Monumental Messiaen: Steven Osborne at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and profound work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus) is one of the greatest works in the pianist’s repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such titans as Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale. It is one of the most extraordinary and ground-breaking works in twentieth-century piano repertoire, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), and yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable.

It is, above all else, an expression of Messiaen’s deeply-held Catholic faith – even more so than the Quator pour le fin du temp – a faith which involved sound and silence, beauty and terror, joy, love and an all-embracing sense of awe. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not have to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work. Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music in a way that makes it more accessible through his use of recurring motifs and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and chocolate-box cards: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles, and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

All twenty movements are constructed around three distinctive themes. The first, the Theme of God, a slow-moving chordal motif, heard first in the opening Regard (Regard du Père/Gaze of the Father). It recurs in V, XI and XV, and is always sonorous, luminous and profound. The second theme, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, first appears in Regard II. Turbulent and fractured, it signifies the beginning and the end of Christ’s life. The final theme, the Theme of Chords, is a sequence of four chords which are used in various ways throughout the entire work, most obviously in Regard XIV. In the final movement, all three themes are brought together.

Silence also plays a significant role in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. In some movements, the silences are like breaths or moments of hushed contemplation. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements too (Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist), with chatterings and squawks, trills and shrills in the upper registers, yet always used melodically rather than for pure effect. There are even references to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (Regard de l’Esprit de joie/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy), and later a hint of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Another important aspect is Messiaen’s “flashes”, colourful chords and clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”. To me, these are akin to the lines of stigmata found in paintings of artists such as Giotto, as well as the golden halos and symbolic devices found on Greek and Russian Orthodox icons. In the music we also hear tolling bells and carillon chimes, complex rhythmic motifs, and references to devotional texts, numerology, and Hinduism, as well as deeply portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate. These aspects informed much of the composer’s thinking and became recurring elements in his later works. It was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and is the only sacred work he wrote for solo piano. It also holds the rather special distinction of being the longest piece of solo sacred piano music ever written (Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques and religieuses is the next longest, at 90 minutes).

The composer gives very clear directions and markings in the score to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the kind of sound he envisaged. For example, the recurring themes are marked each time their appear, and Messiaen indicates particular instruments too: the xylophone Regarde de la Vierge, bells in Noel, and the tam tam (a gong-like instrument) and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages.

At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake such a task for it places immense technical and musical demands on the pianist. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed in full.

British pianist Steven Osborne has been playing this work for around 20 years now (and has made an acclaimed recording of it as well for Hyperion) and believes that it should be played without interruption to create “a deeper sense of engagement with the work as a whole, for both myself and the listener.” Becuase of his long association with the music, Osborne plays with an assured “settledness” and his deep understanding of the work enables him to create a cohesive whole. As a listener, one feels at once totally at ease with him on this epic musical and emotional voyage yet also acutely alert, as he is, to every shift in harmony and tonal colour, every nuance and emotion. Thus, the music feels freshly wrought, as new sonorities, new meanings are revealed.

He has a restrained virtuosity which puts the music front and centre, and his every gesture is freighted with meaning. He creates an extraordinary range of colours and tone – translucent filigree arabesques, shimmering, flickering trills, brilliant chirruping birdsong, plangent bass chords, rumbling, rolling Lisztian arpeggios….. And all despatched with an almost effortlesss sprezzatura. The performance was perfectly paced, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the extraordinarily powerful cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. The rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy. The long silence at the end before the applause, as we meditated on what we had heard, was a mark of our respect for performer, music and composer, further confirmed by a standing ovation.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – Olivier Messiaen

Steven Osborne, piano

6 November 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre


FW

Umpteenth revival of Jonathan Miller’s Mikado at ENO

 

1986 wasn’t a particularly memorable year in the grand scheme of things. In January Spain and Portugal joined the European Community (as it then was), in July Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey and in October Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially opened the M25 motorway. I seem to remember spending a large part of it looking for a job. Nor was I the only one on his uppers: the English National Opera was going through one of its periodic financial meltdowns and badly needed a sure-fire hit to keep the bailiffs away. Fortunately Peter Jonas, then running ENO, had already met with Jonathan Miller to discuss a new version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado or the Town of Titipu’. The rest, as they say,  is opera history.

Reportedly, Miller’s response when he and Jonas first toyed with the idea over dinner at the Camden Brasserie was: ‘it’s pure Duck Soup!’ He decided to jettison all the Japanese stuff which had plagued most productions, amateur and professional, since the D’Oyly Carte days. Out went the kimonos, kowtowing and tea ceremony, in came tuxes, Busby Berkeley dance routines and palm-court orchestra. The late Stefanos Lazaridis’s all-cream set locates the action to a swish resort hotel circa 1930. Sue Blane’s costumes are equally opulent and there are numerous changes: the ENO wardrobe department must work flat out on Mikado nights. The resulting all-singing, all-dancing crowd-pleaser still packs a perennial punch.

 

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ENO The Mikado 2019, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Soraya Mafi, (c) Genevieve Girling

 

Bestriding this revival like a Colossus, as he has done for nearly thirty years, is Richard Suart, whose Ko-Ko (‘The Lord High Executioner’) channels Max Wall and Leonard Sachs from the Good Old Days in a richly comic performance. Suart freely admits that the role has been the backbone of his career and has now written a history of the production, ‘Mikado Memories’. He gets strong support from Andrew Shore as Pooh-Ba and Jonathan McGovern as Pish-Tush, while Sir John Tomlinson, more used to Wagner than to G&S, dons the Mikado fat suit. Also deserving of mention are the romantic leads, Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Nanki-Poo) and Soraya Mafi (Yum-Yum); I particularly enjoyed their pitch-perfect singing of the first act duet, ‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’. And the ENO orchestra, chorus and dancers are all splendid, of course. For the rest, everyone knows Yum-Yum’s self-congratulatory ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ or Ko-Ko’s arch ‘Willow, Tit-Willow’ but how many people remember Princess Katisha’s moving lament ‘Alone, and Yet Alive’, beautifully sung here by mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard?

 

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ENO The Mikado 2019, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Richard Suart, Andrew Shore, (c) Genevieve Girling

 

Truth be hold, Gilbertian Topsy-turvydom does start to wear a bit thin with me after a while, nor is it quite compensated for either by Marx Brothers slapstick or high-kicking chambermaids, although there’s comfort to be had from what must be some of Arthur Sullivan’s best musical numbers. And without doubt Miller’s is a helluva production which should be good for a few seasons yet.

By convention, this Mikado regularly updates Ko-Ko’s recital, early in Act One, of his names of potential victims – ‘they’d none of ’em be missed!’ High on the list this time (Suart writes it himself) are Raab, Rees-Mogg, Bojo, Bercow & Brexit, all of which had them rolling in the Coliseum aisles. It’s a timely reminder that this evergreen favourite is no more about Japan than Brexit, when you really come down to it, is about Brussels. They’re actually both about us.

NM

 

The Mikado at English National Opera to 30 November 2019

Header image: ENO The Mikado 2019, Cast, John Tomlinson, (c) Genevieve Girling

 

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ENO The Mikado 2019, ENO Chorus, Dancers, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, (c) Genevieve Girling

An Electrifying ‘Mask of Orpheus’ at ENO

 

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Aerialists, Matthew Smith (Orpheus Hero) and Alfa Marks (Eurydice Hero)

 

Commissioned by ENO, The Mask of Orpheus, caused quite a stir, when it premiered at the Coliseum in 1986. Some heralded it as a genius work. Others found it difficult, which probably explains why it has not been fully staged again until now.

There is no doubt that Harrison Birtwistle’s three-hour epic composition was a radical musical departure from the opera on offer at the time. Composers flocked to the premiere to hear Birtwistle’s new sound. The use of prerecorded electronic music to supplement the acoustic score  was deemed highly innovative and damned exciting.

Fast forward to today, I can see why The Mask of Orpheus could be regarded as a challenge to stage. Birtwistle’s version of the myth is not linear. Orpheus’s tale of love and loss is played out over and over in Ground Hog day fashion.

There is a further detail to test the patience of the traditional opera goer; in Mask of Orpheus, Orpheus appears under three different guises: Orpheus The Man, Orpheus The Hero and Orpheus the Myth. Birtwistle was obsessed with the classics and was particularly drawn to Orpheus, who has, over time, he argues, come to embody both the hero and the myth. Birtwistle chose to do the same with Eurydice and her seducer, Aristaeus. 

Confused? It all made sense on stage when I saw it performed the night of the 25th of October. Orpheus Man was the young Orpheus in love, Orpheus the Myth, the older version of Orpheus who had taken to drink. In Hero guises, Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus, didn’t sing but mimed and performed balletically on ropes. Former circus performers and aerialists, Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks and Leo Hedman were amazing, reenacting the passion, jealousy, rage and finally tenderness felt by Orpheus for his wife (see header image).

Indeed all the dancers were outstanding in this production, displaying split-second timing, and great versatility and control. The dance troupe performing various mythic characters were extraordinary to watch, their jerky, desperate movements behind a glass wall, mimicking angry, trapped insects. The choreography was underpinned by the bee theme as Aristaeus is not only Eurydice’s seducer but also beekeeper and representative of  nature. Barnaby Booth’s choreography was quite brilliant. He is definitely one to watch out for in future operatic and theatrical productions. 

On the night, Birtwistle’s music still sounded fresh and inventive after all these years. It was accessible and engaging too. In sections, I could distinguish Wagnerian strains and melodies which started off as background sound, only to suddenly swell like waves rising slowly in the deep ocean. Claire Barnett-Jones, playing Eurydice Myth, was a superb ‘Valkyrie’, both in body and voice, and so were the furies. 

Peter Hoare was equally impressive, as Orpheus Man in crimson wrap, decorated with sparkling  lyre. Sporting blonde spiky hair, Hoare bore an uncanny resemblance to comedian Eddie Izzard. He was captivating throughout, dying and being reborn again, repeating the same mistake with Eurydice. His voice and enunciation were superb. I could understand every word that he sung, even when his speech was supposed to be unintelligible! Memorable was his haunting, pared down, jazzy delivery of Cole Porter’s song, ’Every time we say goodbye’ as he slow-danced with Eurydice Woman on the bed. Marta Fontanals-Simmons, incarnating the young Eurydice had tremendous presence and  the purity and passion in her voice, expressed the newness of her love for Orpheus most eloquently.

The staging was a dress designer’s dream. You couldn’t miss the furies with their bright orange beehives, exaggerated posteriors and breasts, squeezed into rubber dresses. They were reminiscent of  Nicki de Saint  Phalle’s swollen statues in the Stravinsky Fountain, Paris.

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Katie Stevenson, Charlotte Shaw and Katie Coventry as Furies.

 

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Nicki de Saint Phalle’s women.

All in all a totally absorbing, ambitious and cohesive production of Birtwistle’s monumental work. The ending was absolutely spell-binding, sweet music finally opening up and spilling out into its ecstatic conclusion.

A unique and unforgettable experience! 

 

KH

The Mask of Orpheus : Remaining performances : 29th October, 7th and 13th November 2019

Inspired by the East at the British Museum

 

 

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Young Woman Reading 1880 by Osman Hamdi Bey

Reading the British Museum press release of Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, I was preparing myself for a big show. The exhibition was promoted as “Covering five centuries of artistic interaction”, and since it was a paying show for the the general public, I expected wall to wall works of Orientalist paintings, myriads of Middle Eastern tiles, and in my wildest dreams, I pictured a  reconstruction of Lord Leighton’s Arab Hall he had built in his Kensington House in the 1870s at huge expense. Having fallen in love with “the East” Leighton sourced hundreds of tiles for his Arab Hall from Damascus.

As usual I was letting my imagination run away with me and what I in fact stepped into was a compact show with neatly set out exhibits, key objects from the BM’s Islamic collection and loans from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, this supplemented with a small collection of paintings by Eugène Delacroix, John Frederic Lewis and Frederick Arthur Bridgman.

In the opening I stared at a map of the Holy Land, drawn in brown ink. It was dated 1486 when Europeans first showed an interest in the Middle East through religious pilgrimages.

