Live review – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle: Stravinsky, Birtwistle & John Adams

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (above)

Barbican Hall, London
Thursday 2 May 2019

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original version) (1920)
Birtwistle The Shadow of Night (2001)
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Written by Ben Hogwood

These days attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert brings with it a guarantee of intriguing programming and breathtaking musicianship. This one had a real ‘darkness to light’ demeanour, moving from the blacker than black recesses of Sir Harrison Birtwistle to the wide open, sunlit panoramas created by John Adams.

Before that, a composer whose influence could be keenly felt in the music of both composers. Stravinsky made many innovations in pieces other than his celebrated Rite of Spring, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments could certainly be regarded as one of his most original. With the term ‘symphony’ interpreted through its original meaning, the ‘concord of sound’, Stravinsky proceeds to build an innovative one-movement piece that contrasts busy movement with still reflection.

The instrumentation is fascinating, especially in the original version, which uses alto clarinet and alto flute. It explains the simply wonderful sounds made by the 24-piece London Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, the rich chords often baleful and downcast (the piece is a memorial to Debussy) but the faster music sprightly and energetic. A better performance of this piece would be hard to imagine, energetically guided by Sir Simon Rattle.

The music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle continues to split opinion. For this particular listener it is not an easy prospect, and I confess to having developed headaches in previous performances of Earth Dances and Neruda Madrigales, while admiring The Moth Requiem and Silbury Air. I therefore approached The Shadows of Night with some trepidation, but found it an ultimately rewarding score, its heavy darkness punctuated by relieving solos of glittering light from bassoon and E-flat clarinet, where Chi Yu Mo was simply superb.

Birtwistle’s colouring of the lower regions of the string orchestra is particularly fine, and the first five minutes were a sonic wonder to behold, as though the Barbican had opened up into a monstrous cave. Then the piccolo stated a John Dowland song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, after which the piece lumbered through a number of sections with gathering tension. Once this was released the clarinet worked its magic, and Rattle set us down in a heap for the interval.

Following Birtwistle with John Adams was like throwing open the curtains to greet a sun-splashed new morning, and the LSO sparkled with what seemed to be new-found freedom. Harmonielehre delights in tonality, politely rejecting Schoenberg’s treatise of the same name to power forward with terrific rhythmic impetus and walls of consonant harmonies. Within themselves these create some exquisite dissonance and colour, with the brass and percussion in particular shining through. Rattle has this piece under his skin, having recorded it with the CBSO in 1993, and if anything his interpretation has gained speed and electricity. as the composer himself noted on Twitter!

The audience were swept up in the cumulative power and energy of the piece, particularly in its closing section, which carried all before it. Of all the prominent exponents of minimalism, Adams has the most effective orchestral writing, and his clear signposts of influences (Sibelius Symphony no.4, Stravinsky, Debussy and even Britten) were all used to original effect. It was an invigorating close to a terrific concert.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

You can read Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s thoughts on The Shadow of Night at his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, and John Adams talks about Harmonielehre on his own webpage

Live review – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Stravinsky: The Firebird

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 May 2019

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1878)
Stravinsky The Firebird – complete ballet (1910)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

With a European tour imminent and details of next season just out, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was evidently on a high when tackling this afternoon’s programme of contrasted works by Russian and Soviet composers.

His centenary may not fall until December, but Mieczysław Weinberg has been a mainstay of the CBSO’s current season (with the Third Symphony to follow at this year’s Proms), and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes was a welcome addition. At a time when Soviet composers were under intense pressure to write music of an inherently populist nature, its deployment of melodies from the territory of Bessarabia (from where his parents hailed, but not the Warsaw-born composer) draws unashamedly on a lineage from Liszt to Bartók – Weinberg’s handling of these, in what is a subtle take on the slow-fast archetype, being a stylish and personal one. Gražinytė-Tyla duly had its measure, whether in the ruminative opening with its plangent solo woodwind or the boisterous later stages when brass comes vividly and irresistibly to the fore.

An evergreen such as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto should have presented no surprises, but that was to bargain without Patricia Kopatchinskaja (above) as soloist. Incapable of giving a routine performance, her sometimes reckless while always compulsive account of the first movement left little doubt as to her ringing of the changes – above all, in a spontaneous rendering of the cadenza such as convincingly brought out its improvisatory nature. Not was there any lack of inwardness in the Canzonetta, its chamber-like textures delectably drawn, and though tempi in the finale were almost self-consciously extreme, the frisson as generated by its ever-faster refrain seemed all but tangible. Gražinytė-Tyla drew an alert and attentive response from the CBSO, consistently making the most of Tchaikovsky’s delicate yet also incisive orchestration.

Only Kopatchinskaja could have come up with an encore where she, the conductor, violinist Kate Suthers and cellist Eduardo Vassallo engaged in something between a Ligeti madrigal and a Cathy Berberian improv. Something about the planet being round? It hardly mattered.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird is a piece of which all recent CBSO chief conductors have made a virtue, with Gražinytė-Tyla no exception. Perhaps surprisingly, this was an interpretation that emphasized the score’s formal unity and motivic ingenuity rather than any overly illustrative aspect; not least in the lengthy sequence between the Khorovod and Infernal Dance as can often seem to mark time judged purely as music.

Conversely, there was on occasion a lack of theatrical immediacy or evocative poise needed if the full ballet is to convince away from the stage. Highlights were a Supplication with the Firebird’s entreaties were alternately soulful and alluring, then a Berceuse whose rapt response from muted strings held the periodically restive audience in its thrall prior to an energetic while slightly matter-of-fact Apotheosis.

Any imprecisions will doubtless be ironed-out during the repeat performance on Saturday. A reminder, too, that Gražinytė-Tyla’s memorable reading of Weinberg’s 21st Symphony with the CBSO has just been released as the first fruit of her contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Further information on this concert can be found at the CBSO website, and on the Weinberg release over at Deutsche Grammophon

Further listening

You can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s recording of the Tchaikovsky and the CBSO in The Firebird under Sir Simon Rattle:

Wigmore Mondays – Julian Prégardien & Éric Le Sage: Schumann ‘Liederkreis’ & Fauré ‘La bonne chanson’

Julien Prégardien (tenor), Éric Le Sage (piano)

Schumann Liederkreis Op.24 (1:21-20:44 on the broadcast link below)
Fauré Nocturne no.6 in D flat major Op.63 (22:32-30:36)
Le Bonne Chanson Op.61 (32:13-52:38)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 April 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

The words to the song cycles can be found here for the Schumann and here for the Fauré

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Julien Prégardien and Éric Le Sage began their double header of Romantic song cycles with a lesser known collection from Schumann. The Liederkreis he published as Op.24 in 1840, his celebrated ‘year of song’, sets poetry by his contemporary Heinrich Heine – specifically the Buch der Lieder, where writer Richard Wigmore identifies common ground of ‘extremes of elation and despair and their mingled sentimentality, self-pity and ironic self-mockery’.

These are relatively short but emotive songs, the end of one often linking to the start of the next through key and mood. The first song, Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage (Every morning I awake and ask) (1:21 on the broadcast) is carefree with an accompaniment from Le Sage that trips along relatively happily, then Es treibt mich hin (I’m driven this way) (2:22) recounts the giddy excitement of waiting to see a loved one. By contrast, Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen (I wandered among the trees) (3:25) finds the subject in deeply introspective and almost resentful mood, despite the relatively calm music. Prégardien reaches some effortless high notes here, and also adopts a suitably flat tone towards the end.

Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen (Just lay your hand on my heart) (7:00) is a short but rather macabre poem, given with halting piano from Le Sage, after which Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden (Lovely cradle of my sorrows) (7:45) follows immediately, offering consolation in the major key.

Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann (Wait, o wait, wild Seaman) (11:06) stays in the same key but throws off the shackles with a brilliantly descriptive piano part from Le Sage. Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter (Mountains and castles gaze down) (13:08) describes the ‘mirror-bright Rhine’ with effortless romanticism, but almost unwittingly prophesies Schumann’s attempt on his life with the words, ‘The river’s splendour beckons; But I know it – gleaming above it conceals within itself Death and Night’.

Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen (At first I almost despaired) (16:49) is sombre in mood but quickly cast off by Mit Myrthen und Rosen (With myrtles and roses) (17:43), a light and spring-like conclusion to the cycle.

As a satisfying bridge from Liederkreis to Fauré’s most successful cycle Éric Le Sage – a specialist in the music of both composers – gives a fluid performance of the sixth of Fauré’s thirteen Nocturnes for piano, works that span his whole career. No.6 in D flat major (22:32) is probably the best known, and while its Chopin influences are evident its harmonies bear the French composer’s stylistic imprint. It has a long melody in the right hand from the start, and reaches an impressive climax at 28:20.

La bonne chanson is close to the Nocturne in Fauré’s output, and was intended for his mistress Emma Bardac. It sets nine of the 21 poems from Paul Verlaine’s collection, but it was not initially well received due to its elusive harmonies and longer phrasing. In the cycle Fauré uses recurring melodies to bind the collection together.

The cycle begins in radiant light with Une sainte en son aureole (A saint in her halo) (from 32:13 on the broadcast). The mood is cast, and Puisque l’aube grandit (The day is breaking) continues the bright atmosphere with flowing piano from Le Sage (34:16), and Prégardien copes well with the demands on the lower register of his voice half way through.

La lune blanche (The white moon) casts its spell from 36:14, the pure tone of Prégardien unforced but gaining strength on the higher notes. J’allais par des chemins perfidies (I walked along treacherous ways) is more forceful (38:17), then J’ai presque peur, en vérité (In truth, I am almost afraid) (40:12) has a nervous energy and won’t stay still, before proclaiming its love at the end.

Avant que tu ne t’en ailles (Before you fade) (42:27) is a lovely song, initially harking back to the Nocturne in both key and mood, before Fauré breaks off, propelling it away in another fit of restlessness describing the ‘thousand quail singing in the thyme’. The composer keeps the piano busy once more in Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d’été (So, on a bright summer day it shall be), though Prégardien is much more powerful here too (44:58).

N’est-ce pas? (Is it not so?) is richly romantic, retaining the subtlety of Fauré’s best songs (47:28), while the cycle concludes with L’hiver a cessé (Winter is over) (49:47). Beautifully phrased and paced by Le Sage, the introduction sets the scene for a song that pulls together all the separate elements of the cycle.

For an encore Prégardien and Le Sage gave us three Schumann songs – the first three from his cycle Dichterliebe in fact (54:24 onwards).

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

Although Julien Prégardien has not recorded Liederkreis, he has a good deal of Schumann under his recorded belt – including this attractive collection with Le Sage and Sandrine Piau, which includes the masterly song cycle of Heine settings Dichterliebe:

You can also watch the album promo here:

Live review – CBSO & Ilan Volkov: Mahler Symphony no.9, Krása & Klein

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 April 2019

Krása Overture for small orchestra (1944)
Klein arr. Saudek Partita for strings (1944)
Mahler Symphony no.9 (1909)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Ilan Volkov (c) Astrid Ackermann

Pursuing one of the more eventful conducting careers of his generation, Ilan Volkov returned to Birmingham for this pertinent juxtaposition of music by composers who numbered among countless Nazi atrocities next to what is arguably Mahler’s greatest symphonic achievement.

Mahler has long been central Volkov’s programming (performances of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies when principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra resonate in the memory), and this evening’s account of the Symphony no.9 exuded conviction borne of long familiarity.

Even now, it is uncommon to hear a reading of the expansive first movement which unfolded with such unforced inevitability; those extremes of anguish and introspection finding seamless accord within the composer’s most elaborate formal design. Nor was there any lack of contrast with what follows – the ‘fantasia’ on ländler rhythms whose symmetrical elegance is constantly undercut by that glancing irony at its most acute during the final pages, when the texture appears to disintegrate out of weariness then from any more rational intent.

Excellent as was the City of Birmingham Symphony’s playing thus far, it raised its game for the third movement – the Rondo-Burleske whose contrapuntal intricacy can become turgid at too stolid a tempo and lose definition at too rapid a pace. Not that this fazed Volkov, who duly steered a secure course across what is tonally and emotionally Mahler’s most fractious statement – the soulful strains of its trio section allowing for precious little repose before the initial music returns in an explosive denouement. After this, the closing Adagio emerged as long-breathed yet never flaccid as it accumulated gravitas through to a fervent climax, then subsided into a coda shorn of false emoting or affectation – the CBSO strings all the while maintaining focus as Mahler’s silence-riven gestures seemingly attained the desired closure.

The brief though worthwhile first half had featured a brace of works by Czech composer who both flourished in the Nazi transit camp at Terezin before being murdered at Auschwitz. Not that there is any sense of encroaching dread in the Overture by Hans Krása – its purposeful elision of traits drawn from Stravinsky and Hindemith abetted by scoring as economical as it is characterful. Volkov secured an incisive rendering, only easing up for the final bars whose sense of suddenly opening-out onto new and unforeseen vistas was palpably conveyed here.

Even more engaging was the Partita by Gideon Klein. An arrangement – by Vojtěch Saudek (1951-2003) – of the String Trio that proved to be Klein’s last completed work, it features at its centre a sequence of variations on a Moravian folksong in which elements derived from Janáček take on a distinctive and undeniably personal guise at the hands of one who would have surely found a defining role in post-war Czech music. If the vigorous outer movements seem less individual, they are none the less effective within the context of this piece overall.

In both these works, Volkov secured a spirited response from the CBSO strings (perhaps a little too dogged in the Klein). Hopefully he will return to this orchestra during the 2019/20 season, and hopefully include further pieces by the ‘Terezin generation’ in his programmes.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

This concert will be broadcast as part of ‘Radio 3 in Concert’ on Friday 3rd May. To access that concert click on this link

Ilan Volkov is yet to record a Mahler symphony, but for a leading version of the Symphony no.9 from the Berliner Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan you can listen on Spotify below:

Wigmore Mondays – Adam Walker, Tabea Zimmermann & Agnès Clément: Music for flute, viola and harp by Bax, Debussy & Gubaidulina

Adam Walker (flute, above), Tabea Zimmermann (viola) & Agnès Clément (harp) (both below)

Bax Elegiac Trio (1916) (1:40 – 11:15 on the broadcast link below)
Debussy Syrinx (1913) (12:47-14:28; Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) (17:34 – 35:44)
Stravinsky Elégie for viola (1944) (37:21-43:24)
Gubaidulina Garten Von Freuden Und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joy and Sorrow) (1980) (45:38-1:02:34)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 April 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Photo credits: Adam Walker (c) Marco Borggreve, Agnès Clément (c) Tysje Severens

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The combination of flute, viola and harp is relatively unusual but has inspired some extremely forward-looking music since the second decade of the 20th century. Within two years of each other Bax and Debussy wrote independently for the combination, responding very differently to the potential of new and open textures.

Sir Arnold Bax was in fact the first to publish, and his Elegiac Trio immediately casts its spell through the rippling adagios of Agnès Clément’s harp (from 1:40 on the broadcast). Above this the flute of Adam Walker and viola of Tabea Zimmermann exchange airy thoughts, introspective but also free of constraint. The watery sound is beautiful and weightless, but Bax’s thoughts become more substantial. The music comes to rest in the major key, having started in the minor, with the feeling of troubles put to rest.

Of all the pieces written for solo flute, Debussy‘s Syrinx (12:47) is both the most magical and the most innovative. And yet when you listen to it there is no effort at all required, the languid lines instinctive but leading to an impressive climax. Adam Walker plays superbly here, ending in the lower register lost in thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp (from 17:34) is also a piece deserving of its description as magical, and is regarded as one of the signposts to modern 20th century music for its innovations in sound, harmony and melody. It is ideal when heard after Syrinx, as the flute begins – then the viola. As the programme booklet writer Paul Griffiths vividly observes, this first movement, marked Pastorale, takes time to pause in reflection, while demonstrating Paul Klee’s idea of ‘taking a line for a walk’. It’s elusive yet captivating.

The second movement Interlude (24:50) is graceful and a little dance like. Again the textures are beautifully open, helped by the tone quality of the three soloists, who bring to Debussy’s music that wonderful hazy warmth we associate with the composer at times. Then from 27:38 we hear a joyous tune from flute and viola together, over flowing harp, before the movement subsides to a soft end.

The Finale (31:08) is often singled out for its striking sonorities. The harp tremolo gives a rich backing for the very separate thoughts of flute and harp, one enchanting and the other relatively scratchy with the bow towards the bridge. At all times Debussy is keenly aware of the colours he wants to portray and the three players here respond superbly, bringing their close attention to sonic detail with a convincing unison.

Tabea Zimmermann then goes alone for the understated but striking Elégie of Stravinsky – striking because it is scored for solo, muted viola and sounds as though it has been imported from another civilization. It is also in two parts, so the initial idea (37:21) gives way to an austere dialogue between different ‘voices’ on the same instrument. The end recaps the mournful opening before dying away.

A world very far from the Wigmore Hall is also the destination for the unusual colours (for classical audiences at least) conjured up by Sofia Gubaidulina. East frequently meets West in her compositions, and in Garten Von Freuden Und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joy and Sorrow) the East is most obviously present in the harp, plucking its responses to the flute’s decorations with slides of pitch. It is eerie but also compelling.

Then from around 50:15 the viola explores its harmonics – the fingers resting very lightly on the string to get a glassy sound that appears to be far-off, but which Gubaidulina uses cleverly. The flute is still the most prominent instrument, but increasingly the viola’s ‘voices of the night’ and the harp’s insistent plucking make themselves known. The music gets more animated, taking the harp right down to its lowest range – from where the flute starts a solo ‘cadenza’ (54:00)

The garden then seems to fall under its own spell, with night noises from all three instruments, until the viola plays a powerful line rising to a height. After this the music of the opening returns, with the striking harp slides again in evidence, before fading to the middle distance.

A superb performance of this piece from three friends, for whom this was their first ever concert as a trio. That would explain the wonderful spontaneity on show, for you would never have known!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, including a live recording of the Gubaidulina and a legendary recording of the Debussy from the Melos Ensemble:

If Gubaidulina is a new name to your ears, then the strongest possible recommendation can be made for this recording of her Offertorium for violin and orchestra from Gidon Kremer, coupled with the Hommage à T.S. Eliot – a cycle for soprano and an octet featuring today’s viola player Tabea Zimmermann:

For more chamber music featuring the harp, this lovely collection from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble is a treat. It includes two works by Debussy, the beautiful Introduction and Allegro by Ravel and the delightful Serenade for flute, harp and string trio by this year’s centenary composer Roussel: