Review: Katarina Karneus/ Joseph Middleton

This was French song, mélodie or chanson, with vocal beef!

The fashionable tendency of treating the genre with kid gloves as something fragile and delicate often leaves it sounding characterless and can regularly be allied to affectation and under-singing.

All of which was the last thing Katarina Karnéus could be accused of at her Sheffield Chamber Music Festival lunchtime concert in the Crucible Studio.

So, she could have been charged with sounding a little too operatic at times, not least when echoes of Herodias in Richard Strauss’s Salome surfaced, a role the Swedish mezzo-soprano was coming to end of in an eight-performance run with Opera North.

French song aficionados or purists may well throw fits, but it wasn’t so distressing. Hearing, for instance, Après un rève and Automne among four Fauré items sung with purpose and feeling was a refreshing change to the regular insipid renderings of them.

Four songs by Duparc, including Chanson Triste and the well-known L’Invitation au Voyage, gained enormously from forthright but subtle, meaningful delivery, the only thing missing being word clarity. A stumbling block, generally, was the need for sharper diction.

With it, the superbly sung Trois Chansons de Bilitis by Debussy would have been even more memorable with Joseph Middleton’s fabulous execution of the piano part which captured the composer’s myriad of tonal colours.

Satie’s La diva de L’Empire ensured that everyone had a smile on their face at the end.

 

Advertisements

Snapshots of Life

Two supreme song-smiths appear at the Crucible Studio over the course of this year’s May Festival, or Sheffield Chamber Music Festival, promoted by Music in the Round: baritone Roderick Williams and mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus.

The latter has a must-hear French song recital at lunchtime on the 15th of May while ‘Roddy’, as Music in the Round’s singer-in-residence is affectionately known, is heard twice on the opening day this Friday (11th of May) performing Mahler and Schubert song cycles.

Schwanengesang – or Swan Song, is the song cycle Schubert never knew he had written!

Whether he intended it to be is extremely unlikely, although there have been arguments that he did.

The songs, 14 of them, are settings of verse by three poets, for a start. Song cycles invariably consist of the work of one poet and, more often than not, have a linked narrative thread – Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise are examples – or a specific theme.

Schwanengesang is a collection, or compilation of two sets of songs, seven to texts by Ludwig Rellstab and six by Heinrich Heine, plus one by Johann Seidl to round things off.

Described as ‘snapshots of life’, Schubert committed the Rellstab and Heine songs to consecutive, untitled manuscript pages, leading to the implied suggestion of a cycle, three months before his death.

How, or if, he intended to combine the songs in cycle form is anyone’s guess. Worth noting, though, is that Schubert offered the six Heine songs, which include Der Atlas and Der Doppelgänger, to a Leipzig publisher a month before he departed this mortal coil.

The best-known Rellstab setting is the famous Ständchen – Serenade!

It became a song ‘cycle’ after Schubert’s death when the composer’s publisher Tobias Haslinger got hold of the manuscript, christened it Schwanengesang and published it in early 1829 having added Schubert’s setting of Seidl’s Die Taubenpost – The Pigeon Post, believed to be the last Lied, or song, the composer wrote.

Declaring the work a song cycle doubtless owed more than a little to the earlier financial successes of Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise!

The brochure blurb for the performance of Schwanengesang refers to ‘a sequence of 13 songs’ suggesting, in all likelihood, that Die Taubenpost will not be included. Perhaps performed as an encore, given its significance in Schubert’s vast Lieder output?

From very late Schubert to early Mahler some 60 minutes before Roddy launches into the Schubert with regular pianist Iain Burnside and Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, or Songs of a Wayfarer, as it is inaccurately known in English.

One of Mahler’s most frequently heard vocal works; its composition history is complex with no small amount of hearsay and supposition. That it was born following the composer’s unhappy love affair with a soprano is probably the only cast iron fact.

Mahler is believed to have started composing the four songs to his own texts in late 1884 and completed them sometime in 1885. He later revised the score considerably and at some point in the early 1890s is said to have orchestrated the piano part.

A performance of the orchestral version in March 1896 was possibly the work’s premiere, although an earlier voice-and-piano performance, it seems, can’t be ruled out.

Mahler’s lyrics were heavily influenced by the prose style in Des Knaben Wunderhorn – The Boy’s Magic Horn, a collection of German folk poetry and songs to which there are regular references in much of the composer’s music.

Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, in a chamber ensemble arrangement by Erwin Stein, forms part of an Ensemble 360 concert that also takes in Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Mahler’s Piano Quartet movement, the nearest he got to writing chamber music.

A shorter-again song cycle crops up in the programme presented by Swedish mezzo Katarina Karnéus, winner of the 1995 Cardiff Singer of the World competition who has gone on to forge an international career of enormous prestige.

Every mezzo-soprano worth her salt sings Debussy’s sensual Trois Chansons de Bilitis – Three Songs of Bilitis, settings of texts from his friend Pierre Louÿs’ collection of 140-odd erotic prose poems, The Songs of Bilitis – an alleged contemporary of Sappho in Ancient Greece.

Elsewhere are three Fauré gems: Après un rêve, the regularly heard first song of a set of three, Op 7; Automne, the third of a set of three, Op 18; and the slightly lesser known Fleur jetée, the lively second of a set of four songs, Op 39.

There are also three Duparc jewels, two to texts by Baudelaire: L’Invitation au Voyage, easily the composer’s most regularly heard song, and his last song in 1884, La Vie Antérieure, before mental illness ended his composing career. Chanson Triste makes up the three.

Unspecified songs by Messiaen and Satie are scheduled among the Gallic delights for which Joseph Middleton is the pianist. The latter’s La Diva de l’Empire, perhaps. That would add further icing to the cake!

 

 

 

Ancient Greeks and Incas at Buxton 2018

Buxton Festival, or Buxton International Festival as it was re-christened last year, opens its doors for the 39th time this year with some 120 events over a 17-day period between the 6th and 22nd of July.

Other than Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment transplanted into the world of Californian biker gangs, most interest operatically will centre on a rare staging of Verdi’s Alzira.

It was the composer’s eighth opera in 1845 and completes a festival trilogy of early Verdi operas over the last three years directed by the distinguished stage director Elijah Moshinsky under the musical direction of festival artistic director Stephen Barlow.

The three all but followed each other in Verdi’s output, Giovanna d’Arco (2016) coming immediately before Alzira, while last year’s offering, the original version of Macbeth, is separated from them by Attila – Verdi put him on the operatic stage, were you not aware!

Actually, it is easily the most frequently encountered of the four operas in question and a toss up as to the least frequent, Alzira or the original Macbeth, the latter probably having the dubious honour, despite its superior qualities over the usually heard later version.

Be all that as it may, Alzira, not without its own impressive passages, is what concerns us here.

It is tale of Incas and Spanish conquistadors in which Alzira, the daughter of a Peruvian tribe leader, is in love – reciprocated – with Zamoro, an Inca warrior. So too is the despotic son of the former Spanish governor, Gusmano – not reciprocated!

Kate Ladner plays her third Verdian leading lady in three years for the festival as Alzira and last year’s Macduff in Macbeth, South Korean tenor Yung Soo Jun, returns as Zamoro.

Although no stranger to Buxton, James Cleverton makes his festival debut as Gusmano and Graeme Danby sings the only other character of significance, Gusmano’s father Alvaro.

Sung in Italian with English side titles, Alzira gets six outings, one more than the festival’s other flagship opera this year, Mozart’s Idomeneo also performed in its original Italian.

More readily encountered than the Verdi opera, though hardly in danger of over-exposure, Mozart’s post-Trojan War scenario of finds the King of Crete, Idomeneo, vowing to Jupiter in a storm-ravaged sea that he will sacrifice the first person he meets if makes dry land safely.

Should you not know, he then spends most of the opera dissembling on how to get out of the vow because the first person he meets turns out be his son, Idamante.

Principal cast members are Paul Nilon as Idomeneo, promising young mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe plays Idamante (a trouser role) and, ‘with eyes for him’, Rebecca Bottone and the excellent Madeleine Pierard, both in last year’s Lucio Silla, are Ilia and Elettra (Electra).

Stephan Medcalf returns yet again as stage director and the conductor is Nicholas Kok with the augmented Northern Chamber Orchestra, which also accompanies Verdi’s Alzira.

Not specified is who or what is accompanying Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, a festival co-production with Jeff Clarke’s Opera della Luna, again no strangers to Buxton in the days when the annual Gilbert and Sullivan Festival took over the High Peak town.

