Monday, 29 June 2015

Dohnányi and the Philharmonia in a rousing close to the season

© Andreas Garrels/NDR
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)

The Philharmonia Orchestra

Bartók: Divertimento
Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola in E flat, K364
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92

Royal Festival Hall, Sunday 28 June 2015.

'Dohnányi maintained a fine balance ... between exuberance and control'.

'Power was full of energy, itching to join in with the orchestra'.

'Steinbacher’s performance ... was one of self-contained simplicity'.

'The finale was full of Beethovenian joy and life force, and Dohnányi encouraged the brass to shine, bringing this commanding performance to a rousing finish'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 22 June 2015

CD Reviews - June 2015

Agostino Steffani’s (1654-1728) operatic output has been overshadowed by his more famous ‘successor’ Handel, yet interest has been growing in recent years, perhaps on the back of the longstanding revival of attention for Handel’s operas.  So much so that two recordings of Niobe, Regina di Tebe (‘Niobe, Queen of Thebes’) have come out almost simultaneously, one live recording from the Royal Opera House’s production in 2010, and another from the production at Boston Early Music Festival in 2011 (although recorded recently) on Erato. It’s a complicated story of Greek myth, with the usual themes of unrequited love, power, magic and tragedy.  As is often the case with opera recordings, a good synopsis and texts is crucial if you are to have any chance of following what’s happening, which the ROH give us – I would have like to have seen a few more production pictures to get a sense of the design world (although there are pictures available online). In terms of the performances, Véronique Gens as Niobe and Iestyn Davies as Creonte (the love interest) stand out as exceptional, both infusing their singing with strong characterisation without being overly mannered.  The male soprano Jacek Laszczkowski as Anfione, the King of Thebes certainly divides listeners.  His incredibly high voice, and the vocal pyrotechnics he demonstrates are highly dramatic, and I suspect on stage this added power and presence to his role, but I found on disc his voice a little over-harsh and extreme in comparison to the other voices. However, it is the instrumental forces of the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble, conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock that shine out of this recording.  Steffani’s instrumentation is always striking and never dull, despite the steady flow of so many relatively short arias and duets (over forty in this version, which already contains some significant cuts).  The appearance of trumpets and drums straight away in the overture signposts Steffani’s daring and dramatic scoring to come.  I enjoyed discovering this highly individual music and look forward to catching a production of this or another of Steffani’s operas in the near future, as I am sure more will follow on the back of this.

Singing in Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) Symphony of Psalms in last year’s Brighton Festival (Brighton Festival Chorus, the Philharmonia Orchestra and John Wilson -review here) reawakened my interest in perhaps one of the most individual and significant composers of the twentieth century. So pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet performing his complete works for piano and orchestra, with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier, promised much, and certainly did not disappoint.  The first thing that stands out is the diversity of this one composer’s output, from the youthful exuberance of Pétrouchka, through the neoclassical Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, and the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, right up to Movements.  The Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments comes first, and in its neoclassical style, there are also nods to the Baroque and Bach in the middle slow movement in particular.  Yet this is pure Stravinsky, and the driving final movement, as well as the challenging yet precise writing for piano throughout, is given a rousing performance from Bavouzet and the combined wind and brass players here.  The Capriccio, composed some five years later, is somewhat less intense in style, and the presence of strings here almost smoothes out the textures, although the dazzling piano part has plenty of life, and Bavouzet has great fun with this.  We jump forward thirty or so years for Movements, a serialist work of five short movements, influenced by Webern, entirely based on a single tone row first heard on the solo piano before its serialist manipulation.  Cerebral perhaps, yes, but by no means inaccessible.  The piano tends to lead small chamber groupings rather than taking a central solo role, and although the piece goes by in just under ten minutes, Bavouzet and the orchestra perform with intensity and tight ensemble.  Stravinsky’s ballet score, Pétrouchka is there to complete the disc, not being technically a piano ‘concerto’, the piano being more a part of the orchestra than a solo instrument – and Bavouzet describes in the notes how much he enjoyed being part of the orchestra for a change.  This lively ballet score from 1911 still sounds fresh and innovative, combining simple tunes with quirky scoring, bitonal harmonies and dramatic balletic use of rhythm throughout, and the performance here is full of spirit, yet precise and sharp, a great conclusion to an exceptional disc.

