Archives for May 2009

The Creation: Haydn and/as Handel?

Post categories:

Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 21:10 UK time, Friday, 29 May 2009


Although Denis, Rick, Jessica and I have each been designated to blog for a particular composer, I'm sure it would be silly to suggest we're blind to the charms of the others (or, indeed, composers beyond this list). So, having written about Purcell (and Handel) a couple of weeks' ago, this week it's Haydn (and Handel) that attracts my interest.

Of course, this weekend the big Haydn celebrations kick off, with the 200th anniversary of his death. Although I see from his blog that Denis is trekking off to Eisenstadt (lucky him!), I'm staying in Oxford on the 30th for (perhaps with fitting irony, on the eve of the celebrations of Haydn's death), The Creation. The performance should be just as good as anything in larger festivals: the choir of New College, Oxford (under Edward Higginbottom), with Oxford Philomusica and soloists Mhairi Lawson, Rufus Müller, and Giles Underwood. (The recording with the same forces won Choral CD of the Month in the December BBC Music Magazine.)
It's a terrific work - one I've sung several times in the past, and one I'm writing a programme note about at present, as it happens. In several ways it's a forward-looking work: the canny Haydn had his librettist, Gottfried Van Swieten write a bi-lingual libretto, so that the work could be performed in both England and Austria - an indication of the awareness of international markets that was to be so important in the nineteenth century. Musically too, it was seen as pretty revolutionary: the 'chaos' opening to the oratorio was extraordinary in its day (though to us it sounds rather straightforward in harmonic terms). The idea of an opening that creates order from chaos was to haunt the aspirations of symphonic composers of the nineteenth century (and Wagner, too).
But of course The Creation was also backward-looking: a homage to Handel, and to England's late-eighteenth-century Handelmania. Haydn must have known he was taking a gamble venturing into that territory - to compete with a revered master on his home turf was never going to be easy. And it would seem he was right.

Although The Creation was a great success in both Vienna and London, not all were appreciative. Haydn's London friend and admirer, the great music historian Charles Burney, wrote with some annoyance to his friend Christian Latrobe about the reception the work had in London. This is an unpublished letter, held in a collection of Burney's manuscripts in the Beinecke Library in New Haven, USA, so I thought a chunk of it might be of interest to blog readers. A neat copy of the letter is entitled 'On Haydn's Creation. Performed in London Apr. 21st. 1800'. In it, Burney says:

"If I had leisure, I cd. write a folio dissertation on the beauty of that divine Music, & the intelligence, the mind, & conceptions, of the matchless composer! The Handelians, who are most of them utterly unable to judge of Handel's real merit; and all jealous of that of others--as well as pert & flippant soi-disant Connoisseurs, have handed it abt. as a bon Mot, that the opening of the Creation is so confused that "Chaos is come again".-- And what shd. be come again, but Chaos, when chaos is to be described? are sounds to be arranged in harmonic & symmetric order, before order was born? It struck me as the most sublime Idea in Haydn's work to describe the birth of order by dissonance & broken phrases.--a whisper here--an effort there--a groan--an agonizing cry--personifying nature--& supposing her in labour, how admirably has he described her throes, not by pure harmony & graceful melody, but by appropriate sounds, wch. applied to any other purpose wd. be little better than jargon; but here, in loco--are sublimely beautiful! Yet if the hearer does help the composer out, musical imitation is so feeble, that his designs & conceptions will never be understood-- But if this is not picturesque Music, it is in vain ever to be attempted. When dissonance is tuned, when order arises, & Chaos is no more, what pleasing, ingenious, and graceful melody & harmony ensue! What a new & powerful effect had the encored Chorus on the feeling part of the audience who unable to stay till it was finished to express their raptures, broke in upon the performers with impassioned applause both times, before the movement was finished!-- And what a flash of harmony on the last word of the sublime text of genuine Scripture--"God said let there be light, & there was Light!--But I must shorten my Dissertation, being in a very great hurry--wth. a 1000 things to say on the subject..."

What a marvellous insight into the earliest performances of this work, and the responses they aroused!

Iron Town

Post categories:

Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 16:48 UK time, Thursday, 28 May 2009


esterhazy_palace.jpgThis week I'm off to Eisenstadt, to visit the place where Haydn worked for so many years as court composer to the Esterhazy family. There, as in the UK, we'll be celebrating the great man's work and on Sunday 31st May, the big EBU Haydn Day will begin (and end) in this little town on the Austro- Hungarian border.

I'll be going with memories of Charles Hazlewood's BBC 2 programme still fresh in my mind. It was a very personal film. One highlight was the time spent in the Haydn Saal in the Eisenstadt palace, where it emerged that the good acoustics only exist because Haydn insisted that the marble floor be replaced by a wooden one! So much for the popular idea of the composer as a deferential servant! It must have cost Prince Esterhazy a fortune! I'd be fascinated to know what other viewers thought.

It was noticeable that Hazlewood made no attempt to explain Haydn's relative obscurity today. Can fellow blogger kleines c really be right when he says that 'Haydn is the ultimate fashion victim. He used to be very fashionable, but tastes change, and modern audiences want to give him a hiding.'

Thinking about it makes me wonder which of our four Composers of the Year is the most fashionable today. My guess would be Handel. But why?

Mendelssohn hits prime-time

Post categories:

Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 15:55 UK time, Thursday, 28 May 2009


fingals_cave.jpgI've been greatly enjoying my sneak preview of the final programme in the BBC2 series The Birth of British Music - devoted, of course, to Felix. It's on Saturday evening at 9pm and, honest, guv, I can't recommend it highly enough. I'd thought I might know something about Mendelssohn by now, but nevertheless I was riveted by all the unexpected insights and angles that emerged during the course of a very lively hour.

Not wanting to spoil it for you, of course, but don't miss the way that the bane of my life, that Second Piano Concerto, is coated with Cadbury's chocolate in Birmingham; or how Mendelssohn inspired Dracula; or the gentle seeping into British consciousness of his Midsummer Night's Dream fairies, which could just have given us the gossamer-winged visions of the little people that the Victorians loved so much and that culminated in the drawings of Arthur Rackham.

Charlie visits Fingal's Cave - of course - and it's amazing to see how closely Mendelssohn's music for the Hebrides Overture mirrored the swell of the sea in and out of that great granite portal. Full marks, too, for pointing out how damn difficult the scherzo of A Midsummer Night's Dream is to play (the LPO did it a few weeks ago and if you'd brought a stress measurer into our house the day before it would have screeched the neighbourhood down).

I feel honour bound to point out that Mendelssohn's trips to Britain were only one aspect of his desperately busy life, most of which was firmly based in mainland Europe, but of course with one hour to 'do' him on TV a selection no doubt had to be made. And I will stop here before being tempted to digress into exactly why not much of Mendelssohn's Leipzig is left, or how those fairies can be traced as much to Goethe as Shakespeare.

BTW - You can enjoy a repeat showing of Tim Carroll's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with Mendelssohn's incidental music, on the BBC's digital Red Button service immediately after Saturday's Birth of British Music broadcast, ie at 950pm. Highly recommended!

Bonduca and Phantasm

Post categories:

Rick Jones Rick Jones | 17:26 UK time, Tuesday, 26 May 2009


st_johns_smith_square.jpgAlthough the masque or semi-opera is supposed to have died out after Purcell, it has been around in other forms since the 17th century. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's (OAE's) entertaining performance of Bonduca showed how it resembled propaganda at the end of their week of concerts at London's King's Place. Bonduca is Boadicea who, like England at the time (1695), was anti-Rome. Caratach is Caradoc, a kilted, muscular Briton, depicted as more heroic than his Queen, just as the Orangeman William was presented before his wife, Mary, the heir of James II. (Neither Victoria nor Elizabeth II elevated their spouses in this way.) This inherent misogyny was part of the message of the 'play' as we learnt from the witty pre-concert talk given by violinist Roy Mowatt who had devised the performing edition.

The music is Purcell's last theatrical score. His premature death came later that year. There is no sense that the uninspiring, politically motivated text inhibited his creativity. The drunks' song Jack Thou are a Toper has a humorously boozy lilt and the chorus Britons Strike Home is as sinew-stiffening as anything he wrote. Sing Ye Druids runs over a cunning ground bass and Oh Lead Me borrows its opening phrase from Dowland's Lachrimae in a conscious harking back to a golden age. The OAE string tone turned and glinted like the facets of a diamond in the cool, clear acoustic. Golden long notes beamed through the counterpoint. The singers in the Choir of the Enlightenment sounded a little too young: not raddled enough as drunks, not hoary enough as druids.

Hard on the OAE's heels came the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music which celebrated Purcell in almost every concert. The festival was shorter this year than previously but contained no fewer events. More compact, said the manager of St John's Smith Square where most of them were held. They seemed to have taken a leaf from the King's Place book with more, shorter concerts per evening. Attendances were good, said the manager, detecting no detrimental effect.

I attended the viol consort Phantasm's 7pm show on Friday evening which was very short indeed. The programme suggested it would last until 9pm but it was over before 8.30pm including a 20-minute interval and an encore. It is one thing to leave the audience wanting more, but another to make them feel short-changed.

Still, the music filled the Queen Anne church with the perfect beauty of a wildflower garden. Each Purcell four-part Fantazia began with a simple solo pattern, then opened its petals as the other instruments joined, imitated and transformed the theme. The group leapt at the quick sections like dancing couples, the bass viols opposite the trebles, challenging each other in their courtship nimbleness, the tenor sitting out until the masterpiece of the five-part Fantazia Upon One Note which ended the concert, the players stepping sedately around the dominant's continuous tone as if it were a maypole.

Viol music was already dated by Purcell's day when the more modern and versatile violin family had become the mode. His music then was a conscious homage to bygone composers represented exquisitely in the programme by Parsons, Byrd, Gibbons, Jenkins, and Lawes. There isn't a body of music like the English viol repertoire for charm, modesty and the ability to soothe and alleviate anxiety. The genius in Purcell took consort music to its greatest height.

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. None of the others composed anything with the wit and imagination of the Fantazia Upon One Note, none wrote an aria as emotive as When I am Laid and none set words so sublimely as Purcell in Music For a While. Comparisons are pertinent. All the others set English words - Haydn's melodies to the Scottish songs are not even original, Mendelssohn's to the anthems far too sentimental, and Handel's even in Messiah tend always towards the flashy. I rest my case and throw down the gauntlet on Purcell's behalf. Come on Georgey, Joe and Felix, if you think you're hard enough.....

