Monday, 29 June 2009

Handel's Partenope

BBC Radio 3's Handel opera cycle continues with Partenope, which is available to hear again on BBC iPlayer. In this extract from Winton Dean's magisterial Handel's Operas 1726-1741, he looks at the early history of the opera:

Handel finished Act I on 14 January 1730, the whole opera on 6 February, and produced it at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 24 February, with ‘the scenes and dresses all entirely new.’ The cast was:

Partenope: Anna Strada del Pò (soprano)
Rosmira: Antonia Merighi (contralto)
Arsace: Antonio Bernacchi (alto castrato)
Armindo: Francesca Bertolli (contralto)
Emilio: Annibale pio Fabri (tenor)
Ormonte: Johann Gottfried Riemschneider (bass)

There were seven performances. Nothing is known of the reception, but it must have been fairly favourable, for Handel revived Partenope in his next season on 12 December the same year, again for seven performances. There were two changes of cast, Senesino replacing Bernacchi as Arsace and Giovanni Commano replacing Riemschneider as Ormonte. Handel cut the arias ‘T’appresta forse amore’ (Commano was thought capable only of recitative), ‘Fatto è amor’, ‘La gloria in nobil alma’ (these two with their introductory recitatives) and ‘Sì scherza sì’, but gave Senesino a new aria, ‘Seguaci di Cupido’ in the last scene

Handel’s second and last revival was at Covent Garden on 29 January 1737, when according to the London Post and General Advertiser of 1 February there was ‘a great disturbance’ in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. There were four performances, with a new cast except for Strada and Bertolli, who was promoted from Armindo to Rosmira. Arsace was sung by the alto castrato Domenico Annibali, Armindo by the soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti, Emilio by the tenor John Beard, and Ormonte by the contralto Maria Caterina Negri. Apart from the need to cater for the altered pitch of Armindo and Ormonte, Handel had two objectives, to shorten the opera and to provide a substantial part for Conti. This involved reordering the balance of the work, promoting Armindo to equal prominence with Arsace, both parts being played by leading castratos. No fewer than forty-five further passages of recitative were cut, some of considerable length, necessitating many new transitions.

Four more arias disappeared and ‘T’appresta forse amore’ and ‘Sì, scherzo sì’ were restored, the latter now sung by Armindo in II.iv. Arsace’s ‘Furibondo’ was transferred to Ormonte in III.iv with a new B section text, and Emilio’s ‘La speme ti consoli’ to Armindo, likewise in III.iv, with changed pronouns and modified text (‘La speme mi consola’). Armindo received an extra aria, ‘Bramo restar’, in I.vii (where previously he had gone out without an aria), the music taken from Muzio Scevola (‘Come se ti vedrò’) with parodied words. He probably sang Emilio’s ‘Barbaro fato’ in A minor at the end of act II; the autograph contains a note to that effect, and the reassigned aria is in the performing score, but not in the libretto. Otherwise Act I ended with ‘Io ti levo’, Act II with ‘Qual farfalletta’. Armando’s two surviving 1730 arias were transposed up for Conti, ‘Voglio dire’ from E minor to B minor, ‘Non chiedo’ from d minor to F sharp minor, and higher alternatives added for him in the quartet. Whereas at the first performance Arsace had nine arias to Armindo’s three, now each had six. Emilio retained only one of his original four arias. Ormonte with two fared better as a contralto than as a bass.

Partenope enjoyed considerable if temporary success in Germany. First performed at Brunswick in February 1731, it was revived there and at neighbouring Salzthal and Wolfenbüttel a number of times in the two following years, and seems to have been considered particularly suitable for royal occasions. It graced the birthdays of the Dowager Duchess of Brunswick (Salzthal, 12 September 1731) and the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI (Wolfenbüttel, 1 October 1732), and the marriage of the future Frederick the Great of Prussia (the Crown prince) to a Brunswick princess (Hamburg, 15 June 1733). These performances were in Italian. a production at Hamburg, on 28 October 1733, the arias in Italian, the recitatives translated by Christian Gottlieb Wendt and set by Keiser, remained in the repertory for four seasons, reaching twenty two performances by 1736.

Partenope seems to have made no contribution to the current concert repertory. Handel incorporated three arias (‘Io ti levo’, ‘Non chiedo’ and ‘La gloria in nobil alma’) with parodied texts in his pasticcio Oreste (December 1734), and Conti sang the last-named in the December 1736 revival of Poro. ‘Io seguo sol fiero’, equipped with a second pair of horns, reappeared as the finale of the Concerto a due cori no. 3 in F (the ‘Concerto in Judas Maccabaeus’) in 1747. The overture featured in a Manchester subscription Concert on 28 May 1745.

Readers may be interested to know that, due to popular demand, the Boydell Press will be reissuing the first volume of Handel's Operas, covering the years 1704-1726, in September. Written by Winton Dean and the late John Merill Knapp, this volume will be published in a matching hardcover edition, and a set price will also be available for those yet to discover the wonders of these long-underrated operas.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The extraordinary Mr Chisholm

One of the joys of publishing books on classical music is that, in order to forge an identity for the list, one explores paths that are less well-trodden. It is remarkable, for example, that John Purser’s new biography of the Scottish composer and performer, Erik Chisholm, is the first since his death over 40 years ago.

As Sir Charles Mackerras points out in his foreword, 'Erik Chisholm was a musician of rare capabilities. He was a pianist and organist, a conductor, a composer, a lecturer on music, an entrepreneur and administrator, and to all these he brought a unique blend of originality, flair and energy. After an early start as a performing pianist, Chisholm established himself in Glasgow as an important influence on the progress of music in Scotland and Scottish music in general.' The two men had met in Cape Town, where they 'got on very well, partly because of a common interest in Janáček at a time when there were not so many experts on this composer as there are now.'

Anyone interested in twentieth century music will find much to engage them in this biography. Chisholm’s circle of acquaintances included Bartók, Sorabji, Hindemith, Walton, Bax and many others. Here is an extract from the book’s final chapter which gives some sense of the range of his achievement:

Of all the composers Scotland has produced, Chisholm has perhaps come closest to ‘finding a nation’s soul’, as Vaughan Williams put it, for the Scots are adventurers as well as traditionalists. They have planted their seed, and their music with it, all over the globe, and they have embraced the new while honouring the old – historically most obviously in the field of technological development, but also in the arts. When Chisholm was born, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow Art School was five years from completion. Building upon a profound knowledge of Scottish vernacular architecture, it none the less remains one of the world’s great modernist structures.

In many respects, Chisholm’s is a parallel achievement. His study of his own Scottish inheritance led him well beyond its traditional boundaries, while from childhood he was conversant with a vast repertoire of European music through the centuries. That repertoire he actively expanded through concert promotion and opera production, but it is as a composer that he should chiefly be remembered.

Looking at Chisholm’s compositional development, it is easy to identify an increasing freedom with his handling of source material such as piobaireachd, in which both virtuosity and dissonance become more prevalent. From the Sonatine Écossaise to the sonata An Rioban Dearg is no great stylistic leap: the techniques applied in the former are simply taken a stage further. Nor is there any great distance between An Rioban Dearg and Night Song of the Bards, which picks up on the virtuosity and the complexity of texture but still retains something of the mood of Scotland in its more static passages. From Night Song of the Bards to the Hindustani works is scarcely a move at all, for all are based upon râgas of similar character, at least to Western ears.

From the Hindustani works to the modernist operas such as Dark Sonnet and Simoon is also a logical move, for the choice of chromatic râgas had already dictated a degree of movement away from tonal centres towards a freer and more dissonant style. The Inland Woman shares material with Night Song of the Bards, and Simoon is heavily influenced by Hindustani styles, although it is, to a fair degree, a dodecaphonic work.

In his last years, Chisholm turned to a style informed by older musical traditions, notably in the Chaucer operas, with their strong medieval characteristics. This was not a new departure. The sonatinas of E Praeterita had already explored the Renaissance, and the second movement of Pictures from Dante is thoroughly medieval in character, as befits its subject-matter.

It is a considerable and varied output. In Chisholm’s case, the extraordinary catholicity of his taste, and the vast extent of his knowledge as performer, conductor, concert, ballet and opera promoter, teacher and dean of a faculty of music offered him many models. He was not shy of indicating the music, composers and individual works which had influenced him, and these influences have been traced throughout the book. Not to be overlooked is the significance of his having acted as secondo pianist for Casella and page-turner for Bartók, or of his performing Szymanowski in the presence of Szymanowski. In this, Chisholm was not outside a movement and learning from it; he was in it and creating it along with some of the greatest of his contemporaries – for he did not only sit beside them: they too sat beside him. They too heard how he played and what he had experienced, both in his native music and with the rest of that extraordinary mix of composers, who did not necessarily know each other or each other’s work. The connecting factor was Chisholm himself, chasing his restless muse, that he might embrace her loveliness once again, no matter what, if anything, she wore.

Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist (1904-1965): Chasing a Restless Muse was published on June 18th by the Boydell Press in association with the Erik Chisholm Trust. Author John Purser is, like his subject, a man of many parts: a Research Fellow at the Gaelic College on the Isle of Skye, an award-winning poet, composer, dramatist, broadcaster, historian of the BBC Scottish SO - and crofter. A later post will outline how he came to discover the work of Erik Chisholm.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Elliott Carter comes to Aldeburgh

The Aldeburgh Festival joins in the Elliott Carter centenary celebrations with a series of inventively-programmed concerts and a visit from the composer himself.

Mosaic (2004) is tucked away in a pre-concert performance on June 20th, as a sort of prelude to one of the evening’s- if not the Festival’s - main events, the world premiere of Carter’s On Conversing with Paradise. In his tenth decade Carter often draws upon his rich store of memories to kindle ideas for new compositions. Mosaic recalls Carter’s old friend Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961), the French-American harpist, pianist and composer who had been active in Edgard Varèse’s International Composers’ Guild, and whom Carter had known in the 1930s. Scored for a chamber ensemble of winds, strings and harp, Mosaic also pays homage to Salzedo’s exploration of advanced playing techniques which helped to bring the harp into the world of twentieth century music. Also on the bill of this pre-concert performance is a new work by the young Canadian composer now living in London, Christopher Mayo, and a short piece by Oliver Knussen.

Louis Lortie is the soloist in the ferociously difficult Night Fantasies (1978-80) on June 23rd. Although Carter has composed a number of works with prominent piano parts, this was his first piece for the solo instrument since the Sonata some thirty years earlier. Night Fantasies was commissioned by four pianists – Paul Jacobs (who organised the project), Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens and Charles Rosen – all experienced performers of Carter’s work. Identifying specific passages that might have been composed with the playing styles and personalities of each of the four in mind has become something of a musicological parlour game. More significant than any hidden code, however, is the sheer variety of the writing in this piece. David Schiff, who was studying with Carter at the time, explains, “Quite early in the course of composing the work he told me that he had already written fifty different kinds of piano music, and was now looking for ways to bring them together.”

Tamara Stefanovich plays two Carter miniatures for solo piano, in a concert scheduled during the afternoon of June 20th in the beautiful setting of Blytheburgh Church. The evening before George Benjamin will conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of his own Duet for piano and orchestra, alongside Carter’s Three Occasions (1986-89). Although Carter generally conceived his works as unified wholes, these pieces only received their present title post facto. The third piece, Anniversary, was dedicated to his wife, Helen, in honour of their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1989. Three Occasions was premiered by this same orchestra under Oliver Knussen in London’s Royal Festival Hall twenty years ago.

Carter’s attendance will make a unique occasion of the world premiere of his new song cycle, a setting of poems by Ezra Pound. The 20-minute work was commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival and features baritone Leigh Melrose and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Knussen. Carter sets parts of two of Pound's Cantos, where he despairs of not having written the perfect poem, which to him was paradise. The title On Conversing with Paradise is a quote from William Blake that Pound considered as a title for an early book of his own poems.

Elliott Carter’s centenary year of 2008 brought over 700 performances, according to Boosey & Hawkes. As these Aldeburgh concerts demonstrate, the celebrations continue alongside Carter’s own composition schedule. Figment V for marimba is premiered by Simon Boyar in New York on 2 May and the completed Poems of Louis Zukofsky for soprano and clarinet receives its first performance by Lucy Shelton and Stanley Drucker at the Tanglewood Festival on 9 August. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2009/10 season includes the US premiere of the Flute Concerto on 4 February 2010 with soloist Elizabeth Rowe conducted by James Levine, as well as performances of Dialogues with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, artistic director of this Aldeburgh Festival.

Descriptions of Carter’s works abridged largely from Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents by Felix Meyer and Anne C Shreffler, published by the Boydell Press in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation, except for On Conversing with Paradise which was excerpted from the Boosey & Hawkes website. Some tickets remain for the Aldeburgh Festival and may be purchased online via their website. Festivalgoers may also be interested in The New Aldeburgh Anthology, in which an impressive collection of writers examine the history of the Festival and its connection to Benjamin Britten and his circle, as well as aspects of the Suffolk countryside and its history. Both of these books are available from good booksellers and from the new visitors’ centre at Snape Maltings, venue for most of the Festival.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

An ideal Mélisande?

