Thursday, 14 November 2019

A Baroque Christmas Harmonia Mundi - Charpentier Pastorale de Noël

A baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi, this year's offering in their acclaimed series. Great value for money - four CDs of music so good that it shouldn't be saved just for Christmas.  Bach's immortal Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 with René Jacobs,  and seasonal works by Corelli, Buxtehude,  Schütz, Rosenmüller and othersThe prize here, though is the Pastorale de Noël by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with Ensemble Correspondances, with Sébastien Daucé, highly acclaimed on its first release just  a few years ago. Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances are among the finest of many very specialistin French baroque. Please read here about their Le Concert Royale de la Nuit, their recreation of the extravangaza with which Louis XIV dazzled his Court. They have also focussed on Charpentier and in particular the Histoires sacrées (Please read more here), which have roots both in sacred oratorio and in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages.  Their performances are outstanding : paragons of the art, presented with stylish flourish. This set is worth purchasing for this superlative Charpentier. 

Charpentier's patron was Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, an independent woman whose tastes were freer and more informal than those at the royal Court.  In the Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, H. 483, Charpentier adapts the pastoral style into a work of piety, somewhat unusual at the time. Between 1684 and 1686 he created three versions, with different second parts, all of which are recorded together for the first time on this disc.

"The first part of the pastorale is imbued with solemnity", writes Daucé. "The protagonists evoke the condition of humanity, permeated by sin, violence, darkness and death, and, in this state of extreme wretchedness, call for a divine sign bringing light, peace, justice and redemption.". The exquisite balance of voices in the ensembles suggests rapture, and the restrained power of the soloist in "Ecoutez-moi, peuple fidele" suggests emotional authority. Charpentier's instrumental writing is equally meticulous, marking the "contrast between the tenuousness of the recitative and the plenitude of the chorus, and above all of the device of silence".  The instrumental interlude that is the "Simphonie de la Nuit" marks in many ways the spiritual core of the first of the two parts of this Pastorale. A sublime "Paix en terre" completes the first half : voices and instruments in glorious harmony.

The second part of H.483 is a series of vignettes illustrating the Nativity scene.  Particularly attractive is the section "Cette nuit d'une vierge aussis pure que belle", the countertenor line lambent and clear, haloed by female voices. All three second parts follow the same pattern but each section within is different. In version H.483a,"We encounter the naïve and folklike elements which the first part of the work had completely avoided", writes Daucé. "Here the musical gesture draws on the same popular imagery with which painters and designers have always depicted the Nativity scene."  Especially imporessive is "Heureux bergers" for tenor with enesmble. This version ends joyously, voices accompanied by pipes, strings and percussion. "Faisons de nos joyeux cantiques", "Menuet de la Bergère" and " Ne laissons point sans louanges".  There are just four sections in the second part of version H.483b. "Le Soleil recommence à dorer nos montagnes" is contemplative, introducing a more reverential character.  The infant Jesus is addressed as  "Ouy Siegneur" framing the last section which is along as the first three sections put togerther, for it celebrates the "Source de lumière et de grâce".

Also included on the Ensemble Correspondances disc is Charpentiers' Grands antiennes de O de l'avent, (1693) ten anthems, each beginning with the word "O" on the veneration of Advent.  The best -known piece on this set will be Bach's Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium) BWV 248  with René Jacobs conducting the RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik  with soloists Dorothea Röschmann, Andreas Scholl, Werner Güra and Klaus Häger, all then at their prime. Recorded in 1997, this performance evokes the spirit of early 18th century Lutheran piety.  In modern times, we're overwhelmed by commercialized Christmas kitsch and consumerist excess, and the banality of the seasonal music that comes with it.  All the more reason then to turn to performances like this which reflect the real values of Christmas, and the promise of hope in dark times.  Strong stuff, but necessary.  The fourth disc on this set is a collection of pieces by Corelli (Concerto Grosso), Johann Rosenmüller, Buxtehude, Heinrich Schütz (Heute ist Christus geboren, Concerto Vocale/René Jacobs), Louis-Claude Daquin, Domenico Zipoli, and Claude Bénigne Balbastre from performances recorded between 1976 and 2004.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Christmas at St George's, Windsor