Stand by for action!

Post categories:

Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 12:36 UK time, Friday, 22 May 2009


Bloggers may be wondering why things are relatively quiet for Haydn on Radio 3 just now. The fact is many listeners are still feeling the aftermath of the Mendelssohn experience. But not to worry, Adam Gatehouse, the editor of the Haydn season for BBC Radio, has put together a goodly list of special events for listeners from around June 1st onwards.

It all begins for Haydn on Sunday May 31st, the actual date when Haydn died in 1809 at his home in Gumpendorf, Vienna. The European Broadcasting Union are planning an all-day musical tour across the continent, beginning and ending in Eisenstadt. It will include performances from many places, including London, Paris, Oxford, and Vienna.

But will anybody be listening? Who knows? Certainly Haydn's personal story can't be romanticized like Mozart's. And although he was a superstar by the time he came to London in the 1790s, his balanced life-style meant that there was very little for the town's gossipy newspapers to get their teeth into. In spite of his amazing achievements, he's still thought of as a box-office disaster. The question is why?

Waltzing Agrippina

Post categories:

Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 10:30 UK time, Tuesday, 19 May 2009


anna_bonitatibus.jpgA performance has to be either very good or very bad to inspire laughter. Agrippina, performed by La Scintilla with Marc Minkowski had me smiling from ear to ear - with absolute delight. Minkowski demonstrated just how much you could achieve with a top-notch orchestra if you allow rehearsal time to apply real, thoughtful musicality. Not only was there the orchestral light-and-shade the score might lead one to expect, but Minkowski surprised and delighted us with the unexpected - the Viennese 'hesitation' waltz rhythms gratuitously interpolated into Agrippina's 'Ogni vento ch'al porto la spinga' were my favourite. And then there was the sheer technical virtuosity of the soprano soloist singing the part of Nero (Anna Bonitatibus) and string section principals (with individual solos) in 'Come nube che fugge dal vento', whose pyrotechnics were so beautifully matched and seamlessly linked they caused intakes of breath (from me at least).

But it wasn't just the music that was enjoyable. The production showed just how much fun you could have with so-called opera seria: Handel wrote this work in 1709 for Venice, a city with a tradition of mixing comic and serious. And with a scheming royal mother in the title role, plotting to get her son on the throne, and two lackeys anxious to do her bidding for social (and marital) advancement, there's plenty of potential for comedy in this opera - exploited as far as it could be in this unstaged production. Most of the cast of Zurich Opera singing in this performance knew Agrippina very well - they're staging it at present in Zurich - and it showed in their imaginative performances. Agrippina herself, Vesselina Kasarova, was particularly good.

The matinee performance ran for three-and-a-half hours on Sunday afternoon, which meant I didn't have the stamina to get to the (also unstaged) Arianna at the Barbican, under Christopher Hogwood, that same evening. At least, I hope Hogwood was conducting - the Barbican contacted me at the beginning of the week to say he wasn't doing the pre-concert talk any longer, and would I care to step in?... but I couldn't with Agrippina to go to, of course. (Anyone want to tell me what the Arianna performance was like?!)

It does seem rather silly to schedule such clashes, and presumably lose a good chunk of your audience in the process. Still, I guess with the summer season upon us, it's inevitable - there were several Lufthansa Baroque concerts I wanted to go to last weekend but couldn't (including Eccles' Judgment of Paris and Purcell's music for Dioclesian). Thank goodness the BBC allows us to catch up on at least some of the things we might miss out on! I was delighted to catch Handel's Athalia this evening, also performed by Concerto Köln and co. (cond. Ivor Bolton) as part of the Lufthansa Festival last Thursday. No doubt as the summer progresses, I'll have still more reason to tune in ...

Mendelssohn is top prodigy - official!

Post categories:

Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 11:45 UK time, Monday, 18 May 2009


bbc_music_magazine.jpgWe knew he would be, logically. How could any prodigy have written anything better than Mendelssohn's teenage masterpieces (Octet, Midsummer Night's Dream etc)? But the new issue of BBC Music Magazine, which plopped onto the mat today, confirms Mendelssohn as No.1 of the top ten child prodigies in the history of composition, assessed up to the age of 18, a different critic arguing the case for each. We all submitted our entries as agreed; then the magazine ranked them. Schubert was close behind Mendelssohn in second place, and in third, none other than Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose case I argued. He needed me. Felix didn't: he was bound to sweep the board.

And Mozart? He didn't make the list at all. The theory goes that in childhood he was more a 'freak of nature' than a composer of genius: he grew into the latter more gradually. Fair enough: it gives us a chance to explore the contributions of Shostakovich, Britten, Liszt, et al, and even an obscure Englishman unfortunately named of William Crotch.

The same issue contains an article by yrs truly exploring the effect of Mendelssohn's religious attitudes on his choral music. This took some swotting. As the world's worst singer, I'm not naturally drawn to the choral repertoire - but here it was humbling to discover that revelations lay in store. Notably, I listened to Chandos's re-release of Richard Hickox's account of Paulus, Mendelssohn's first oratorio. It's been much overshadowed by Elijah, which it predated by ten years, but I was startled to find that I preferred it. It seems to me fresh, original, energetic and inspired. Elijah has its moments, of course, but (or is it just me?) it can be...ever so slightly... if it's not performed exceptionally well... um...a bit dull? Many will disagree. But in Mendelssohn's lifetime, Paulus was way more popular, and I can see why. Its tale of proud religious conversion seems quite distasteful to modern ears, which probably explains its neglect, though it does carry the case for tolerance and peace.

We'll return to the recent celebrations soon, but in the meantime: happy reading!

The Fairy Dream

Post categories:

Rick Jones Rick Jones | 10:53 UK time, Monday, 18 May 2009


sing-up.jpgBefore the politicians, it was the bankers who were in the doodoo. They were caught not spending our money, but wasting it on daft investments. Billions they lost apparently. It's a wonder we have any left. Now they are to go some small way towards making amends by singing Purcell with local schoolkids in a concert called The City Sings at the Barbican on Monday 8th June.

The inspiration behind this banker rehabilitation project is Clare Delmar whom I met last Thursday. She had just been to one of the rough schools involved in the concert and said she'd like a double scotch but made do with a herbal tea. She is engaging, enthusiastic and brimming with ideas, which, in her punchy Massachusetts accent sound fresh, new and original to a deadpan Brit.

One of her 'lightbulb moments', she tells me, came to her three years ago while watching the TV programme Sex in the City. She thought, 'why not Singers in the City?' and immediately fixed the BBC Singers up with a series of education schemes at City companies. This suited the musicians, who were used to running workshops in schools under the 'education' banner. The children would be diverted for half a day and the teachers grateful, but the work generally yielded poor results for the effort put in. The grown-up bankers on the other hand were receptive and keen which made the visits rewarding.

Out of this emerged the current scheme. The BBC Singers were no longer involved but the bankers and the schools were. They would put on a joint concert. Some of the more socially-minded bankers already had contact with local schools, volunteering their services as readers or occasional classroom assistants. (The company KPMG is opening an Academy school in Hackney next year.) These links were fanned into proper working partnerships which took time and met resistance from the schools. 'The government bangs on about partnerships,' says Delmar, 'but not everyone knows how to form them.'

Acquiring a venue was a key part of the project. Delmar approached Nicholas Kenyon, whom she had known at the BBC, and he gave her free use of Barbican Hall. She is very persuasive. Next Richard Frostick of the arts charity Sing Up! came on board as artistic director and, through him, the 'Ambassador of Song' Howard Goodall to present the concert.

The former cathedral chorister and rock musician Harvey Brough was enlisted to arrange the music and train the singers. He took the music Purcell wrote for The Fairy Queen - the Masque of The Seasons - and adapted it for choirs accompanied by the period instruments of the Guildhall Baroque Ensemble. He has changed nothing of Purcell's original except one note which he challenges the audience to identify. He has however added one or two numbers of his own plus some of Shakespeare's text from A Midsummer Night's Dream just as Purcell did - the original masque was composed to embellish a performance of the play - and given the new half-hour suite the name The Fairy Dream.

Delmar thinks it especially amusing that the children will be singing 'Hail Great Parent!'. She knows they will be tickled by the section headed 'Bottom's Song and Dance' and the song 'Thorough Bog Thorough Bush'. She is thrilled at the opportunity to introduce the young to Baroque music and bankers to social work. Mostly though, she enthuses about the wider aspects of the experience, the cultivation of 'life skills' in the children presenting themselves with confidence on stage, interacting on equal terms with adult singers, learning lines, respecting fellow performers and quietly listening to Purcell's music. They stand to gain more than anyone from the event.

The schools taking part are: Oaklands, Bridge Academy, George Green's (secondary) and St Clement Dane's, Stepney Greencoat, Loughborough and St Paul's Church of England (primary).

The City firms are: Deloitte, UBS, Morgan Stanley, Pricewaterhouse, Cooper's, Allen and Overy, KPMG, News International.

... Less speed!

Post categories:

Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 16:26 UK time, Friday, 15 May 2009


arthur.jpgLast week I was off to the Barbican to hear Purcell's music for King Arthur. I expressed misgivings about the lack of dramatic context - ironic, given John Dryden's pains to justify the adaptation of the narrative and his poetic style for this 'dramatick opera'. (As if to prove the point, just yesterday one of my students presented me with an essay demonstrating how carefully Dryden integrated the music into his dramatic structure!)

Well, of course, the soloists did a marvellous job of dramatising the music - particularly James Gilchrist, Andrew Foster-Williams and Deborah York, and the chorus coyly popped on woolly hats and scarves for the 'frost scene', raising the obligatory laugh from the audience. But the drama was not, unfortunately, particularly present in the orchestra, who were hurried along at a pace that seldom allowed for consideration of dynamics (or singers' need for breath!) - as if speed itself provided all the 'drama' necessary. 'Fairest Isle', alas, suffered particularly, though Susan Gritton did her level best to pull the tempo back to something more minuet-like.

The fashion for speed is notable in early opera performances these days - and not only in unstaged productions - to the point where one sometimes wonders whether a fast tempo covers for a lack of musicality. I guess 'early music' has become so much part of the mainstream that it can be a bit of a production line: fast tempi being a signature of the 'early music' way of doing things back in the '80s, they've become rather a fetish. That's a pity not only dramatically, but also because so much theatre music was based on dance (and dance tempi), and derived a good deal of extra meaning from that connection.

Handel knew how to incorporate dance metres in his operas and oratorios to telling effect, and used them regularly: for instance, he wrote over 50 beautiful siciliana arias, particularly for the expression of mournful or pastoral texts ('And he shall feed his flock' in Messiah is a late, pastoral piece based on siciliana rhythms). Dance metres appeared most often in the earlier operas. David McVicar's Agrippina acknowledged this by featuring dance as an important part of the production - although the dance styles were hardly 'authentic'!

I'm off to hear another Agrippina this weekend - and another unstaged production, at the Festival Hall, with Marc Minkowski. I'm hoping to hear the drama in the orchestra this time, as well as from the singers...

Glorious sunshine and music

Post categories:

Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 08:36 UK time, Friday, 15 May 2009


denis_mccaldin.jpgI spent last weekend at Leamington Music's Festival Week-End in glorious sunshine.

Haydn was the theme, and most of the ten concerts in the Royal Pump Rooms included at least one of his chamber works. As well as many fine things like the Gypsy Rondo and D minor piano trios, and The Seven Last Words, played by the Henschel Quartet, there was also a good deal of Schubert. The Trout Quintet, The Shepherd on the Rock, and the wonderful Trio in B flat D898 were only some of the works performed. Not surprisingly, those of us listening found many parallels between the two composers, thanks to some canny programme-planning by the festival's director Richard Phillips.

The high point for me was the Sunday morning recital by the young Austrian pianist Gottlieb Wallisch. Here the qualities of the two composers were neatly juxtaposed. Wallisch's recital began with Haydn's E flat Sonata Hob XV1 49, and this was followed by a piece by Czerny - his brilliant Rondino on a theme from The Creation. Five of Liszt's fine Transcriptions of Schubert songs then took us effortlessly on to finish with a truly majestic performance of his Wanderer Fantasy.

Readers may wonder what I was doing there! I was giving a talk on 'Haydn - European Superstar' where I explored the growth of the composer's amazing reputation though his commissions, performances and publications. This was true fame. Move over Rinaldo!

King Arthur

Post categories:

Rick Jones Rick Jones | 20:33 UK time, Monday, 11 May 2009


King Arthur is Arthur Smith to me. I've known the celebrated comedian for 30 years. I appear in his autobiography as Banana Fingers, the first pianist with the National Revue Company, and then again as Rick at Time Out who fixed him up with a roster of nobodies to interview at the Time Out Chat Show one forgettable Edinburgh Festival. I sang Purcell while he spoke about Nell Gwyn, John Dryden and others in our annual Shakespeare celebration last month. Much of his life he has spent trying to recreate the louche decadence of Restoration London in the drunken ambience of the comedy clubs.

So I missed King Arthur at the Barbican last week partly because I was at Arthur's book launch and partly because I'd been away and the new method of sending info by email, which the Barbican has adopted, passed me by. However, I see that Ms Aspden previewed it in the Handel section of this blogsite. She says she was going to miss Dryden as it was to be a music-only performance and I know I would have done too. 'It's a fairy kind of writing dependant on the power of the imagination,' he said of his own style. Dryden made Nell Gwyn's stage career, but she died before King Arthur was written. 'All heiresses are beautiful,' he has a character quip. Gwyn would have laughed at that line, I'm sure.

I didn't say where I was away. Austria, actually. Eisenstadt on Haydn business, to be precise. Sorry Denis. If we bloggers are going to blog each other's bloggees, here's what I learnt. Haydn had two heads. For his bicentenary, both have been placed on display at the church where his body is entombed. You can see them for the cost of a euro. One of the skulls is clean, white and has a strong prominent jaw. This is the one Haydn used when he was alive. Phrenologists - students of the now discredited science which believes character is determined by skull-shape - cut it off and stole it when Haydn died in Vienna and no longer needed it. The opportunity to study the head of a genius overcame any qualms they had.

The other is small, brown and has a broken jaw. This was the substitute obtained when Haydn's employer Prince Nicholas Esterhazy discovered that the corpse he had fetched for reburial in Eisenstadt was headless. 'Better any head than none,' he said. The provenance of the substitute is unknown but it remained Haydn's head for 130 years as the original was not reunited with the body until 1954. At the end of the year, Haydn's proper head will return to his tomb while the other, which was after all his for much longer, will remain on permanent display in the church.

Purcell had only one head. I thought Charles Hazlewood gave a very good assessment of it during his visit to the National Portrait Gallery during The Birth of British Music on Saturday. 'Slightly watery eyes....compassion there...but also pride...' he said. Didn't John Tomlinson sing magnificently? His operatic portamento in 'They that go down' must have been exactly what Purcell heard in his mind's ear. He sang 'Wondrous machine' withy a delicious lilt and made it again the hit it always was. Dryden's words, of course. The young professional singers were feeble by comparison, especially in the pub scene. Put Tomlinson in a bawdy catch with Thomas Allen and, say, Willard White. A fruitier, beefier, more arrogant noise is required, I always feel. Or film the Noblemen's and Gentlemen's Catch Club singing them in their ripe old years. I am sure the cathedral choirs were not so full of baby-faced choral scholars in Purcell's day.

