Live review – Benjamin Grosvenor, CBSO / Vassily Sinaisky – Mozart, Sibelius & Wagner

Benjamin Grosvenor (above, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraVassily Sinaisky (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 October 2018 (matinee concert)

Wagner Der fliegende Holländer – Overture (1841)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.21 in C major K467 (1785)
Sibelius Symphony no.1 in E minor Op.39 (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It has often been remarked that concerts adhering to the once ‘standard’ format of overture, concerto and symphony are hardly frequent nowadays, so making this afternoon’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Vassily Sinaisky the more welcome.

Wagner has always made for an effective curtain-raiser, not least his overture to The Flying Dutchman. Earliest of his acknowledged operas, its eventful 10 minutes fairly encapsulate the salient incidents and principal themes – not least in this performance, Sinaisky confirming his operatic credentials (in which capacity he has been regrettably little heard in the UK) with an assured reading; most perceptive in its approach to Senta’s eloquent ballad near the beginning and in its Tristanesque return during the closing bars such as Wagner transformed in revision.

A scaled-down CBSO was equally responsive in Mozart‘s K467, happily no longer indelibly associated with one of the dreariest 1960s films. Often at his most perceptive in 19th-century music, Benjamin Grosvenor is no slouch in Mozart and his performance – as was that at this year’s Proms with the BBCSO and Sakari Oramo – was full of felicitous phrasing, even if the formal focus of the imposing first movement was likely of Sinaisky’s choosing. The Andante was affecting without affectation, Grosvenor embedding the solo part closely into that of the orchestra, then the final rondo conjured up effervescence at a not unduly headlong tempo. All credit to Grosvenor in choosing cadenzas by Robert Casadesus (whose Mozart recordings are required listening) and for a limpid reading of Rachmaninov‘s Lilacs as his encore.

Although his ambivalent relationship with the Austro-German symphonic tradition has often been noted, Sibelius’s Russian heritage is often downplayed – yet his first two symphonies would be inconceivable without Tchaikovsky’s input. The First of these has been compared with the Pathétique in its epic and ultimately tragic nature, but the influence of the Russian’s Fifth Symphony feels even more overt in its sombre clarinet-led introduction and an Allegro with its ingenious take on the sonata format. Sinaisky duly has the measure of its brooding power and surging energy, then opted for a flowing account of the Andante that brought out its pathos and quixotic changes of mood without it seeming turgid or episodic. The Scherzo, too, had the requisite dynamism and, in its trio, an appealing whimsy that was deftly drawn.

The highlight, though, was the finale – most often the movement which fails to ignite by dint of its discursive structure. Yet ‘Quasi una Fantasia’ need not imply rhapsodic and Sinaisky treated it accordingly, characterizing its dramatic then fervent themes with due appreciation of their formal integration towards an impassioned climax whose fateful outcome was never in doubt. It helped that orchestral playing was of unwavering commitment, with the CBSO giving of its collective best in a piece which it has played frequently over the past 86 years.

It set the seal on a concert which was a reminder one that even a mainstream programme can surprise and engage when the constituents are thoughtfully planned and performances never less than responsive. The enthusiastic reception of a sizable house was its own confirmation.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Live review – London Contemporary Orchestra @ The Barbican: Other Worlds

London Contemporary Orchestra & ChoirRobert Ames
Universal Assembly Unit (art direction)
Artrendex (artificial intelligence)

Barbican Hall, London
Wednesday 31 October 2018

Scelsi Uaxuctum (1969) (UK premiere)
John Luther Adams Become Ocean (2013)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If the apocalypse comes while we are alive, what music do you want played?

It is a thought-provoking question, one that some composers have tackled head-on by writing music of their own. The end of days provided the link for this programme of polar opposites from the London Contemporary Orchestra, given at the Barbican to the accompaniment of images dictated by algorithmic responses, thanks to the AI technology of Artrendex and the Universal Assembly Unit.

The first part was the end of days in the darkest possible sense. Giacinto Scelsi’s five-part Uaxuctum takes as its inspiration the Legend of the Maya City, and its self-destruction for religious reasons. Due to the demands made on the performers – and, the programme argued, an overly conservative approach to using Scelsi’s music – this was the UK premiere of a piece written nearly fifty years ago.

The textures were remarkable, achieved through a variety of vocal techniques such as trills, tremolos, hissing, deep breathing and nasal sounds. The use of quarter tones lent an extra level of difficulty and a sense of dread to the music, the vocals stubbornly sat in between the instrumental notes at times. The London Contemporary Choir met these demands heroically, stood on the left under a screen whose barbed imagery and sudden explosions of orange and red light were wholly appropriate.

The sizable orchestra was bolstered by a massive battery of percussion, including an enormous barrel rubbed with a ‘thundersheet’ – which made a suitably massive noise. This provided some chilling, incendiary shocks, while the percussion themselves supported the music from what felt like underneath the floorboards.

Perhaps because of the massive screen the edge was taken off the sound a little, which compromised the raw impact of the piece, but Scelsi’s often monotone musical language left an incredibly strong impact under the passionate direction of Robert Ames. Its resultant chill stayed throughout the interval.

John Luther Adams, environmentalist as well as composer, has garnered many plaudits for Become Ocean, a 2013 composition that sees the Earth returning to its early state of complete water coverage. Should it happen again, this form of apocalypse would be man-made; the ultimate destination should global warming continue in the way it does.

Adams chose not respond to this with the sharp edges and doom-mongered percussion of an industrial age. Rather he utilises the orchestra as a single instrument of subtly altering shades, beginning low in the murky depths of the piano but gradually superimposing layers to make a wonderfully sonorous block chord the listener can literally dive into.

Interpreting this as a colour, it could only be the deepest blue of the unfathomable ocean, and the imagery responded as such, submerging the orchestra in slow moving waves under deep, grey cloud. We were, it seemed, cast out in the middle of the ocean, as far from land as could be, but this was to be a meditative exile, accepting of its fate if not wholly aspiring to it.

The music carried for 45 minutes and there were several climax points, where the images grew deeper, before Ames pulled us back to the bare bones again. Adams ended where he had begun, back in the lower reaches of the piano.

Silence was the only appropriate response to this wall of water through sound, a wonderful contemplation and immersion that proved unexpectedly moving, the realisation hitting home of just how much damage we have inflicted on our own planet.

If they ever met, Scelsi and Adams would surely have found a common ground, despite the fascination of their wildly different responses to the final, greatest destruction. They left us with much to ponder and admire, especially from the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose standard of performance was unstinting, and whose virtuosity behind the scenes ensured these two apocalyptic visions met their final destination.

Further listening

The works in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Live review – Kensington SO / Russell Keable: William Schuman 3rd Symphony, Adams, Bernstein & Tower

Kensington Symphony OrchestraRussell Keable (above)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London. Monday October 15, 2018

Tower Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986)
Bernstein Divertimento (1980)
Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007, rev 2008)
Schuman Symphony No. 3 (1941)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra‘s 63rd season got off to a most impressive start with tonight’s concert of American music (simultaneously continuing the Americana ’18 festival taking place at St John’s during this year), opening with the Fanfare for the Common Woman with which Joan Tower launched her wider reputation over three decades ago. Rhythmically bracing while not without harmonic subtlety, it provided a fitting showcase for the KSO brass and percussion as well as a pertinent tribute to this composer in the year of her 70th birthday.

Leonard Bernstein‘s centenary was marked with his Divertimento, seven succinct movements that touch upon most of his salient traits and a reminder that his latter-day creativity was one where less equals more. Highlights include a delectable Waltz (enjoying frequent exposure on Classic FM), wistful Mazurka, evocative Blues then a rousing March: The BSO Forever whose Johann Strauss take-off duly makes for an uproarious close. Suffice to add the KSO was not found wanting in a piece written for the Boston Symphony’s own 100th birthday.

As Russell Keable‘s opening remarks made plain, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony was an altogether more serious proposition. First heard at the 2007 Proms, the rather diffuse 45-minute work in four movements was duly streamlined into a continuous structure lasting barely half an hour. Surprising, then, that the result seems less than cohesive – its reworking of material from the composer’s third opera one of cinematic contrast than symphonic unity. Some of his most virtuoso orchestral writing, which the KSO tackled with relish, is hampered by the recourse to post-minimalist gestures that remain Adams’s (unwitting?) stock-in-trade. Even the final section, a setting of John Donne‘s sonnet Batter my heart with its baritone part taken by trumpet (here the mellifluous Stephen Willcox), felt less than truly affecting.

After the interval, a welcome revival (likely the first in London for two decades) for William Schuman‘s Third Symphony. One of a triumvirate of such pieces by American composers to emerge either side of the Second World War, it evinces a formal integration and expressive panache that its composer never surpassed – not least in the way its four movements are arranged in two larger parts such as complement each other unerringly, and with a steadily accumulating momentum which emerges across the whole in what is itself a marvel of tensile dynamism.

Keable delineated the variations of the initial Passacaglia with assurance, ensuring textural clarity here and in the ensuing Fugue while underlining how the numerous woodwind and brass solos emerge naturally from the string polyphony rather than sounding laminated onto it. Nor was there any lack of emotional poise with the Chorale, its understated eloquence in contrast to the inexorably mounting impetus of the closing Toccata whose final pages are as visceral as any in the symphonic literature – not least when rendered with such verve as here.

A memorable reading of a seminal though under-appreciated piece such as the KSO has long championed. Hopefully future seasons will see revivals of comparable American works – the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions and Seventh (Variation) Symphony of Peter Mennin.

For further information on the Kensington Symphony Orchestra you can visit the orchestra’s website

Live review – Nash Ensemble: War’s Embers – Elgar Piano Quintet & John Ireland Piano Trio no.2

Nash Ensemble (above) [Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), David Adams (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello) (N.B. the line-up pictured above is not the same as the one appearing at this concert)

LSO St Luke’s, Friday 12 October 2018 (lunchtime concert)

Ireland Piano Trio no.2 (1917)
Elgar Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 (1918)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The First World War had a profound effect on composers of classical music. Many of them served or were closely involved with the conflict, and even those who weren’t used their music as a vehicle for the shock and dismay felt at the turn of events.

John Ireland expressed his horror through two chamber works completed in 1917, the Violin Sonata no.2 and the Piano Trio no.2. The latter work began this concert from the Nash Ensemble, part of their War’s Embers series focusing on music written around the War in England. Set in one compact movement, it is a powerfully expressive utterance, even when the music is quiet – as it was when the first cello melody began – to when it reaches peaks of intensity in the march sections, depicting the war itself. Ian Brown, Stephanie Gonley and Adrian Brendel were united in voice, their three instruments often linked in melody, while Brendel’s eloquent solo at the start set the solemn tone.

Stylistically the work draws part of its inspiration from Debussy and Ravel, and these links were nicely played up by the trio, but the opening music dominated to the point of obsession, sweeping all before it. As evidenced in an interview with BBC Radio 3 host Fiona Talkington after the performance, the players had a clear understanding of Ireland’s writing, and his still underrated status in chamber music form.

Ireland’s trio was first heard at the Wigmore Hall in June 1917, and at the same venue nearly two years later audiences heard the premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Composed in Sussex, this autumnal work, written just prior to the Cello Concerto, reflects a fascination the Elgars held with a group of dead trees in Flexham Park, their branches twisted ‘in an eerie manner’.

The spidery tendrils of the first few bars reflected this eerie vision, and refused to release their grip on the piece despite a first movement that really got into top gear in this performance, passionately played and majestically poised at times. There was an affecting second theme before we heard for the first time some Spanish rhythms, also inspired by legend around the dead trees and refracted through a prism in Elgar’s mind, strangely sketched but never fully coloured in.

The relative serenity of the slow movement, was countered by an emotional distance, as though here Elgar was conscious of the War, itself audible to him through the use of artillery just across the Channel. Perhaps because of this the trees made themselves known in closer proximity as the finale began, though here Elgar – and the Nash Ensemble – threw off the shackles to power through to an upward looking conclusion.

