This year’s festival celebrates the richness of 700 years of music from Europe, and looks at Britain’s long and often tempestuous relationship with the rest of the Continent from medieval times onwards. Concerts draw on the important alliances, wars, trade, migrations, revolutions and dissolutions, as a result drawing parallels to some of the current challenges we face (a slight understatement!) in terms of our relationship with the rest of Europe. Despite the increasing challenges of funding such a festival, Artistic Director Deborah Robertsonce again promises us a typically varied and innovative range of concerts, workshops and events.
The festival the kicks off with the Sollazzo Ensembleexploring La Contenance Angloise, an early English cultural export and musical fashion which took Europe by storm in the 15thcentury (Friday 26). Then soprano Elin Manahan Thomasis joined by Elizabeth Kennyon lute & chitarrone for ‘Game of Thrones’, including music by Dowland, Tallis, Carissimi and others, reflecting the political machinations of the time (Saturday 27). The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemblemeanwhile focus on the influence of the Venetian wind-playing Bassano family, who brought their unrivalled skills to 16th century London (Saturday 27).
Spanish group Resonetare joined by the BREMF Community Choirto bring the music from the Lewes Breviary to life, and show how a European network of monastaries shared and influenced music across the continent (Sunday 28).
A highlight of every BREMF is the BREMF Live!Showcase, and this year promises to be no different, with performances from five emerging ensembles supported by the festival (Saturday 3 November), including medieval vocal ensemble Voice, early baroque group Dramma per Musica, and classical ensemble Pocket Sinfonia.
Lux Musicae Londonwill be performing music by John Dowland and others from the court of Christian IV in Denmark (Sunday 4 November), and the Fieri Consortare in the year 1588, considering what might have happened if the wind had not changed, and the Spanish Armada had succeeded in invading Britain – at the same time as the first Italian madrigal anthology with English texts crossed the Alps, a cultural conquest that made madrigal singing the height of fashion across Europe (Friday 9 November).
Once again, BREMF are also offering us the chance to see rarely performed early opera, and this year we get not one but two, with a double bill of Il Ballo delle Ingrateby Monteverdi, and Venus and Adonisby John Blow. With a great cast of young soloists, and the Monteverdi String Band, Thomas Guthrie directs productions combining music and dance (6-8 November).
BREMF Consort of Voices
Two powerful concerts will conclude this year’s festival. First, in Reformation Remainers, the BREMF Consort of Voices, directed by Deborah Roberts, perform music by Taverner, Tallis and Byrd, drawing parallels between the fierce divide brought about by the English Reformation (the break with Rome), and Brexit (the break with Brussels) (Saturday 10 November). And finally, Peace in Europe, a concert for Armistice Day will include music by Handel, Zelenka and Purcell, performed by the BREMF Playersand Singers, directed by John Hancorn(Sunday 11 November).
Canadian conductor Peter Oundjianis moving on from a successful period at the helm of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and one of his final projects with them has been to record two works by American composerJohn Adams (b.1947). The first is a curious piece, Absolute Jest, for string quartet and orchestra, and the RSNO are joined by the Doric String Quartet. The work was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to mark their centenary, and the only previous recording to date is by them. Adams draws extensively, and very playfully, on music by Beethoven – you can play a bit of ‘spot the tune’, with material here from Symphonies 8 and 9, as well as the late string quartets. The quartet rises and falls out of the overall texture, and as ever, the Dorics play with sharp precision and energy – in concert performance, the quartet is amplified to balance against the orchestral sound. There is a typically Adams-esque driving energy throughout, and it’s a great ride. The final wild prestissimo comes to a sudden halt, leaving a strange combination of cowbells, piano and harp hanging in the air, like a lost fortepiano echoing from the past. The main work on this disc, however, is Naive and Sentimental Music. The title is a reference to Schiller, and Adams is exploring the contrast between a simple and straightforward artistic response, and a more emotional reflection and expression. There are lots of Adams’ signature devices here, and there was much that reminded me of his great choral work, Harmonium. The first movement begins simply, almost relaxed, but a slow accelerando gradual builds the tension, with the straightforward melody ranging over increasingly insistent rhythms. The movement builds to an exhausting frenzy, with thunderous percussion. The second movement, ‘Mother of the Man’, has a lilting, if occasionally rhythmically off-kilter feel, and the ‘sentimental’ here is the moving solo for steel-stringed guitar (played sensitively by Sean Shibe), coupled with a mournful bassoon solo. The final movement, ‘Chain to the Rhythm’ starts like a quiet ‘Wild Nights’ (from Harmonium), and as the title suggests, is a tour de force of complex rhythms, which Oundjean and the RSNO navigate with impressive precision. Adams also makes great use of percussion, with a central quieter passage evoking the gamelan. The crashing brass and percussion conclusion comes somewhat suddenly, and it’s all over, but this is an infectious piece, and the performance here is striking and full of energy.