Katherine Broderick/ Ashley Riches with Simon Lepper – review

Anyone going to the lunchtime concert on the 18th of July in the Pavilion Arts Centre as part of the Buxton International Festival to hear, and see the excellent Kathryn Rudge will have been disappointed as she had “been forced to withdraw for personal reasons.”

Katherine Broderick was no mean replacement in terms of reputation; in fact, could be termed ‘super sub’ in sporting parlance. Be that as it may, there was the suggestion it had all happened at the last minute.

Very little of the originally scheduled programme remained, only one the six advertised Richard Strauss songs, reduced to four: Allerseelen (All Souls’ Day), and Finzi’s Shakespearean song cycle Let us Garlands Bring, extremely well sung by Ashley Riches with minimal histrionics.

To say the least, a highly animated singer, his account of Job’s Curse in one of three Britten transcriptions of Purcell sounded rather forceful.

The other two came over better, Katherine Broderick calming him down with Music For a While, before joining forces for Sound the Trumpet. Shortly after the soprano had the opportunity to show off her Wagnerian-proportioned voice with Strauss’s Zueignung (Devotion).

Proceedings were completed with seven of Britten’s folk song arrangements: The Plough Boy, O Waly, Waly, The Foggy, Foggy Dew, The Lincolnshire Poacher, the less familiar The Trees They Grow so High, There’s None to Soothe and the little known duet, The Deaf Woman’s Courtship.

Simon Lepper, it almost goes without saying, was an impeccable partner at the piano.

 

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Tisbe – review, Buxton

Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello is hardly a household name among Baroque composers; in fact, a vast majority of people will have even remotely heard of him, let alone an opera by him.

Adrian Chandler’s first-rate period instrument Baroque ensemble La Serenissima is offering an opportunity to rectify the latter situation with a semi-staged concert performance of the opera, Tisbe, as part of the Buxton International Festival.

Brescianello was born in Bologna around 1690 and died in Stuttgart in 1758. Next to nothing is known about him before 1715 when he moved to Stuttgart and began playing violin in the court orchestra there.

A year later, he became court music director and completed what would appear to be his only opera, La Tisbe – seemingly, he penned a fair amount of instrumental music – in early 1718.

Although rarely heard, it is said to be of high quality and violinist Chandler, an Italian Baroque specialist, goes as far as to describe Tisbe as “a candidate for the finest Baroque opera ever.”

Monteverdi and Handel, for a start, would have something to say about that!

Nevertheless, you can appreciate where he is coming from. There is much fine music and a whole string of quality arias conveying all sorts of mood and emotion (within the confines of music development of the time), and you are rarely aware of the limited amount of linking recitative, unlike in most Baroque opera.

Brescianello’s ‘opera pastorale’ is the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to an already extant libretto by Pier Jacopo Martello who also hailed from Bologna, although there is no evidence to suggest that knew each other.

Two outstanding performances grace La Serenissima’s concert version, the Alceste of Morgan Pearse, a superb bass-baritone, and a no less fine tenor, Robert Murray as Piramo who turns in a riveting account of his lengthy scene at the beginning of act three.

Tisbe herself, surprisingly, rarely gets music of the same inspired level to sing but what she does have is expertly and beautifully delivered by the soprano Julia Doyle.

Commenting on the music of the shepherdess Licori is barely possible as Hilary Summers, an excellent contralto, was stricken with a throat infection. With what voice was at her disposable, however, she still managed an engaging performance.

The eight-member chorus renders what little it has to do without fuss, stage director Mark Burns (not averse to some harmless humour) coming up with an ingenious way to employ the octet in one of its many stretches of vocal inactivity.

Adrian Chandler and harpsichordist Robert Howarth are joint music directors and cellist Vladimir Waltham cries out for mention for his contributions to the proceedings

Further performance: 17th of July

The Daughter of the Regiment – review

Michael Tipler reviews the joint Opera della Luna/ Buxton International Festival production of Donizetti’s opera 

La Fille Du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) was the comic opera with which, in 1840, Donizetti began his domination of the opera scene in 19th century Paris – generally considered the ‘artistic capital of the western world’— after successes in Italy with Anna Bolena (1830) and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835).

In light romantic/comic vein, it concerns Marie, a tomboyish young woman found abandoned as a baby and adopted by a regiment of soldiers, all of whom she regards affectionately as her ‘fathers.’ She has just been rescued from a dangerous situation (and had her romantic feelings stirred in the process) by Tonio, a stranger regarded at first with suspicion and hostility, but later welcomed into the ranks of the regiment so that Marie, whose feelings they fondly respect, can marry one of their own.

It becomes clear that Marie is, in fact, the product of a scandalous liaison between her natural father, an adventurer now deceased, and a young female member of the socially elite Berkenfield family. On discovering Marie’s whereabouts, her Aunt (nursing a secret of her own) reclaims the foundling, intending to smooth over her rough edges and make her fit to restore the family fortunes by marrying the son of her wealthy friend the Duchess of Crackenthorpe.

Musically, it is appropriately lightweight, with soldierly chorus numbers and sentimental ballads for the heroine, who also delivers her version of the regimental anthem. But the best-known aria is the tenor’s “Ah, mes amis….pour mon ame,” giddy with new-found love, and loaded with a notoriously demanding string of nine high C’s. This is the number that opera buffs will be waiting for.

Opera buffs, be warned! Purists, beware! This is an Opera della Luna production!

Sung in English—of a sort—the concept and the script are by company founder and Director Jeff Clarke. Aficionados of the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival (now relocated to Harrogate), which for twenty years followed the Opera Festival into Buxton Opera House, will be aware of Opera della Luna’s way with G&S operettas: a disregard for the traditions and conventions of D’Oyly Carte, and a relish of modern salty suggestiveness, while maintaining affection for the original and respecting Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s wit. Jeff Clarke does not hold back from a dash of vulgarity in the language, a dose of slapstick in the comedy, even a passing suggestion of ‘queer camp’ and gender-bending cross-dressing. And so it is here with Donizetti!

Do not expect a full opera orchestra and chorus. Female choristers are dispensed with altogether and the males majorly reduced in number, though the few voices deliver their chorus work strongly. Do not expect Frenchness, or anything military. This Regiment is a cohort of Harley-riding ageing hairy bikers with their own code of Freedom and Honour, who camp out in the central desert of California with the Berkenfield mansion perched in the mountains above. Their leader retains his original name, Sulpice; his six gang members are dubbed Tulip, Beef, Tiny, Crispy, Rabbit and Lump. Californian drawl pervades the air, and Marie has learned to spit and raise a one-fingered salute if provoked.

While clearly enjoying herself in the character and throwing herself enthusiastically into the stage business, Elin Pritchard delivers Marie’s music with great accomplishment, a range of emotion, and full, sweet tone. As Tonio, the young Spanish tenor Jesus Alvarez is an attractive love-interest, if at times seeming a little inhibited in delivery. His strongly accented dialogue demands attentive listening. But he makes an engaging character, in this production topically suggestive of an illegal immigrant, a Mexican border-runner. If lacking the panache of a Pavarotti or Juan Diego Florez, his light tenor is pleasing to the ear, and his nine high C’s are carefully placed and secure. Job done!

But irreverent fun is the order of the day. Political correctness is out of the window and language is informal: in the first fifteen minutes Sulpice is heard to admit “I’m sh*tting myself”; when Marie is first introduced to her Aunt she exclaims “Holy crap!”; Tonio is first introduced as “a frigging spic.” In the opening of Act Two, Hortense, the Berkenfields’ camp Butler, has his suggestive way with a banana; and the famous singing lesson (designed to instil some ‘culture’ into a rebellious Marie) descends into hilarious physical comedy involving the abuse of a basket of oranges.

Later, party guests (almost entirely created in imagination by the butler’s mime) assemble to mark the proposed union of the Berkenfield and Crackenthorpe families. Social-climber Marsha Berkenfield is styled for all the world as if she is playing Mrs Simpson in an Abdication drama, while a transgendered Dulcie Crackenthorpe brings to mind Arthur Askey dragged up as Charley’s Aunt. When the bikers invade the mansion to rescue their adopted daughter for Tonio, now their temporary leader, she exclaims in rich baritone, “OMG, she’s a biker’s bitch!” Finally, Aunt Berkenfield’s secret is revealed, general reconciliation follows, and the young people’s love-match is celebrated in a jubilant, typically Donizettian ensemble.

Who knows how many of the first-nighters in a very full house had done their homework and knew what they were in for, and how many were shocked by what they saw and heard? In the event, the enthusiastic, sustained applause with whoops and cheers removed any doubts—a massive verdict in favour of Opera della Luna.

Further performance: 15th of July, 2pm

Idomeneo – review

Summed up, Buxton International Festival’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo is a total triumph.

There were some niggling instances which can be put down to first night gremlins otherwise, it’s almost impossible to find fault in its three-hour duration, including an interval which couldn’t have been better placed.

Perhaps how Idamante manages to kill Neptune’s monster while he is patently on stage can be described as anomalous, while the interval is roughly mid-way through act two.

It follows Idomeneo’s scene and aria Fuor del mar, stunningly sung and acted by Paul Nilon with an intensity worthy of being witnessed on any opera stage in the world.

A break after it thus allowed the audience to recover its equilibrium and, the tenor, his composure!

Glitches aside, the whole opera is magnificently played and sung from beginning to end with Nilon, approaching the twilight of his distinguished career, simply tremendous and tireless as the tortured king in a show-stealing performance.

Not that he can be said to entirely achieve the accolade with three other singers on stage as contenders for it.

Madeleine Pierard is terrific as Elletra, a role regularly given to a dramatic soprano and she certainly has the vocal fireworks D’Oreste, D’Ajace at the end, but her softer grained singing earlier makes the character a trifle more believable.

Then there is the reason for Idomeneo’s woes, his son Idamante in a thoroughly engaging performance from fast-emerging mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe and possessor of a lovely, gently burnished chest register.

And there is Elletra’s rival in love with Idamante, Ilia, in what has to be one of Rebecca Bottone’s best role assumptions to date, the ultimate highlight here being her account of Zefferetti lusinghieri followed by the duet with Idamante in act three.

Nicholas Kok’s musical direction is a little lumpy at times while Stephen Medcalf’s stage direction round a simple uncluttered set by Isabella Bywater again proves that can convincingly stage opera without recourse to ego trips and gimmicks.

It is virtually all enacted in bright daylight, too – no fashionable dingy, dark scenes!

Wonder who sweeps the oceans of sand off the stage after curtain down!

Further performances: 11th, 14th, 21st and 19th of July

Alzira – review

Buxton International Festival’s final instalment of the Elijah Moshinsky-directed/Stephen Barlow-conducted trilogy of early Verdi operas proves to be least successful.

Sadly, it was the almost obscure Alzira that was in need of the greater championing as its level of inspiration on Verdi’s part was not as high as it was with the other two, a long way short in the case of 1847 version of Macbeth (seen last year).

It is, though, not without its inspired moments, including a novel overture of originality and much stirring ensemble work, not least the superb sextet, Nella polve genuflesso, with chorus towards the end of act one.

The solo vocal music for the three principal protagonists is a little more variable, some fine, some less so, but nearly always taxing in terms of tessitura in the arias and their inevitable showpiece cabaletta.

Kate Ladner (Alzira), Jung Soo Yun (Zamoro) and James Cleverton (Gusmano) give it their vocal all, but on the strength of the opening night performance only the South Korean tenor had the requisite vocal equipment for Verdi’s music.

