Live review – Clara Mouriz, CBSO / Jaume Santonja Espinos: Rimsky-Korsakov, Montsalvatge, Falla & Prokofiev

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santonja Espinos (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 13 November 2019

Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Espagnol Op.34 (1887)
Montsalvatge Cinco canciones negras (1945, orch. 1949)
De Falla El sombrero de tres picos (Suites 1 & 2) (1919)
Prokofiev Symphony no.7 in C sharp minor Op.131 (1952)

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (Clara Mouriz) JM Bielsa

Now into his second season as assistant conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Jaume Santonja Espinos has already made his mark so that tonight’s programme of his own choosing saw a juxtaposition of Russian and Spanish music equally to the orchestra’s liking. Certainly they pitched head first into Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Capriccio Espagnol, its ‘Alborada’ sections accordingly boisterous with the ‘Variazioni’ not lacking eloquence, then the bracing contrasts of the final ‘Fandango’ building gradually while inexorably to an effervescent close.

A pity Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is not more widely known, his stylistic amalgam of French impressionist with Spanish-cum-Latinate qualities appealing without being anodyne. Provocation is hardly lacking in his Canciones negras – its resourceful orchestral garb duly pointing up the fraught nostalgia of Cuba in a piano and smouldering sexuality as underpins Habanera rhythm, which aspect takes a more sinister turn in The Dandy as itself contrasts with the plaintiveness of Lullaby for a little black boy, before the verbal onomatopoeia of ‘Negro Song’ brings a visceral close. Clara Mouriz was in her element throughout one of the few Spanish song-cycles to have entered the repertoire, making one hope she and Santonja Espinos might tackle Roberto Gerhard‘s bewitching Cancionero de Pedrell before too long.

A swift return to the platform enabled Mouriz to add vocal enticements to the opening of de Falla‘s The Three Cornered Hat, both suites from which were heard this evening. The rather piecemeal first of these is dominated by the Dance of the Miller’s Wife, suitably suave and sensuous, while the three pieces that comprise the Second Suite (a CBSO staple in decades past) were judiciously characterized; the langour of the Neighbour’s Dance followed by the propulsion of the Miller’s Dance; then the heady denouement of the Final Dance enabling Santonja Espinos to secure playing both stylish and subtle on route to a scintillating close. Programming de Falla’s Love the Magician would have given the estimable Mouriz rather more to do, yet no-one hearing the present selection was likely to have felt short-changed.

The decidedly un-Spanish restraint of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony risked seeming anti-climactic after the interval, though this performance more than had its measure. The opening Moderato exemplified that ambiguity between wistfulness and resignation lying at the heart of this composer’s last major work, with the ensuing Allegretto a waltz-sequence of teasing understatement prior to its uproarious coda. Even better was the Andante, its variations on a theme of disarming simplicity affectingly rendered – after which, the final Vivace lacked that last degree of irony for its playfulness to feel more than dutiful. The return of the first movement’s big tune was powerfully despatched but, even with the original quiet ending, the closing bars were too matter-of-fact for their inherent pathos to come through unabated.

Even so, a thoughtful account of a piece as yields its depths but gradually. Santonja Espinos’s concerts with the CBSO are worth the anticipation: should he wish to include more Spanish music, the fiftieth anniversary of Gerhard’s death next year would be worth commemorating.

Listen

You can listen to a playlist of the music featured in this concert on Spotify below, including the recording made by Clara Mouriz herself with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena:

Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

Live review – Soloists, CBSO and Chorus / Kazuki Yamada – Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Keri Fuge (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 7 November 2019

Mendelssohn
Elijah Op.70 (1846)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although 173 years have passed since it first echoed around the Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah remains synonymous with Birmingham’s cultural tradition. Performances may be fewer than in its 19th-century heyday but there have been memorable ones – not least that in 1989 with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, for whom this piece was a speciality – and tonight saw a memorable account by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada, who duly banished any notions of this being a mid-Victorian period piece.

Whatever his failings on a broader aesthetic level, Mendelssohn was nothing if not creatively pragmatic when it came to a big occasion, and Elijah accordingly fulfilled its remit. Whereas the composer’s earlier oratorio St Paul had given notice of his abiding interest in the Passions of Bach, here he drew on the exemplar of those biblical epics through which Handel shaped English musical taste over the ensuing 150 years; enhanced by the rhythmic poise of Mozart and the harmonic subtleties of Beethoven to result in music wholly representative of its era.

Structured in two parts of almost equal duration, Elijah charts the trials of its eponymous hero as he draws the Israelites away from the pagan enticements of Baal and back to the true faith before himself ascending on a fiery chariot to Heaven. Julius Schubring‘s text (as sung in the idiomatic translation by William Bartholomew) fashions out of Kings and associated biblical sources a framework whose emotional rhetoric is balanced by a keen underlying momentum and unfailing sense of when to open-out the narrative to allow for more intimate expression.

The score implies eight soloists, but the four on hand (the brief role of ‘The Boy’ affectingly taken by chorus soprano Ella McNamee) proved more than able. As Elijah, Matthew Brook conveyed the anguish and the ecstasy of his part with unwavering assurance, while Robert Murray overcame initial strain to give commanding portrayals of his advocate Obadiah and detractor Ahab. Keri Fuge brought due pathos to the Widow, with Karen Cargill eloquent as the Angel – having stolen the show as the Queen who vents her wrath in unequivocal terms.

As with most of its forerunners, of course, Elijah is defined by a choral contribution in which the CBSO Chorus was not found wanting. Having recently sung the work with Yamada (and these soloists) in Monte Carlo, it conveyed the anger and supplication of the forsaken People with audible conviction, while being no less assured in those intricate choral items by which Mendelssohn frames and punctuates the drama. If choral numbers were appreciably less than the composer might have expected, then this was undoubtedly a case of less equalling more.

Neither should there have been any surprise as to the degree of Yamada’s identity with this music. Japan has produced notable exponents of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, with the present conductor evidently following in their wake. If those choruses ending each half summoned not quite the intensity evinced by Frühbeck all those years ago, the clarity and incisiveness he drew from both chorus and orchestra was hardly to be gainsaid – so setting the seal on a memorable reading of a work sure to wear its Birmingham credentials well into the future.

Listen

(Ben Hogwood writes…) Among the many available versions of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, sadly none of these appear to yet include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – though one wonders if an extension to their Mendelssohn in Birmingham series will be forthcoming under Edward Gardner.

Spotify does however have a recent recording of Elijah from the Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh, with Robert Murray once again in the roles of Obadiah and Ahab. The organ itself was recorded in Birmingham Town Hall:

Wigmore Mondays – The Cardinall’s Musick / Andrew Carwood: The Gunpowder plot

The Cardinall’s Musick (above) / Andrew Carwood (below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 4 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

The year is 2420. London’s concert hall in the City is celebrating its 200th anniversary with a concert of music devoted to Brexit. There are songs and instrumental pieces looking to recreate the chaos of the time.

Sound fanciful? Not entirely – especially when you cast an eye over this fascinating concert from the Cardinall’s Musick and Andrew Carwood, which was all about the attempt to end the reign of King James I by Guy Fawkes and his associates in 1605.

Carwood assembled an intriguing programme of music from well-known composers of the day – Gibbons, Byrd, Tomkins and Weelkes – and those not so well known in Thomas Greaves, John Hilton, Michael East and Richard Allison. The ensemble performed groups of sacred and secular music from the time by the composers, ranging from big eight-part masterpieces by Byrd and Gibbons to miniature odes to tobacco from Michael East.

There were some unexpectedly poignant moments as the concert progressed, and funny ones too, but the group began with one of the best-known anthems from the era in Orlando GibbonsO clap your hands (2:20). The interweaving parts were beautifully realised under Carwood’s clear direction.

The conductor (above) then gave the first of several informative and entertaining guides to both the historical period and the repertoire. Thomas Greaves’ five-part welcome song in honour of James, England receive the rightful king (9:55) led to Thomas Tomkins’ thoughtful O God, the proud are risen against me (11:59). Written in eight parts, this was a barely concealed railing against the leaders of the plot to overthrow the king and government, with some spicy dissonances clearly inflected by the sopranos.
John Hilton’s As there be three blue beans (15:39) was unexpectedly mischievous, a three-part round brilliantly sung by altos Patrick Craig and David Gould, and tenor Benjamin Durrant. It finished by marking the existence of three universities in England – Cambridge, Oxford and James.

Also in this group was William Byrd’s majestic The eagle’s force (17:44), which benefited from the clarity of the altos’ singing, and Michael East’s ode O metaphysical tobacco (20:07). King James I hated tobacco – and eventually had its ambassador Sir Walter Raleigh executed to appease Spain – but many in society loved this new discovery (as they do 415 years on!) There was no evidence of gravelly voices in this performance!

A piece of really impressive heft followed, Byrd’s anthem Deus venerunt gentes (24:03), described by Carwood as ‘symphonic’. A setting of Psalm 78, it is said to be the psalm martyrs would say on their approach to death, to receive forgiveness – and was used by the composer here as a lament for his fellow composer Thomas Campion. By nature it is a serious piece, and its stately progression was ideally paced by the group here, offering time for reflection during its 13 minutes. The lower registers of Byrd’s writing, especially around the 30:25 mark, were immaculately observed and set the downbeat mood, which followed the text impeccably.


King James I

The next selection of music looked at England in the aftermath of the Guy Fawkes plot. After another helpful introduction from Carwood we heard a prayer for the posterity of the king, Richard Allison’s O Lord bow down, a reverential number (39:37), followed by Thomas Tomkins’ request to the Lord for protection, The hills stand about Jerusalem (43:43), where the two sopranos and tenor dovetailed exquisitely. Following the same theme, Thomas Weelkes’ sobering O Lord God Almighty had explicit mentions for the royal family and their security (46:08), once again showing how little has changed in the preceding 400 years.

Finally another great Byrd piece in the shape of the eight-part wonder Ad Dominum cum tribularer (50:36), one with a stark message not just for the country post-gunpowder plot but for the world today: “I speak peace to them and they clamour for war”. A setting of Psalm 120, it is unsurprisingly a work of sombre beginnings, with a couple of spicy dissonances, but it grew in strength and conviction in this performance, which was ideally paced and realised.

Repertoire

The Cardinall’s Musick are the following singers, conducted by Andrew Carwood:

Laura Oldfield, Cecilia Osmond (sopranos), Patrick Craig, David Gould (altos), Benjamin Durrant, Nicholas Todd (tenors), Robert Evans, James Birchall (basses)

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Gibbons O clap your hands (2:20)
Greaves England receive the rightful king (9:55)
Tomkins O God, the proud are risen against me (11:59)
Hilton As there be three blue beans (15:39)
Byrd The eagle’s force (17:44)
East O metaphysical tobacco (20:07)
Byrd Deus venerunt gentes (24:03)
Allison O Lord bow down (39:37)
Tomkins The hills stand about Jerusalem (43:43)
Weelkes O Lord God Almighty (46:08)
Byrd Ad Dominum cum tribularer (50:36)

Further listening

Unfortunately some of the music heard in this concert is not available on Spotify, but the below playlist contains the music that could be found in available versions:

The Cardinall’s Musick have made a number of highly acclaimed recordings of the music of William Byrd. Two are available to hear on Spotify, recorded in the 1990s for the ASV label and featuring the eight part works heard in the concert. They are the Cantiones Sacrae

…and the Propers for the Nativity

On a completely different tip is this playlist of music suitable for fireworks! It includes works by Stravinsky and Debussy, but begins with the perennial Handel favourite Music for the Royal Fireworks, conducted by the recently departed Raymond Leppard:

Live review – Renaud Capuçon, CBSO / Anja Bihlmaier: Dvořák, Ravel, Chausson & Bizet

Renaud Capuçon (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Anja Bihlmaier

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 30 October 2019 (2.15pm)

Bizet arr. Hoffman Carmen Suite no.2 (1887)
Chausson Poeme Op.25 (1896)
Ravel Tzigane (1924)
Dvořák Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (1885)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brought a welcome appearance from German conductor Anja Bihlmaier, presiding over an unlikely yet appealing programme as juxtaposed French and Russian music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bizet‘s Carmen has maintained its hold on the operatic repertoire such that individual items are seldom encountered in concert other than as encores. As arranged by Fritz Hoffmann, this Second Suite astutely alternates entr’actes with vocal numbers. Thus the purposeful Marche des contrebandiers (akin to an offcut from Elgar’s Wand of Youth) precedes the smouldering Habanera, then a Nocturne which is Micaela’s third act aria with its vocal line transferred to violin and soulfully rendered by guest leader Tamas Kocsis. That of the evergreen Chanson du toreador is similarly heard on trumpet, which instrument is duly partnered by flutes in the infectious La garde montante, before wind instruments variously come to the fore during the Danse boheme which rounded off the present selection in appropriately exhilarating fashion.

Renaud Capuçon then joined the orchestra for an unlikely coupling of concertante pieces that is highly effective in concert. It may have been inspired by a Turgenev story, but Chausson‘s Poème is an autonomous entity whose rhapsodic impulses are balanced by formal rigour and an organic evolution as elides between the introspective and ecstatic – a trajectory conveyed with due eloquence by Capuçon, his fastidious tonal shading deftly reinforced by Bihlmaier’s nuanced direction. What is so often an elusive work left a powerful and enduring impression.

As, albeit in its rather more demonstrative way, did Ravel‘s Tzigane. Effectively the result of a bet with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi that this composer could come up with a rhapsody inspired by Hungarian gypsy music, the piece wears its Lisztian antecedents lightly while pointing the way toward the similarly conceived rhapsodies of Bartók. Capuçon teased out the high-drama of its unaccompanied initial section, then – with harpist Alma Klemm – made a breath-taking transition into its heady medley of gypsy-inflected themes prior to the rousing final flourish.

After the interval, Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony came almost as a corrective in its seriousness of purpose and powerful formal logic. Bihlmaier directed a performance as left no doubt as to such qualities, at its best in a thoughtful while never staid account of the slow movement – its brief yet elated climax ideally judged – then a scherzo whose underlying furiant rhythm was suffused with Brahmsian trenchancy (one reason this piece displeased the anti-Dvořák faction decades hence). Not that there was much lacking with the outer movements, though the coda of the initial Allegro was a little too deadpan for its ominousness fully to register, and that of the finale felt too reined-in emotionally; those granitic cadential chords marginally failing to clinch what is surely the most fatalistic of any major-key ending in the symphonic repertoire.

Even so, this was a finely realized account of a work as can all too often misfire. Bihlmaier will hopefully return before long: next week, the CBSO’s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada directs a performance of Mendelssohn‘s Elijah, premiered in this city 173 years ago.