This was a fine performance of a work the Nash – and certainly Ian Brown – have had in their repertoire for more than 25 years. Brown displayed a natural instinct with the tricker phrases and was helped by a lovely string tone from the quartet in a performance that made sense of some of Elgar’s more distorted rhythms.

War’s Embers will come to BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 13 November and I urge you to hear it, placing this elusive work in the context of a fine performance.

Further listening

You will be able to listen to this concert on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 13 November. In the meantime recordings of the works heard are on the Spotify playlist below:

For further information on the Nash Ensemble’s War’s Embers series, visit the <a href=”http://www.nashensemble.org.uk/html/diary.htm&#8221; diary section on the ensemble’s website

Live review – Yulianna Avdeeva, CBSO / Constantinos Carydis – Skalkottas, Tchaikovsky & Beethoven

Yulianna Avdeeva (below, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraConstantinos Carydis (above)

Photo credits: Thomas Brill (Constantinos Carydis), C Schneider (Yulianna Avdeeva) 

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Thursday October, 2018

Skalkottas Four Images (1948)
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.1 in B flat minor Op.23 (1875)
Koukos In Memoriam Y. A. Papaioannou (1989)
Beethoven Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1812)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Conductors are not obliged to programme their compatriots, though Constantinos Carydis certainly rang the changes by including music by Nikos Skalkottas (1904-49) – who, along with Xenakis, is undoubtedly the leading Greek classical composer from the 20th century.

Nor is the City of Birmingham Symphony unacquainted with his work, having given the first complete performance of his First Symphonic Suite in 1972. That piece typifies the intricate, serially-derived music of his earlier maturity, whereas the Four Images comes from his last years when tonal music predominated. Derived from a longer ballet score for piano, these characterful miniatures amply evoke folk scenes (without using actual folk themes) in a way recalling Bartók’s Dance Suite or, more directly, the dances from Ginastera‘s ballet Estancia.

Carydis accordingly had their measure – whether the forceful rhythms and acerbic harmonies of The Harvest, or wistful pathos of The Sowing with its resplendent, bell-capped climax. After this, The Vintage provides a scherzo of no mean propulsion and Carydis was right to lead directly into The Grape Stomping for a finale of scintillating vigour and impetus. Such were the qualities that the CBSO brought to this music, in what was a captivating account of a piece which could easily become as familiar as those aforementioned given such advocacy.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has never wanted for exponents, so credit to Yulianna Avdeeva for her engaging perspective on music to which the ‘war-horse’ epithet is too often applicable. The indelible opening melody was majestic without being portentous, with the imposing first movement convincingly held together so that the accrued momentum carried through to a searching take on its lengthy cadenza. There was no lack of deftness during the Andantino, replete with woodwind playing of real elegance, while the finale had energy to spare on its way to a surging peroration. This is an impressive interpretation in the making.

As well as his illustrious forebears, Carydis was intent on promoting the music of his Greek contemporaries. Well regarded for his operas, Periklis Koukos (b.1960) is little known in the UK, but the tribute to his teacher In Memoriam Y. A. Papaioannou suggests a composer of no mean eloquence – this threnody for strings not a little redolent of Nino Rota in its restrained sentiment, and a solo violin part that leader Anna-Liisa Bezrodny rendered with ideal poise.

Carydis then headed directly into Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, here given a reading that was always invigorating and often electrifying. Dynamic contrasts occasionally verged on the contrived, and the repeat of the scherzo’s hymnal trio was almost parodic in its stateliness, but these were outweighed by the power and incisiveness elsewhere. Carydis drove the CBSO hard in the finale, but the players admirably rose to the challenge – antiphonal violins to the fore as the coda reached its visceral culmination. Whatever its inconsistencies, this was a performance to reaffirm the greatness of this music, as an enthusiastic reception testified.

A persuasive programme of the evergreen and unfamiliar. Should Carydis include Skalkottas’ ballet The Maiden and Death in a future engagement with the CBSO, then so much the better.

Tonight’s concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall on Sunday 7th October at 3pm. For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website