In concert – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Jac van Steen – David Matthews Symphony no.10 world premiere, Schubert & Brahms

jac-van-steen

Brahms Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor Op.13 (1854-8)
Schubert
Overture to Rosamunde D797 (1820)
David Matthews
Symphony no.10 Op.157 (2020-21) [World premiere]

Stephen Hough (piano, below), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Jac van Steen (above)

MediaCity UK, Salford Quays
Friday 20 May 2022, 3pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A substantial programme was the order of the day for this afternoon’s studio concert from the BBC Philharmonic with Jac van Steen, given at the orchestra’s regular base in MediaCityUK and that featured a first performance anywhere for the Tenth Symphony by David Matthews.

Whereas his previous symphony was written for relatively modest dimensions, the Tenth marks a return to larger forces: triple woodwind (with doublings), four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba and four percussionists alongside timpani, celesta, piano, harp, and strings. It also finds Matthews (above) retackling the one-movement format that dominated his earlier symphonies, allied to a subtle process of developing variation such as ensures unity across a varied and eventful discourse. Not least when that massive opening chord sets out a long-range tonal and harmonic trajectory for this work overall, and to which a pensive (offstage) cor anglais solo then intensifying string fugato provide both continuation and contrast by anticipating the types of expression and motion as variously come to the fore.

Distinctive in themselves yet drawn into a tensile and cohesive entity, the constituent sections take in a wistful intermezzo then an agile scherzo on the way to a central culmination whose increasingly explosive energy likely marks a point of greatest engagement with that opening chord. The music duly heads into a slower episode of sustained emotional raptness, elements heard earlier gradually being recalled through an unforced while never discursive process of reprise towards a coda whose ending seems the more conclusive for its poised equivocation. An absorbing and often gripping exploration of symphonic tenets such as Matthews has long pursued, persuasively realized by the BBCPO and van Steen – whose support of the composer – having already recorded the Second, Sixth and Eighth Symphonies – hardly needs restating.

Before the interval, Stephen Hough (above) was soloist in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto – a piece he has given many times (not least a memorable reading at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the early 1990s, Andrew Davis also giving a seismic account of the Symphony by the late Hugh Wood). There was emotional breadth aplenty in the initial Maestoso, but also latest energy as came to the fore in a combative development and tempestuous coda. Nor was the symphonic aspect underplayed in what is still the most monumental opening movement of any concerto.

If the central Adagio lacked a degree of repose in its orchestral introduction, Hough’s take on its almost confessional solo passages brought the required inwardness, with the course of this movement towards its agitated peak or enfolding serenity at its close never in doubt. Nor was that of the closing rondo, especially a central episode whose string fugato was deftly rendered then the piano’s gentle response enticingly conveyed. After the cadenza, horns and woodwind emerged as if leaving a benediction prior to the triumph that coursed through those final bars.

Throughout this performance, van Steen was an alert and responsive accompanist – then put the BBC Philharmonic through its paces with an animated account of Schubert’s Rosamunde (a.k.a. Die Zauberharfe), which made for an engaging if unlikely entrée into the Matthews.

For more information on David Matthews you can visit his website here. For more on the artists in this concert, click on the names to access the websites of Stephen Hough, Jac van Steen and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

In concert – Gabriela Montero, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Tchaikovsky & Bruckner

Gabreila-Montero

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op.23 (1874-5)
Bruckner
Symphony no.6 in A major (1879-81)

Gabriela Montero (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 11 May 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tchaikovsky and Bruckner might not be the likeliest coupling, but this evening’s programme by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra juxtaposed two works of less than a decade apart to arresting and even thought-provoking effect under the baton of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

Gabriela Montero can almost always be relied upon to ring the changes in standard repertoire, as it proved in this account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Its introduction opulent if not unduly grandiloquent, the opening movement proceeded securely and often imaginatively – Montero unafraid to tackle the orchestra head on in this most elemental confrontation, even while her tone was not free of clatter on occasion. Powerfully shaped and incisively rendered, the cadenza brought forth a spontaneous response to this composer at his most imaginative.

At less than half the length of their predecessor, the remaining movements can feel almost an afterthought, though Montero had the measure of the Andantino with its winsome main theme (elegantly phrased by flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic) with its capricious central section incisively fleet of foot. Heading straight into the final Allegro con fuoco (mention of which was omitted from the programme), she duly balanced pianistic fireworks with tangible pathos on the way to an apotheosis with piano and orchestra at one in conveying the music’s unchecked elation.

From the outset of her career, Montero has advocated the almost lost art (with pianists if not organists) of improvisation, and her encore duly took the title-theme from Ennio Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso as basis for an engaging workout along the lines of a Bach fugue.