"What must it have been like," asks Gillian Opstad in a new book on Debussy's opera, "to witness the composition of one of the seminal musical works of the twentieth be in the same room as the composer as he played with sounds, changed harmonies as you sang, as you listened to chords you had never heard before and tried to make sense of a vocal line which was more like natural speech than song?" In Debussy's Mélisande, just published by the Boydell Press, Opstad looks at the colourful lives of three singers who made the role their own. Here is a short extract from the opening pages of the book:

An ideal Mélisande? Debussy certainly believed the first two singers to perform the role fulfilled his ideal, yet neither of them was the woman Maurice Maeterlinck had in mind. The part meant so much to these women that Mélisande became a pivotal role referred to throughout their lives. They were the interpreters of the role. Its creators were men, undoubtedly socially and artistically more powerful and influential in this environment: author, composer, director, conductor. Without them the women could never have achieved such fame. This is the inescapable truth in the lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte. But what women! The toughness of the life of a female opera singer, her inferior position in hierarchical society at the turn of the nineteenth century, meant that they had to be resilient and to have unshakeable belief in themselves. And then there is a dichotomy. Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande is regarded as quintessentially French, yet the two first great Mélisandes came from Britain. Both these women were determined, characterful personalities, far removed from Maeterlinck’s childlike creation.

Larger than life roles in a larger than life art form must inevitably be won by characters with a certain lack of compromise, and the willpower to succeed. To follow their story is to realise that women who were building their careers over a hundred years ago were just as capable as those of today of taking charge of their own lives, demanding attention to get their way, and that long before the age of television and mass communications, the press could be manipulated by ‘celebrities’, in an age when such a term hardly existed. The lives of the women who created Mélisande demonstrate the hardships and sacrifices such dedicated professionals had to make to keep in the public eye. Arguments and intrigues surrounding the casting of the role evoke the atmosphere of the opera house of the era. The men needed the women to bring to life the images filling their imaginations yet the praise of these men is hard earned. How damning can be their comments. Georgette Leblanc in particular suffered from their dismissive attitude. Not just contemporaries, but even later writers who could not have heard her, insist on her lack of talent. In La Passion de Claude Debussy, Dietschy claimed that Georgette was indirectly associated with the failure of Maeterlinck’s play in 1893. Yet she had not even met the author at the time of its first performance. He also finds it ‘odd’ that the Chanson de Mélisande set to music by Gabriel Fabre was dedicated to her, yet she sang this work with Fabre himself accompanying her many times. His assumption appears to be that Georgette claimed the role of Mélisande passionately as though she foresaw the dazzling success of the opera, implying that this was merely to further her own ends. Lockspeiser, in his two volume biography of Debussy dismisses Georgette with the claim that she ‘had a wretched reputation as a singer’ even though she received praise from both professionals and amateur music lovers on many occasions.

Recordings of Georgette Leblanc are very rare and, of course, the industry was in its infancy when both she and Mary Garden recorded songs so it is difficult to judge the true quality of their voices. A recent issue on CD brings us evidence of Georgette’s voice as recorded by Gramophone and Typewriter Limited in Paris in 1903, just one year after the première of Debussy’s opera, when she was thirty four. Here she is accompanied at the piano by Jules Massenet in the aria Pendant un an je fus ta femme from his opera Sapho. Massenet’s playing is so discreet that he can barely be heard at all in the background, but despite the inevitable hiss, Georgette’s voice is distinct. From descriptions of her manner, one might expect an overtly dramatic interpretation, yet whilst this aria is sung with feeling and a range of dynamics, the expression is not exaggerated. There is some vibrato, wider than Mary Garden’s, but not excessive, some scooping up to the high notes, these – particularly the top A on the last syllable of ‘ton coeur s’ouvrira’ – being clear, if a little thin. The words are well projected but not overenunciated. The same set of two CDs contains recordings of Mary Garden accompanied by Debussy, so a direct, although necessarily very limited comparison can be made of the two voices at about this time. On the basis of this brief extract, even if her rival has a purer, more lucid voice, Georgette Leblanc’s performance here does not appear to merit the derogatory criticisms made of her vocally.

Debussy's Mélisande is available now from all good booksellers. Gillian Opstad will be writing about the appeal of this opera for her in a later post.