Friday, 22 March 2013

Madrigali dell'Estate - Music for voice by Stephen McNeff, sung by Clare McCaldin

I have to confess I approached this new recording by mezzo Clare McCaldin of music for voice by British composer Stephen McNeff completely blind, not knowing the performer or composer at all previously.  This is always an interesting voyage of discovery, particularly when I wouldn't have necessarily picked this out, had a review copy not been offered.

So, first of all, a bit about Stephen McNeff (b.1951).  Born in Northern Ireland, he grew up in Wales, before studying composition at the Royal Academy of Music.  He has written a considerable volume of music for opera and theatre, but also choral, chamber and instrumental works.  He has been visiting Italy since 2004, and now describes it 'something of a second home for part of the year'.

The work which gives this CD its title, Madrigali dell'Estate, is a cycle of eleven songs, setting poems by the Italian poet, Gabriele d'Annunzio (1863-1938), from the Abruzzo region in Italy.  Clare McCaldin shares an interest in the poet, and commissioned the work from McNeff, with whom she has collaborated on a number of works.  The poems together explore the sense of a languorous summer, slowly dying, and they are incredibly evocative.  The piano accompaniment, admirably played by Andrew West, has largely the role of brief, spiky interjections, whilst the vocal line is almost recitative in nature, with extreme leaps and dynamic range.  Clare McCaldin's warm, rich voice suits the atmospheric texts, and also avoids the stark vocal writing becoming too strident.

Clare McCaldin
This is then followed by a work for voice and string trio, Farfalle di Neve, composed specifically with McCaldin's voice in mind.  She commissioned the work, specifically wanting something set in Italian, and it is also a setting of two fragments of text by d'Annunzio.  The title translates as 'Butterflies like snowflakes', and is again very atmospheric, almost impressionistic.  The string trio provide shimmering scene-setting, over which McCaldin's smooth, sustained vocal lines sail.  There is less of the jerky, recitative here, with more expressive and melismatic phrases, giving McCaldin's full voice more chance to bloom.  The string trio (Philippa Mo (violin), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola) and Jonathan Byers (cello)) provide a sensitive and suitably atmostpheric backdrop.

A Voice of One Delight explores the last hours of poet Shelley's life in the bay of La Spezia in 1822.  The work combines spoken narration, quasi recitative and sung settings of Shelly's poetry.  The narrator role is of Jane Willams, whose husband died with Shelley, and who was the object of Shelley's desire in his final months.  The singer/narrator is accompanied by flute (Kathryn Thomas), viola (Sarah-Jane Bradley) and harp (Suzanne Willison-Kawalec).  I didn't expect to like this as much as I did - speech and music is difficult to get right, yet this thankfully avoids feeling mannered or over-contrived.  In fact as the piece develops, and the strange and tragic events unfold, I found myself very much drawn into the story and slightly claustrophobic atmosphere created by the combination of just three instruments and the voice.  The flute part in particular is extremely unsettling, and the harp and viola provide often harsh, rhythmic underpinning.   A fascinating work, which I imagine would be very effective performed live.  You can see a staged version of the piece, with revised text, performed by Clare McCaldin on YouTube here.

Stephen McNeff
The disc then ends with Three Abruzzo Folk Songs, returning to Italian texts, although now in the dialect of the Abruzzo region.  The composer says they are not based on specific folk songs, but are intended to reflect the music of the the region.  Brief, and for unaccompanied voice, they provide a delightful end to a fascinating programme, and allow Clare McCaldin to show just how natural she is in the Italian idiom (to my ears anyway).

The instrumentalists on the disc are presumably members of the Orchestra Nova Ensemble, credited on the disc as being conducted by George Vass.  I'm not absolutely clear which works would have required conducting - most probably A Voice of One Delight, and possibly Farfalle di Neve, although the chamber nature of these works, I am not sure how much conducting will have been necessary.

I really enjoyed this disc, and it provides a great showcase for both singer and composer.  I would be interested to hear McCaldin singing other repertoire, and also to explore more of McNeff's compositions.

McNeff, S. Madrigali dell'Estate. Clare McCaldin, Andrew West, Orchestra Nova Ensemble, George Vass. 2013. Compact Disc. Champs Hill Records CHRCD053.