Still, lots of Purcell to come this week. I may have missed King Arthur but I intend to hear Bonduca performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at King's Place on Friday. The title song has a theme borrowed from John Dowland's Lachrimae, if I am not mistaken. Tomorrow (Tuesday 12 May), The Sixteen perform their Purcell and Handel touring programme at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall if you haven't already heard it in your part of the country. On Wednesday, James Rhodes, my Purcell pianist in the Shakespeare show with Arthur Smith, plays at the Roundhouse although whether he plays any Purcell, is up to him. It's not in the programme. I sent him a couple of pieces as possible encores.

Then on Saturday (16 May), the Purcell floodgates open as the Lufthansa Festival begins. The Early Opera Co opens the fortnight with Purcell's Masque from Diocletian and Eccles' Judgement of Paris. Singers include Lucy Crowe and Susan Bickley. On Sunday (17 May), at 4.30pm Charivari Agreable perform Purcell anthems while at 7.30pm Trio Sonnerie with counter-tenor Robin Blaze perform trio sonatas and songs including Music for a While and Fairest Isle. On Monday evening (18 May) Budapest Chamber Opera deliver Purcell's contribution to Orpheus Britannicus with songs by Monteverdi and Vivaldi. All the above take place at St John's Smith Square.

Then there's a day off before the Festival resumes at Westminster Abbey with the Abbey choir and a programme of favourite anthems (My heart is inditing, the Funeral Sentences, the Coronation anthems). And there I shall leave it and come back to you next week with more delights. If I were to recommend what to go for it would be the Early Opera Co, Robin Blaze and Westminster Abbey, but that's only me. The time of the singing of birds is come.

"The Prophet of Light"

Post categories:

Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 16:22 UK time, Saturday, 9 May 2009


Solti_sml.jpgWe're halfway through Day 1 of Mendelssohn Weekend and I am ridiculously happy because I've just heard Peter Maxwell Davies call Mendelssohn "the prophet of light". He described Felix in terms of 'claritas' - more than clarity, he said; rather, a quality of being lit from within. Alongside his words we heard an extract in which two clarinets raised their voices together above a shining halo of strings... Felixcitous indeed.

This was part of Tom Service's special Mendelssohn Music Matters in which he traced the composer's footsteps to Scotland, notably the Hebrides, with Fingal's Cave as culmination. We heard lots of wonderful accents, the roar of the sea, the rumble of the boat's engine, and Tom's eloquent descriptions of the scenes around him. 'Max', who lives on the Orkney Islands, described the impact that Mendelssohn's music had on him - those shining chords taught him a thing or two, apparently - and a soprano sang one of those heartbreakingly simple and expressive Celtic folk songs. You can see Tom's photos on the Music Matters web page.

Also this morning, we had CD Review, on which I learned that my favourite recordings by Murray Perahia, from way back, have been re-released - a disc of Mendelssohn's piano music including the terrifically beautiful sonata, which is inexplicably never played these days, and the two piano concertos, Perahia's accounts of which are pretty much unsurpassable. Building a Library chose the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as top dog in the Octet. Beautiful it was, too, though I must admit to a great fondness for the Naxos recording by the Auer and Kodály Quartets, which sadly got rather short shrift...It was also quite amusing to hear my commenting colleagues trying to be tactful about Anne-Sophie Mutter's recording of the Violin Concerto. I'd like to refer you to one of my favourites: Viktoria Mullova with John Eliot Gardiner, an account on originalish instruments which brings out all the music's delicacy, pathos and magic.

Unfortunately I missed last night's Elijah. I have a problem with Elijah: other people switch it off. The first time I tried to hear it, I was about 14; it was on TV. My grandfather, who was head of his synagogue in Johannesburg, was visiting us in London; he came in and said pejoratively: "Why are you listening to church music?" Click. Last night, my husband came in not very fresh from a six-hour rehearsal at Glyndebourne, and said "Why are you listening to that?" Click. He likes Elijah - indeed, he likes it more than I do - but you can't argue with the desire for quiet from a man who's found his section unexpectedly shunted to an experimental spot in the pit, landing him bang in front of the horns.

Last but not least, BBC Blogomaster forwarded me this report from Derbyshire about the local choirs who have signed up to the Wings project:


Extra pleurisy painkiller, a quick purr from Solti (my very pleased resident feline) then back to the radio...

To stage or not to stage?

Post categories:

Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 17:42 UK time, Wednesday, 6 May 2009


I'm going off-topic today, as I'm looking forward to attending Purcell 's and Dryden's King Arthur tonight at the Barbican, in London. I have to admit, though, that I had been looking forward to it more before I read the 'small print' in the online programme...

King Arthur is a wonderful 'dramatick opera' (as it was termed), in which the leading poet of his age, John Dryden, carefully constructed a patriotic, magical narrative in order to integrate Purcell's music to best effect. The Barbican advertises it by inviting us to 'step into the spectacular musical and theatrical world of late 17th century England', but alas, as one discovers only from the programme notes, 'Tonight's performance presents only the music'.

