Archives for June 2009

Top hat and tales

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 16:02 UK time, Friday, 26 June 2009

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rick_swimming.jpgrick_mendelssohn_arthurs_seat.jpgAs a responsible grown-up, I am currently crossing Scotland in fancy dress. The affair with Mendelssohn is going strong. My cane is a boon, my whiskers are the real thing, and my collapsible top-hat's default is the erect position so that it keeps springing up and I have either to wear it or keep it clamped under my arm. Remember, friends, I have no other clothes. I have sent two pictures. One of them is Mendelssohn on Arthur's Seat, the mountain outside Edinburgh. The other is of the swim he took in the Firth of Forth.

I am doing everything Mendelssohn did. Today I reached Birnam Woods which excited Mendelssohn because of its Shakespeare connections and next to it Dunkeld. I went up to see the Falls of Braan with a sketch pad and clambered down to the same rock as the composer, even chose the same hand- and footholds, probably. I didn't have quite the same patience as he with drawing, however.

I got a man to take a picture of me by the falls to show that I had been there. We got talking. He too is a blogger. And a priest. He told me his scurrilous blog Sex and God and Rock and Roll gets 2,500 hits a day, most of them Americans. Here it's only kleines c. Thanks kleines.

Great Bottom

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 15:27 UK time, Friday, 26 June 2009

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fairy_queen_250.jpgPurcell and Mendelssohn, of course, are linked by A Midsummer's Night Dream as both created music for it. Mendelssohn's inspiration takes the play's name. Purcell's is The Fairy Queen which I went to see at Glyndebourne on Saturday.

William Christie conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, his white head bobbing about in the pit like a beachball on a sea of strings. The music felt urgent, although it had to wait silently while long passages of dialogue elapsed. That is the nature of the masque. The actors, singers and dancers have to wait their turn. The difference is that while in opera, the ideal is to have one performer who can do all three, in so-called semi-opera, one employs three specialists. The masque was not opera's poor relation, but grand-scale royal entertainment, meant to be lavish and expensive.

The actor Desmond Barrit stole the show as Bottom. He also sang the part of the Drunken Poet in Act I where the dialogue is thickest. He slurred and stammered, apparently in playful imitation of the writer Thomas D'Urfey. Lucy Crowe sang deliciously and with no apparent discomfort suspended from the ceiling in Thrice Happy Lovers at the beginning of Act V. Carolyn Sampson made a beautiful job of The Plaint, the 'Dido's Lament' aria in The Fairy Queen. Haute-contre (high tenor) Ed Lyon sang One Charming Night with a sinuous magic in his voice carried by the cool trilling of flute and recorder.

The performance of The Fairy Dream by Henry Purcell and Harvey Brough at the Barbican two weeks earlier had real charm. Only the Act IV Masque of the Seasons had been used by Brough, the four 'stagioni' interspersed with children's choir numbers using Shakespeare's original texts. They sang confidently in two and three parts though the seven schools had only met to rehearse twice. The adult choir, its membership comprising City bankers, looked on indulgently. It is a wonderful addition to the canon of works for untrained children to sing with amateur grown-ups.

More views on Haydn

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Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 10:40 UK time, Monday, 22 June 2009

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After time in Austria it was good to be back in Britain last week to conduct an all-Haydn concert with the Northern Chamber Orchestra & Lancaster Singers. The programme opened with the Te Deum and followed with The Storm, two pieces that feature as part of a film of a recent BBC Philharmonic concert directed by Graeme Kay for BBC Radio 3 interactive.
Because the project is a relatively new venture, it is still available on BBC iPlayer even though the concert took place more than seven days ago.

So I was very interested indeed to read Graeme's entry on The Radio 3 Blog about the filming of the concert in Manchester. He starts by talking about 'visual radio' and the whole question of whether we imagine better pictures listening to music than the ones which he and his colleagues can film in the venue itself. Later on he explains the logistics of making such a programme, which seem pretty formidable. Eight staff, including five camera operators, were involved, as well as 30 packing cases of equipment. If you're at all interested in the background on how these kind of programmes are made, I can strongly recommend Graeme's blog. Also on the Radio 3 blog is a post on visual radio by Abigail Appleton, Radio 3's head of speech and presentation.

Will 'visual radio' catch on? Who knows - but I think the idea has real potential for programmes like Radio 3's Discovering Music, where there is an element of analysis that could be useful educationally.

Dido's Lament

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 16:12 UK time, Monday, 15 June 2009

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didos_lament.jpg have been reading an entertaining novel called Dido's Lament by Peter Stickland, published by 77 Books which appears to be the author's own company. It fantasises an account of the first performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in no particular year. The first-person narrator is Nahum Tate, Purcell's librettist, who records the made-up events in the present tense. Stickland has the premiere coincide with both the opening of Josias Priest's school (which recent research suggests was not the case) and Purcell's marriage to Frances Pieters (which in reality took place some years before).

Still, the evolving love-drama gives the plot momentum and Stickland handles it deftly after a slow start. There is tension in the subplot involving Nahum and his mistress, who rebuffs his advances but welcomes his professional help. Stickland leaves the identity of this profession to be inferred and it is not what the reader initially thinks. The ups and downs in the relationships are cleverly matched to the twists in the opera as Purcell and Tate write them.

Tate's voice is constant, delivering all the dialogue so that the characters speak only through his filter. His tone is contemporary which contrasts with the 17th century English of his original libretto. One character is 'trying to scrounge some costumes' and Purcell himself tells the narrator to 'give me some words' for the tune he has just written for the eponymous lament. Stickland fantasises that the aria's composition was inspired by a near-death experience for Purcell, a presage of his actual death a decade later. He falls off a roof, drunk.

Stickland tells a good story, though it could do with some paring down. The present tense gives the flow of events an entertaining urgency, like the commentary of a horse-race, but there are longueurs in the amount of theatrical detail given and various red herring scenes. Does Purcell have to explain his conducting technique? The novel works best when mirroring the agonies of love thrown up by the opera in the personal lives of the two men creating it and one relishes the coming together of characters and events at the denouement of the last act premiere. Who knows, there may even be a play in it.

Austria

Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 23:02 UK time, Friday, 12 June 2009

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While I was in Austria, I was glad to see that the Radio 3 Haydn Day on May 31st went off well and that it prompted our regular bloggers, and a few new ones, to write in.

My trip to Eisenstadt over the same celebratory period was good. The town is slowly expanding as local shopkeepers realize that it's worth supporting the visitors that come to explore the place where Haydn lived and worked. Also the links between Austria and Hungary are much stronger now that the communists are no longer in power.

Sunday 31st May - the actual Haydn Bicentennial Day - was wonderfully rich. It started at 8.30 am as residents and visitors queued to get in to the Bergkirche for a live TV broadcast of the Creation Mass in a liturgical setting. Then a speedy dash down the hill to the Esterhazy Palace found us just in time to hear another TV relay, this time of The Creation.

Thomas Quasthoff was the eloquent baritone, with the Austro-Hungarian Orchestra and the 50-voice Vienna Chamber Choir also in top form. It was moving to hear this great work performed on this special day in the richly decorated Haydnsaal, where the composer had given so many of his first performances. Audience, orchestra, chorus and soloists were all there to celebrate Haydn's achievements, and the performance was led by Adam Fischer, who conducted from memory and without a trace of egoism.

After lunch we drove through the countryside in the spring sunshine to the Esterhaza Palace in Hungary, where Prince Nicolaus created his 'new Versailles'. To be able to explore the apartments and walk down the avenue of trees joining the musicians' house with the main building, as Haydn himself had done so many times before us, was truly memorable.

Fortified by a visit to a wine-cellar in nearby Sopron, we returned for yet another broadcast - this time at 9 pm. Showing admirable stamina, Fischer and his players were onstage again - this time performing the Scena di Berenice and the Farewell symphony in the gracious rococo drawing-room on the first floor of the palace. Players and audience then mingled on the lawn in the starlight to watch a final firework display and to drink a glass or two of sekt to Haydn's memory.

It was quite a day!

Professor Denis McCaldin, Director, Haydn Society of Great Britain

Esterhazy/Eszterhaza

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Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 14:28 UK time, Friday, 12 June 2009

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haydnsaal.jpgWhile I was in Austria, I was glad to see that the Radio 3 Haydn Day on May 31st went off well and that it prompted our regular bloggers, and a few new ones, to write in.

My trip to Eisenstadt over the same celebratory period was good. The town is slowly expanding as local shopkeepers realise that it's worth supporting the visitors that come to explore the place where Haydn lived and worked. Also the links between Austria and Hungary are much stronger now that the communists are no longer in power.

Sunday 31st May - the actual Haydn Bicentennial Day - was wonderfully rich. It started at 8.30 am as residents and visitors queued to get in to the Bergkirche for a live TV broadcast of the Creation Mass in a liturgical setting. Then a speedy dash down the hill to the Esterhazy Palace found us just in time to hear another TV relay, this time of The Creation.

Thomas Quasthoff was the eloquent baritone, with the Austro-Hungarian Orchestra and the 50-voice Vienna Chamber Choir also in top form. It was moving to hear this great work performed on this special day in the richly decorated Haydnsaal, where the composer had given so many of his first performances. Audience, orchestra, chorus and soloists were all there to celebrate Haydn's achievements, and the performance was led by Adam Fischer, who conducted from memory and without a trace of egoism.

After lunch we drove through the countryside in the spring sunshine to the Esterhaza Palace in Hungary, where Prince Nikolaus created his 'new Versailles'. To be able to explore the apartments and walk down the avenue of trees joining the musicians' house with the main building, as Haydn himself had done so many times before us, was truly memorable.

Fortified by a visit to a wine-cellar in nearby Sopron, we returned for yet another broadcast - this time at 9 pm. Showing admirable stamina, Fischer and his players were onstage again - this time performing the Scena di Berenice and the Farewell Symphony in the gracious rococo drawing-room on the first floor of the palace. Players and audience then mingled on the lawn in the starlight to watch a final firework display and to drink a glass or two of sekt to Haydn's memory.

It was quite a day!

A Wild Affair

Rick Jones Rick Jones | 17:27 UK time, Tuesday, 9 June 2009

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My fellow-blogger Denis McCaldin wonders who is the most popular today of the four bloggees. He thinks Handel and doesn't even stick up for his own Haydn. Either way he is wrong as the answer is obviously Purcell. He was a man of the the common theatre at a time when it had never been more popular. The populace had been starved of it during the decade of Cromwell's Commonwealth so attended with insatiable enthusiasm when it returned, new and modern, with real female actors playing the girls' parts for the first time. He wrote pub music with the profanest words and had a big hit with the song Fairest Isle which would be a strong candidate for national anthem were we ever to change. He composed Lilliburlero which is known all over the world, in the darkest jungle and the remotest pole, as it still represents the BBC's World Service although it is not played quite as often as it was.

One could conceivably make a case for Mendelssohn who wrote the tune for Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Even football supporters know that one. He also wrote one of two famous wedding marches, although one always has to check which. It's not the one Wagner composed for his opera Lohengrin. Mendelssohn's is part of the incidental music he wrote for A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was about three years old.

I confess I am having an affair with Mendelssohn. Purcell knows about it and is being very understanding. Mendelssohn has written home in a letter which begins 'A Wild Affair!'. He is impressed with the very long Victorian mutton-chop whiskers I have grown in his honour as I prepare to walk across Scotland in his footsteps and in his clothes, recreating the journey he made with his friend Klingemann from Edinburgh to Mull in 1829. I set off on Midsummer's Day, 21st June, with his wedding march in my head. I chose that day because it means I will arrive on Mull during the Mendelssohn on Mull Festival (29 June - 4 July) at which I am expected to sing some Mendelssohn songs at an official reception.

The organisers of the Festival invited me to the launch last Monday in my Mendelssohn kit. We sailed from Oban to Tobermory aboard the SS Waverley, the oldest sea-going paddle-steamer in the world. She was built on Clydeside in 1942 so her annual return to the west of Scotland is a fond homecoming. Blog-chief K knows her and was excited about the trip on my behalf. I stood on deck in my waistcoat and top hat and welcomed the passengers down the gangplank one by one with a handshake and a greeting 'Guten Morgen - Ich bin Mendelssohn'. If there had been any wind my whiskers would have been waving. Steamships were new technology to Mendelssohn and Klingemann who had to get to Fort William by a certain date for a trip on one which they had booked.

Below decks in the galley, eight string players led by Marcia Crayford played the finale of the Octet and a new arrangement by Jonathan Cohen of the Hebrides Overture or Fingal's Cave.

Although it may be a little awkward, Purcell is coming with Mendelssohn and me to Scotland. I don't know where we'll all stay. In his book Scotland in Music, Roger Fiske gives not only the best account of Mendelssohn's trip, but also every instance of a Scottish tune in Purcell's works. He also tells an amusing anecdote about Queen Mary growing tired of an afternoon's entertainment consisting of Purcell's songs. She asked the singer whether she would sing instead the old Scots ballad Cold and Raw. Purcell was visibly irritated that the Queen should have expressed a preference for a vulgar ditty to his own popular airs and decided that if Her Majesty wanted so much to hear it he would make her a gift of it and made it the bass line to the air May Her Blest Example in the birthday ode of 1692.


