In concert – Simon Höfele, CBSO / Kevin John Edusei: Street Music – Stravinsky, Ellington, Zimmermann & Rota

Rota La Strada – Suite (1954, rev. 1966)
Zimmermann Trumpet Concerto ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I See’ (1954)
Ellington (orch. Henderson) Harlem (1950-51)
Stravinsky Petrushka (1910-11, rev. 1947)

Simon Höfele (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kevin John Edusei

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 1 December 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was one with a difference, Kevin John Edusei directing a programme which avoided the Austro-German mainstream with a vengeance as it surveyed music with a distinctly ‘alternative’ outlook.

Federico Fellini’s La Strada accords with the realism of post-war Italian film, yet its acutely emotional undertow makes it equally prophetic and Nino Rota’s score embodies both aspects with its heady dance-music but also a plangent inwardness in those passages for solo violin (eloquently rendered here by Philip Brett) where the tragic relationship between Gelsomina and Zampanò is made explicit. The suite Rota subsequently derived from the music’s later incarnation as a ballet remains among the most significant of his output for the concert hall.

While Rota looks to popular idioms, Bernd Alois Zimmermann utilizes jazz in his Trumpet Concerto, its (later appended) subtitle denoting the spiritual as underpins much of its content and comes to the fore at crucial junctures. The subtly varied orchestration – with saxophones, Hammond organ and ‘rhythm section’ featuring electric guitar – is complemented by that for the soloist with its range of mutes and a virtuosity new to the classical domain which Simon Höfele despatched with alacrity born of conviction. The respectively brooding and headlong initial sections created an expectancy fulfilled by a climactic episode which was taken a little too fast for its layering of jazz rhythms to come through unimpeded, though the final section lacked nothing in evocative power as it subsided edgily towards a close of muted anguish.

Duke Ellington’s Harlem may now have become relatively familiar in concert, but few such performances can have conveyed the sheer panache as was evident here. Edusei traversed the numerous brief sections of this ‘Tone Parallel’ (commissioned but never conducted by Arturo Toscanini) with innate appreciation of their musical as well as scenic potency that culminates with a rhythmic energy whose effect was undeniably visceral. A little audience participation, moreover, did not go amiss in the final pages where the orchestra duly gave its collective all.

From social, via racial and cultural to psychological alienation. Stravinsky may have intended Petrushka as a vehicle primarily for balletic or orchestral display, but the inner two of its four tableaux, defining the contrasting psyches of Petrushka and the Moor as they compete for the attentions of the Ballerina, provide acute character portraits delineated here with needle-sharp clarity (not least by pianist James Keefe – his crucial obligato contribution vividly embedded within the orchestral texture). Nor did the outer tableaux lack for atmosphere – the sights and sounds of St Petersburg’s Shrovetide Fair palpably in evidence, Edusei securing more poise and pathos than was usual from the relatively utilitarian orchestration as Stravinsky revised it. The closing stages of Petrushka’s death and apparition felt spine-tingling in their immediacy.

This resourceful reading concluded what is sure to prove a highlight of the orchestra’s current season. Other concerts might attract larger attendances, but the attentiveness of those younger listeners present confirmed this as precisely the kind of event the CBSO should be presenting.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Simon Höfele and Kevin John Edusei

In Concert – Pavel Haas Quartet @ Wigmore Hall: Haydn, Prokofiev & Haas

Pavel Haas Quartet [Veronika Jarůšková, Marek Zwiebel (violins), Karel Untermüller (viola), Peter Jarůšek (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in G major Op.76/1 (1979)
Prokofiev String Quartet no.2 in F major Op.92 (1941)
Haas String Quartet no.2 Op.7 ‘From The Monkey Mountains’ (1925)

Wigmore Hall, London
Thursday 24 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The Pavel Haas Quartet often cause a stir on their visits to the Wigmore Hall, and this concert was no exception for the Czech ensemble.

Many of Haydn’s mature string quartets begin with a trio of chords effectively designed to hush the audience and guide their ears towards the performance getting underway. The first in his crowning set of six quartets published as Op.76 is no exception, though in this red blooded account the Pavel Haas Quartet pinned the audience back in their seats, such was the vigour with which this performance began.

There were some ragged edges to their interpretation, and less evidence of the genial Haydn that makes himself known with the conversational melody of the first movement. We did however get more exposure to his experimental side, through an interpretation pointing the music forward towards middle period Beethoven. The quickstep third movement, very much a scherzo rather than a minuet, pointed up Haydn’s daring harmonic excursions and dalliances, as did the finale, based mostly in the minor key and featuring a number of brisk about-turns. Stemming the tide was the second movement Adagio, a reverent account with a solemn air to its central section in particular.

There followed a superbly played account of Prokofiev’s String Quartet no.2. This attractive work is not often heard in concert, which is a shame for it has a good deal of spice and charm through its investment in folk tunes from the Northern Caucausian region, where the composer was evacuated in 1941. Encouraged by his new neighbours, Prokofiev achieved a very satisfying blend of the original tunes with spiky good humour and scrunched up harmonic dissonances, always in thrall to the highly melodic content.

The first movement revelled in the abundance of good tunes, bringing the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Slavonic instincts into play. The mood softened for a heartfelt cello solo from Peter Jarůšek, setting a thoughtful and delicately nostalgic tone for the Adagio. Here more time was taken for reflection, with a noticeable chill running through Prokofiev’s writing.

Within the folk references it is possible to discern the worrisome mood of the time, with World War Two underway. The third movement however felt like a show of resolution in the face of this threat, laced with humour that in this performance could have been exploited to greater effect. It was however a fine performance, with terrific ensemble playing.

The main event of the concert was undoubtedly a performance of music from the quartet’s namesake. Pavel Haas, born in Moravia, studied with Janáček between 1920 and 1922, completing his String Quartet no.2 three years later. Tragically in 1941 he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and died in Auschwitz three years later. Much of his work lay in neglect but has in the last thirty years enjoyed an extremely welcome renaissance, led by a number of enterprising recordings made in the 1990s, not least that of this work for Decca’s Entartete Musik imprint in the 1990s by the Hawthorne String Quartet. Since then the second quartet has gone on to gain a welcome foothold in the concert hall.

It would be difficult to contemplate a better performance than this one from the Pavel Haas Quartet. Led assertively by Veronika Jarůšková, they showed what an assured and imaginative piece it is, a travelogue giving the listener a tour of the sights and sounds of the famous Monkey Mountain range in Moravia.

The musical language is a curious but highly engaging hybrid of influences, drawing on the music of Dvořák and Smetana but in compressed melodic pockets of heightened intensity. Janáček, too, is an influential voice, but Haas’s unusual phrasing and distinctive rhythms make for a unique and enjoyable style.

The Pavel Haas Quartet enjoyed it greatly, the first two movements (Landscape and Coach, Coachman and Horse) enjoying the rarefied outdoor air and some crisply secured dance rhythms. The third movement, subtitled The Moon and I, was much colder to the touch, the muted strings taking time for introspection and creating some striking colours along the way. Their beautifully poised playing set up a riotous Wild Night finale where they were joined by percussionist Owen Gunnell (above), whose battery of instruments were expertly marshalled to bring the sounds of 1920s jazz into the fray.

The riotous closing pages brought the swaying Moravian dances and jazz rhythms to the foundations of the Wigmore Hall, brilliantly played and ideally balanced. So good was this section that the five performers gave us a quick reprisal as an encore, reminding us in the process of the fiercely original writing from a composer whose resurgence is to be greatly welcomed.  

In concert – Music For Youth Proms 2022 @ Royal Albert Hall

Review and photos by Ben Hogwood

There is a justified amount of doom and gloom in the arts at present, with organisations striving for increases in attendance figures while clinging to the hope that their funding will not fall through the trapdoor, as it effectively has done in the recent Arts Council England announcements for English National Opera, Britten Sinfonia and London Sinfonietta, to name just a few.

Art forms are nothing if not resilient though, especially when powered by raw talent, enthusiasm and hard work – as this night of Music For Youth Proms clearly was. How inspiring it was to see hundreds of young performers create their own bookmark experiences at the Royal Albert Hall, delivering performances of power, confidence and poise, fuelled by a clear and sheer enjoyment of music.

There was no evidence of stage nerves as performers ranging from aged six to 25, from Gwent to Ukraine (via London) united together in music, each and every one of them doing themselves proud under the Music For Youth umbrella. The registered charity works, in its own words, ‘to provide young people aged 21 and under across the UK with free, life-changing performance and progression opportunities, regardless of background or musical style’.

The range of musical styles here was testament to this approach, creating an environment where genres can be celebrated rather than restrictive. The word ‘Proms’ may still conjure images of seated classical concerts, with a smattering of world music maybe, but here it stood for hip hop, soul, brass band, solo vocals, choir, classical for small and large orchestras and even jazz fusion bands.

To pick out a single performer would be unfair, as each one was fully deserving of their moment in the spotlight. For raw, upfront sass, the Sedgehill Academy Rap Collective from Lewisham excelled, especially when three soloists came forward to take the game to the audience, their sparky wordplay in original compositions making the Girls Rap Collective a thrilling live experience.

Illustrating the breadth of this country’s music, an affecting performance of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis followed from Musica Youth Strings, the Huddersfield-based ensemble giving true depth of feeling in their cleverly abridged account.

Cantilena from the Abbey Junior School in Reading were next, utterly charming as they sang The Puzzle and Silver Moon. They were complemented in the second half by the remarkably accomplished singing of the Northamptonshire County Youth Choir, whose accounts of music by Bob Chilcott (The Isle is Full of Noises) and Ola Gjeilo (Northern Lights) were breathtaking in both accuracy and emotion.

The brass players excelled, too – Gwent Youth Brass Ensemble in 3 Brass Dances by Ryan Linham, and the Mountbatten Big Band bringing exuberant lines to their Brooklyn medley. That the ensemble made such a big impression after No Trixx, a London fusion band of formidable musical capability, said much for their spirit.

The lasting image of the first half was provided by Ukrainian students from LPMAM (The London Performing Academy of Music, above), cleverly working Queen’s The Show Must Go On into the torch song Melody, from Ukrainian composer Skoryk. The students are on permanent placements at LPMAM, thanks to an initiative headed by conductor Stefania Passamonte, whose initiative and drive continues to bring more funding to enable more students to come over and base themselves in London. Judging by this performance they are revelling in the experience – typified by oboist Lola Marchenko, whose solos in both songs stayed long in the memory.

The second half of the Proms was similarly spectacular, with hundreds of singers and orchestral players forming the Lincolnshire Massed Ensemble (above). They delivered a Beyoncé medley of eye-opening power and positivity, headed by a group of girls whose vocals and dance moves showed just what a positive influence the former Destiny’s Child singer has exerted on them. As a celebration of 30 years of the Boston Music Centre, this took some beating.

From hundreds to just two, and the Emeli Sandé-influenced duo Chris and Baaba, whose intimate odes to friendship struck a very different but equally affecting chord, drawing the audience in closer to the round of the Albert Hall. We then heard remarkably assured solos from the York Music Forum Youth Jazz Ensemble, their Blue Matter a collection of cultured solos. A bracing account of the Overture to Hérold’s opera Zampa followed, given an excellent account by the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra. Finally, The Spy Game brought us full circle back to rap with Wag1Fam, a Stormzy-esque anthem to which the group bounced across the stage, never missing a note or a word.

The finale, a specially composed song Back Together, united all artists in a celebratory mood, a show of resolve and unexpected defiance.

Clearly this country – in the face of apparent efforts from on high to downplay the importance of music education – continues to nurture music making of astounding ability and refreshing confidence. Music For Youth is the ideal platform from which these artists can grow – but what needs to happen now is for them to get the ongoing support their talent craves and deserves. Politicians take note – music is a force for so much good and should be treated as such.

In concert – Clara-Jumi Kang, CBSO / Elena Schwarz: Dukas, Prokofiev & Dvořák

Dukas L’apprenti sorcier (1897)
Prokofiev Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor Op.63 (1935)
Dvořák Symphony no.8 in G major Op. 88 (1889)

Clara-Jumi Kang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Elena Schwarz

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 15 November 2022 2.15pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra followed the once customary format of overture, concerto and symphony for what was a compact but cohesive programme which duly highlighted the considerable conducting prowess of Elena Schwarz.

It may be a ‘symphonic scherzo’ rather than overture, but Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice after an early ballade by Goethe makes for an ideal curtain-raiser and if Schwarz stressed its purely musical rather than evocative qualities (there being little sense of Fantasia goings-on), the piece still packed a fair punch. Other accounts might have brought out more of that sense of teetering on the brink of disaster during its climactic stages though, a couple of awkward transitions and premature entries aside, this was rarely less than gripping as a performance.

So, too, was Clara-Jumi Kang in Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Long a staple of the repertoire, the work’s appeal can often be undermined by an emotional disengagement over its course. There was no chance of that here – Kang alive to the opening Allegro’s interplay of ambivalence and eloquence as were barely resolved by the terse closing pay-off. Nor was there any absence of expressive poise in the Andante, Kang’s often astringent tone pointing up that uneasy lyricism such as characterizes so much of the composer’s music at this time.

Kang entered fully into the final Allegro’s bracing if often sardonic spirit. The main theme’s rhythmic undertow, accentuated by castanets on its returns, likely indicates no more than a generalized Spanish-ness rather than any Civil War premonition, but it does add an edginess to the music’s course right through to its peremptory signing-off. This was a performance to savour, and Kang responded to its warm reception with an encore – the soulful Grave from Bach’s Second Violin Sonata (BWV1003) – which seemed entirely appropriate in context.

Although this was her debut with the CBSO, Schwarz clearly found no mean rapport with the musicians, as was evident in Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Not all those tempo changes in the opening Allegro were equally well handled, but the unbridled verve with which the composer handles his material was sustained through to the effervescent coda. With its deft alternating between wistfulness and pathos, the Adagio is surely as finely achieved a slow movement as Dvořák wrote and such qualities were as evident here as was the raptness of its closing bars.

The other movements might represent a marginal falling-off of invention, but the Allegretto’s gentle lilt was delightfully inflected with its unexpected breezy coda made all of a piece with the foregoing. Similarly, the variation format of the final Allegro can easily become a formal strait-jacket – yet with a delectable response from the CBSO woodwind and Schwarz pacing its eventful progress ideally through the ruminative latter variations and on to a scintillating close, it rounded off this performance with no less conviction than was evident at the outset.

From a relatively traditional programme to one much freer – next week’s CBSO concert is devised and directed by Pekka Kuusisto, and features music by Sibelius, Vaughan Williams and Rautavaara as part of an ingenious sequence centred on the concept Birds of Paradise.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Elena Schwarz and Clara-Jumi Kang

In concert – Kate Trethewey, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO / Martyn Brabbins: Vaughan Williams at 150: Scott of the Antarctic

Vaughan Williams
Scott of the Antarctic (1948)
Directed by Charles Frend
Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Presented by Big Screen Live

Kate Trethewey (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 11 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth concluding this evening in a showing, with live orchestral accompaniment, of Scott of the Antarctic which proved to be the composer’s most ambitious cinema project.

Directed by Charles Frend (who presided over several UK films in the 1940s and ‘50s, before having an equally prominent role in television) and released in November 1948, the film was a commercial success not least owing to the expressive scope and richness of its music. This extended to some 80 minutes, but Vaughan Williams was more than happy for it to be edited as required and was so in accord with Ernest Irving (director of music at Ealing Studios) that he dedicated to him his Sinfonia Antartica, evolved from the original score, four years later.

It was this close synchronization between image and music that Tommy Pearson (director of Big Screen Live) was intent on capturing when he prepared the film for concert presentation (and the background to which was described in entertaining detail in the programme for these concerts). Suffice to add while the overhauled soundtrack, consisting of dialogue and sound-effects, was all too evidently recorded in mono so that it is easily obscured by the music, the visual component has an opulence and immediacy as transcends its more than seven decades.

Occupying a space equivalent to the lower half of the organ in Symphony Hall, the screen was less dominant in a venue of this size than it would have been even in larger cinemas, but any wider or wrap-round treatment would doubtless have raised many technical obstacles and the print had, in any case, a clarity evident from the rear of the stalls. Much the same could also be said of the orchestra’s contribution, even if its seating on a level platform meant certain of those more intricate details and textures seemed less prominent than under concert conditions.

There can be little but praise for Martyn Brabbins’s direction. A Vaughan Williams exponent of stature (the latest instalment in his traversal of the symphonies has recently been issued on Hyperion), he has an instinctive feel for the emotional highs and lows of this music along with its myriad instrumental subtleties. That divide between what was retained for the soundtrack and what became the composer’s Seventh Symphony is greater than is often supposed, yet the degree to which the former effects and enhances one’s experience of the film is considerable.

This is not the place for any detailed overview of the film itself, though it is notable just how restrained and even absent is the music from the latter stages when Robert Scott and his team head towards oblivion the further they seem to be heading on their return journey. This might have been more to do with Frend or even Irving, but the resulting psychological dimension – beholden neither to inter-war expressionism nor wartime realism – was ostensibly new in a cinematic epic of this kind and makes the film historically as well as artistically significant.

The singing of Katie Tretheway and the CBSO Youth Chorus left nothing to be desired, but many attendees having stocked up on liquid refreshment beforehand saw a steady coming and going over much of the two hours: something that would not be tolerated in a concert, so why here?

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Kate Trethewey, Martyn Brabbins and the CBSO Youth Chorus