Tag Archives: Anna Dennis

Three Bible Her-Stories

Toria Banks, co-creator of concerts that rediscover a celebrated French composer, explains the Dunedin Consort’s latest programme to KEITH BRUCE

Incremental though change may often seem, the development in the breadth of repertoire concert-goers can now expect to hear is interestingly illustrated by the work recently undertaken by Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort.

In this year’s Lammermuir Festival it is joined by soprano Nardus Williams for a concert of early music by women composers, two years after it brought to EIF the radical contemporary revision of Purcell by Errollyn Wallen, Dido’s Ghost. This from an ensemble whose reputation was founded on precision period readings of Handel and Bach.

The Dunedin is this week presenting a programme – in Findhorn, Glasgow and Edinburgh – that both excavates neglected repertoire by a woman composer from the early 18th century and premieres it in a brand new version.

Out of her Mouth is the umbrella title that has been given to three (of the 12) Biblical cantatas, mostly concerned with women in the scriptures, written by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was a lauded composer in the court of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, but whose music is very rarely performed in the 21stcentury.

The project was the brainchild of writer and director Toria Banks, whose company Hera has worked with the Dunedin and Mahogany Opera, who co-produced Dido’s Ghost, to bring it to fruition.

“We’ve been going for five years,” Banks explains, “and we programme operas by women, both current and historical and neglected. We have commissioned new work and explored repertory that is not being performed enough. Mahogany supported the development of an earlier project of ours and then came in to co-produce this after working with Dunedin on Dido’s Ghost.”

She describes the Cantates Biblique as “storytelling pieces of theatre”, their message unlimited by historical context. The chamber group onstage – harpsichord, cello and theorbo continuo with a solo violin – may be playing early 18th century music, but the staging is up-to-date.

“The set and costumes are neither lavish nor period. They are Bible stories of Judith, Rachel and Susanne, but they are very relevant, so we are telling them in an abstracted time and space, rather than in pre-Christian Israel or 18th century France when they were written.

“The music is fantastic, but what attracted me to these specific pieces by Jacquet de la Guerre rather than others was the relevance of the stories.”

The texts were written by the composer’s celebrated contemporary Antoine Houdar de la Motte, whose theatrical successes include the French play of the Portuguese story of Ines de Castro, long before Jo Clifford’s Traverse Theatre version inspired James MacMillan’s debut opera.

“I’ve written the new English version of the text,” says Banks, clearly relishing the challenge. “The libretti are very nimble for the period. In the text – and in the music – there are subtle shifts of perspective, from an ironic, distanced and slightly cynical approach to the subject matter to really hearty-rending sincerity.

“And although I wanted to bring out the female perspective of the characters more, but for a man writing in early 18th century France, there’s a real sense of interesting, well-rounded women in them.

“The technical challenge was to express all this in contemporary-sounding English, but I’ve left in some archaic touches where it feels like the character is being self-mythologising. On the one hand it is creative writing and on the other it is solving a complex puzzle.”

The question remains as to why this careful archaeology was necessary for a composer who was a favourite at court and revered beyond her death.

“In general French Baroque music is under-performed in this country,” Banks points out, “but I do think she has been more forgotten because she’s a woman. She was celebrated in her lifetime and she keeps appearing in lists of France’s ‘great composers’ through the 18th century. It’s only really post-Revolution that she disappears.

“In her lifetime she was right in the thick of it and never marginalised. She was in at the start of the fashion for French cantatas as well as at the start of the sonata as a fashionable form for instrumental music. Sometimes people try to explain her disappearance because her only opera was not a success, but that was in 1694 when almost all operas were failing.

“There is a big difference between her music then and in 1707 when she wrote the Cantates Biblique. She was a lauded young talent, but by the time she wrote these she was in her 40s and they are her mature work, with details that come from a place of confidence.”

Two female singers of comparable experience, Carolyn Sampson and Anna Dennis will sing two of the three, Judith and Susanne, while Rachel is in the hands of the younger Alys Roberts, found through an open call designed to give an opportunity to a less experienced but exciting talent as part of the project.

The composer is known to have sung the cantatas herself, and her sister was also a singer, and Banks describes the work as a gift to performers. She is understandably keen to continue the work of reintroducing Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre to modern audiences and has three more of the Biblical cantatas in mind.

“The one I’d like to do that is not expressly about a woman is Adam, which tells the story of The Fall, but does so without mentioning Eve at all. It is sung by a woman, and pins the blame for mankind’s misfortune entirely on Adam.”

Dunedin Consort’s Out of her Mouth is at Universal Hall, Findhorn on Friday, Platform, Midland Street, Glasgow on Saturday and Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy on Sunday. Performances start at 8pm.

Pictured: Soprano Alys Mererid Roberts

Dunedin Consort / Butt

Perth Concert Hall 

It is still sometimes suggested that Mozart intended his Requiem for himself, but if he had foreseen his own death, surely classical music’s definitive whizz kid would have been careful to finish it. 

What the Requiem has had to cement its place in the repertoire is Sussmayr’s contemporary completion, an advantage not enjoyed by the composer’s earlier Mass in C Minor. In 2017, however, Amsterdam University’s Clemens Kemme published new edition of the work which presented an authoritative solution to the problems of the score. The first recording of his revisions, in Berlin, has not been judged a complete success, so Dunedin Consort, with its track record of benchmark-setting discs of early choral music, and specifically a Grammy nomination for the Linn-released Requiem, has an important job to do for Mozart, a mere 240 years on from the work’s likely first and only performance in his lifetime. 

What Kemme has done, and what came across magnificently in this performance under conductor John Butt, is to look at the composers Mozart was drawing from for his own mass – Bach and Handel – as well as to the music he was writing himself around the same time. 

The two male soloists, Joshua Ellicott and Robert Davies, are really in supporting roles, with Davies stepping out from the chorus – a choir of six women and four men. The vocal ensemble presented themselves both by voice (two each of soprano 1 and 2, mezzo, tenor and bass) and as a double choir of one-voice-to-a-part, as the music required – music that not only owes a debt to the earlier composers but sometimes echoes specific works. If Mozart had a copy of Bach’s Mass in B Minor to hand, it would be no surprise at all. 

The significant arias, and more operatic music, were in the more than capable hands of Lucy Crowe and Anna Dennis, voices chosen with great care for the notes they had to sing and for the way they combined wonderfully together. Their duetting on Laudamus te was the first shiver-inducing moment of the performance, although the blend of the six women’s voices in the Gloria that preceded it had laid out that path with clarity. 

Davies had his moment, in partnership with three trombones, in Jesu Christe – Cum Sancto Spiritu, before the ensemble sequence – broken only by a demanding and demonstrative solo Et incarnatus est from Crowe – that ends the work. The Sanctus and Benedictus both end with choral Osannas that are part of Kemme’s crucial contribution, alongside the orchestration, based on what sketches Mozart left. 

In a clever piece of programming, Butt began the concert with Haydn’s Symphony No 80, from the same era and known to Mozart. It was an opportunity to tune the ears to the fabulous playing of the instrumentalists, an 18-piece Baroque band (yet to be augmented by brass, timpani and organ) producing a sound of wonderful clarity and spaciousness. The Adagio second movement was quite as lovely as the best of the singing that followed – and after the interval the Mozart singers sounded all the better for the quality of the playing behind them. 

Keith Bruce 

Portrait of Lucy Crowe by Victoria Cadisch

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

With the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union giving its annual performance of the work in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Sunday, re-scheduled from the early days of the New Year because of pandemic restrictions then, there has been ample opportunity for Central-belt Scots to hear Handel’s oratorio masterpiece, Messiah, in the run-up to Easter.

Unarguably, the work sits better at that point in the Christian calendar in terms of its libretto – the Nativity actually gets pretty short shrift after the “Pastoral Symphony” in the middle of Part 1 – but Messiah is much less a narrative of the life of Christ than an expression of some of the knottier philosophical issues presented by the faith, as outlined in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. It is not to diminish the achievement of Charles Jennens, who supplied the composer with the clever text, to note that Handel himself was as well-versed in these arguments and highly Biblically literate. That is why he was able to set the words so successfully.

Led by Stephanie Gonley, who contributed some fine solo playing of her own, this edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra included some old friends, some early music specialists, and the keyboard talents of both the Edinburgh Choral’s director Michael Bawtree and the newly-announced director of the RSNO Chorus Stephen Doughty, alongside the harpsichord of SCO Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

If the bouncy excitability of Emelyanychev seemed a little over-exuberant in the instrumental opening bars, there were some inspired touches in the conductor’s interpretation later on, notably the bagpipe-like drone with which he began the aforementioned “Pifa”, which here became more a stately dance. His ornamentation at the keyboard was a sparkling foil to the extra grace-notes the soloists added to their recitatives and arias.

They were a stellar quartet too. Tenor Hugo Hymas brought something of the personality of Bach’s Evangelist to his role, while Matthew Brook was as terrifically dramatic as only he can be on some of the most theatrical music of the work – and, of course, Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage Together? seemed especially pertinent.

But there was magnificent animation in the performance of counter-tenor Xavier Sabata as well, with a memorably huge “Shame” in the middle of He Was Despised, and Anna Dennis revelled in some of Emelyanychev’s brisk tempos. The soprano was in spectacular voice, very possibly the best I have heard her, with Part 1’s Rejoice Greatly as precise as it was speedy and Part 3’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth devastating.

Chorus director Gregory Batsleer has the SCO singers – at 50 voices a large chamber choir as much as a chorus – drilled to perfection. There were some startling moments from them throughout the performance, including a very gentle start to All We Like Sheep, a wonderfully crisp “Let us break” from the nine tenors after Brook’s furious “Nations”, and the pinpoint dynamics and pitch of the unaccompanied Since by man came death in the final section.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis

SCO / Whelan

City Halls, Glasgow

Lasting under an hour from start to finish and with around 45 minutes of actual music, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has certainly played longer programmes than this one directed, initially from the harpsichord, by its former principal bassoon Peter Whelan. It is unlikely, however, that anyone felt short-changed, such were the riches within it.

Entitled Hidden Gems, the music would perhaps more accurately be described as “neglected”, although composed by Bach, Mozart and Haydn.

Mozart provided the concert’s show-stopper in the second of two concert arias sung by Anna Dennis. It is probably fair to say that Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! (Let me explain, o God!) is rarely heard because few sopranos are able to sing it with confidence. Written for his sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, to be dropped into another composer’s opera as a showpiece for her talents, it requires a huge range and features some extraordinary interval leaps from the mezzo range to stratospheric top notes. Dennis was in spectacular voice, and ably supported by the duetting oboe of Michael O’Donnell, although his part did not include the same pyrotechnics.

The other song was also written by Mozart for his wife’s sister, and why it is not more often heard is more of a mystery, as Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! (Accept my thanks, kind patrons!) is a delightful address to the audience about the musical life. With crisp diction from Dennis and some lovely wind playing, it came across as an 18th century precursor of Abba’s Thank You For The Music.

The Bach in question was Carl Philip Emmanuel, son of J S Bach, a composer more revered in his day than he probably is now, and a trailblazer of his time. That boldness was audible from the start under Whelan in a first movement of his Symphony in F that is more about rhythm and dynamics than tunes, especially in the string parts, with what melody there is lying with the winds. After a brief slow movement, the violins regained the upper hand in the bright finale.

There were wonderfully balanced forces on stage for that work, and for the Haydn symphony, No 102, that ended the concert when the 22 strings (six in the first and second fiddles, four each of violas and cellos and two basses) were joined by four pairs of wind instruments and two natural trumpets. The singular voice was that of Louise Goodwin behind the timpani, in a score that gave the percussionist very little time to sit on her hands.

Throughout the piece she was providing crucial punctuation in a work that is Haydn at the absolute zenith of his powers as an orchestrator, full of variety in its combinations of instruments and ear-catching voicings. After what might be called a book-keeper’s opening bar – there was a distinct double-entry – the musicians responded with enthusiasm and precision to Whelan’s clear direction.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis