BBC Proms #26 – The Labèques, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Julian Anderson premiere, Martinů & Rachmaninoff

Prom 26 – Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (above)

Anderson Symphony No. 2 ‘Prague Panoramas’ (2020-22) (BBC co-commission: World premiere of complete work)
Martinů Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra H292 (1943)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 5 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

An unusually well-assembled concert this evening with what might be termed a programme of ‘three-by-threes’ – each of these three works having three movements which, in each case, results in a broadly symmetrical design, not least the Second Symphony by Julian Anderson (with the conductor, below).

Inspired by Josef Sudek’s photographs of Prague while utilizing two medieval Czech hymns, Prague Panoramas (might Prague Pictures be even more apposite?) is typical in its fusing evocativeness with precision. Not least the preludial opening movement, its stark alternation of quick-fire chords and silence evolving into aspiring melodic lines as build to a tumultuous if quickly curtailed climax, though this linear aspect comes to dominate the nocturnal central movement with its expressive intensifications then fades against a backdrop of bell resonance and luminously modal polyphony. The finale is a deftly organized rondo – its energetic main material, inspired by Josef Lada’s almost Rabelaisian depictions of pub brawls, interspersed with more lyrical ideas through to the heady peroration later subsiding into a calm postlude.

Although its first two movements had been heard in Munich and Prague, this was the work’s first complete performance and found the BBC Symphony at its collective best – not least the lambently interweaving woodwind and strings, the visceral impact of brass and a substantial array of percussion whose contribution was pervasive. Semyon Bychkov (under-appreciated as an exponent of contemporary music) duly brought out that unity-within-diversity such as gave this work an underlying focus across the 32 minutes of its eventful yet cohesive course.

From Prague-inspired music by a British composer to that by a Czech composer in America – Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos may never have gained the plaudits of his earlier Double Concerto but it typifies this composer’s exile in a tried-and-tested interplay of folk-inflected melodicism with a harmonic acerbity recalling Prokofiev and rhythmic dexterity redolent of Stravinsky. Its undoubted highlight is a central Adagio whose almost ‘harmonie’ woodwind writing and circling piano figuration (had the composer come across the gamelan-influenced music of Colin McPhee?) feels mesmeric and affecting. Neither outer movement comes close in their audibly contrived amalgam of the rumbustious and lyrical, but this is music in which Katia and Marielle Labèque excel and tonight’s performance could rarely have been equalled.

Nor was there any doubting Bychkov’s authority in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances that followed the interval. Admittedly this now regularly played while technically exacting piece needed more rehearsal than the BBCSO was able to give it on this occasion, though the outer sections of the first dance had just the right ominous incisiveness and its middle part featured winsome alto saxophone from Martin Robertson. The second dance had irony and angularity aplenty, as was slightly offset by the strings’ less than unanimous response towards the close.

Its sombre ambivalence and intricate textures give the central span of the final dance a quality unique in this composer: if Bychkov might have endowed it with even greater intensity, there was no doubting his identity with this music here or on the way to its resplendent apotheosis.

For more information, click on the names of composer Julian Anderson – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Katia and Marielle Labèque, Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. For more on this year’s BBC Proms as it continues, head to the Proms website

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

BBC Proms #25 – Carolina Eyck, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds: Kalevi Aho Theremin Concerto, Saariaho & Shostakovich

Prom 25 – Carolina Eyck (theremin), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Aho Eight Seasons (Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra) (2011) (London premiere)
Saariaho Vista (2019) (Proms premiere)
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major Op.141 (1971)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 4 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

John Storgårds has given some memorable Proms with the BBC Philharmonic in the decade since he became this orchestra’s guest conductor, and tonight was no exception for featuring a theremin concerto by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Its title Eight Seasons should be taken advisedly – the eight continuous sections encompassing a period from autumn to spring, as is reflected in the mostly restrained yet constantly changing textures which define a progression from the richness of Harvest to Midnight Sun with its serenity informed by new potential.

An instrument as fascinating to watch being played as it is to hear, the theremin has become the victim of its own ubiquity as an enhancer of atmosphere in film-scores and for musicians from Brian Wilson to Jonny Greenwood. Carolina Eyck was a dedicated exponent (evident in her encore-demonstration) – not least in the latter stages when her vocalise proved an enticing extension of her instrumental prowess, and the myriad timbral shifts more than compensated for the intermittent blandness of Aho’s acutely fastidious if not consistently involving music.

The layout of this piece (wind quintet and percussion alongside reduced strings) necessitated an early interval to prepare for those relatively lavish forces of Vista, Kaija Saariaho’s latest return to the orchestra and inspired by traversing the Californian coast from Los Angeles to San Diego. This is embodied over two cumulative movements – the expectancy of Horizons duly fulfilled with the mounting activity of Targets which itself subsides into an intensified recollection of the opening, now sounding as expansive as that ‘vista’ envisaged by the title.

