Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A Renaissance Christmas Vespers

Missing Brighton Early Music Festival?  Can't wait until October 2013?

Well, come along then on Sunday 16 December, 7.30pm, to a special Christmas concert performed by BREMF Consort of Voices, fresh from our performances of the Florentine Intermedi and music by Gabrieli in this year's BREMF.

The concert will include music by Victoria, Josquin, Praetorius, Rore, Palestrina, Lassus and yes, Gabrieli again!  The music will be interspersed with chant, perfect in the candlelit setting of St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton.

So do come along - tickets are only £12 (£10 for concessions) - a perfect moment of calm amid the Christmas rush! 

Tickets from www.bremf.org.uk

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

CD Reviews - November

Flautist Emily Beynon has joined forces with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Bramwell Tovey, to record an interesting selection of British flute concertos.  The disc opens with Jonathan Dove’s (b.1959) The Magic Flute Dances, composed for Beynon.  Dove has taken motifs from Mozart’s opera and woven them into a pleasing set of dances, which go far beyond the obvious ‘flute’ connection, with some fascinating effects of orchestration.  William Alwyn’s (1905-1985) Concerto for Flute and Eight Wind Instruments, arranged by John McCabe (b.1939) for flute and orchestra comes next.  This is more immediately virtuosic for the soloist, perhaps understandable given that Alwyn was an orchestral flautist before turning to composition.  A slight ‘cheat’ next, with French composer Francis Poulenc’s (1899-1963) Flute Sonata, arranged for flute and orchestra by Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), whose own Flute Concerto closes the disc.  These are both great works that deserve greater exposure, and Beynon does them justice, with a bright and engaging sound throughout.

Various. British Flute Concertos. Emily Beynon, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Bramwell Tovey. 2012. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10718.

The great violinist Ruggiero Ricci died in August, aged 94.  Born to Italian parents in California, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall aged 11.  Often referred to as the ‘Paganini of the 20th Century’, he was the first to record the complete Paganini Caprices in their original form.  This month I’ve been listening to a two CD set of Virtuoso Violin Concertos, with the Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian concertos, along with Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise, and various other works.  The recordings date from 1959-1961, yet sound remarkably fresh.  There is a slight thinness to the sound, but my ears soon atuned to this – and the pay-off is hearing a romantic virtuoso at the height of his abilities.  Sadly, he carried on recording long after his technique had begun to wane.  But returning to these recordings, his true talent shines out.  His style, and the orchestral playing (from the LSO and LPO, under conductors including Sir Malcolm Sargent and Piero Gamba), are from a different age, but there can be no doubting he was truly a great violinist.  

Various. Virtuoso Violin Concertos. Ruggiero Ricci, London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Øivin Fjeldstad, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Piero Gamba, Anatole Fistoulari. 2010. Compact Disc (2). Decca Eloquence DECCA 480 2083.

Every cellist must feel obliged to record the Elgar Cello Concerto at some point, yet it must be hard to know how to say something new, with such an iconic piece.  However, Paul Watkins has entered the fray, along with great Elgarian Sir Andrew Davis, and the BBC Philharmonic.  Having performed the work live on many occasions, he manages to make this recording feel fresh and immediate, and Davis and he produce touching sadness without ever wallowing.    The disc also contains the full set of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ Marches, and Davis and the BBC Philharmonic avoid the overblown excesses of many ‘Last Night’ performances, yet bring out the inherent joy in these pieces.  The Elegy is also sensitively performed, emotion barely contained here.  The final piece here is the Introduction and Allegro for solo quartet and string orchestra, and this also receives an outstanding performance.  Overall, a strong offering, with perfect recording sound throughout. 
Armenian pianist Nareh Argamanyan has relased a CD of Rachmaninov, with the Morceaux de Fantasie, the Etudes Tableaux, and the Corelli Variations.  These are well-known show pieces, yet Rachmaninov also demands a great understanding of emotion and lyricism, if they are not to become overblown and sentimental.  Argamanyan is clearly committed to communicating this emotion, as is evident in the interview with her on the bonus DVD (which also contains performances of part of the Corelli Variations, and the great C sharp minor Prelude).  Yet on the whole, she manages to not allow this expression of emotion to become over-indulgent.  These are all fiendishly difficult pieces, yet with playing as confident as this, you are not made overly aware of this.  A whole disc of Rachmaninov can make you feel a bit bloated, but Argamanyan maintains enough interest and lightness of touch to avoid this – in fact, the final (and longest) work on this disc, the Corelli Variations, held my interest the most. 
Rachmaninov, Sergei. Morceaux de Fantasie, etc. Nareh Argamanyan. 2012. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc and Digital Versatile Disc. Pentatone PTC 5186 399.

(These reviews first appeared in GScene magazine)

Friday, 2 November 2012

Brighton Early Music Festival - Young Artists' Showcase

Right from the start it was clear that last night's concert from two young ensembles, The Marian Consort and La Terra e il Mare, was going to be special.  Unfortunately I missed both groups performing at last year's festival as part of the White Night concert, but I'm so glad to have made up for this by catching their performances at St Mary's Church, Rock Gardens, Brighton last night (Thursday 1 November) in this year's Brighton Early Music Festival.

As the concert was ready to start, it appeared only two of the singers were ready on stage, and two appeared to be loitering in the side aisle.  But then suddenly the glorious sound of two perfectly blended bright soprano voices (Emma Walshe and Gwendolen Martin) rang out from behind us, the generous acoustic filling the church with their duet.  Countertenor (and the Marian Consort's Director) Rory McCleery and tenor William Knight took over with their duet from the side aisle, and finally baritone Rupert Reid and bass Christopher Borrett, waiting patiently at the front, had their turn, before their colleagues joined them to bring Heinrich Isaac's (c.1450-1517) Virgo prudentissima to a glorious close.  We were then treated to a succession of pieces, all by different composers, and many of them new to me.  The connecting thread, as Rory McCleery explained, was an exploration of the 'multi-faceted portrayal of women in the male-dominated world of renaissance vocal music'.  Clearly, and not surprising given the groups's name, a major female figure explored here is the Virgin Mary, but we also had a piece possibly composed for Queen Mary (Du bon du cueur by Philip van Wilder (c.1500-1554)) as well as madrigals and songs portraying women less favourably as cuckolders or competitive lovers.  Francisco Guerrero's (1528-1599) Ave Virgo sanctissima and the beautiful madrigal Sfogava con le stelle by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), about a love-sick man singing to the stars and asking them to communicate his feelings to his lover, were particular highlights for me, as well as the fun closing piece by Andrea Gabrieli (c.1532-1585), Chi chi li chi, the performers relishing the comic and bawdy texts.  In the middle of the programme, they included a premiere of a piece by Hilary Campbell (b.1983), a short but highly effective Ave Maria demonstrating another side to the consort's skills, and highlighting their impeccable tuning.  Overall, the sound they produce is beautifully blended - most striking in the perfectly matched clear soprano voices - and their command of the broad repertoire was highly impressive.  I've also been listening with great pleasure whilst writing this to their two CDs, one of Spanish Marian devotional music, and the other of music from the Dow Partbooks, when they are joined by the Rose Consort of Viols.

It is worth highlighting at this stage something that struck me about both ensembles in tonight's concert, and it is something I have noticed increasingly with younger performers and ensembles.  Their ability, and actual desire, to communicate with the audience and create a real sense of performance is so striking, perhaps because it is in such stark contrast to earlier generations of performers.  A generalisation, I know, but I do wonder whether this ability to communicate - whether by introducing pieces in an entertaining and informative way without patronising, or simply in the way they perform, making use of the stage, lighting and props, for example - is something young musicians are being taught in colleges and conservatories, or whether it is that they are just used to such styles of performance from other music and arts genres, and so it comes naturally.  In the case of The Marian Consort, one key factor was also the absence of a conductor - this is clearly most possible in a small consort singing, but immediately it creates a situation where the singers must be looking up and out, in order to communicate with each other, and this inevitably leads to them communicating outwards to the audience.  I have to say, if I could make a small criticism following the Tallis Scholars otherwise wonderful concert last week, it would be that they were at times somewhat score-bound, and when they did look up it was largely to communicate with director Peter Phillips, not so much with the audience.  A different performance style, perhaps, but I think younger performers with this natural ability to communicate may yet give the more established ensembles a run for their money.

After the interval, the ensemble La Terra e il Mare, consisting of soprano Louise Adler, Leo Duarte on oboe, violinist Naomi Burrell, Jonathan Rees on the viola da gamba, and harpsichordist Tom Foster took us forward in time to pre-Revolution France.  Once again, the performers exuded energy and commitment to their music, and they began with a substantial cantata, Orphée, by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749).  The story is well-worn, but Clérambault's expressive arias and elaborate ornamentation, interspersed with brief dramatic recitatives bring a refreshing take.  Louise Adler communicated the tale convincingly, and had full command of the audience, supported by sensitive and assured accompaniment from her colleagues.  The ensemble followed this with a set of trio sonata movements, Noëls en trio, by Michel-Richard de Lalande, composed for the Christmas season.  The players enjoyed the variety of tempi and focus on the different instruments, in particular the interplay between the oboe and violin parts. Meanwhile, Louise Adler added to the sense of performance by gradually lighting candles around the stage, once again demonstrating these young musicians' strong sense of performance.  She then joined the players and led straight into the first of three 'Street Songs'.  We were then given a short but highly informative explanation of the background to this street music by Dr Nick Hammond, author of 'Gossip, Sexuality and Scandal in France (1610-1715)', and we were informed we had just heard gossip relating to the Sun King's brother and a donkey (!).  The songs which followed involved gossip about Lully bemoaning the fact that a young music page, Brunet, with whom he had a notorious affair, was banished to a monastery - apparently less distraught about the separation than about what his lover might be getting up to in the monastery - and finally a song mocking Lully's apparent inability to come up with any new tunes.  The Marian Consort joined in for the chorus of this last piece, from their seats at the back of the church, before then joining La Terra e il Mare on the stage for a rousing conclusion to an incredibly varied and imaginatively constructed programme, expertly performed by all the musicians involved.

Both these groups clearly have long and successful careers ahead of them, and I for one will be watching, and listening, closely.

Various. O Virgo Benedicta: Music of Marian Devotion from Spain's Century of Gold. The Marian Consort, Rory McCleery. 2010. Compact Disc. Delphian DCD34086.

Various. An Emerald in a Work of Gold: Music from the Dow Partbooks. The Marian Consort, Rory McCleery, Rose Consort of Viols. 2012. Compact Disc. Delphian DCD34115.