Czech born composer and violinist Johann Stamitz (1717-1757) was influential in the development of the Classical symphony, writing around 50 of them, and primarily establishing the conventional four-movement pattern.  He was also the director of the renowned orchestra of the day, the Mannheim Court Orchestra. So, whilst not a household name today (and often confused with his two sons Karl & Anton, also violinist/composers), he is known predominantly for this influence on orchestral works and performance.  Yet he also composed a fair amount of chamber works, concertos and some choral works, as well as his set of six Violin Sonatas, Op. 6, which violinist Stephan Schardt has recorded with harpsichordist Michael Behringer. The works are problematic in terms of source material, with the printed edition published after the composer’s death containing errors in both parts.  Schardt and Behringer have researched the available sources, as well as other works by Stamitz to establish a performing edition, and this has proved very successful, with characterful yet appropriate articulation from the violin, with tasteful and sympathetic accompaniment from the harpsichord.  The structure of the six sonatas is the same – a slow movement, followed by a fast central allegro, and ending with a minuet – a standard approach at the time, as the conventions were still developing and becoming established. The allegros are perhaps where the most technically demanding music comes, although harmonically they are not necessarily very advanced.  The adagios however contain some highly ornamental writing, and the fifth sonata has the violin playing two separate lines throughout. The minuets are elegant, with more adventurous harmonic interest in their central trio sections. The sound on this SACD recording is clear as a bell, and the two performers prove the strongest of advocates for these sonatas, and their pivotal position in the development of early Classical style and form.

(Edited versions of some of these reviews first appeared in GScene, June 2015)

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Lewes Chamber Festival 2015

Now in its fourth year, the Lewes Chamber Music Festival has quickly gained a reputation for delivering exciting performances by some of the UK’s leading musicians, giving audiences the chance to discover new and less well-known works, alongside much-loved chamber pieces, all set within intimate venues around Lewes.

Beatrice Philips, Artistic Director
The Festival’s Artistic Director, Beatrice Philips, has this year pulled off quite a coup in attracting the world-renowned countertenor Iestyn Davies, who will be performing Elizabethan songs with Thomas Dunford (whom BBC Music Magazine dubbed 'the Eric Clapton of the Lute'). Davies’ rare appearance in a church venue in Lewes comes between international performances and his headline appearance at the upcoming Glyndebourne season.

Iestyn Davies
The Festival also features for the first time the London Haydn Quartet, one of the world’s leading period instrument string quartets. Other newcomers include brilliant young pianist Mishka Momen, and Swedish concert pianist Bengt Forsberg. Making a welcome returning to the festival are violinists Catherine Manson, Michael Gurevich, Tim Crawford and Tom Hankey; violists James Boyd and Timothy Ridout; cellists Philip Higham and Hannah Sloane; and pianist Tom Poster.

The London Haydn Quartet
The 2015 weekend festival of eight concerts – spread over mornings, lunchtimes, evenings and late night - is themed around the chamber music of Haydn, set alongside later composers such as Beethoven, Britten and Schoenberg. This year’s programme also features two living composers, Melanie Daiken, who studied with composer Olivier Messaein in Paris, and the award-winning Edmund Finnis.

Signalling its growing importance, the Lewes Chamber Music Festival has this year attracted the support of the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust, which helps young people attend world-class chamber music. Their support makes tickets to most of the concerts completely free for those under 26 years old.

The Festival also continues to mix professional musicians of international repute with those at the start of their career – this year bringing younger students from Music Works, who are tutored by musicians featured in the Festival, performing the demanding Schoenberg Quartet No 1.

To complement these performances, musician-turned-chef Sheba Anvari from Local Sauce is providing a delicious two-course meal as part of the opening night celebrations for the late night concert.

The Festival’s Artistic Director, Beatrice Philips, said: 

'I am proud that our Festival offers audiences the rare opportunity to hear both much-loved and also more unusual music performed at such a high level outside the big venues in the UK. The intimate festival atmosphere makes it an unmissable weekend of concerts for music-lovers.'

'This year, I have focused the Festival on the music of Joseph Haydn and his extraordinary output of chamber music. By putting Haydn's music in almost all of the concerts, and alongside Schumann, Beethoven (early and late), Tchaikovsky, Britten and even Schoenberg - we see just how varied, versatile and relevant his music is. Hearing this music played on period instruments by the London Haydn Quartet should be quite a revelation to audiences.'

