In concert – Piotr Anderszewski, CBSO / Omer Meir Wellber: Bartók & Bruckner

Piotr Anderszewski (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Omer Meir Wellber (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 10 March 2020

Bartók Piano Concerto no.3 (1945)
Bruckner Symphony no.6 in A major (1879-81)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is a measure of how far Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony has come from being one that even dedicated exponents avoided to one relative newcomers tackle as a way into this composer. The indisposition of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla could have seen its removal from this evening’s programme, though Omer Meir Wellber (who for the past season has been chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, among his portfolio of notable positions) was clearly unfazed by this most technically exacting and emotionally unpredictable among Bruckner symphonies.

As was evident from the start of the Majestoso, the City of Birmingham Symphony’s violins rendering its indelible rhythm with real incisiveness and Wellber duly steering a purposeful course through this most animated of Bruckner’s symphonic movements, while never at the expense of those more lyrical and monumental themes to come. The climactic transition into the reprise was thrillingly done, and how persuasively Wellber pointed up the coda’s breath-taking modulations then its surging peroration whose sudden slowing-up was ideally judged. The Adagio was hardly less fine, with the CBSO strings securing burnished eloquence in its alternation between lament and rapture – underpinned by a majesty no less tangible than that in the following symphonies for all its restraint and, in the closing pages, gentle evanescence.

Other conductors might have found greater wit and insouciance in the Scherzo, but Wellber yielded to few in his delineating of its quizzical and propulsive gestures; nor did the trio want for elegance, for all its final phrase was ‘leant on’ a little too insistently. Notoriously difficult to make cohere, the Finale felt all of a piece with what went before – Wellber mindful that its ultimate affirmation is not without its quixotic or even ironic asides; moreover, that its formal divisions are secondary to its being in constant transition, on the way to an apotheosis where this movement audibly chases its tail as an unlikely and even uproarious means of bringing the work full circle. Quite a piece and quite a reading as set the seal on a performance that, if not the last word as interpretation, was never less than confident and assured in its traversal.

Coupling Bruckner with Bartók might seem a risky strategy but, in the event, the Austrian’s ‘cheekiest’ symphony followed-on ideally from the Hungarian’s deftest piano concerto. Piotr Anderszewski’s (above) take on the Third was one of judicious touches, not least an initial Allegretto tougher and more demonstrative than usual, without sacrificing this music’s innate sense of ingratiation. What followed was arguably too slow for an Andante, though how acutely the pianist brought out its ‘religioso’ marking in those poised exchanges of soloist and strings then woodwind – the brief central scherzo a ‘night music’ as delectable as it was evocative. Nor did Anderszewski under-characterize the final Allegro, its underlying vivacity accorded heft and not a little ambiguity on route to the most agile and uninhibited of Bartók’s codas.

A successful concert, then, which should certainly find favour on the (regrettably truncated) European tour the CBSO now undertakes. It is back in Symphony Hall for Verdi’s Requiem, then a varied programme that features the UK premiere of Julian Anderson’s Cello Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded the Bruckner before there is a recent version available from their former chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The playlist also includes the CBSO, Rattle and pianist Peter Donohoe in a 1992 recording of the Bartók:

For further information on the current season of CBSO concerts, visit the orchestra’s website

In concert – Kristine Balanas, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Andris Poga: Sibelius, Bruch & Rachmaninov

Kristine Balanas (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Andris Poga

Cadogan Hall, London
Thursday 5 March 2020

Sibelius Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)
Bruch Violin Concerto no.1 in G minor Op.26 (1866)
Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.44 (1936)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Andris Poga) Jean-Philippe Raibaud

This was a nicely balanced and uplifting concert that balanced the relative misery of the early March weather in London. With the rain hammering down outside the Cadogan Hall, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Latvian conductor Andris Poga got on with ensuring there was plenty of warmth inside.

They began with Sibelius’s charming Karelia Suite, a work full of good tunes and typically attractive and imaginative scoring. It is an ideal ‘curtain up’ piece in the right performance, although this one took a little while to move up through the gears. The first movement Intermezzo felt a little stentorian, and could have had a lighter spring in its step, but the succeeding Ballade was nicely measured, the emotional heart of the performance and given affectionately by Poga. By the time the Alla Marcia third movement had arrived, so too had the bounce in the rhythms, and the deceptively simple string theme was given with a smile.

For Bruch’s Violin Concerto no.1 the orchestra were joined by Kristine Balanas (above), who led from the front in an account with passion and flair in strong supply. Yet there was an emotional distance between soloist and orchestra, who rarely interacted, and the opportunity for links through the sharing of Bruch’s wonderful melodies largely overlooked. Balanas played with a strong technical command of her Antonio Gragnani instrument, which made a wonderful sound, and the double stopping with which the finale begins was brilliantly done, the response from the orchestra appropriately breezy. Andris Poga clearly enjoyed the piece, but the distance remained throughout and hampered the work’s emotional impact.

There followed a hugely enjoyable account of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no.3, the first appearance of this work in a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert for a good while. Written in Lucerne but premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski in 1936, the piece is unique for its successful blend of homesick melancholy and the suggestion of bright lights in America, written at a distance from both. Rachmaninov was effectively taking in the surroundings of both countries, but was ultimately thinking of home.

From the start it was clear the affection Andris Poga holds for the Third, with the carefully shaped and graceful chant theme contrasting with the upward sweep from the orchestra that followed. He was particularly impressive in managing the bracing syncopations in the finale, often tricky for orchestras to nail, and so too for the fugue that Rachmaninov tosses around the different sections towards the end. The slow movement was especially beautiful, with a solo from leader Sulki Yu that melted even the hardest heart. The same could be said for the warmly played slower theme in the first movement, beautifully floated by cellos with subtle prompting from woodwind.

What really impressed in this symphony was the orchestra’s overall sound, richly colourful and depicting vivid pictures of Rachmaninov’s surroundings. Visions of Hollywood could occasionally be discerned, the suitability of the composer’s music for the big screen uncannily made clear, but in the intimate slow movement a softer and more fragile heart was in evidence.

Unfortunately the players of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were not named in the programme, a shame as there were several new faces added to the fold this time around. They impressed greatly in a memorable account of a symphony finally getting its due rewards in the concert hall.

Further listening

You can listen to a playlist of the concert programme below – which includes the RPO in previous recordings of the Sibelius and Bruch, plus their conductor-elect Vasily Petrenko leading the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a fine account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony.

Live review – CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Brahms’ German Requiem & Mozart Serenade for wind

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Florian Boesch (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 March 2020

Mozart Serenade for wind in C minor K388 (1782-3)
Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Op.45 (1865-9)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season features several major choral works that have long been central to this orchestra’s repertoire. While it has received numerous readings (most recently with Andrew Manze), Brahms‘s A German Requiem is not among these – so it was fascinating to hear what Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla might make of a piece that, though it has never fallen from favour since its premiere 152 years ago, remains a stern interpretive test in terms of projecting formal integration and an expressive essence more elusive for its restraint.

In the event the performance was a fine one – not least because this conductor found the right balance between flexibility of motion, without which the textures all too easily risk stolidity, and that seriousness of manner without which the music soon loses any sense of purpose. A balance as evident in the lengthy second movement, the inexorable tread of its outer sections framing an interlude of wistful grace then with the ensuing fugue building animatedly to its serene close, as in the brief fourth movement whose blithe exterior conceals music of artful dexterity. Camilla Tilling (above) summoned a winsome response in the fifth movement, a late but necessary addition in its opening-out the work’s emotional range, while Florian Boesch (below) was suitably if not unduly vehement in his initial contributions to the third and sixth; the former crowned by a fugue of visceral and unflagging energy, though that in the latter movement marginally lost focus as its grandly rhetorical gestures ran their (too?) predictable course.

It is in the first and seventh movements that Brahms’s highly personal concept of redemption through love is at its most explicit, MG-T duly having the measure of their calmly insistent searching towards eventual catharsis – even if the finale’s gradual winding-down resulted in less than the ideal repose. The CBSO Chorus was on fine form throughout – a tribute to the expertise of associate chorus director Julian Wilkins, who also made a pertinent contribution in an organ part no less crucial for its understatement; underpinning and often motivating an orchestration which adds in no small measure to the work’s humane and compassionate spirit.

A relatively short first half gave welcome opportunity for the CBSO’s woodwind to take the stage for an un-conducted reading of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, last in his trilogy of such pieces which transcended an ostensibly lightweight genre and, in doing so, made possible the emotional substance of the symphonies that followed. Ensemble seemed a shade insecure in the opening Allegro, but its underlying intensity carried over to an Andante whose ineffable rapture was itself contrasted with the textural severity of the Menuetto. Best, though, was the final Allegro – a set of variation on an unassuming theme with the formal outline of a sonata-rondo made explicit with its major-key ending. Overall, a winning account of a piece whose scoring for wind octet has gained it less exposure than Mozart’s comparable orchestral works.

It also made for an unlikely while successful coupling and a similarly thought-provoking one is scheduled for next Tuesday, MG-T making her first foray into Bruckner with the erstwhile elusive Sixth Symphony alongside the deceptive simplicity of Bartók‘s Third Piano Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded either of these works before but these are fine alternatives:

For further information on the current season of CBSO concerts, visit the orchestra’s website

In concert – Leonidas Kavakos, Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson: Elgar Symphony no.3; Barber & Korngold

Leonidas Kavakos (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 27 February 2020

Barber First Essay Op.12 (1937)
Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Elgar, realized Anthony Payne Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.88 (1933; 1993-4)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (John Wilson) Sim Canetty-Clarke

It is good to see John Wilson taking up more concert engagements, so putting his talent at the service of symphonic repertoire. Tonight, he directed the Philharmonia in a programme that culminated with quite possibly the finest reading Elgar’s Third Symphony has yet received.

The relatively brief first half commenced with Barber’s First Essay, written in the wake of his soon-to-be ubiquitous Adagio and given a high-profile launch by Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic. Succinct to a fault, the sombre rumination of its initial section soon makes way for music of brittle aggression (such as Britten surely had in mind writing the Dies irae section of his Sinfonia da Requiem two years later), and reaches a short-lived climax with the return of the piece’s opening which itself subsides into musing expectation.

A timely revival, whereas Korngold’s Violin Concerto now seems almost too familiar since coming in from the cold some quarter-century ago. Leonidas Kavakos has become one of his staunchest advocates, but while his recent Proms account often verged towards the soporific, this evening saw much greater focus; not least an initial Moderato whose yearning melodies were rendered with real incisiveness, then a Romanze whose lush textures and diaphanous harmonies never risked becoming cloying. If the final Allegro was even more impressive, this was because what is ostensibly the weakest movement emerged on a par with those before – Kavakos pointing up its effervescence while keeping any indulgence in check on route to the heady return of its opening theme, in what is a coup de théâtre even by Korngold’s standards.

Wilson has already demonstrated his Vaughan Williams credentials, and is evidently no less at home in Elgar. Some 22 years on from its premiere and the Third Symphony, as realized by Anthony Payne, continues to fascinate and exasperate in equal measure – yet, while there can be no denying its conjectural status, what came over here was Wilson’s conviction as he steered a purposeful course through the opening movement – pulling together what can feel a prolix development then evincing similar grip and determination in the coda. What follows was ideally poised between scherzo and intermezzo, its balletic and song-like strains eliding seamlessly, while the Adagio has seldom sounded more potent in its wrenching dissonances and wan consolation as lead to a coda whose fragmented texture only emphasized its pathos.

On to the finale (Wilson rightly ensured minimal pause between movements) and while there was no lack of finesse in the shaping of its themes, Wilson made relative light of there being no concrete development section by bringing its nominally tentative variants into tensile and, above all, cumulative accord. This carried through into the coda – undoubtedly the best Payne which Elgar never wrote and whose spirit of reaching out towards whatever might lie beyond was palpably conveyed as the music receded, slowly but never disconsolately, toward silence.