Clarke’s irreverent takes on G&S were often hilarious while retaining spirit of the work and it remains to seen if this holds true in slightly different fayre with resonantly named Australian soprano Suzanne Shakespeare as Marie and a Spanish tenor Jesús Álvarez as Tonio – wonder if he has the famous nine high Cs in his voice!

Sung in a doubtless suitably worded English translation, it gets two performances as does a much more obscure Italian opera and composer, Tisbe by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello, this year’s offering from Italian Baroque specialists La Serenissima in a concert staging.

The festival’s opening night (6th July) is a gala evening of operetta, musicals and cabaret in association with Opera North as part of the 40th Anniversary Appeal for next year’s festival.

Among those giving vocal recitals are Roderick Williams – Winterreise! and Lucy Schaufer, last year’s Florence Pike in Albert Herring who offers an interesting programme of songs by American composers hinged on this year’s Leonard Bernstein centenary celebrations.

Some celebrated pianists put in an appearance: Joanna MacGregor, Christian Blackshaw and Stephen Kovacevich. Leading flautist Ashley Solomon sandwiches Telemann’s Six Fantasias between works by JS Bach and CPE Bach.

Among notable instrumental ensembles are the Fitzwilliam and Sacconi quartets, Fibonacci Sequence, Aquarelle Guitar Quartet, Ex Cathedra, while Ensemble 360’s flautist Juliette Bausor can be found in an attractive concert of flute, oboe and piano music.

Medieval music ensemble The Telling is involved in a words and music profile of the 12th century Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen. An equally fascinating prospect is a similar evening with Purcell as the subject.

Full details of these and many other concerts in the festival can be found at www.buxtonfestival.co.uk

Unmissable Delights at SCMF

Music in the Round’s 34th annual May Festival has a new name this year – well, a new old name! – Sheffield Chamber Music Festival, occasionally used in its early days and what it has always been.

Also, this time round, it is easily the most eclectic in terms of content and programming over 39 events (including talks) between Friday, the 11th of May and Saturday, the 19th.

From Edgar Allan Poe to Mercadante and a silent Russian film, there is much to discover in nine jam-packed days, which carry an underlying theme of harmony. Venues vary, but most activity is at the Crucible Studio.

Chronologically, highlights can be said to include Roderick Williams performing Schubert’s Schwanengesang, the concert blurb referring to 13 songs – No 4 is the famous Ständchen (Serenade) – suggesting the 14th song, the solitary Seidl setting, is being omitted.

Earlier, the baritone joins Ensemble 360 for Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) arranged for chamber ensemble by Erwin Stein – Schoenberg came up with a more regularly heard version!

A concert headed When Death Comes to Call has Sheffield Theatres involvement for Pushkin’s one-act play Mozart and Salieri with an outing for Mozart’s K301 violin sonata during or after it.

Part two, so to speak sees appropriate works by Debussy and his disciple Florent Schmitt prefacing a super piece for harp and string quartet by another Debussy follower André Caplet, Conte Fantastique, a depiction in music of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.

Were you aware, incidentally, that Debussy worked on an unfinished double bill of one-act operas after two Edgar Allan Poe stories, one being The Fall of the House of Usher?

Ensemble 360 members are heard in Sheffield Cathedral with an irresistible programme of Elgar, Howells, Butterworth before an ad-hoc Sheffield Youth Strings Collective (not to be underrated!) tune up for Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis by Vaughan Williams.

Super Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus and pianist Joseph Middleton performing Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis; three of Fauré’s best-known songs; ditto, by Duparc; plus songs by Satie and Messiaen, should make compulsive listening.

Music in the Round’s ongoing World of Strings strand in its spring and autumn seasons is invoked for what promises to be a beguiling evening in the company of virtuoso harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora (it resembles large banjo) maestro Seckou Keita.

Peter Hill, quietly a Bach keyboard specialist, offers the composer’s Goldberg Variations – on the piano, obviously – to close a day investigating the significance of mathematics in music.

Among other concerts from the world-class Ensemble 360 is a thoroughly engaging affair of Dvořák, Martinů and Janáček; and there is a performance of Mozart’s six-movement Divertimento for string trio K563 four hours later.

The ensemble’s double bass player Laurène Durantel also calls on her talents as a pianist and singer for an improvised accompaniment to the 1929 Russian film Man With a Movie Camera (deemed a classic!) at the Showroom Cinema and a sell-out hit at Sheffield University 12 months ago.

O yes, Mercadante! Saverio Mercadante, a sort of Italian Gluck and virtually forgotten composer of some 60 operas, many highly successful, but had the misfortune to have Rossini as a contemporary.

He crops in a programme of Italian instrumental music from Ensemble 360 headed Young Rossini and ends with his William Tell Overture, penned to what was to be his last opera at the age 38 in 1829 – not really young!

Full details of everything in the festival at www.musicintheround.co.uk

 

Loudly Let The Trumpet Bray!

Conflict resumes between the House of Lords and Fairy Kingdom for the trillionth time on the 15th and 16th of March at King Ecgbert’s School, Dore to raise funds for Cavendish Cancer Care.

If that is a trifle cryptic, Gilbert and Sullivan’s perennially popular Iolanthe is being staged, with an uncommon slant!

Performing it is a group calling itself Vintage G&S signifying that its members are of a certain age and largely entitled to bus passes, as well as indicating the years of G&S experience and expertise within its ranks.

None of the performers are under any illusion that they are in the first flush of youth and age should not be seen as a deterrent, assuming you can accept an older person playing a younger one.

In fact, this would only really be noticeable with two characters, plus a third perhaps given Iolanthe herself never ages. No even after being banished to frog-infested watery realms for having married a mortal 25 years earlier before the action takes place.

The other two are the Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, and his sweetheart Phyllis, the former being Iolanthe’s son with whom she has clearly kept in regular contact during her exile.

Unaware, Phyllis is none too pleased when she sees the two embracing and, not unnaturally, doesn’t believe it when told – “No girl could care for a man who goes about with a mother considerably younger than himself!”

Iolanthe’s age is mooted as 17, the age Elizabeth Birkby was when she first sang the role in a Sheffield Youth Opera production in 1967 and she will be re-creating it at King Ecgbert’s School in March.

Vintage G&S came into being following a chance meeting of some former South Yorkshire Opera (long memories needed!) members. As they reminisced, a shared love of Gilbert and Sullivan surfaced leading to a desire to perform G&S opera together again for pleasure.

Among ex-South Yorkshire Opera involvement in the production is Caroline Dyson who has played nearly all the leading G&S mezzo-soprano roles, including Iolanthe for SYO in 1990. Here, she plays the Fairy Queen for the first time – traditionally, a contralto role.

As the eventual object of her desire, Private Willis, the much-experienced bass Nigel Rothery reprises the role he played in the SYO staging.

Derby baritone and conductor Morris Fisher, a one-time SYO principal, knows all about the role of Strephon having played him many times before, marrying his stage mother (Iolanthe) after one production. Marion Fisher will be on stage with him again here, as a ‘vintage’ fairy!

A more familiar SYO name, Mary McCready, takes on Phyllis for the first time, the role having somehow eluded her during many years as lead soprano with Chesterfield G&S.

Having performed Gilbert and Sullivan around Wales and Yorkshire with considerable success, the only G&S opera to that has eluded Rotherham-based vicar Simon Copley so far is not the predictable Grand Duke, but Ruddigore.

He is the Lord Chancellor and more about him in due course.

Filling other roles are Geoff Fenwick, Jonathan Parsons, Vivien Carrack, Sheila Rothman and Penny Walker all supported by a chorus drawn from G&S societies such as Dore, Birley Carr and the former City Comic.

John Wade, founder of the John Wade Singers, re-surfaces to conduct proceedings, which are directed by Jan Ashford (SYO), and Jonathan Lazell is the accompanist.

Tickets, £12, can be obtained from Ian Ashford: 01246 415050, or Liz Blanshard: O1246 419830.

 

La Belle Epoque

By design or accident, Music in the Round’s weekend festival of French music in its spring season, La Belle Époque, coincides with a ‘SongMakers’ French Weekend as part of the Sheffield University Concert Season.

Hence, a merger of concerts over the weekend: Friday, the 9th of March until Sunday, the 11th, and sees nine concerts crammed into it, one of them strictly a words and music discussion affair on French Impressionism in Art and Music involving pianist Tim Horton.

By any other name, it’s a Debussy-Ravel mini-festival but does not incorporate either composer’s complete chamber music as suggested if solo piano music is classed as such – it usually is!

Not a single, solo piano piece is heard, and from these two composers of all people, over the programmes as advertised!

Nevertheless, there are four super concerts from Ensemble 360 taking in what can be called the complete instrumental duos, trios, quartets, etc, written for chamber forces by Debussy and Ravel, with a guest harpist, Catrin Finch, sitting in at the fourth concert.

Listings details of the 18 works being performed makes little sense when they can be found along with dates and times at www.musicintheround.co.uk

The nine concerts are spread across three venues, the Crucible Studio, one at nearby Upper Chapel in Norfolk Street and two at Firth Hall, the latter two housing the three concerts in the university’s ‘SongMakers’ French Weekend.

Solo song is sometimes classed as chamber music and there is a vast amount and countless reams of French song, chanson or mélodie, which is sparsely represented given the weight of superb material available in the three ‘SongMakers’ concerts.

Each one is of 60 minute-duration (no interval) with soprano Gillian Keith reprising her Debussy and his Muse (Marie-Blanche Vasnier) programme – songs and readings – with pianist Simon Lepper.

The latter also partners baritone James Newby in Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques (the five Greek folk songs) and Songs of Travel by Vaughan Williams – clever programming, but it is supposed to be a French weekend!

Lepper is also present when soprano Ailish Tynan (you can’t argue the calibre of the singers employed!) explores the voice of children in French song taking the charming nonsense that is Poulenc’s La Courte Paille (The Short Straw) as her starting point.

Not advertised in Music in the Round’s spring brochure is that this concert has optional French food and wine at a pre-concert three-course meal and post-concert cheese and wine at Inox Dine, across the road from Firth Hall.

A visit to www.sheffield.ac.uk/concerts will tell you all, but don’t be thrown when advertised times using the 24-hour clock are shown using the 12-hour clock!

The opening concert of the weekend, Baudelaire and the Bassoon from an engaging threesome of soprano Louise Alder, Ensemble 360 bassoonist Amy Harman and pianist James Baillieu, suggests it may be a jointly planned MitR/ University affair.

The great French poet’s connection with a bassoon is obscure to say the least, although the instrument does figure in Chabrier’s setting of Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au Voyage which is being performed, as is Duparc’s better known setting where it doesn’t.

With the exception of Debussy’s song cycle Five Poèmes de Baudelaire and ‘selections’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, there is no obvious link to the poet in the other advertised pieces, not to mention the presence of a bassoon.

It will probably turn up in the Wagner ‘selections’ which are going to sound very strange given the performing forces.

Like most of the rest of the concert, the word is intriguing!

 

Music in the Round Spring 2018

A French music weekend hinged on the complete chamber music of Debussy and Ravel dominates Music in the Round’s spring series of concerts in Sheffield.

Presented under the umbrella title, La Belle Époque, it could almost be said to be MitR’s spring season!

Before we get round to this, though, catered for in a separate piece – La Belle Époque – what else is on offer?

Some extremely high quality, actually, starting with the Leonore Piano Trio (20th of January) as it continues its complete survey of Beethoven’s violin sonatas – here, Op 12 No 3; cello sonatas – Op 102 No 2; and piano trios – two of them, WoO 38 and Op 70 No 1, the Ghost.

The trio’s pianist, Tim Horton, presents the second of four concerts (28th of March) featuring Schubert’s major piano sonatas offering No 18 D894 after a performance of Liszt’s B minor sonata and some inoffensive Schoenberg.

Roderick Williams is in element (10th of February) at Upper Chapel, singing English song in which the baritone is world-renowned. Butterworth, Ireland, Gurney, Vaughan Williams, Finzi are represented by some of their finest songs and the astute Susie Allan is his pianist.

The marvellous Alina Ibragimova returns with her gut-stringed Chiaroscuro Quartet (1st of February) and string quartets by Beethoven: Op 18 No 4; Fanny Mendelssohn: the unfairly neglected E flat quartet; and Schubert: No 13, Rosamunde.

This concert forms part of MitR’s ongoing World of Strings exploration, as does The English Fiddle (27th of January) when ace fiddler Sam Sweeney invites three of his fellow folk fiddlers for an exuberant evening of solos, duets and ensemble pieces.

A concert in association with Sheffield Jazz sees a quick return (19th of January) by the Kofi-Barnes Aggregation featuring the contrasting saxophone styles of Tony Kofi and Alan Barnes.

Except where noted, the concerts take place in the Crucible Studio and further information can be found at www.musicintheround.co.uk

 

 

2017 /18 Sheffield International Concert Season – 2

Music by Delius puts in a relatively rare appearance when the Sheffield International Concert Season resumes at the City Hall after the holiday break on the 19th of January.

It’s all the more rare, as it is not entirely predictable – Walk to the Paradise Garden (which happens to be a pub!), for instance! – but, Paris: The Song of a Great City.

It could be described a tone poem, but Delius called it a Nocturne, a 20-odd minute work of impressions encountered while walking round the French capital at night and not always nocturnal in the accepted sense.

Elsewhere at the concert, exceptional American cellist Alisa Wellerstein is the soloist in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 and Sir Mark Elder leads the Hallé round Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s orchestration.

The same orchestra and conductor also end the season (25th of May) with Dvořák’s Symphony No 7 after the highly rated Chinese-born pianist Hong Xu has got his fingers round Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 18. The concert begins with Elgar’s Overture: In the South.

In between, the highlight is surely a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2, the Resurrection symphony (5th of May) from the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, so named after Linz’s most famous son, Anton Bruckner, and the orchestra’s principal conductor Markus Poschner.

Choral forces involved are the combined Sheffield Philharmonic and Leeds Philharmonic choruses.

Another date to underline diaries is the 16th of March when the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra finds its way back to Sheffield with its fairly recently installed new music director Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla.

Ukrainian-born and a hot tip for a major career, the CSBO will be hoping it can hang on to her longer than it did fellow embryo baton genius Andris Nelsons a few years back!

A further attraction at the concert which begins and ends with Debussy: Children’s Corner and La Mer, is the renowned Rudolf Buchbinder performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto; Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Winds in its 1947 orchestration making up the proceedings.

An all-Russian programme is offered (3rd of March) by the Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra under one Russia’s leading conductors, Valery Polyansky: Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4.

Alexander Sitkovetsky, no less, is the soloist in the Prokofiev and a young German virtuoso, Augustin Hadelich, plays a much better known violin concerto, by Mendelssohn at one of two further concerts (20th of April) from the Hallé.

Book-ending the Mendelssohn are Wagner’s Prelude to Act One of The Mastersingers and the Symphony No 1 by Brahms, with one the country’s brightest conducting talents, Nicholas Collon, on the podium.

Jonathon Hayward, Mark Elder’s assistant at Hallé, takes charge of the other (16th of February) at which the orchestra’s principal horn player Laurence Rogers is the soloist in the Horn Concerto No 1 by Richard Strauss.

A ‘selection’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt and the Symphony No 2 by Sibelius make up the concert leaving one to be accounted for, from the Manchester Camerata and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus taking in the popular and increasingly ubiquitous Mozart Requiem (3rd of February).

Before its solemn opening chords are heard, Mozart’s far more optimistic Linz Symphony (No 36) get an outing after Arvo Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine (Give Peace, Lord) in its version for voices and string orchestra. Jean-Claude Picard is the conductor.

Further information at www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk

 

 

Heard the one about a viola choir?

No joke, though: Sheffield is to have a viola ensemble!

Adults only, its first get-together, or rehearsal is on Saturday, the 9th of December at Sharrow Performing Arts Space (S7 1BE) between 10am and noon.

The decision to set up such an ensemble was taken by Platform 4 composer Jenny Jackson, a self-confessed “enthusiastic viola player.”

“I’ve attended Robin Ireland’s viola workshops in the past in Ravenfield (near Rotherham) and, although I enjoyed them, the part of the day that most appealed to me was the ensemble playing”, she explains.

“I felt that there was enough support to try and start a viola ensemble which offered just that, but closer to home, here in Sheffield.

“I have always loved the sound of the viola and there is nothing quite like the sound of a viola ensemble: it’s sonorous, warm and strangely intense.”

She describes herself as a keen amateur with a great empathy for adult players of any instrument, especially late starters who are looking for chances to develop and exercise their newly found skills.

“This ensemble will offer the opportunity to gain experience in ensemble playing for players who may feel overwhelmed at the thought of orchestral playing.

“Also, for all players, the experience of playing more varied parts which is not always the case with orchestral and ensemble parts, including playing melodies as well as the filling accompaniment.”

Jenny believes the idea of a viola ensemble appeals to a “niche market” – “a very specific and small group of people that are viola players, which brings with it a very special camaraderie.

“We are often the butt of jokes (usually from violinists) and I think you have to be a particular type of person to want to play the viola. We are not necessarily show-offs – unlike those flashy violinists! – but we do like to be challenged and to feel appreciated.”

There is absolutely no danger of feeling under-appreciated in the Sheffield Viola Ensemble.

“It offers an opportunity for viola players who want to get together to play for pleasure in a friendly and supportive group,” says Jenny.

“All will be relaxed and informal with an ethos of helping each other and sharing technical and musical advice in order to achieve the best outcome.”

Repertoire must be extremely limited?

“We are supported by the British Viola Society which is providing us with a selection of music to begin with. The repertoire is unknown at the moment but will include Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite arranged for seven violas.

“We’ll work on a number of pieces each session in a variety of styles, including arrangements and original music for viola ensemble” – assuming some can be found!

“At this stage, it’s hard to know where it may lead. It may evolve to become a performing ensemble but, initially at least; it is limited to enjoying playing together for our own amusement.”

Further details and booking information can be found at www.jennyjacksoncomposer.com/sheffield-viola-ensemble

 

Julius Caesar in Egypt – review

This was a long late afternoon/ evening witnessing Julius Caesar’s misadventures in Egypt according to Handel and his librettist Nicola Francesco Haym in 1724.

English Touring Opera’s absolutely complete staging of Giulio Cesare without cuts began at 4:00pm and, with intervals, finally ended at 10:10pm – over six hours!

In its entirety, without breaks, it actually lasts just short of four hours!

It was given in two parts and marketed as two separate ‘shows’, The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, each with an interval, and a question of demand on your wallet!

The parts were realised by attaching scenes 1 to 8 of Act Two to Act One (part one) of the opera and prefacing Act Three with scenes 3 to 11 of Act Two (part two).

Vague reasoning came into play with the thought that maybe four hours was a tad too long for audience attention span – hence, the two parts – and the crazy notion of repeating the last chunk (around 45 minutes) of part one at the beginning of part two.

A totally unnecessary exercise, it meant a 90-minute break between the two parts when a cold wind and rain entertained themselves on the Buxton Opera House forecourt.

Did anyone do the sums beforehand?

Had the opera been performed in its normal three acts with two intervals the evening would have lasted around four hours, 30 minutes, not a needlessly overlong six hours and a bit!

Fortunately, there was exceptional music making, not least extraordinarily accomplished singing, to make it just about bearable and an updated-in-time production that for once does not offend the senses, courtesy of set/ costume designer Cordelia Chisholm.

ETO general director James Conway directs proceedings without undue interventional gratuity, beyond being ancient Egypt in resolutely set in Hanoverian times – circa 1724 (when the opera premiered) – in Britain when Protestant/ Catholic relations were uneasy.

Added production elements are pertinent, although the “subtly different perspectives” in the repeated scenes are neither nor there.

There was a bonus, though, in that we got to hear Soraya Mafi’s heart-rending account of Se pieta di me non senti again as Cleopatra, her silvery yet opulently toned voice being a constant delight throughout.

The virtuoso arias were fearlessly met with coloratura runs and other vocal ornamentations cleanly pitched and often expressively delivered.

Likewise, an equally magnificent Christopher Ainslie as Julius Caesar, his countertenor voice being more soprano than alto, not that it mattered in the least in the face of stunning vocal dexterity.

Vocally, there is not a weak link in the cast of eight: Kitty Whately makes an admirably telling impression as Sesto and Catherine Carby, not overdoing Cornelia’s mournful state, are the other principal Romans.

Benjamin Williamson, an alto countertenor so contrasts well with Ainslie, as a thoroughly despicable Tolomeo and Benjamin Bevan as his not quite as obnoxious lieutenant, Achilla, are the other principal Egyptians.

Jonathan Peter Kenny’s period instrument Old Street Band provides impeccable support and interesting to see the name of a vocal coach, Ann Murray DBE, no less.

The famed mezzo-soprano has certainly done her job here!