Music so complex needs a sure hand to maintain its focus, the BBC Philharmonic responding with alacrity to Storgård’s attentive direction while he steered a convincing trajectory through what is likely Saariaho’s finest large-scale work for years – the intricacy and translucency of her writing having a panache which ensured this was manifestly a showpiece with substance. In particular, the sense of ideas being tentatively anticipated then vividly recalled added much to the evocative quality of music as formally substantial as it sounded expressively involving.

From recent Finnish orchestral works to Shostakovich’s last and most equivocal symphony is a fair step aesthetically, but Storgårds ensured the succession was a meaningful one. If it did not evince the ultimate in ominous irony, those laughs elicited from the opening movement’s stealthy activity and allusive inanity were for real – as, more regrettably, were those hesitant coughs denoting uneasy response to the slow movement’s emotional intensity as heightened by its sparseness of gesture, while not forgetting an eloquent response by cellist Peter Dixon.

Nor was the percussion found wanting in its almost concertante role, to the fore in a scherzo where the whimsical and sardonic found an unlikely accord. From its sombre initial gestures, Storgårds then had the measure of a finale whose central passacaglia built toward a powerful climax, and while tension dropped with the resumption of earlier ideas, the spectral transition into the coda was judiciously handled with the latter mesmeric in its deft profundity. Should the BBC Philharmonic need a new chief conductor, Storgårds might be worth approaching.

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Music from Wyastone – Sibelius: Symphony no.6 & Tapiola

Sibelius Symphony no.6 in D minor Op.104 (1923); Tapiola Op.112 (1926)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 1-2 March 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

A cycle of Sibelius symphonies by the English Symphony Orchestra got underway last year with an impressive account of the Seventh, making this second instalment the more pertinent for showing just how the composer had arrived at that work and where he went from there.

Only if the Sixth Symphony is viewed as neo-classical does it feel elusive, rather than a deft reformulation of Classical precepts as here. The first movement duly unfolded as a seamless evolution whose emotional contrasts are incidental – Kenneth Woods ensuring its purposeful course complemented the circling repetition of the following intermezzo, with its speculative variations upon that almost casual opening gesture. Ideally paced, the scherzo yielded a more incisive tone which the finale then pursued in a refracted sonata design as gained intensity up to its climactic mid-point. Tension dropped momentarily here, quickly restored in a disarming reprise of its opening and a coda whose evanescence was well conveyed; a reminder Sibelius Six is as much about eschewal of beginnings and endings in its seeking after a new cohesion.

A suitably expanded ESO then tackled Tapiola – Sibelius’s last completed major work, whose prefatory quatrain implies an elemental aspect duly rendered through the near/total absence of transition in music of incessant evolution. A quality to the fore in this perceptive reading with Woods finding the right balance between formal unity and expressive diversity throughout its underlying course. Just occasionally there was a lack of that ‘otherness’ as endows this music with its uniquely disquieting aura, yet a steadily accumulating momentum was rarely in doubt towards the seething climax, then a string threnody whose anguish can bestow only the most tenuous of benedictions. A reminder, too, that not the least reason Sibelius might have failed to complete his Eighth Symphony was because he had already realized it in the present work.

The ESO being heard to advantage in the spacious clarity of Wyastone Hall, these accounts will be worth getting to know on commercial release (with the Seventh Symphony) early next year, when this cycle will itself continue with recordings of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

These works are available for viewing on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 29 July – 1 August, then through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

In concert – Elena Urioste, Ben Goldscheider, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Glinka, Ethel Smyth & Rachmaninoff

Glinka Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) – Overture
Smyth Concerto for Violin and Horn (1926-7)
Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-7)

Elena Urioste (violin), Ben Goldscheider (horn), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 24 July 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It might have been a ‘warm up’ for tomorrow night’s Proms appearance, but this afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its Chief Conductor designate Kazuki Yamada gave ample indication of what to expect of this partnership during 2022/23.

On one level, this was an appealingly old-fashioned programme in consisting of an overture, concerto and symphony. The former was that to Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, always an effervescent curtain-raiser which here unfolded at a lively but never headlong tempo that brought out the formal precision of this piece with its deft sonata design. Neither did Yamada under-characterize the amiable second theme, while the strangely ominous atmosphere of the development was made more so through a telling contribution by timpanist Matthew Hardy.

Ethel Smyth is a notable presence at this year’s Proms, the CBSO tackling her Concerto for Violin and Horn. Among her last major works (encroaching deafness saw her write little over the next 18 years), its nominally Classical trajectory belies a formal freedom as extends to an orchestration evoking her French contemporaries as much as her German forebears. Not least the initial Allegro with its trenchant and stealthily imitative writing for the soloists against an orchestral texture at once intricate and luminous. Yamada marshalled his forces accordingly, before giving Elena Urioste and Ben Goldscheider the stage for the ensuing Elegy whose ‘In memoriam’ marking encouraged a response of real eloquence. Robust yet never unyielding, the final Allegro took in a combative cadenza before striding forth to its decisive peroration.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony has moved to the very centre of the repertoire in the four decades since Simon Rattle made it a signature piece with this orchestra. Yamada holds it in equally high esteem – witness the finesse with which he built the first movement introduction to its impassioned apex, before subsiding into an Allegro which drew anxiety and grace into a purposeful accord heightened by the development’s surging inevitability then a coda of terse finality. Unfolding at an animated while not unduly hectic tempo, the scherzo was marginally over-indulged in its lilting second theme, but this did not pre-empt an incisive response in the central fugato – the CBSO strings at their collective best – nor a transition back into the main theme of irresistible verve. The coda exuded a fugitive inwardness that was no less arresting.

Ubiquitous these days as a radio staple, the Adagio needs astute handling if its rapture is not to become cloying and Yamada responded accordingly – not least in his attentive pacing of the main theme with a contribution from clarinettist Oliver Janes of melting poignancy, then a climax whose emotional intensity never became hectoring. The slightly too flaccid tempo for its easeful central span meant that the finale lacked the ultimate in cohesion, but Yamada balanced this elsewhere with an energy which carried through into a scintillating apotheosis.

So, an eminently worthwhile concert beyond merely enabling those who are unable to attend that Royal Albert Hall performance to hear Yamada with the CBSO in a programme such as played to both their strengths. Much to look forward to, then, over the course of next season.

For more information on the CBSO Prom, click on the link on their website. Meanwhile click on the artist names for more on Elena Urioste, Ben Goldscheider and Kazuki Yamada – and for a website dedicated to Dame Ethel Smyth

In concert – CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy: A Fist Full of Fives

cbso-youth

Sutton A Fist Full of Fives (2016)
Mozart
Violin Concerto no.5 in A major K219 ‘Turkish’ (1775)
Skalkottas
Five Greek Dances (1931-6, arr. 1936)
Beethoven
Symphony no.5 in C minor Op.67 (1804-8)

Irène Duval (violin), CBSO Youth Orchestra / Michael Seal

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
Saturday 23 July 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may be the end of the main season, but that is no reason why the CBSO Youth Orchestra should not have had a concert scheduled for mid-July, with this judiciously contrasted and well-balanced programme assuredly playing to the collective strengths of its present line-up.

Although three of the works had a numerical connection with ‘five’, only the opening piece featured that number in its title. Written for an event featuring Beethoven’s Fifth and scored for similar forces, A Fist Full of Fives finds Adrian Sutton essaying a concert-opener whose interplay of vigorous (even a little martial) and more lyrical ideas evokes a mid-20th century American music evoking Piston or early Carter. Fluent and appealing if far from memorable, it duly put the orchestra through its paces to a degree which the CBSOYO met with alacrity.

Rather more memorable was the Five Greek Dances by Skalkottas which opened the second half. Admittedly the programme note led one to expect a selection from the overall 36 in the versions for full orchestra, rather than the present selection – from a set of seven – for strings. Yet the distinctive character of each dance is hardly diminished in these arrangements by the composer (a proficient violinist), and Michael Seal secured notably characterful playing in a sequence that proceeded from the swaggering Epirotikos, through the stealthy interplay of Kretikos and the bracingly astringent Tsamikos, to the gentle pathos of Arkadikos then the dashing Kleftikos. Fifty years after the CBSO’s world premiere of his First Symphonic Suite, it was good to hear these likely successors tackling Skalkottas with evident enjoyment.

In between those two pieces, Irène Duval gave Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto – not exactly underplayed these days, but worth hearing when rendered with such commitment. Not least an opening Allegro whose aperto marking (rightly) encouraged a deftness of phrasing that carried through to the closing bars. The Adagio was ingratiating without any hint of cloying, then the outer sections of the Rondeau an insouciance for which the lively Turkish music at its centre provided a bracing foil. The cadenzas (Duval’s own?) proved unfailingly apposite.

Closing the concert, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony made a suitably unequivocal impression – not least an opening movement whose rhythmic trenchancy and purposeful rhetoric carried through to a forceful if never hectoring coda. Neither was there any hint of false grandeur in the Andante, its ruminative theme yielding subtlety and not a little humour as it wended its methodical yet never predictable course. Ensemble was a little ragged near the outset of the scherzo, but the transition into the finale had a simmering expectancy that made the latter’s blazing onset more visceral. This music’s familiarity tends to detract from its innovation of form and orchestration, but Seal pointed up such aspects in a reading that never risked losing focus as it headed to a coda whose reiterations of the home key made for a triumphal QED.

A worthwhile programme, then, with performances to match and exactly the sort of concert needed to inject needed impetus into the indolence of summer. The CBSOYO makes its first appearance next season with a programme of Verdi, Bruch and Lutosławski on October 30th.

For more information on the CBSO Youth Orchestra and their next concert, visit the dedicated page on their website. Click on the names for more information on Irène Duval and Michael Seal