A selection of ceramics and accessories in a glass cabinet illustrated Europe’s commercial  exchange with the Ottoman Empire and Iran. There was an assortment of French handbags from the 1600s, fashioned from Safavid silks, and Italian plates, inspired by Ottoman ceramics. They were far less vibrant, than their Turkish counterparts.

More interesting were the beautiful tiles and dishes further ahead. The glassware was particularly eye-catching such as an Austrian-Hungarian blue stoppered jar (1916), which I would have gladly displayed on my mantelpiece at home. 

In the crowds I had to fight to get my perch. The dim lighting didn’t help and made the job of gleaning information from the exhibits doubly trying.

Passing by a section entitled ‘Diplomacy’, I halted before two paintings of diplomatic dinners with ‘Dragomans’ milling around the distinguished guests. These were interpreters who needed a brilliant command of European languages in order to satisfy the Western diplomats populating the city of Constantinople in the nineteenth century. How did I know they were Dragomans? Well they all seemed to be sporting peculiarly tall hats with scooped out tops! Why that shape! For transporting rolled up manuscripts perhaps?

Finally it was to the Orientalist painters we turned. In the late nineteenth century, hoards of light-seeking artists escaped the winter smog in Europe and flocked to the sun, colour and sounds of the East. Some of them painted there, others returned to their Paris studios, furnishing them with carpets, silks and other Eastern props. Some painted from memory, others painted fantasies. Women in harems. I was expecting a lot more of these hidden worlds. 

Instead, I saw mosques in the early morning sun, kneeled men in prayer and Qur’an boy students. I eventually came upon a portrait of a woman, fully clothed and burning incense. The painter, Cesere Dell’Acqua (1821-1905), had never visited the Middle East. The woman is pure fantasy, dressed in a brocaded robe, earrings, with a veil over her dark loose hair. She is thought to be Circassien from the Caucauses. It is assumed that the artist was inspired by a costume book! 

The Orientalist section had been a disappointment. The focus on mosque interiors, prayers and Qur’an reading, had dampened my curiosity. They were of course of great historic interest but where were the harems? These were important for the latter part of the exhibition would contain works of art, which called into question the Orientalist movement with its colonialist and sexist overtones.

The final two rooms of the show were the most compelling, containing works by ‘Eastern’ artists. I loved Osman Hamdi Bey’s Young Woman Reading 1880.  A young woman in yellow brocade, reads the Qur’an in a typical Arabic setting (see Header image). This painting must surely have been seen by Matisse, who, in his odalisque paintings of the 1920s and 30s, put his models in similar ‘oriental’ settings. The fact that Hamdi Bey received his artistic training from the orientalist painter Gérôme, makes interesting reading at the show. 

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Persian Woman by Antoin Sevruguin

Also of note were the black and white images of photographer, Antoin Sevruguin, a Georgian-Armenian nineteenth century photographer who had a studio in Tehran. At the exhibition we see a Persian woman with masculine features, reclining in what resembles a tutu skirt. The semi-erotic “European” pose is unusual, I learn from this fascinating blog post https://www.vintag.es/2018/07/antoin-sevruguins-portrait-photography.html when I get home. It contains forty amazing images of a world we would not normally have access to.

By now I had reached the climax of the show, where contemporary female artists of Arabic background were exhibited.

Raeda Saadeh’s 2003 print entitled Who Will Make Me Real?, seems to suggest that even now, Arabic women face a crisis in identity. A woman reclines in a hopeless ‘orientalist’ pose and stares out at me, entirely dressed in Palestinian newspapers. The gesture is both awkward and defiant.

I loved the triptych by Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi (born 1956). A fully veiled woman is seen both in profile and face on. In a monochrome setting, with light Arabic lettering flitting over her clothes and filling the space around her, she seems to disappear. Is Lalla Essaydi bemoaning the invisibility of veiled women, or Moroccan women in general? The conclusions are ambiguous as the overall effect is so aesthetically pleasing.

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Triptych by Lala Essaydi

 

Despite my quibbles concerning the orientalist section, this is a cohesive, unassuming show with a clear narrative. An opportunity to acquaint yourself with exciting woman artists from the Arabic world. Worth a visit.

KH

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art is on at the British Museum until 26th January 2020.

Bridget Riley retrospective mesmerises and excites at Hayward Gallery

I still remember the first time I saw Bridget Riley’s vivid, abstract paintings. It was at a provincial gallery, Wolverhampton or somewhere similar, in the mid-1970s. Coloured stripes and shapes shimmered and bounced, their contrasting yet consonant colours jostling and vibrating on the large canvasses. I was fascinated by the rhythm and energy of these paintings, but also the meticulous way in which they were created.

Bridget Riley is as ubiquitous as David Hockney and probably almost as popular, and her singing, zinging paintings are familiar and instantly recognisable. The Hayward Gallery’s new retrospective of Riley’s work celebrates the vibrancy and seriousness of her work. It’s her third exhibition at this gallery and the largest retrospective to date, spanning her early forays into the daring juxtaposition of colour and shape and the expressive pointillism of Seurat to the development of her own distinct style which seemed so in keeping with the mood of the Swinging Sixties yet is also timeless and fresh today, the mesmerising effects of her paintings not dimmed by the passage of the years. Now in her late 80s, Riley is still creating and her latest explorations with dots using a limited palette of muted colours are on display in the final room of the exhibition. Their colours are subtle but their impact is just as powerful.

Installation view of Bridget Riley, Rajasthan, 2012 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo Stephen White & Co.
Installation view of Bridget Riley, Rajasthan, 2012 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co

In the large white spaces of the Hayward Gallery, Riley’s paintings can be viewed to their best advantage. Her black and white paintings – graduated dots and squares, waves and lozenges – trick and disturb the eye and brain, suggesting infinite depth and dimension in their two-dimensional surfaces, as visually cunning as a painting by Escher and equally challenging. Perception and sensation are important in all of Riley’s work, but the black and white paintings really test our ways of seeing. In Continuum, the viewer actually enters the work of art and is encircled by a continuous painted surface which spirals around itself, creating an unsettling immersive experience which Riley rejected as too literal, in favour of the flat canvasses which mesmerise and excite.

Look closer and one appreciates the care and attention which goes into producing these works (Riley uses a meticulous process of studies to work out her paintings, which are then finished by her studio assistants). Structure and process are hugely important to Riley, yet one has the sense that she works by the maxim of “through discipline comes freedom”: each painting has a freshly-minted immediacy.

On the upper floor of the gallery, this important process is examined in more detail with a display of her studies, which reveal how her decisions about colour, contrast, tone, tempo and scale influence the finished work. Here, there is also an opportunity to see her early work, when she was still a student and before she developed her distinctive style. There are some elegant life drawings and sketches of friends, intimate and touching in contrast to the large, vivid canvasses which populate this generous, uplifting exhibition.

 

Bridget Riley, 23 October 2019 – 26 January 2020

Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London


FW

Header image: Installation view of Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961 at Hayward Gallery 2019 © Bridget Riley 2019 Photo: Stephen White & Co.

Pietà Power at the Cadogan Hall

 

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Saturday night, late October, and there’s a chill in the air, and it’s not all down to weather! Brexit dramas, political deadlock, dire economic and climatic warnings have filled the day. I’m relieved to put those eerily dark streets off Sloane street behind me, and to step into the warmly lit Cadogan Hall.

I’ve come to see Pietà, a choral work by Richard Blackford, which is getting its London premiere tonight. I do enjoy choral music; a Handel, Verdi or Mozart Requiem will set off the Christmas season nicely, provided the choir is polished and the work is performed in a warm, comfortable venue (all of which I was expecting to get this evening). I have spent too many Christmases shivering in churches, listening to, or singing the same works for my own choir!

Having interviewed Blackford prior to the performance, I was very much looking forward to seeing Pietà performed live. I knew that the composer had used the traditional Stabat Mater hymn as his starting point.To the hymn for the grieving Mary, whose son has been crucified on the Cross, Blackford added poems by the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova wrote them in a state of heightened anxiety, when she thought she had lost her own son to the KGB during the Stalin purges. Introducing this new element, Blackford hoped to bring audiences closer to the subject. Akhmatova was an ordinary mother after all – one with which the audience could easily identify and empathise with. See my interview here: Pietà Premieres in London: Interview with composer Richard Blackford.

