In concert – Strings of the CBSO / Eugene Tzikindelean: Four Seasons

Strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Eugene Tzikindelean (above)

Schubert arr. Mahler String Quartet no.14 in D minor D810 ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (1824, arr. 1896)
Vivaldi Le quattro Stagioni Op.8 nos. 1-4 (1718-20)
Piazzolla arr. Desyatnikov Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (1965-9, arr. 1996-8)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 22 April 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Acoustically transformed following its refurbishment some 15 years ago, a commendably full Town Hall proved to be the ideal venue for this judiciously balanced programme featuring the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its leader Eugene Tzikindelean.

Mahler never fully completed his arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet, but this has enjoyed not a few hearings since its realization by David Matthews with Donald Mitchell four decades ago. Tzikindelean presided over a brisk, incisive opening Allegro (its exposition-repeat not unreasonably omitted), and if the 30-strong ensemble had not quite the tonal depth or dynamic range that Mahler likely envisaged, there was no lack of immediacy – at least until momentum faltered slightly in the later stages of the reprise then into the coda.

No such uncertainty affected the Andante (the only movement elaborated by Mahler), whose variations on Schubert’s earlier song exuded a cumulative intensity up to the theme’s soulful reappearance toward the close. Nor did the Scherzo lack for truculence over its brief yet vital course, assuaged by the trio’s wistful elegance, while the final Presto unfolded as a tarantella as agile as it was malevolent. Tzikindelean kept his players on a tight if never inflexible rein through to a coda that brought this (for the most part) powerful reading to its decisive close.

Tzikindelean having vacated the leader’s chair for centre-stage, the second half consisted of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons interspersed with Astor Piazzolla’s take on the seasons from the perspective of Buenos Aires. Brought together a quarter-century ago (at the behest of Gidon Kremer for his group Kremerata Baltica) by Leonid Desyatnikov, with numerous references to the Baroque master, the outcome is a provocative amalgam between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ which the CBSO strings rendered with alacrity. Among the highlights from the Vivaldi might be mentioned the plaintive eloquence of the Largo from Spring, the coursing impetus of the Presto from Summer, alternation of the robust and poetic in the initial Allegro of Autumn, or that discreetly alluring interplay of legato and pizzicato writing in the Largo from Winter.

Heard in the sequence ‘Summer-Autumn-Winter-Spring’, the tangos by Piazzolla offer any number of anticipations whether melodic or textural. A significant feature of Desyatnikov’s arrangement is the prominence accorded to the leaders from each section which were seized upon gratefully – not least by cellist Eduardo Vassallo, whose Piazzolla recordings with his ensemble El Ultimo Tango are a masterclass in performance from the chamber perspective. While each of the present pieces is more than the sum of its parts, surely the most arresting instance is that towards the close of ‘Spring’ when the harpsichord (ably taken by Masumi Yamamoto) emerges with an allusion to Vivaldi’s opening theme – a coup de théâtre that is seldom less than spellbinding, and duly worked its magic as part of tonight’s performance.

An impressive showing, then, for the CBSO strings and Tzikindelean – who will hopefully be making further appearances both as soloist and director in the coming season. Certainly, the repertoire for string orchestra is one whose exploration should prove well worthwhile.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. You can read more about Eugene Tzikindelean here, and more about El Ultimo Tango here

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