There's something rather ironic in this. Dryden himself went to great pains in his prefatory essay to justify the inclusion of music in his play - opera was still a relatively new enterprise in England (hence the awkward title 'dramatick opera'), and it met (and continued to meet, through the eighteenth century and beyond) with some resistance from those who thought English drama did not need the help of music, thank you very much. Dryden was rather of this opinion himself, pointing out defensively that 'the Numbers of Poetry and Vocal Musick, are sometimes so contrary, that in many places I have been oblig'd to cramp my Verses and make them rugged to the Hearer', and grudgingly acknowledging with regard to Purcell that 'because these sorts of Entertainments are principally design'd for the Ear and Eye, my Art, on this occasion, ought to be subservient to his'.

If the seventeenth century had to work hard to justify the integration of music into plays, today we appear to have gone to the other extreme. 'Opera' is so much about the music these days (our canon of great composers) that it's seen as entirely reasonable to mount unstaged performances, or to separate the music from the play into which it was incorporated. (Perhaps this partly derives from the oratorio tradition, where dramatic religious works simply could not be staged without incurring charges of blasphemy: interestingly, the 'related events' listed with King Arthur are Handel's opera Arianna in Creta (originally staged, but not here) and his oratorio Jephtha.)

Personally, I think this is a pity: opera was always the apogee of a composer's art (till the late nineteenth century, anyway), precisely because it integrated all the arts - music, drama, dancing and scenic spectacle. Certainly, Beethoven thought so: hence his continued labouring over Leonora/Fidelio! We miss a good deal of the point without the staging - as the lack of Dryden's words tonight will demonstrate. That said, the greatest singers can (and should) infuse their performance with meaning, and with artists of the calibre of James Gilchrist and Susan Gritton, I am sure some part, at least, of Dryden's and Purcell's fabulous drama will come to life.

Be careful what you wish for...

Post categories:

Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 15:23 UK time, Wednesday, 6 May 2009


Apparently I have a Complication, following flu the other week that never quite left. I could describe at length the sensation that your left lung has been turned into a brick, but believe me, you don't want to know. I missed the Middle Temple Hall performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream last night and am left only with a spooky sensation that my last post may have contained wistful words about doing nothing but listening to the radio all day. As the old maxim goes: be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. I can't see myself going further than the sofa for a few days. Just in time for Mendelssohn Weekend.

So let's see what's on.... Here is a quickish personal run-down of the jamboree highlights, which begin on Friday at 5pm, kicking off with a special In Tune, live from Birmingham Town Hall, where Elijah was premiered. The programme includes a performance by Thomas Trotter on the organ that Mendelssohn played in 1837 and Radio 3 New Generation Artist Tai Murray performs Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto
with the BBC Philharmonic.

Six young composers have been commissioned to write brand-new Songs Without Words for the 21st Century. Contemporary pianist par excellence, Andrew Zolinsky, will be playing them all at 9.45pm on Saturday. If vocal music is more your thang, dozens of choirs across the country from the Isle of Arran to Truro join Radio 3 to perform 'O for the Wings of a Dove'. Aled Jones interviews some of the many singers taking part in The Choir and Radio 3's Choir of the Year - Scunthorpe Community Choir - will perform the complete Hear My Prayer.

In Music Matters, Tom Service visits Scotland and follows in Mendelssohn's footsteps exploring the places he visited in the summer of 1829. Tom is a passionate Felixophile, and I can heartily recommend a few of his recent articles. He has nailed the truth about how Wagner wrecked Mendelssohn's afterlife in this excellent piece for The Guardian: And he took some video of Fingal's Cave when he headed for Scotland to research his programme - viewable on his blog at The Guardian, here:

(There's a lot of that around - in BBC 2's The Birth of British Music, the final programme of which will be devoted to Mendelssohn, presenter Charles Hazlewood goes there too. It'll be screened towards the end of May...Can't you just imagine the local reaction to all these Mendelssohn tourists suddenly arriving, frothing at the mouth, desperate to get to the cave this year? I reckon the price of haggis will have doubled. Unless, of course, the boat journey renders everyone as seasick as Felix himself. But I digress...)

The composer's travels throughout Europe are reflected in Words and Music; actor Edward Bennett reads his letters from his 'Great Trip' of 1829-1832. But even more fun is promised in Private Passions: John Sessions has written a script in which Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny discuss their life, work and favourite pieces of music with Michael Berkeley. John Sessions performs the role of Felix and Rebecca Front is Fanny. A slightly more conventional outlook is present in the ongoing Composer of the Week, when Donald MacLeod explores not just Felix but Fanny too. As Fanny doesn't have an anniversary this year, I think it is very fine of them to include her.

Louise Fryer's Saturday and Sunday Salons feature many of Mendelssohn's great chamber works, while Rob Cowan explores classic recordings in Vintage Mendelssohn. On Sunday Morning, Iain Burnside broadcasts live from the V&A Museum in London, with performances by ace violinist Daniel Hope and friends.

Dan Hope, it seems, has turned out to be descended from Mendelssohn's teacher. Relations of Mendelssohn and his associates are popping up all over the place (see the Mendelssohn Revealed preview, too)! But here's one of the most significant: in Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me, writer, producer and broadcaster Sheila Hayman, the four-times-great granddaughter of Fanny Mendelssohn, explores the identity of Felix in his lifetime and after his death, the effect of Wagner's anti-semitic polemic on his reputation and the banning of Mendelssohn by the Nazis.

For the full schedule, please visit the main R3 pages. And if my Complication persists, at least there is something on the radio to cheer me up.

Rodelinda's missing link

Post categories:

Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 00:09 UK time, Tuesday, 5 May 2009


alan_curtis.jpgHandel's Rodelinda: what a fabulous opera! Rodelinda is the archetypal operatic (and Handelian) strong woman, defiant in the face of all sorts of threats and attempted seduction by Grimoaldo (and Garibaldo), and faithful to her husband. Perhaps the attractiveness of the title role explains the frequency with which the opera is produced today, though it's Rodelinda's husband, Bertarido, who has the most famous aria in the opera, the Act I 'Dove sei'.

If you missed last week's broadcasts on Radio 3 (Thursday and Friday), there's still time to catch it on the iPlayer. It's an interesting recording because it uses the recent critical edition by Andrew Jones. But it's not entirely faithful: Jones has found that the haunting link between recitative and aria in 'Dove sei' should be omitted - it would take a brave director indeed to follow that instruction, and Alan Curtis certainly does not do so!

Countdown to the big weekend

Post categories:

Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 11:54 UK time, Monday, 4 May 2009


juggling_oranges_sml.jpgJust a few days to go before the big Mendelssohn weekend on Radio 3, and I'm wondering how best to cope. Many of us these days habitually lead multitasking lives in which we feel as if we're keeping ten oranges in the air with only a hand and a half to help. In an ideal world, we'd all be free to listen to the radio all day every day, but I for one am becoming increasingly grateful for the 'Listen Again' feature.

When it comes to Mendelssohn, 'music while you work' doesn't work. I'm staring into my screen trying to pen whateveritmaybe, then on comes Felix...and next thing I know I'm lost in mountain scenery, mysterious seas or Biblical visions, or drifting away into speculation as to why I never got to grips with a particular Song without Words, let alone the good old Second Piano Concerto - and suddenly it's the end of another hour of non-achievement.

Sunday afternoon is a red-letter listen time: at 3pm 'Mendelssohn Revealed' is set to explore some of the most fascinating aspects of the composer's life and work. Tom Service, Louise Fryer and some distinguished studio guests including writer and broadcaster Judith Chernaik and conductor Ben Parry (a descendant of the composer) reassess Mendelssohn's reputation and legacy 200 years after his birth. What lies behind our tendency to underrate him?

Conductors Riccardo Chailly and Christopher Hogwood discuss what his music means to them, and pianist Roberto Prosseda comments on the reconstruction of the Third Piano Concerto. Commentator Norman Lebrecht talks about Mendelssohn's Jewish background and the creative inhibitions that may have arisen from it, and Tom Service goes in search of the truth behind the recent stories about the composer's infatuation with the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (I wonder if they let him look at The Affidavit?). There'll be news from some of the hundred choirs around the country singing 'O For the Wings of a Dove' this weekend. You can join in the debate by emailing

But I'll be multitasking again...I'll be at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that afternoon to do a talk with Yuja Wang, 20-year-old Chinese virtuoso pianist, after her recital. I can't wait to hear what news (if any) Tom turns up around the Jenny Lind story, though, so I'll be back at my computer as soon as humanly possible to find out.

Check back soon for more news of the weekend celebrations ahead, and more, too, about A Midsummer Night's Dream...

Dido's hero goes golden

Post categories:

Rick Jones Rick Jones | 11:27 UK time, Monday, 4 May 2009


matthew_truscott_Arto_Tulima.jpgIn last week's review of English National Opera's After Dido on this blog, I omitted to mention that the violinist Matthew Truscott had been the hero of the opening night when he stepped in at the last to lead the band gracefully and persuasively through the twists and turns of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. He is a brilliant Purcellian.

Now a CD comes my way on which Truscott is joined by fiddle Sophie Gent, bass viol Jonathan Manson and harpsichordist Matthew Halls to play, as the Retrospect Trio (keyboards don't count in baroque trios), Purcell's Ten Sonatas in Four Parts. No1 shares an almost identical first chord to that of Dido and I was immediately transported to a world of tragic sensibilities. The violinists' ornaments slither dangerously and the quick dances tread with guilty lightness. Manson's bass viol darkens the depths with growls and cavernous resonance while Halls' harpsichord buzzes with a colourful electric, not to say indispensable, twang.

The highpoint comes just after halfway with Sonata No 6 which makes one wonder whether the entire set wasn't intended to be played as a sequence. This crowning sonata is a long, single-movement adagio consisting of fiddles intertwining with ever-increasing invention above an untiring ground bass, high and low never cadencing together until the satisfying final bar.

The rest run home with bittersweet steps in short breathless allegros and churning largos. The reason the Ninth is known as The Golden Sonata has been lost in the mists of time. It is no more golden than the others though the plaints drawn from the slow grave have a deliciously metallic hue and the final allegro bounces like a peal of bells.

The press release for the CD tells me that the Retrospect Trio was 'formerly known as the King's Consort' of which harpsichordist Halls was artistic director until this year. The King's Consort under Robert King was once responsible for recording almost every note of Henry Purcell on Hyperion discs, many of which are still available. The Retrospect Trio is part of the Retrospect Ensemble of whom we will doubtless be hearing more.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.