Live review – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Grieg Peer Gynt; Sibelius, Rautavaara & Salonen

Klara Ek (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 14 February 2019

Salonen Dona nobis pacem (2010)
Rautavaara Cantus Arcticus (1972)
Sibelius Rakastava Op.14 (1893/8)
Sibelius En Saga Op.9 (1892/1902)
Grieg Peer Gynt – incidental music (selection), Op.23 (1875)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to the concert as broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking on this link

It may not have been a typical Valentine’s Day concert, but this evening’s programme from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra certainly had an abundance of rapture and wonder.

Not least in its welcome revival of Cantus Arcticus, the ‘Concerto for Birds and Orchestra’ with which Einojuhani Rautavaara had confirmed a decisive turning away from the twelve-note procedures of the previous decade. Its utilizing his recordings of birdsong from the Finnish marshland may be nearer conceptually to Respighi’s Pini di Roma than Messiaen’s Oiseaux éxotiques, but the interplay with orchestra is deftly and poetically carried through – from the stark backdrop of The Bog, through the searching poise of Melancholy then to the gradual build-up of Swans Migrating, its hymnic apotheosis duly becoming a Rautavaara hallmark.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla secured a warm and euphonious response from the CBSO, which was no less attuned to the emergent drama of Sibelius’s En Saga. After an atmospheric opening, the ensuing episodes unfolded a little sectionally for momentum to be gauged consistently, though the magical passage with solo strings before the climactic section was spellbindingly delivered – then, after a suitably fraught culmination, the closing pages affectingly mingled poignancy and resignation; qualities evident not least in the clarinet playing of Oliver Janes.

Prefacing each of these works were short but pertinent a-cappella choral pieces. The upward striving of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dona nobis pacem gave the CBSO Youth Chorus its chance to shine, while a rare hearing for Sibelius’s The Lover brought the CBSO Chorus to the fore for a melting account of three settings from the Kanteletar – their tales of yearning, encounter then farewell between lover and beloved eloquently rendered with no trace of false sentiment. Maybe Gražinytė-Tyla will tackle the almost as seldom heard version for strings before long?

After the interval, Grieg’s incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What to include became far less straightforward after publication of the complete score, but tonight’s selection centred on the familiar two suites and three additional items. Gražinytė-Tyla secured a lively response in the Overture, then brought out the pathos of ‘Ingrid’s Lament’ and encroaching menace of In the Hall of the Mountain King. The influence upon Sibelius of The Death of Åse was no less evident than that of Morning on Debussy, while the Arabian Dance had nonchalance to spare and Anitra’s Dance an alluring poise. Peer Gynt’s Homecoming sounded suitably windswept, and inclusion of the soulful Whitsun Hymn gave the CBSO Chorus its moment in the spotlight. Klara Ek was soloist in Solveig’s Song and Solveig’s Cradle Song, both of which she sang simply and affectingly, avoiding the operatic overkill often encountered. A pity the grotesquely comical Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter was not included, but what remained was a more than plausible overview – skilfully and evocatively rendered.

It more than set the seal on this well planned and rewarding concert, some of whose relative unfamiliarity was outweighed by its undoubted appeal. The Peer Gynt selection can be heard again on Saturday on BBC Radio 3, alongside the UK premiere of tone poem The Sea by Mikalojus Čiurlionis.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert, including the whole incidental music to Peer Gynt (with the exception of the Salonen, which has not yet been recorded):

Further information on this concert can be found here

Live review – RTÉ Contempo Quartet & members of Ad Libitum & Arcadia Quartets: Enescu & Bartók

RTÉ Contempo Quartet [Bogdan Sofei & Ingrid Nicola (violins), Andreea Banciu (viola), Adrian Mantu (cello)]; members of the Ad Libitum Quartet [Remus Azoitei (violin) and Filip Papa (cello)] and Arcadia Quartet [Rasvan Dumitri (violin) and Traian Boala (viola)]

Wigmore Hall, London
Sunday 30 December 2018, 11:30am
Given in association with the Romanian Cultural Institute, London and RTÉ

Bartók (arr. Naughtin) Romanian Folk Dances BB68 (1915)
Enescu Octet in C major Op.7 (1900)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This last of the Sunday Morning Concerts for 2018 at Wigmore Hall proved a culmination in every respect – a performance of the Octet for strings with which the teenage Enescu saw in the twentieth century, and which remains among his most innovative and impressive works.

