This afternoon I saw Gerry Finley and Julius Drake in recital at Koerner Hall. In other words, two supreme exponents of the art of lieder at the top of their game in a hall with near perfect acoustics. They performed Beethoven and Schubert settings of Goethe texts, some Tchaikovsky and some Rachmaninoff, which gave Julius ample opportunity to show off. They finished up with settings of folky things by Copland, Barber, Respighi and Britten. The last was The Crocodile; a very silly and funny piece I hadn’t heard before. The encore was by Healey Willans and Gerry gave a very nice plug for the Canadian Art Song Project. Insert standard list of adjectival phrases describing top notch singing and accompaniment. My humble scribing is not worthy.
This year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival runs from July 12th to August 4th and, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 is war themed, though to be honest it wears it pretty lightly. As always there is one big vocal star. This year it’s German tenor Christoph Prégardien. He has a recital at Walter Hall with Julius Drake at 7.30pm on July 17th. He also pops up on the 20th at the same time and place to sing Schubert’s Die Forelle with Stephen Philcox in a program that features chamber music by Schubert, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. There’s no word on public masterclasses but he’s around for a few days so I suspect that something will emerge.
The Royal Conservatory has just announced its Koerner Hall line up for the 2017/18 season. There are 23 classical and 6 jazz concerts. This doesn’t include the Glenn Gould School or concerts in the RCM’s other halls. Highlights from a vocal point of view are as follows:
November 10th 2017 at 8pm: Barbara Hannigan with Reinbert de Leeuw in a mainly Second Vienna School programme. Not to be missed if that’s your thing and it’s certainly mine.
February 14th 2018 at 8pm: Ian Bostridge with Julius Drake in an all Schubert programme.
April 6th 2018 at 8pm: Bernstein@100; a tribute to Lenny featuring, among others, Wallis Giunta.
April 22nd 2018 at 3pm: Gerald Finley with Julius Drake in a varied program of art and folk songs.
April 27th 2018 at 8pm: The Amici Ensemble with Isabel Bayrakdarian and the winners of the GGS chamber music competition. The vocal part of the programme is all Bernstein.
May 10th 2018 at 8pm: Not typical Opera Ramblings fare but worth a mention; Jodi Sarvall, Hespèrion XXI and Galician pipes specialist Carlos Núñez in a program of pipe music from around the western fringes of Europe.
The PDF with the full line up is here
It’s a curious thing how some works get over recorded and others are almost entirely neglected. For example, there’s only one video recording of Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper and that a 1931 film that omits huge chunks of the stage work. It’s inspiration fares little better. There’s only one video recording of The Beggar’s Opera by Johann Pepusch and John Gay. It’s a 1963 BBC TV production of Benjamin Britten’s reworking of the piece for the English Opera Group based on a stage production by Colin Graham. [ETA: There are actually two other versions; a 1953 movie version with Lawrence Olivier and a 1980s version with Roger Daltrey and John Eliot Gardiner].
Up and coming Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly was joined last night by veteran collaborative pianist Julius Drake for a program of chansons and lieder at Walter Hall. The 490 seat hall was almost full which is rather nice to see for a song recital in Toronto. The first half was devoted to chansons by Duparc, Ropartz and Ravel. I was struck by the restraint of Sly’s singing. It was conversational and not operatic at all but very expressive. I think that takes a lot of guts in a young singer. He let the words and music do the talking and didn’t exaggerate. This was perhaps best shown in the drinking song from the Don Quichotte songs of Ravel. He was very funny but sounded like a drunk, not somebody overacting the idea of a drunk. Continue reading
Opera/concert season is pretty much done in the big smoke though there is the Toronto Summer Music Festival (see below). Attention moves to various more rural venues and to some seriously eclectic programming. Out in Northumberland County there’s the Westben Festival with concerts in a barn ranging fro Irish trad to Richard Margison. The highlight, for me, here would be a recital by Suzy Leblanc and Julius Drake featuring French mélodies, Strauss lieder and English songs by Christos Hatzis. That one is on July 30. Westben also has the UBC Opera Ensemble doing Carmen and, for those so inclined, a programme of Broadway tunes from the ever reliable Virginia Hatfield, Brett Polegato and James Levesque. No word on whether Brett’s cat is also performing.
Meanwhile, back in the smoke there is the Toronto Summer Music Festival which kicks off on July 16th with the Trio Pennetier Pasquier Pidoux in an all French programme. The highlights for me are the Gryphon Trio with Bob Pomakov on the 18th and Philippe Sly with Julius Drake on the 23rd.
In 1969 the BBC’s new Director of Music and recording producer of genius, John Culshaw, contrived to align the heavens to permit the recording and broadcast for television of Britten’s Peter Grimes with Peter Pears in the title role and Britten conducting. What’s more it was recorded on a stage set (at The Maltings) with the orchestra in the same room as the singers who sang ‘live’. So, unusually for the time there was neither a double studio set up nor a studio audio recording that was lip synched to the stage performance. There’s a great little essay in the DVD booklet that explains how this all came to pass.
All that said, it’s a 1969 TV broadcast and I expected it to be of largely historic interest. I didn’t expect to get completely sucked in which is what happened. The design and production is very literal. The Boar is a pub. Grimes’ hut is a hut and so on. The people of the Borough are dressed in a range of working class clothes of sometime in the 19th century. They don’t look like a flock of crows on a telephone wire. Oddly, this makes their conformity all the more telling. The direction is a collaboration between Joan Cross who, we are told, directed the singers and Brian Large (who must have been about twelve at the time) who directed the cameras. As you would expect for a 1969 TV production there are lots of close ups which is fine as there was no “house view” here. The orchestral interludes are played out to either abstract patterns (which sometimes look a bit like those gel slides popular in discos of the period) and continuity shots. We don’t see the orchestra or, worse, a heavily perspiring conductor. It’s all straightforward but effective. There are some interesting interpretative nuances. For example in the storm scene in the pub I’ve never seen Grimes’ otherness so well brought out. Also, it’s absolutely starkly clear that Ellen and Balstrode have given up on Peter during Act 2 Scene 1 but he persists most compellingly in his hope until the ‘prentice falls at the end of the act. Pears’ reading of the part at this point is so hopeful that I had to go back and check that the bit where he accuses the boy of betraying him hadn’t been cut.
The performances are mostly strong. Pears’ Grimes is what it is. It’s beautifully sung and the lyrical passages like “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” are gorgeous. It’s not totally convincing though. When he punches Ellen it comes out of nowhere. This dreamy, haunted Grimes just doesn’t have the violent side that the Borough and, ultimately Ellen, see. Heather Harper’s Ellen is gorgeous. She sounds younger and sweeter than in the later Vickers recording. Bryan Drake’s Balstrode is well sung but he’s more of the Borough and less the more broadly travelled and worldly wise character than others make of him. Both Gregory Dempsey as Bob Boles and Elizabeth Bainbridge as Auntie are more delineated than is often the case and Ann Robson gives a decidedly sinister Mrs. Sedley. Other supporting roles are perfectly adequate. Britten conducts the LSO and gives, especially, in the interludes, an even more taut and compelling reading than on the audio recording with the ROH Orchestra ten years earlier. This, for sure, is definitive.
Technically this disc is amazingly good. The 4:3 picture is a bit soft grained but amazing for 1969 TV. The sound is “enhanced Dolby mono” and while, obviously, it doesn’t produce any width or depth it’s clear and bright. (There’s also LPCM mono but its not nearly as good). There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles.
All in all this is so much more than “just” a historical document. In every way it’s a performance worth watching.