In concert – Fatma Said, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Mozart, Mahler & Richard Strauss


Richard Strauss Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888)
Vado, ma dove?, K583 (1789)
La Clemenza di Tito, K621 (1791) – Non più di fiori
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1900)

Fatma Said (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may still be over a year before Kazuki Yamada becomes chief conductor and artistic advisor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but concerts such as tonight’s afford ample indication of just what can be expected from this already engaged and productive partnership.

If there any ongoing theme to this programme, it was one of transcendence – admittedly, one of negation in Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, though Yamada relished those encounters chivalrous and amorous during its course. The ‘carnival’ episode drew some especially incisive playing from woodwind and brass, and while the climactic restatement of the horns’ aspiring theme lacked nothing in grandiloquence, it did not detract from the starkness of a coda whose fatalism was to be encountered within this composer’s tone poems more regularly than might be supposed.

Strauss’s lifelong devotion to Mozart made two of the latter’s arias an appealing complement. Written as a replacement number for a long-forgotten opera by Vicente Martín y Soler, Vado, me dove? enjoys frequent revival as a standalone aria and, when elegantly rendered by Fatma Said, it was not hard to hear why. One of the (relatively few) highpoints from Mozart’s final opera La Clemenza di Tito, Vitellia’s aria makes greater expressive challenges to which Said rose accordingly – the trajectory of its ‘Ecco il punto’ recitative subsiding from anguish into that resignation from where the aria itself proceeds unerringly to the resolve at its close. All of which was eloquently conveyed, and while a further aria – the mellifluous Nehmt meinen Dank? – would have been welcome, there was more to come from this impressive singer.

Namely the finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – hardly the rarity it was when Adrian Boult introduced it to Birmingham audiences 95 years ago, but easy to underestimate in the context of this composer’s overall output. As ‘unhurried’ as its heading indicates, the first movement exuded no little ambiguity – Yamada pointing up those myriad timbral and textural shadings that permeate the development and so make possible the heightened equanimity of the reprise. Sardonic but not unduly malevolent, the scherzo was tangibly evocative (Eugene Tzkindelean switching adeptly from his violin to its retuned doppelganger) – with breath-taking change of tonal perspective at the arcadian vision near its end. Visionary was no less apt to describe the slow movement, its variations alternating between fervour and anguish with seamless accord.

Felicitous playing from CBSO woodwind informed its progress on the way to its climax, with ‘heaven’s door’ briefly yet thunderously ajar prior to the transfigured calm of the closing bars. Stealing in just before, Fatma Said was an appealing guide to the setting of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ with its not always blissful recounting of the joys awaiting those who arrive there. Of particular note was the easefulness that spread across the final pages, when the singing ceases and the orchestra withdraws stealthily while raptly to leave just the harp’s pulsing resonance.

A lucid, often captivating performance of a work whose enticements Yamada realized in full measure. Anyone who can make it along to Symphony Hall for tomorrow afternoon’s repeat should certainly do so, while Kazuki Yamada will be back with the CBSO during this spring.

For more information on this concert visit the CBSO website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artists Fatma Said and Kazuki Yamada.

In concert – Clara-Jumi Kang, CBSO / Ryan Bancroft – Coleridge-Taylor, Mendelssohn & Sibelius


Coleridge-Taylor Solemn Prelude in B minor, Op. 40 (1899)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 (1901-2)

Clara-Jumi Kang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse Ryan Bancroft picture (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Having seen in the new year in customary Viennese-style, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra continued its season with this programme of repertoire staples along with what was (probably) only the third performance of a relatively early orchestral work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The recent revival of interest in Coleridge-Taylor hopefully means such enticing pieces as his Violin Concerto and Clarinet Quintet will be heard more frequently at concert hall and recital rooms. If the Solemn Prelude is not quite on their level, it certainly deserved more than total neglect following its premiere at Worcester Cathedral in 1899; a further hearing last July only made possible after the manuscript was relocated at the British Library. Combining Elgarian nobility with Brucknerian grandeur, its outer sections exude a portentousness complemented by the expressive immediacy at its centre; abetted here by Ryan Bancroft’s flexible handling of tempo so a welcome melodic spontaneity came to the fore. No undiscovered masterpiece, but an appealing work that doubtless fulfilled its remit back then and could do so again today.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has never lacked for performances during the 177 years of its existence such that familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then at least a certain predictability. Credit to Clara-Jumi Kang for reminding one how (to quote David Kettle’s apt description in the programme) ‘‘quietly innovative’’ the piece is as to formal continuity and motivic fluidity. Not that this was a low-key or understated reading – Kang bringing out the combative side of the opening Allegro (‘appassionato’ it duly was), not least her impetuous take on the central cadenza whose developmental function was tellingly underlined. The Andante melded warm lyricism and plaintive regret to a bewitching effect then, after its teasing entrée, the animated repartee of the finale was deftly rendered through to a vivacious coda and decisive conclusion.

Now in his early thirties, Bancroft (above) is into his second season as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and takes up a similar post with Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2023. This account of Sibelius’s Second Symphony left little doubt as to his interpretative credentials, not least with a finely proportioned yet impulsive reading of the initial Allegretto, then an Andante as lacked in little in that formal focus essential if its fervour is not to become histrionic. To which, an attacca from one movement to the other might have been beneficial.

The latter movements run continuously in any case – and, after a scherzo by turns tensile and tender, the transition was unerringly handled such that the finale hit the ground running. This can easily become discursive or even sprawl but, with its ‘big tune’ kept in check and starkly modal second theme keenly ominous, it built purposefully and with some inevitability to an apotheosis that, while it evinced more in the way of triumph than catharsis, none the less set the seal on an idiomatic performance with the CBSO woodwind and brass often at their best.

After an evening of Stephen Sondheim (now the more poignant following his death last November), then chief conductor designate Kazudi Yamada returns on Wednesday 19 and Thursday 20 January in a programme of Strauss, Mozart and Mahler.

For more information on the next concerts with Kazudi Yamada you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Clara Jumi-Kang and Ryan Bancroft.

In concert – CBSO / Eduardo Strausser – Viennese New Year


Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus (1874) – Overture; Tritsch-Tratsch, Op. 214 (1858)
Johann Strauss II / Josef Strauss Pizzicato Polka, Op. 335 (1869)
Lehár Die lustige Witwe (1905) – Vilja
Johann Strauss II Vergnügungszug, Op. 281 (1863-4); Im Krapfenwald’l, Op. 336 (1869); Frühlingsstimmen, Op. 410 (1882); Die Zigeunerbaron (1885) – Einzegsmarsch
Lehár Giuditta (1934) – Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss
Johann Strauss II Wiener Bonbons, Op. 307 (1866)
Josef Strauss Feuerfest!, Op. 269 (1869)
Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus (1874) – Mein Herr Marquis; Unter Donner und Blitz, Op. 324 (1868); An der schönen, blauen Donau, Op. 314 (1866)
Johann Strauss I Radetzky Marsch, Op. 228 (1848)

Jennifer France (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Eduardo Strausser

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 9 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The global reach of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual event, not to mention the world-wide jamborees masterminded by André Rieu, may have rendered the Viennese New Year concert  from a wholly new perspective, but its content and purpose remain essentially the same – as was evident in this concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which has long emerged from its Christmas break with such a programme as was performed this afternoon; a smattering of novelties complementing the evergreens whose absence would be unthinkable.

His introductions may have been intermittent, but Brazilian conductor Eduardo Strausser was an engaging exponent of Johann Strauss II’s music – not least the overture to his operetta The Bat that, after a halting start, unfolded with a sure sense of where this ingenious medley of its main items was headed. The rhythmic verve of the Tritsch-Tratsch polka was exactly caught, as also the nonchalance of the Pizzicato polka (in collaboration with Josef Strauss, too often neglected next to his famous sibling). Jennifer France joined the CBSO for a winning take on the ‘Vilja’ aria from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, hearing it in English a reminder of this operetta’s massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. Following the heady élan of Strauss’s Excursion Train polka then the rustic charm of his In Krapfen’s Woods polka – its plethora of birdcalls effortlessly dispatched by the orchestra’s percussion – she returned for the Voices of Spring waltz, heard in its unexpected while effective vocal guise with verse by Robert Genée which made for a concert aria such as brought this first half to its close in impressive fashion.

The Entrance March from Strauss’s operetta The Gypsy Baron provided a suitably rousing entrée into the second half, Jennifer France duly raising the stakes with her sensual reading of the aria My lips give so fiery a kiss from Léhar’s musical comedy Giuditta, then Strausser drew unexpected pathos from Strauss’s Vienna Bonbons waltz – its title belying the music’s elegance and subtlety; quite a contrast, indeed, with Josef Strauss’s roof-raising Anvil polka-française (and a favourite of this writer since first encountering it on an anthology from the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra decades ago). The scintillating repartee of My lord marquis (aka Adele’s Laughing Song) from The Bat enabled Jennifer France to bow out in fine style, then it was on to the rip-roaring swagger of the Thunder and Lightning polka that once more kept the percussion section fully occupied.

The advertised programme came to an end with On the Beautiful Blue Danube waltz – a piece which never quite measures up to its evocative opening, even though Strausser drew enticements aplenty from the CBSO players. There followed the inevitable encore of Johann Strauss I’s Radetzky March, early regarded as having immortalized the Field Marshal who, as a master tactician (and putative war criminal) helped to maintain the Habsburg Empire’s dominance longer than might otherwise have been the case. Not an issue for those who clapped along to Strausser’s alert prompting, rounding off in fine style the start to this second half of the CBSO’s season which continues this Thursday with Ryan Bancroft for a programme featuring Coleridge-Taylor, Mendelssohn and Sibelius.

For more information on the forthcoming Ryan Bancroft concert, you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Eduardo Strasser and Jennifer France.

On record – Arnold: Symphony no.9 & Grand Concerto Gastronomique (Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons) (Toccata Classics)


Malcolm Arnold
Grand Concerto Gastronomique Op.76 (1961)
Symphony no.9 in D Op.128 (1986)

Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie (soprano, Concerto), Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

Toccata Classics TOCC0613 [57’30”]

Producer Normands Slāva
Engineer Jānis Straume

Recorded 14-16 June 2021 at Great Concert Hall, Liepāja

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics marks the centenary of Malcolm Arnold’s birth (falling on October 21st) in a pertinent coupling of his final symphonic statement with music finding this composer at his most irreverent and, by so doing, juxtaposes the two sides of his creativity to startling effect.

What’s the music like?

It was the compositional hiatus resulting from emotional breakdown then tortuous recovery as provided the catalyst for the Ninth Symphony, whose superficial simplicity belies the anguish beneath its surface. John Gibbons (who had earlier conducted this work in London, as part of a nine-year Arnold cycle, and Northampton) brings tangible expectancy to the opening Vivace, its arresting initial gestures soon revealing that textural starkness which goes on to define the whole work, with a circuitous evolution even more marked in the Allegretto – an intermezzo whose wistful theme effects less a series of variations than poignant searching for formal and expressive closure. The ensuing Giubiloso is more overtly a scherzo with its headlong motion or trenchant exchanges between wind and strings, yet even here a curious detachment prevails.

Arnold’s eight previous symphonies each concluded in a relatively short and decisive finale, but the Ninth’s final Lento proves anything but – its sustained slowness abetted by restrained dynamics and a sparseness of detail which could have made for unrelieved gloom were it not for those myriad ‘shades of grey’ the composer draws from his reduced palette. An additional factor is Gibbons’s pulse for this movement as a tactus (one-second) rather than crotchet beat, leading to a traversal several minutes less than earlier recordings by Andrew Penny (Naxos), Vernon Handley (BMG) or Rumon Gamba (Chandos) and, as a result, making the cadential chord one of benediction than resignation. Whether or not this approach convinces depends on how one views the symphony overall, but there can be no doubting its sincerity of intent.

Composed for the Astronautical Music Festival – the last of several events inspired by Gerard HoffnungGrand Concerto Gastronomique is Arnold at his most uproarious. Its designation ‘for Eater, Waiter Food and Large Orchestra’ betrays a visual aspect not essential for enjoying this 15-minute consumption of Brown Windsor soup, roast beef, cheese, Peach Melba – with a sensuous cameo by soprano Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie – then coffee with brandy; framed by a Prologue and Epilogue of due portentousness, but thankfully no ‘Mr Creosote’ in evidence.

Does it all work?

As a coupling, yes. As to content, the Ninth Symphony will likely always divide opinion as to whether it is what Arnold intended or merely the best that he was able to achieve after the traumas of the preceding decade, but no-one could accuse Gibbons of realizing it as other than a cohesive entity whose formal proportions are as precisely judged as its expressive trajectory is purposefully conveyed. Listeners not convinced by those earlier recordings should certainly hear this new account, lucidly and persuasively rendered by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra.

Is it recommended?

Yes, enhanced by thought-provoking booklet notes from Timothy Bowers along with realistic sound. Should still-missing orchestral pieces by Arnold (notably the Op. 1 First Divertimento or the Op. 12 Symphonic Suite) come to light, Gibbons will hopefully be asked to record them.



You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. You can read more about the Malcolm Arnold society at their website, while for more on each of the performers, click on the names Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and John Gibbons

In concert – Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – MahlerFest XXXIV: Sawyers & Mahler Fifth Symphonies


Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers Symphony No. 5 (2020) [World Premiere]
Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor (1901-2)

Macky Auditorium, Boulder
Saturday 28th August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A programme of two five-movement Fifths might not have been what Kenneth Woods had envisaged at this stage of his symphonic traversal in the Colorado MahlerFest but, after an inevitably curtailed season last year, the need to jump-start the festival this time round was evident, and the present double-bill did so impressively. Mahler’s cycle is often viewed as the ‘end of the line’ for the genre of the symphony, yet its ongoing evolution is not hard to discern, and it is to Woods’s credit that he is making this aspect a crucial part of his tenure.

Woods has championed the music of Philip Sawyers for more than a decade, with this Fifth Symphony continuing along a stylistic path comparable to those two before it. Its immediate predecessor ended with an expansive Adagio as was his most impressive such movement so far, and the present work continues from such inward (never self-conscious) seriousness in a Moderato (each of the movements being designated with Shostakovich-like inscrutability) that overrides clear-cut sonata procedures for a gradual unfolding whose thoughtful opening theme takes on greater emotional intensity as it builds to an ominous climax then closes in a mood of some ambivalence. Here, as throughout, the writing for a standard orchestra (with fifth horn and harp though no percussion other than timpani) is never less than resourceful.

From here an Allegro picks-up the pace incrementally to capering and, in its middle stages, wistful effect; before the central Lento pursues a sustained course (not a little unlike that of Rubbra’s slow movements) over two cumulative paragraphs – the second of which climaxes with the most anguished music in the whole work, prior to the brief yet affecting coda from strings. More overtly a scherzo, the ensuing Presto also evinces greater expressive contrast between its impulsive outer sections and a chorale-like ‘trio’ of affecting poise. From here, the final Allegro is the most orthodox movement in its energetic and reflective main themes – taking in an intensive development and subtly modified reprise prior to an apotheosis that ensures a decisive yet, as might be expected from this composer, never bathetic conclusion.

On this first hearing, Sawyers’s new symphony proved a cohesive and absorbing piece – less arresting in content, perhaps, than either of its predecessors but with an unfailing formal logic and expressive eloquence that are not to be gainsaid. Interesting, too, this Fifth should mark something of a rapprochement with ‘classical’ tonality; whereas Mahler’s Fifth, which came after the interval, sets in motion that often fractious discourse which duly informs almost all this composer’s symphonic works from his final decade of creativity – indeed, of existence.

Pacing is crucial in Mahler’s symphonies, with this being no exception. From the outset of a trenchant trumpet solo, the Funeral March was almost ideally judged – its development not too histrionic, and coda whose eruptive force subsided into numbed uncertainty. Proceeding (rightly) without pause, its successor – as if a fantasia to the prelude just heard – steered with unobtrusive authority to its climactic if ill-fated chorale, and if the final return of the opening music lacked vehemence, the pulsating expectancy of the closing bars was tangibly rendered.

That the central Scherzo has long divided opinion is not in doubt (Otto Klemperer avoided the work because of it while Hermann Scherchen reduced it by two-thirds), and though Woods’s conception had its merits – a rustically evocative trio plus the transitions on either side – the unforced equability of its outer portions underlined just how closely this music verges on the platitudinous; its ländler-informed coyness and contrapuntal contrivance over-exploiting the potential of its content. At least the coda wrapped up this movement with real decisiveness.

The remaining movements were finely realized, Woods taking the Adagietto at a flowing yet flexible pace that enabled its rapture to emerge without risk of indulgence (here, as throughout, the strings’ articulation of grace notes served a structural as well as expressive purpose). The deftest of transitions duly prepared for a finale whose elaborate interplay of rondo and sonata elements was replete with a cumulative impetus as carried through to a fervent peroration, the chorale blazing forth during a close where affirmation and nonchalance were irresistibly fused.

It should be added that the playing of the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra was of a consistently high standard – testifying to the excellence of the individual musicians as, also, their collective responsiveness to Woods’s technical acumen and interpretative insight. Its latter-day status as mainstream repertoire may have obscured its innovative qualities (and drawn attention away from its unevenness), but to hear this work so authoritatively realized and within the context of a major new symphonic statement says much for the continued importance of MahlerFest.

Further information on the Colorado MahlerFest can be found on their YouTube channel. For more on the festival, visit their website – and click on the names to visit the websites of Kenneth Woods and Philip Sawyers respectively.