'I am also thrilled to be welcoming Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford to perform a programme entitled 'The Art of Melancholy' at All Saints Centre late on Saturday night.  Iestyn is singing at Glyndebourne this summer, and so the chance for a local audience to also hear him in such an intimate setting is quite special.'

'All in all a fantastic line-up with amazing music and delicious food - and tickets for under 26 year-olds are free of charge thanks to our support from the Cavatina trust.'

Tickets cost just £12-£14, with an all-concert pass at less than £100, and can this year be bought online hereby email, by tel 01273 479865 or in person from Lewes Travel.

The main Festival venue will be the recently refurbished St John sub Castro church in Lewes, with additional concerts at the beautiful Westgate Chapel, and for the first time the All Saints Centre, plus one at the delightful St Peter's Church in the nearby village of Firle.

Friday 12th June

Bengt Forsberg
Opening Concert - St John sub Castro, 6.30pm
Tickets include a glass of wine
Haydn Piano Trio in D minor, Hob.XV:23, No. 37
Bengt Forsberg (piano) 
Catherine Manson (violin) 
Hannah Sloane (cello)
Tchaikovsky String Quartet in F, No. 2
Michael Gurevich and Beatrice Philips (violins)
Tim Ridout (viola) 
Pierre Doumenge (cello)
Schumann Studies in Canon Form, Op. 56
Tom Hankey (violin) 
Philip Higham (cello) 
Bengt Forsberg (piano) 
Beethoven Piano Trio in G major, Op. 1 No. 2
Tim Crawford (violin) 
Philip Highham (cello) 
Mishka Momen (piano) 

Timothy Ridout
Late Night Supper Concert - Westgate Chapel, 10pm
Supper served from 8.45pm
Sergei Taneyev String Quintet in C No .2, Op. 16
Tim Crawford and Beatrice Philips (violins) 
James Boyd and Timothy Ridout (violas) 
Hannah Sloane (cello).

Saturday 13th June

Firle Concert - St Peter’s, Firle, 11.30am
Coffee free from 10.30am
Haydn Duo for Violin and Viola in F
Edmund Finnis Brother for Violin and Viola
Beethoven String Quintet in C major, Op. 29 
Catherine Manson, Beatrice Philips and Tim Crawford (violins)
Tom Hankey & Timothy Ridout (violas) 
Hannah Sloane (cello).

London Haydn Quartet – Evening Concert - St John sub Castro, 6pm
Tickets include a glass of wine
Haydn Piano Trio in B flat major, Hob.XV:20, No. 34
Haydn String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 55 No. 3
Beethoven String Quartet in F major, Op. 135 

Thomas Dunford

Elizabethan Songs – Late Night Concert – All Saints Centre, 9.45pm
Tickets for this recital include a glass of wine before the performance.
Iestyn Davies (countertenor) 
Thomas Dunford (lute) 
(Please note this concert is not part of the Cavatina free U26s ticket scheme.)

Sunday 14th June

Philip Higham
Coffee Concert – All Saints Centre, 11am
Free coffee from 10.30 am
Haydn String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 9 No. 2
Britten Cello Suite No. 2, Op. 80
Beatrice Philips and Tim Crawford (violins)
Timothy Ridout (viola)
Philip Higham and Hannah Sloane (cellos).

Mishka Momen
Afternoon Concert – All Saints Centre, 2.30pm
Haydn Piano Trio in E flat major, Hob.XV:22, No. 36
Melanie Daiken Sonata for Viola and Piano
Schoenberg String Quartet No. 1
James Boyd (viola)
Mishka Momen (piano) 
Students from Music Works chamber courses
Catherine Manson (violin).

Finale – St John sub Castro, 7pm
CPE Bach Quartet for piano and strings in D major, WQ94
Catoire Piano Quintet in G, Op. 28
Schumann Waldszenen, Op. 82
Schumann Piano Quartet in E flat, Op. 47
Bengt Forsberg, Mishka Momen & Tom Poster (piano)
Michael Gurevich, Tom Hankey, Beatrice Philips (violins) 
Timothy Ridout & James Boyd (viola)
Pierre Doumenge (cello).