in praise of …. Supraphon

Supraphon is generally agreed to have been the best of the labels originating behind the Iron Curtain. It is very well represented in the LP collection I’m putting on CD, and only partly because of the former owner’s devotion to Czech chamber music, as there is also Palestrina on Supraphon, Josquin on Supraphon and so on.

The recording quality is very good, as I appreciated when I came across a Supraphon re-release on Melodiya or a recording on Panton, and one can really enjoy the old-fashioned Eastern European brass sound in particular in orchestral works.

There are some production drawbacks, however. I really dislike the plastic inner sleeves, rounded at one end, which are a real pain to put back in the outer sleeve. There are the relatively early recordings which are mono remastered to sound like stereo. And then there’s 11 0395 11 – a recording of music by Suk in which his second string quartet, a single-movement work, is split between the two sides, breaking in the middle of a phrase! Why, Supraphon, why? The whole quartet lists under half an hour so it all could have gone on one side! I notice later LP releases of this recording place the quartet second on the disc so that the break is in a different place.

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two Requiems in Winsley

This spring is a time for rediscovering Requiems that I haven’t sung in ages. First it was Mozart, now Howells, which I have only sung once before, in my Cambridge days. (There are other Requiems that have long awaited another performance from me – Cherubini, Bruneau and indeed Brahms, which I have rehearsed twice with Bristol Choral Society but never performed with them). Later in the year, I hope to return to another piece by Howells that I haven’t sung for an equally long time – Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing. These two pieces were written thirty years apart, and yet I can’t really distinguish them stylistically at all. Did Howells’ style not change in that time, or have I just failed to pick up the ways in which it developed?

I joined the CanZona choir for a Holy Week concert – no risk of overload as Bristol Choral was taking a pre-Easter rehearsal break. We paired the Howells with Fauré’s Requiem, and framed it with two settings of the opening verses of the Stabat Mater by Schubert (D175) and Will Todd (from his Passion Music).

It was gratifying to perform to a full church (although it doesn’t need huge numbers to fill St Nicholas’) and we were fortunate in securing the services of David Bednall on the organ.

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one-recording ensembles

I’m slowly working my way through putting another collection of LPs on to CD. Most of them are by famous names, but there are a few recordings which seem to be the only ones, or almost so, made by those particular forces. Let’s have a look at some of them.

a) The Bernicia Ensemble. Named after the ancient kingdom covering SE Scotland/NE England and founded by flautist David Nicholson, they recorded Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts on LP for the Pan label in 1966. The only other recording by them is the soundtrack of a documentary about the Tay Road Bridge.

b) The Temianka Trio. This recorded Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor in 1975. This trio seems to have been assembled by Henri Temianka especially to record this piece. Usually when he played chamber music it was with the Paganini String Quartet.

c) Andrea Baron. A synagogue singer, her recording ‘A time of singing’ (1975) is a showcase for Jewish music in various styles (she also gave illustrated talks on this subject). It was produced privately and was probably acquired through some personal connection. Vocally it really is a solo album as she multi-tracks her own voice on a number of the songs.

d) Rumjana Atanasova. A prizewinner in a piano competition, this Bulgarian pianist recorded music by Schumann, Dvořák and Smetana for Supraphon in 1963. And then seems to have disappeared as I can find no other evidence of performances by her, let alone recordings.

There are so many questions left hanging when you come across a recording like this. Is Andrea Baron still singing in a synagogue somewhere? What happened to Rumjana Atanasova? Did the Bernicia Ensemble have recording ambitions beyond background music to a documentary about the Tay Bridge?

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in praise of … the hire score

I have a rule of thumb that if it costs no more than twice as much to buy a score as to hire it, I’ll buy. (This seems to happen increasingly often.) There are advantages to singing from a score you own; you have exclusive control over all markings on it, and can leave in your own personal ones relating to particular difficulties you have. And you won’t have to pay in future to hire it.

But there is some pleasure in using a score that many others have sung from before you. You can for example boggle at some of the peculiar interpretations which your predecessors had to follow, or observe how you are not the first to find a certain passage tricky. At one recent concert our scores of a rarely-performed work were, I estimate, about 60 years old and had accumulated a fair amount of annotation. (As well as using some old-fashioned typography: crotchet rests a mirror image of quaver ones, repeated notes in the accompaniment indicated by slashes, and dots separated from the notes they lengthened. I don’t think I’d ever encountered that last one before.) My score included details of someone’s future travels (to France and New Zealand) on the flyleaf and some instructions (in a different hand) in Welsh!

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A Badminton racket

The title was chosen for the sake of the pun, not because of the sort of noise I think we made! I sang at the funeral of a former assistant priest at a church in Bath, who had earlier been at Badminton, so that’s where the funeral was held. It’s an intriguing little church because it doubles as parish church and family chapel for the Dukes of Beaufort; essentially Georgian but with a Victorian extension to accommodate a huge memorial by Grinling Gibbons (formerly in St George’s Chapel in Windsor). It still has box pews (though not for the choir; I wished we had them as I was sat in a draught).

Our music was straightforward but good quality pieces such as In Paradisum from Fauré’s Requiem and Purcell’s Thou knowest, Lord. This and the dignified language of the whole service made it a gratifying experience to take part and I regretted I hadn’t known Tom Gibson better than I did; he was quite a character.

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this blog’s first Mozart Requiem

It was gratifying to sing once again to a full Cathedral for Bristol Choral’s most recent concert. Our first half was a piece I’d never sung before: Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum. I recall this being quite popular on concert programmes in Cambridge, maybe because it is fairly easy to put together including the soloists and sounds impressive. As long as you can get the trumpets of course – the British Sinfonietta’s showed how it’s done.

The second soprano part in this piece gets a certain amount of the infill that is usually associated with alto lines. But there are some highlights, such as the aria-like To thee all angels, which may be intended to compensate for the absence of a soprano soloist.

Few in the choir had encountered the Handel before, but almost everyone had done Mozart’s Requiem. This is the last really major choral work to feature in this blog for the first time. The previous performance of it I sang in, with the Bath Camerata one Good Friday, was just before I started writing the blog, and I don’t think I’ve been to a concert with it in since then. We were told that we should try to erase the interpretations of previous people we’d sung the piece for, and I didn’t find this too hard, not only because of the long time gap but because I think all the performances I’ve sung have been for different people. In particular, I never sang the Requiem for our choir’s previous Director of Music.

Certain passages in this work have acquired associations I can’t shake off. The local hospital had the opening of the Dies Irae on the mixtape which was played to people lying on the slab being measured up for radiotherapy; not really the piece to play to your cancer patients, one might have thought. On a lighter note, the interpretation of the Confutatis by a toy koala is surely definitive; watch this at your own risk! And as I’ve said before I can’t be the only person who cannot sing or hear the end of the Lacrimosa without visualising the closing scene of Amadeus, even if music and film alike are inauthentic.

So how much of the Requiem is Mozart? There are large chunks for which no score in his hand now exists, but was there once more, or was he able to communicate some of his ideas to Süßmayr? Or are we deluding ourselves and everything which is not attested in Mozart’s hand is by Süßmayr in its entirety? Did his proximity to Mozart enable him to raise his game and compose better music than he was normally capable of?

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a view of the marina

The song room at Christchurch Priory must have one of the nicest views of all: across to the inlet of the river Stour where there is a marina full of yachts. I’d never been to the Priory (or indeed the town) when the Cathedral Chamber Choir showed up for a weekend of services.

In amongst more standard repertoire were some pieces I hadn’t done before. I have heard Philip Moore’s Responses countless times on broadcasts but this was the first time I’d sung them and I found them harder than I expected to. A particular difficulty was sorting out crotchets and dotted crotchets in the Lord’s Prayer. Our only ‘early’ piece was the motet O quam suavis by Vivanco. And I hadn’t previously sung Matthew Martin’s Te lucis ante terminum which was nevertheless a fairly straightforward piece to begin the weekend with.

Our communion setting was Darke in E, some of which we sing in Bath, though not the Gloria which has some very exposed soprano lines. Matins had just one canticle, in our case Britten’s Jubilate in E flat. Our parting shot was Stanford’s For lo I raise up, which we’d been deprived of the chance to sing on our last choir tour. We put a lot of work into making this as good as we could achieve; it helped that evensong was late on the Sunday so rehearsal time wasn’t rushed.

It is an interesting building though not hugely resonant – the Durham-like thick Norman pillars see to that. I wonder what the Kaiser made of the service he attended there? I was sorry that all services were in the nave so we never used the historic quire. However, I’m not sure we’d have fitted in to the stalls, or having done so left room for a congregation there, and also a number of the misericords are fragile and in need of restoration. The clergy were much more musically aware than they are in many parish churches (even some ‘major churches’), and the organ sounds lovely after a recent rebuild. (Our organist explored its range of colours during his hymn accompaniments.) Christchurch Priory seems to be off the radar of many visiting choirs but is well worth considering.

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a coachload come to the Bachfest

Stile Antico’s concert at the 2019 Bach Festival in Bath was very well attended. I noticed a coach outside St Mary’s Church afterwards to take people away, and have learned that some local tour companies block-book at popular concerts. This may explain why some of them sell out so quickly, and also the age profile; certainly the audience age at this one was among the highest I’ve seen at a concert in Bath (which is saying something!), based on those people I saw.

I was up in the gallery, behind someone who I think may have been there to accompany his wife. At any rate, he spent much of the performance time in a circular sequence of opening his programme book (a large booklet covering the whole Festival’s concerts), finding the text and translation of the piece currently being performed, studying it, closing it, then opening the programme book to find his place again a couple of minutes later. The easternmost two sets of seats in the gallery weren’t available to us.

This was my third Stile Antico concert, and it consisted of works by Schütz and J S Bach written for funeral or memorial services, well suited to the week of a family funeral. Much of it was accompanied by continuo, sometimes including a theorbo (I am not an early music specialist but I’m now able to tell one of these from an archlute). When I first encountered this repertoire, the prevailing practice was to perform unaccompanied everything which could be so performed, but current attitudes towards accompaniment are more flexible.

There have been changes in personnel in Stile Antico in the last couple of years, but the group still has the chemistry which allows them to keep ensemble and agree on such matters as dynamics without a conductor, even when some of the singers were at one point detached from the rest at the very east end of the church. Schütz’ Musikalische Exequien showed up that their solo voices aren’t as interesting as those of say the Tallis Scholars or the Sixteen, in other words this ensemble is greater than the sum of its parts. The other two motets by Schütz fared rather better, as did the two Bach motets (Komm, Jesu, komm and Jesu, meine Freude). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stile Antico’s performance practice worked best in those movements in the latter which involved fewer than the total number of singers. I was rather surprised that as far as I could tell the Bach motets were performed at A=440. The encore was Thomas Campion’s Never weather-beaten sail which I think I heard the Tallis Scholars do as an encore in the same place a few months ago.

Guardian review

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an icy trip to the Abbey

I picked my way through the icy and barely thawed streets to go and sing evensong at Bath Abbey with the choir of St Peter’s Caversham, visiting for the day. As in October, we were in temporary stalls in the crossing, just west of a partition blocking off the hard-hat area that is the East End. Probably my last chance to look at the pews in the nave!

It was the coldest night of the year so far, and the glowing bars of the electric heater on one side were mainly decorative. Our service music was Radcliffe Responses, Psalm 118:1-12 (ending with 3 verses of the sort that are normally cut out!), Dyson in F and Balfour Gardiner’s Evening Hymn. Bath Abbey discourages introits these days, and we lost our hymn (though it wasn’t a particular favourite of mine!).

We had a loyal band of supporters, and I also supplied a singer to replace someone who’d put his back out shovelling snow. I look forward to returning to the Abbey when the East end is revealed, and when the floor is replaced above the new geothermal heating.

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a new chapter for the South West Festival Chorus

I used to sing quite regularly with this choir, which puts on ‘all-comers’ concerts preceded by intensive rehearsal twice a year. But I haven’t done so since 2013. I dropped out partly because various friends no longer sang in the choir, also I became less confident that the programme wouldn’t be changed after I’d signed up and paid up. Repertoire is an important factor in what I decide to sing in.

The choir has performed under the direction of Rupert Bevan for the last 3 years or so, and now a conductor well known to me is taking over. The first concert under their direction will be Duruflé’s Requiem and RVW’s Five Mystical Songs. I feel a bit Duruflé’d-out at the moment, so I’m passing on this one, but look forward to encountering this conductor in future in a new context. There are some real Bathonian characters awaiting them!

[Update February 2019: the Duruflé concert has been cancelled. I noticed a programming overlap with the April concert of Bath Choral Society. The chorus master I mentioned has dropped out, and I have since had an invitation to sing Gerontius with the choir in the summer, “We’re also recruiting a chorus master”]

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