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzethas reached the seventh volume of his collection of the Piano Sonatas of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). Here there are five more sonatas, although the questions of authenticity rise once again with a few of these. The earliest here, Sonata No. 8, appeared in publication alongside four other sonatas, all supposedly by Pleyel, so whether this was from Haydn’s hand is uncertain. It’s a simple, not particularly profound piece, with an energetically stately opening Allegro, a graceful Minuet and a rhythmically jumpy Presto to finish. Bavouzet plays with his usual bright articulation, with some rattling arpeggios in the Allegro. The Sonata No. 46, although also relatively concise, has more interest, with running semiquavers contrasting with a stately triple time. The second movement is more unusual, sounding like a Bach three part invention, but with a Haydn twist. The finale has a lively theme that shifts in and out of major and minor, and Haydn varies the theme with increasingly dramatic virtuosity. The highlight of Sonata No. 13 is the rhapsodic, fantasia-like Adagio, and Bavouzet makes it sing like an extended aria. Sonata No. 57 is the fake here – the second two movements are transcriptions from Sonata No. 19, and the first movement is almost definitely not by Haydn, although it is not insubstantial, with winding lines like a two part invention, and some delicate octave work. The disc closes with Sonata No. 58, with a delicately expressive and improvisatory Andante followed by a lively virtuosic Presto to finish. Bavouzet enjoys the expansive expression of the former, and dashes off the latter with spirited energy.
'The darkness and sparseness of the design strips away much of what normally distances us from the personal, making this appropriately more uncomfortable than the run of the mill Traviatas'. 'Galoyan gave us an emotionally intense and touchingly fragile Violetta'. Galoyan & D'Aguanno: 'their final duet (was) genuinely touching'. Noel Bouley: 'his rich baritone was authoritative and highly convincing'. Read my full review on Bachtrack here.
Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton have recorded a wonderful selection of songs, covering 120 years of composers associated with the Royal College of Music, as teachers, students or both. I heard them perform much of this repertoire in a lunchtime BBC Prom in August, and it was one of my concert highlights of the year so far (read my review here). The title of the CD, ‘Come to Me in My Dreams’, comes from Frank Bridge’s (1879-1983) beautifully rhapsodic setting of Matthew Arnold’s text, with its bluesy piano opening, passionate swells and dramatic break on ‘truth’. But the disc opens with a total gem, a touching miniature, ‘The Lost Nightingale’ by Muriel Herbert (1897-1984). This is a stunning collection, by any standards, but what makes it exceptional is the strong sense of communication and commitment to the texts. From the tender sadness and dislocated syncopation of voice and piano in Ivor Gurney’s (1890-1937) ‘Thou didst delight my eyes’, to the tolling bells and beating heart of the repeated note in Arthur Somervell’s (1863-1937) ‘Into my heart an air that kills’, Connolly always delivers the texts with intensity and passion, without ever becoming mannered in delivery. Her soft, honeyed tone and delicate articulation of ‘drips, drips, drips’ in Stanford’s (1852-1924) ‘A soft day’ is particularly striking. In addition to Connolly’s phenomenal expressiveness and control, Middleton’s playing also deserves equal credit. His rippling watery accompaniment to Parry’s (1848-1918) ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ is a perfect example of the subtlety of his touch throughout. In addition to Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) set ‘A Charm of Lullabies’, we have ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ and ‘Somnus, the humble god’, two songs written for the set, but rejected by Britten, discovered by Connolly in the Britten-Pears Library, so world premiere recordings here. ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ combines a simple lilting rhythm with an undercurrent of unsettling harmonies, and the urgency of the darker undertone increases, such that the final wail leaves the ‘lullaby’ far from calm. ‘Somnus, the humble god’ is also dark, with its rumbling, rocking piano part and a final stanza likening sleep to death. Many songs here will be unfamiliar to many, but there are some real treasures here. Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ (1889-1960) ‘Sailing Homeward’ has a great dramatic arc in its two short minutes, and E. J. Moeran’s (1894-1940) ‘Twilight’ is full of achingly pastoral sadness and loss. Rebecca Clarke’s (1886-1979) ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ is beautifully lyrical and Romantic, and Connolly’s smooth line is matched by soft textures from Middleton. Michael Tippett’s (1905-1998) 'Songs for Ariel' are highly atmospheric, and Connolly relishes the drama and quirkiness of Tippett’s settings here. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s (b.1960) ‘Farewell’, written for Connolly, concludes the disc, with Turnage exploiting Connolly’s full range to convey the passion and directness of Stevie Smith’s text. Connolly sounds distraught, almost crazed, delivering the line ‘I loved you best’, contrasted with a beautifully relaxed, bell-like tone in the final ‘ding dongs’, against the high tinkling piano. A wonderful collection of English song, highly recommended.
I first came across lutenist Jadran Duncumb on his recording last year with violinist Johannes Pramsohler. He now has his first solo recording out, focusing on Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750), who also featured on that previous CD, and Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783). Weiss was one of the most important composers of music for the lute, and was renowned for his technical ability on the instrument. Hasse wrote a great deal of lute music for Weiss, who performed as a soloist with the Dresden orchestra, where Hasse was Kapellmeister. Here, Duncumb performs two of Hasse’s Sonatas, although both of these have been transcribed from their original settings for harpsichord. The Sonata in A major, dedicated to the daughter of Friedrich August II of Saxony, is a delightful two movement piece, and Duncumb has added back some of the detail in the sprightly Allegro that was removed in the original transcription. The Sonata in D minor by Weiss is an altogether more substantial work of Bach-like proportions, in six movements, and from its opening stately Allemande, through to the graceful Sarabande, and the fluid Allegro that ends the work, Duncumb makes this sound totally natural. In his notes, he argues that lutenist Weiss’ writing for the instrument comes alive in a way that Bach’s doesn’t quite, and in Duncumb’s hands this is certainly the case. There is a lively energy and fluidity in his playing that never sounds difficult or awkward. He also includes a short but harmonically daring Prelude, and a joyous Passacaglia from Weiss to close the disc. Before that, another Sonata from Hasse, with some delightfully delicate Baroque sequences in its opening Allegro, and dancing Presto to finish. The recording is close and resonant, which does mean that one hears the occasional scraping of frets, but the ears soon get used to this, and the pay-off is a richness of tone that makes this a highly engaging debut solo recording from Duncumb.
Barry Douglas (piano) combines Schubert’s (1797-1828) posthumous Piano Sonata D958 with the Six Moments Musicaux for the third volume of his collection of the composer’s works for solo piano. He finishes off this volume with two of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert songs. The Piano Sonata in C minor, D958 is the first of Schubert’s final three sonatas, written in the final months of his life. It clearly has its roots in Beethoven, particularly in its dramatic, emphatic opening, but Schubert’s voice quickly emerges, especially in the beautifully poignant Adagio. Douglas delivers the required power and weight in the opening movement, and generally his approach emphasises the dramatic. However, his Adagio has delicacy and sensitive expression, if not going for quite the sense of transcendence here that say, Uchida, achieves. His finale is powerfully agile, however, culminating in a thunderously emphatic conclusion. The Moments Musicaux are a set of character pieces, varying in style and from the brief, dancing third to the more substantial angst-ridden sixth. There are folk touches here and there, but ultimately, these are intimate ‘moments’, and Douglas gives them individual voices, from the delicate poise of No. 1 to the thundering insistence of No. 5. He ends this volume with two of Liszt’s transcriptions for piano of Schubert songs. ‘Sei mir gegrüßt’ preserves the beautiful melodic line, but Liszt’s deft variation shifts the melody from the top to the middle of the texture, and resists the temptation to be overly virtuosic. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ does something similar, but Liszt adds beautifully pianistic textures, adding a new dimension to the song’s watery theme. Another strong volume in Douglas’ ongoing Schubert cycle.