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The Catalan German Piano ™ jams with the lo-fi czardas caballeros (Xavier Sabata, Wigmore Hall, 9 October 2017)

Wiggy usher (opens a window): oh, hello darling!
Woman: hello! I’ve never heard this band before, are they any good?

Xavi Sabata countertenor
(dis)Armonia Atenea, George Petrou director

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto for Strings in G minor RV157
Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676-1760)
Ciò che donò la frode … Alza al ciel pianta orgogliosa Adelaide
Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (c.1682-1732)
In te, sposa Griselda, mi uccido … Cara sposa Griselda
Antonio Vivaldi
Trio Sonata in D minor Op. 1 No. 12 RV63 ‘La follia’
Pietro Torri (c.1650-1737)
Vorresti col tuo pianto Griselda
Antonio Vivaldi
Gelido in ogni vena Farnace RV711

Interval

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Admeto, re di Tessaglia HWV22
Introduzione
Orride larve!
Chiudetevi miei lumi
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783)
Viver vogl’io sempre per te mio dio … Or mi pento La conversione di Sant’Agostino
Antonio Vivaldi
Mandolin Concerto in C major RV425
Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729)
Spirate, o iniqui marmi … Voi d’un figlio tanto misero Caio Marzio Coriolano
Giuseppe Maria Orlandini
O del mio caro ben … Già mi sembra al carro avvinto Adelaide

Encore:

Lorca poem in Greek
Delizie e contenti Cavalli

Yes, the “…” are supposed to be not particularly subtle pregnant pauses liberally placed.

And, no, the moniker “German piano” isn’t my invention, because I know nothing about pianos, German or otherwise. I nicked it from Baroque Bird, who actually owns a piano (German?).

I do however know a bit about the – trv kvlt – black metal sound, which I occasionally reference around here, most famously in relation to Roschmann’s “facial” during Non piu di fiori 😉

In this case, it’s what the band’s sound at “shredding time” reminded me of. Those of you not familiar with (the second wave of) black metal should note vintage bm is the most trv kvlt-sounding of all extreme metal genres1. Forget death metal growls, forget industrial’s… industrial sounds; bm’s vision2 is:

  1. get beat up instruments from a decrepit second hand shop
  2. drag them through thickening mud
  3. plug them in (bonus if you get electric shocks on occasion)
  4. shred in unison only
  5. place boombox from 1981 (previously run over by a lorry) about 50m away from the instruments
  6. hit record (hit it like you mean it)
  7. rip out the tape’s ribbon
  8. shred it to pieces
  9. piece it together randomly with used sellotape
  10. shake well until you achieve complete homogenisation of sound
  11. save on your laptop using the lowest sound quality possible
  12. play loudly on said 1981 boombox
  13. = masterpiece!
  14. bonus: take yourself very seriously
  15. ps: don’t believe me?

I (being the kind hearted optimist you know and love) prefer to think this was Petrou’s mission statement, rather than a showcase for the band’s actual skills.

Or I did back in Halle this past June, when I blamed it all on boogie the acoustically challenged venue.

They did come up with a new twist here – perhaps they did it in Halle too, and the acoustics were indeed so echo-y the whole thing bounced off my skull and got lost. This new(?) twist was the czardas-turned last ritornello in La follia, that unfailing old Vivaldi chestnut. Or was it a sirtaki? Now I seem to remember it’s customary to make sure your violin keeps in tune for a czardas

but I’m not a musician, so I can go stick my opinion in a blog or something, right?… all I’m saying is I’ve actually (or literally) had my ears checked recently and they have passed the MOT.

This Summer I listened to more Currentzis than I cared to and to be fair, that

pregnant pause thing

has its merits. But this time I really hurt for some legato with that pregnancy. It should still flow, shouldn’t it? I don’t know if you, dear reader, are familiar with Tracey Emin’s hand drawings, but suffice it to say that drawing skills aren’t prerequisite for becoming a contemporary fine art superstar. Still Tracy Emin surprised us with her humble side a few years back when she suddenly put some effort into honing her inner Picasso. The night’s orchestral accompaniment was the aural equivalent of that when it came to negotiating dynamics (and, often, tune).

dehggi (during the Cavalli encore): ah, so exquisite! Even the violins are more in tu… nevermind, I spoke too soon. But Sabata should sing more of this stuff.

After all, we were all there to hear him. I for one wanted to see him live specifically for his dramatic talents. At one point (right after the intermission?) he walked out with the band. The aria had a very long intro so he stood quietly to the side. All of a sudden he walked decisively towards the centre of the room, but not “hi all, listen to my next aria”, which is how it often feels like in recitals. Or how Antonio Poli walked off stage after a really good rendition of Il mio tesoro in the staged Don Giovanni at ROH :-p 3 No, this was thoroughly in character well before he started singing. And then things got even better because he has a very good technique that serves him up and down the range. And, you know, he‘s in tune.

At first I didn’t quite know what was happening because I barely heard him during the first aria and I lay some heavy blame on his projection or lack thereof. You should be heard from the 11th row at Wiggy. But things improved dramatically during the evening, which caused me to place the blame back on the Tracey Emins. Good on him for not forcing himself to sing over the racket. The second aria was already much better, when he employed some very stylish forays down the middle of his voice and all of a sudden someone on stage had personality. Fancy that.

He’s not the kind of singer who dazzles with endless coloratura (I understand this is the basis of the German Piano metaphor) but he can phrase with the best of them and has an imagination (and skills) to shape the sound, as thadieu would say. Which is why he should sing more of that Early Baroque, I think he has the right feel for it and for making it exciting.

In spite of all this, there were a couple of things from the others that I enjoyed – the metallic wrist-slashing chords from the viola da gamba during Gelido in ogni vena, the jazzy show starter from the double bass4 and the “wave” sound (during the Lorca song) that came out from the gut of the harpsi when Petrou stroked it. Wish the Vivaldijazz was further explored/incorporated and not in that L’aperggiata smooth jazz manner.

… it made for very lively conversation with Baroque Bird, Leander and friends at the interval and afterwards, though we didn’t all agree about everything.

as usual, sorry for any typos/errors, it’s been almost a week and I want to put it out there and my brain is a bit hazy edit-wise today.

  1. and it thus attracts tryhards by the boatload. BM fans tend to be even more humourless than those belcanto fans who think opera died when Callas lost her voice the first time. 
  2. “Just crank the gain, turn up the treble, scoop the mids, and bury the bass. “Metal” distortion pedals can also work well. The old bands did not give a f@ck about good tone.” (from here). 
  3. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that! He just walked away, like ok, aria done, let me get back to my crossword puzzle. 
  4. Yes to jazzy Vivaldi in general, though perhaps not so much to a syncopated tune in particular… but that’s personal taste for you. 
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Stomp of joy, coif of steel (4 June, Sonia Prina at Halle Handel Fest 2017)

look at that fine coif, after 2hrs of sweating!

All you’ve heard about the Halle Handel Fest atmosphere is true. Now I’m not your best witness, seeing as how I only had time/funds1 for one performance in one venue but the feel in and around Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche was relaxed and congenial, complete with “cheerleader” thumping.

Going to a not very large town at the weekend (long weekend at that) makes said town appear deader than perhaps it is. So you shouldn’t be surprised we saw Prina strolling again or that we ran into other “opera travellers” (this time Leander and Baroque Bird’s Twitter friends Meri from Barcelona and Jutta from… Germany) – it’s probably because the only people out and about were musicians and opera fans. After the show we joined them for some general opera chat (often from opposite sides of the argument! keeping it intellectually stimulating into the night 😉 ).

Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche is on Leipzigerstrasse across from shops and has a fountain and stone benches where you can wait (feverishly) for the doors to open. We were there super early because Agathe was convinced the show was starting at 7pm (eager 😉 ). It paid off!

I scouted the area (as it was on my path) before meeting Agathe and then we went there together. There was no movement that early on (3pm) and little at 6pm. Then a few old ladies dressed for church showed up and still the door stayed shut. Eventually Prina herself (+ fiance) skipped by (proper spring in her step) to the artists’ entrance. “Our” door = nada.

Finally we were allowed in at 7pm on the dot (I imagine) but not in-in, just in the boxoffice area and in the inner courtyard. Prina and team were doing warmups on the other side of the wall, as if our fire needed stoking 😉 As we were chatting, Meri from Barcelona showed up. We had met at Stutzmann’s 2 July show at the Wiggy last year, when she said “I know you from from Giulia on Twitter!” The Giulia she meant is the Giulia we know and love (so thank you, Giulia, for mentioning me, even though I’m not on Twitter 🙂 ). Small Baroque world, small Baroque fan world. To illustrate just how small, Meri and I met again the next day at Schönefeld Airport.

Finally we got in. We hoped the seat next to me would still be free and Agathe could upgrade but sadly no dice. I had two gents dressed in suits on each side; how they coped with the heat is a mystery to me but then they probably haven’t spent the last decade at an average temperature of 19C like yours truly.

Ombra cara (with Vivaldi instrumental greatest hits and the Hasse one from the Rokoko CD because everyone likes it)

mezzos and contralto FTW!

Sonia Prina contralto
George Petrou director | Armonia Atenea
Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche

i. Concert in A minor RV522 (Vivaldi)
Bella Asteria Tamerlano
Agitato da fiere tempeste Ricardo primo
i. La follia (Vivaldi)
Ombra cara Radamisto
Furibundo spira il vento Partenope

Intermission

i. Concert in G major for mandolin and orchestra Op.3 Nr.11 (JA Hasse)
Pena, tiranna Amadigi
Se fiera belva ha cinto Rodelinda (what is this one ripping off? I can’t figure out!)
i. Concert in E minor RV484 (Vivaldi)
Qual nave smarrita Radamisto
Venti, turbini Rinaldo

Encore:

Già l’ebro mio ciglio (? I’m pretty sure it was this one…) Orlando
Fammi combatere Orlando

Prina beamed through the evening and infected everyone on stage and most beyond with her liveliness. Even Meri’s friend Jutta, who’s hardly a Prina fan, noted with surprise that she’d never seen Petrou smile before.

She started with Bella Asteria which was all gentle lovey-doveness; a good easing into the mood. I’d heard it in that interview she did for the BBC last month and wasn’t quite convinced. Again, live everything sounds better; it’s probably easier to feed off a roomful of people than to sound exciting in a studio with an audience of technicians at work and a (good) accompanist on the harpsichord, especially when no one asks you how it is to play a man on stage 😉

It’s true she can make you swoon with her sudden drops to seductive ppps and her lightly smoked tone sounded as smooth as ever but I first and foremost love her for the stomp. I can’t think of anyone else on the Baroque opera stage today who’s more effective when it comes to the heroic stance. Certainly no one looks like they have more fun with it.

That fun goes a very long way. I might just be speaking for myself but forget about aced high notes and ringing chest ones, smooth coloratura and beautiful legato – if the performance is bland and detached you might just as well stay home and listen to a polished recording. The truth is I’m going through the trouble of organising a trip abroad because I want to be seduced. I want that electricity in the room (even the occasional palpitations that come with it) that can only be communicated directly by a very involved performer.

After a triple dose of Prina within the span of three weeks it’s perhaps hard to write anything new. She was happy and in great form. She “delivered” to the standards those who like her would appreciate. In fact, having seen her 6 times now I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t “on”. Quite the work rate.

the Handeltram

A recital is a different beast from an operatic performance, even a concert one. The performer mainly feeds off you, the audience, as opposed to other performers on stage. Baroque Bird was curious if there had been any costume changes. I was surprised to note that I hadn’t even thought about that and that I actually didn’t remember any in previous recitals. But apparently there had been (at Wiggy). So you see, perhaps it’s not that kind of venue, as Baroque Bird later mused. Perhaps a regular recital is different from a festival recital.

Though the atmosphere was relaxed, it was so in a different manner than at Wiggy. Generally, as you can tell, the setlist was very structured – now a slow and sexy aria, now a furious one, and this structure was not strayed from, for better or worse, even in the encores, where performers usually loosen up and may even sing an aria by a (gasp) different composer (what? we had so much Vivaldi already!). I wonder how much say the conductor has, since I saw some material overlap with the following day’s Cencic recital in Salzburg. I was happy with the choices, quite a few of which I had not heard her sing before. But you can see what I mean when it comes to the feel of the thing. If I were to compare the three recent performances I’ve seen, the TADW one was lively and free, the Barbican a bit toned down and the Halle one lively but a tad too neatly organised.

Of course that doesn’t mean the fury arias didn’t punch. I had already hinted at almost passing out from the sheer drama in Furibundo spira il vento (that knack for timing I keep mentioning when it comes to Prina) and the mad stomp that Venti, turbini turned out to be. I’ll forever be let down now if the next performances of it I see don’t include kicks and stomping 😀 The urgent way she phrases the words venti, turbini! in the repeats is unique, too. Some people go soft on turbini and rush with the command, but let me tell you: it’s wrong.

After her impressive stint earlier this Spring in Rodelinda it was good to hear her sing a Bertarido aria for a change (and the damn thing got properly stuck in my head for days!). Same with Agitato da fiere tempeste and Fammi combatere, which were interesting to hear with a thicker kick, as in my mind it’s always Ann Hallenberg singing them and although I love her too, I don’t quite see her as a mad (anti)hero.

…I think I have to leave the comments on the swoony-seductive arias to Agathe 🙂

Handel: Goodbye, Halle! I’m going to Italy!

The day started with downpours so I spent the morning in a heavy session of thumb twiddling at the temporary dehggi residence in Halle. The sun came out with a vengeance once Agathe and I met by Handel’s statue. We decided to stroll, which was very pleasant (let’s walk this way!) on a now warm and quiet summer afternoon. I’m a big fan of the winding street thing and I also appreciate the unassuming, such as Handel House; those two terms sum up the Old Town.

Our conversation extended from opera to the past 30 post-communist years, because it’s quite obvious Eastern Germany hasn’t yet shaken the spirit. Halle is an interesting mixture of said pretty winding medieval streets with goodlooking architecture in the Old Town and communist vestiges popping up elsewhere (like the train/bus station area, which gave me flashbacks to the ’80s; even the customer service did2). Leipzigerstrasse, the street linking the train/bus station area with the venue and Marktplatz in the Old Town, is a curious narrow, old building-lined shopping strip with a persistent ex-communist feel (the shops) which feel was not aided by the super deadness on a Sunday/church holiday.

I felt the venue a bit wonky from the getgo, as it’s very narrow for how tall it is, with barely two aisles of seats and some more tucked away on the left side. I do get it, continental Gothic churches and all, but hot on a Summer day3 with all windows closed. At the front it was even hotter due to stage lights. Jutta later joked there was ventilation at the back – at foot level 😉 The staff was indeed very nice – the coat checker even suggested Agathe and I leave our stuff on the same hanger. The toilets were likewise good. So though I’m being critical I don’t want it to come off as all around negativity.

Leipziger Turm

Baroque Bird informed me since that Jutta had slammed the band on Twitter and I will admit I too had some issues with the sound, though to me it wasn’t clear who or what was the biggest culprit. Either way, it’s not natural to have problems hearing properly from the second row. Namely at the beginning (Concert in A minor) I couldn’t make out the low strings. Later I did notice a significant improvement in balance but a sense of muddled sound persisted; after several times at St George’s Hanover Sq I know that sound in churches often gets lost vertically, so it might have well been the case. Jutta said later the band is usually very unbalanced but I had not heard them before live, and since I know even less about instruments than about voices, I’ll refrain from further comments. Suffice it to say I wasn’t convinced – though when I could hear the low strings I did rather enjoy them. It helped that Prina’s voice has a cello-like consistency.

As the lyrical waxing above may remind you, I’m a singer’s fan so as long as the singer sounds good to me the accompaniment comes second. But having heard some orchestras with enough personality to make me pay attention I’m not denying the experience is more pleasurable when the singer has a solid “cushion” to spring off. In conclusion:

Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche with a sign that invites wise cracks

ps: as usual, sorry about any typos etc., just finished a batch of nights but I know I’ve taken long enough with this post 🙂

  1. I actually did have time but it does get complicated when there are only so many days (budget) planes fly from London to Leipzig and back and you have to look at other options for departing the land of music. 
  2. lady selling me the flixbus ticket somehow understood my “Berlin” as “Hamburg”; I know my German doesn’t rate but seriously. 
  3. if that Salzburg thing works out I think I need to bring ice packs along.