In concert – Mahan Esfahani, CBSO / Ludovic Morlot: A Journey Through Time

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot

Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)
Sørensen Sei Anime (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK premiere]
C.P.E. Bach Harpsichord Concerto in D major, H421 (c1745)
Stravinsky Pulcinella – Suite (1922)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 28 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A concert with a difference this evening from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, featuring harpsichord concertos ‘ancient and modern’ alongside two staples of the chamber-orchestra repertoire from the early 20th century in a programme as balanced as it was equable.

His final major work for solo piano, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (or at least four of its six movements) is more often heard in the orchestral transcription that accentuates its mood of searching pathos. Not least the Prélude, its liquid motion unerringly conveyed, or in the astringent humour of the Forlane. The Menuet featured a melting oboe contribution from Oliver Nordahl, then in the final Rigaudon Ludovic Morlot avoided an unduly rapid tempo – vividly characterizing the outer sections while drawing confessional intimacy from its trio.

Harpsichordists are infrequent visitors to orchestral concerts, so credit to Mahan Esfahani (above) for tackling two very different yet strikingly complementary works – including the first hearing in this country of another CBSO Centenary Commission. Inspired by matters mundane and metaphysical, the six short movements of Sei Anime have been likened by Bent Sørensen to a French Suite in its expressive contrasts. Unforced alternation of (relatively) slow and fast dances drew an always inquisitive response from the soloist, heard in the context of reduced yet diverse forces that included a range of percussion adeptly handled by Adrian Spillett and the ethereal tones of an accordion played by violinist Kirsty Lovie. By turns enchanting and disquieting, the piece raised many more questions than could be answered at a first hearing.

Esfahani was on familiar ground after the interval with a Harpsichord Concerto in D major by C.P.E. Bach (which this reviewer recalls last hearing at a 70th birthday concert by George Malcolm). If not among his more exploratory works in the medium, this certainly ranks among his most appealing – its three movements perfectly balanced as to form and content such that the lively interplay between soloist and strings in the initial Allegro is complemented with the urbanity and poise of its central Andante, the final Allegro maintaining a scintillating onward motion though to its close. Music such as this most engaging of present-day harpsichordists rendered with unceasing clarity and verve, not least in those cadenzas where the figured-bass writing brought an extemporization whose immediacy never drew attention from the music at hand.

Having proved the deftest of accompanists, Morlot presided over a sparkling account of the suite Stravinsky took from his ballet Pulcinella. Again, it was the lucidity of the woodwind that really came through – not least in the plaintive Serenata or the elegant Gavotta with its two graceful variations. Nor was there any lack of robustness in the opening Sinfonia or, thanks to trombonist Richard Watkin, deadpan humour in the Duetto. An eloquent take on the ensuing Menuetto prepared ideally for the Finale to bring about the uproarious close.
A rewarding concert which deserved a bigger attendance than it received. Those deterred by this ‘journey through time’ will no doubt feel on safer ground next Wednesday, when future chief conductor Kazuki Yamada directs a programme of Prokofiev, Bruch and Mendelssohn.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021-22 season, click here

Meanwhile for more information on composer Bent Sørensen, click here – and for the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Mahan Esfahani and Ludovic Morlot

In concert – Paul Lewis, CBSO / Christoph König: Mozart & Mahler

Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Christoph König

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K595 (1788-91)

Mahler Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-02)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 21 April 2022, 2.15pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Back from a first European tour since the pandemic and following the Easter break, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra hit the ground running with a programme of contrasts featuring Mozart’s last piano concerto and what is likely Mahler’s most popular symphony.

It may have been finished early during his final year, but Mozart’s 27th Piano Concerto was drafted several years earlier, while its relative inwardness as compared to those from 1785-6 need not be read as fatalistic; still less be taken for valediction. This was certainly how Paul Lewis approached it with a poised but never flaccid opening Allegro – its subtle contrasts of themes and dynamics creating their own, discreet momentum with an eloquent rendering of the development then a lucid cadenza such as brought the whole movement deftly full circle.

Might it be that this concerto is only as good as the best performances? Thanks to Lewis the central Larghetto never risked seeming plain spun or uniform, piano dovetailing into strings and woodwind to ingratiating effect. In the closing Allegro, Christoph König pointed up the dance-like robustness of its rondo theme with a lilting impetus as never faltered. This is one of Mozart’s few concertos where his own cadenzas survive; Lewis’s probing manner in the finale setting the seal on a reading as thoughtfully conceived as it was insightfully realized.

His recent recordings of Louise Farrenc having gained widespread praise, König is evidently a conductor in demand and his account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony provided a decisive, no-nonsense take on this much-played piece. Not least an initial Funeral March whose bracing objectivity did not preclude a more visceral response to its frenzied climax or ominous close. Its successor’s competing strands of violence and resignation were purposefully juxtaposed, through to the as-yet provisional emergence of the chorale then a tellingly speculative coda.

Time and again the central Scherzo fails to fulfil its role as this work’s formal or expressive crux, and if König’s approach fell short of the ultimate conviction, it was more than usually cohesive – whether in the discursive unfolding of its ländler-informed sections or the central trio with its rustically evocative overtones. Equally persuasive were those transitions either side, thereby endowing the movement with a cohesive follow-through which paid dividends during a coda whose unalloyed ebullience more than usually indicated what was to follow.

Most conductors now make the famous Adagietto a soulful interlude rather than full-blown slow movement, König going further by making it an extended introduction to the closing Rondo. This evolved almost seamlessly through the gradual intensification of ideas already heard towards the re-emergence of that chorale, here blazing forth with an affirmation that did not pre-empt those final bars in their almost nonchalant affirmation. Mahler might have written deeper finales, but not one whose triumph over adversity was so potently achieved.

An impressive demonstration, too, of the CBSO’s collective prowess (while not neglecting that of trumpeter Matthew Williams) for what is well worth catching in Saturday’s repeat performance; before this orchestra offers ‘something completely different’ next Thursday.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021-22 season, click here

Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Paul Lewis and Christoph König

In concert – Marija Vidović, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig – Pejačević, Sibelius & Mahler

tamsin-waley-cohen-c-patrick-allen

Pejačević Verwandlung, Op. 37b (1915), Liebeslied, Op. 39 (1915), Zwei Schmetterlingslieder, Op. 52 (1920)
Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47 (1903-04, rev. 1905)
Mahler Symphony no. 1 in D major (1899 version)

Marija Vidović (soprano), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig

Cadogan Hall, London
Thursday 13 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Patrick Allen (Tamsin Waley-Cohen), Paul Persky (Jan Latham-Koenig)

Visits from overseas orchestras are only now getting into their stride following the abeyance caused by the pandemic, so credit to the Zagreb Philharmonic for having undertaken its first UK tour in over half a century with a programme whose challenges were not to be gainsaid.

A recent BBC performance of her Symphony confirmed the significance of Dora Pejačević (1885-1923) in European music of the early 20th century, and it was a pleasure to encounter these four orchestral songs from her maturity. A setting of Karl Kraus’s Transformation won grudging admiration of Schoenberg; here, even more so in that of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Love Song with its winsome violin solo and fervent orchestral interlude, the influence of Strauss is directed towards audibly personal ends. Marija Vidović (above) gave them with no mean eloquence and did comparable justice to those charms of Karl Henckell’s verse in Two Butterfly Songs – the elegance of ‘Golden stars, little bluebells’ then the poise of ‘Flutter by, butterfly, flutter away’, each of them benefiting from especially deft contributions by the Zagreb musicians.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen duly joined the orchestra for Sibelius’s Violin Concerto – likely more popular than ever these days, here receiving a confident and forthright account that was at its most persuasive in a trenchant and cumulative take on the developmental cadenza toward the centre of the first movement, then an Adagio more than usually restive and even ominous as it unfolded. The soloist’s astringent tone might not be to all tastes, but it effectively banished any risk of expressive blandness while maintaining an impulsive interplay with the orchestra – not least in that opening Allegro’s combative coda or a finale which, while its Allegro was not ideally ‘non tanto’, generated an impressive momentum which carried through to a truly visceral close. Some solo Bach enabled Waley-Cohen to demonstrate a more inward touch.

A pity Jan Latham-Koenig (above) rarely appears in the UK, as his engagements seldom disappoint. For all its rawness and passing inelegances, this was as gripping an account of Mahler’s First Symphony as one is likely to encounter. Its opening movement was evocatively launched, the sounds of nature gradually admitting of a human presence such as filters through in its lilting exposition (not repeated) then comes to the fore with joyous immediacy in the coda. Robust and forthright, the scherzo’s outer sections found contrast in the ingratiating charm of its trio.

A symphony with a complex gestation (admirably set out in Timothy Dowling’s programme notes), its ensuing fantasy on a well-known children’s song is shot through with elements of klezmer and art-song in a portrayal of a huntsman’s funeral vividly ironic in its tragicomedy. Latham-Koenig was almost as persuasive in the lengthy finale – its Dante-esque contrasts of violence and supplication channelled convincingly to the spellbinding recollection of earlier motifs which made way for a chorale-dominated apotheosis of notably unsparing immediacy.

Few countries have yet had a composer for president, but Ivo Josipović served Croatia during 2010-15 and the encore of his Prelude to the Millenium sounded redolent of early Ligeti or Lutosławski in its uninhibited verve. The Zagreb musicians gave their collective all – to his evident pleasure.

For further information on the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, click here – and for information on the artists, click on the names to find out more about Marija Vidović, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Jan Latham-Koenig. Meanwhile for more on composer Dora Pejačević, click here

In concert – Julia Fischer, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Elgar Violin Concerto & Enescu Symphony no.2

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Julia Fischer (c) Marquee TV

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1910)
Enescu: Symphony No. 2 in A, Op. 17 (1912-14)

Julia Fischer (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 13 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo (c) Marquee TV (Julia Fischer)

Could there be a more instructive coupling than the pieces in this concert, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor emeritus Vladimir Jurowski, for showing where musical Romanticism had arrived in the early 20th century and where it might have gone?

Relatively few concertos number among their composers’ most personal works, but Elgar’s Violin Concerto is one such and it was a measure of Julia Fischer’s identity that her account conveyed its conceptual richness as fully as its technical brilliance. Not least in the opening Allegro, Fischer drawing out that fatalism as germane to the heartfelt second theme as to its forceful predecessor such as pervades the initial tutti then the combative development. Here, as with the impetuous coda, Jurowski ensured textural clarity in even those densest passages.

Similarly in the Andante – the musing wistfulness of its main melody finding accord with the high-flown eloquence of what follows, with no undue lingering here or in those rapt closing bars. Its themes may be less overtly memorable, but the final Allegro molto follows a keenly purposeful trajectory whose dynamism is thrown into relief by that accompanied cadenza in which Elgar recollects earlier ideas as an intuitive interlude; rendered by Fischer with a poise as itself prepared ideally for the resumption of the finale then a powerfully rhetorical ending.

Enescu, who conducted the Paris premiere in 1932 with Yehudi Menuhin prior to the latter’s recording with the composer, might well have reflected on the success of this work compared to that of his Second Symphony – coolly received at the 1915 premiere, its score missing until 1924, and no revival until 1961. This might well have been the first hearing in London, but its formal and syntactical intricacy held no fear for Jurowski who, having previously championed Enescu’s Third Symphony and opera Oedipe, presided over a consistently assured rendition.

Not the least of its successes was in maintaining the impetus of the initial Vivace, whose ‘ma non troppo’ marking can easily lead to loss of focus among those polyphonic layers that were delineated with unfailing precision. Music this harmonically complex is (surprisingly?) direct as to melodic contours – not least its central Andante whose main theme, soulfully phrased by Benjamin Mellefont, has the evocative quality of those found in Russian symphonies several decades before. Here its inherent tenderness and its lingering regret could hardly be gainsaid.

The biggest challenge comes in the finale – not least the gauging of an extended introduction whose processional needs to generate momentum sufficient to propel the main Allegro on its eventful if never discursive course. Here, too, the extent of Enescu’s instrumental prowess is made plain by the dextrous contribution from keyboards and percussion to already extensive forces; variety of textures underpinning stages in musical evolution through to a coda whose heady if methodical accumulation of themes and motifs makes for a resplendent apotheosis.

Such was the impression left by this performance, a tribute to Jurowski’s conviction and the LPO’s executive skill. Maybe Enescu’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies will yet be heard in the realizations by Pascal Bentoiu, his own symphonies themselves deserving of such advocacy.

To read Arcana’s interview with Julia Fischer, who talks about the Elgar and Mozart violin concertos, click here

For further information on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here – and for the newly announced 2022/23 season click here For more on George Enescu, head to a dedicated website – and click on the artist names for more information on Julia Fischer and Vladimir Jurowski

In concert – Jayson Gillham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes: Grace Williams, Grieg & Sibelius

Williams Penillion (1955)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius
Symphony no. 5 in E flat major Op. 82 (1919)

Jayson Gillham (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes

Cadogan Hall, London
Tuesday 12 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Benjamin Ealovega (Jayson Gillham)

Its high-profile concerts may currently be elsewhere in London, but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra continues its schedule of regular performances at Cadogan Hall, and this evening was heard under the direction of former principal associate conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

Hughes has rightly featured Welsh music whenever possible, and this programme began with Penillion that Grace Williams wrote for National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Two symphonies aside, several other of Williams’s pieces are inherently symphonic – not least her ‘symphonic poem in four movements’ whose title infers the Welsh tradition of singing against an existing melody. This is heard at its most evocative in the initial Moderato with solo trumpet intoning its (original) theme in the context of ethereal contributions from woodwind, harp, and strings. There follows a tensile Allegro then haunting Andante as ‘scherzo’ and ‘slow movement’ of a piece where the trenchant final Allegro proceeds toward a gently fatalistic close. Certainly, this is music such as warrants frequent hearings – irrespective of the present cultural climate.

Hard to imagine Grieg’s Piano Concerto undergoing a period of neglect, yet familiarity need not breed contempt at the hands of a skilled and sensitive exponent which Australian-British pianist Jayson Gillham assuredly is. After a commanding start the first movement felt unduly sectional in its unfolding, its orchestral tuttis a little overwrought, but the second main theme was limpidly rendered then Gillham came into his own with a cadenza whose developmental aspect was as audible as its virtuosity. With its poetic contributions from solo horn and cello, the Adagio was no less affecting, then the finale’s lyrical middle section threw into relief the combative dialogue either side. Its flute melody returns in a peroration whose grandiloquence found effective contrast with the Notturno in C (Op.54 No 4) that Gillham gave as an encore.

Even if Sibelius’s Second Symphony had been replaced by his Fifth during the run-up to this concert, the latter’s inclusion played no less to the RPO’s collective strengths. Building those earlier stages of the first movement’s intricate evolution patiently and methodically, Hughes amply brought out this music’s epic as well as ruminative qualities on the way to a powerful central climax – from where its scherzo-like continuation headed stealthily and purposefully to a coda that, if it lacked the last degree of visceral impact, generated undeniable dynamism.

The highlight was an Andante enticingly poised between intermezzo and slow movement – its plaintive repartee of not without its more ominous moments, yet whose winsome essence was itself a telling foil to the finale. Here the coursing interplay of strings and enfolding eloquence of its ‘swan theme’, horns magnetically to the fore, set in motion the eventful progress toward an apotheosis whose affirmation was never in doubt. If some of those concluding chords were not quite unanimous, this hardly detracted from the majesty of Sibelius’s overall conception.

A memorable ending, then, to an appealing programme that found the RPO on fine form and confirmed Hughes’s insights. The orchestra returns here next week in a concert of Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák with the violinist Fumiaki Miura and the conductor Domingo Hindoyan.

The inclusion of Penillion was made possible with funding from the ABO Trust’s Sirens programme, a ten-year initiative to support performance and promotion of music by historical women composers. Further information can be found by clicking here For further information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here Click on the performer names to read more about Jayson Gillham and Owain Arwel Hughes, and for more on Grace Williams click here