In concert – Soloists, University of Birmingham Voices & CBSO / Martyn Brabbins: Stanford: Requiem

stanford-requiem

Stanford Requiem Op.63 (1896)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano), James Way (tenor), Ross Ramgobin (baritone), University of Birmingham Voices, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 25 July 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Its official season may have ended over a week before, but the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was heard this evening in a rare revival of a work whose premiere it gave 125 years ago at the Birmingham Triennial Festival – that of the Requiem by Charles Villiers Stanford.

As historian Paul Rodmell recounted in his programme note, this Festival saw the launching of a host of major choral works during its 128 years of existence – notably Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1846 and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in 1900. That the latter piece was soon regarded as trailblazing despite a largely unsuccessful premiere might be thought ironic given that, just three years earlier, Stanford’s Requiem had been received with some acclaim only to fall into obscurity along with the greater part of his sizable output in the wake of the First World War.

Not unexpectedly, Brahms instead of Berlioz or Verdi is the main presence – thus the Introit with its understated opening theme that recurs often in the work, while its distinction between sombre choral and aspiring vocal music is further emphasized by those expressive contrasts in the Kyrie. The vocalists come into their own in a Gradual whose orchestral textures find this composer at his most felicitous. A telling foil, moreover, to the Sequence with its menacing Dies irae or proclamatory Tuba mirum, then what follows bringing the soloists into individual focus: hence the heightened fervour of Carolyn Sampson, the more circumspect eloquence of Marta Fontanals-Simmons, slightly hectoring impulsiveness of James Way, and the brooding power of Ross Ramgobin; though the sequence overall exudes an almost symphonic cohesion.

Arguably the finest portion, however, comprises the final three movements. The Offertorium makes much of the contrast between warmly martial and intensively fugal sections, while the Sanctus has an ethereal radiance which carries through the ruminative Benedictus and into deftly resounding Hosannas. The funereal orchestral music preceding the Agnus Dei affords the darkest emotion of the whole work, but this only enhances the ensuing Lux aeterna with its serene fatalism that Frederic Leighton – artist and friend of Stanford, whose death early in 1896 was the catalyst – would doubtless have appreciated. Throughout this performance, the University of Birmingham Voices responded with alacrity to choral writing whose poise and translucency were always in evidence – not least in the most earnestly contrapuntal passages.

Special praise for Martyn Brabbins who, whether or not he considers it a masterpiece, directed this work with unwavering conviction. The balance between soloists or chorus and orchestra might largely take care of itself, but orchestral textures need astute handling if these are not to risk uniformity or even monotony and Brabbins drew a committed response from the CBSO such that the autumnal hues of Stanford’s writing came through unimpeded. Good to hear this performance is being released commercially, as it did full justice to a largely neglected work.

A last thought. One of Stanford’s earlier choral pieces is The Resurrection, a setting of the ode by Friedrich Klopstock. Maybe when the CBSO performs Mahler’s Second Symphony in a future season, it would be worth programming these assuredly very different works together?

For more information on the CBSO visit their website. For more information on Charles Stanford, meanwhile, visit the website of The Stanford Society

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

In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Dvořák 8th symphony & Janáček Glagolitic Mass

220316_London_Barbican 2_WebRes_007_(c)_Petr Kadlec

Dvořák Symphony no.8 in G major Op.88 (1891)
Janáček Glagolitic Mass (1928 version)

Evelina Dobračeva (soprano), Lucie Hislcherová (alto), Aleš Briscein (tenor), Boris Prýgl (bass), Daniela Valtová Kosinová (organ), CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London
Wednesday 16 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood Photo credits Petr Kadlec

To hear the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra play Dvořák is surely one of classical music’s great pleasures. It was Dvořák who conducted them in their first ever concert, and for the second instalment of their Barbican visit Semyon Bychkov chose to programme his Symphony no.8, a work surely written with the spring season in mind.

The Eighth gets a slightly raw deal, sandwiched in Dvořák’s published output between the critically acclaimed Seventh and the ubiquitous Ninth, the New World. This is a shame because the joyous melodies and persuasive dance rhythms are a celebration of life itself, the composer glorying in the outdoor spaces of the Bohemian countryside. Melodic invention abounds throughout the four movements, and this performance gave room to the delightful swagger of the outdoor tunes, while retaining an elegant, almost Schubertian profile. Perhaps unexpectedly there were also pointers towards early Sibelius, the vivid natural scenes laden with intensity and fulsome orchestration.

The Czech Philharmonic wind section were the stars of this performance, with a sunny flute in the opening pages and some outstanding clarinet playing in the Adagio. Not to be outdone, the strings offered a cushion of sound as springy as the forest floor itself, while bright trumpets energised the fanfare at the start of the finale. The elegance of the cellos’ theme at the start of the first movement and the violins’ graceful way with the Intermezzo were two of many memorable moments from the strings. Bychkov judged the work’s profile to perfection, and there were many smiles among orchestra and audience alike as each new melody made itself known.

A very different mood prevailed for the second half, where celebration came at a cost. Janáček‘s Glagolitic Mass remains a work of extraordinary intensity, stretching its performers to the limits of their range and veering wildly between adulation and strife.

The CBSO Chorus were on heroic form throughout. Superbly marshalled and prepared by chorus director Simon Halsey, organist Julian Wilkins and conductor / pianist Lada Valesova, they sang as one, nailing the tricky ‘Old Church Slavonic’ pronunciations with apparent ease – in particular the distinctive ‘Amin, amin’ refrain of the Gloria. The Credo, the beating heart of this piece, had a white-hot intensity while leaving room for interpretation on the composer’s own religious feelings. By contrast the miraculous chord on which the Agnus Dei often hangs was truly celestial, ideally voiced and weighted. Its introduction was chilling indeed, strings and brass icy to the touch.

The Glagolitic Mass is a tough gig for its four vocal soloists, who have little room in which to make an impact, but the quartet here largely caught its operatic dimensions. If soprano Evelina Dobračeva seemed a little withdrawn initially she soon found her footing. Tenor Aleš Briscein, the highest of high priests, was commendably secure in his intonation but appropriately edgy as Janáček’s writing pushed the limits of the vocal range. Boris Prýgl offered fulsome support as bass soloist, as did alto Lucie Hislcherová in her brief appearance. Organist Daniela Valtová Kosinová, on the other hand, made the most of her instrument’s crucial role, launching into a Postludium of fearsome strength and wildly irregular rhythm. The instrument was well balanced through the Barbican speaker system, Kosinová’s feet a whirl as they kept up with Janáček’s demanding bass part, before those two damning final chords of the crucifixion. Bychkov encouraged the feverish violins through an Intrada that, while ultimately triumphant, only heightened the searing intensity of what had gone before.

Both these national statements felt so appropriate for the times, celebrating freedom of movement but also the power – and cost – of faith. As with the first night performances Bychkov eloquently dedicated the music to the people of Ukraine, before a performance of the country’s national anthem. It is hard to think of two more appropriate or contrasting accounts, and the Czech Philharmonic and their principal conductor deserve the utmost credit for two nights of unrivalled artistic brilliance.

You can listen to the repertoire in this concert by using the Spotify playlist below, which includes the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra‘s recent recordings of both works for Decca, made under their previous and sadly missed principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek:

In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Robert Nathaniel Dett – The Ordering of Moses

Ives (orch. Schuman) Variations on ‘America’ (1891/1962)
Bernstein (orch. Ramin & Kostal)
 Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ (1957/61)
Dett
The Ordering of Moses (1937) [UK premiere]

Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Chrystal E Williams (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Eric Greene (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 23 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was an all-American programme, centred as it was upon the first performance in this country for what is likely the most ambitious work by the African/American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943).

Although he gained prominence as a choral conductor (his Hampton Choir having performed for President Hoover and Britain’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald), Canadian-born Dett failed to make a lasting breakthrough as composer – his death when barely 61 confining him to a footnote in American cultural history. The ‘sacred cantata’ The Ordering of Moses was a statement of intent when submitted for his MMus in June 1932. Adapted from Exodus and Lamentations, its text describes the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt by the parting of the Red Sea over the course of 55 eventful minutes. The brooding prelude is rich in atmospheric writing for lower woodwind and brass, while the climactic sequence draws wordless chorus and orchestra into a graphic depiction of the ‘crossing’; after which, thanks is rendered unto God in suitably festive terms – Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast an audible precedent. Much has been made of the use of spirituals but, apart from the rallying presence of ‘Go down, Moses’, they serve more a textural and harmonic role in heightening the music’s expressive potency.

A potency owing in no small part to its vocal and choral forces. Eric Greene was predictably sonorous in his eloquence when setting the scene as ‘The Word’, while Chrystal E Williams made the most of her small if crucial part as ‘The Voice of Israel’. Most memorable, though, were those contributions of Rodrick Dixon as the impulsive and ardent Moses, then Nadine Benjamin whose Miriam exuded poignancy and fervour in equal measure. The CBSO Chorus represented ‘The Children of Israel’ in suitably implacable and ultimately affirmative terms.

The whole performance was ably handled by Joshua Weilerstein, who ensured certain more discursive episodes in the cantata’s earlier stages never hung fire and drew a lusty response from the CBSO. Astute programming, moreover, in preceding a still little-known work with staples from the American repertoire. It might not encapsulate the whole of the musical, but Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ captures its essence via orchestration (with judicious assistance from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) as made a suitable impact here.

Surprising that William Schuman’s bracing orchestration of the teenage Charles Ives’s bravura organ piece Variations on ‘America’ does not enjoy more regular performance this side of the pond, or perhaps the quirky and increasingly uproarious incarnations of what Weilerstein pointedly referred to as the National Anthem of Lichtenstein still rankles with home-grown listeners? Whatever the case, the conductor made a persuasive case for this engaging and effervescent music to be heard more frequently – the CBSO players remaining straight-faced throughout.

It certainly provided an irreverent curtain-raiser to an engrossing programme as may yet have blazed a trail. More little-known American music on Sunday when Weilerstein directs only a second UK outing for Florence Price’s Piano Concerto, alongside Korngold and Tchaikovsky.

For more information on the next CBSO Youth Orchestra concert, click here. For more on the composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, head to a website devoted to his work. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artsts – Joshua Weilerstein, Nadine Benjamin, Chrystal E Williams, Roderick Dixon and Eric Greene

In concert – Soloists, Tonbridge Philharmonic Society / Naomi Butcher – Music by Fanny & Felix Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, Parry & Eugene Butler

tps

Parry I Was Glad (1902, revised 1911)
Vivaldi Gloria in D major RV589 (c1715)
Eugene Butler Song of Mine, Depart (unknown)
Fanny Mendelssohn Overture in C major (c1830-32)
Felix Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 (1831-42)

Rebecca Milford (soprano), Katie Macdonald (mezzo-soprano), Tonbridge Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Naomi Butcher

Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School, Tonbridge
Saturday 20 November 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

There was a keen air of expectation in the regal surroundings of the Chapel of St Augustine at Tonbridge School. The pandemic has wrought havoc with choral and orchestral plans over the last two years, and as such this was the first opportunity for the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society to celebrate their 75th anniversary. They did so with a new music director, Naomi Butcher (below) at the helm – and she delivered a typically enterprising programme.

There could hardly have been a more appropriate way to start than with Parry‘s jubilant anthem I Was Glad, the choir singing the opening line as one. This was a terrific performance, the audience in spatial stereo as the sound of the organ, commandingly played at the south end by Julian Thomas, and the choir, at the north end, met in the middle. That both forces were so closely aligned said much for Butcher’s musical instincts.

The new music director – the Philharmonic Society’s first woman conductor – introduced herself, in the process revealing the enthusiasm and passion at the heart of her conducting. There was great musicality, too, evident throughout a vibrant and magnificently sung account of Vivaldi’s Gloria. The daring choice of a fast tempo for the Gloria itself was a challenge met head on by the choir, while the fugue of Cum Sancto Spiritu was given impressive authority by the spirited bass section.

The two soloists, soprano Rebecca Milford and mezzo-soprano Katie Macdonald, found the ideal balance with a reduced orchestra to fill the chapel in the arias. The Et in terra pax section was suitably darker in colour, prompted by Vivaldi’s minor-key harmonies, before Macdonald’s fulsome mezzo came into its own for the Qui sedes section. Meanwhile Milford’s clear soprano was the ideal foil for the sensitively played continuo group in the Domine Deus, giving full voice to Vivaldi’s inspiration.

To finish the first half we heard Eugene Butler’s Song of Mine, Depart, a setting by the prolific American composer of verse by Paul Verlaine. This made an attractive encore piece, its lilting refrain nicely phrased by the choir with melodic keyboard accompaniment.

Tonbridge Philharmonic concerts are known for their original repertoire selections, and the inclusion of Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C major – her only known orchestral piece and seemingly a recent discovery – made for a bracing beginning to the second half. The orchestral writing is surprisingly full for its time, to these ears even pointing the way towards Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, but there was still room for the attractive melodies to make themselves known, especially the balletic second theme.

The Overture led straight into the Scottish Symphony by Fanny’s brother, Felix Mendelssohn – the siblings closely linked throughout their personal and professional lives. The Scottish, third of five in Felix’s symphonic canon, is one of the jewels in his output. Its craft and wholesome melodic invention were brought to the fore here, with tempo choices from Butcher (above) that felt just right. These included the solemn opening – where the woodwind choir deserve great credit for their phrasing – to the open-air scherzo, where the violins and solo clarinet (Amanda Curd) were especially good. The Scottish outdoors was painted vividly here, its fresh air palpable – as was also the case in a heartfelt slow movement where Butcher cajoled some lovely phrasing from the orchestra. The finale was a darkness to light experience, thoughtful to begin with but blossoming as the music moved into the major key and an ultimately triumphant conclusion.

It is worth allowing for the fact that many musicians may have lost the ability or even motivation to practice during the pandemic – but there was no evidence of standards having changed here. Rather, with passionate performances from choir, orchestra and conductor alike, Naomi Butcher has brought a breath of fresh air to the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society. Her next few concerts include Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Duruflé and Sibelius, and if they live up to the standards set by this enticing opener they will be well worth catching.

For further information on the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society click here