the hangover orchestra

A Dutch string orchestra, named after the French translation of a German expression meaning a sickie taken as a result of a weekend hangover. This is the Lundi Bleu orchestra which gave a concert in church as part of a short British tour; I helped out as a steward.

The orchestra performs unconducted (quite a current trend) though with an important role for the leader, in this concert Johan Olof. The programme combined music by Dutch and British composers; a link was a concerto by Hellendaal, who worked in Britain and died in Cambridge. It was good to hear a piece by him at a normal time of day. The British pieces were mostly by or closely connected to Benjamn Britten; his arrangement of Purcell’s Chaconne in G minor, Pärt’s Cantus in his memory (which I’d never heard live before – an extra tubular bell was added for this one) and in the second half his Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge. I should try to familiarise myself with this last, and in particular listen to it with the names of the movements in front of me.

The orchestra was easily up to the demands of the music and was well received. Visiting ensembles can have a mixed reception in Bath; they have to rely on local publicity to recruit an audience and can find themselves inadvertently programmed against another competing musical event.

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a free ticket to the Festival

The Bath Festival 2019 rather passed me by, though I made the usual excursion to the opening-night gig in Green Park Station. But we did get some free tickets (courtesy of a member of Bath Cantata Group) to a midday piano recital given by Isata Kanneh-Mason in St Swithin’s Church.

She played a sonata by Clara Schumann, which if I hadn’t known I would have thought could have an early work by a better-known composer (I might have said Mendelssohn, except that I’m not sure there’s such a thing as immature Mendelssohn). Clara Schumann never finished it and dynamic markings are missing from some parts, so perhaps she was not satisfied with it.

This was followed not by the advertised Chopin Nocturnes but by the complete set of 24 Preludes. These were taken briskly and mostly accurately. She is finishing her studies in London (I caught an interview recently on Radio 3) and it would be interesting to hear her perform them again in a few years’ time.

There was a large audience although it doesn’t take so many to fill the downstairs part of the church. I have heard a number of people say that they didn’t feel there was much in the Festival for them this year. If I’m to go to Saturday morning concerts in the Assembly Rooms (I feel this is a very civilised time to have a concert) it will have to be at the Mozartfest, as that slot has now been given over to book signings. To judge by the brochure, these predominated over concerts. Of course they can be much cheaper to put on; shorter, with only one or two people on stage, who (presumably) don’t need as much time beforehand at the venue to prepare.

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no more anachronistic absinthe

I haven’t been to the Royal Opera for a while, and took the opportunity to break my return journey from Cambridge to catch the opening night of the revival of their production of Andrea Chénier.

The closing days of the Terror have been fruitful source material for composers, with Chénier being executed a few days after the nuns in Dialogues des Carmélites and a few before Robespierre’s own death. This production is faithful to the period, and from my seat high up I admired the skill of the set designers who have to conceal their artifice and make the detail look realistic from every angle in the house.

I went to see a cinecast of the first production, and the revival was apparently unchanged, except that I think the anachronistic absinthe may have gone from Act II. Alagna was worth hearing, even if a little rough around the edges, and I had no complaints about Sondra Radvanovsky or Dimitri Platanias either. The orchestra, conducted by Daniel Oren, was its usual high standard, though they are not really the stars of the show as Giordano didn’t go in for interesting orchestration.

The ROH assembled reviews here. The negative comments are mostly from people who don’t like the opera much because it isn’t Dialogues.

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Shostakovich’s afternoon in Corpus

Still in Cambridge on the Monday, I had the Rare Books Room of the University Library almost to myself while I consulted back numbers of the Letter of the Corpus Association for information about Corpus chapel choir. I am trying to compile an annalistic history of the choir, because members of it tend to know only about three-year periods of its history. My researches answered some questions I’d had, such as when the choir started admitting women (I was aware this was before the College did). I recall copies of music in the Choir library marked up for baritones to sing the treble line an octave down, as happened for several decades when it was an ATB outfit. (It was also then considered acceptable for the congregation to sing along with canticle settings and anthems!)

There were surprises too. Some of the features which Corpus had and Merton at that time didn’t, such as printed music lists and Cathedral weeks in the summer, had been recently introduced by the organ scholar who was there when I arrived. But information about the choir got scarcer the further back in time I went, so my timeline will concentrate on the last 50 years or so.

I also dropped into the College a transcription on CD of the LP the choir – a dozen strong and including me although I was only a part-time member of it that year – made when I was a student. It was recommended by (I think) Choir and Organ which praised the ‘Emma Kirkby-like tone of the sopranos’ (ahem). For some time there was a pile of unsold copies in the porters’ lodge, but it seems none survived to make it into the College archives.

The most interesting titbit about Corpus’ musical life didn’t concern the chapel choir, though. It seems Shostakovich spent an afternoon in Corpus during a visit to England in 1972. He went to the Master’s Lodge and then was treated to a short recital in Chapel by some of the College’s best musicians. Who’d have thought it? I’d love to know more.

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Confirmation bias

A late-night series of trains got me to Cambridge from Reading a little after midnight, ready for my godson’s confirmation in King’s College Chapel on the Sunday morning, part of a group from King’s College School.

The presiding Bishop was that of Leicester (a late replacement for the Bishop of Lincoln) and the music was Lennox Berkeley’s Missa Brevis and Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium, both in my repertoire. You don’t seem to hear so much of Berkeley’s music these days. (We didn’t sing any of his compositions at Merton, even though that was his College; some enterprising contemporaries of mine went to interview him for the College magazine. Probably because we couldn’t easily sing anything with the organ in Merton Chapel.)

This will be the last time I hear Stephen Cleobury conducting King’s College Choir and I was able to catch him at the end of the service and exchange a few words. It will be interesting to see how the inevitable comparisons with St John’s change under his successor.

When I was a graduate student I tended to attend services at King’s rather than St John’s, perhaps drawn by the architecture. (I find St John’s College Chapel a faintly irritating building, possibly because it is a 19th-century copy of Merton.) Although I am not a huge admirer of the stained glass in King’s, there was always plenty of detail to look at while you listened to Stanford’s Latin Magnificat in B flat (which was what the choir seemed to sing at least half the times I went). This time I found myself admiring a particularly vivid depiction of Jonah and the whale.

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an Anglo-Spanish concert in Caversham

The Erleigh Cantors’ May concert this year reunited a number of pieces from recent Cathedral visits, by English and Spanish composers.

It wasn’t all familiar territory to me, however. Having missed last July’s weekend in Hereford, I hadn’t previously sung the Te Deum by Jeremy Filsell (known to me at friend-of-friend level from my undergraduate days). This fell into place fairly easily once I’d got used to the major/minor alternation which is a prominent feature. Another piece most other people sang last July was Vivanco’s Magnificat on the 8th tone, which proved quite challenging because of the large number of parts (with a single 4-part verse just to catch you out if you weren’t on the top or bottom line).

Furthermore, we sang the whole of Guerrero’s Mass Congratulamini mihi, including Kyrie and Creed, and this time I was singing 2nd soprano. Another piece from our Winchester visit was the Nunc Dimittis from Weelkes’ setting ‘for trebles’. A piece that was totally new to me was O vos omnes by Victoria, one of three settings of this text in the European Sacred Music volume.

Our programme was completed with some well-known anthems by Byrd, Tallis and Victoria (as well as the last’s Ave virgo sanctissima) and as a rousing finale Parry’s I was glad.

This Saturday evening concert was the beginning of a heavily cultural weekend, and I dashed off in the direction of my next engagement.

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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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