The week in classical: Héloïse Werner, Kit Downes, Colin Alexander; East Neuk festival; Don Giovanni

St John’s Smith Square, London; online; Royal Opera House, London
Héloïse Werner leads a quicksilver recital, the Fife festival goes virtual, and the Royal Opera’s Don rings a bell…

Héloïse Werner should be a name on the lips of any musical adventurer. You can see her work on YouTube. This young soprano-composer – and cellist too – is a one-off, who can transform a tiny fragment of song into a mesmerising drama. It’s as if her whole being is double-jointed. Her beautiful voice can flip itself from long-lined lyricism into a battery of percussive instruments: trilling her tongue at jet-propeller speed, turning a simple vowel sound into a complex expression of love or anguish, with a lexicon of facial expressions to match. Language, gesture, and how we communicate, are at the core of her music. In a 70-minute programme at St John’s Smith Square, she performed new works and texts with her equally versatile composer-performer associates, the organist Kit Downes and cellist Colin Alexander.

The three were spatially distanced in an arc around the building, Downes at the grand “Sainsbury” Klais organ, Alexander far away opposite him under the east window, Werner linking all in the middle. The works, which included contributions from Shiva Feshareki, Errollyn Wallen, Love Ssega and more, were played as a continuous sequence, Werner occasionally giving cues with claves or finger cymbal, each performer having their own extended solos. Downes set off in a semi-familiar exploration of dense chords the way organists do (if pushed, you might have taken a safe guess at Messiaen), then careered off into radical, thunderous terrain as if fired by some unknown combustible fuel: a dazzling performance. Alexander explored the expressive range of solo cello with Bach as a ghostly touchstone, the sound always song-like, never harsh, often hushed, the mood contemplative and beguiling. No one, in the absence of physical programmes, checked their phones to see which piece followed what. We listened, motionless, absorbed.

Oud player Rihab Azar at the East Neuk festival.
Oud player Rihab Azar at the East Neuk festival. Photograph: Stuart Armitt

The Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe, another in the sphere of youthful musicians without boundaries, was among the starry lineup at Scotland’s East Neuk festival, held on the Fife coast and each year featuring a giant sand-portrait of a musician: this year’s theme is support for young musicians affected by the pandemic. You can watch Shibe playing guitar and lute in one of the excellent filmed concerts released to coincide with the festival’s live opening weekend. Others feature the Tallis Scholars, Llŷr Williams and, a highlight, the virtuosic oud player Rihab Azar, born in the Syrian city of Homs, playing her solo compositions in the newly restored Dreel Halls: Scottish and Arabic, ancient and modern, uniting as one.

Erwin Schrott and ??? in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House.
Erwin Schrott and Adela Zaharia in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Bill Cooper

Another must-watch, on demand from 16 July until 15 August, the Royal Opera’s 2014 production of Don Giovanni, directed by Kasper Holten and with spectacular designs by Es Devlin, is back at Covent Garden (revival director, Jack Furness). On opening night the conductor Constantin Trinks struggled to establish speeds that suited everyone, now dragging, now galloping, but by Act 2, music and drama gelled, Erwin Schrott’s sleazy, charm-oozing Don and Gerald Finley’s loyal, put-upon Leporello a rich partnership. Nicole Chevalier’s fevered Donna Elvira, Adela Zaharia’s majestic Donna Anna and Zuzana Marková’s gullible, regretful Zerlina made a strong trio of wronged women. The Don had all three, variously, up against the door in a pose immortalised recently by Matt Hancock, but I suspect Schrott, his bass-baritone still golden, is the better singer.

Star ratings (out of five)
Héloïse Werner, Kit Downes, Colin Alexander
★★★★
East Neuk festival
★★★★
Don Giovanni
★★★★

  • The East Neuk festival, Fife, continues until 1 August

  • Don Giovanni is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 18 July/available online from 16 July until 15 August

Contributor

Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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