Live review – Renaud Capuçon, CBSO / Anja Bihlmaier: Dvořák, Ravel, Chausson & Bizet

Renaud Capuçon (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Anja Bihlmaier

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 30 October 2019 (2.15pm)

Bizet arr. Hoffman Carmen Suite no.2 (1887)
Chausson Poeme Op.25 (1896)
Ravel Tzigane (1924)
Dvořák Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (1885)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brought a welcome appearance from German conductor Anja Bihlmaier, presiding over an unlikely yet appealing programme as juxtaposed French and Russian music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bizet‘s Carmen has maintained its hold on the operatic repertoire such that individual items are seldom encountered in concert other than as encores. As arranged by Fritz Hoffmann, this Second Suite astutely alternates entr’actes with vocal numbers. Thus the purposeful Marche des contrebandiers (akin to an offcut from Elgar’s Wand of Youth) precedes the smouldering Habanera, then a Nocturne which is Micaela’s third act aria with its vocal line transferred to violin and soulfully rendered by guest leader Tamas Kocsis. That of the evergreen Chanson du toreador is similarly heard on trumpet, which instrument is duly partnered by flutes in the infectious La garde montante, before wind instruments variously come to the fore during the Danse boheme which rounded off the present selection in appropriately exhilarating fashion.

Renaud Capuçon then joined the orchestra for an unlikely coupling of concertante pieces that is highly effective in concert. It may have been inspired by a Turgenev story, but Chausson‘s Poème is an autonomous entity whose rhapsodic impulses are balanced by formal rigour and an organic evolution as elides between the introspective and ecstatic – a trajectory conveyed with due eloquence by Capuçon, his fastidious tonal shading deftly reinforced by Bihlmaier’s nuanced direction. What is so often an elusive work left a powerful and enduring impression.

As, albeit in its rather more demonstrative way, did Ravel‘s Tzigane. Effectively the result of a bet with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi that this composer could come up with a rhapsody inspired by Hungarian gypsy music, the piece wears its Lisztian antecedents lightly while pointing the way toward the similarly conceived rhapsodies of Bartók. Capuçon teased out the high-drama of its unaccompanied initial section, then – with harpist Alma Klemm – made a breath-taking transition into its heady medley of gypsy-inflected themes prior to the rousing final flourish.

After the interval, Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony came almost as a corrective in its seriousness of purpose and powerful formal logic. Bihlmaier directed a performance as left no doubt as to such qualities, at its best in a thoughtful while never staid account of the slow movement – its brief yet elated climax ideally judged – then a scherzo whose underlying furiant rhythm was suffused with Brahmsian trenchancy (one reason this piece displeased the anti-Dvořák faction decades hence). Not that there was much lacking with the outer movements, though the coda of the initial Allegro was a little too deadpan for its ominousness fully to register, and that of the finale felt too reined-in emotionally; those granitic cadential chords marginally failing to clinch what is surely the most fatalistic of any major-key ending in the symphonic repertoire.

Even so, this was a finely realized account of a work as can all too often misfire. Bihlmaier will hopefully return before long: next week, the CBSO’s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada directs a performance of Mendelssohn‘s Elijah, premiered in this city 173 years ago.

On record – CBSO / Edward Gardner – Mendelssohn in Birmingham Vol.5: Overtures (Chandos)

Mendelssohn
Trumpet Overture Op.101 (1825)
Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)****
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)**
The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Op.26 (1830)*
The Fair Melusine, Op. 32 (1834)
Overture to St. Paul Op.36 (1836)
Ruy Blas Overture Op.95 (1839)***
Overture to Athalie Op.74 (1844)
Lorenda Ramou (piano)

Chandos CHSA5235 [74’53”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper and ****Robert Gilmour

Recorded *20-21 October 2013; **15 and ***16 February 2014; ****13-14 July 2015; 10-11 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

For the fifth release in Chandos’s series Mendelssohn in Birmingham, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its onetime guest conductor Edward Gardner further traverse the orchestral output of a composer who was not averse to snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness.

What’s the music like?

It should be pointed out only a part of this release consists of new material. The Hebrides, Ruy Blas and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage first appeared in harness with Symphonies nos.4 and 5, nos.1 and 3, and no.2 respectively; while A Midsummer Night’s Dream was coupled with a selection of the incidental music for Shakespeare’s play as well as the Violin Concerto. Those who have been acquiring this series may thus feel a little short-changed, which perhaps makes purchasing those previously unreleased items as individual downloads the best option.

Proceeding chronologically, the Trumpet Overture reinforced Mendelssohn’s precocity in the wake of his Octet for strings – its breezily incisive manner, opened-out expressively by ominous asides, a viable template for future generations on which to hone their aspirations. Few could have hoped to match A Midsummer Night’s Dream as to prodigality of invention or technical resource, not least in terms of its redefining the orchestra near the outset of the Romantic era. A more prolix structure, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage yet merits revival through the limpid eloquence of its introduction and surging impetus of its Allegro towards a rousing peroration. That said, it cannot compare with The Hebrides in terms of an evocation sustained via formal sleight of hand and emotional clarity as remain breath-taking to this day.

Into the 1830s, The Fair Melusine still remains engaging for those subtly tangible images of watery domains (proto-Wagnerian, though the connection is easily overstated) and headlong fate through a vivid if increasingly impersonal idiom. Such impersonality had all but taken hold by the time of the oratorio St Paul, its overture breathing an aura of unforced piety and ‘natural order’ increased by the fugal interplay at its centre then almost apologetic fervency near its close. Mendelssohn rather grudgingly supplied incidental music for Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas, but the overture retains its drama and melodic appeal up to the surging coda. Would that Athalie conveyed comparable conviction, but this overture to Jean Racine’s play yields little more then technical proficiency as its composer strives gainfully for inspiration.

Does it all work?

On a technical level, absolutely. Mendelssohn was a master of his craft whose abundant early promise was only intermittently fulfilled by his later music. Tackling these overtures in order of composition (rather than that of this disc) tends to reinforce such an observation, which is not to deny the sheer technical command of even those lesser pieces or of the conviction that Gardner and his players have invested into this programme overall. Save for just a couple of overly headlong climaxes, there is little to fault here in terms of either playing or recording.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with the proviso detailed above. Bayan Northcott’s estimable booklet note mentions the overture to cantata The First Walpurgis Night as being inseparable from its main work, which makes a CBSO recording of this ‘dark horse’ among Mendelssohn works the more desirable.

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On record – Lorenda Ramou – From Berlin to Athens: Skalkottas Piano Works (BIS)

Skalkottas
Griechische Suite A/K79a (1924)
(Suite) A/K79b (1924)
Sonatina A/K75b (1927)
15 kleine Variationen A/K75c (1927)
Suites – no.2 A/K72 (1940); no.3 A/K73 (1941); no.4 A/K74 (1941)
The Gnomes A/K110 (1939)

Lorenda Ramou (piano)

BISBIS 2364SACD [87’43’’]

Producer & Engineer Christian Starke

Recorded October and November 2017 at Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Between 1998 and 2008 BIS undertook a ground-breaking series devoted to Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949), and this new release features almost all the music for solo piano that was still to be collated. The result is a fascinating journey through one facet of this fascinating composer.

What’s the music like?

As Lorenda Ramou indicates, this recital divides into three parts.

The first of these comprises music written in Berlin during Skalkottas’s study there, including the composer’s two earliest surviving works. Greek Suite is a quirkily appealing amalgam of neo-classical and traditional stylisms with distinct jazz overtones in its closing movement. The ‘Suite’ (its title can only be conjectured as the first two pages of music are missing) develops these influences on a larger scale, not least the scintillating Shimmy tempo finale. Come the Sonatina and Skalkottas’s language has evolved apace – hence the expressively detached Siciliano, then restive finale with its ominous coda; an upbeat to the masterly 15 Little Variations on a Beethoven-inspired theme that finds a natural climax in its laconic recollection following a subdued apotheosis.

The next three pieces were all written in Athens during Skalkottas’s ‘inner exile’ after being repatriated. Ramou’s implication that the Second, Third and Fourth Suites (the earlier First Suite was recorded by Nikolaos Samaltanos on BIS1133/4) form an extended sequence that fuses this composer’s preoccupation with ‘classical’ and popular’ formal archetypes in his mature post-tonal language. Highlights include the angular virtuosity of no.2’s Rapsodie, the inexorable motion of no.3’s Marcia funebre, and the oblique wistfulness of no.4’s Serenade. Performable (also listenable to) separately or as a 30-minute continuum, these confirm Skalkottas’s mastery of a medium about which he often felt equivocal yet to which he contributed some of the most thought-provoking music from the mid-twentieth century.

Also written in Athens, The Gnomes was intended to accompany a Christmas dance-show but rhythmic difficulty led Skalkottas to orchestrate a selection of miniatures by other composers under an identical title (recorded by the Caput Ensemble on BIS1364). Relocated in 2015, the present piece unfolds in two parts of six and three items – the former as tensile and impulsive as the latter – notably an Intermezzo (Chorale) – are hieratic and evocative. What the scenario depicted is unclear, though the presence of a Greek carol rather suggests something seasonal.

Does it all work?

To varying degrees according to when the music was written. The Variations and three Suites can rank with the finest Skalkottas compositions, while the early pieces and The Gnomes are fascinating subsidiary items. Nothing here should be without interest for discerning pianists.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Ramou is a perceptive guide throughout, even if certain of the more extrovert pieces could evince greater panache. Among the previously recorded works, those from Samaltanos (BIS) of the Sonatina and Variations are coupled with the 16 Melodies, with those by Steffen Schleiermacher (MDG) and Lefki Katanou-Lindahl (Caprice) of Third and Fourth Suites part of miscellaneous recitals. At nearly 88 minutes, this is among the longest discs yet issued, but the range and depth of the SACD sound is wholly commensurate with BIS’s usual standards.

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On record – Salviucci: Serenade, Chamber Symphony & String Quartet (Naxos)

Salviucci
Cinque Pezzi (1930)*
Pensiero nostalgico (1931)*
String Quartet in C major (1932)*
Salmo di David (1933)*/***
Sinfonia da camera (1933)**
Serenata (1937)**

***Sabina von Walther (soprano); Ensemble Überbrettl / Pierpaolo Maurizzi (piano)
***Latin text and English/Italian translation.

Naxos 8.574049 [83’05”]

Producer Giovanna Salviucci Marini
Engineer Tommaso Tacchi

Recorded *23-25 July 2017 at Sala dei Concerti di Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Sienna and **4-7 October 2018 at Teatro degli Atti, Rimini

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its inestimable series devoted to Italian music of the twentieth century with this disc of mainly first recordings by Giovanni Salviucci (1907-1937) – a largely forgotten composer, whom his contemporary Goffredo Petrassi once referred to as ‘‘the best of us all’.

What’s the music like?

Although his composing career lasted barely a decade, Salviucci left several notable works across most major genres. Of those pieces included here, earliest is the Five Pieces for violin and piano – appealing if expressively unvaried music, from which only the lively Alla Festa hints at his later rhythmic ingenuity. Each of them, though, would make an attractive encore; as too would Nostalgic Thought for cello and piano, or Psalm of David for soprano and piano – verse from Psalm 61 with its roots in a modality also drawing on French and Italian sources.

Just before this latter piece, Salviucci achieved something of a breakthrough with his String Quartet. The fast-slow-fast trajectory may yield no obvious surprises, but beneath the intently contrapuntal surface of its outer movements is a quixotic handling of tonality that offsets any risk of predictability. The highlight (in every sense) is the slow movement, an Adagio whose suffused eloquence and finely wrought rhetoric transcend Salviucci’s earlier music. That the piece is unpublished is something this excellent recording should go some way to remedying.

The other two pieces have previously been recorded, which hardly makes them familiar. Its scoring for 17 instruments suggests that the Chamber Symphony may have been conceived with knowledge of Schoenberg’s eponymous work, even though Salviucci’s approach to the balance between wind and strings is less combative and more pragmatic. Outer movements combine rhythmic incisiveness with a harmonic lambency redolent of Vaughan Williams, while the heartfelt Adagio and piquant scherzo confirm an ongoing process of maturation.

A process culminating in the Serenade that was Salviucci’s last completed work. Scored for nine instruments, its textural clarity and harmonic astringency suggest increasing familiarity with the composer’s inter-war contemporaries (Italian and otherwise), and if the lively outer movements are almost too succinct for their motivic ingenuity fully to register, the Canzona elides between soloistic and ensemble writing with deft mastery. The Venice premiere, four days after Salviucci’s death, must surely have rendered the loss of such potential more acute.

Does it all work?

For the most part. Salviucci’s earlier music may be notable more for fluency of technique, but the composer’s idiom evolved apace over his few remaining years, so that one is left only too aware of what he might have gone on to achieve in the very different cultural climate of post-war Italy.

The performances by the excellent Ensemble Überbrettl leave little to chance, with Pierpaolo Maurizzi as astute in direction as he is a pianist. Sound is just a little confined in the chamber works, while Giordano Montecchi’s notes provide a valuable biographical overview.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Salviucci was already a composer to reckon with, and this generous selection makes an ideal introduction to his music. Hopefully Naxos will now turn to the handful of orchestral works that he completed: in the meantime, the present release should be acquired forthwith.

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On record – Jürgen Bruns conducts Hanns Eisler’s Leipzig Symphony (Capriccio)

Eisler
Leipziger Sinfonie (1959-62: compl. 1998 Medek)*
Trauerstücke aus Filmpartituren (1961/2: arr. 2015 Bruns/Fasshauer)*
Nuit et brouillard (1955: original film score)**

*MDR Sinfonieorchester Leipzig, **Kammersymphonie Berlin / Jürgen Bruns

Capriccio C5368 [63’22”]

Producers *Stefan Antonin, **Gideon Boss
Engineers *Martin Staffe and Robert Baldowski, **Stefan Haberfeld and Regine Kraus

Recorded **9 November 2015 at Konzerthaus, Berlin; *15-16 August 2018 at MDR Studios, Leipzig

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

An important disc of orchestral works from Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), each a first recording and confirming the continued distinctiveness of his music over his final years in (then) East Berlin, when more ambitious plans were constantly thwarted by the East German authorities.

What’s the music like?

Eisler essayed symphonic pieces across his output, notably the Deutsche Sinfonie that is his largest concert work.

The Leipzig Symphony was commissioned by that city’s Gewandhaus orchestra but, at the time of Eisler’s death, consisted of a folio of sketches and memos given definition by Tilo Medek (1940-2006) to commemorate the composer’s centenary. Drawing mainly on film scores (as Eisler had done in his six orchestral suites), these four movements make for a quirky yet compelling entity: unfolding from the pungent contrasts of the initial Prelude and Idyll, via a restive slow movement then a sardonic scherzo both entitled Con moto, to a closing March without Words whose bracing impetus is typical of Eisler at all stages of his career. Some aspects – notably a percussive onslaught at the end of the second movement – are likely interventions by Medek (briefly a pupil of Eisler), though overall the expressive content and formal follow-through have an authentic quality such as makes this piece a necessary addition to the Eisler catalogue and one that warrants repeated exposure.

The other two works are both film scores. In the instance of Funeral Pieces of Motion Picture Scores, its nine miniatures were extracted by Jürgen Bruns and Tobias Fasshauer from music for two films about the Holocaust. The moods may be consistently subdued, but the motivic repetition Eisler threaded ingeniously through these scores has enabled a cohesive sequence whose end returns deftly or without contrivance to its beginning. Given that both films were forgotten soon after being made, this arrangement constitutes a worthwhile act of restitution.

Night and Fog presents a rather different proposition. This half-hour piece is in fact the entire score to a documentary about Auschwitz shot (partly on location) by Alain Renais and whose acclaim facilitated his subsequent film career. This is now available on DVD and mandatory viewing, yet Eisler’s contribution is entirely viable on its own terms. Its 13 numbers (lasting between 30 seconds and five minutes) again opt for understatement.

Peter Deeg’s insightful booklet note indicates how the studio musicians seemed nonplussed by Eisler’s insistence on emotional restraint, but the resulting music is its own justification; whether in more ominous episodes (not least one entitled Herr Himmler), or the final movement that encapsulates its subject in a threnody of Mahlerian anguish. Never was Eisler’s ‘commitment’ more explicit.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. It helps that the playing of both MDR Symphony and Berlin Chamber Symphony orchestras feels unerringly attuned to the angularity yet also plangency of Eisler’s expressive ambit, ably guided by the versatile Jürgen Bruns so all three pieces leave a lasting impression.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. To get the measure of Eisler, the collection of (mainly) Berlin Classics recordings – now available on Brilliant Classics – is an essential purchase, but the present disc is a vital supplement and a further significant release from the always enterprising Capriccio label.

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