Opera in Recital

Guest post by Joanna Harries

One of the many inexplicable snobberies I picked up from music college was that a recital should only ever include song and Lieder. Perhaps one aria – a party piece, or an audience favourite – was permissible as an encore, but otherwise opera was written for an orchestra. Performing it with piano was somehow second-rate.

It wasn’t until I’d left college that I realised how ridiculous this idea that “it’s not opera unless there’s an orchestra” is. After all, every singer spends far more of their life working with a pianist than an orchestra. Coachings, auditions, opera scenes – even the majority of rehearsals for full scale orchestral productions take place with piano. And full blown theatrical productions are expensive to put on. It’s simply not always feasible. Add to that all the amazing operatic repertoire that never gets an outing in the theatre for one reason or another and there’s quite simply no compelling reason not to perform opera in recital.

Don’t get me wrong – I love artsong and Lieder. I’m a massive Brahms fan, I love both the Schumanns, and I’ve spent the lockdowns pouring over collections of Rebecca Clarke and Wilhelm Stenhammar. I’ll never be short on material – but I wondered why I was so assiduously segregating opera and artsong in my programming. Were my college mentors right? Is opera in recital pointless?

Pianist Ashley Beauchamp certainly doesn’t think so. “Performing opera in recital is an amazing opportunity to strip the story-telling and music back to its most simple form,” he tells me. “It allows us to present opera in such an intimate way, and I find that audiences respond positively to that.”

We’re rehearsing for our upcoming recital for Opera Live @ Home on 30th March and, as the name suggests, it’s a full programme of opera. The series began in 2020 during the pandemic to bring opera live into people’s homes via Zoom. Each month a singer/pianist duo perform a carefully chosen selection of arias, followed by a Q&A, where the audience can ask any questions they like. In these most distanced of times, it’s a very intimate way to share music.

In fact, Ash and I have performed opera to all sorts of different audiences over the years. We first met performing opera in a recital at Pushkin House – repertoire from Russian operas that never get staged in the UK. And our last gig before the pandemic (on the very day the theatres closed) was to young children at the Royal Opera House’s “Opera Dots”. There is nothing like singing Hansel and Gretel to a room of five-year-olds to remind you what’s important in opera. You don’t need the set, costumes or indeed orchestra to tell a musical story.

The idea that performing opera in recital could reach a wider audience isn’t new. In 1884 a letter in the Musical Times called for a “Music for the People”:

At present we cannot with the best intentions expect the working classes to attend opera or expensive Concerts far away from their homes…let operas in recital and chamber music be given, with piano and American organ as ground work; for I maintain that it is in recital that you can best appreciate opera works, from a purely musical point of view.”

The author of this letter – a mysterious O.L. – proposed they should “write to the mayor of every town throughout the United Kingdom” to initiate these regional opera recitals. (One to suggest to Oliver Dowden, perhaps…?) I wonder what O.L. would have thought of the Zoom recital – a phenomenon that can reach more audiences than ever before, all over the world?

Opera, but not as you know it

So how does performing opera in recital compare to the stage?

Well, from a singer’s point of view, working with the right pianist is key. Some pianists instinctively click with the drama – and that’s important, because they’re telling that character’s story as much as you are. In fact, you’re no longer a singer performing “over” an orchestra – you’re in duet with the pianist. The hierarchy is completely different from performing on stage – you are both the conductor; it’s a collaboration.

Unlike with song, pianists have the added responsibility of embodying an entire orchestra. “The challenge of playing opera in a recital is that the audience is completely reliant on the pianist to create the sound-world of the piece,” says Ash. “You’re the only other thing that the singer has with them in the room to help set the scene.”

I asked Ash how performing opera compares to Lieder: “The most obvious similarity is that, ultimately, we are trying to tell a story through music, and it can feel like you’ve travelled as far through a three minute song as through a three hour opera! The crucial difference with opera is that the piano part I’m playing from is a reduction of the orchestral full score. These reductions are very often a complete minefield – they can be full of mistakes, crammed with too many notes or even missing entire chunks of important material. My job is to be as faithful as possible to the full score – recreating the music in the same way that an orchestra would in performance.”

There are challenges for the singer too. In some ways, it’s more tiring – on stage, even the largest roles don’t sing all their big arias back to back! So you have to programme strategically. You’re also in charge of the audience’s emotional journey through the evening, instead of the composer or librettist – so you have to think about the pace of the drama too. In an opera you’re usually playing one character all night, but in recital, you’re an entirely new character in an entirely new scene every five minutes.

“An aria that appears at the very climax of a three hour opera can be difficult to present in middle of a recital, sandwiched between very different repertoire,” adds Ash. “We have to learn how to present these arias in isolation, without the benefit of all the contextual information that we enjoy in a staged performance.”

Colour and character

But for all the challenges, there is so much to be gained.

For one thing, it makes me a better singer – I’m sure of it. Not relying on set, costumes, staging means that you really focus on delivering the drama and finding out who that character really is. You’re unencumbered by a particular director’s vision or an exact staging you have to fulfil. You’re also able to play with vocal colour and dynamics in a way that isn’t always possible onstage. In many ways it’s the purest form of musical storytelling.

Ash finds he learns from performing opera too: “Playing opera has definitely informed how I approach solo music. I enjoy trying to imagine what instrument might be playing at any given time. Is that gorgeous left-hand melody a cello, or a bassoon? Are those chord in the right-hand a full string section, or perhaps brass? It definitely helps me to find colours in my playing.”

With our recital fast approaching, I ask Ash what his favourite and least favourite opera repertoire is from the pianist’s perspective. “I have a love/hate relationship with Handel, because I love the music but I hate how hard his fiendish string writing can be for the piano!” he admits. (We are performing Handel’s sublime ‘As with rosy steps’ from Theodora, but luckily I think I’ve been fairly kind with this one, and Ash captures the caressing parallel thirds in the upper strings beautifully.) “French opera scores seem to always be full of mistakes, so I have to spend so much extra time preparing them,” he continues. “My favourite opera to play is anything by Britten – I absolutely adore his operas, and would happily play them forever.”

For myself, it’s not so much any particular composer or aria I love, but the joy and challenge of the kaleidoscope of characters, emotions and stories I get to tell, all in one night.

We’ll also be including Mozart, Bellini, Massenet and Walton arias and – just to buck the trend, we might even throw in an actual song as an encore…

Joanna Harries and Ashley Beauchamp perform for Opera Live @ Home on Tuesday 30th March 2021 at 7:30pm; also available on-demand for 30 days for ticket holders. Tickets: operaliveathome.co.uk


Joanna Harries is a mezzo-soprano from South Wales who studied Cambridge University and went on to train at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (Alexander Gibson Opera Studio). She has performed with Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, Grange Park Opera, Opera Holland Park and Longborough Festival Opera, and her roles stretch from the seventeenth to twenty-first century.

www.joannaharries.com

www.ashleybeauchamp.com

Opera Live @ Home

The applause, from the orchestra, at the end of Stephen Hough’s performance of Brahms’ expansive, turbulent first piano concerto was unexpected and also very welcome in a concert devoid of an actual, live audience.

I admit I have not always warmed to livestream performances and have watched very few over the past year. But I applaud any artist or organisation which has made every effort to keep the music playing and musicians employed and, importantly, paid during what has been an incredibly difficult year for an already precarious profession. Chapeau to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (my “local” orchestra, since I moved to Dorset in 2018) for keeping us engaged and entertained with a wonderfully varied weekly programme of music and soloists (Paul Lewis, Gabriella Montero, Benjamin Grosvenor and Sunwook Kim, amongst others), presented via livestream and available for 30 days post-concert via the BSO website. They have also found a way to successfully monetise livestream concerts.

Livestream concerts are all we keen music lovers and concert-goers have at present, until the government deems it safe to reopen music venues and opera houses (probably in mid- to late May). I actually watched the BSO/Hough livestream two days after the live broadcast (one of the benefits of livestream is that one can watch it at one’s convenience, and on multiple occasions if desired!), on the first anniversary of my last visit to central London for a concert at Wigmore Hall (of course, at the time I didn’t realise it would be my last visit to a major London concert venue, in the company of a good friend, for a year; the coronavirus was only just beginning to be something of a concern back in February 2020…..).

Stephen Hough has a knack of selecting programmes which seem to perfectly chime with our curious, troubled times – for example, his latest release Vida Breve) – and the Brahms concerto is another good example. A work of restlessness and turbulence, seraphic serenity, and an energetic Hungarian dance as a finale, it seems to reflect the anxiety and hope which colour these strange days of lockdown.

Of course, Brahms didn’t know his music would resonate in this way when he wrote his first piano concerto. It’s the work of a young man, full of passion, intense in its emotional landscape and symphonic in scale and organisation. From the opening with its thunderous, ominous timpani and driving strings, its no-holds-barred orchestral writing, one has the sense of the young Brahms setting out his compositional stall with authority and maturity.

The piano is not always a soloist here, but also an obbligato instrument which takes over material from the orchestra and comments or expands on it. Between the BSO, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, and Stephen Hough there was a constant sense of sympathetic cooperation (sometimes these big romantic piano concertos can feel like an immense tussle between soloist and orchestra). Phrases were sensitively shaped and tempi allowed a certain suppleness. Hough has a remarkable instinct for natural rubato, to highlight certain phrases or harmonies, emphasise certain emotions or perfectly time the delayed gratification which we crave in music such as this; it was especially apparent in the seraphic slow movement, its hymn-like tranquillity and introspection redolent of the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto. This was complemented by some particularly fine bassoon playing.

The Hungarian dance finale was a release of pressure from the adagio, alternately thunderously energetic and graceful, Hough switching between sparkling, fleet-fingered passages and sections of tender intimacy (and a certain intimacy imbues the entire concerto, despite its expansive scale – when Brahms is intimate, he is really really intimate!). Perhaps the greatest benefit of a filmed concert for the ‘piano nerd’, is that one is treated to close ups of the pianist’s hands and fingers in a way one could never see them in a live concert, and Hough has a remarkable economy in his playing, free of gestures which only serves to highlight the intensity of the music he is performing.

Overall, the AV quality of this livestream was impressive. Clever camera angles disguised the fact that the players were socially-distanced, and the camera did not linger long on the empty auditorium, instead offering viewers some excellent close-ups of individual players, conductor and of course soloist.

This concert is available on demand at bsolive.com until March 26

The ‘BSO At Home’ livestream performances from its home at The Lighthouse, Poole, continue on 3 March. Further information here

Trio Sonorité’s programme took the listener back in time from a brand new piece to a Trio by Beethoven, via music by Milhaud and Colin Riley

The livestream concert has become a normal part of our musical life in this year of lockdowns and closed concert halls. Of course the format cannot replace a real live concert, with audience, but it does at least allow a greater number of people to access the performance, and also at a time which is convenient to the viewer.

It was good to have a distraction from the anxiety of the latest restrctions by government and Trio Sonorité’s concert from the lovely 1901 Arts Club provided the perfect diversion. I’ve attended many concerts and other events at this lovely, intimate venue, and its small size means that even without a live audience, it’s possible to enjoy a special closeness with the musicians. That Trio Sonorité really enjoy playing together was evident from this performance of an interesting and varied programme.

This trio, comprising clarinettist Özlem Çelik, cellist Daryl Giuliano and pianist Jelena Makarova, create diverse and intriguing programmes which combine new or lesser-known music with more familiar repertoire. The Trio also collaborates with living composers to premiere new works, and this concert opened with The Edge of Time by Lithuanian composer Rūta Vitkauskaitė. Originally scored for orchestra and choir, the piece has been reworked for the trio, and this world premiere performance included projected visuals by artist Aimee Birnmbaum. Music and visuals combined to create the overall narrative of the work.

Opening with a shimmering introductory section, the music progresses through different states and dimensions – from a punchy, rhythmic passage to a more dreamy section (with some particularly haunting interplay between the three instruments) – before reaching a major ending at The Edge of Time. The combination of instruments works very well here and each is given the opportunity to reveal their particular strengths and also use some extended techniques to create specific timbres and effects. It was an arresting and intriguing opener and demonstrated how well these three musicians cooperate as an ensemble.

This was followed by Darius Milhaud’s Suite Op. 157b for violin, clarinet and piano, arranged for cello by Daryl Giuliano. It proved a good contrast to the opening piece, with its appealing melodies and shifting moods, and Trio Sonorité gave a spirited, characterful performance.

Colin Riley’s Heads on Sticks followed, a piece premiered by Trio Sonorité in August 2019. Part of an ongoing set of lyric chamber pieces for small ensembles, it takes a small chord fragment from Kid A by Radiohead, interspersed with a lively rhythmic motif. A short, aphoristic piece which once again allowed all three instruments to reveal their individual and collaborative strengths.

The concert closed with Beethoven’s Trio, Op 11, included in the programme to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.  An  early chamber work which employs what was then a novelty instrument, the clarinet, it opens with a bouncy, expansive first movement leading to an elegant, cantabile middle movement, and a finale of nine variations based on a popular aria. The overall mood of the work is urbane, relaxed and cheerful, with some playful, piquant touches – the perfect close to this interesting and varied concert, and Trio Sonorité gave an engaging and lively performance.


For more information about Trio Sonorité and their upcoming performances, follow them on Facebook and Twitter

Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Schubert – C Major Sonata, D. 840

Schubert – G Major Sonata, D. 894


Like almost every other festival this year, Petworth’s annual summer music festival, which normally takes place in July, fell victim to the restrictions imposed in response the coronavirus pandemic, but rather than cancel this year’s festival altogether, its organisers sensibly moved the music festival to the autumn and combined it with the literary festival. The events are all online, though some are live, with audience, to create “a real ‘Petworth’ feel about them” (Stewart Collins, Artistic Director) and, as always, there’s a fantastic line up of performers and guests, including Sheku and Isata Kanneh Mason, The London Mozart Players with Howard Shelley, and Mitsuko Uchida. Petworth Festival always attracts an impressive roster of performers and amply confirms that there is very high quality music-making to be found outside of the capital.

We’re all pretty used to watching concerts via livestream and videocasts now; superior technology allows such broadcasts to be presented with high-quality sound and visuals, which undoubtedly enhances the experience. It’s impossible to entirely recreate being in a concert hall, but one of the advantages of livestream is that you can choose when the view the concert: watch it live or at your own convenience, perhaps in the middle of the afternoon, as I did with this particular concert. With my laptop connected to the tv in the living room and a cup of tea in hand, I settled down to enjoy Mitsuko Uchida playing two sonatas by Franz Schubert.

I’ve only ever seen Uchida performing in the vast space of the Royal Festival Hall, yet every time she has managed to shrink the space, drawing us into her personal, musical world to create the atmosphere of a salon concert. This is particularly true when she plays Schubert, a composer who despite writing large-scale works, is a master of the introspective, and, as I have written on this blog, a composer for these corona times.

Uchida is very alert to Schubert’s idiosyncrasies, his chiaruscuro and elusive, shifting moods, and I always feel that she is very at home with this music. She creates the most remarkably sense of intimacy through hushed pianissimos, tapered sonorities and a sensitivity to Schubert’s “psychological dynamics” – where a fortissimo, for example, is tempered by a certain restraint and emotion is implied rather than made explicit in sound. She highlights details or moments of significance with a touch of rubato here, a little more pressing forward there, and these feel spontaneous, of the moment, never contrived (of course the ability to do this so effortlessly comes from a long association with the music and a deep knowledge of it).

Uchida also seems to subscribe to Andras Schiff’s assertion that one must “follow” Schubert, allowing the expansiveness of this music to unfold gradually. Her melodies have a warm cantabile, her dynamics subtly shaded, often revealing dark, mysterious layers beneath.

In the D894, described by Robert Schumann as “most perfect in form and conception”, she created a timeless serenity in the opening movement, opting for a relaxed moderato (rather than Richter’s famously ‘meditative’ slowness) to allow the narrative to flow naturally into the dramatic grandeur of the development. What followed was a second movement with a contrasting rhythmic vigour in the more passionate passages, a tender, folksy lullaby in the third movement, and an elegant, supple finale replete with pastoral charm.

122117455_4474452515958519_7672388628339138679_oSchubert isn’t a showy composer, and nor is Uchida a showy performer. For this concert, she was dressed soberly in a dark fluid trouser suit, but there was a glint of showiness in her footwear – the most elegant silver shoes which lent a roccoco flair. Of course, the superb camera work allowed one to enjoy such details: to get up close and personal with the performer as the camera lighted on her  hands and face, revealing myriad expressions, often unconscious, and which perhaps offered a glimpse to the personality beyond the notes.


Petworth Festival continues until 1 November – more information

Photo credits

Decca/Justin Pumfrey

Petworth Festival

This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation

17-20 September

CityMusic Live, a new online concert platform, announces its 2020 Piano Fest

Over four days, pianists Warren Mailley-Smith, Yuki Negishi, Daniel Grimwood, Duncan Honeybourne, and Julian Jacobson will present concerts online in a celebration of the piano.

The extended weekend of concerts begins on Thursday, 17 September with Warren Mailley-Smith in a programme featuring works by Beethoven, Brahms and Ravel.

Piano Fest continues on Friday 18 September with Duncan Honeybourne’s programme Forest Idylls featuring enchanting, evocative works by Sibelius, MacDowell and Schumann echoing nature. Known for his technical precision and warm musicality, Duncan Honeybourne has been lauded as “heroic” by Musical Opinion and “a gifted pianist in whom a spirit of adventure meets high musicianship” by MusicWeb International.

Saturday 19 September features two concerts. At 6:00 PM, Daniel Grimwood presents Nocturnes and Variations featuring one of his own compositions, “Variations on a Theme by Field”. Daniel Grimwood’s playing has been characterised as “stimulating and revelatory in equal measure” by The Telegraph, and his programme promises to exhibit both his virtuosity and his intellectual sensibility. Following at 8:00 PM, Yuki Negishi performs a concert entitled Passion, featuring works by Franck, Chopin and Beethoven. Praised for her “Piano Music by Women” series in June and July, Yuki Negishi was chosen in the Top 5 online performances for the week of 29 June by Pianist Magazine.

The weekend continues on Sunday with a matinee performance which celebrates The Piano Sonata by renowned pianist and Royal College of Music professor, Julian Jacobson. The programme features sonatas by Scarlatti, Berg and Beethoven. The weekend comes to a close on Sunday evening with Warren Mailley-Smith’s celebration of Chopin, a composer very close to his heart – he was the first British pianist to perform Chopin’s complete works for solo piano from memory in a series of 11 recitals at St John’s Smith Square in 2016.

Single tickets and festival packages are available. Book tickets

All concerts will be streamed to worldwide audiences through www.citymusiclive.co.uk

City Music Live is in the brainchild of pianist Warren Mailley-Smith. Since lockdown began in March, has presented over 30 online concerts through social media with over 400,000 total views, reaching audiences world-wide.


[source: press release]

The concert halls are closed but the music goes on, and many musicians are turning to video-casts and livestreamed concerts to share their music with others. Here are a couple you might like to subscribe:

Fenella Humphreys, violin

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_JlM05leyWyMXxUjiZBn6w


Carducci String Quartet

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNe2mg8zBdHR6OPzIbKm1qg/feed


If you are livestreaming concerts and would like to be featured on this site, please contact The Cross-Eyed Pianist