Christmas at St George's Chapel, Windsor, with the Choir of St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, James Vivian, organist and conductor. New from Hyperion, this continues their series of previous recordings with this Choir.  The College of St George, founded in 1348, is unusual in that it is a Royal Peculiar, a parish under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch. The Choir of St George's Chapel comprises twelve lay clerks, who live within Windsor Castle, and  twenty choristers drawn from St. George's School nearby. St George's is a close-knit, residential community, providing services at daily office throughout the year : effectively the Queen's own chapel and choir.

This recording takes us through three important seasons in the liturgical calendar - Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.  Each section is planned in a sequence connecting the past to the present. William Byrd is represented three times - Vigilate for Advent, Puer natus est nobis for Christmas and Ecce Avenit for Epiphany,  serving as a pivot between the modern Church of England, the Reformation and the church before that.  The melody Creator of the Stars and Night used in the Vespers on the four Sundays in Advent, dates from the seventh century, heard here with a text from Victorian times. The cantor is Simon Whiteley. The polyphony of Byrd's Vigilate rings out beautifully in this Chapel, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.  Orlando Gibbons’ This is the record of St John, from the same period, connects to the new Anglican tradition. Both are complemented by Joseph Rheinberger's "Rorate caeli" from Neun Advent-Motteten op 176 (1893)  for four-part chorus.  Michael Finnissy's Telling (2008) sets an anonymous 16th century text."Man stands in doubt, but seeks about, where they mayest him see". Finnissy comments on the final chord of the refrain, on its "mystery, ambiguity and even irrationality". After all, a miracle has happened beyond normal understanding. "Must carols be fluffy and sentimental?", he asks. No qualms in the jolliness of  Arvo Pärt's Bogoróditse Djévo, from 1990 but already a Christmas  classic.  In an acknowledgement of other threads of the British choral tradition, A Tender Shoot by Otto Goldschmidt who founded the Bach Choir in 1875. If it sounds familiar, it's because it's a variation of the hymn to the Virgin Mary,  Es ist ein Ros' entrsprungen in English translation. John Gardner's Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (1966) is another modern classic, where the organ, usually solemn, does a jerky "dance".

Christmas here begins with Puer natus est nobis, twice, first as plainsong (Ben Alden, cantor), then in William Byrd's version, from his Gradualia Book 2, (before 1607) — Alden being joined by two altos and the choir, the parts forming a tracery as elaborate and beautifully structured as the ceiling above the choir stalls in St George's Chapel.  "On Christmas night, all Christians Sing", is heard here based on the song collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in May, 1904, near Horsham, hence the title The Sussex Carol. The text was first published in the 17th century but its origins may go back even further.  Here it is heard in an arrangement by Philip Ledger from 1986, where the sound of pealing bells is evoked in the voice parts and organ.  "Minuit, chrétiens, c'est l'heure solennelle", Adolphe Adam's Cantique de Noël is here heard in the original, Nicholas Madden singing in fairly idiomatic French.  This isn't carol so much as art song, given that Adam wrote grand opera (Le postillon de Lonjumeau), audiences of the time expecting performance standards equal to what they might hear in the opera house.  Madden's voice rings clearly and carries well, supported by the organ.

More bells in Mykola Leontovich's The Carol of the Bells, an arrangement of the Ukrainian folksong Schedryck, heard here in English translation.  Another Philip Ledger arrangement of a traditional carol, I saw Three Ships is followed by an arrangement by David Briggs of Away in the Manger. "I wrapped the original melody up in a post impressionist harmonic language, saturated in garlic and one or two other exotic, succulent herbs!".  It is a delight, Briggs’ background as an organist spicing up the organ part so it glows with rich warmth.  In contrast, the sparkling voices of the young choristers of St George's enliven The Seven Joys of Mary arranged by William Whitehead.

Just as the introit to Christmas in this collection began with plainsong and Byrd,  Epiphany is marked by Ecce Avenit, first with cantor Ben Alden, then with the full blown polyphony of William Byrd. West Gallery music, usually simple metrical psalm, originated in smaller parishes in Georgian times. The term "West Gallery" refers to the practice of placing choirs in a gallery on the west side of the chapel, facing the altar but behind the congregation. Their relative informality fell out of favour after the rise in popularity of organs and more organzied religious practce in the 19th century.  In Under the Greewood Tree, Thomas Hardy describes this social change in rural Dorset. West Gallery hymnal would have been even more remote from the perspective of high Victorian Windsor, so it's good to hear how the Choir of St George's Chapel enjoy singing A Gallery Carol, from Dorset, in an arrangement by Reginald Jacques. The background to Bethlehem Down is even more irreverent. Neither Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) nor Bruce Blunt, who wrote the text, were religious. They wrote the hymn for a newspaper competition to raise money so they could indulge in alcohol.  Nontheless, the hymn was an instant hit, and remains a favourite to this day. God moves in mysterious ways.  This most rewarding collection concludes with an exuberant flourish. Nowell Sing We was commissioned for the 2014 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in York Minster. The composer is Matthew Martin (b. 1976) Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford.  It's a heady mix blending Latin and English texts, in a spicy cocktail of sound, the organ wild and free, before a sudden, conventional coda.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Henry Purcell : King Arthur new edition Paul McCreesh Gabrieli Consort

The Gabrieli Consort : photo Andy Staples

A new edition of Henry Purcell's King Arthur by Paul McCreesh and Christopher Suckling from the Gabrieli Consort and Players.  "The editorial problems are many", writes Claire Seymout in Opera Today. "There is no manuscript of Dryden’s 1684 libretto and no reliable source for Purcell’s music: scholar Curtis Price has noted that instead we face ‘a confused assortment of more than sixty manuscripts and miscellaneous publications, none of which includes the complete music’.

When no music exists for songs which are printed in Dryden’s text, we cannot know if Purcell’s music is sadly lost or if he chose not set the lines in question

....;This new edition reflects their evolving interpretation and performance practice. Some text has been repositioned or. reworked; musical insertions have been made, in some places in response to gaps or ambiguities in the original sources, elsewhere to compensate for the absence of the spoken dialogue, or to provide fitting conclusions tthe acts and masques. Inconsistencies in the various manuscripts have been considered as performance, rather than ‘scholarly’, issues: McCreesh explains that ‘Our singers, like Purcell’s, would naturally grace their lines with rhythmic alterations and melodic extemporisations’, thereby rendering the question of which textual variant is ‘correct’ moot. Having examined contemporary sources, the decision was made to perform choruses and dances without continuo; the songs are accompanied by harpsichord, theorbo and guitar, without a string bass line.Please read the full, detailed review of the Gabrielli Consort's concert at St John's, Smith Square in Opera Today.

I've been enjoying the CD and it really is as good as the review says ! Highly recommended ! 

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Magic Bullets - Weber Der Freischütz, Equilbey Insula Barbican

From an early production of Der Freischütz 1822

Magic Bullets Carl Maria von Weber Der Freischütz, Laurence Equilbey conducting the Insula Orchestra and Choeur Accentus,  and soloists at the Barbican, London.  Weber's Der Freischütz Op. 77, J. 277 is a seminally important work, a milestone in music history, and represents a turning point, too, in wider European cultural history. Without Weber and Der Freischütz, music, not just opera, might
not be as we know it today. No Der Freischütz, no Wagner, no Berlioz, no Schumann, no Mahler.  Moreover it's a key document of the Romantic era and its revolutionary impact on culture, the arts, society and so much more.  Misunderstand Der Freischütz and misunderstand the 19th and 20th centuries !  A few years back some smalltown critic declared that if he didn't know it, ("it only has one tune!") it can't have been important. That says more about those who think that getting a press pass makes them somebody.  If they need to bring a friend to help, they shouldn't be doing the job. One of the messages in  Der Freischütz is that there's no such thing as a magic bullet.

In German speaking countries Der Freischütz is pretty much basic repertoire, and elsewhere in Europe, it's extremely well known. The classic recording was conducted by Carlos Kleiber, no less, and it was a favourite of Colin Davis who conducted it at his very last performance at the Barbican.  What's significant about this latest Barbican performance is that Equilbey, Insula and Accentus are specialist par excellence in French repertoire and aesthetics.  Though Der Freischütz does benefit from an understanding of the German context, there's no reason why it can't be approached from a different perspective.  Plenty of forests in France, plenty of hunting societies, plenty of upheavals in society.  Hector Berlioz was so inspired that he did an adaptation in French with a text he wrote himself.  It's very good - John Eliot Gardiner conducted it in London not all that long ago, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment marked their 30th anniversary with the German Der Freischütz and Mark Elder.  Indeed, a lighter, brighter period-informed style can connect better to Weber and his aesthetic than a more interventionist approach.

Der Freischütz was first performed in 1821, just seven years after Napoleon's defeat.  Many in the audiences in early performances would have had direct personal experience of  the wars and their impact on German-speaking lands, and a background knowledge of the Thirty Years War and its impact.  Romanticism has nothing to do with being "romantic" in the modern sense of the word   Its ideals galvanized European thought, especially in Germany which hitherto had been a diverse conglomeration of 300 states.  This period saw the growth of solidarity between German-language speakers, whatever their region. Nationalism then was a progressive, unifying force.  This interest in the past  wasn't about the past but a way of using the past to validate new ideas like national identity and the role of the individual. Thus the interest in German folklore, in Brentano and von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, in the poetry of Gottfried Herder and even the concept "Gedanken sind Frei" (Read more here)  the individual as opposed to mass authority. From the Romantik sprang the revolutions of 1848, all over Europe, not just Germany. Understanding this context is fundamental to appreciating Der Freischütz

Der Freischütz portrays an idealized vision of the German past, where hunters provide sustenance  and live (more or less) in harmony with Nature.  But remember that forests can be dangerous places. Not for nothing are they a symbol of the unknown, and of the unconscious. Read Simon Schama: Landscape and Memory (2004), Jeffrey Wilson The German Forest (2012).  And, for that matter Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment.  Disney sanitized our appreciation of fairy tales as folk psychology, and infantilized meaning. Absolutely resist the idea that Der Freischütz should either be sentimental or kitsch.  The people in this opera inhabit a world where danger and loss is never very far away.  Max, a humblejunior huntsman, wants to marry Agathe, the boss's daughter, but in this rigid, hierarchical society he has no chance of challenging the social order. To win Agathe, he has to do a deal with the Devil, whom Samiel represents.  If Max escapes in the end, it's only because Caspar pays the price and Prince Ottokar intervenes as deus ex machina. It's a near thing. Agathe could have been killed and Max executed for murder.  

Weber's music is exquisitely beautiful, as if it were, like the magic bullet, deflecting truth from those who can't handle reality.  Magic Bullets are not a solution. Indeed, this opera can even allude to the dangers of quick-fix nationalism and instant expertise. Utterly relevant in modern times.  When we listen to Weber's hunting horns and rousing choruses, we should think about what's being hunted, and why. The music is ravishingly beautiful because it emphasizes the beauty of life, refreshed by the connections to Nature that hunting for food depends on. But killing is a bloody business, it's not pretty and it's not sentimental 