In the audience at the Cadogan, I watched a choir of one hundred and ten singers walk out on stage with thirty-six violin, viola and cello musicians. Members of the children’s choir were already in position in the the dress circle. Mezzo soprano,  Catherine Wyn Rogers, appeared last with baritone, Huw Montague Rendall. Reigning above them all, in her own gallery above the stage, stood soprano saxophonist, Amy Dickson, in a resplendent gold dress. Together with conductor Gavin Carr, they all formed a perfect tableau.

For the opening prelude, the strings, and the cello theme set the mournful tone. The strings playing in their extreme upper register ratcheted up the tension. The choir  entered with a hushed pianissimo before crescendoing slowly and inexorably.“Through her weeping soul…./A sword passed”, they sang, expressing Mary’s visceral pain as she watches her son’s crucifixion. Lines like these are not forgotten in a hurry.

As you may have gathered by now, Blackford’s composition is not your usual slow and contemplative Stabat Mater, as you might get with Pergolesi for instance.

The second movement with its rocking string rhythm, over which Amy Dickson’s soprano sax rode so hauntingly, took my breath away. Blackford’s use of the soprano saxophone in an obligato role, was a stroke of genius. Dickson’s instrument is pivotal in the work. One minute accompanying the strings and establishing a dialogue with them; the next echoing  the emotions of the mezzo soprano. At key moments, Dickson’s instrument follows its own serene path, riding high above the drama taking place around her. Her melodies full of pathos are most memorable in the final two movements.

At the concert I was also struck by how well Blackford writes for singers. He chooses them well too. Tonight Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ mezzo voice suited Akhmatova’s anxiety-ridden, ‘Weeks fly swiftly by’. The syncopated rhythms were not easy, however Wyn-Rogers executed them perfectly. Huw Montague Rendall’s baritone conjoined well with Wyn-Rogers’ burnished tones in the tender duet in Fact me mecum pie flere – I would have liked more duets but I’m betraying my love of opera here!

Most impressive was the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. Having already performed the work at the Lighthouse, Poole, the BSC was by now a slick operation. Most memorable was the a cappella piece in Akhmatova’s poem A Chorus of Angels Sang. I closed my eyes and the chorus’s melded voices transported me back to Easter Mass at the Russian Orthodox Church in la Rue Daru, Paris, where my Georgian grandmother used to take us as children. My mother, accompanying me on the night, told me that she had had the same reaction and had shed several tears.

 

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Russian Orthodox Church, la rue Daru, Paris.

With Pietà Blackford has produced a work of tremendous passion, drama and tenderness. The children’s choral interlude was a complete joy to listen to. So poignant though as well, as images of snow, Christmas and of war-torn territories and motherless children, crowded my mind. This was no accident, the composer intended it this way.

Conductor, Gavin Carr was magnificent on the night. He had a job on his hands: two choirs in different spaces, string orchestra at his feet, soprano sax up above in the gallery, two new soloists who had probably only had one rehearsal as is usually the case. And Carr engaged all the performers with expert precision. I felt that every single musician and singer in the room had the utmost respect for him and the work. Furthermore they loved what they were performing.

This is an exciting work to see live and to perform as a choir. Highly recommended.

KH

A recording of Pietà is available on Nimbus Records, featuring the original soloists from the premiere at The Lighthouse, Poole, the extraordinary mezzo, Jennifer Johnston (Bayerische Staatsoper) and the much in demand on the opera circuit, baritone, Stephen Gadd. Also available for Download and Streaming. 

For choirs: Study Score, Vocal Score and Orchestral Parts are available to purchase and hire from Nimbus Music Publishing.

My interview with Richard Blackford : 

Intimate, personal and autobiographical: new releases of piano music by Schumann and Schubert

qtz2134R. Schumann – Works for Piano / Joseph Tong

This new release by British pianist Joseph Tong on the Quartz label contains some of Schumann’s most intimate and autobiographical music, notably the Fantasie in C, Op 17.

Never one for disguising his emotions, Schumann described it as “perhaps the most impassioned music I have ever written” (writing to Clara Wieck, March 1838), and here he wears his heart on his sleeve in a remarkable display of soul-bearing. Imbued with passionate and unresolved longing, the music portrays the heart-fluttering panoply of emotions from ecstasy to agony which being in love provokes. It is a work of great virtuosity, a huge test for the pianist, but Joseph makes light of this, offering an authoritative, magisterial and poised reading of the first two movements, whose seemingly disparate elements segue fluidly to create a coherent sense of ongoing narrative. The final movement, by contrast, is tender and intimate, and Joseph holds back in the more climactic episodes where others might push the tempo and volume, thus bringing a greater insensity of emotion and expression. There’s a wonderful lyricism and clarity throughout the work, with many interior details highlighted.

The fantasie is prefaced by the charming Arabesque, also in C, which moves forward with relaxed purpose and elegance. Papillons, the other large scale work on the disc and a work which amply reveals the contrasting sides to Schumann’s personality, is rich in wit and colour, and recalls some of the heroism of the Fantasie. The disc closes with the Faschingsschwank aus Wien, an engaging and robust account.

The disc includes detailed, informative liner notes by Richard Wigmore.

Recommended.


508178Dystonia: Franz Schubert – Sonata in A, D959, Robert Schumann – Kreisleriana / Andreas Eggertsberger, piano

This is a very personal disc for Austrian pianist Andreas Eggertsberger and the reason is in the title, Dystonia. With diminishing use of his left hand, Andreas finally received the diagonosis of focal dystonia in 2012, the same neurological disease that was probably documented for the first time with Robert Schumann. Following five years of treatment and therapy, which required a complete re-learning of the piano and meticulous exercises to bring rehearsed movement back under control, Andreas has returned to performing.

The pairing of a late Schubert sonata and Schumann’s Kreisleriana is an intelligent choice. Schumann was a great admirer of Schubert and championed his music after his death in 1828.

Andreas gives the first movement of the Schubert sonata a generally good-natured air, the emotional voltes-faces are not laboured but feel fleeting and poignant. Nor does he push the tempo, which gives the movement a pleasing spaciousness without feeling overlong (and Andreas observes the exposition repeat). The second movement, too often given an overly psychological treatment with an almost funereal tempo (it’s marked Andantino, not Adagio!) by others who shall remain nameless, has a spare simplicity which contrasts well with the sprightly articulation and warm-hearted nature of the opening movement. It’s sombre rather than melancholy. The middle section unfolds with the drama of a Baroque fantasy, restrained at first so that the eventual climax is all the more impactful. Even in the bigger, louder gestures, the overall mood is introverted and reflective.  Again, a rather more leisurely tempo in the third movement gives the music more breathing space and time to appreciate smaller details, which are neatly articulated. The trio gives way to grandeur, briefly, but the overall mood is intimate. The good nature of the opening movement is reprised in the finale, and here Andreas brings a pleasing sense of nostalgia and warmth, the opening theme played with an elegant lyricism, its fragmented return at the close of the movement fleeting and tender. Overall, excellent articulation, tasteful pedalling and a clean, but not over bright sound (a Bosendorfer Imperial 1922). Having spent three years studying and learning this sonata myself, and listening to many different performances of it, Andreas’ account comes very close to my own and is perhaps the reason why I like his so much.

Kreisleriana, like Papillons, is a multi-movement work and reflects Schumann’s contrasting personalities, which he named Florestan (active, extrovert) and Eusebius (passive, introvert). Like the Schubert Sonata, this is elegantly and tastefully articulated with fine clarity, particularly in the more florid passages, and Andreas is ever alert to the shifting moods. The sehr langsam movements have a distinct poignancy, reflective, almost verging on tragedy. Overall, a colourful account, rich in character and contrast.

In addition to detailed notes on the pieces, the liner notes also contain an account of Andreas Eggertsberger’s journey from diagonosis to rehabilitation and as such may prove supportive to others afflicated with focal dystonia

Recommended


FW

(This review first appeared on our sister site The Cross-Eyed Pianist)