Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cologne New Philharmonic Orchestra - Junge Philharmonie

The evening of August 9th was wet and blustery in Cornwall but inclement weather did not prevent local people and summer visitors from attending a concert played by a few members of the Cologne New Philharmonic Orchestra at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Penzance. The present church was built in 1833-5, becoming a parish church with its own vicar in 1871.TheCologne New Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Volker Hartung, is the only independent orchestra in Germany and its members come from many countries: the eight performers that evening were from Germany, Poland, Spain and Belgium. Hartung himself was not present.

The evening’s concert began with W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791) Violin Concerto in G Major, KV 216.Composed in Salzburg in 1775, the work is in three movements. Soloist was Marek Dumicz, the orchestra’s concertmaster, with a string sextet playing the orchestral parts. The opening Allegro movement was fresh-sounding, with much interaction between the players. The cadenza was expressive and personal without being showy. The Adagio movement was given a personal, rich reading. Here, the cadenza was well paced and thought-provoking. The Rondeau:Allegro was joyful but measured, Dumicz’ phrases were finely shaped and melodic subjects nicely contrasted. The work ended with a touch of Mozartean humility.

Also by Mozart, we heard the aria “Nel Sen mi Palpita”, with the young Belgian soprano Astrid Defauw as soloist. The aria is from Act one of “Mitridate, re di Ponto”, an opera written by Mozart in 1770 (the composer was 14 years of age!), when he was touring Italy. In this aria, Aspasia, who is engaged to Mitridate, awaits her fiance’s return, grieving the fact that he is parted from her. Defauw’s performance was exciting and dynamic; her understanding of the role was supported by her vocal ease and musicality. Her diction was not always distinct.

The ensemble performed a selection of pieces from Henry Purcell’s (1658-1695) opera “Dido and Aeneas”. To a libretto by Nahum Tate, it was Purcell’s first opera, composed in 1689. In the Overture, the septet sets the gloomy scene. The aria “I am prest with torment” is sung to a ground (recurring) bass, a musical form frequently used by Purcell. Here, Dido tells her servant Belinda of her doubts about Aeneas’ intentions. Defauw’s performance of it was emotional and enriched by excellent instrumental support. The selection ended with Dido’s heart-rending “When I am laid in earth”. Defauw ornamented the piece tastefully as she let the aria unfold and breathe, her high notes rich and effortless. Her own involvement in the tragedy of the piece was convincing and moving.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) composed his six string sonatas in Ravenna Italy in the summer of 1804. He was only twelve years of age. They are often performed by larger ensembles; the CNPO players, however, performed his Sonata III in C major for strings in its original scoring, as a quartet. Based on the classical model of the generation preceding Rossini, the work conjures up the immediacy and sparkling cantabile melodic fluency present in Rossini operas! The opening Allegro was both cleanly played and delightfully entertaining, with its humorous moments and joy. The Andante painted a more serious scene, with the final Moderato movement presenting a dazzling set of variations, offering brilliant solos to players, double-bass player included.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847) composed the incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opus 61 in 1843. Actually, he had written the Overture 17 years earlier! The CNPO chose to play the Scherzo from it; the ensemble’s lightness and agility, variety of color and textures were a keen reminder to us that the setting for the Shakespeare play was an enchanted wood.

The concert ended with Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) Concerto in C major for Violoncello and Orchestra, Hob. VII:1, with the ‘cello solo played by Dmitri Gornovski. Haydn composed the work around 1761-1765 to be performed by his friend Joseph Weigl, the principal ‘cellist of Prince Nicolaus’ Esterhazy Orchestra. The score calls for strings, two oboes and two horns. There is also a basso continuo line that might have been played by another ‘cellist or a bass string player or, possibly, by Haydn himself at the harpsichord. The Cologne ensemble made do with no wind instruments. The original ‘cello line, however, divides its time between playing solo and joining tutti sections, this dual role making great demands on that player. All the concerto’s movements are in sonata form. The first movement – Moderato – expounds Haydnesque joy. Gornovski’s richness of tone and expression made for interesting listening, his cadenza measured, communicating a sense of well-being. After a dramatic entry of two bars, the Adagio movement is tranquil, articulate and meditative, with Gornovski’s bow caressing and singing. The final movement - Allegro molto – is witty and joyful. The soloist’s energy and virtuosity had his audience involved and bright-eyed.

Johann Pachelbel’s much-loved, mellow Canon in D major was played as an encore, providing another chance to hear beautiful solo work.

The program was varied, with an appealing selection of works. The Cologne New Philharmonic Orchestra has high standards of performance, its reading into works profound. Tempi are taken for what they are and never as a vehicle for showmanship. Performing these works with so few players creates playing that is more individual and expressive than often heard in larger ensembles. The audience was enthusiastic and appreciative.

Junge Philharmonie Koeln,
Violins: Marek Dumicz (concertmaster, Poland), Sabine Baron (Germany), Mateosz Zuzanski (Poland), Michal Rozek (Spain)
Viola: Alexandra Kiszka (Poland)
Violoncello: Dmitri Gornovski (Germany)
Double bass: Alexander Maar (Germany)
Soprano: Astrid Defauw (Belgium)
The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Penzance, Cornwall UK.
August 9, 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Nicholas Clapton-countertenor and Jonathan Watts-piano

It was 10:30 p.m. and people were streaming into the Great Hall of Dartington Hall on a blustery summer evening to hear a recital of English songs performed by countertenor Nicholas Clapton and pianist Jonathan Watts.

Nicholas Clapton, born in Worcester, has pursued a wide-ranging career in opera, oratorio and recital, he writes and researches, records and teaches. Born in Wales, Jonathan Watts has embraced many styles of keyboard playing, exploring the huge repertoire of piano-, organ- and harpsichord accompaniment.

The evening’s concert began with an arrangement of “The Three Ravens” by John Ireland (1879-1962). Organist and teacher, Ireland has produced much great English art-song, his style influenced more by French and Russian style than by folk-song style in Britain of his time. “The Three Ravens”, a spine-chilling folk ballad printed in the Melismata Song Book, was compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft and published in 1611. It opens with three scavenger birds discussing their next meal – a recently slain knight. Ireland’s arrangement of the song is rich and dark, with Clapton and Watts quickly setting the scene. Ireland’s harmonies contain surprises and Clapton matches them with his strong, kaleidoscope of vocal color.

“Silent Noon” (1903) is one of six sonnets composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) to texts by the English poet, illustrator, painter and translator Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Complex, erotic and sensual, the sequence was known as “The House of Life”. Rossetti described the sonnet form as a “moment’s monument”.
‘Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:--
So this wing’d hour is dropt to us from above.’
Evocative and lush, Clapton’s piani were magical set against the accompaniment Watts wove into the texture in shaped, nuanced phrases.

Organist, pianist, conductor and music critic W. Denis Browne (1888-1915) was a masterful songwriter. He fell in battle at age 27. His output consists of a handful of songs, a small quantity of choral, orchestral and piano music and an incomplete ballet. In his setting of Ben Jonson’s “Epitaph on Salathiel Pavey” (Salathiel Pavay was a child of Elizabeth I’s, chapel; he died very young) his dramatization is subtle, his writing for piano rich and beguiling.

Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) was mainly a composer for the stage, also composing orchestral- and chamber music as well as piano- and vocal music for young musicians. His opus 30/3 setting of William Butler Yeats’ (1865-1939) “The Cloths of Heaven”, composed in 1910, is one of his best-known works performed by (adult) soloists. Clapton, his silken legato speaking the poem’s bitter-sweet text, brings out the humble and tender aspects of this touching piece.
‘I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

Violist and conductor Frank Bridge (1879-1941) composed orchestral- and chamber music as well as 45 songs. Clapton and Watts performed his ballad “Love Went A-Riding” (1914) written to words of Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), with energy and excitement, the effect of galloping horses urgent and vivid. I loved the piano part, which is every bit as interesting and challenging as the vocal line.

Pianist Nicholas Marshall was born in Plymouth in 1942 and has taught at the Dartington College of Arts. His “Five Winter Songs” is a descriptive and evocative group of miniatures, beginning with Shakespeare’s “Winter” – a moody, direct, almost theatrical piece. The composer draws a vignette of stealthy feline gestures in his setting of W.B.Yeats’ “The Cat and the Moon” and an uncompromising, icy, bleak picture in the setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Song”. Following Marshall’s intense setting of Thomas Hardy’s “A Sheep Fair”, John Drinkwater’s “January Dusk” paints a gloomy picture of winter’s grey bareness, however, reminding us that spring’s “buds”, “primrose airs” and “coloured retinue” offer hope.

We were privileged to hear Nicholas Clapton in the first performance of Robin Walker’s “The Names of the Hare” composed for unaccompanied counter-tenor, to an anonymous medieval text translated in 1981 by the Irish poet, writer and Nobel Prize laureate, Seamus Heaney. Walker, born in York in 1953, has taught and traveled widely and now spends his time mainly composing. “The Names of the Hare” is feisty, rhythmical and wordy, plying the listener with ideas and associations at a swift rate, the text presenting a startling description of the animal that symbolizes the untamable and the uncontainable as well as wild sexuality. Clapton’s performance of this unconventional work was brilliant.

Born in Sussex, Roger Quilter’s (1877-1953) reputation rests mainly on his oeuvre of light orchestral music and more than 100 songs. The concert concluded with Quilter’s “Five Shakespeare Songs” opus 23 for high voice and piano. The song cycle opens with the somewhat modal and flowing “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” in a lovely cantabile, pensive mood, this being is followed by “Under the greenwood tree”, a canvas rich in movement and early 20th century English harmonies. “It was a lover and his lass” was given a lyrical, delightful performance, full of joy and sunlight, with delicate hints of bird calls in the piano part, after which it was contrasted by the more thoughtful miniature - “Take, o take those lips away”, its long, flowing phrases sung sensitively. The whimsical last song “Hey, ho, the wind and the rain” from Twelfth Night was lively and amusing, bringing this interesting, varied and inspiring recital to an end. It was now time to face the wind and the rain outside.

The Great Hall,
Dartington Hall,Devon,UK
July 31,2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Sweet,stay a while" Dartington Hall,Devon UK

“Sweet, Stay a While” was the title of a concert performed in the Great Hall of Dartington Hall, featuring soprano Evelyn Tubb, Michael Fields-lute and theorbo, David Wright-harpsichord and organ and David Hatcher-viol. The ensemble calls itself “Sprezzatura”, (a term first used in Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier”, published 1528, referring to the ability of a courtier to perform difficult actions nonchalantly, concealing any effort invested in them), promising a concert with a strong theatrical element. The program included music from the Renaissance and Baroque – mostly English, with some Italian music.

The concert included a number of pieces by Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Tubb performed the whimsical “Ye gentle spirits of the air” with playful ease. “The Plaint”, for voice, viol and lute, is a lyrical, moving piece built on an ostinato bass; Tubb outlined its various moods and mood changes with great artistry. In “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation”, a sense of despair made for an emotional, soul-searching performance. London-born David Wright, whose interests also lie in instrument building and restoration, gave an energetic and interestingly ornamented performance of Purcell’s Chaconne (Curtain tune from “Timon of Athens”). One of the highlights of the program was “Morpheus, thou gentle god” a work by Henry Purcell’s younger brother, Daniel Purcell (1664-1717). In her reading of this Baroque “mad song”, Tubb creates a gripping drama of desire and jealousy, coloring the work with many rapid ornaments and rhythm- and tempo changes. She uses the stage well and communicates with her audience in crystal clear diction, with her eyes, with her body. Evelyn Tubb, known to many of us from the Consort of Musicke, works closely with Michael Fields and today is vocal professor at the Schola Cantorum in Basel., Switzerland.

Michael Fields was born in Hawaii and has taken an interesting musical journey - from folk, rock and jazz, to coaching madrigal ensembles and directing medieval dramas. In this evening’s concert he played a complex and delicate lute Fantasia by John Dowland (1563-1626). This was followed by Dowland’s “In darkness let me dwell” for voice and lute, with Tubb weaving in the tragic text with rich melodic interest, her “piano” phrases rich and haunting.
‘In darkness let me dwell; the ground shall sorrow be,
The roof despair, to bar all cheerful light from me;
The walls of marble black, that moist’ned still shall weep;
My music, hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep.’

Henry Lawes (1595-1662) was a prolific song writer, composing more than 430 songs. His “Sweet, stay a while” for lute, viol and voice was declamatory and pensive. In Lawes’ “Slide soft you silver floods”, Tubb bewitches her listeners, inviting them to savor each word:
‘Slide soft you silver floods
And ev’ry Spring
Within these shady woods;
Let no bird sing,
But from this grove a turtle dove
Be seen to couple with his love:
But silence on each dale and mountain dwell,
Whilst that I weeping bid my love farewell.’

Also on the subject of Nature, the Vauxhall Gardens, opened in 1661, provided Georgian and Victorian Londoners with a summer-time retreat – a place to hear music, admire paintings, promenade, drink and flirt in a happy confusion of classes and media. We know that William Boyce’s (1711-1779) music was performed there. Wright (on harpsichord) and Tubb performed his “Spring Gardens”, with Hatcher joining them on viol in “Tell me ye brooks”, the latter rich in allusions to Nature’s beauty, including bird calls, but weighty in a young woman’s yearning for her lover. These songs were followed by John Weldon’s (1676-1736) lively, charming and melismatic “The wakeful nightingale”; the nightingale sings and takes no rest from the pains of love.

David Hatcher, back in Britain after ten years in Japan where he took a leading part in the country’s flourishing Early Music scene, gave a poignant, contrasted and finely crafted performance of “Whoope (Hope) doe me no harme” & Lachrimae (anonymous) from the Manchester Lyra Viol Book. Hatcher and Wright played two movements of Archangelo Corelli’s (1653-1713) Sonata in D major (originally scored for violin) opus 5, no.11, providing mellow, meditative respite from the drama and tortures of love.

It was an evening of superb performance, interest and variety, of humor, despair and tranquility. The audience sat at the edge of their seats.

“Sweet Stay a While”
Evelyn Tubb-soprano
Michael Fields-lute, theorbo
David Wright-harpsichord, organ
David Hatcher-viola da gamba
The Great Hall
Dartington Hall, Devon, UK
July 29, 2008

Friday, August 15, 2008

Henschel Quartet at Dartington Hall,Devon UK

The Henschel siblings –violinists Christoph Henschel and Markus Henschel and violist Monika Henschel-Schwind – have been playing music together from a young age. In 1994, they were joined by ‘cellist Mathias Beyer-Karlshoj to form what has become the illustrious Henschel Quartet, an ensemble performing widely and the recipient of many prizes. Quartet members were tutors and performers at the 2008 Dartington Hall International Summer School.

The quartet’s concert in the Great Hall on the Dartington Hall campus in Devon UK, opened with Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Quartet no. 7 in f sharp minor, opus 108. Shostakovich composed the work, his shortest quartet, in 1960, dedicating it to the memory of his first wife Nina, who had died in 1954. Moving swiftly from the Allegretto to a Lento movement and on to the final Allegro-Allegretto, the Henschel Quartet outlined the melancholy character of this work, at the same time addressing other traits of the composer present in the work: the whimsical opening figure of the first movement, the almost visual bare, Russian landscape of the somber Lento and the somewhat devilish opening of the intense, sometimes cynical, contrapuntal third movement, a movement that includes thematic material from the previous two movements. The quartet ends on a major chord, a gesture of reflection rather than optimism. The players presented the drama of the piece with total involvement.

The next work on the program was Erwin Schulhoff’s (1894-1942) Quartet no.1. Born in Prague of German-Jewish parents, Schulhoff became a virtuoso pianist. His own composition absorbed both German and Czech idiom as well as that of Debussy, but was influenced by the jazz he had heard when in Weimar and Paris. Schulhoff perished in the Wuelzberg concentration camp. His Quartet no.1 was composed after his return to Prague in 1924. The opening Presto con fuoco is rich in texture, intense and energetic, certainly eastern European in character. The second movement – Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca – sets bitter-sweet melodies against a pizzicato background. The Allegro giocoso alla Slavacca presents a fiery set of folk-type dances, one interrupting the other with a sense of urgency. Strangely enough, Schulhoff ends his quartet with a slow, somber movement. Here he creates a distant, hazy texture which develops into dark heaviness. The movement has a bleak message, with the ‘cello adopting a persistent “clock-ticking” motif. A work of virtuosity, color and originality, it was given a profound and moving reading by the players.

The concert ended with Franz Schubert’s String Quartet no.15 in G major, D887. Composed within ten days, in 1826, at a time when Schubert’s reputation in Vienna was gathering momentum, it was his last completed quartet. It opens with a highly contrasted Allegro molto moderato, with drama and melancholy juxtaposed, and the players brought out the strong dynamic contrasts of the movement. The second movement is intimate, singing and serene, disturbed, however, by two vehement outbursts. As in the first movement, the ‘cello plays a central role, with Beyer-Karlshoj’s sensitive bow weaving in each of the plaintive melodies. The Scherzo was light and whimsical, but not lacking in cantabile melodiousness. Schubert, leaving some surprises to the last movement, introduces abrupt changes from major to minor and plays with dotted rhythms and triplets. J.A.Westrup referred to this last movement as “a mad rondo, violent in rhythm and mad in harmony”. Schubert knew he was dying at the time he was writing the quartet; this work is surely a combination of defiance and resignation. The Henschel Quartet’s performance of it was motivated and sincere.

It was an interesting and balanced program. Playing was rich in color, articulate and expressive. This was string playing and musicianship at its finest.

The Henschel Quartet (Germany)
Christoph Henschel-first violin
Markus Henschel-second violin
Monika Henschel-Schwind-viola
Mathias D. Beyer-Karlshoj-‘cello
The Great Hall
Dartington Hall,Devon UK
July 27, 2008