 Because I was suddenly taken ill the night before, my partner went alone (too late to give away the spare). Veteran of many Freischützs, he appreciated Equilbey's approach, and had a wonderful time. "Superbly done. Great orchestra and singers and a subtle, simple semi-staging ,including a brilliant dancer/acrobat as an omnipresent Samiel, writhing about like a lizard or creeping like a wolf. And all the dialogue - no nonsense of messing about with it.". Fortunately, Equilbey, Insula and Accentius have been touring Europe with Der Freischütz and will be releasing a new recording in the near future. A must, I think.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Strong and dignified : Berlioz Requiem Pablo Heras-Casado, Orchestre de Paris

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Orchestre de Paris, the choir of the Orchestre de Paris and the orchestra of the Conservatoire de Paris, in Hector Berlioz Requiem (Grand Messe des Morts) (streamed here on together with Witold Lutosławski Musique funèbre à la mémoire de Béla Bartók.  Heras-Casado is fast becoming the kind of conductor who doesn't just conduct extremely well, but also finds distinctive insights into the music he conducts. He did a superlative recent Manuel de Falla CD with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, for example, which applies that orchestra's virtuosity to de Falla, bringing out the verve and audacity that animates the music. Flamenco isn't soft or wimpy - its very discipline makes it electrifying.   Now we can hear why Harmonia Mundi only issued Granados Goyescas and not El amor brujo from the recent Josep Pons BBC SO concert. Many years ago, when Heras-Casado was very young, he appeared in one of Boulez's masterclass videos.  We can't judge from short clips, but evidently Boulez. who heard a lot more,  appreciated him. Boulez was right !

Combining Berlioz and Witold Lutosławski on this programme from the Philharmonie de Paris emphasized how innovative Berlioz was in his own time.  By no means is the Lutoslawski an add-on. It enhances the Berlioz Requiem, not that it needs enhancing, but adds to the overall impact of the experience.  There has been a lot of excellent Berlioz this year, and several Berlioz Requiems this year, some very good, some less so.  But Heras-Casado stands out. Again, Heras-Casado works with the strengths of the orchestra and choruses, adapting the clarity and commitment of the style. A lucid interpretation, shining with intelligence. Berlioz was flamboyant,  but beneath that, his mind was sharp and highly original.  After the refined Introit, the Dies Irae emerged with dark, ominous majesty. Tight, precise rhythms, underlining the tense pitting of one choral section against the other, creating a sense of division and anxiety. Thus the explosive release in the fanfare where the combined chorus blazed, underpinned by rumbling brass and percussion, evoking thunder, voices rising like the spirits of the dead. With dignity, for the dead will not go unvanquished.  Plaintive single instruments like cor, and the tenderness of the Lachrymosa.  Our sympathy is with humble human souls, now lost to death, the rising brass and percussion underlining depth of feeling.

The Domine and the Hostias mark a transition, like an Offertory in a Mass, when the host is consecrated, bringing God into the community, reminding believers why Jesus sacrificed for man.  The soloist is Frédéric Antoun, who's very impressive. A pity that Berlioz didn't give the tenor more to do, but the part, though relatively small, is critical : Antoun's voice rings out powerfully, above the hushed chorus, his timbre shining, as if surrounded by light.  On the video, Antoun is shown spotlit, standing alone, above the orchestra and choirs.  Now the Requiem enters its destination:  glorious Hosana, in excelcis, the chorus interacting like the pealing of bells, Antoun's voice ringing divinely. "Behold the Lamb of God", that's what the Agnus Dei means. Thus the hushed reverence in the choruses and the long, clear chords in the orchestra, with baleful undertones, penerating into the distance. Berlioz may not have been devout, but he knew that religion can be a form of theatre.  The conclusion isn't triumphalist, but comtemplative, like a reflection upon the miracle that has occured.  Heras-Casado's approach is deeply committed, strong minded and assured : very much cognizant of what a Grand Messe des Morts should be.