avoiding the Prayer Fayre

The Cathedral Chamber Choir sang at Wells Cathedral for the weekend of Trinity Sunday. Well, sort of, as on the Sunday afternoon we made way for a ‘prayer fayre’ in the Cathedral and decamped to St Cuthbert’s Church, together with a number of the Cathedral clergy (several others chose to be away altogether that weekend) and its congregation. We didn’t actually spend all that much time in Wells Cathedral itself, as we had only a short rehearsal there on Saturday and a very short one on the Sunday morning, apart from the services.

Wells proved a popular location despite the shortage of nearby accommodation, and we fielded a large choir. The main novelty to me in the music was Matthew Martin’s Responses, in a Vaughan Williams sort of style but with fashionable note clusters. Saturday was baroque day with Purcell in G minor canticles and Bach’s ‘Wer mich liebet’ (from the cantata BWV 74) which was new to just about all of us.

For the Sunday Eucharist we sang Byrd’s 4 part mass (I sang this a few weeks earlier for a funeral, and sang the Sanctus from it again the following week) and his Confirma hoc, Deus. Matins was Britten in C canticles and to keep rehearsal time simple Tallis’ If ye love me.

In St Cuthbert’s (where I sang Spem in Alium earlier in the year), we had a bit of a wallow with Wood in D and Beati quorum via by Stanford.

It was a rather poignant weekend for me as it was the last time I’d be singing for Matthew O’Donovan who is standing down as Musical Director of the choir in the summer. I’ve greatly enjoyed singing for him, including some of the best choir warm-ups around, and his great fairness in dealing with the singers in his choir (something which is very rare in my experience).

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Not for dancing

We didn’t get to very much in this year’s Bath Festival, though the programme was good. In fact apart from ‘Party in the City’ and the Kingswood gig in Green Park Station, it amounted to me going to a couple of concerts.

There was a series of early-evening song recitals and I heard Ann Murray and Samuel Hasselhorn with Malcolm Martineau in a sequence of Brahms Lieder (on the whole not the most famous ones), in St Swithin’s church. I especially appreciated the great range of facial expressions she brought to the music, especially when she involved her co-recitalist. I’m afraid I don’t now remember very much else about the performances!

I was given a ticket to hear Richard Goode – an occasional visitor to the Festival over the years – on the final Sunday afternoon in the Assembly Rooms. The merger with the Literature Festival led to a rather cluttered platform, with some ugly and intrusive speakers (couldn’t they have been moved out of the way?) and though it was a hot day the windows in the hall remained firmly shut. Are they in fact ever opened? A rather bored-looking audience member in front distracted me by frequently fanning herself with her programme, though either she cooled off or someone had a word with her after the first few pieces, as she stopped after that. The concert was well attended though not a sell-out.

She shouldn’t have been bored as the recital had plenty of interest. It opened with Bach’s Partita no. 6. Bach’s Partitas are unknown territory for me and their complexities are far removed from the dances which generate their musical forms. (Why is the Gigue in 4/2 time? That wasn’t what I learnt in music theory classes!) Chopin’s mazurkas (including a favourite of mine, Op. 50 no. 3) and Polonaise-Fantaisie are also ‘not for dancing’.

After the interval came two late Beethoven sonatas, op. 101 and and op. 110. I am familiar with these so have many interpretations to measure a performance against. Op. 101 did not come out so well as there were some wrong notes and a tendency to be too heavy in the left hand. Op. 110 came out better with some lovely rippling effects in the opening movement.

I look forward to 2018’s Festival which I believe is going to be expanded to two full weeks, after several years when it has been significantly shorter.

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three more funerals in May

I sang at four in all this month. I have already mentioned the first – the second was that of an old friend back in Cambridge. We sang Byrd’s four-part Mass, and I heard a voice from heaven by Tomkins, which I used to sing at that church when I was a student, but haven’t done since. The final contribution from the choir was the closing chorale from Bach’s St John Passion. I have sung this recently and it is one of those pieces that is guaranteed to reduce me to a blob of jelly, whatever circumstances I hear or sing it in.

Three days later I was back in Bath at the church I used to attend for the funeral of the husband of a fellow member of the choir. This time my musical contribution was to help lead hymns (mostly Easter-themed) and plainchant, and more elaborate pieces were performed by others. With both of these two, the choice of music seemed personal rather than having been suggested by a funeral director or based on what the family had heard at other funerals (and I knew family members well enough to know this was actually the case).

I have now resolved to take an iPad when I sing at funerals and weddings. so that when there aren’t enough service sheets to go round I can photograph one and sing from the screen. How else can I give a decent account of the hymns with the correct words, and lead the spoken parts of the service, as the choir is supposed to do? This turned out not to be necessary at the funeral of a former Lay Reader at my church as there were plenty of orders of service. We sang Rutter’s The Lord bless you and keep you and three hymns.

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music for Royal occasions

This was the theme rather loosely applied to the Erleigh Cantors’ concert (with interspersed readings) in St Peter’s Caversham, where we’ve returned after some years decamping to Earley.

We included some pieces from recent Cathedral visits such as Jonathan Dove’s Missa Brevis (with the Kyrie this time – eventually I’ll be able to sing the Gloria without being tempted to sing in a rest) and one of the royal pieces, Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, familiar from last year. I hadn’t ever sung Blow’s four coronation anthems before, apart from the rather austere Let my prayer come up. From the same period came Purcell’s I was Glad, and we ended with Parry’s setting of the same text. (A more thorough exploration of settings of this text was in this concert). Our encore was O taste and see by Vaughan Williams, another Coronation piece which gives the lie to the idea that they are all loud and jingoistic.

The first half of the concert opened with Rutter’s Choral Fanfare and the second with Tippett’s spirituals from A Child of our Time. Because of illness I took the solo part in the second and third of these, the first time I’ve done a solo with this choir.

We had a sizeable and appreciative audience and raised over £1000 for a couple of local charities.

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A benefit concert

I had a twofold reason for going to the benefit concert for Bath Minerva choir: I have sung with the choir and know many members and it was held in the theatre at the children’s school. The conductor of the choir was joined by three of his fellow professional singers for an evening of opera arias.

There was a definite French flavour with the Pearl Fishers turning up three times, along with musics by Délibes, Gounod and Saint-Saëns. But other great operatic traditions were also represented. I could bring to mind productions I’d seen of many of the works from which the arias came, though I might have to wait a while for Gounod’s Mireille; it hasn’t been performed in this country since the 19th century!

We had entertaining introductions to ease the transitions between plots and styles. I know that some sneer at concerts like this as not being a substitute for going to entire operas, but they are a pleasant way to spend an evening and all including the performers seemed to enjoy themselves.

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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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