In concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: New Notes

3choirs festival

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Doolittle Woodwings (2018, arr. 2020) [Version premiere]
Elcock
Symphony no.8 Op.37 (2019-20) [World premiere]
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Town Hall, Kidderminster
Wednesday 28 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have taken over 15 months, but the English Symphony Orchestra this afternoon gave its first concert with audience, as part of the Three Choirs Festival, in what was essentially an event rescheduled from last year that continued its estimable 21st Century Symphony Project.

The premiere was that of the Eighth Symphony by Steve Elcock (above), born in Chesterfield in 1957 and resident in central France, whose music has only recently come to prominence via releases on the Toccata Classics label fronted by the redoubtable Martin Anderson. Symphonic writing has dominated Elcock’s output this past quarter-century, and if his latest piece has antecedents in a string quartet composed back in the early 1980s, there can be no doubt it continues those processes of organic evolution and integration central to the seven works that came before it.

The present piece reflects the impact of having heard the Sixth Symphony of Allan Pettersson (awaiting its UK premiere after 55 years), but whereas that hour-long epic centres on fateful arrival, Elcock’s 20-minute entity is more about striving towards a destination which remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Various pithy motifs are sounded in the opening pages, the earlier stages pursuing a productive interplay between relative stasis and dynamism as is thrown into relief by the emergence (10 minutes in) of a trumpet melody which crystallizes the course of this piece as it builds inexorably to a powerful climax then subsides into a searching postlude that recedes beyond earshot. Overt resolution may be avoided, yet the sense of cohesion and inevitability audible throughout its course makes for an engrossing and rewarding experience.

That was certainly the impression left by this well prepared and finely realized performance, notable for the way in which Elcock’s idiomatic while demanding string writing was realized with manifest conviction. A 10-strong wind ensemble (along with cello and double-bass) had opened the concert with Emily Doolittle’s Woodwings, the songs and calls of nine Canadian birds rendered over five characterful movements somewhere between Poulenc and Messiaen, with a finale whose relatively freeform structure made for an intriguing and enticing payoff.

After the interval, Beethoven‘s Seventh Symphony received a performance as uninhibited and exhilarating as the piece itself. That all repeats in the first, third and fourth movements is no longer the surprise it might once have been: more startling was Kenneth Woods’s decision – entirely justified – to proceed without a pause into the second movement, so underlining the A-A minor pivot which uncannily anticipates that of Mahler’s Sixth almost a century later. Other highlights were the bracing cross-rhythms of the transition into the first movement’s reprise, the flexible pacing of the scherzo’s trio melody– poised ideally between hymn and dance, then a finale whose coda threatened to breach the confines of Kidderminster’s Town Hall but whose ultimate elation clearly left its mark on the audience’s enthusiastic response.

An impressive return to live performance from the ESO (above) and a harbinger of just what can be expected in its 2021/22 season. Before that comes another in this orchestra’s series of online concerts with a fascinating chamber realization of Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

You can find information on the ESO’s next concert at their website, and more on their latest recording, ‘Fables’, here. For more on the composer Steve Elcock, head to his website – and for the recordings on Toccata Classics, click here

Online concert review – Lars Vogt, Estonian Festival Orchestra / Paavo Järvi @ Pärnu Festival – Mozart & Tubin

paavo-jarvi

Lars Vogt (piano), Estonian Festival Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (above)

Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Tubin Music for strings (1963); Suite from The Goblin (Kratt, 1961)

Pärnu Concert Hall, Estonia
Wednesday 14 July 2021, available online

Written by Ben Hogwood
Picture of Lars Vogt (c) Giorgia Bertazzi

This attractive concert was one of the calling cards for the Pärnu Festival, an annual event marking the end of its first decade in the Southern Estonia city. Its patron, conductor Paavo Järvi, was conducting his ‘home’ orchestra, the Estonian Festival Orchestra, inspired by Lucerne’s festival orchestra, in a nicely devised program of Mozart and the seldom-heard composer Eduard Tubin.

To begin with, Järvi and the orchestra were joined by pianist Lars Vogt in one of Mozart’s stormier utterances, the Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor. Vogt has been an inspiration in his career but particularly of late, documenting his battle with cancer in an admirably forthright fashion. Part of his therapy is to play music, to the extent of playing on an upright piano during his chemotherapy sessions, and also to take every chance offered to him to playing music live.

This only heightened the admiration and enjoyment for his performance here, as with heartfelt playing Vogt got right to the centre of this most dramatic of Mozart’s concertos. Järvi followed his lead and was helped by some very fine wind playing, particularly in the slow movement. The first movement had a great deal of Sturm und Drang, the angular contours of the main theme ideally phrased. Vogt’s solo episodes were impeccably delivered but always had an ear towards the orchestra, where the strings gave incisive commentary. The final Allegretto allowed a bit more room for playful exchange, and there was a wonderful shaft of sunlight as the music turned from minor to major key, sensitively engineered by the conductor. As a suitable ⁹encore, Vogt chose Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major Op.118/2, watched appreciatively from the sidelines by Järvi.

Lars-Portrait-3-©-Giorgia-Bertazzi

Eduard Tubin‘s Music for Strings was an intriguing choice just after the interval, representing a desire for the festival to showcase the music of Estonia itself. Tubin, who died in 1982, is still under-represented on the stage, but this was the ideal platform from which to appreciate it. Music for Strings is a slightly elusive but compelling piece, resilient and attractively scored. It brings an economical and slightly classical approach, but with forward looking harmonic language. When the bass strings dug in during the passacaglia first movement the furrowed brow of Shostakovich could be glimpsed, yet the upper reaches of the violins felt as though the music was reaching further north. The second movement was more mysterious and questioning, while the finale, an Adagio, featured excellent solo violin playing from the unnamed Estonian Festival Orchestra concertmaster.

The program finished with a suite from Tubin’s 1943 ballet Kratt (The Goblin). Composition for the whole work began in 1938, making use of melodies from the Estonian Folklore Archive in Tartu. Although the Russian occupation of Estonia in 1940 forbade modern music, Kratt passed the sensors on account of its use of traditional themes, and not the way in which they were treated – which has reminiscences of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Tubin constructed the shorter suite in 1961, to a commission from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

The ballet is based around a peasant who builds a magical figure (Kratt) in order to make him rich – but to do this he has to give three drops of blood to the devil. Perhaps not surprisingly the story does not run smoothly, with the peasant – and his soul – meeting a grisly end at the hands of the goblin. Yet the side plot of a love affair on the farm where the peasant lives brings more light hearted material.

Tubin’s music is ideal concert fayre, tuneful and with lively orchestration. Järvi ensured the syncopations of the dance numbers were sharply rendered, bringing through Tubin’s imaginative writing for wind and brass in particular. The final dance scene was the most captivating, with a soulful cor anglais solo leading into the driven rhythms of the Dance of the Exorcists, featuring the added punch of the orchestral piano. The Goat and The Cock were sharply characterised, bringing reminders of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, before snarling brass punctuating the outgoing Dance Of The Northern Lights, a more rustic affair. The brass themselves were completely on point, especially in the final statement, warmly received by the audience.

This was a most enjoyable concert, confirming the warm atmosphere in which this festival operates. It is clear Paavo Järvi and friends are building something special here, and it is to be hoped when restrictions are finally lifted that the chance will arise to experience it in person.

You can watch the concert on the festival’s dedicated TV channel here

Lars Vogt talks about his music making after his cancer diagnosis in February and his ongoing treatment with Kate Molleson on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, available on BBC Sounds

For more information on the Pärnu Festival you can visit their website

In concert – Alina Ibragimova, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Weir, Prokofiev & Beethoven

Joshua Weilerstein 58_credit Sim Canetty-Clark

Alina Ibragimova (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Weir Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992)
Prokofiev
Violin Concerto no.1 in D major Op.19 (1915-17)
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 July 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Joshua Weilerstein courtesy of Sim Canetty-Clark; Alina Ibragimova courtesy of Giorgia Bertazzi

While not the centenary season as had been anticipated, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current run of live concerts has nevertheless found the orchestra in great shape, reinforced by the final event that marked an equally unexpected if auspicious debut for Joshua Weilerstein.

He may have substituted the planned account of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, but Weilerstein retained Judith Weir’s Heroic Strokes of the Bow to begin the programme. Although written before her spell as the CBSO’s Composer-in-Residence (1995-8), the present piece is among her most characteristic larger works – taking its cue from Paul Klee’s similarly titled painting for a 15-minute study in frustrated momentum, whereby violins pursue an eventful trajectory constantly undermined by rhythmic discontinuity. A belated coming to the fore of woodwind propels this music towards a peroration which never quite materializes prior to its subsiding then terse pay-off. Not a straightforward or necessarily rewarding piece to tackle, the CBSO strings still sounded engaged throughout a piece typical in its sense of ultimate anti-climax.

Alina Ibragimova then joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, its modest scale and prevailing inwardness only partly belying technical demands that were confidently surmounted here. The partnership with Weilerstein, moreover, was a good one – whether in the first movement’s gradual expressive opening-out from, then retreating-back to sustained lyricism, or the Scherzo’s cavorting high-jinx and playful nonchalance. Ibragimova’s tempo for the finale seemed initially a little too deliberate, but the panache of those brief orchestral tuttis then stealthy intensification to the rapturous return of the opening theme left no doubt as to either soloist’s or conductor’s sense of exactly where the music was going – the violin’s airy arabesques melding into the deftest of orchestral textures for the spellbinding final bars.

The inclusion of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony made for a near full-length concert which, being given twice, says much for the CBSO’s collective stamina. Ensemble faltered slightly in the first movement’s introduction, relatively weighty as Weilerstein heard it, but the main Vivace proved unanimous in response as it was trenchant in conception – highlights being an uninhibited transition to the reprise, then inexorable build-up toward a coda whose clinching of the overall design felt more potent through a slight if perceptible acceleration at the close.

Weilerstein (rightly) went directly into the Allegretto, its alternation of pathos and sanguinity ideally gauged, then the scherzo exuded a joyous animation and its trio an eloquence which was no less apposite. The finale may have lacked its exposition repeat, but the seamlessness with which this movement unfolded left no feeling of its being sold short – not least through an astute judging of dynamic contrasts then a final peroration which, if it lacked for a degree of visceral excitement, none the less concluded this symphony with unwavering affirmation. Hopefully, Weilerstein will soon be returning to this orchestra. Next month, though, the CBSO heads to the Proms for a programme featuring Ruth Gipps’s Second Symphony and Brahms’s Third, along with a delayed premiere for Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony.

You can find information on the CBSO’s appearance at the Proms at the festival’s website.

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mahler Symphony no.9

mahler-9-woods

Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Simon Symphony no.9 in D major (1908-10, arr. 2011)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded March 23-25 2021 for online broadcast, premieres 7 July 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The chamber reductions of orchestral works, as pioneered by the Society for Private Musical Performances founded by Schoenberg after the First World War, has gained renewed impetus these past 15 months given the unfeasibility of full-scale performances. Few can have been as ambitious as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – arranged by pianist and conductor Klaus Simon for an ensemble of single strings and woodwind (with doublings), two horns, trumpet, percussion (one player), piano and harmonium; its textural and motivic content thereby remaining intact.

This is evident in the opening Andante, arguably Mahler’s most perfectly realized symphonic movement, whose formal trajectory of interlocking arcs is made explicit so that its long-term expressive intensification and release become no less tangible. To this end, the roles of piano and harmonium are much more than the mere filling-out of texture – respectively articulating and reinforcing the harmonic profile through to a coda which more than usually clinches the overall tonal journey with a serenity the more poignant for its remaining, as yet, unfulfilled.

The ensuing Ländler was no less lucid in terms of its unfolding, Kenneth Woods resisting any temptation to play up the emotional contrasts across a movement whose deceptive blitheness of spirit is only gradually undermined (and a quality this music shares, doubtless unbeknown to the younger composer, with Ravel’s La valse). Equally significant is the way that Simon’s arrangement discreetly emphasizes disparities of timbre and texture, on the way to a closing section where the music only too audibly fragments into a bemused parody of how it began.

More questionable is the Rondo-Burleske – Woods’s underlying tempo for the outer sections, while enabling the music’s contrapuntal intricacy to emerge unimpeded, feeling too dogged to convey its frequently assaultive manner to the degree that the composer surely intended. This is less of an issue in a trio section whose aching regret was potently conveyed, with the stealthy regaining of tension no less in evidence. Animated and accurate, this final section again lacked that seething energy which propels the movement towards its anguished close.

No such questions affect the final Adagio – only equivocally conclusive now that the Tenth Symphony has all but been accepted into the Mahler canon, yet remaining a test of all-round cohesion such as this account rendered with unwavering conviction. Having thus gauged the balance between its alternate paragraphs, Woods assuredly controlled the winding down of tension towards a coda of inward rapture despite its sparseness of gesture – while affording the speculative dialogue between solo strings the necessary temporal and emotional space.

It hardly needs to be said that the playing of this 15-strong ensemble drawn from the English Symphony Orchestra was consistently attuned to the spirit of this music – as, too, is Simon’s methodical and apposite arrangement. Whether such reductions can continue to be relevant in the (presumed) aftermath of the pandemic, it would be a pity were these not to enjoy revival in their own right: revival, moreover, out of aesthetic rather than just didactic considerations, as this impressively conceived and executed rendition demonstrated to often moving effect.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

Further information on Klaus Simon is here, while for further information on the Music from Wyastone series, you can click here. ‘Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables’ is now available from the English Symphony Orchestra Website.

In concert – Jonathan Martindale, CBSO / Michael Seal: Summer Classics

michael-seal

Jonathan Martindale (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Dvořák Carnival Op.92 (1891)
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending (1914/20)
Elgar
Chanson de matin Op.15/2 (1889)
Grieg
Peer Gynt Suite no.1 Op.46 (1875/88) – no.1, Morning; no.4, In the Hall of the Mountain King
Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Vivaldi
The Four Seasons Op.8 (1718/20) – no.2 in G minor RV315 ‘Summer’
Price
Symphony no.1 in E minor (1931-2) – Juba Dance
Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker Op.71 (1892) – Waltz of the Flowers

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 2 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Jonathan Martindale courtesy of Upstream Photography

The penultimate event in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season, this afternoon’s Summer Classics featured a wide-ranging selection of pieces that between them spanned over two centuries, and whose ‘feel good’ factor at no time precluded stylish or committed playing.

With longstanding associate director Michael Seal at the helm, the orchestra made the most of Dvořák’s effervescent Carnival overture; the alluring pathos of its central interlude accorded due emphasis, and with some eloquent woodwind solos. Its popularity during recent years has made Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending a regular inclusion in such programmes, and Jonathan Martindale (below, who also led the concert) gave a thoughtful while never flaccid reading – most perceptive in the middle section with its folk-like whimsy and fanciful evocations of birdsong. The CBSO responded with limpid dexterity, the whole performance a reminder that this work is best tackled as a concertante piece and by a player (recalling such as Hugh Bean, Iona Brown and, more recently, Richard Tognetti) who knows the orchestra from the inside.

Next came an ingratiating take on Elgar evergreen Chanson de matin, then excerpts from the First Suite of Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt – a rapturous Morning and stealthy In the Hall of the Mountain King skirting headlong terror at the close. Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream made for an unlikely but effective centrepiece – the highlight being those fugitive imaginings towards its centre, along with the disarming eloquence of its final bars where the teenage composer conjures a fulfilment he was only rarely to recapture.

The Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons again saw Martindale as soloist in an account that lacked little of that rhythmic vitality his contemporaries (notably Bach) seized on with alacrity; nor was there any absence of poise in its atmospheric second movement. One who has come in from the cold partly through the recovery of her manuscripts, Chicago-based Florence Price broke with convention by introducing the Juba Dance into her symphonies in lieu of a scherzo; the CBSO responding in full measure to its rhythmic verve. A winning harp solo from Katherine Thomas launched Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and ended the main programme in fine style – Seal and the CBSO acknowledging the applause with the final ‘galop’ from Rossini’s William Tell overture as a dashing encore.

Throughout the concert, film expert Andrew Collins interspersed proceedings with his remarks and recollections (not least on that seminal 1970s supergroup The Wombles). The music itself was accompanied by varying shades and colours of lighting, but these rarely seemed intrusive – not least compared to the garish ‘Moulin Rouge’ effects routinely encountered nowadays at the Proms. Certainly, anyone in the process of getting the know just what classical music was all about, and those merely in search of a pleasurable afternoon’s listening, were well served.

Next Wednesday brings the last in this current series of concerts, the CBSO being conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (who is replacing an ‘unable to travel’ Edward Gardner) in an enticing programme of Judith Weir, Prokofiev (with the violinist Alina Ibragimova) and Beethoven.

You can find information on the final concert in the CBSO’s season at their website. For more information on composer Florence Price, click here