Cleverton, though, displays an impressive baritone voice; however, it lacks ‘Verdian’ weight.

The supporting cast does nothing wrong, while the Festival Chorus again provides outstanding singing and the augmented Northern Chamber Orchestra plays Verdi’s score magnificently under the unerring beat of Stephen Barlow’s idiomatic baton.

Visually, the kindest thing is perhaps to say nothing the staging. Some will like it, no doubt; some will not.

It’s almost as if Elijah Moshinsky wants to make up for the “in many ways naive” music (his words) by bringing the “action forward to near present day revolutions in South America, finding its imagery in the bright colours of the score.”

The result is much revolutionary mayhem with an element of confusion and violence, at times gratuitous, such as Gusmano shooting dead Alzira’s father at the end of act one for some reason.

None of which is in Verdi’s score about Incas and Spanish Conquistadors in Peru!

Further performances: 10th, 13th, 16th, 18th and 20th of July

* ‘Melodramatic Happenings  in Lima’ for more on Verdi’s Alzira

Melodramatic Happenings in Lima

Verdi’s opinion of his rarely heard eighth opera, Alzira, late in life was hardly high describing it as: “proprio brutta” – downright ugly!

He appears not to have been exactly enamoured with it before its premiere in 1845, writing a few days before it first saw the light of day: “if it were to fail, that wouldn’t upset me unduly.”

Wonder what he had for breakfast on the two days he uttered and earlier wrote these words!

It really isn’t that bad. Rough and ready, yes; but so was his even more rarely (than Alzira) encountered original 1847 version of Macbeth which, in the final analysis, is in many ways superior to his later regularly performed 1865 version.

But, to stay with Alzira and a few words penned by perhaps the leading authority on Verdi’s operas, the late Julian Budden, who published a three-volume set on them, along with other Verdi tomes.

Having been present at a once-in-a-blue-moon staging of Alzira at the Rome Opera in February 1967 he said it “proved that the score is genuinely alive,” adding that it is “not downright bad” and, with pertinence, “no Verdi opera is totally negligible.”

Certainly not insignificant in Alzira is the opera’s wholly original and novel overture and most of its ensembles, the pick of which has to be the big sextet with chorus towards the end of act one.

There is some fairly demanding, tessitura-testing music for the three principal singers playing Alzira (soprano), Zamoro (tenor), who has a splendid scene and aria in the opera’s prologue, and Gusmano (baritone).

The love duet in scene two of act one is thoroughly engaging; however, Budden is not overly impressed with it saying Verdi “preferred to press swiftly ahead, sustaining a dramatic momentum which the text does not imply.”

So what’s all about, you may ask?

Well, it’s a far-fetched tale about Incas and Conquistadors over a prologue and two acts ostensibly set in Peru in the 16th century with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano adapted from a play by Voltaire, Alzire, ou les Américains.

Alzira, daughter of a Peruvian tribe leader, Ataliba, is love with Zamoro, another Peruvian tribe leader. We first meet them housed as captives in the palace of the Spanish governor, initially Alvaro who hands the job over to his son, Gusmano.

He is smitten with Alzira who rejects his love until it comes to saving Zamoro’s life when she relents. Zamoro, who saved Alvaro’s life at the beginning of the opera and gets a pretty rough ride at the hands of Gusmano throughout the proceedings.

Gusmano gets an unwelcome surprise at the dénouement, though!

Voltaire anoraks will not like what Cammarano did to the great man’s play in his first libretto for a “highly delighted” Verdi. Julian Budden sums it up perfectly.

“Religion and politics, the two raisons d’être of the drama, are scarcely mentioned; and the confrontation of different creeds, different civilisations and different worlds becomes merely another variant of the eternal triangle.”

In its first major UK staging, Verdi’s Alzira can be seen at Buxton Opera House as part of this year’s Buxton International Festival when it is sung in its original Italian with English side-titles.

Performances are on 7th July, 10th July, 13th July, 16th July, 18th July and 20th July, starting at 7.15pm.

Tickets range from £20 to £78 – box office 01298 72190.

*Festival preview: ‘Ancient Greeks and Incas at Buxton 2018′

 

Mozart on Crete

Unlike Verdi’s Alzira, productions of Mozart’s Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival’s other major operatic staging this year, hardly fall into the realms of scarcity these days.

It has virtually become standard operatic repertoire since the early 1950’s when the Glyndebourne Festival was amongst its first champions.

Indeed, the opera’s title role has served the likes of Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti as a vehicle for their only excursions into Mozart.

Premiered in Munich in 1781, it took a while to reach these shores when an amateur Glasgow company gave the opera its first British outing in 1934. The work’s first American performance was in 1947.

Idomeneo is usually held up a Mozart’s first mature opera; Die Entfürhung aus dem Serail – The Abduction from the Seraglio, followed a year later. Stagings of this operatic jewel are scarcer than Idomeneo nowadays!

Mozart described Idomeneo as a dramma per musica – music drama, yet it is regularly referred to as opera seria, which it is not, beyond skeletal similarity.

Consciously or not, the 25-year-old Mozart emulated Gluck by giving the chorus a major role, unheard of in opera seria; the characters are dramatically believable and realism holds sway.

Continuo-led recitative is hardly in evidence, whereas there is lots of accompagnato, or orchestral recitative. Everything flows fluently with none of stop-start elements found in opera seria and there is not a da capo aria in sight.

And there is the ballet music (25 minutes of it spread out), totally taboo in opera seria, and usually omitted in stagings of the opera – nothing suggests Buxton’s production will go against the norm!

It is universally acknowledged that Mozart’s score is superb – Stephen Medcalf, stage director of Buxton’s production describes it as “extraordinary.”

What’s it all about…?

In a nutshell: Ilia, daughter of the defeated Trojan King Priam, and Elektra, daughter of the Greek King Agamemnon, both love Idamante, son of Idomeneo, King of Crete – where the action takes place – who has got himself into a spot of bother.

On his way home following the Trojan War, his ship runs into a violent storm and he vows to Neptune to sacrifice the first person he meets if he lands safely. The Sea God duly obliges and the first person he meets turns out to be Idamante, his son.

Idomeneo then spends the best part of two acts looking for ways to circumvent the outcome of his vow as Neptune gets ever more angry.

Highly promising young mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe plays Idamante, Mozart having written the role for a castrato before adapting it for a tenor five years later.

These days, casting the part is just about evenly divided between tenor and mezzo-soprano Idamantes, the latter probably shading it.

Vocally and dramatically, Idomeneo himself should be straight up Paul Nilon’s street, while Rebecca Bottone as Ilia and Madeleine Pierard as Elektra (Elettra, as Mozart would have her) similarly, looks like ideal casting.

Sung in its original Italian with English side-titles, Mozart’s Idomeneo is performed at Buxton Opera House on 8th July (3pm), 11th July (7.15pm), 14th July (7.30pm), 19th July (2pm) and 21st July (7.15pm).

Tickets range from £20 to £78 – box office 01298 72190.

 

Sheffield International Concert Season 2018 -19

Russian music features fairly prominently in the 2018-2019 Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall after it gets underway on the 5th of October with the first of six trips across the Pennines by the Hallé.

The Manchester-based orchestra actually gives the second of three all-Russian concerts (18th January) and features Rachmaninov’s multi-faceted Third Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Mussorgsky’s Prelude (Dawn on the Moscow River) to his opera Khovanshchina.

An Italianate tinge may surface every so often as the conductor is the mightily gifted Daniele Rustioni, recipient of the International Opera Award for Best Newcomer of the Year in 2013, the no less gifted Francesca Dego (aka, Mrs Rustioni) being the soloist in the concerto.

Authentic sounds should be guaranteed at the other two all-Russian concerts with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (18th October) offering Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 2 – the Little Russian, Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite and Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1.

Yet a third violin concerto, Prokofiev’s No 2, is programmed by the Russian Philharmonic of Novosibirsk (10th May), the Siberian capital, with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Rimsky-Korsakov’s nod to Spain, Capriccio Espanol, and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture.

Two highly rated and much-acclaimed violinists perform the concertos: Chloë Hanslip the Shostakovich, Alexander Sitkovetsky the Prokofiev, and the conductors are Valentin Uryupin and Thomas Sanderling, born in Novosibirsk and son of the legendary Kurt Sanderling.

Also performing music emanating from its own country is the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (30th November), striking up with Smetana’s familiar Overture to The Bartered Bride and rounding off proceedings with the even more familiar Dvořák Symphony No 9 – From the New World.

Still, no orchestra plays Czech music quite like a Czech orchestra and this is an extremely fine one which visited Sheffield in the mid-1990s soon after being established. There is also the bonus of hearing Nikolai Demidenko playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 and the conductor is Heiko Mathias Förster.

You could say the London Mozart Players (1st February) are home ground with the composer’s popular Piano Concerto No 21 and Symphony No 34 programmed for a 70th Birthday Concert under the direction of the orchestra’s conductor laureate Howard Shelley.

First and foremost, though, a much in demand pianist, he is also the soloist in the concerto with Haydn’s Symphony No 95 and a little-known tone poem for strings by Joaquín Turina making up the concert.

Three other celebrated concerto pianists appear at Hallé concerts, not least Benjamin Grosvenor with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 2 when the orchestra is confronted by a fiery young Hungarian conductor, Gergely Madaras, at the last concert in the season (7th June).

Mahler’s Symphony No 1 and Mozart’s Overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Il Seraglio) make up the programme and it is orchestral excerpts from opera that fill out the concert when Francesco Piemontesi performs Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (9th November).

Sir Mark Elder is the conductor and elsewhere is Weber’s Overture to Oberon and a sizeable chunk of Wagner: the Preludes to Act 1 and Act 3 from Lohengrin and a ‘suite’ from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – just about possible to cobble one!

Brahms’ Haydn Variations and Nielsen’s warlike Fifth Symphony bookend Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 from emergent young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov and the Hallé under the baton of well thought of German-born conductor Johannes Debus (22nd March).

A fourth formidable violinist, Jennifer Pike, performs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 3 and Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending at a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert (8th March) which begins with Sibelius: Finlandia, and ends with Elgar: Enigma Variations.

The conductor is Estonian ‘maestress’ – in the absence of a female term for maestro! – Anu Tali.

Two well-known concertos are heard in the remaining two Hallé concerts: Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.

The first (16th February) is sandwiched between de Falla’s El amor brujo (Love, the Magician) and Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 with the orchestra’s outstanding principal clarinet Sergio Castelló López as the soloist and a Mexican conductor of some note, Carlos Miguel Prieto.

The Dvořák is in the season’s opening concert (5th October) and is performed by the 2012 BBC Young Musician of Year, Laura van der Heijden with the eminent German maestro Karl-Heinz Steffens conducting. Brahms: Symphony No 4 and Sibelius: Lemminkä¡nen’s Return, are elsewhere.

Christmas Concert aside (15th December), the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus’ main involvement in the season is Bach’s B minor Mass (6th April) with the Royal Northern Sinfonia under the baton of Andrew Griffiths, a young conductor of considerable talent – it is said!

Admission prices remain unchanged, which means the top priced ticket for individual concerts is a bargain £21 for concerts of this calibre. It becomes 30% cheaper with a full season subscription, 20% with a 10-concert subscription and 10% with a 5-concert subscription.

 

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.

 

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!