  Chandos CHAN 10714.

The Gould Piano Trio have just celebrated their 20th year performing together, and to mark this have released a first volume of Beethoven Piano Trios, with the ‘Ghost’ Trio and the Second Trio (Op. 1 No. 2), together with two single movement works – an Allegretto from 1812, and an early Theme and Variations.  These are in fact live recordings from performances at St George’s, Bristol, and it shows – in a good way.  There is a real energy to their playing, with spirited fast movements, and tender and sensitive playing in the slow movements.  The price is the occasional rough edge in the presto sections, and a slightly dry acoustic, but the payoff is a level of energy and immediacy rarely found in studio recordings.  The sign of a great live recording is one that makes you wish you were there, and also one that will survive repeated playing – this scores on both counts.

Following on from complete sets of the songs of Butterworth and Delius, amongst others, baritone Mark Stone has now turned his attention to the rather trickier English composer, Havergal Brian (1876-1971), who ended his days in retirement in Shoreham.  Last year I sang in a performance in the Proms of his mammoth Gothic Symphony, which involves a massive orchestra, four choirs, a childrens choir, and four brass orchestras, as well as soloists – supposedly the largest symphony ever written.  This was certainly an event, but I remained unconvinced by the composer’s ability to maintain any sense of coherency over such a huge work So I was curious to hear how the composer managed the complete opposite end of the spectrum in terms of scale.  In fact, this disc proved rather a revelation.  I was particularly taken by the delicacy of his writing for the piano, sensitively performed here by Sholto Kynoch.  Little Sleeper is especially delicate and elegiac, with the almost Debussian harmonies in the piano supporting a beautifully wistful solo line.  Kynoch also performs Three Illuminations, and John Dowland’s Fancy for solo piano, as well as accompanying Stone’s brother, Jonathan Stone (violinist with the Doric String Quartet) in an impressively engaging Legend, and in fact these are the works that stand out for me in interest.  Mark Stone’s voice has a beauitful tone, with only an occasional loss of focus at the top of the range, and he performs these songs with great conviction.  He sings Day and Night with particular intensity, and once again, the piano writing here is very atmospheric.  This disc has certainly made me reconsider this underperformed composer anew – I look forward to the next volume!

The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, are on fine form at present, as is evidenced in their latest disc of Mozart masses.  They perform the popular ‘Coronation’ Mass, and appropriately separate its movements with two Church Sonatas, where the movements would have been interrupted by the liturgy.  The boy trebles sound secure at the top, and the overall initmate sound, with period instruments (the St John’s Sinfonia), is very engaging.  Soloists Susan Gritton (soprano), Frances Bourne (mezzo), Sam Furness (tenor) and George Humphreys (bass) match the scale of the performance expertly.  The well-known Ave verum Corpus comes next, but unfortunately here they follow the ‘tradition’ of performing this beautiful gem at an incredibly slow speed, which is a shame.  The then follow this with the delightful F major Missa Brevis, and here they are back on form. They end the disc with the popular favourite showcaser for Susan Gritton, ‘Exsultate, jubilate’, and she doesn’t disappoint, providing a suitably joyous finish to and enjoyable programme.
Clarinetist Michael Collins begins his exploration of British Clarinet Sonatas in style, with works from John Ireland (1879-1962), Arthur Bliss (1891-1975), Charles Stanford (1852-1924), Arnold Bax (1883-1953) and Herbert Howells (1892-1983).  Michael McHale ably accompanies him on piano.  As ever, Collins produces an exquisite tone, combined with effortless and fluid virtuosity when required.  Ireland’s Fantasy-Sonata is particularly beautiful, and the slow movement of the Stanford Sonata is dramatically expressive.  Bliss’ Pastoral is typically English, with lilting and rolling lines, once again played here with a warm, liquid tone.  Another great disc from a soloist at the top of his game.

Various.  British Clarinet Sonatas, Volume 1.  Michael Collins, Michael McHale.  2012.  Compact Disc.  Chandos CHAN 10704.

(An edited version of these reviews first appeared in GScene magazine)