The Tallis Scholars - première recording of Sainte-Chapelle by Eric Whitacre

The Tallis Scholars have lost no time in recording Eric Whitacre's new piece written for them, Saint-Chapelle, which I heard them première at their 40th anniversary concert at St Paul's (see my review here).  They recorded it in the chapel at Merton College, Oxford, and it has been released as a digital download - their first digital only download, available from iTunes here.  It is also their first first recording of a living composer since they commissioned and premièred John Tavener's Ikon of Light in 1984.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to hear this piece again so soon after that first performance at St Paul's.  Often, when hearing a new piece for the first time in a concert performance, it is hard to get the full sense of the work as a whole.  My first impression was of writing extremely well suited to the pure, blended sound of the Tallis Scholars, and this is definitely confirmed by hearing this recording.  

Whitacre asked his long-time friend and collaborator, Charles Anthony Silvestri to construct a text around the idea of stained glass windows which Whitacre saw in a 13th century chapel in Paris.  The 'story' Silvestri created centred around the idea of a young girl hearing angels singing from the stained glass.  The text is minimal in terms of telling the story, in Latin, but the words 'Sanctus' and 'Hosanna in excelsis' return, and provide the climax points to create the image of the angels singing to the girl from within the brightly lit windows.  Whitacre's trademark scrunchy harmonies and clusters are here, but this actually stands out for me as one of his most effective pieces, along with When David Heard and Cloudburst.

It opens with a chant-like section for male voices, before all voices sing the first 'Sanctus', with staggered entries constructing the layered harmonies.  This creates a particularly luminous effect, and really does conjure a sense of the light shining through fragments of glass.  The Tallis Scholars also produce such a beautifully blended and warm sound, again adding to this sense of light flooding into space, particularly on the word 'Hosanna'.  

This is definitely a piece that deserves to join the established Whitacre repertoire, and I would certainly love to have the opportunity to sing it at some point.  I also hope The Tallis Scholars continue this exploration of contemporary repertoire, in addition to their ongoing championing of Renaissance composers.  Next up must surely be a recording of Gabriel Jackson's Ave Dei partis filia, their other commission that they premièred at the 40th anniversary concert.  In concert, this actually had a greater impact on me than the Whitacre, so I await a recording of this with expectation.

Finally, The Tallis Scholars are also offering a free download of the Agnus Dei from Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, available from iTunes just until 1 April 2013, in honour of the papal inauguration - download it here.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

BREMF Consort of Voices - Gesualdo, Genius & Murderer!

BREMF Consort of Voices, conducted by Deborah Roberts, will be performing a concert of music by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), as well as music by Palestrina and Monteverdi.

Gesualdo's music is striking in its chromaticism, and is even said to have influenced Stravinsky more than 300 years later!  He is also famous for having murdered his wife (who was also his first cousin) and her lover.  So not your standard Renaissance fare!  His Tenebrae Responsories contain some of his most experimental and chromatic writing.

Come along and find out more!

Monday 27 May 2013, St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton

Tickets from or or telephone: 01273 917272

More on Gesualdo here.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Brighton Dome

Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Schumann, Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129
Elgar, Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op. 36

David Parry (conductor)

Brighton Dome, Saturday 13 March 2013

I was pleasantly surprised to see such a full audience on a cold, wet and windy night in Brighton to hear the London Philharmonic Orchestra perform, conducted by David Parry.  True, the programme was a crowd pleaser - Beethoven 5, Schumann's Cello Concerto and Elgar's Enigma Variations - 'nothing we can't hum there', to quote Victoria Wood.  But the performances this evening were anything but workaday, and all three pieces were extremely warmly received.

The Beethoven began slightly scrappily, with the ensemble not quite there for the iconic opening motif.  However, once the orchestra had settled into Parry's sprightly tempo, they warmed to the task, and this turned out to be a highly enjoyable performance, surprisingly fresh and full of life.  The wind playing was particularly strong - this proved to be the case throughout the evening in fact.  The brief oboe solo before the recapitulation in the first movement was sensitively played, and the whole wind section relished the beautiful chamber-like passages in the slow movement.  I thought Parry also brought out the dance in the lilting opening cello line rather nicely here.  Again, string ensemble was not 100% tight in the scherzo - this time the cellos were culprits.  I wonder if Parry's tempi were faster than the LPO are used to - although I'm sure they were capable of the challenge he set, and the pace certainly give the necessary energy and spirit to what could have otherwise been just another Beethoven 5.  However, they all took flight in the lively finale, bringing the symphony to its emphatic and triumphant close.

The Schumann Cello Concerto followed, with the 25-year-old Armenian cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan.  This is an interesting work, the three movements running with no breaks between, and with a surprising lack of virtuosity in the solo part.  For most of the time, it is the lyricism of the cello that is emphasised, and the orchestra takes a back seat, allowing the cello lines to sing.  However, for me, I'm never quite sure where this piece is going, with the result that when they arrive in the lively finale, and the pace picks up, it almost comes as a bit of a surprise.  Hakhnazaryan exploited the romantic lyricism to the full, producing a beautiful tone, and managing the balance issues well, ably assisted by Parry keeping the orchestral dynamics in check.  So, some beautiful playing here, but a performance somehow slightly lacking in life.  Interestingly, however, we were then treated to an encore from Hakhnazaryan, and here one felt he finally was able to let loose.  The piece was not announced, so I'm not sure what it was, but I'm assuming it is Armenian, and may well have been written or improvised by Hakhnazaryan.  (Update:  Apparently, it was Lamentatio by Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima - thanks, LPO!  He's also a member of the Silk Road Ensemble).  Here his virtuosity was allowed to show in all its glory - the piece open with him vocalising over the top of double-stopping, and he then managed to include virtually every cello technique in the few minutes that followed.  Here was the energy and life that I would have liked to have seen in the Schumann, and the audience certainly loved this too.

After the interval, the orchestra returned for Elgar's Enigma Variations.  Once again, there was lots here that took this beyond a standard rendition of a popular classic, and again, this was largely due to the energetic tempi set by Parry.  Sadly, he was forced to wait at the start as some particularly persistent coughers prevented him from creating the silence he wanted for the opening.  However, with this put behind them, this settled into a very enjoyable performance.  Some of the same features from the Beethoven were present here, and again, it was the wind playing that stood out for me, with some particularly tight ensemble playing in Variation III (R.B.T.).  Once again the sprightly tempi resulted in a few moments of scrappy string ensemble, notably in the violins at the start of Variation II (H.D.S-P.).  However, this was a small detail, and elsewhere the strings produced warm Elgarian tones, and certainly enjoyed themselves in the famous 'Nimrod', Variation IX, with David Parry controlling this well, avoiding over-indulgence yet allowing for the undeniable emotion to be released.  The principal Viola (Gilliane Haddow) and Cello (Francis Bucknall) are both worthy of mention for their solos, the viola in Variation VI (Isobel) and again briefly in Variation XII (B.G.N.), and the cello in Variation X (Intermezzo: Dorabella).  Parry then brought the evening to a rousing close, with a rip-roaring finale.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Tallis Scholars - 40th Anniversary Concert

Photo © Clive Barda

It was a real privilege to be in the audience for the launch concert of The Tallis Scholars' 40th anniversary celebrations at St Paul's Cathedral on Thursday 7 March 2013.  I was expecting something special, but this concert must be up there with one of the best live music experiences I can remember.

On the programme were some expected 'hits' - Allegri's Miserere, Tallis' Spem in alium.  However, The Tallis Scholars certainly didn't just rely on the 'old favourites' here.  They could have done, and I'm sure the audience would have been happy.  But they used the occasion to show their versatility, and to show how alive and well choral composition is in the 21st century.  Three contemporary composers were present for the premieres (two world and one London) of their works, and all three pieces received warm receptions from the audience.

The concert began appropriately with Tallis - the beautiful yet complex Loquebantur variis linguis, followed by the brief but equally intricate Miserere.  What struck me most in both these pieces was how they drew the audience in, creating a sense of intimacy with some incredible pianissimo singing, particularly in the Miserere - quite an achievement in the cavernous St Paul's acoustic.  They then leapt forward in time, and in Arvo Pärt's Nunc Dimittis they now made full use of the massive resonant acoustic, and when Pärt's atmostpheric harmonies suddenly burst forth on the word 'Lumen', St Paul's was suddenly full of luminous warmth.

Gabriel Jackson & Eric Whitacre 
The first of the evening's premieres followed - Gabriel Jackson's Ave Dei partis filia.  In a highly effective piece, Jackson is clearly paying homage to the early English composers, yet his use of rhythm is strikingly contemporary.  This created some challenges for the Tallis Scholars, and they worked incredibly hard to ensure that the lively rhythms were clearly articulated.  I would be interested to know if this precision travelled right to the back of St Paul's, but certainly where I was the effect was arresting.  I look forward to hearing this piece again soon.

They closed the first half with Byrd's substantial Tribue, Domine dating from the composer's early career.   The second half of the concert began with Allegri's Miserere - for this, the solo quartet sang hidden somewhere - I think from the Whispering Gallery, but I'm not 100% sure!  As ever, the top Cs were spot on, ringing out throughout the cathedral.  Then it was Eric Whitacre's turn - his new piece, Sainte-Chapelle, was inspired by the stained glass in a 13th century chapel in Paris.  Here, the rhythmic interest centred around the repetition of the word 'Sanctus', and The text, by Whitacre's oft used collaborator, Charles Anthony Silvestri, creates the image of a young girl hearing the angels singing 'Sanctus' - and Whitacre uses the repetition of this word for the rhythmic focus of the piece.  In between, the scrunchy clusters and dissonances typical of Whitacre's music matched perfectly with The Tallis Scholars warm blended sound.

For the last two works, the core group were joined by more singers to perform two works for 40 voices. They began with a performance of Robin Walker's I have thee by the hand, O man.  This was commissioned 10 years ago by the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester as a companion piece to Tallis' Spem in alium, and 10 years on, it has now received its London premiere.  It is a lengthy piece, and unlike the Tallis, where the music sweeps through the eight choirs of five voices, Walker uses the choirs in a variety of ways.  It is an incredibly challenging piece, and there were one or two moments where some of the younger singers looked a little like rabbits in the headlights.  However, it is a great piece that deserves more exposure, and provided a great build-up to the final work of the programme, Tallis' Spem in alium.  It is always a challenge with this piece to achieve a unity of strength and sound across 40 individual voices, and here one or two soprano voices perhaps lacked the power of the more experienced TS members.  However, the meeting of all 40 voices on 'Respice' was electric, and this was a triumphant end to a fabulous concert.

As an encore, Peter Phillips brought us back down to earth with the core members performing Mouton's Salva nos, Domine.  This was actually a perfectly subdued and sublime ending after the drama of the Walker & Tallis, reminding us how much lesser-known repertoire The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips have brought to our ears over their 40 years so far - long may this continue!

Photo © Clive Barda
This review can also be found on the GScene website here.

You can also watch Eric Whitacre talking about Sainte-Chapelle here.  A recording of The Tallis Scholars singing the piece was released on 17 March 2013 - download it here.

Friday, 1 March 2013

CD Reviews - March 2013

Brothers Paul and Huw Watkins have released the first volume of an exploration of British works for Cello and Piano.  Their first volume includes Sonatas by Hubert Parry (1848-1918), Frederick Delius (1862-1934), John Foulds (1880-1939) and a short piece, Hamabdil, by Granville Bantock (1868-1946).  The Parry is the earliest work, and it is clearly influenced by his hero, Brahms, and makes use of a four-note motif in the outer movements, with a particularly lyrical middle slow movement.  The Delius Sonata has just one movement, although it has three distinct sections.  Like much of Delius’ music, it has a seemless flow, and this can make his music difficult to shape.  However, the Watkins brothers manage to achieve a sense of direction in the melodic writing for cello and the often chordal piano accompaniment.  Bantock’s Hamabdil is a short setting of a Jewish hymn, and is a delightful miniature, with Paul Watkins relishing in the cadenza writing for the cello.  They close the disc with the most interesting work – Foulds’ expansive Sonata from 1905 (although it survives only in the revised version from 1927).  It is an extrovert, expansive work, with a curious mix of romanticism and more innovative techniques, such as whole tone scales, and quarter tones.  The slightly queasy-making use of quarter tone double-stopping in the slow movement, over chilly open octaves in the piano is particularly striking, and very effective.  Overall, enjoyable performances of four varied works, all previously unknown to me.  I await Volume 2 with interest.


Briefly, check out two re-releases of music by Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967).  The recordings date from the late sixties to seventies, and one disc include the Háry János Suite, the Dances of Galánta, and ‘The Peacock Variations’ (sung by London Symphony Chorus), whilst the other is a two disc set, with Psalmus Hungaricus, Missa Brevis, Pange Lingua, Psam 114, the Hymn of Zrinyi and Laudes Organi, all sung here by Brighton Festival Chorus (before my time singing with them, but many current members took part in the recordings).  István Kertész conducts the London Symphony Orchestra on the first disc, and in Psalmus Hungaricus – this recording was described by the Penguin Guide as ‘splendidly vibrant’ and ‘outstanding’ (March et al, 2003, p678), and BFC’s founding conductor, László Heltay conducts the other works.  The second set is filled with Sir Georg Solti conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra in his final recording, of Bartók’s Cantata Profana.  So a couple of great budget price discs, covering the key choral works of Kodály, with excellent performances from Brighton’s own Chorus – see here for a chance to hear us this month. 

March, I. et al. (Eds.) The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs & DVDs 2003/4 Edition. 2003. Penguin Books, London.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene magazine, March 2013)