On Record: Bamberger Symphoniker / Jakub Hrúša – Hans Rott: Symphony no.1 (Deutsche Grammophon)

Rott Symphony [no.1] in E major (1878-80)
Mahler Andante allegretto in C major ‘Blumine’ (1884)
Bruckner Symphonic Prelude in C minor WAB297 (1876)

Bamberger Symphoniker / Jakub Hrúša

DG 486 2932 [70’11”]

Producers Sebastian Braun (Rott, Bruckner), Johannes Gleim (Mahler)
Engineers Markus Spatz (Rott), Christian Jaeger (Mahler), Thorsten Kuhn (Bruckner)

Recorded September and October 2021 (Rott), December 2021 (Mahler), March 2022 (Bruckner) at Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg

reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Jakub Hrúša makes its debut on Deutsche Grammophon with a new account of the Symphony by Hans Rott (1858-84), whose belated premiere some 33 years ago prompted a reassessment (still ongoing) as to the evolution of this genre during those final decades of the 19th century.

What’s the music like?

Much time and space has been expended on the indebtedness (or otherwise) of Mahler to this work – elements from which can be found in at least five the younger composer’s symphonies – yet equally fascinating is the audible influence it had upon those who came before and after; hence the first movement from Bruckner’s Seventh and the second movement from Schmidt’s First – both of which are similarly grounded in E major). Without seeking to present it as an unalloyed masterpiece, Hrúša makes a persuasive case for a piece that Rott would doubtless have overhauled had his mental state not deteriorated soon after its completion. He finds the right balance between grandeur and introspection in the preludial Alle breve, as between that raptness which briefly though pointedly erupts into anguish in the Sehr langsam that follows.

The Scherzo is the most convincingly realized movement and Hrúša has the measure of its animated main theme with undertones of polka, broadening into the ländler-derived suavity of its trio before regaining its earlier vigour vis an ostinato-like impetus barely held in check – the accelerando not necessary in this instance. Nor does he disappoint in the finale. Much the longest movement, this is easily criticized for diffuseness but, as Hrúša makes plain, the formal ground-plan – prelude-chorale-fantasia-fugue-stretto-postlude – (such as the organist Rott likely extemporized before committing to paper) is readily perceivable and is invested with cumulative momentum sustained to the beatific concluding bars. That the composer so nearly brought off this ambitious conception is surely more significant than any shortcoming.

Couplings have been judiciously chosen to open-out the context of the main work. Included in early hearings of his First Symphony, Blumine is a remnant from Mahler’s early orchestral projects lost to history and Hrúša brings out those expressive ambiguities as offset the lilting trumpet melody. Once attributed to Mahler, Symphonic Prelude is now believed an exercise from Bruckner’s composition class and Hrúša, adhering to the original orchestration rather than that by Albrecht Gürsching, duly makes the most of its ominous and plaintive musings.

Does it all work?

It does. In his accompanying booklet observation, Hrúša reflects on the musical and historical relevance of Rott’s Symphony and there can be little doubt that, among the dozen or so other recordings of this piece, this is the most convincing in terms of all-round cohesion as also the excellence of the playing by the Bamberg Symphony (whose chief conductor Hrúša has been since 2018). A little too forwardly balanced in tuttis, sound otherwise reflects the excellence of the orchestra’s home-venue – Rott’s extensive use of triangle kept within sensible bounds.

Is it recommended?

It is. Those coming to the main work for the first time should certainly makes its latest release their first port-of-call, and it would be worthwhile DG continuing this association with Hrúša and the Bamberg in other mid-European music from the late Romantic and early Modern era.

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In concert – Eugene Tzikindelean, CBSO / Alpesh Chauhan: Brahms, Nielsen & Shostakovich

Brahms Tragic Overture Op. 81 (1880)
Nielsen Violin Concerto DF61 (1911)
Shostakovich Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Eugene Tzikindelean (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Alpesh Chauhan

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 December 2022 [2.15pm]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A gratifyingly large house greeted this afternoon concert given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its former assistant conductor Alpesh Chauhan, taking in works long established in the repertoire and a concerto which remains on or about its periphery.