At some 50 minutes this was as taut and incisive a reading as the piece can yet have received, but the essential rightness of Wilson’s approach could not be doubted. Payne himself looked mightily impressed, and one can only hope a recording with the Philharmonia is in the offing.

In concert – Sol Gabetta, NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi: Takemitsu, Schumann & Rachmaninov

Sol Gabetta (cello), NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Monday 24 February 2020

Takemitsu How slow the wind (1991)
Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)
Rachmaninov Symphony no.2 in E minor Op.27 (1906-07)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This Royal Festival Hall concert offered the relatively rare chance to catch the NHK Symphony Orchestra, on a mini-tour from Tokyo in the company of their chief conductor, Paavo Järvi.

As he told Arcana in an interview the previous week, Järvi has been acquainting himself with the music of Toru Takemitsu in recent years, culminating in a recording of his orchestral works with the NHK. One of them, How slow the wind, was a descriptive and colourful way in which to open the concert, presenting a picture of relative calm.

One of Takemitsu’s best qualities is the descriptive power of his music, which is able to capture the elements in a subtle but meaningful way. Rain, earth and air are three you can expect to encounter with particularly vivid results, and the latter was to the fore in this intriguing symphonic poem. As the title suggests, it really was the slowed down movement of air, and was played with attention to detail and affection, painting a picture far away from the Southbank. The influence of Debussy, as outlined by Järvi, was clear, but so too were elements of Ravel and Messiaen, though the percussive colours in which Takemitsu dressed the piece were wholly his own.

Sol Gabetta then took charge of the Schumann Cello Concerto. Clearly this is a piece she loves, and it is gratifying in recent years to see the concerto come into the centre of the instrument’s repertoire. The first movement, dominated by a nagging theme that stays in your head for long after, was a dramatic affair, the cellist seizing the initiative but ensuring Järvi and the relatively small orchestral forces were with her every step of the way. Gabetta’s high register tone was probing, with unerring accuracy in her tuning.

When Schumann moves seamlessly into the slow movement it is like walking into a different, calmer room of the same house, but Gabetta ensured the links throughout were clearly signposted, and her duet with leader of the NHK cellos Ryoichi Fujimori was both sensitive and ideally balanced.

The finale found a bold approach from Gabetta capitalizing on Schumann’s innovative writing, with the written-out cadenza particularly strongly executed before a thoroughly affirmative end. Gabetta capped this with the inclusion of the first movement of VasksGramata cellam as an encore. Gabetta gave this at the first night of the BBC Proms in 2016 and it is no less startling heard once again with its vocalisation.

For the second half it was slow burning Rachmaninov, the NHK smoothly into their stride for the first movement of the Symphony no.2 in E minor. If the moody bass strings at the opening were slightly withdrawn, that gave Järvi plenty to work with as the music unfolded. With the faster tempo came an airy texture as though the sun was shining through outdoors. Once we had glimpsed the brightness it was hard not to let go of it, and the Scherzo, taken at a fastish tempo, glinted at the edges.

Järvi judged the famous Andante just right, indulging in the gorgeous textures but never overdoing it, so that Kei Ito’s clarinet was given the best possible platform to deliver a heartstopping solo. Yet it was in the excited whoops of the finale where this interpretation really delivered, the orchestra stepping up another gear as the music excitedly passed between the instrument groups, percussion adding a sheen to the wonderful wall of sound.

It being Estonian Independence Day, Järvi – while noting the amusement of celebrating the day in London with a Japanese orchestra – gave us a glimpse of summer through Heino Eller’s sunkissed Homeland Tune, from the 5 Pieces for Strings. It was a fitting end to a concert that helpfully reminded us of the approach of spring – and in the process told of classical music’s potential reach. A Japanese orchestra conducted by an Estonian with an Argentinian cellist. What’s not to like about that?!

Further listening

You can listen to a playlist of the programme performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi. It includes Gabetta’s recording of the Schumann, and leading recordings of the other repertoire (including encores):

For a very fine disc of Heino Eller’s music for string orchestra, this collection from the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Tonu Kaljuste on ECM is just the ticket: