Walking with YouTube

Last week I sang Handel’s ‘Where’er you walk’ at a graveside ceremony for a member of my husband’s family. I shan’t write more about the occasion here, but instead talk about my use of recordings in preparation.

This aria used to be performed quite commonly as a stand-alone piece. Less frequently now, perhaps because with the renewed interest in staging baroque opera there are now opportunities to hear it in its original context. Many great singers have recorded it and the results can be heard on YouTube. I studied them in order to get ideas about various interpretative questions: what ornamentation to do? how fast? how to treat the middle section?

One generalisation about changes in performance practice didn’t really stand up; the older performances were not necessarily slower. But they are missing ornamentation. On the other hand not all ornamentation would have been appropriate to the occasion; certainly not the gratuitous top B flats added by the sopranos. Nor could I match the agility of, say, Mark Padmore. I also felt something more self-effacing was required than the more passionate approach to the B section adopted by many.

As to a favourite recording, I shared the honours between two Kathleens, Ferrier and Battle. With Kathleen Battle there was a video of her performing the aria wearing a columnar dress, standing in a replica of Vermeer’s studio and singing as if she really owned the piece. Certainly my pick of the soprano versions.

Kathleen Ferrier was not blessed in her accompanist, who thumped out the left-hand ascending scale at the end of the A section in a well-that’s-got-rid-of-her sort of way. But why is it that great contraltos always sound so sincere, while every phrase a soprano sings is full of artifice? Is it because the lower voice is close to the pitch of a speaking one?

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sung once before, years ago (2): Bach’s St John Passion

For years my friend from Merton days Sally Mears has been trying to involve me in musical ventures she organises in the Oxford area, and finally I was able to join for a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion in St Helen’s Abingdon, a historic church boasting some very fine brass chandeliers, a huge window about biblical women, and representations of family trees both of Jesus and of a long-lived and prolific former member of the congregation.

So I’ve done both Bach’s great Passion settings in successive years. Perhaps now is a good time to run through my performance history with these works, with special attention to language and historical authenticity:

a) St Matthew, when I was an undergraduate. A Come & Sing (!) performance, with organ only I think, and I can’t remember where in Oxford it took place – maybe the University Church. We sang it any old how, apart from the Evangelist who was ill and whose part was spoken. In English.

b) St John, when I was a graduate student. In Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall (to a small audience because we were competing with a candlelit Messiah, and put on by our organ scholar who was applying at the time for an opera conducting course. With modern instruments and sung Cambridge chapel choir style, because that’s what we were. In German (I think).

c) St Matthew, in Bath Abbey in 2006 with Gavin Carr and Chorus Angelorum. We had the ECO so modern pitch but ‘baroque’ phrasing with paired quavers phrased off etc. and fast speeds. In English.

d) St Matthew, in Colston Hall with Adrian Partington and Bristol Choral Society. A baroque band with the works – oboi da caccia and all – and at baroque pitch (I mean A=415) but no specifically baroque phrasing, presumably because we were a large choir. Fast speeds again – as with c), this may have been the conductor’s personal style rather than a striving for historically informed performance practice. In German.

Which brings me to:
e) St John, in St Helen’s Abingdon with Sally Mears and the Newman Singers. A mixture of instruments – mostly modern but we did have a bass viol, lute and theorbo – and at modern pitch but with baroque phrasing and fast speeds again. In English (mostly the old Novello version, but with quite a few changes).

This performance was semi-staged, with solo singers moving around (we in the chorus moved a bit too) and some instruments of the Passion, such as scourge, crown of thorns and robe. Christus was led off stage as his burial was described, but returned quietly for the final chorale.

I think I may be in the minority who prefer the St John Passion to the St Matthew. Not that I wish to criticise the latter, but the St John has an intensity that comes from its relative compression (for example, the arias mostly don’t come with preceding recitatives). And the chorale harmonisations are particularly inspired, especially the last one.

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The Spiked Drink

This has been suggested as a translation for the title of Le Vin Herbé by Frank Martin. I was curious about this rarity, and after hearing it on Radio 3 I decided to go and see WNO’s staging of it in Bristol, my first visit to the Hippodrome since 2013.

I got lucky with a seat. I turned up on spec and was offered (in exchange for a charitable donation) a seat in a box at the back of the stalls, whose intended occupant had fallen ill, and with it a glass of cava and some nibbles. Though sadly not the chance to show off in the interval where I was, as there wasn’t one.

It’s a brave composer who tackles this subject. Martin’s take on the Tristan legend uses a variant in which the lovers elope, and includes Isoude Les Blanches Mains. It is an austere piece, with much of the action narrated by a chorus and lightly scored for an ensemble of piano and strings. The setting of the words is sensitive to speech rhythm – from time to time you could sense that of the original French through the translation – in a musical idiom that reminded me of Stravinsky in the period of his Mass setting. The set was sparing to match, with expressive use of that WNO speciality, the lighting. The players and conductor were placed on stage in front of an arch on which much of the action took place, emphasising the ensemble nature of the piece, and I admired the stamina of those among them who stood throughout.

So well done to all, especially principals Caitlin Hulcup and Tom Randle and conductor James Southall, and an evening well spent.

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a Facebook challenge

I found this list of categories on a friend’s Facebook page and feel moved to add my own contribution. I suspect I will have to duck as people read it. It runs as follows:

Opera I hate: Arabella
Opera I think is overrated: Cosi fan Tutte, followed by Parsifal. Actually I feel this way about much of bel canto – lovely sound, but I can’t take all the women going mad when they get into a tight spot.
Opera I think is underrated: Mazeppa
Opera I Love: Either of Berg’s
Opera I Cherish: I don’t really distinguish between loving and cherishing
Guilty Pleasure: Andrea Chénier
Opera I want to see revived: Von Heute auf Morgen, if only to find out what a one-act comic opera by serial-period Schoenberg could possibly be like.
Opera that I first performed in: None, though I’ve done a lot of opera choruses in concert
Opera that I first saw: Tosca
Opera I saw most recently: Le vin herbé (Frank Martin)
Greatest Opening: Otello, followed by Die Walküre. Can’t beat a good storm to get you going.
Greatest Ending: Other than the obvious Götterdämmerung, it would be the Dutchman or Traviata, with an honourable mention to Andrea Chénier again.
Worst middle of an otherwise Great Opera: Siegfried. I mean, what else could it possibly be?
Greatest Opera of all time: Boris Godunov

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sung once before, years ago (1): Mozart’s C Minor Mass

As my bucket list of the works I have never done and want to do is shortened, I find that in the next few weeks I’m revisiting several pieces I have sung before but only once, and that not recently, following on from Elijah last year.

Some years ago I sang a couple of concerts with the Tallis Chamber Choir in the Barbican Hall, one of which included Mozart’s Mass in C minor. It’s a work that never quite seems to make up its mind what the prevailing mood should be – some parts are severely neo-Baroque, others could have been lifted out of one of his operas – and maybe that is why Mozart never finished it, with tenor and (even more) bass soloists left with little to do. How sombre are the minor-key sections meant to be in such a Baroque-influenced piece?

This time round it was the second half of Bristol Choral Society’s spring concert with the Bristol Ensemble in Colston Hall (which has been given a stay of execution before the refit, so we are still performing there next year). We managed to divert an appreciative audience from hearing the New World Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto across the way in St. George’s. There was the added bonus for me that I knew one of the soprano soloists, Charlotte Richardson, from the excursion to Turin with Chorus Angelorum.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer, a piece which was very out of fashion when I was originally learning the choral repertoire. I knew it existed, but it was only a name and a couple of phrases. It is now OK to perform it again, and this was the first time I’d sung it with the addition colour of an orchestral accompaniment. Julia Hwang joined the choir again, to perform the same composer’s Violin Concerto.

Earlier in the week I’d gone to the end of term concert at Kingswood School – a mixture of giving ensembles a chance to perform and showing off the talents of some musicians who are soon to leave. The fashion for projecting moving backdrops behind performers has not abated yet, and I was quite mesmerised by the petal-like shapes behind the performers.

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Flats into sharps at Gloucester

Rather on the spur of the moment I decided to join a singing day at Gloucester Cathedral, organised by Gloucester Choral Society and featuring four settings of the Evening Canticles. It was a rare chance to sing this repertoire with the Cathedral’s own musical team. We were all able to fit into the choir stalls and surrounding stalls so we were singing them in the authentic place too! What of course wasn’t as it would be in a service was the number of singers, although it did lend quite a bit of extra oomph to Dyson in D in particular. Gibbons ‘Short’ was sung from an unfamiliar edition, just to keep me alert. For a second time I had the experience of singing Howells’ ‘Gloucester’ canticles in the location for which they were written, although I gather the organ sounds rather different from the one Howells wrote for, since a rebuild.

Thus far the music was all very familiar to me, but we gave the first performance of a new setting by Kerensa Briggs which we all had to learn from scratch. It would have been slightly easier to learn without the sudden change of key signature from six flats to five sharps at one point. But I found bits of it running through my head in the days afterwards, which is always a good sign.

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Sharps into flats at Salisbury

After a gap of a few years, I rejoined Peterborough Chamber Choir for a weekend in Salisbury Cathedral (which I also hadn’t visited for a few years).

The highlight of this weekend was another chance to sing Howells’ evening canticles in B minor, which I’ve only done once before. They seem to come round much more in broadcasts than they appear in the repertoire of visiting choirs, which these days generally confine themselves to Gloucester, Coll Reg and St Paul’s; even the setting in G seems to be a rarity now. We paired them with Bruckner’s Ave Maria in honour of the Cathedral’s dedication.

On Saturday we sang Vann’s ‘Salisbury’ canticles (still in the choir library at Salisbury – do they ever perform them?), Greene’s Lord, let me know mine end and Richard Shephard’s Responses (I pointed out that these last were ‘coming home’). Sunday morning was Bairstow’s Let all mortal flesh and Vierne’s Messe Solennelle. The latter piece, very familiar to me, caused problems with different editions. I rehearsed from the little cut-down French edition I’ve always used – the most expensive score members of the Erleigh Cantors have ever had to buy – but realised that there were discrepancies over matters such as note lengths with the American one which everyone else had. So I took that one into the service with me as well. It was good to see the organ part in full, but to my horror I found that the C# major ‘Dona nobis pacem’ had been thoughtfully written out in Db. I felt sure I’d make mistakes, so whipped out the French copy part way through the Agnus and reverted to singing from it. (I was once told that very sharp keys in French church music symbolise heaven (e.g. Duruflé’s In Paradisum, Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium), although I can’t find anything online to back me up on this. If so, this symbolism is wrecked by writing the passage out in Db).

I was rather sorry that the Rite of Coffee is no longer celebrated in the Chapter House. And maybe this will be my last time in their current song room as (following the lead of Wells, Exeter and others) they are intending to create a new one.

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a command performance

At Bath Opera’s Beatrice & Benedict I felt as if the performance had been laid on for my benefit. When I bought my ticket I chose a seat in the middle of the second row next to some that had already been taken, but in fact there was no one in the front row, and no one else for several seats on either side of me in my row! Perhaps my ‘neighbours’ were complimentary tickets that weren’t used. The drawback was that the orchestra (in front of the stage this year) slightly swamped the singers (even without trombones) and the conductor occasionally blocked my view. Still, with Berlioz there is no harm in being reminded that there’s an orchestra there.

The audition notes reveal the director’s thoughts on this opera: ‘quite a strange work’. I previously saw it with WNO and so had some idea how to approach it; enjoy the music and don’t expect too much from the libretto. Julia O’Connor and Rupert Drury (paired also in Peter Grimes of a couple of years ago) enjoyed sparring as the title couple, and I particularly appreciated Gill Clark (Ursula)’s variety of facial expressions.

The chorus as usual were very engaged and agile as they dodged round quite a cluttered set. There was a swing at the centre of the stage, hung from a pergola, and I was interested to see what would happen when it was used, but the people who sat in it kept their feet firmly on the ground and it wasn’t there in the second part.

An innovation was a quiz – match the Don to the opera he appears in, which I attempted though not very successfully.

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why go on foreign choir tours?

I haven’t actually been on many choir tours overseas. I like singing and I like travel, but I don’t necessarily enjoy mixing the two, because on a choir tour one’s free time and opportunity to explore and meet local people is limited. And also my first commitment is to being with my family. But I regularly get enquiries as to whether I am interested in going on such tours.

I know of one choir tour which is already oversubscribed with choir members, over a year ahead. While a few years ago I went on one where fewer than half of the singers had performed with the choir they nominally represented.

So why are some tours more attractive than others? I can only speak for myself, but these are the sorts of questions I consider:

  • How attractive are the location, performance venues and other scheduled parts of the tour? Do they fit in with ‘places I would like to go to’?
  • What about the cost, both absolutely and as value for money? On one tour I went on, the (not very large) choir subsidised six or seven professional musicians who travelled out with us, not including the conductor.
  • And the repertoire to be performed? A piece I dislike is still a piece I dislike, wherever I happen to be singing it.
  • Do I have confidence in the organisers?
  • Who will be rehearsing and directing? Someone I know and respect?
  • Who are the other singers who will be going? Will I get on with them, and will the performances be of a decent standard?
  • How much time will it take, factoring in the time taken to get to and from the tour location from home? Will I miss anything important at home?
  • Will there be rehearsals beforehand, or will they take up a significant amount of time on the tour?
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Breaking Free

I was one of those who were concerned about the ‘dumbing down’ of Radio 3. (My personal pet hate being the long life stories of listeners that are phoned in during the morning drivetime slot. I’m just not interested in them!) However I perked up on finding out that 2017 began with a week of programming themed around the Second Viennese School. It’s all disappearing off the iPlayer now, but I did manage to catch a lot of it either live or retrospectively.

There was no attempt to shy away from the more hardcore material, and indeed some of the more familiar and less daring pieces such as Im Sommerwind and the Seven Early Songs were notable by their absence. I particularly enjoyed the episodes of The Essay, in which five people talked about their relationship to this repertoire; more than one of the accounts of how they discovered it resonated with my own experience.

There were chances to hear 9 of Berg’s 14 works, although it was an unfortunate piece of scheduling broadcasting his Violin Concerto directly after Wozzeck, when you wouldn’t really be able to take it in. The theme of the week even got into the Choral Evensong slot, in the form of Friede auf Erden. But I’d have been more thorough: a Webern cantata for introit (I’ve sung introits longer than anything Webern ever wrote), serial canticles (there are some by Alan Ridout and by Elisabeth Lutyens) and that as yet unwritten Anglican chant based on the tone-row from Lulu.

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