Tackling Brahms’s Tragic Overture depends on whether one sees it as an overture pure if not so simple, or as a tone poem with its ‘programme’ subsumed into the music’s inner workings. Chauhan favoured a viable mid-way course, his steady if never flaccid approach keeping its sonata design firmly in view but with enough expressive license to bring out the pathos in its second main theme and, especially, that spellbinding transition to its reprise when a wistful vulnerability steals over the music as if denying the implacable fatalism otherwise dominant.

CBSO leader Eugene Tzikindelean then took the stage as soloist. A bold if unexpected choice for such an appearance, Nielsen’s Violin Concerto has never quite received its due outside of Denmark but that it makes a cogent impression was never in doubt in a reading as insightful as this. Its Praeludium keenly yet sensitively rendered, Tzikindelean despatched the ensuing Allegro with the right chivalrousness and suavity. A broken string in the development caused only minimal delay as he produced its replacement then restrung his instrument with alacrity.

Its self-sufficient halves make sustaining an overall trajectory the crucial factor in this piece and Tzikindelean succeeded admirably, drawing inward rapture from the second movement’s lengthy Poco adagio before steering a never too hasty course through its lightly ironic Rondo. Tzikindelean responded to the enthusiastic response with the opening ‘Country Musicians’ section from Enescu’s Impressions d’Enfance as a delectable encore: maybe we can expect that composer’s Caprice Roumain or Pascal Bentoiu’s Violin Concerto on a future occasion?

Throughout this performance, Chauhan proved steadfast and attentive in support, then came into his own after the interval with an impressive take on Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. If the earlier stages of the Moderato seemed a little reined-in, the development accumulated the requisite intensity on the way to a powerfully conceived reprise, then a coda of aching regret. Steadier and less capricious than usual, the ensuing Allegretto yielded a keen impetus and, in its trio, a deftly ‘knowing’ contribution from Tzikindelean having retaken the leader’s chair.

It was the Largo that proved the highlight of this performance. Chauhan sustained its heartfelt interplay of themes with unforced rightness, CBSO woodwind heard to advantage in its rapt central episode before a climax of wrenching eloquence that subsided into expectant stillness. Launched (almost) attacca, the final Allegro unfolded with due emphasis on its ‘non troppo’ marking; its calculated aggression pointedly undercut by musing circumspection, before the heady ascent towards an apotheosis which was more than usually defiant in its equivocation.

A performance that provided ample indication of Chauhan’s emergence as a conductor of the front rank. Hopefully he will be returning to the CBSO soon, the latter’s activities continuing with the customary Christmas and Viennese New Year concerts with which to see out 2022

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Alpesh Chauhan and Eugene Tzikindelean

In concert – Zoë Beyers, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Journeys of Creation and Renewal: Vaughan Williams, Pritchard, David Matthews and Elgar

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Pritchard Violin Concerto ‘Wall of Water’ (2014)
David Matthews Shiva Dances Op.160 (2021)
Elgar Introduction and Allegro Op.47 (1905)

Zoë Beyers (violin), English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Holy Trinity Church, Hereford
Thursday 24 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Just a day after The Journey Home, the ESO reverted to its ‘String’ guise for this judiciously sequenced programme with two contrasted commissions framed by classics of the repertoire for string orchestra – these latter written not so far away from where this concert took place.

Acclaimed at its premiere in Gloucester Cathedral some 112 years ago, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis has never been so popular as it has become this past decade. This performance did it justice – the placing of the ‘echo’ orchestra, behind the altar-screen in the imposing Victorian confines of Holy Trinity Church, abetting those antiphonal exchanges in the central section. Solo string quartet building steadily toward an impassioned culmination, from where Tallis’s theme is movingly recalled prior to the final evanescence.

Next came the welcome revival of an earlier ESO commission by Deborah Pritchard. Inspired by an eponymous series of paintings by Maggi Hambling, Wall of Water is a violin concerto which makes tangible reference to these 13 canvases as it unfolds. Their projection to the rear of the orchestra underlying a visceral as well as imagistic allure, even though the work itself is fully intelligible on its own terms – not least with a three-movement trajectory coalescing out of continuous 13 sections. Elements of Penderecki and Lutosławski can be discerned over its course, but a distinct and engaging personality is also in evidence along with a technical finesse with regard both to the solo writing and that for the strings. Zoë Beyers gave a superb account of a piece which seems sure to enter the repertoire of 21st-century violin concertos.

As too does Shiva Dances by David Matthews. The combination of string quartet and string orchestra is a potent one (see below), of which the composer has availed himself fully in this continuous sequence likely inspired as much in a description of Hindu god Shiva by Aldous Huxley as by Indian classical music. Proceeding from a slow introduction given piquancy by its modal intonations, the work comprises four dances which between them outline the four elements: an impetuous workout that represents ‘earth’, a quixotic interplay for soloists and ensemble that of ‘water’, the scherzo-like agility of ‘air’, then a lively waltz for ‘fire’ – this latter building to a forceful restatement of the opening theme, before the coda opens-out the overall expression such that what went before is rendered from a more ethereal perspective.

Kenneth Woods secured an engaging account of this appealing work, as he did of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro that concluded the evening. As he pointed out, its main melody is a rare instance of this composer using an actual folksong, yet that never entails a lessening of formal intricacy in what becomes a latter-day recasting of the concerto grosso – reaching its emotional apex in a developmental fugue that bristles with technical challenges. A tough test for the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom Elgar enjoyed a productive association.

Suffice to add the ESO was equal to this task as in the sustained fervency of the final pages. It rounded off another worthwhile evening from this always enterprising ensemble. December brings the seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah, with further concerts in the new year.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Zoë Beyers, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on the composers, click on the names Deborah Pritchard and David Matthews

In concert – April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – The Journey Home: Haydn, David Matthews, Barber & Mozart

Haydn Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor, Hob.I:45 ‘Farewell’ (1772)
David Matthews Le Lac Op.146 (2018)
Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Op.24 (1947)
Mozart Symphony no.36 in C major K425 ‘Linz’

April Fredrick (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Great Malvern Priory, Malvern
Wednesday 23 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s season really hit its stride this evening with a programme featuring two major vocal works of the 20th and 21st centuries, heard alongside two notable while very different symphonies from near the start and towards the end of the Classical era.

As Kenneth Woods indicated, Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony would have been determinedly avant-garde to early listeners, and much of that innovative quality came over here. Not least in the initial Allegro, its jagged course and disjunctive tonal shifts only nominally countered by the Adagio’s increasingly fraught introspection. With its stark alternations in motion and phrasing, the Menuetto proved a telling foil to a finale where a turbulent Presto precedes an Adagio whose eloquence was sustained as the music subsides and musicians vacate the stage.

Whether or not this symphony would have been better placed at the end of this concert, it set up productive contrast with David Matthews’s Le Lac. Remembered more as statesman than poet, Alphonse de Lamartine was a crucial figure in French literature of the early Romantic period – his lengthy 1820 poem a remembrance of lost love comparable to verse by Shelley and Heine, and one whose slowly intensifying rapture is to the fore in this evocative scena. Two orchestral interludes aside, its formal and emotional progress is essentially determined by the vocal line; with which April Fredrick was at one in conveying the wistfulness but also anguish inherent of this music. The fastidious textures were no less finely delineated by the ESO, Woods sustaining a cohesive overall trajectory from earlier promise to ultimate loss.

Evidently it was Fredrick who had suggested juxtaposing this piece with Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which pairing succeeded admirably in terms of underlining conceptual and expressive links between them. Its sense of loss may be psychological rather than personal, but an emotional force comes over tangibly for all this music’s overt restraint: James Agee’s poetic reportage summoning a response the more affecting for its restraint and in whose vocal part Fredrick was never less than attuned. Woods brought no mean sensitivity or character to orchestral writing such as eschews the rhetoric found in many of Barber’s earlier scores and so foreshadows the subtlety of those two decades hence. This is a work with few significant precursors or successors, and the present reading made the most of its singular atmosphere.

The evening concluded with the relative extroversion of Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony – a piece whose having been written in four days doubtless occasioned its technical brilliance, yet also a formulaic quality to its actual substance. Not, however, in an Andante whose gentle pathos was to the fore, or a Menuetto whose brevity belies its resourceful use of woodwind. Woods found a winning effervescence in the initial Allegro, and if the second-half repeat in the final Presto may be one such too far, this music’s Haydnesque wit was never less than appealing.

It set the seal on a well-conceived and finely executed concert that, in pivoting between the established and unfamiliar (not only between but also within works) typifies thr resourceful approach to programming with which Woods and the ESO have now become synonymous.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about April Fredrick, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on composer David Matthews, click here

In concert – Simon Höfele, CBSO / Kevin John Edusei: Street Music – Stravinsky, Ellington, Zimmermann & Rota

Rota La Strada – Suite (1954, rev. 1966)
Zimmermann Trumpet Concerto ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I See’ (1954)
Ellington (orch. Henderson) Harlem (1950-51)
Stravinsky Petrushka (1910-11, rev. 1947)

Simon Höfele (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kevin John Edusei

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 1 December 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was one with a difference, Kevin John Edusei directing a programme which avoided the Austro-German mainstream with a vengeance as it surveyed music with a distinctly ‘alternative’ outlook.

Federico Fellini’s La Strada accords with the realism of post-war Italian film, yet its acutely emotional undertow makes it equally prophetic and Nino Rota’s score embodies both aspects with its heady dance-music but also a plangent inwardness in those passages for solo violin (eloquently rendered here by Philip Brett) where the tragic relationship between Gelsomina and Zampanò is made explicit. The suite Rota subsequently derived from the music’s later incarnation as a ballet remains among the most significant of his output for the concert hall.

While Rota looks to popular idioms, Bernd Alois Zimmermann utilizes jazz in his Trumpet Concerto, its (later appended) subtitle denoting the spiritual as underpins much of its content and comes to the fore at crucial junctures. The subtly varied orchestration – with saxophones, Hammond organ and ‘rhythm section’ featuring electric guitar – is complemented by that for the soloist with its range of mutes and a virtuosity new to the classical domain which Simon Höfele despatched with alacrity born of conviction. The respectively brooding and headlong initial sections created an expectancy fulfilled by a climactic episode which was taken a little too fast for its layering of jazz rhythms to come through unimpeded, though the final section lacked nothing in evocative power as it subsided edgily towards a close of muted anguish.

Duke Ellington’s Harlem may now have become relatively familiar in concert, but few such performances can have conveyed the sheer panache as was evident here. Edusei traversed the numerous brief sections of this ‘Tone Parallel’ (commissioned but never conducted by Arturo Toscanini) with innate appreciation of their musical as well as scenic potency that culminates with a rhythmic energy whose effect was undeniably visceral. A little audience participation, moreover, did not go amiss in the final pages where the orchestra duly gave its collective all.

From social, via racial and cultural to psychological alienation. Stravinsky may have intended Petrushka as a vehicle primarily for balletic or orchestral display, but the inner two of its four tableaux, defining the contrasting psyches of Petrushka and the Moor as they compete for the attentions of the Ballerina, provide acute character portraits delineated here with needle-sharp clarity (not least by pianist James Keefe – his crucial obligato contribution vividly embedded within the orchestral texture). Nor did the outer tableaux lack for atmosphere – the sights and sounds of St Petersburg’s Shrovetide Fair palpably in evidence, Edusei securing more poise and pathos than was usual from the relatively utilitarian orchestration as Stravinsky revised it. The closing stages of Petrushka’s death and apparition felt spine-tingling in their immediacy.

This resourceful reading concluded what is sure to prove a highlight of the orchestra’s current season. Other concerts might attract larger attendances, but the attentiveness of those younger listeners present confirmed this as precisely the kind of event the CBSO should be presenting.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Simon Höfele and Kevin John Edusei