I have received two CDs of music by Purcell through the post. Both are compilations. The first is a disc called The Best of Henry Purcell. It doesn't have either Fairest Isle or Lilliburlero so the name is a matter of opinion. The CD includes four tracks from Dido and Aeneas - the overture played a little slowly and with less aggressive sforzando in the fast section than most; the sailor's chorus with heavy west country accents; the sailor's dance with light footwork; and Dido's Lament sung impressively by Kym Amps.

It also has an account of the Ode for St Cecilia's Day of 1684 with William Purefoy singing Here the Deities in his robust, Bowman-like alto. The Evening Hymn 'Now that the Sun' is given to the treble Oliver Lepage-Dean who sings it with affecting innocence not to mention immaculate tuning. Jeremy Summerly conducts the Oxford Camerata in music for the death of Queen Mary, including Thou Knowest Lord which they sing with quite dark, penitential tone as if suddenly regretting the fit of pique over Cold and Raw.

Don't go to sleep. I can tell I'm boring you. The other CD, a double, is a collection of King's College Cambridge hits over the years from Sir David Willcocks (who will be 90 on 30 December) to Stephen Cleobury. It includes two pieces of Purcell, Thou Knowest Lord again, this time with boyish awe at what death might mean, and an extract from Come Ye Sons of Art with an excitingly powerful opening solo of ambiguous vocal tone. Is he an alto or a very high tenor? I am endeavouring to find out as the current copy is a press person's advance, bare of essential information.


'Who's the best'? Rivalry and prima donnas

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 20:19 UK time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009

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I'm a bit nonplussed by the competitive spirit that's appeared in some recent blogs. Rick says in his posting 'Bonduca and Phantasm': "If the four composers currently being celebrated by BBC blogs were made to fight or entered in a composing competition, Purcell would win every time." Meanwhile Jessica has titled one of her postings "Mendelssohn is top prodigy - official!"

Enthusiasm for one's 'own' composer is one thing, but to treat Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn like rival football teams in some kind of BBC playoff seems a bit bizarre. Given the differences in musical language and cultural expectations over the 200-year period our four composers (more-or-less) cover, it would be (to use Rick's analogy) like staging a battle using military hardware from the different periods and seeing what happened. General carnage and confusion, and nothing much of productive value would result.

Of course, Handel was not unfamiliar with competition. Early in his career composing for London's opera company, the Royal Academy of Music, he found himself competing with Filippo Amadei and Giovanni Bononcini, in Muzio Scevola (1721), with each composer required to set one act of the opera. Handel's act was the last of the three, and according to contemporary report, it "easily triumphed over the others". Dispute over the different styles of Bononcini and Handel continued, however, prompting John Byrom's verse:


Some say, compar'd to Bononcini,
That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny;
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle:
Strange all this Difference should be
'Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

Competition was rife amongst singers as well. On Thursday of this week, the Handel opera broadcast will be Siroe (1728), written for the last season of the Royal Academy before it folded due to insolvency. That financial collapse was at least partly due to the Academy's decision to employ not one but two 'prima' donnas in this period. The infamous rivalry that resulted between Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni is the subject of many a colourful anecdote of dubious credibility - the long-lived story that they fought on stage, for instance, is just that: a story.

Nonetheless, I think the rivalry (and the audience's intense factionalism about it) did shape the nature of the operas written while the women were in London. In June1727, at the height of the rivalry, an Italian insider wrote that "the directors, who are mainly for Faustina, have thought of censoring operas", and we might see that censorship in the way some of the works were constructed. In an attempt to maintain a balance between the women, for instance, there was a careful alternation of which one got the leading man (always played by the castrato Senesino). In Siroe, that honour went to Faustina's character, while in the next work, Tolomeo (also by Handel), it belonged to Cuzzoni.

Even while maintaining equality in terms of status and share of the action, Handel differentiated the women in musical terms. Indeed, they were famous for their contrasting styles. In 1723 the singing teacher Pier Francesco Tosi write: "The pathetic of the one [Cuzzoni] and the allegro of the other [Faustina], are the qualities the most to be admired respectively in each of them." He added that they "make us sensible that two women would not be equally eminent if the one copied the other". In Tosi's view (and as Handel showed in his music for them), variety was the raison d'être of musical enjoyment - a lesson we might apply to the current fashion for comparison and competition.

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