In concert – Nicola Benedetti, CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada: Dvořák, Mendelssohn & Grigorjeva

Dvořák Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1892)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Grigorjeva In Paradisum (2012)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Nicola Benedetti (violin), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 20 September 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been a largely mainstream programme, but tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra drew a capacity house at the beginning of a season in which Kazuki Yamada takes on the reins for what looks an eventful new era near the start of the orchestra’s second century. The CBSO’s response in Dvořák’s Carnival Overture more than confirmed it was ready for the challenge – Yamada ensuring the nocturnal evocation at its centre worked its evocative spell, then building an irresistible momentum going into the thrilling final bars.

Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto cannot have been absent from many of the CBSO’s previous 102 seasons and made its appearance this evening, Nicola Benedetti tackling a piece she must herself have played on many occasions. Not that there was anything routine about a reading such as abounded in subtle touches – especially the opening Allegro’s cadenza, which more than usually fulfilled its role as this movement’s structural fulcrum. In the Andante, Benedetti pointed up the expressive contrast between its main themes; the second of which was notable for a tonal astringency that brought out its plangency in full measure. If there was nothing so arresting in the finale, the interplay of soloist and orchestra was astutely judged through to the effervescence of the closing bars. Certainly, a performance to make one enjoy the piece anew.

Introducing the second half, Yamada requested the audience remain silent during the pause between pieces – the first a setting of In Paradisum by Ukrainian-born Galina Grigorjeva (b 1962), its lucid harmonies and heady culmination bringing the best out of the CBSO Chorus.

From here to the New World Symphony was no great step. Once again, a work rarely absent from the CBSO’s schedule seemed largely revitalized. Not that all of Yamada’s interpretative decisions came off – after an introduction of no mean gravitas the opening Allegro unfolded a little fitfully, though so interventionist an approach might have gained from the exposition repeat to place these in greater context. There were similar touches in the Largo, yet here the focus of Yamada’s conception and the raptness of the player’s concentration were their own justification – not least towards the close, with the front desks combining to poignant effect. Without being driven as ruthlessly as is often the case, the Scherzo has the requisite impetus and, throughout its trio, a whimsical elegance which proved as engaging as the charged coda.

Heading into the final Allegro with minimal pause, Yamada brought out its inherent force but also the ruminative eloquence of its second theme; the transition to which, in the reprise, was ideally judged. Nor did the apotheosis lack for drama as those closing bars melted into silence.

Prior to the start of this concert, a minute’s silence was observed then (most of) the audience joined in possibly its first rendering of God Save the King. A more localized farewell was paid later in the evening to Colin Twigg, first violinist for over 31 years and whose retirement will hopefully see more of his own compositions as have featured in Centre Stage recitals over the years. A miscellany is featured on a Toccata Classics release and worth anyone’s investment. The CBSO will be back in action on Saturday with a major new commission from Brett Dean.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For further information on the night’s artists, click on the names for composer Galina Grigorjeva, and for artists Nicola Benedetti and Kazuki Yamada

BBC Proms #49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony

Prom 49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Birtwistle Donum Simoni MMXVIII (2018)
Mahler Symphony no.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 24 August 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

The words of Gustav Mahler were never more appropriate than in the context of this exceptional BBC Proms concert, as Sir Simon Rattle and assembled forces from London and Birmingham threw body and soul into a spectacular performance of the composer’s Symphony no.2.

This, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony, puts its listener through the emotional wringer on a journey inhabiting life and death itself. The work has become a calling card for Rattle, too – he marked the opening of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with a memorable performance in 1991, and took his leave of the CBSO with the same piece. Here, as he prepares to step down as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, he was marking the turning of a page through a move to pastures new in Bavaria, where he will become Chief Conductor of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Bavarian Radio Chorus.

The pastures were a standout feature of this performance – but we began in turmoil, the huge first movement funeral march rumbling into gear with lines hewn from granite in the lower strings. Rattle pushes this movement forward much more than he once did, keeping a firm hand on the tiller, but with immediate and full immersion in Mahler’s thoughts. As the first movement took shape the horrors of death revealed themselves – along with hopes of sunnier climes through some beautifully shaded rustic scenes. Yet the chill winds kept returning, ultimately sweeping these away as the movement closed in their bleak acceptance.

Many accounts of the ‘Resurrection’ lose their focus at this point, but not this one. Instead we had a balletic triple time Ländler, danced with grace as the feather-light strings had their charming way. The main theme swelled like a newly budding flower, and although ghoulish reminders of the first movement persisted, this was the abiding impression. As Rattle pressed on without a break, however, the reveries were abruptly quashed by the hammer and tongs of the third movement Scherzo. Here the music twisted and turned sharply, the LSO responding to its conductor with peerless virtuosity in music of fire and brimstone. Percussion, wind and brass were superb.

Then, as the music teetered on the point of collapse, it was time to be borne away with the consoling tones of Dame Sarah Connolly (above, right). A consummate Mahlerian, she sang with compelling strength and grace, a powerful stage presence in league with Rattle, who presided over accompaniment of the greatest clarity. Connolly’s Urlicht was beautifully judged, taking us ever nearer to the wondrous entry of the choir.

Now time stood still. The audience, especially in the arena, were rooted to the spot at the massed choirs of the CBSO Chorus and London Symphony Chorus, singing as one in magically hushed tones. As the finale took shape it was by turns earth-moving and tender. Scenes flashed before the eyes, and an especially vivid episode from brass and percussion in the gallery observed a village-band intimacy. Here the Royal Albert Hall was utilised to its full potential, managing the wide scope of Mahler’s vision to perfection.

At the centre of this apocalyptic finale, percussion depicted the rising of the dead and the release of their chains, Rattle intentionally dragging his feet here to heighten the seismic impact. And then we were free, the resurrection itself met with blazing colours all around as the choirs sang Friedrich Klopstock’s text ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst di’ (‘Rise again, yea rise again, shalt thou’) as though their lives depended on it. Was it fanciful to suggest three years’ worth of pent-up emotion being released at this point? Probably not, when you consider the day-to-day roles of the choral singers themselves – carers, key workers, parents and children alike – with all finding the time and the need to bring us this music of the utmost quality.

Great credit should go to chorus director Simon Halsey for securing such discipline and humanity in the texts, and to soprano Louise Alder (both above with Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Simon Rattle). Alder sang above the masses with perfectly judged dynamics and phrasing, like Connolly fully aware of the scope of her role. Organist Richard Gowers added the icing on the cake, underpinning the throng with ideally judged balance.

This was a performance to talk about for years to come, a throwing-open of the doors to proclaim that music can – really – triumph over pretty much anything, the ‘Resurrection’ symphony, clearing everything in its path.

As an upbeat to the symphony we heard a short gift to Rattle from Sir Harrison Birtwistle, to whose memory the Prom was dedicated.  Donum Simoni MMXVIII was typical of its composer, a spiky and even snarky postcard firing out missives from the (superb) percussion section against barbed comments from wind and brass. Lasting barely four minutes, it served its function well – but for tonight, as Mahler would have wished, the symphony was everything.

You can listen to Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony on Spotify below, where the CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra are joined by soloists Arleen Auger and Dame Janet Baker:

BBC Proms #44 – Soloists, BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Ethel Smyth ‘Mass’ & Debussy ‘Nocturnes’

Prom 44 – Nardus Williams (soprano), Bethan Langford (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Božidar Smiljanić (bass), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Debussy Nocturnes (1897-9)
Smyth Mass in D (1891, rev. 1924) [Proms premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London

Saturday 20 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

His third Prom this season found Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an unlikely yet, in the event, thought provoking double-bill of pieces composed at either end of the same decade and which duly played to the strengths of all those who were taking part.

The music of Ethel Smyth has been a prominent feature of this season and while her Mass in D comes too early in her career to be considered ‘mature’, it does evince many of those traits as defined the operas that followed. Written during a brief flush of adherence to Anglicanism, this is demonstrably a concert rather than liturgical setting (which makes its apparent status as the first Mass heard publicly in England for almost 300 years the more ironic) and, moreover, one of a ‘symphonic’ rather than ‘solemn’ conception despite the audible debt to Beethoven.

Smyth reinforces this aspect by placing the Gloria at the close – thereby making it the finale of a sequence in which the Kyrie, building gradually to a baleful climax before returning to its initial sombreness, becomes an extended introduction to the Credo whose numerous sub-sections facilitate a sonata-form design of no mean formal cohesion and expressive breadth. For their part, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei function as extended slow movement whose (for the most part) emotional restraint enables the soloists to come to the fore – after which, the Gloria takes its place as a finale not least in terms of drawing on previous themes and motifs through to the forceful though never merely bathetic culmination. That Smythe did not essay a symphony given her evident structural command seems the more surprising.

Tonight’s performance was no less assured than that which Oramo gave at the Barbican (and subsequently recorded, albeit with different soloists) three seasons ago. The soloists made the most of their contributions – Nardus Williams bringing a plaintiveness and elegance that was ideally complemented with Bethan Langford’s warmth and understated fervency, and though Robert Murray’s ardency showed signs of strain, he was no less ‘inside’ his part than Božidar Smiljanić, whose solo was more affecting for its burnished eloquence. The BBC Symphony Chorus responded as one to the full-on contrapuntal writing of those main movements, while Richard Pearce ensured the (too?) extensive organ part did not muddy the orchestral textures. Oramo directed with clear enjoyment a work that, for the most part, justified its 62 minutes.

In the first half, Oramo presided over a searching account of Debussy’s Nocturnes – its three movements still sometimes encountered separately but far more effective heard as a complete entity. Not its least impressive aspect was the ease with which these followed on from each other with a cumulative inevitability – the fugitive shading of Nuages (melting cor anglais playing by Helen Vigurs) leading to the half-lit activity of Fêtes, with its darting gestures and a central march-past of vivid understatement, then on to the sensuous allure of Sirènes.

As enticing as the women’s voices of the BBCSC sounded in this closing movement, it was the fervency with which Oramo infused its recalcitrant content such as made it the natural culmination of the sequence – the final bars dying away with a tangible sense of fulfillment.

Click on the artist names for more information on Nardus Williams, Bethan Langford, Robert Murray, Božidar Smiljanić and Sakari Oramo and for more information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra head to their website. For more on composer Dame Ethel Smyth, click here

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