Completed in 1900, the Octet then had to wait almost a decade for its first public hearing and subsequent performances were more likely from string orchestras; even when this piece was given as intended, the eight instruments were often coordinated by a conductor – testament to a contrapuntal intricacy and emotional intensity that ensembles have only recently felt able to take in their collective stride. Such was undoubtedly true of the present reading, in which the RTÉ Contempo Quartet was partnered by members of the Arcadia and Ad Libitum Quartets.

In his own Octet the teenage Mendelssohn had 75 years earlier hinted at an overall unity, via long-term thematic links, which Enescu takes much further by designing his first movement an extended exposition that is ‘developed’ across two successors before the finale brings an intensified reprise and climactic apotheosis. Not that this account took risks with the work’s formal or expressive audacities; rather its numerous insights were unassumingly drawn into an ongoing continuity which proceeded from an alternately febrile and languorous Scherzo, then raptly eloquent slow movement, to a finale whose heady rhetoric was vividly channeled into the culmination – a fervent augmentation of the work’s opening theme, propelled by an elemental waltz motion, that the young Enescu arguably never surpassed for sheer panache.

A technical as well as interpretative challenge, then, that was triumphantly brought off – any flaws in intonation or ensemble far outweighed by the cumulative impact of this performance. Not its least notable aspect was the tangible interplay between musicians responsive not only to their own parts but also to those of their colleagues, so rendering superfluous any need for a conductor. Certainly, the near-capacity audience responded with real enthusiasm to a piece that, if they were unfamiliar with beforehand, they had evidently taken to heart by the close.

An as entree into the main work, the RTÉ Contempo gave a fluent and atmospheric reading of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances – here in an idiomatic while texturally slightly too fussy arrangement by Matt Naughtin as set the scene for what followed in suitably bracing terms.

For more information on the RTÉ Contempo Quartet, visit their website. A Spotify playlist of the music given in this concert is included below, with the Romanian Dances in the more frequently heard version for string orchestra:

Live review – Leonidas Kavakos, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle: Brahms, Debussy & Enescu

Leonidas Kavakos (violin, above), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (below)

Barbican Hall, London
Sunday 16 December 2018

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major Op.77 (1878)
Debussy Images (1905-12)
Enescu Romanian Rhapsody no.1 in A major Op.11/1 (1901)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra tonight continued their ‘Roots & Origins’ project with a diverse programme ranging from the innate classicism of Brahms, through the refracted (post-)impressionism of Debussy then on to the unaffected nationalism of Enescu.

A change in the running order saw a first half devoted to Brahms’s Violin Concerto – easy to pigeon-hole as archetypally Austro-German, though fairly permeated with elements derived from popular and traditional sources. Nor did Leonidas Kavakos deliver a bland or uneventful account, maintaining palpable momentum across the expansive initial movement that carried through to an uncommonly perceptive take on Joachim’s monumental cadenza, followed by an easeful coda in which the symbiosis between soloist and orchestra was at its most tangible.

While there was no undue lingering in the Adagio, Kavakos brought out its gentle eloquence in full measure – abetted by playing of burnished warmth from the LSO’s woodwind, though there was no lack of agitation in the contrasting central section. The Hungarian overtones of the finale were then given full rein, Kavakos projecting the music’s rhythmic drive as surely as he propelled the coda to its effervescent close. Throughout this performance, Rattle was at one with his soloist in a work he has no doubt given many times during the past four decades.

A dynamic and vividly projected reading, then, from Kavakos (very different from the inward and almost self-communing one he gave during last year’s Enescu Festival), who returned for a predictably scintillating account of the Les furies finale from Ysaÿe’s Second Solo Sonata.


Debussy’s Images has long been a Rattle staple: his running-order differs from that published – though there is arguably no ideal sequence for such a contrasting assemblage. Certainly, the fatefully understated Gigues makes a plausible opening, its fugitive gestures and searching ambivalence more an evocation of the composer in his last years as of any English environs. Rondes de printemps is the positive corollary, its vernal freshness and simmering energy an indication of that renewal in French culture made explicit by the late sonatas. In both pieces, Rattle secured a superfine response from the LSO and if characterization in Ibéria was less acute, this may have been owing to the music’s broad-brush Spanish quality than to any lack of insight. Not in doubt was the cohesion that Rattle drew from this composite work overall.

Cohesion was also key to his performance of Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody. More than a medley of popular tunes, its integration is that of a borne symphonist and Rattle responded accordingly as he built momentum across the suave initial episodes before cutting loose with the bacchanal. The degree of detail lost was outweighed by the visceral excitement that held good through to the coda. A piece associated with Rattle since the early 1980s, and of which the LSO gave a memorable televised reading a decade earlier, ended this concert in fine style.

The question remains why Rattle has never added further Enescu to his repertoire. Perhaps he considers him lesser to Szymanowski, whom he has championed assiduously? Pieces such as the Second Symphony, Third Suite and Vox Maris cry out for his advocacy. Maybe one day?

For more information on forthcoming concerts from the London Symphony Orchestra in 2019, you can visit their website. Meanwhile you can enjoy Kavakos in a recent performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto below:

Live review – Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Laurence Equilbey: Tales of Mendelssohn I

Rowan Pierce (soprano), Jessica Gillingwater (mezzo-soprano), Hilary Summers (contralto), Martin Mitterutzner (tenor), Huw Montague Rendall (baritone), SCO Chorus, Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey (above, photo credit Julien Benhamou

City Halls, London
Friday 30 November 2018

Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture Op.21 (1826) and Incidental Music Op.61 (1842)
Die erste Walpurgisnacht (1844)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Four seasons in one day. That phrase could apply not just to the Glasgow weather on the last day in November, but also to this enticing pair of stage works beginning the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Tales of Mendelssohn series at City Halls. One, the composer’s music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is well known and loved, but the other, a setting of Goethe’s text for Die erste Walpurgisnacht, is barely heard – and made a strong dramatic impact here.

It was the well-known first, with Laurence Equilbey leading a winsome account of some wonderful incidental music. The Overture skimmed and shimmered into the half light, pressing forward with captivating energy – as did the following Scherzo. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra may have been missing a few of their principal players and regulars but that did not dampen their enthusiasm or ensemble, the music given a zestful quality under the encouragement of the stylish conducting of Equilbey.

The bright voices of the ladies of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus helped, too – and Ye spotted snakes received a charming account, especially with the clarity and control of soloists Rowan Pierce (above) and Jessica Gillingwater, both of whom sang beautifully. The Nocturne and Wedding March were charming too, the latter briskly dispatched, but if anything the lesser known Dance of Clowns and choral finale Through this house made an even stronger impression.

What a contrast between this music and that which began Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night). From the outset this was music of sturm und drang, of fire and brimstone, the composer seemingly relishing the opportunity to set Goethe’s text in a fiery context, interpreted as a barely concealed riposte to anti-Semitism.

The lean strings were quite a shock, as were the striking sonorities with the composer imaginatively doubling horn and bassoon. The tension went up a notch when the chorus joined, singing with real vehemence in the Chorus of the Druid Guards and Heathen People. The three soloists were excellent, too – the probing tone of tenor Martin Mitterutzner complemented by the fuller sound of Huw Montague Rendell (above), whose baritone carried effortlessly to the corners of the hall, and the rounded, velvety quality of Hilary Summers’ contralto.

This was a bracing and at times alarming account, exploring Mendelssohn’s choral writing with no stone unturned, passionately overseen by Equilbey, who clearly loves the piece. So much so that we had an encore of the Chorus of the Druid Guards and heathen People, the chorus deserving of their starring role again. There are two more installments to come in the Tales of Mendelssohn series this month – and if you have the chance they are warmly recommended, revealing contrasting aspects of this fascinating composer and the development of his style.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Live review – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: John Wilson’s Roman Festivals

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

City Halls, London
Thursday 29 November 2018

Donizetti Overture: Don Pasquale (1843)
Puccini Capriccio sinfonico (1883)
Respighi Feste romane (Roman Festivals) (1928); Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915-16); Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) (1923-4)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If ever an antidote was needed for a blustery November evening, this was it. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their Associate Guest Conductor John Wilson began with a sprightly overture – that written by Donizetti for his opera Don Pasquale, complete with romantic solo from cellist Rudi de Groote.

We then heard Puccini’s impressive student piece Capriccio sinfonico, where the orchestra dug in to its substantial outlines and memorable triple-time dance theme.

These two pieces served as effective preludes to the main action in this all-Italian concert – Respighi’s triptych of symphonic poems inspired by the centre of his life, Rome. All too often Respighi is held up as a brilliant orchestrator lacking in musical craft, but these performances under John Wilson utterly refuted those claims. This is music of wonderful colour and texture, certainly, but there are great melodies too, scored in such a way that future composers – among them surely John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith – would surely have fallen under the Italian’s spell.

Respighi himself knew how to use his influences for good. Stravinsky looms large, as do Debussy and Ravel – but nobody else could have written the gladiatorial opening to Roman Festivals, its fire and brimstone blowing the cobwebs away from all corners of City Halls.

The BBC Scottish brass were brilliant here, with Simon Johnson’s blowsy trombone solo in Epiphany and the off-stage trumpets in Circuses both highlights. Jubilee, the second movement of the four, painted vividly the downtrodden pilgrims on the highway, rising up as they glimpsed the Holy City in a shower of glistening colour.

The duet between lead violin and cello in The October Festival (Laura Samuel and de Groote again) was a beauty, while the finale built on its influences from Stravinsky’s Petrushka with music of athleticism and raw power, where pianists Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch also deserve a mention, their virtuosity underpinning the sound.

Fountains Of Rome was next, sensibly placed to provide a more restrained complement to the bombastic first poem. Here the wonder lay in four beautiful depictions of water, first heard undulating through The Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn. The Triton Fountain at mid-morning was a thrilling scherzo in this performance, while the organ (Michael Bawtree) added extra colour and splendour to The Trevi Fountain at midday. Finally the magical, twinkling image of The Fountain of the Villa Medici showed off the slightly smaller orchestra in all its glory, the strings on top form with the notably tricky figures.

Pines of Rome is the most celebrated of the triptych, and though well known its emotional impact here was considerable. The busy, blustery Pines of the Villa Borghese set a colourful scene, but Wilson paced the Pines near a catacomb to perfection, shaping the apex of the Gregorian chant to spine-tingling effect, helped once again by the brilliant BBC Scottish brass section.

Clarinetist Yann Ghiro provided a solo of exceptional control during The Pines of the Janiculum Hill, where we heard the nightingale from afar – an innovative and controversial role for the gramophone in 1924, and even now making unsuspecting audience members sit up in surprise. Yet the whole evening was still to reach its apex, The Pines of the Via Appia, with what was quite simply the loudest orchestral playing I have ever heard. This was Respighi turned up to eleven, and when it shouldn’t have been possible for the music to get any louder or bigger it just kept going.

John Wilson ensured this was always a controlled ascent and never vulgar, so as the hairs stood up on the neck once again his orchestra reached a tumultuous finish, capping a wonderful evening of music. Now that’s what I call a concert!

Further listening

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. John Wilson has not recorded any of the music in this concert, but you can hear a playlist of ‘Roman Festivals’: