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

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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

In concert – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: A Covid Requiem

mirga-grazinyte-tyla

Adès O Albion (1994, arr. 2019)
Pärt
Fratres (1977, arr. 1991)
Purcell (arr. Britten)
Chacony in G minor Z730 (c1680, arr. 1948)
Barber
Adagio in B flat minor Op.11 (1935, arr. 1936)
interspersed with poetry readings by Casey Bailey
Fauré
Requiem in D minor Op.48 (1887-90, rev. 1893)

James Platt (bass), Casey Bailey (poet), CBSO Children’s Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Tomo Keller (violin/director), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 6 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Even if live music-making has gradually been returning to how it was, the (ongoing) legacy of Coronavirus could hardly be overlooked, thus a concert such as that given this evening by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a necessary act of remembrance for all the many concertgoers to have been affected by the pandemic. As befitted such an occasion, no speeches or prefatory remarks were needed, with the darkening of the auditorium during the performance a simple but effective gesture which helped focus musicians and listeners alike.

Strings only were onstage in the first half – Tomo Keller directing a sequence as began with O Albion, Thomas Adès’s arrangement of the sixth movement from his quartet Arcadiana, whose gentle pathos made for the ideal entrée. Arvo Pärt has written numerous memorials and while Cantus might have been more appropriate in this context than Fratres, the latter’s sparing deployment of percussion as to underline its ritualistic emergence then withdrawal conveyed no mean eloquence. Surprising, perhaps, that Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony is not heard more frequently on such occasions, its expressive intensification here informed by an acute rhythmic clarity. Barber’s Adagio is, of course, a staple at these times – the visceral emotion of its climax and subdued fatalism that ensues audibly conveyed here.

Interspersed between these pieces were poems by Casey Bailey, currently Birmingham Poet Laureate and whose readings were undeniably affecting in their sincerity – whether the heady reportage of 23.03.21 (a date no-one in the UK could hope to forget), the intimate evocation of Weight or graphic remembrance of Once. His appearances on stage were precisely judged as to segue into then out of the music either side and it was a pity when he did not take a call at the end of this first half, alongside the CBSO strings, given his contribution to proceedings.

Tomo Keller remained for the second half – adding ethereal counter-melodies to two of the sections in Fauré’s Requiem, whose 1893 version is without violins but with divided violas and cellos along with reduced woodwind and brass to make for a reading closer to the initial conception and certainly more apposite tonight. Her credentials in the choral repertoire well established, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a real sense of this work’s essential poise but without neglecting any deeper emotions. James Platt brought a ruminative warmth to the Hostias and Libera me, and it was an inspired touch to have the Pie Jesu sung in unison by the Children’s Chorus; its plaintiveness offsetting those richer tones of the Youth Chorus and CBSO Chorus, while opening-out the music’s textural and expressive range accordingly.

In one sense it would have been better had this concert not had to take place, given the legacy it commemorated (as was witnessed by the personal recollections occupying five pages of the programme) and yet, as those ethereal strains of the In Paradisum receded beyond earshot, a feeling of the Covid crisis having been recognized then overcome was palpable on the part of those present. Moreover, the CBSO’s next event is a performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – surely as transcendent and life-affirming an experience as could be hoped for.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Casey Bailey, click here, for James Platt click here, and for Tomo Kellner here

In concert – Carolyn Sampson, Anna Lapwood, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Poulenc Gloria & Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

Yamada_Kazuki_5142_c_Zuzanna_Specjal

Tchaikovsky Solemn Overture ‘The Year 1812’ Op.49 (1880)
Poulenc
Gloria FP177 (1959)
Fauré
Messe Basse IGF50 (1881 rev.1906)
Saint-Saëns
Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1886)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anna Lapwood (organ), CBSO Youth Chorus (Julian Wilkins, director), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Zuzanna Specjal (Kazuki Yamada), Marco Borggreve (Carolyn Sampson), Kirsten McTernan/BBC (Anna Lapwood)

It was no doubt coincidental that this opening concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new season was typical of those programmes which one-time chief conductor Louis Frémaux gave with this orchestra during the mid-1970s, in its featuring two of his French specialities.

Back then, Poulenc’s Gloria could still be regarded as contemporary music, though its adept borrowing from the Stravinsky textbook married to the French composer’s insouciant brand of expressivity is arguably more widely accepted now than in that often style-conscious era. It duly responded to Kazuki Yamada’s keen impetus in the opening Gloria then the bracing syncopation of Laudamus te or a joyously animated Domine Fili. Carolyn Sampson (above) was an elegantly detached soloist in Domine Deus, opening-out emotionally in the Agnus Dei whose inward ecstasy was unerringly conveyed. Yamada elided deftly between the surging energy then calm resignation of the final Qui sedes; here, as throughout, the CBSO Chorus bringing supplicatory warmth to music it has been associated with almost since its founding.

Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony was a familiar item at CBSO concerts during the Frémaux era and one that the present-day orchestra tackled with no less alacrity. Yamada was clearly (and rightly) intent on stressing its symphonic cohesion – drawing ominous expectancy from the first half’s Adagio introduction then securing a powerful momentum in the main Allegro, before the organ’s hushed entry for a chastely eloquent slow movement. There was no lack of incisiveness or humour in the second half’s scherzo, not least its scintillating passagework for piano duet, but also purposeful intent as segued directly into the finale with its indelible main theme and its methodical build-up to an electrifying peroration. Here, too, Anna Lapwood’s (below) subtle choice of registration underlined motivic resourcefulness more than gestural brilliance.

In between these works, opening the second half, Fauré’s Messe Basse enjoyed relatively rare revival (at least in the concert hall). Initially a collaboration with André Messager, Fauré later essayed a complete setting of what is a Missa brevis (thus omitting the Gloria and Credo) for female voices and which sounds no less apposite when rendered, as here, by young singers. The CBSO Youth Choir summoned a poised detachment under the assured guidance of Julian Wilkins, abetted by Lapwood’s thoughtful accompaniment in this modest yet appealing piece.

One aspect of this programme that Frémaux would not have opted for was to commence with Tchaikovsky’s 1812, though few would surely dissent given the all-round focus of Yamada’s conception. Not least when the CBSO Chorus added its yearning tones to the opening section, returning towards the close for an emotive rendering of ‘God Save the Tsar’ to cap an already resplendent apotheosis. Tubular bells and Mahler-type mallet more than compensated for the absence of canon et al when this piece is trotted out at the end of a ‘greatest hits’ assemblage.

It was indeed fortuitous that Yamada open this season given his recent appointment as Chief Conductor of the CBSO from April 2023. He returns in due course, while next week brings Sarah Connolly for a rare hearing for Chausson’s rapturous Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday 18 September at Symphony Hall – click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, while for more on Kazuki Yamada you can visit the conductor’s website

On record – Villa-Lobos: Choral Transcriptions (São Paulo Symphony Choir / Valentina Peleggi) (Naxos)

villa-lobos

Villa-Lobos transcriptions of:

Bach Prelude and Fugue no.8 in E flat minor / D sharp minor BWV853, Prelude no.14 in F sharp minor BWV883; Fugues – no.1 in C major, BWV846; no.5 in D major, BWV874; no.21 in B flat major, BWV866; no. 22 in B flat minor BWV867
Beethoven Adagio cantabile Op.13/2
Chopin Waltz no.7 in C sharp minor Op.64/2
Massenet Élégie Op.10/5
Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte in E major Op.30/3
Rachmaninov Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3/2
Schubert Ständchen D957/3
Schumann Träumerei Op.15/7
Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras no.9 W449

São Paulo Symphony Choir / Valentina Peleggi

Naxos 8.574286 [58’32”] English and Portuguese translations included

Producer Ulrich Schneider
Engineers Marcio Jesus Torres, Camilla Braga Marciano, Fabio Myiahara

Recorded: 5-10 August 2019 at Sala São Paulo, Brazil

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos’s coverage of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (part of this label’s series The Music of Brazil) continues with a selection of mainly transcriptions from the piano repertoire that the composer undertook during the mid-1930s as part of his extensive educational commitments.

What’s the music like?

Almost all these arrangements emerged in the period 1932-5, when Villa-Lobos took on the challenge of overhauling music education in the public school system of Rio de Janeiro. This involved the creation, virtually from scratch, of a choral pedagogy that he drew from across the spectrum of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music. It is a measure of his prowess that such transformation from mostly piano sources was accomplished with unfailing rigour and an idiomatic quality, so the fame of the originals is almost the only clue to their provenance.

From the soulful strains of among the most mellifluous from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, the programme then continues with the Eighth Prelude and Fugue from the first book of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier – the former piece summoning a plangently rhetorical response which finds pertinent contrast with the latter piece’s methodical and intricate build-up to a culmination of sombre eloquence. The arrangement of Dreaming from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood fully conveys its wistful pathos, as does that of the First Fugue from Bach’s WTC the original’s cool elegance. Similarly, the last of Schubert’s Serenade settings loses little of this song’s plaintiveness, and the Twenty-First Fugue from Bach’s WTC takes on unexpected jauntiness in what proves one of Villa-Lobos’s most inspiriting re-creations.

Chopin’s Waltzes might be considered unsuited to the vocal medium, yet the C sharp minor responds ably to such elaboration, as too the ruminative calm of the Twenty-Second Prelude from Bach’s WTC. Rachmaninov might have thought better of his Prelude in C sharp minor had he encountered this uninhibitedly dramatic realization, with basses providing the baleful anchorage, in contrast to the yearning aura drawn from the Fourteenth Prelude of the second book from Bach’s WTC. Massenet’s Elegy exceeds the original song for bittersweet poise, a foil to the serenity of the Fifth Fugue from Bach’s WTC. The indelible main melody from the Adagio of Beethoven’s Pathétique segues ideally into the Ninth Bachianas Brasileiras, with Villa-Lobos’s choral incarnation rather more atmospheric and evocative than that for strings.

Does it all work?

Almost entirely and due in no small part to the excellence of the São Paulo Symphonic Choir with its Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi. Lasting just under 60 minutes, the selection feels varied yet also cohesive enough to be enjoyed as a continuous programme, while enterprising choirs from both sides of the Atlantic ought to find much here to enrich their existing rosters. Inclusion of Villa-Lobos’s own music at the close is a reminder its technical demands should never be taken for granted, but here too the SPSC rises to the challenge with unstinting verve.

Is it recommended?

It is. The acoustic is just a little reverberant at times yet without detriment to the clarity of the choral writing, with informative annotations from Manoel Corrêa do Lago. Listeners should also investigate a recent Naxos release of Villa-Lobos’s first three violin sonatas (8.574310).

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Naxos website, and you can also purchase the recording here. You can read more about conductor Valentina Peleggi here