Holy Week and Easter 2018

I missed singing the Good Friday service last year, but this year I was available for everything except Maundy Thursday. Palm Sunday included Peter Aston’s Hosanna to the Son of David, one of his more mediæval-influenced works, and Leighton’s Solus ad victimam.

Good Friday’s music, for a service of music and readings, was mostly unaccompanied – not sure if this wasn’t partly to do with our organ having been temporarily replaced by a toaster while it’s repaired. I’ve already written about Pseudo-King John IV of Portugal. We brought out Philip Moore’s It is a thing most wonderful again, and although we couldn’t do Lotti’s Crucifixus (‘just couldn’t get the parts’), other items included Morales’ austere Parce mihi Domine, Tchaikovsky’s The Crown of Roses (about which I recommend this page from the local Gurt Lush Choir) and God so loved the world by Stainer.

On Easter Sunday our anthem was Bairstow’s Let all mortal flesh keep silence, which I last sang in St Edmundsbury a couple of years ago – and a lot of unfamiliar descants!

On Easter Day

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in praise of the forgery

For Good Friday we are about to sing Crux fidelis by the person I shall call – following the convention used for Classical authors – Pseudo-King John IV of Portugal. This work obviously fooled the musical world for a while, but its suspicious lack of provenance and anachronistic features (see John Rutter’s edition) point to a 19th-century composer who never got any credit for it.

I’ve recently been considering another work that seems to be at least partly fake. The Erleigh Cantors have occasionally performed a Magnificat in faux-bordon ‘from Robert Fayrfax’ setting on the First Tone’ (which is otherwise unknown), paired with a Nunc ‘by an unknown Edwardine composer from a Chapel Royal Choir Book of 1547’. They were published as Novello’s Parish Choir Book series no. 1062. The editor, Royle Shore, has added a couple of bars of solo descant to the Gloria of each canticle.

I consulted an expert on the revival of Tudor music, and it seems most likely that the Magnificat has some basis somewhere in Fayrfax, such as a few bars extracted from another composition and repeated to make the composed part of the setting. Royle Shore was a solicitor and not a very expert editor, but he wanted to get Church of England parish choirs singing Tudor repertoire.

They’re pleasant enough canticles, though I have never come across any other choir performing them or seen them in a Cathedral choir library. I have to say that I still have my doubts about that Nunc, and suspect Royle Shore of having slipped in one of his own compositions.

Are these compositions diminished by not being of the authorship they seem? King John IV is famous as a king rather than as a composer, so while his name lends royal glamour to the composition, Crux fidelis is not being attached to an established body of work. Tweaking Fayrfax rather drastically (if that’s what’s been done) is a rather different matter and I wish Royle Shore had been more open about exactly what he did. But I have no problems about singing either of them.

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a dancing palm tree and a light-up whale

A recurring theme this spring is religious pieces in a jazz style. This time it was my first encounter with Jonah-Man Jazz, with the local primary school doing it as an end-of-term performance in church. The church choir provided me and a few other singers and some of the band.

Some 1960s attempts at church/jazz crossover have dated very badly, but this one hasn’t, although Michael Hurd never quite hit the jackpot again. My role was really to reinforce the consonants and keep the rhythm secure (and do a descant at one point). It’s a short work but was expanded in this performance with more narration and some dance numbers. Church was full of appreciative parents and other relatives.

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channelling my inner Benny Hill

Carmina Burana is never going to be a favourite of mine, but this time round I enjoyed it rather more than before. Maybe with a woman conductor there’s a bit more of an air of complicity? At any rate, I confess to preferring the raunchier numbers near the end to all the stuff about spring at the beginning.

We performed it in the arrangement for two pianos and percussion, with two very co-ordinated pianists, and I think 9 percussionists! As usual I was too busy singing to work out what instrument was used when, but I noticed the presence of crotales again. I don’t think the piece loses much by being done in this arrangement, though I’m not perhaps the best judge of that.

Earlier we did Bob Chilcott’s Songs and Cries of London Town, which mix settings of poems about London with street cries. I’ve now got some more material for my garden songbook (a topic for another post) as the first one was largely about herbs.

We joined forces with the Bristol Youth Choir, who also sang Chilcott’s Dances of Time and added parents and supporters to the audience. So we sopranos were pushed right to the back of the choir stalls, where I’m not used to standing (and had occasional problems seeing round the tenor in front, especially when he scratched his ear). Doubtless it will all look different when the hall re-opens; this was our last concer there before the refit.

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the harpsichord playing of my dreams

I didn’t want to miss the Bath Bachfest lunchtime recital of Mahan Esfahani and Michala Petri, either of whom would be a draw on their own. They came to the Guildhall with a programme of music by Handel, Bach, Telemann, Rameau and Chédeville which they played together and individually.

I’m not sure there were especial highlights, though the standard throughout was superb. I particularly enjoyed the Rameau solo harpsichord pieces, which as well as their musical qualities displayed a certain amount of classical learning.

Michaela Petri came with a ‘golf caddy’ of assorted recorders, from which she would carefully select an instrument for each piece (‘this trio sonata really needs a 3 wood’). At the end she complimented us for being a very attentive audience and then gave a favourite encore of hers – a set of variations on a Danish folksong, which took her into Classic Buskers territory with all sorts of unusual effects as well as some virtuoso ornamentation.

The recital must have made a deep subliminal impression on me, as about a week later I had an anxiety dream featuring the harpsichord. I realised that I was about to give a solo recital on one in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and had yet to look at the music, or even get copies of it. Not wishing to lose an opportunity that might not come again, I dashed off to the University Library to find the scores, which included pieces from My Ladye Nevell’s Booke and, rather less plausibly, music by Mahler. There was also going to be a partly improvised duet with the current organ scholar. It makes a change from my usual anxiety dreams, which are almost invariably about the Plato and Aristotle paper I did in Finals (and which in reality I got a satisfactory mark in).

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Opera at the V & A

I caught the V & A’s exhibition Opera: Power, Passion and Politics 10 days or so before it closed (which it has done now – sorry), and found it thought-provoking though not in the ‘unmissable’ category.

The exhibitions centres on seven ‘first nights’ of operas in seven different cities. As it turns out, I’ve only seen one of these works – Le Nozze di Figaro – on stage. They were cleverly chosen to illustrate major developments in the history of opera; for example, the Paris premiè of Tannhäuser did duty both for Wagner and for French grand opera. Inevitably this resulted in quite a bit of compression and the exhibition didn’t pretend to cover the entire history of this art form. This was brought up to date with clips of 20th and 21st-century operas shown at the end.

The focus was very much on social context rather than musical technicalities, although there were a lot of instruments and scores on view. Many items had been loaned, including 18th-century costumes from a former private theatre in Italy and a lot of material from Russia relating to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

A potential problem was the varying amount of documentation for each opera and its contemporary reception. There’s really not much relating to Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, certainly not from Monteverdi himself, or even reactions from his contemporaries, and for different reasons we don’t get much insight into Shostakovich’s own observations on his opera, while Nabucco and Salome are much better documented.

What intrigued me the most were the items which related to the practicalities of staging opera. There was a reconstruction of a Handelian stage set with billowing waves, a moving ship and a mermaid which bobbed up and down. A later visual extract from the Met’s L’Amour de loin showed that nothing much has changed when it comes to wowing people with staging. There was a very detailed diagram showing the blocking for the final scene of an early production of Lady Macbeth.

Probably I wasn’t the intended audience for this exhibition because I was familiar with a lot of the background to these operas, but I found myself spending a generous amount of time in the exhibition which is always a good sign.

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Jenůfa at Hayesfield

Bath Opera have found a new venue; the Roper Theatre at Hayesfield School, which I visited a couple of years ago (when it was brand new) to see my son’s final-year primary school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We were in the front row, which obscured part of the left of the stage, though as the evening went on we got used to this.

I’ve seen this opera once before (in fact it’s the only one by Janáček that I’ve ever been to), when WNO brought it to Bristol, and realising a bit too late that it really wasn’t the opera to see if you’re pregnant.

The principals were for the most part familiar voices to me, apart from Števa, and acted and sang convincingly. The orchestra coped admirably with the demanding music – Janáček works his strings in particular extremely hard. I noticed how each instrument got its moment of glory (the violas were the ones most in my line of view). The staging made very effective use of a gauze curtain to show ‘offstage’ action. (No video backgrounds this time)

It was a chance to support a friend in the chorus. Now where do they find so many men from?! Contrary to the usual way of things, they outnumbered the women.

As usual there was a raffle, and I got really lucky, as I found after the performance that each of the two tickets I’d bought had got attached to a nice bottle of wine. Indeed we may nearly have turned a profit on the evening as a result!

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Come and Sing (2): the Mass in Blue

Six days later, it was a very different though equally challenging take on the Ordinary of the Mass, as Will Todd’s Mass in Blue was the featured work in Bristol Choral Society’s first Come and Sing of 2018. I’d heard a lot about this piece, although I don’t think I’d actually heard it previously.

We gathered a sizeable number of people from far and wide, most of whom hadn’t sung it either, although I was sat next to someone who had. It turned out that the work was considerably revised when OUP published it, and her unrevised earlier edition had considerably more dots even than ours!

Jazz rhythms don’t come naturally to me, but I got the hang of most of them I think, albeit by watching the beat and listening to the bass line in the piano part closely. There were a few bars, though, where I fitted in notes, words and rhythm somehow and simply relied on getting to the first beat of the next bar at the right time. It helps that there is quite a lot of repetition.

The various movements are in different styles; the vocal parts in the Sanctus could almost be by Fauré, while I felt the Gloria had something of a Latin feel (I imagined us, topically, as a backing group on a float at the Rio Carnival).

We were conducted by Hilary Campbell with Vanessa Bowers showing us how it should be done on the solo soprano part and Steven Kings accompanying. Now I am in the position that if I get asked to sing the piece in future I may be one of those who is expected to give a lead….

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Come and Sing (1): the Missa Solemnis

I don’t do very many ‘come and sing’ workshop type events, but this spring there are two, six days apart.

The first was looking at Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with Gavin Carr (and Gerry Hoddinott on piano). Several dozen of us gathered in New Oriel Hall, and it was a real throwback to the South West Festival Chorus of old, and to the Mahler 8 of 2015. Most people had a link to either Bath Minerva Choir or (in some cases) the Bournemouth Sympnhony Chorus.

This work has not been performed in Bath since 1982 (and people wonder why I base my concert singing elsewhere!) although some people had sung it with the Bath Festival Chorus in Wells Cathedral in the late 1990s. I was reasonably fresh from having done it in Gloucester just over a year ago, though I would not say that I remembered it perfectly. We were fortunate in having several in the tenor section who knew it well.

The solo parts were up for grabs by anyone who wanted to have a go, and several of us sopranos did. I ducked in and out where they overlapped with the chorus lines. Much of the solo writing isn’t actually harder than what the chorus are asked to do, though of course doing both made quite a bit of extra work! It gave a chance to experience another side of the piece, in which the relationship between soloists and chorus is a complex one. Certainly any chance to sing it is worth taking.

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buying CDs at the farmers’ market

Bath Farmers’ Market takes place on Saturday mornings. The market stalls stand next to other stalls which are there all week, including one that sells second-hand DVDs and CDs. Among the latter there is a small selection of classical ones, changing every week, mostly on sale for £4 a CD or box.

The repertoire on these classical CDs is not, for the most part, the usual sort of compilation of ‘hundred best tunes’ or even complete popular works. Whatever source they have is especially strong on 20th-century American repertoire and obscure operas; so for example I’ve recently seen Edward Thomas’ Desire under the Elms, Marschner’s Der Vampyr and Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano. A couple of weeks ago I picked up Colin Davis conducting Les Troyens, and last week there was a bargain-basement pile priced at £1 each from which we selected Stravinsky ballets (Apollon musagète/Agon/Orpheus), Bartók piano concertos, Bruckner’s string quintet, a box of unreconstructed 1960’s recordings of Vivaldi concertos and Joan Sutherland singing Adriana Lecouvreur. And back they come in the shopping basket alongside the olives, bacon and bottles of apple juice.

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