In concert – Ning Feng, CBSO / John Wilson: Rachmaninoff Symphony no.3, Glazunov Violin Concerto & Gershwin’s symphonic Porgy & Bess

rachmaninoff-wilson

Gershwin (arr. Bennett) Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (1942)
Glazunov Violin Concerto in A minor Op.82 (1904)
Rachmaninoff Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.44 (1935-6)

Ning Feng (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 1 December 2021 (2.15pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo of Ning Feng (c) Felix Broede

John Wilson may have been taken by surprise when asked to introduce this afternoon concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but there was nothing left to chance as to the performances in what proved to be a judiciously planned and finely realized programme.

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is now well-established as an opera as much as a musical (hybrid or otherwise), not least through Wilson’s advocacy at English National Opera’s staging three seasons ago, but there is still a place for the ‘Symphonic Picture’ as posthumously realized by Robert Russell Bennett. The pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator from Broadway’s ‘golden age’, Bennett may have regarded Gershwin’s masterpiece as essentially a sequence of classy showtunes, but the finesse with which these were fashioned into a cumulative overview of the drama cannot be gainsaid. Wilson drew sumptuous playing from the CBSO in an arrangement by no means dismissive of Gershwin’s orchestration. Perhaps another time he could schedule the far more arresting Catfish Row suite, but so fine a reading of the Bennett was no hardship.

If Glazunov refused Gershwin’s request for tuition, he surely realized no amount of technique could compensate for – in the former’s case – limited or erratic inspiration. Not that his Violin Concerto is an unalloyed masterpiece, but its expressive elegance allied to a formal ingenuity have deservedly kept it in the repertoire and Ning Feng (above) audibly believed in every bar. Maybe the presentation of its main themes in the brief opening section was a little too matter-of-fact, but the central ‘slow movement’ then ensuing development and scherzo were rendered with the right deftness and incisiveness; nor did a relatively lengthy cadenza hang fire on the way to a ‘finale’ that ensured a scintillating close. A sympathetic accompanist, Wilson judged the orchestra’s contribution to a nicety, with some especially felicitous playing from woodwind.

It was Glazunov’s disastrous conducting that had sunk Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony but, four decades later, the Third Symphony finds the latter near the height of his creative powers – its pithy melodic content harnessed to an orchestral astringency that underlines the exiled composer’s confrontation with though not embracing of the musical present. Right from its haunting ‘motto’, through its contrasted themes (with exposition repeat) then a development that culminates in graphic anguish, Wilson had the measure of this masterly first movement.

What ensued was almost as fine, not least the seamlessness with which the slow movement’s scherzo emerged out of then back into the main Adagio – the playing off the acerbic against the bittersweet its own justification. If the finale felt a little too sectional in overall unfolding, there was no lack of characterization – not least the strings’ superb articulation in the central fugato as this headed towards the reprise, though a more continuous acceleration might have imbued the coda with even greater conclusiveness in what is a QED of unequivocal defiance.

Even so, this was a confident and, for the most part, insightful performance of a work whose true emotions are barely concealed beneath the enticing surface. The CBSO, which gave its all, will be back at Symphony Hall next Thursday in a major new work from Jonathan Dove.

For more information on the CBSO’s autumn season visit the orchestra’s website. For more on the artists, click here for John Wilson and here for Ning Feng

In concert – London Sinfonietta / Edmon Colomer: A Catalan Celebration

london-sinfonietta-catalan

Gerhard Libra (1968)
Figuera
Faula (2017)
García-Tomás
Aequae (2012)
Illean
Januaries (2017)
Gerhard
Leo (1969)

London Sinfonietta / Edmon Colomer

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Wednesday 1 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A celebration of Catalan music, this concert by the London Sinfonietta also commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Roberto Gerhard – which, falling in January last year, had augured a number of events substantially curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdowns. At least it had been possible to reschedule this programme – Gerhard’s work framing three recent pieces by contemporary composers whose music, if by no means beholden to that of their predecessor, was demonstrably influenced and even enhanced by it.

Of these three composers, Joan Magrané Figuera (b1988) was most audibly in the modernist lineage. Faula (Fable) unfolds continuously, its four strands of material being akin to levels of activity – exuding a nervous anticipation, ferocious interaction, static intoning, and a deft animation – present in varying combinations for a process which did not so much evolve as play out across its allotted time-span. More arresting was Aequae (Equal) by Raquel García-Tomás (b1984) – its ‘equality’ embodied in six parts, each of two-minute duration, that drew variety as well as ingenuity of response from its ensemble – with a subtle emphasis on those similarities arising unbidden from the emergence of identical motifs in differing contexts. By comparison, Januaries by Lisa Illean (b1983) felt relatively moribund with its concentration on a continuity that, if not static in its timbre or texture, evoked an atmosphere which started then ceased as though a photographic image not susceptible to real change or intensification. The phrase ‘monotonously beautiful or beautifully monotonous’ inescapably came to mind.

Qualities that could never be applied to Gerhard’s output in general or that of his final decade in particular. Works for ensemble are numerous from this time, yet it made sense to focus on those Astrological pieces which, written in the wake of his masterly Fourth Symphony, were also the last he completed. Both are structured as continuous entities alternating between the extreme of stillness and movement common to the music from his maturity. In the case of the ‘chamber concerto’ that is Libra, the concept of balance feels everywhere apparent – not least its six players interlocking in a range of sub-groups that attain equilibrium on both formal and expressive levels. While it pursues a similar trajectory, the ‘chamber symphony’ that is Leo is intentionally less cohesive in design – the confrontation within its larger forces pushing such constraints to, but never beyond their limits. Both works, moreover, feature an epilogue that, with their gently undulating motion and focus on a folk-inflected melody of exquisite poise, bring into accord their musical concerns as surely as those star-signs of Gerhard and his wife.

Music which has lost none of its affective capacity during the more than half-century since it appeared, and how apposite they should be played by the ensemble that gave their world and European premieres respectively. The London Sinfonietta sounded no less committed than its forebears on pioneering accounts with David Atherton – for which Edmon Colomer, his long-time advocacy heard in numerous performances and recordings, can take due credit. One can only hope it does not take another 50 years for this music’s intrinsic worth to be recognized.

For further information on the concert, click here For more information on the composers, click respectively for Roberto Gerhard, Joan Magrané Figuera, Raquel García-Tomás and Lisa Ilean. For more on Edmon Colomer, click here

In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: CBSO Percussion Ensemble

Daugherty Lounge Lizards (1994)
Mazzoli
Volume (2006)
Reich
Dance Patterns (2002)
John Luther Adams
Qilyaun (1998)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble [James Keefe, Clíodna Shanahan (pianos), Adrian Spillett, Toby Hearney, Andrew Herbert, Matthew Hardy, RBC Students (percussion)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 3 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This last Centre Stage recital for 2021 brought a welcome return from the CBSO Percussion Ensemble for a programme such as demonstrated the sheer variety possible in the percussion medium even with the relatively small number of musicians required in most of these pieces.

Although he has written extensively for larger forces, Michael Daugherty is often at his best with chamber groupings as the two pianos and two percussion of Lounge Lizards, whose four sections keenly evoke the composer’s student years playing jazz piano – whether Sip ‘N’ Stir at Cedar Rapids, Dennis Swing Club at Hamburg, Ramada Inn on the New Jersey Turnpike and Bamboo Bar in Amsterdam. A range of ‘cool jazz’ idioms and practitioners is alluded to, with the deadpan humour as has long been a Daugherty hallmark never far below the surface.

Those who heard Missy Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea at a CBSO concert in May will know of her vivid timbral sense, and Volume is no exception. Inspired by the inventive and highly charismatic playing of musicians from Trinidad, it can be performed (as here) with a second vibraphone replacing steel drum and which, heard alongside intricate exchanges for two kick drums and five bottles of water is, to quote the composer, ‘‘a raucous and joyful … homage to the … spirit of innovative music-making’’ – this performance certainly being no exception.

As Adrian Spillett remarked during a platform change, the music of Steve Reich has never been absent from a Centre Stage programme by this group – and Dance Patterns finds this composer at his most dextrous. Written for pairs of pianos, vibraphones and xylophones as part of the Dutch dance-film Counterphrases, its content does no more while no less than is indicated by its title, though such is the deftness and understatement of its interplay that the six-minute duration passes as though in an instant and all too soon dissolves into the ether.

‘Understatement’ is hardly apposite to describe Qilyaun by John Luther Adams – the Iñupiaq word for ‘shaman’s drum’ also ‘device of power’ graphically evoked in this visceral workout for four bass drums. Its gradual deceleration of activity to a midpoint of isolated strokes then reverse acceleration back to the initial rhythmic continuum was executed with a formidable unanimity by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire students, even if the need to keep listeners at a remove from the drums at the rear of the auditorium rather compromised social distancing.

That said, the piece was likely a revelation to those who know JLA only through his recent (and rightly acclaimed) orchestral works and concluded this recital in unequivocal fashion. Centre Stage resumes on January 21st with an all-Poulenc programme including the Sextet.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here

In concert – Vilde Frang, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven Violin Concerto & Dora Pejačević Symphony

Sakari Oramo

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806)
Pejačević
Symphony in F# minor Op.41 (1916-17, rev. 20)

Vilde Frang (violin, below), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Barbican Hall, London
Friday 26 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Pictures (c) Mark Allan

The latter-day uncovering of music from the past two centuries by female composers has not always been determined by its intrinsic quality yet, on the basis of this evening’s account by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony by Dora Pejačević was certainly worth revival.

Born in Budapest and growing up within the Croatian nobility, Pejačević (1885-1923) early on evolved an idiom whose pivoting on the cusp between late-Romanticism and Modernism was well suited to those large-scale instrumental and, latterly, orchestral works that dominate an output curtailed by her death – from kidney failure – at just 37. Certainly, there is nothing at all cautious about her Symphony in F sharp minor, composed during the later stages of the First World War and a piece audibly indebted to though never merely beholden to its times.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with Vilde Frang on violin perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dora Peja?evi?: Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 4 in the Barbican Hall on Friday 26 Nov. 2021. Photo by Mark Allan

Surprisingly, the opening movement is in most respects the weakest – its main Allegro failing to sustain the impact of its impressive slow introduction (Brahms’s First Symphony the likely precursor), in terms of questing harmonic trajectory or purposeful momentum, once the lyrical if rather flaccid second theme has taken hold. The development relies more on rhetoric than motivic ingenuity over its too brief course, followed by an awkwardly modified reprise then a coda whose glowering intensity reveals an intermittent tendency to overscore for the brass.

Such failings are largely absent from what follows. Centred on a soulful melody given to cor anglais, the Andante builds methodically while irresistibly to its pathos-laden climax before subsiding into the lower reaches of the woodwind; while the Scherzo (better placed second in context) utilizes tuned percussion to underpin a progress whose rhythmic vitality is unusual in symphonies from this era. The final Allegro revisits the first movement’s emotional angst, but its relative succinctness on the way to an ultimately cathartic peroration feels securely judged.

Such, at any rate, was the impression left by this performance – the BBCSO responding with alacrity to Sakari Oramo’s belief in music scored, for the most part, with no little imagination for forces including triple woodwind, six horns and four trumpets. If not the masterpiece some might like to believe, Pejačević’s Symphony is evidently worth revival as frequently as, say, that by Korngold – a potent of what this composer would surely have gone on to create. That she enjoyed only a short-lived maturity need not detract from extent of her legacy as it stands.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with Vilde Frang on violin perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dora Peja?evi?: Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 4 in the Barbican Hall on Friday 26 Nov. 2021. Photo by Mark Allan

Despite sustaining a hand injury, Vilde Frang took the stage in the first half for a reading of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (replacing that by Stravinsky) as brought the genial and restive aspects of its expansive first movement into effortless accord; after which, the variations of the Larghetto were exquisitely delineated then the humour of the final Rondo shot-through with an incisiveness through to the emphatic close. Among the most astute of accompanists, Oramo drew felicitous playing from the BBCSO’s woodwind and a reduced string-section.

As encore, Frang gave an eloquent take on Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, Haydn’s theme for the variations in his ‘Emperor’ Quartet. Hopefully those still trying to reconcile the movement-headings of the Pejačević as given erroneously for the Beethoven were not unduly distracted.

For the repertoire in this concert, listen to the Spotify playlist below:

For further information on the concert, click here For more on Dora Pejačević, click here – and for more on soloist Vilde Frang, here

On record – Dmitry Smirnov: Bach, Bartók & Schneeberger – Works for solo violin (First Hand)

dmitry-smirnov

Dmitry Smirnov (violin)

J.S. Bach Partita no.2 in D minor BWV1004 (c1720)

Bartók Sonata, BB124 (1944)
Schneeberger Sonata (1942)
First Hand Records FHR117 [61’45”]

Producer / Engineer Jean-Daniel Noir

Recorded 8-10 February 2021 at ‘Il Poggio’, Montecastelli Pisano, Italy

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The violinist Dmitri Smirnov makes his debut for First Hand Records with this release of unaccompanied works from Bach and Bartók, together with a first commercial recording    for the wartime sonata by Schneeberger in what proves an astute and instructive coupling.

What’s the music like?

The Solo Violin Sonata by Bartók is the pre-eminent work of its kind in the twentieth century – Smirnov setting out his credentials in a forthright though never over-wrought account of its initial Tempo di ciaccona, followed by a tensile reading of the Fuga which still admits a bracing humour into its methodical construction. The Melodia is the emotional core of this work, and here Smirnov avails himself of a wide variety of timbre in its heartfelt unfolding, then the Presto makes for a coruscating finale that ultimately heads to its decisive ending.

Its famous finale can easily dwarf the initial four movements of Bach’s Second Solo Partita, but Smirnov is mindful to accord due emphasis to this succession of capricious Allemande, trenchant Courante, eloquent Sarabande then cavorting Gigue, whose jazzy syncopation provides a telling foil for what follows. Attacca in this instance – Smirnov heading directly into the Chaconne which here eschews rhetorical grandeur for an impulsive traversal of its motivically close-knit variations, sustained through to an unexpectedly taciturn conclusion.

Interest understandably focusses on a Solo Sonata by Swiss violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger (1926-2019), with whom Smirnov was personally acquainted. The present work is structured in three compact movements: a powerfully sustained Adagio – entitled Introduzione (quasi cadenza) – followed by an alternately humorous and suave Allegro, then a closing Allegro which is barely half the length of its predecessors, while compensating for any formal short-windedness with an unflagging energy which is maintained right through to its final cadence.

Does it all work?

Yes, whether in terms of a collection whose constituents can be enjoyed separately or as a straight-through recital. There are many other recordings of both the Bach and Bartók, but Smirnov brings his own interpretative approach to bear on each work while, at least for the present, has the field to himself in the Schneeberger. The repertoire for solo violin is wider than supposed, and Smirnov will hopefully continue with its exploration – maybe tackling one of those sonatas by Mieczysław Weinberg, Benjamin Frankel, or Bernard van Dieren.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The focussed while never constricted sound provides an ideal ambience for Smirnov, whose playing is complemented by his informative annotations. Both CD and booklet cover feature one of Scheeberger’s paintings, The Forest, dating from two years before his Sonata.

Listen & Buy

 

You can get more information on the disc at the First Hand website.