Benjamin Baker, Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson – Berg: Violin Concerto & Schmidt: Symphony no.4

Benjamin Baker (violin), Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson

St John’s, Smith Square, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Strauss, arr. Rodziński Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Schmidt Symphony No. 4 in C (1933)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Never an ensemble to shirk a challenge, the Salomon Orchestra’s current season continued tonight with what, aesthetically, was an almost perfectly balanced programme – and whose second half brought a timely revival (in the UK) of the Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt.

With its catalyst in the tragically unexpected death of his daughter, this work was consciously intended as an ‘in memoriam’ and this is reflected in a formal design as fuses the customary four movements into an unbroken continuity; expressively also in that salient themes return almost as memories being recollected. From which perspective this performance succeeded admirably – Holly Mathieson having the measure of an overall design as though akin to the ‘journey of a life’, whose ending is tangibly (thereby inevitably) anticipated in its beginning.

The exposition’s themes – the first as introspective as the second, with its Magyar overtones, surges forth – were judiciously contrasted, and if the development was a little too rhetorical, it evinced the right cumulative intensity leading into an Adagio whose anguished climax was set into relief by the inward eloquence on either side. A touch stolid rhythmically, the scherzo did not lack impetus as it headed – lemming-like – over its cliff of disaster; in the aftermath of which the reprise gradually re-established momentum as the work came resignedly full-circle.

Its unity within diversity aside, the Fourth Symphony is a stern test of orchestral skill such as the Salomon met head on. The strings evinced the burnished warmth necessary for this music, and while woodwind intonation was on occasion wanting, it did not undermine an orchestral texture through which brass emerged with the appropriate impact. The solo contributions were well taken, not least from trumpeter John Hackett and cellist Kate Valdar, and Mathieson can take considerable credit for her advocacy of a piece whose repertoire status is still not secure.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Before the interval, Berg’s Violin Concerto had provided the ideal complement. Similarly inspired by the premature death of a woman (in this instance the teenage Manon Gropius), it also focusses on that continuum between life and death, as well as the transfiguration which may result. Here again the four movements, divided into two parts, can be difficult to make cohesive and though Benjamin Baker (above) was not lacking consistency, his rather unvaried tone leading to an expressive uniformity as made this, ultimately, an interpretation in the making.

Mathieson, though, was attentive and always responsive in support. Beforehand, she presided over an enjoyable account of a suite arranged towards the end of the Second World War from Der Rosenkavalier. Probably undertaken by the conductor Artur Rodziński, it takes in several of the highlights from Richard Strauss’s sprawling comedy – rather as does Robert Russell Bennett’s ‘symphonic picture’ derived from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which likewise has the result of reducing the larger work to a succession of glib purple-patches devoid of any real context.

Rendered with aplomb, it was surely possible, even so, to find a more fitting concert-opener – Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta would have been ideal temporally and conceptually. That aside, this evening was a fine demonstration from the Salomon and auspicious occasion for Mathieson.

For more concert information from the Salomon Orchestra, head to their website

Franz Welser-Möst‘s pioneering recording of Schmidt’s Symphony no.4, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, can be heard on Spotify below:

George Enescu Festival 2017 – Cristian Lupeş conducts contemporary works

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano), ‘Mihail Jora’ Philharmonic Orchestra – Bacău / Cristian Lupeş (conductor)

Radio Hall, Bucharest, Friday 22nd September 2017 @ 1pm

Măniceanu OEN (2015)

Hess Piano Concerto (2007)

Iorgulescu Signals (1993)

Glanert Frenesia (2013)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

One of the most gratifying features in the current George Enescu International Festival was its emphasis on contemporary music, primarily through the Music of the 21st Century series. Alongside concerts and recitals, a programme of seminars (through the International Forum of Composers) featured composers from across Europe and the United States as to underline the essentially international character of this festival. One of these highlights was a concert by the ‘Mihail Jora’ Philharmonic Orchestra from Bacău with the conductor Cristian Lupeş.

Whatever else, Bacău has an orchestra of far from provincial standard. That this concert had been performed two days before did not account for the confidence with which these players tackled a demanding programme, opening with OEN by Mihai Măniceanu. Its title referring to transpositions of the octave (with a covert spatial element), this piece took in portentous unisons, strident outbursts, pointillist delicacy and modally inflected melodic lines across its eventful course, even if any greater continuity or momentum proved as inscrutable as its title.

Would Nigel Hess had shown any such ambition in his Piano Concerto, written in memory of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. This piece was as expected from one adept in music for film and TV – its three movements moving from the enervated charms of The Smile, via the Romantic blandishments of The Love (whose main tune might have given Claude François and Jacques Revaux pause for thought), to the martial strains of The Duty with its dutifully triumphal conclusion. A notable platform for the scintillating pianism of Vassilis Varvaresos (laureate of the 2014 Enescu Competition), who responded with Fantasie um Johann Strauss by Moriz Rosenthal as an uproarious encore and will soon take on the rather more rewarding assignment of Nikos Skalkottas’s Third Piano Concerto with the Basel Symphony Orchestra.