It was Bruckner’s Sixth that MG-T should have conducted (replaced by Omer Meir-Wellber) at what proved the CBSO’s last ‘home’ concert prior to the corona virus ushering in the first lockdown. Good she has been able to reschedule it, even if the overall result was inconsistent. The initial Majestoso was mostly well judged, even if her modification of tempo between its first and second themes then her hairpin crescendos towards the apexes of the development and coda – the latter being one of Bruckner’s finest inspirations – impeded formal continuity. No such issues affected the Adagio, its ineffable expanse guided with assurance and no little insight towards those climaxes supporting the structure as though pillars of an ecclesiastical edifice – the coda ensuring a benediction whose repose remained after this music had ceased.

Nor was there anything to take issue in a Scherzo whose outer sections had all the requisite verve and wit, with the insouciance of its trio ideally judged. A pity when things rather fell apart in the Finale – its genial second theme just avoiding sentimentality at this halting pace, but whose development unfolded at so inhibited a tempo as to become parenthetical to the movement overall. By the time the coda emerged, any consistency of pulse had long been sacrificed so not even the splendour of the CBSO’s collective response could save the day.

Hopefully MG-T will be able to tackle this recalcitrant work again soon, though tomorrow sees the Tchaikovsky paired with Brahms’s Third Symphony. The CBSO then embarks on another European tour before returning for a History of Soul event at the end of this month.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021/22 season, visit their website, and for details on the newly announced 2022/23 season click here. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Gabriela Montero and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Composer Portrait – Walter Arlen

Walter Arlen
Songs of Songs (1955)
The Poet in Exile (1991)

Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Thomas Mole (baritone), BBC National Chorus of Wales, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Studio recording at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 17-20 February 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

Although he is likely best known by his trenchant music criticism for the Los Angeles Times, Vienna-born Walter Arlen has made a distinguished contribution to music administration and is increasingly being recognized as a composer. Several releases of his songs and piano music can be heard on the Gramola label, and this latest of the English Symphony Orchestra online concerts provides a welcome introduction to two of his works that feature orchestra – the one drawing on ancient Jewish sources with the other on poems from a leading modern author.

Whether The Song of Songs is indeed harbinger of monogamy in the Judeo-Christian moral code, it contains some of the eloquent expression in either of the Biblical testaments and has long provided a potent inspiration for musical treatment. In just under 30 minutes, Arlen’s ‘dramatic poem’ takes in the main narrative – the lively opening chorus features much sub-divided writing for female chorus underpinned by incisive orchestral textures. As the piece unfolds, it becomes evident that emotional emphasis is placed upon the solo contributions – whether those of King Solomon as sung with burnished warmth by Thomas Mole, those of the Shepherdess rendered with winsome poise and not a little insouciance by Anna Huntley, or those of the Shepherd which Gwilym Bowen here projects with no mean virility but also tenderness. Nor is the BBC National Chorus of Wales found wanting in passages with textural intricacy and intonational accuracy at a premium. If the final resolution does not bring the expected closure, the direct and unaffected appeal of this setting certainly warrants revival.

Yet the real discovery is The Poet in Exile, a song-cycle to texts by the Polish-American author and cultural eminence Czesław Miłosz. For all its undoubted depth and profundity, these texts are not easily rendered in musical terms, and it is to Arlen’s credit that he goes a considerable way towards elucidating them thus. As the latter states, these poems ‘‘dealt with situations echoing my own remembrance of things past’’; a quality which holds good from the trenchant rhetoric of ‘Incantation’, via the sombre rumination of ‘Island’ then the whimsical elegance of ‘In Music’ and controlled fervour of ‘For J.L.’ (with its distinctive obligato for harpsichord), to the confiding intimacy of ‘Recovery’. Inquiring listeners may already have heard these songs with piano on one of the Gramola releases with Christian Immler accompanied by Danny Driver (GRAM98946), but this version – as orchestrated by Kenneth Woods after an arrangement by Eskender Bekmembatov – makes for a richer and wider-ranging context for a vocal line projected with real assurance by Thomas Mole.

Throughout these works, the musicians of the ESO are heard to advantage in the spacious acoustic of Hoddinott Hall and are directed by Woods with sure sense of where to place the emotional emphasis – especially important in conveying the meaning of the songs. If not a major voice, Arlen’s output is always approachable and often thought-provoking. Anyone who has encountered it will enjoy getting to know his music on a larger scale and hearing it played so persuasively: a worthy present for the composer in advance of his 102nd birthday.

These works are available for free public viewing from 13-17 May on the English Symphony Orchestra website

For further information on Walter Arlen, click here – and for the appropriate Gramola Records link click here. Meanwhile click on the names for more on Czesław Miłosz, the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

Online concert / Switched On – Jorge E. López: Im Innersten: János Bolyai stirbt

lopez

López Im Innersten: János Bolyai stirbt, Op. 30

5.1 Radiophonic Composition

Broadcast via station ORF1 on Sunday 8th May 2022 [11.00pm]

by Richard Whitehouse

Radiophonic compositions are less often encountered nowadays than their heyday during the third quarter from last century, but the impact of a piece such as Xenakis’s La Légende d”Eer (which is being revived as part of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s programme to mark this composer’s centenary on May 29th) remains comparable to that achieved with any medium, and Austrian Radio’s recent broadcast of Im Innersten: János Bolyai stirbt by Jorge E. López confirms a necessary addition to this select though distinctive and influential genre.

Although he has utilized electronics in previous works, this work is López’s first specifically for the radiophonic medium. The source material stems largely from field recordings, made inside ice caves and glaciers of the Grosser Burgstall in Austria’s region of Carinthia during August 2021.  López draws attention to the ‘‘decay and disintegration’’ that has affected this area; what was once pristine now abounds in the blackness of cliff-faces, earth and stones as testament to the effect of climate change. Not a little of this is conveyed by his composition.

With its duration of just under 17 minutes, the work unfolds a polyphonic and multi-layered trajectory in which these environs are firstly evoked before being explored and opened-out   in increasingly graphic terms. Beginning with a gently percolating sound of water, the sonic outlook diversifies before intensifying considerably; notably around the seven-minute mark, when the hitherto accumulated textures assume an ominous and even threatening aura that doubtless reflects those physical conditions from which the initial recordings had emerged.

Near the 12-minute mark a likely climax, even catharsis, is reached with the declamation by male then female voices of words whose translation might be ‘‘Just one short line at the end, (there being) nothing else to say: Mr Captain is no more’’ and then ‘‘As I wrote this letter, he died, and therefore there is nothing more to say than: the Captain has left’’. After which, the composer can be heard reciting the closing paragraph from Zsolt Láng’s novel Bolyai before the music gradually retreats – as might the figure having apprehended this disturbing vision.

The broadcast was (to use the currently much abused term) an ‘immersive’ one, such as even those without access to 5.1 encoding could perceive with decent headphones. Absorbing on its own terms, this ‘‘symphonic etude’ should be no less so as the final interlude of the opera Bolyai – that recounts the last hours of the Hungarian mathematician and geometrist – López is currently planning. Note too that the composer has reached an agreement with the publisher Doblinger to disseminate his recent works, details of which will be announced in due course.

For further information on this performance, you can head to the ORF player here. Meanwhile Richard’s 65th birthday tribute to Jorge E. López can be found here on the Arcana website

In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: Beethoven & Schumann string quartets

Schumann String Quartet no.3 in A major, Op.41 No. 3 (1842)
Beethoven
String Quartet no.11 in F minor, Op.95 ‘Serioso’ (1810-11)

CBSO Soloists [Jonathan Martindale and Stefano Mengoli (violins), Christopher Yates (viola), Helen Edgar (cello)]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 6 May 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Centre Stage series, featuring members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, continued this afternoon with a coupling of string quartets which, written just three decades apart, could hardly be more contrasted in terms of their aesthetic stance or emotional impact.

It made sense to reverse the advertised playing order. Schumann’s Third Quartet may be the last of his trilogy, but the initial movement is an ideal means of ushering in any programme – its gentle introduction then ruminative Allegro segueing with an unforced eloquence amply conveyed by these players. Most impressive was the ensuing scherzo – its variations on an agitated theme maintaining impetus right through to the restive closing bars. In his opening remarks, Jonathan Martindale spoke of the anguish beneath this music’s seeming sanguinity as is confirmed by those stealthy episodes that twice disrupt the Adagio’s repose before its main ideas find uneasy accord. No such issue affects the final Allegro, its rhythmic dexterity faltering a little but its determined progress towards an affirmative outcome never in doubt.

Whereas Schumann’s quartet typifies the mid-Romantic zeitgeist, Beethoven’s Serioso finds the latter composer’s late-Classicism at its most provocative – not least in terms of a formal concentration that barely exceeds 20 minutes. The present account underlined this in a lithe take on the opening Allegro which exuded a volatility such as (rightly) carried over into the next movement – its Allegretto marking indicative of a restlessness made more poignant by the extended coda’s burgeoning lyricism. Yet, as the ambiguous final cadence attests, there can be no let-up with a scherzo whose ‘serioso’ marking reinforces this as music-making in earnest. Its tense angularity is hardly less evident in the lurching progress of a finale whose breezily nonchalant conclusion is as unexpected as it was vividly realized on this occasion.

An arresting and persuasive juxtaposition which will hopefully be evident (if a little less starkly) in the next Centre Stage concert just over a month from now, when several of this afternoon’s players reassemble for early chamber works by Vaughan Williams and Fauré.

You can find further information on CBSO Centre Stage concerts on the CBSO website