Monday, 16 July 2012

A Tale Of Two Concerts - The Beatitudes Now and Then

The concert to be performed in Coventry Cathedral on 22nd September is surely one for the contemporary connoisseur and popular classicist alike.

Here are some notes on the three pieces to be performed by the BBC Philharmonic with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus:

In alarming remembrance of the Warsaw death camps:

The weighty unknown Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951): A Survivor from Warsaw Op 46

It is first a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us…the miracle of the story is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are.”  Arnold Schöenberg 1947

Left: Jan Komski (1915 - 2002 - 'Hanging and Eating' (Auschwitz Museum, Poland).

‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ is arguably a landmark composition about spiritual resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, written in a ten-day burst of inspiration during August 1947. The inspiration was the horrific news of the atrocities that the Nazis had inflicted upon the Jews in the ghettos of Warsaw.

The extraordinary resonance of this piece shows there to be no time limit to the power of the musical message. Schöenberg takes just 7 minutes to alarm, astound, still an audience to shocking acknowledgement of an unforgivable period of human desolation.

For popular toe-tapping di di di daah entertainment:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Symphony No. 5 in C Minor Op 67

‘Beethoven’s romanticism … that tears the listener irresistibly away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite.’  E T A Hoffman (1808)

How best to write about what is probably the most well-known work in the entire classical music repertoire?  That difficulty can also affect the listener, since the sheer familiarity of the piece can sometimes in itself be a barrier to the full appreciation of what is, despite everything, still one of the great masterpieces of the early nineteenth century. 

Perhaps the answer is to listen, as it were, with fresh ears, as if in the audience at the first performance in December 1808, even if they were familiar with the Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, must surely have been astonished at the force and compressed power of this awesome vision of triumph over tragedy.

Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C minor, op. 67 is rightly considered a natural continuation of  Symphony No. 3, "Eroica", because it approaches the same themes and it expresses the relationship between particular and general. The name under which it sometimes circulated, " The Symphony of Destiny ", is linked to the words of Anton Felix Schindler, his biographer, who, invoking an explanation given by the composer referring to the first bars in Part I of the fifth symphony, stated: " So pocht das Schicksal an die Pforte! " (That’s how destiny knocks on your door).

The first four notes subsequently became synonymous with the sound of Victory in Europe – VE Day, their forming the letter V  -

dot dot dot dash - in Morse code.

Share this moment of music history. The Beatitudes – home, finally:

Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss, CH, KT, KCVO; 2 August 1891 – 27 March 1975
In collaboration with the librettist:
Christopher Vernon Hassall (24 March 1912 – 25 April 1963):       The Beatitudes

The assertion of faith, healing and serenity that underlies The Beatitudes acquires meaning for Bliss precisely because it emerges victor in that very protest and struggle against 'the cruelty, misery and evil in this world’’.

Bliss suffered a creative block after being told his was no longer the only commission for the Festival of Consecration in May ’62 (although it was known ‘internally’ he was not told the work would not even be performed in the Cathedral until just 4 weeks before the premiere).

Bliss was concerned that in setting the Beatitudes there was the danger of monotony. Hassall suggested the idea of the Beatitudes as the subject of the work and conceived the choice of texts, which would act as interludes and commentaries on them.

Bliss wrote in his autobiography As I Remember: ' ... each Beatitude shines with the same clear silver gleam, and little contrast of light is possible without deliberately using a distorted mirror’.

The work has many high spots: for example, the anguished orchestral prelude that depicts ‘A troubled world', and the disturbing outburst of hate of the 'Voices of the mob' ending on their shout of 'Kill!' Such intrusions of violence contrast with the setting of Herbert's 'Easter', with its exultant, melismatic 'alleluias' of the soloists, and effective musical imagery at 'Awake my lute', scored for soprano and harp, followed by the lyrical tenderness of 'I got me flowers to strew thy way' into which Bliss introduces the Easter antiphon 'Haec dies quam fecit Dominus'. Particularly memorable is the defiant mood of Thomas' 'And death shall have no dominion', Bliss's rapt response to Taylor's 'O Blessed Jesu', and the majestic, glorious 'Amen' with which The Beatitudes ends.

...and the concert THEN:

Bliss - 8:15 p.m. on Friday, 25 May 1962

At 8:15 p.m. on Friday, 25 May 1962, the opening concert for the Festival's "Days of Consecration" began with the National Anthem, followed by Bliss's The Beatitudes, with soprano Jennifer Vyvyan and tenor Richard Lewis, the Festival Choir, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted not by Sir Malcolm Sargent, as the printed programme states, but by the composer himself.

This change had only been agreed two weeks earlier at the request of the artistic director. As such it may be seen as a placatory measure towards the somewhat devastated composer. Elgar's "Enigma" Variations followed the interval, and the evening concluded with the "Hallelujah Chorus" and "Amen" from Handel's Messiah.

The following day The Times printed its review of the premiere beneath the headline:

"Sacred music, but in a secular atmosphere." The Times' music critic wrote: "Some account of the work's contents was given in my music article of a week ago. The premiere tonight confirmed the regret there expressed that The Beatitudes was not able to be performed in the cathedral for which it was composed. One might even claim that the new work cannot yet be justly appraised, on the basis of this performance in the utterly secular ambience of the Coventry Theatre”. The critic praises the "celestial rapture of the settings for two solo voices," but suggests that "the orchestral movements sounded cramped, in the wrong sense".

Bliss's own recollection of the event, from his autobiography, is similar to the tone of parts of The Times article suggesting that he quietly incorporated into his remembrance, is worth considering:

As the day for the premiere in May drew near, I realised I was in for a major disappointment I had been led to believe that the performance was to take place in the majestic surroundings of the new Cathedral, but alas! the Cathedral was needed for services and the concert was relegated to the Coventry Theatre, a maladjustment most unfortunate to me.

Instead of the ecclesiastical grandeur which I had imagined, there was the ugly theatre whose stage could not properly contain both large orchestra and chorus. The latter could not be placed where their voices would tell, and some of them acknowledged that from where they were wedged in they could not see my beat.

Also I had written an important part for the Cathedral organ. What effect could one possibly obtain from an imported small Hammond organ? We had to do the best we could'.

Bliss came with rank and of the establishment, ‘by Royal Appointment’ one might say.

When Bliss was first invited and commissioned to write a musical celebration to be performed after the Consecration of Coventry Cathedral, he was at the peak of his prolific career.

A Cambridge classicist, Bliss cut short his formal training at the Royal College of Music at the outbreak of WWI. He served with distinction as officer with the Fusiliers and then The Grenadier Guards – twice shot and once gassed; mentioned in dispatches. His successful musical portfolio grew with rapidity reflecting his hunger for work. He was an approved part of the establishment having spent a number of war time years as Assistant Director of Music at the BBC. And in 1953 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Music.

He might be said to have come ‘by Royal Appointment’ and was certainly befitting the importance of the global spotlight that was to shine on the occasion in May 1962.


For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)

Friday, 13 July 2012

Bliss Tenors - then and now


In the ‘home coming’ concert of 22nd September, when The Beatitudes will be performed in Coventry Cathedral for the first time – despite having been written specifically for its Consecration in 1962, the magnificent voice of Welsh born Andrew Kennedy, will be Tenor.

Andrew studied at King's College, Cambridge and the Royal College of Music in London and was a member of the Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. He has appeared on the stages of ENO, the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and La Scala in performances of repertoire from Mozart to Britten.

In concert he has performed Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Elgar’s Spirit of England at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2007. Equally passionate about song repertoire, Andrew gives numerous recitals in Europe and the UK and appears regularly with the pianists Julius Drake, Roger Vignoles, Iain Burnside and Malcolm Martineau.

His numerous prizes and awards include the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Rosenblatt Recital Prize. He is a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award winner and won the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artists' Award in 2006. He was also a member of BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists Scheme.

Operatic roles include Tamino (above) The Magic Flute (English National Opera); Flute A Midsummer Night's Dream (Royal Opera Covent Garden); Jaquino Fidelio (Glyndebourne Festival); Ferrando Così fan tutte (Glyndebourne Touring Opera); Nemorino L'elisir d'amore (Opera North); Tom Rakewell The Rake's Progress (La Monnaie and Opéra de Lyon, released on DVD); Vere Billy Budd (his Houston Grand Opera debut), Tito La Clemenza di Tito (Opéra de Lyon), Shepherd Tristan und Isolde (Glyndebourne Festival), his La Scala debut of Tom Rakewell, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni (Opera National de Lyon), Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw  (Houston Grand Opera), Belmonte Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Welsh National Opera), Flamand Capriccio (Grange Park Opera), Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia for Den Norske Opera and Max in Der Freischütz for Opera Comique, Paris under Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Equally passionate about song repertoire, Andrew gives numerous recitals in Europe and the UK and appears regularly with the pianists Julius Drake, Roger Vignoles Iain Burnside and Malcolm Martineau.

When asked in a recent interview about the balance between his operatic roles and his growing solo performances, Andrew said: “I truly believe that both are essential for a healthy technique. I adore opera, of course, but songs help me find new colours in opera, and I love the intellectual challenge.”

Of Andrew it was said:  “Kennedy allows the music to speak for itself by offering direct, unfussy vocalism, preferring to leave a few rough edges in his singing rather than polishing away every hint of individuality. Unlike many current singers who strive for homogeneity, Kennedy seems to trust the composer and simply sings the music on the page, restricting histrionic interjections to a minimum and allowing his voice to flow freely”.

His fast growing discography includes four solo albums (‘Strauss Songs’ with Roger Vignoles for Hyperion; ‘On Wenlock Edge’ with the Dante Quartet/Simon Crawford Philips for Signum Classics; ‘The Dark Pastoral’ with Julius Drake and Simon Russell Beale for Altara Classics and ‘The Curlew’ with Simon Lepper for Landor Records) and two shared recital discs (‘On Buying A Horse’ and a recording of Liszt songs both with Iain Burnside for Signum Classics). Andrew has recently released his first orchestral album of Gluck, Berlioz and Mozart arias for Signum Classics.


Richard Lewis CBE (born Thomas Thomas, later changing his name to Richard Lewis by deed poll) was born in Manchester of Welsh parents in 1914 (died 1990).

A talented draughtsman and painter. A scholarship was offered to him at the local art school, but it was music he wanted.

During all these years he studied singing with a local singing teacher and conductor, TW Evans, who had a choir. Richard's father, Thomas, was a member. Soon Richard was showing that he had a remarkable soprano voice, acquiring a reputation in and around Manchester, even earning a few shillings to help the family budget.

He was invited to a BBC audition but just before leaving to record in London his voice broke. His teacher said 'no more singing'. These would be years of frustration. He longed above all to be a tenor, emulating his heroes of that time, Richard Tauber and Beniamino Gigli.

The day came when he could try his voice. He was a tenor, more excitingly, a fine one. He began to sing again, acquiring a reputation locally. But would this be enough? When he was twenty-five (after nine years waiting) he was offered a scholarship to study full-time at the Manchester School of Music (now the Royal Northern).

But fate had not finished with him yet. Hardly a month had passed when the Second World War broke out and Richard was drafted into and spent five years in the Royal Signals.

Even here he had a bit of good luck. His commanding officer, a woman (Mary Kirkby), heard him sing and decided he would be more use as a British army ambassador. Consequently, Richard was flown out to sing, with just one stipulation - that he wore army uniform (above).

Demobbed and with a Grant to the Royal Academy of Music, he was still Thomas Thomas. On advice to change, he took his hero Richard Tauber's first name, and his mother's maiden name of Lewis. So Richard Lewis was finally born.

Benjamin Britten was at that time forming his "English Opera Group".  Peter Pears was his first tenor. A second tenor was needed. Lewis was taken on after auditioning, opening at Glyndebourne with 'The Rape of Lucretia' in 1947.

But he would also play second fiddle to pears and had to move on. Glyndebourne became his musical home for over thirty years and was always his favourite opera house, he was free to learn his craft, work with the finest conductors such as Vittorio Gui, John Pritchard, Raymond Leppard, Fritz Busch and producers such as Carl Ebert, Peter Hall, and Günther Rennart.

His reputation was soon established.

Left - Richard Lewis as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte

Among the first works he performed was Mozart's 'Idomeneo', a role he practically made his own, ideal for the darker sound in his lyric tenor voice.

Of all the Idomeneo productions over the years, the original with Sena Jurinac, Birgett Niilson and Leopold Simeneau, produced by Carl Ebert, stands out as one of Glyndebourne's finest. Later Lewis sang the role, near the end of his career, with Luciano Pavarotti at Glyndebourne and later in Geneva.

Other fine productions, legendary in Glyndebourne's history - 'Cosi fan tutte'- Stravinsky's 'Rakes Progress' with Richard singing the first British stage performance at Glyndebourne - Beethoven's 'Fidelio' (Opera Magazine thought 'Lewis was one of the finest Florestans they had heard' - Strauss' Ariadne' - 'Don Giovanni' with Geraint Evans, Jurinac, Sutherland, Freni - Monteverdi's 'L'Incoronazione di Poppea' - 'Il Returna d'Ullise' with Janet Baker (later with Von Stade). This would be his last role with the company, as the old shepherd. So might have begun a fine 'character role' career, but illness made it impossible.

In 1963 he was made Commander of the British Empire.

He became a favourite with twentieth century composers creating several important new roles. His musicianship and a photographic memory gave him the ability to learn difficult music quickly, plus he had a knack of making it sound easy. Tippet favoured him and would have no one else.

Lewis auditioned to Malcolm Sargent after the war, showing the musicianship that would be become legendary. Sargent, firing a tenor who had been engaged to sing Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis", asked a London agent if there was a tenor who could sing it. Yes, he had.  Lewis, never having seen the score, far less sung it, looked at it in the train to Liverpool, sang it to Sargent, and was engaged. So began an artistic association that would last for his whole career.

Little wonder this was the voice Bliss chose for The Beatitudes.

For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Bliss Sopranos - then and now


Coventry Cathedral is looking forward to welcoming the delightful voice and personality that is Elizabeth Watts on 22nd September as The Beatitudes comes home, finally.

“…stunning… Watts does full justice to Bach’s long-lined vocal writing with sensitive phrasing and she consistently sings with plush, luscious tone… Watts also possesses a rare and enviable ability to communicate emotion through the sound of her voice alone, a gift that makes her highly recommended for lovers of Bach and beautiful singing.”

Wrote Derek Greten-Harrison, Opera News, June 2011 of Elizabeth’s performance in Bach Cantatas and Arias, The English Concert, Harmonia Mundi recording.

Elizabeth Watts was a chorister at Norwich Cathedral and studied Archaeology at Sheffield University before studying singing at the Royal College of Music with Lillian Watson.

She graduated in 2005 with distinction and the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Rose Bowl, awarded annually for outstanding achievement. From 2005 to 2007, she was a member of the Young Singers’ Programme at the ENO.

In the 2010/11 season she was Pamina in Die Zauberflöte for the Welsh National Opera and Marzelline in Fidelio for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Elizabeth won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2007. In the same year she was awarded the Outstanding Young Artist Award at the Cannes MIDEM Classique Awards and the previous year the Kathleen Ferrier Award.

Recent past and future plans include Marzelline Fidelio and Zerlina Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Susanna Le Nozze di Figaro, Fiordiligi Così fan tutte and Pamina Die Zauberflöte for Welsh National Opera, as well as concerts with RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, a concert of Mozart arias at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, appearances with the London Symphony, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Scottish Chamber Orchestras, the English Concert and Academy of Ancient Music. 

As a recitalist Elizabeth Watts has performed at the UK’s leading venues including Wigmore Hall and the Purcell Room in London, Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and at the Aldeburgh and Cheltenham Festivals.

and THEN

On 25th May 1962 it was the voice of Jennifer Vyvyan that Sir Arthur Bliss chose to premier his Beatitudes, written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral - but never performed there ... until now:

Jennifer Vyvyan (13 March 1925 - 5 April 1974) was a British classical soprano who had an active international career in operas, concerts, and recitals from 1948 up until her death in 1974 at the age of just 49.

She possessed a beautifully clear, steady voice with considerable flexibility in florid music and was praised for her subtle phrasing and her dramatic gifts enabled her to create vivid individual portrayals.

Although she sang a broad repertoire, she is particularly remembered for her association with the works of Benjamin Britten; notably singing roles created for her in the world premieres of several of his operas with the English Opera Group.

Although not everyone remembers Jennifer Vyvyan, those who do will recall that she was one of the leading British singers of her time. A member of the English Opera Group from its earliest days, she became one of Benjamin Britten's favourite voices and soprano of choice.

For her he wrote the Governess in Turn of the Screw, Tytania in Midsummer Night's Dream, Lady Rich in Gloriana, and Mrs Julian in Owen Wingrave.

But she also played an important role in the music of other mid-20th composers, from Poulenc and Milhaud to Malcolm Williamson and Lennox Berkeley. And beyond that she was a leading figure in the revival of baroque repertory: a celebrated interpreter of Purcell, Bach and Handel who starred in landmark reappraisals of the Handel operas.

Her relationship with Britten was consolidated by performances not only of the operas but of the Spring Symphony, Les Illuminations and other music in the Aldeburgh Festival – including a memorable starring role in Poulenc’s crazy celebration of cross-gendered comedy Les Mammelles de Tiresias.

In 1960 she sang Tytania in the world premiere production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Aldeburgh, staying with the role as it travelled to other venues. In 1961 she took part in the UK premiere of Cantata Academica. 1963 saw her in Britten’s 50th birthday concert at the Festival Hall.

Otherwise, the ‘60s were noticeable for her commitment to Scandinavia, with concerts in Oslo, Bergen, Copenhagen, Gothenberg and other Nordic cities.

There was a similar commitment to new choral works, with successive performances of Peter Racine Fricker’s oratorio The Vision of Judgement which she premiered and championed, as well as the premiere of Arthur Bliss’s The Beatitudes which opened the 1962 festival to mark the consecration of Coventry Cathedral.

Jenifer's joy at being invited by Bliss to sing Soprano at the premier of The Beatitudes was obvious.

Just married, she cut her honeymoon short to return to England for rehearsals and her performance… :

For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)