NEW! CHRISTOPHE ROUSSET IN CONVERSATION WITH COLIN CLARKE

20/02/2019

Christophe Rousset (c) Eric Larrayadieu

Christophe Rousset (c) Eric Larrayadieu

I meet Christophe Rousset in a café that is part of the Strasbourg opera complex; pop music (rap? hip-hop?) issues forth from the speakers; a stark contrast to the subject of our interview, Legrenzi’s opera La Divisione del Mondo. The interview takes place just a couple of hours prior to the last performance at Strasbourg, after which the production moves on to fresh venues.

CC: Maestro, A little about yourself first, maybe? I know you won first prize at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges in 1983; you studied with Huguette Dreyfuss and Bob Van Asperen;  and you have a passion for French Baroque music. I’m always very interested in what we take from our teachers, be it passion, knowledge or both. What did you learn from each of them, and how do you see the development of your own individual path?

Christophe Rousset: Well, Madame Dreyfuss was more of a mum; she was really very affective and with her I discovered the repertoire for the harpsichord, but I must say that I learned the proper harpsichord technique with Bob van Asperen in Holland; so that’s how it was divided. My choice was to go to Holland and to try to understand how the School of Gustav Leonhardt was working, how was their perception of the instrument, because obviously I liked their interpretations but I didn’t understand well how to achieve them. So, going to those lessons I got the key, let’s say, and developed an idiomatic technique for the instrument, because you can’t really play the harpsichord like the piano or the organ; it has a specific production of sound and you really have to be very conscious about it. That’s what I learned: I certainly didn’t learn passion!

My own path was to actually learn a lot from original instruments, original harpsichords, they taught me a lot, especially regarding sound palette. Often people think – students coming to me – that the harpsichord has just one colour and no possibility of dynamics, but it’s not true, there is a wide range of quality of sounds possible on the instrument. Once we know that, we develop an idea of sound and we try to synthesise this idea on modern instruments.

CC: I want to explore the fact that an early interest of yours was archaeology: now, in a sense, you are a musical archaeologist. So, did you have the choice between the two disciplines? Could you have been an archaeologist?

CR: Probably I could have, but to follow that idea. you need your own money. Archaeology I did in the library, with the scores.

CC: A vital part of your path has been the founding of your own group who play tonight, Les Talens Lyriques who tackle repertoire as diverse as Jomelli (Armida abbandonata), Tomasso Traetta (Antigona), Cimarosa (Matrimonio segreto), Mozart (Mitridate, with Bartoli and Dessay) and Salieri (Les Horaces). You’ve also done film, early on (Farinelli). And a real part of that recently has been the exploration of the dialogue between two cultures, France and Italy. Could you expand on that exchange?

CR: Let’s say the whole of Europe was looking at Italy as the birthplace of music. Everything came from Italy in music, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. French music really came from Italy, and so I think the link is very clear in that direction. Then with the propaganda art of Louis XIV, France became important in Europe politically, so then he wanted the French music to be a model. So, someone like Bach looks at the French school as a model but also Italian people made some reforms of the opera looking at the tragédie of the French opéra, so that dialogue is very rich and quite amazing; this is a real mixture, an interplay.

CC: Moving on to tonight, we will hear Legrenzi’s La Divisione del Mondo, premiered in Venice. Would you first of all like to place Legrenzi (1626-90) in the musical timeline? Also, his importance to Venice, and the importance of Venice to yourself?

CR: So, it’s North Italy, and he went East. Venice was a very important centre for music and for opera. Opera wasn’t born in Venice but that’s the place where the theatres opened more and it was a private enterprise. So, at the time of Legrenzi there were five or seven theatres for opera, a huge number for the time. Legrenzi is very interesting as he inherited the tradition of Monteverdi and Cavalli, so it is very clear you still have the flavour of the recitar cantando you find in Cavalli, but it is going to the eighteenth century in the sense of clear recitative and clear aria.

CC: The arias are quite short …

CR: They are short but still you get the form of the da capo aria coming through, and also the melismas. Its not virtuoso yet but you feel the flavour, and its very charming. It is enchanting, I would say. The vocal lines are really beautiful, this is really the birth of bel canto. I invite you to listen carefully to that. You have the flavour of the previous school but also it opens to Handel, somehow, to Lully. So, Lully was more or less active in the same years. You have a sleeping scene there [in the Legrenzi] that recalls the sleeping scene in Atis, which is one year later, so I don’t know if the music was circulating that well …

Perhaps it was in the air? Also, there is your national genius, Purcell. Purcell you say he is of course very English, he has the English tradition, especially the church tradition, but there are also French influences, for example in Dido the French tragédie is there, dances and so on, and generally people say also an Italian flavour, but where from? Legrenzi is a good answer … I felt some flavours, melodically, sometimes, or with the ostinato of the beginning of the third act, with the descending chromatic bass (as in ‘Dido’s Lament’). Of course, it is not the same singing lines, but there are flavours, and the dates are perfect.

CC: The reference to the ‘Lament’ at the opening of the third act is indeed undeniable, it turned out. Dido is a tragedy; La Divisione has been described as a soap opera of the Gods, as opposed to a Götterdämmerung. Could you give us a quick précis of the plot?

CR: The Gods are a big family. Saturn and Rhea are the grandparents, then the second generation is Jupiter, Pluto, Neptune and so on and then there is the younger generation of Apollo, Diana, Mars and Venus, then the children, with Cupid. This whole family is actually in a big crisis because Venus is involved in some way with every male in the situation, which makes a big mess. So, she doesn’t want Pluto or Neptune, but both are crazy about her. Jupiter is in love; she wants to get Apollo but he is resisting. It is a soap opera, it is not based on mythology at all but is a fantasy. The stage director shows how near to our characters these gods are, how they react. It is a comedy, it was written for the carnival, but still in this agitation, this mess, these loves, there are moments of despair, so it also gives a place for laments, for tragic music.

CC: I refer to the previous performances of this by Hengelbrock, and his sources. The MS is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, while the score is freely available on IMSLP.

CR: We used Hengelbrock’s edition, which was based on the only remaining MS, so it is full of mistakes. This MS was not used for performances, so I have corrected, perhaps not in the same way as he did. It is a very long score, so it has been cut for this show. And that’s our version. This music doesn’t say what instrument is to be used, so all the palette or colours of woodwind instruments are mine. What you hear is a personal view on it, but it needs a personal view. You can’t deliver the music as it is.

CC: So, with regard to your singers: you generally don’t work with ‘superstars’ as such (although you have with Bartoli and Dessay for Mitridate), what is the selection process regarding singers?

CR: Actually, we were conscious about their looks also. If you are Venus, you can’t really look ugly or fat, unless you change the purpose, of course you could make a funny story out of it. But I think in the casting you will recognise the characters, just physically, which is a good thing. And then I think the level of singing is very even, it is a good and even cast without any stars and with very good singing.

CC: Will you be recording the piece?

CR: It will be taken for DVD. You will have something; it is quite unknown, and Hengelbrock’s is not available.

CC: I am interested in the dynamic between conductor and director. Last time I saw you was in Amsterdam, for Stefano Landi La Morte d’Orfeo, at the Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam; that was with Pierre Audi. Do you choose who to work with?

CR: Very rarely. You know why? Maybe I shouldn’t say it but let’s say it: directors of opera houses believe they are creators, just putting together a musical director and a stage director. So, they are making chemistry, putting two names together. Nowadays it’s quite rare and the priority is for the stage directors these days. That’s the tendency; unfortunately, I would say. Because all the opera houses are fighting for the same names. Do we really always want to see the same sort of show?

CC: In terms of this Legrenzi, how would you describe this Jetske Mijnssen production?

CR: It’s very bourgeois. She took the idea of the soap opera and played with it, and it is quite funny. The unique set, the costumes, the whole thing is light in the spirit of the piece. Sometimes a stage director modernises things and tries to put a concept on them, but then it works for maybe ten minutes and then we get tired of it. Here, it’s a very light thing, and respects the spirt of the work. So, if you are not in the letter of the score, or the aesthetics, it is in the spirit of it. Which is exactly what we need. We don’t need to have machinery and things like this because we don’t expect the same thing, but the spirit is important and Mijnssen really got it and really created some touching moments, not just funny.

CC: This was the last performance in Strasbourg; the production then moves to Mulhouse (March 1st and 3rd) and then Colmar (March 9th), reaching Verseilles on the 13th and 14th of April. And given that Rousset is bringing his group to London’s Wigmore Hall on February 21st, this was the ideal time to bring this up as a postscriptum to the main event, the Legrenzi.

At the Wigmore, you’re wearing your other hat, as it were, and you’re entering the world of Monteverdi, in a programme entitled ‘Guerrieri e amorosi’. (Incidentally, on the same day, there is also an 11am concert with Soraya Mafi, who sings in the Legrenzi).

CR: We are touring with this programme, which is mostly centred on Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Corilla. This is war and love together, and perhaps the jewel of Monteverdi. If anything is a jewel, it’s this. It’s very short, it is fantastic music with all the contrasts, and so inventive. This is the centre of it; we use the three voices with other Monteverdi music, so we have the Lamento d’Arianna, we have duets for two tenors, and the music is just exquisite. We mix Monterverdi with some other composers for the instrumental music.

CC: This performance will be reviewed by Seen and Heard-International; it sounds almost as mouth-watering as the Legrenzi.

NEW! VENEZUELAN MUSICIAN GABRIELA MONTERO IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE

11/02/2019

Pianist and composer Gabriela Montero interviewed by Gregor Tassie

Gabriela Montero

Gabriela Montero’s brilliant music-making and her dazzling freeform arrangements of classical piano works have placed her among the most fascinating musicians in the world today. Her compositions reflect upon the stormy events of recent years in her homeland and her defence of human rights across the globe. Gabriela Montero is the first appointed Amnesty International Honorary Consul for Human Rights. Several of her compositions have won wide-spread praise together with her recordings including her Grammy award for her Ex Patria poem for piano and orchestra. In February 2019 she tours the United Kingdom for a series of concerts from Scotland through to London in which she will play the premiere of her new piece Babel with the award-winning Scottish Ensemble. Read more

NEW! London To Hear Long-Overdue Revival of Parry’s Oratorio Judith in April

30/01/2019

An Introduction to Sir Hubert Parry’s Oratorio Judith

William Vann (c) Tom Medwell

Countless people will have sung the hymn ‘Dear Lord and father of mankind’ without knowing the origin of its fine tune, known as ‘Repton’. And why should they? The tune is taken from Sir Hubert Parry’s oratorio, Judith, a work that has lain in almost total obscurity for decades. Now, however, the complete work is shortly to be heard in the UK for the first time in over 65 years. William Vann is to conduct a performance in London’s Royal Festival Hall on 3 April. Read more

NEW! PIANIST MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN

14/01/2019

THE GREAT CANADIAN ARTISTS: AN INTERVIEW WITH MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN

Marc-André Hamelin © Sim Cannety-Clarke

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has emerged as one of the marvels of the twenty-first century. Few living pianists can match his transparency of articulation, rhythmic and tonal control and cunning virtuoso strength, and these characteristics are resoundingly illustrated in his recordings and concert performances of a vast range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century repertoire. His early – and indeed enduring – contribution lay in bringing technically-challenging works of lesser known and often forgotten composers to public attention, placing them on the world stage in the best light for others to absorb and study. In recent years, he has applied his interpretative and technical acumen to more mainstream literature with great success. Read more

NEW! Ik zeg: NU: I say now, now … an interview with Richard Causton

11/01/2019

Richard Causton

Richard Causton

What do you understand by the word ‘history’? This simple question, but one which will inevitably prompt multifarious and complex responses, was the origin of the title of Richard Causton’s new orchestral work, Ik zeg: NU (which translates from Dutch as ‘I say: NOW’), which was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and will be premiered by the orchestra and their chief conductor Sakari Oramo at the Barbican Hall later this month.

When Richard’s relative, 98-year-old Sal van Son, posed the question to his 10-year-old great-nephew, the latter’s response, “I say now now, and a moment later it is already history”, inspired the title of van Son’s book which recounts over four hundred years of his family’s history, including his own experiences during the Second World War when he went into hiding in a rural farm house in Holland to evade the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews.

The child’s response was, as so often the child’s view of the world is, simultaneously simple and sophisticated, encapsulating a seemingly irreconcilable paradox with clarity and directness. Richard explains to me that this notion of how we experience time past and present seemed to him to be comparable to the way we experience music – which exists only in time, as it is performed, lingering as only an aural ghost – and to our experience of life itself, as we look back to past times, people and places which are irrecoverable but sustained by recollection and remembrance. And, it is this concept which Ik zeg: NU seeks to embody.

I ask the composer how he has sought to musically ‘represent’ our experience of time in Ik zeg: NU, and he explains that the work has no ‘narrative’, nor is the listener taken on a ‘journey’; rather, the composition is static and juxtaposes and superimposes two contrasting types of music. There is “slow music” which changes almost imperceptibly, forcing the listener to engage intently with its scarcely discernible progress, and “incredibly fast music which is whimsical and quite light”. Richard describes the latter as a “menagerie” and invites me to imagine the sounds that one might hear as one passes a busy, noisy child’s playground: numerous and diverse overlapping shouts, songs and snatches which one can’t quite grasp, and which exist only in the moment, evading memory. The slow music persists as the fast music interrupts and overwhelms, only for the latter to dissolve revealing the ongoing presence of the former. And, so, the listener’s ear is pulled back and forth between the background and the foreground, confronted with the elusiveness of the present.

The ‘strata’ are distinguished instrumentally, too. Richard clarifies that, unusually, each instrument has only one role. The fast music, which is entirely comprised of root position major triads, is performed by various trio groups – piccolo, clarinet, oboe; trios of solo first and second violins; piano and harps – with the remaining instruments presenting the inexorable background. The latter is often dominated by clanging microtonal bells. Richard has redesigned the instrument that he first deployed in another work which deliberated on time – The Persistence of Memory, which drew its title from Salvador Dali’s painting of melting clocks, and which was premiered by Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta at the Southbank Centre in 1995 – incorporating bells at different pitches so as to facilitate new harmonic possibilities. The bells are very resonant and, in contrast to the fast music which feels “weightless”, as the slow music unfolds there is a “tremendous sense of gravity”. Patterns are interrupted and disrupted, and the interference creates a sense of dislocation. I wonder about the associations that we inevitably make with the tolling reverberation of bells and though I hesitate to use the word ‘spiritual’, Richard concurs that such associations are deep-rooted and unavoidable.

Which brings me back to Sal van Son’s book: Richard has explained that his work has no ‘narrative’, but I wonder if there are any episodes in the historical account which made a particular impact on him and which he has responded to in Ik zeg: NU? The composer describes van Son’s account of hiding in a hayloft as the Nazis banged on a thin partition wall, behind which he was hiding, as being “chilling to read”: “It’s impossible to imagine such experiences; or, in my opinion, to deal with them in music”, he observes. But, Ik zeg: NU is a homage to van Son, whose brother was killed in a concentration camp: an acknowledgement of his survival to such an incredible age, and a celebration of his irrepressible youthfulness of spirit. The work is also dedicated to the composer’s four-year-old son. Richard explains that van Son still enjoys travelling and meeting people, and he suggests that is some ways the nonagenarian seems to embody the fusion of past and present, age and youth, that Ik zeg: NU seeks to explore through music.

Ik zeg: NU will be performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo at the Barbican Hall on 23rd January.

Claire Seymour

NEW! CONDUCTOR ÁDÁM FISCHER IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON

21/12/2018

Michael Cookson interviews Ádám Fischer

Ádám Fischer conducting the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker © Susanne Diesner

Sitting in the conductor room at the famous Semperoper, Dresden last May I interviewed conductor Ádám Fischer. In an hour’s time he would be conducting a compelling performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio directed Keith Warner (click here). I couldn’t help but contemplate on the many famous conductors who had been in the room over the years since the Semperoper’s reconstruction in 1985. Read more

BARITONE SIMON MECHLIŃSKI IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE

05/12/2018

Robert Beattie interviews Simon Mechliński

Simon Mechliński (c) Zbychu Nowak

The Wexford Opera Festival is famous for introducing rare, neglected and new works to the public. It also provides a forum for young performers to make their mark on the world. One such performer at this year’s Festival was 25-year-old Polish baritone, Simon Mechliński, who performed in Mercandante’s Il bravo (click here) and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (click here). Read more

CONDUCTOR ELIM CHAN IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE

28/11/2018

Gregor Tassie Interviews Elim Chan

Elim Chan (c) Willeke Machiels

The young Chinese conductor Elim Chan has enjoyed a highly successful career since she won her breakthrough competition at the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition roughly four years ago and which immediately gave her the opportunity of working as an assistant conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra. In London she had the opportunity of being mentored by Valery Gergiev (who invited her to conduct the Mariinsky Orchestra in St Petersburg), Michael Tilson-Thomas and Sir Antonio Pappano. In 2017 she was appointed chief conductor at Norrlandsoperan in Umea, Sweden, and principal guest conductor at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and at the beginning of 2018, she was appointed chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra from the 2019-2020 season. In a short period, Chan has worked with some of the best orchestras worldwide, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Read more

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