Rossini at the Proms 2016

The BBC Proms start on 15th July with concerts running right through to 10th September.  Amongst the many incredibly concerts there is one that caught my eye which is on Saturday 6th August, 15.00 at The Chapel Greenwich and the programme is Petite Messe Solennelle by Rossini. 

Giacchino Rossini

Giacchino Rossini

In the first half of 19th century, no composer enjoyed such prestige, wealth and popular acclaim as Gioacchino Rossini (1782-1868).  His operas were so successful that in 1829, aged 37,  he retired from composing and took up cooking as a hobby whereupon he become immensely fat which led to ill health.  His achievements in opera caused his contemporaries such as Bellini and Donizetti to work under his shadow, even Beethoven resorted to snide remarks about him.

In 1855 Rossini decided to compose again and wrote over 150 piano pieces, songs and works for small ensembles, including the graceful Petite Messe Sonnelle which he wrote in 1863.  Most of these works were written for private audiences in the salon, usually made up of the great artistic and public figures in Paris

The title of the work is a little misleading in that it is neither little, solemn, nor especially liturgical!  Rossini even wote:  “Good God – behold complete this poor little mass – is it indeed music for the blest that I have just written, or just some blessed music?  Thou knowest well, I was born for comic opera".  The first performance of the work was given at the town house of the Countess Louise Pillet Will, to whom the work is dedicated.  All those who attended agreed that it was a magnificent feat for a retired seventy one year old composer. 

Riccardo Chailly

Riccardo Chailly

Rossini specified that twelve singers is the ideal number including four soloists who, according to his instructions should also sing the chorus.  The original scoring is for two pianos and harmonium which might seem strange but given it was written for the salon, such instrumentation is not unusual.  However, shortly before he died Rossini orchestrated the work, not because he felt he needed it but more to stop anybody else doing it after his death.  Like anything composed by Rossini it is a glorious work and if you don’t know it you are in for a treat.

Many famous tenors have sung Domine Deus from the great Caruso to Pavarotti, but here is Juan Diego Flores  YouTube.   Listen to Cum Sancto Spiriti on YouTube.    

The recording I recommend is conducted by Riccardo Chailly with the Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale, Bologna. 
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Posted on July 11, 2016 .

Gershwin in Hollywood

John Wilson

John Wilson

Recently I have been working flat out doing the Press and PR for the Newbury Spring Festival.  I want to say it is a small festival outside London but actually it isn't so small as there were 50 concerts over a two week period.  With a wide selection of artists from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to Anoushka Shankar, there wasn't a dull moment.  John Wilson conducted the CBSO in the opening concert with a wonderful programme of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, so it seems fitting to mention a new recording by the John Wilson Orchestra called Gershwin in Hollywood.  If you love the Great American Songbook, then you are going to love this.

George Gershwin

George Gershwin

John Wilson is a charismatic figure on the concert stage who as well as performing the classical repertoire, is an expert in light music, jazz and music for the screen.  As such he is widely recognised as an audience builder.  In 1994 he formed the John Wilson Orchestra, a unique collection of musicians who specialise in recording contemporary film soundtracks as well as giving performances of classic film scores.  Since 2009 the orchestra under the baton of John Wilson have become a regular feature at the BBC Proms and this year is no different as he and the orchestra will give a concert of Gershwin favourites on 13th August in the Royal Albert Hall.

As Edward Seckerson says in his review "I don't think there is any such thing as a bad Gershwin song"  Here is John Wilson telling you about the recording himself on YouTube.  The recording is full of Gershwin classics such as Funny Face, Oh Lady be Good and S Wonderful.

George Gershwin was born in 1898 and died tragically young in 1937 of a brain tumour.  He and his lyricist brother Ira will always be remembered as the song writing team who were synonymous with the sounds and style of the Jazz Age.  Many singers have recorded their songs over the years:  here is Amy Winehouse doing Someone to Watch Over Me, Shirley Bassey S Wonderful and Fred Astaire singing to Audrey Heburn Let's Kiss and Make Up

Download Gershwin in Hollywood here on iTunes  
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Posted on June 5, 2016 .

Florence and Mozart

I am really looking forward to seeing the film Florence Foster Jenkins.  Florence was an American socialite and amateur operatic soprano, except she couldn't sing.  As such she was ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, pitch and tone.  Initially she only gave concerts to her friends but then with the support of an adoring husband decided to hold a public concert in the famous Carnegie Hall in New York.....  I think the film will be enchanting and stars Meryll Streep and Hugh Grant.  Released in early May have a look at the trailer:  YouTube   Here is a clip of the real Florence Foster Jenkins strangling the aria sung by the Queen of the Night from the Magic Flute  YouTube.  Good for her for having a go!

From the ridiculous to the sublime and on to a film some may remember about Mozart called Amadeus.  The soundtrack featured one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, the Kyrie from the Mass in C minor often called the Great Mass.  Although the film portrayed Mozart to be rather an unlikeable idiot, it certainly did justice to his music as you can see from the following clip on YouTube.   This is where Mozart's wife Constanze takes the jealous Salieri some of Mozart's work.

Mozart left the employ of the church in Salzburg 1781 and moved to Vienna to become a freelance composer so it seemed odd that he should write this great religious work in 1782, a year after he left.  It was all to do with his wife Constanze Weber who was expecting a child, it was 'solemnly promised' for when her confinement was over.  Furthermore he used the work to make peace with his father who disapproved of his marriage and promised to have it performed on a return visit to Salzburg.  He did indeed have the work performed in Salzburg with his wife singing the solo part but he didn't finish it in time and then never got round to doing so.

Looking closely at the work there is no doubt that he intended it to be on a monumental scale; 4 soloists, a chorus mostly in 5 parts but at times 8 and a large orchestra.   Mozart had recently been introduced to the great works of Bach and Handel which were to have a big influence on him, it is clear that the C minor Mass was intended to be pitched against the great giants of a former age.

 Mozart only completed the Kyrie, Gloria and Benedictus but the grand scale is evident in the opening movement with the Kyrie.  The movement opens solemnly in the minor key but is lifted with the entry of the exquisite soprano in a major key.  One of of the most sublime moments in all classical music.  Here is the Kyrie on YouTube.    

The recording I recommend of the Mass in C minor is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.  The Kyrie is sung by Sylvie McNair.   

The Mass in C minor is being performed on 20th August at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms

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Posted on April 22, 2016 .

Loss of a brilliant conductor

Nikolaus Harnoncourt Photographer: Werner Kmetitsch

Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Photographer: Werner Kmetitsch

Last week saw the loss of one of the worlds leading conductors Nikolaus Harnoncourt, he was a scion of the Hapsburg family, a pioneer of the period instrument movement and one of the most important collectors of historical musical instruments.  Harnoncourt started off life as a cellist and at the age of 17 decided to turn professional, four years later he had to step into the cello section of the orchestra for one of his teachers for a performance of Strauss's Salome (a very demanding work for the cello) at the Vienna State Opera where he sight read the entire part.  Although no stranger to modern music and instruments it was with the orchestra he founded in the early 1950s the Concentus Musicus Wien, Europe's first period instrument orchestra, where he initially made his name.  He had an extensive recording career which included selling over one million recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and over a period of 20 years he committed Bach's vast output of church cantatas to disc.  The Syriarte Festival was specifically founded for Harnoncourt in order to have him and his orchestra in Graz every year which he did for 31 years.

Harnoncourt had an aversion to jet lag and as such his forays abroad were few and far between.  However on one occasion he was with the Concentus Musicus Wien in New Orleans where, after their concert, the orchestra all went to a jazz club "They somehow smelt we were musicians, and our harpsichordist, violins and wood-wind joined in....it was a fantastic session" he recalled. 

The recording I recommend this week is the flambouyant Chinese pianist Lang Lang playing the Mozart Piano Concerto No 17 in G major and no 24 in C minor conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  This clip on YouTube is interesting because it shows the relationship between pianist and conductor as well as their individual characters,  it is also interesting that Lang lang, who is one of classical music's great show-offs says he finds playing Mozart very difficult.

Watch Lang Lang play and conduct Mozart Piano Concerto No 17 in G major from the keyboard on YouTube     
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Posted on March 18, 2016 .