More Romanian music followed the interval. With its several dynamic sections separated by interludes of relative stasis, Signals by Adrian Iorgulescu unfolded with those ‘signals’ of its title audible at every level; with an emerging sense of that ‘greater whole’ such as sustained the work through to a virtuosic conclusion. The Bacău orchestra met its numerous challenges head on, duly motivated by Lupeş’s disciplined as well as perceptive direction to result in a gripping account of a piece that more than held the attention and was certainly worth revival.

Nor was Detlev Glanert’s Frenesia plain-sailing. Commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, its complex yet enticing sound-world belied a formal trajectory which focussed this by no means always frenzied evocation of ‘modern man’ with its headlong energy but also thoughtful expectancy. Suffice to add the musicians were not outfaced by those of the Concertgebouw (whose premiere can be heard on the RCO compilation ‘Horizon 6’) in making the most of this showpiece with substance.

An impressive showing by the Baçau players as well as being a notable occasion for Cristian Lupeş, who had earlier enjoyed comparable success with the Sibiu Philharmonic in a Festival Square concert. A major engagement at the next Enescu Festival in 2019 must surely beckon.

For more information on the Enescu Festival, head to the festival website

BBC Proms 2017 – John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Sibelius, Grieg, Schumann & Hindemith

Prom 33: Lise Davidsen (soprano), Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Grieg Peer Gynt Op.23 (excerpts) (1876)

Sibelius Luonnotar Op.70 (1913); Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)

Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)

Hindemith Symphony, Mathis der Maler (1934)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 10 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

John Storgårds has been making his mark on the BBC Proms in his appearances as Chief Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. Tonight’s tale of two geographical halves commenced with excerpts from Grieg’s music to Peer Gynt; starting with the lively Overture (hardanger fiddles in evidence thanks to the violas), then continuing with a vehement Ingrid’s Lament, a deftly propelled Morning and a pensive Solveig’s Song undermined by Lise Davidsen’s fluttery vocal; finishing with the suitably quirky Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter.

Davidsen (above) was then heard to better advantage in Sibelius’s tone-poem Luonnotar, coping ably with the stratospheric range of this singular creation myth – not the least of whose fascinations was having been premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral. There have been some memorable accounts of this piece over recent years, and if Davidsen did not efface memories of such as Mattila and Komsi, she duly pointed up its drama and mystery in what was, for the greater part, a sympathetic account. The Proms audience was suitably attentive.

Sibelius’s comparatively mellifluous Karelia Suite brought this Nordic first half to its close. Storgårds’s widely contrasted tempi for the Intermezzo left a rather disjointed impression, and while the Alla Marcia sounded rumbustious enough, a certain coarseness of playing rather limited one’s enjoyment. Best by far was the Ballade, one of the composer’s most arresting earlier pieces in its enfolding modal harmonies and given a notably rapt reading with such aspects as the wistful cor anglais melody towards its close eloquently phrased.

The Germanic second half began in more restrained mood with Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Rarely performed for decades (and more often in the transcription for violin), this deceptively genial piece is among its composer’s most ingenious in terms of form and motivic continuity. Alban Gerhardt (above) maintained a determined while never merely inflexible course across its three continuous movements, the BBC Philharmonic providing support as attentive yet unobtrusive as the music required. Interesting to hear that the soloist thought the finale musically the least successful, as this emerged as arguably the most successful part – not least with its engaging dialogue kept on its toes and with no sense of dourness or grittiness as regarded the orchestral texture. Overall, a perceptive and convincing account of a work still too easily overlooked.

Storgårds then rounded-off the programme with a taut and tensile reading of the symphony that Hindemith derived from his opera Mathis der Maler. This retelling of cultural meltdown and social antagonism during the Thirty Years War proved too ‘contemporary’ for the Nazi regime to stomach, and it was no surprise that the premiere of the complete opera took place in Zurich. Storgårds had the measure of the Angelic Concert with its austere chorales and angular though never impersonal polyphony. The Entombment of Christ was affecting for all its brevity, while the climactic Temptation of St Anthony built surely and impulsively from its stark introduction, through a central interlude of tangible pathos, to a culmination such as blazed forth in affirmation. All credit to Storgårds for ensuring so cathartic an impact.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Lise Davidsen (c) Ole-Jørgen-Bratland)

BBC Proms 2017 – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Dausgaard: Mahler & Schubert ‘Unfinished’

Prom 36: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (above)

Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, ‘Unfinished’ (1822)

Mahler Symphony No. 10 in F sharp, realized Deryck Cooke (1910; 1959-76)

Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 12 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Having made an auspicious start to his tenure with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard tonight brought the orchestra to the BBC Proms for its most ambitious concert this season – Mahler’s I, given in the ‘performing edition’ by Deryck Cooke.

Left unfinished at Mahler’s death in 1911, the work was partially premiered in 1924 though it was not for another four decades that a complete rendering was heard – Berthold Goldschmidt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in Cooke’s realization. Since when his (subsequently revised) edition has become the preferred option for those tackling Mahler’s last symphony in its entirety. Dausgaard recently won praise for his recording with the Seattle Symphony, and his account this evening proved no less successful as an overall interpretation.

Other than the notably deliberate tempo for the violas’ initial theme, such as made it almost an epigraph to the movement overall, the opening Adagio was flexibly paced; the wrenching theme heard on massed strings finding contrast with the sardonic, waltz-like music as passed between solo woodwind. The development’s polyphonic intricacy was eventfully unfolded, then the climactic dissonance – with its piercing trumpet note – was pointedly drawn into the whole so that the lingering coda evinced a serenity whose fulfilment was at best provisional.

The first Scherzo emerged even more impressively. Texturally the least cohesive movement as Mahler left it, its contrapuntal density allied to elliptical harmonic progressions make it the most radical (the earlier music of Hindemith and Weill tangibly within reach) and Dausgaard expertly integrated its increasingly close-knit sections into a stretto of mounting excitement. The brief, fulcrum-like Purgatorio which follows was a little matter-of-fact for its glancing irony wholly to come through, and Dausgaard ought to have made an attacca into the second Scherzo (the three movements of this second part ideally form a continuous whole). Not that there was much to fault in this latter as it pivoted between anguish and appeasement, before vanishing into that ‘tunnel’ of darkness whose nihilistic overtones were palpably to the fore.

Come the Finale and Dausgaard might ideally have deleted the opening drum stroke, while the climax of the central Allegro really needed underpinning from drums for its intensified reprise of the first movement’s dissonance to make its fullest impact. But these were minor flaws in a perceptive rendering overall – sepulchral opening brass making way for the most eloquent flute melody in the symphonic literature (not least as played by Charlotte Ashton), transformed into a radiant string threnody which brings about this work’s cathartic ending.

An impressive reading was fittingly programmed within the context of Schubert’s Unfinished, of which Dausgaard has made a fine account with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. While his rapid take on the first movement (little ‘moderato’ about this Allegro) did not transfer ideally onto full orchestra (at least in the resonance of the Albert Hall acoustic), the ensuing Andante had no lack of poise: the hushed dynamics of its coda no less arresting than the blissful final cadence in which Mahler’s transcendent leave-taking, 88 years on, was not hard to perceive.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Thomas Dausgaard (c) Thomas Grøndahl)

You can listen to Dausgaard’s recordings of these pieces on the Spotify playlist below:

Kensington Symphony Orchestra – 60th anniversary concert

Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano), Epiphoni ConsortPegasusVox CordisKensington Symphony Orchestra / Russell Keable

Barbican Hall, London, Monday 15 May 2017

Matthew Taylor Symphony no.4, Op. 54 [KSO commission: World premiere]

Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A near-capacity audience greeted this 60th anniversary concert by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor Russell Keable (below) – who, in a sign of continuity rare in the modern era, assumed that role from the orchestra’s founder Leslie Head over three decades ago.

Throughout its history, the KSO has been an advocate of British music past and present, and this evening was no exception in its witnessing the first performance of the Fourth Symphony by Matthew Taylor. Four years ago, the orchestra gave a memorable reading of his tone poem Storr and this new work was hardly less impressive. An in memoriam to composer and pianist John McCabe, and dedicated to his widow Monica, the 27-minute piece falls into three continuous movements. The first, pointedly marked Scherzo, maintains its initial energy across various changes of dynamics and texture (some evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett) then subsides from its impassioned climax to a central Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and expressive warmth – both amply sustained here.

On first hearing, the Finale buffa was slightly less successful. Beginning at a rather jarring remove from what went before, its nonchalant humour (not a little reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold) sounded forced rather than provocative; its seeming lack of substance not bolstered by a deftly scored intermezzo-like episode which itself waylaid the denouement. This latter, though, was powerfully controlled up to a climax that recalled the work’s opening theme on the way to a close the more decisive for its succinctness; the music literally coming to a halt.

Make no mistake, this was a characterful and absorbing work from a born symphonist, and any reservations about the finale might well disperse in the light of further performances. Not that there was much to fault on this occasion, with Keable drawing a dedicated response from the KSO to reaffirm its status as the finest non-professional orchestra in London (arguably the UK). Taylor’s exacting yet always practicable writing also benefited from the immediacy of the Barbican acoustic, not least that for two timpanists which propelled the opening and close.

Certainly, the orchestra sounded more consistently at its best here than in Mahler’s Second Symphony which followed the interval. This is a work often pressed into service on notable occasions (memory recalls its inclusion in the first concert at Copenhagen’s Koncerthuset in 2009 after the premiere of Per Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony), on basis of its epic conception and overall impact. Qualities as were often in evidence here, not least an opening movement whose literalness did not prevent a pathos emerging out of the music’s heightened emotions.

Both the lilting Andante and sardonic scherzo were fluently if unexceptionally rendered, with Caitlin Hulcup giving a soulful rendition of the pivotal Urlicht setting. Keable then steered a secure course through the vast finale, giving its extremes of motion and expression room to unfold without risk of diffuseness. Kiandra Howarth made an appealing contribution, while the combined choruses saw the climactic setting of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode through to a blazing apotheosis. The KSO’s next 60 years were duly launched in no uncertain fashion.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website