In concert – Karen Cargill, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Mirga conducts Weinberg

Mirga

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (above)

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Mahler Rückert-Lieder (1901-02)
Weinberg Symphony no.3 in B minor Op.45 (1949-50, rev. 1960)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 23 June 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Karen Cargill courtesy of Nadine Boyd Photography

The music of Mieczysław Weinberg has been a prominent feature in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s programmes with its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes duly started this latest of the orchestra’s concerts in impressive fashion.

Written when Soviet composers were under intense pressure to create music of a populist – or rather, nationalistic – nature, its recourse to melodies emanating from the region of Bessarabia (from where the composer’s parents hailed) draws directly on a lineage from Liszt to Bartók and Kodály. Weinberg’s handling of these, in its subtle take on a slow-fast trajectory, is never less than assured. MGT undoubtedly had its measure, whether in the ruminative opening with its plangent woodwind or the boisterous later stages when brass comes irresistibly to the fore.

Itself a revival (having been played at Symphony Hall in 2019 then at that year’s Proms), the Third Symphony is a more considered response to the anti-formalist campaign spearheaded by Andrei Zhdanov with the intention of making Soviet music more accountable to its public. Hence the inclusion of Belorussian and Polish folksong, though Weinberg is mindful to offset these with a formal rigour as, in the initial Allegro, ensures an emotionally restless unfolding to a coda shot-through with foreboding – one of several passages likely made more explicit in the subsequent revision. Here, as in the wistful second theme (akin to what Malcolm Arnold was writing around this time) then a climactic transition heading into the reprise, the CBSO’s playing underlined its ongoing affinity with this music which held good through to the close.

Hardly less idiomatic was the scherzo’s interplay of capricious with a more sardonic humour, then the Adagio’s sustained yet cumulative progress towards a climax of stark tragedy – only slightly pacified in the inward closing phase. If the animated finale strives to secure an overly affirmative ending, it was a measure of this account that any such optimism was held in check until the peremptory last bars. Weinberg could scarcely have hoped to hear a more perceptive performance: good to hear both this and the Rhapsody were being recorded for future release.

Between these pieces, Karen Cargill joined the CBSO for Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (evidently the first time the orchestra has given them since baritone Olaf Bär with Simon Rattle in 1992). She drew a keen irony from Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, then rendered Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft with appealing deftness. With its fugitive writing for woodwind and brass, and a fervent climax capped by garish arabesques from piano, Um Mitternacht is a difficult song to bring off but was notably effective, and the only disappointment was a rather inert take on Liebst du um Schönheit – Max Puttmann’s sub-Léhar orchestration at least partly to blame. Nor was Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ideally transcendent, yet the eloquence of Cargill’s response left no doubt concerning its status as arguably the greatest orchestral Lied.

A judiciously planned concert, then, in which the rapport between orchestra and conductor came through these past 15 months unscathed. The CBSO returns next Wednesday with its principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada in a programme of Julian Anderson and Dvorák.

You can find information on the CBSO’s next concert at their website

In concert – NEXT and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Past the Stars

bcmg-past-the-stars

NEXT [Joe Howson & Mikaela Livadiotis (pianos), Gavin Stewart (bass flute), Olivia Jago (violin)

Adams Hallelujah Junction (1996)
Saunders Bite (2016)
Mason When Joy Became Mixed with Grief (2007)

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Geoffrey Paterson

Birtwistle Cantus Iambeus (2004)
Vir Wheeling Past the Stars (2007) – Songs 3 and 4; Hayagriva (2005) [UK premiere]

Town Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 20 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It might have taken 15 months plus a couple of false alarms, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (above) finally resumed live performances en masse this afternoon and with this wide-raging concert typical of its programming across more than three decades of music-making.

Not least with its throwing the spotlight onto players of the next generation, the opening half featuring NEXT musicians as mentored by their senior colleagues. Things got underway with Hallelujah Junction, John Adams’ alternately incisive and soulful evoking of a truck-stop on the California-Nevada border; along with a tribute to orchestra manager Ernest Fleischmann, which doubtless explains its heightened peroration. Nor, despite some occasional vagaries of coordination, was there any doubting the conviction of Joe Howson and Mikaela Livadiotis.

From two pianists situated amid tables in the stalls to a bass flautist just in front of the organ console: Gavin Stewart made the most of this unlikely context with a committed reading of Rebecca SaundersBite, less a setting than paraphrase of the thirteenth from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing in which words or syllables are variously sounded in anticipation, or as consequence of the flute’s contribution. It certainly left a fragmented, even rebarbative impression compared to the seamlessness of When Joy Became Mixed with GriefChristian Mason’s contemplation of a sixth-century Jainist account over several ages of declining natural and human wonder; in which violinist Olivia Jago rendered the music’s gently enveloping pathos with unfailing poise, as well as a sure sense of where this deceptively understated music might be headed.

BCMG accordingly took to the stage for Cantus Iambeus, among the more recent of Harrison Birtwistle’s curtain-raisers for ensemble and arguably his most approachable in the unfolding of expressive contours and its frequently diaphanous textures; all underpinned by the role of iambic rhythm in promoting continuity through to an almost inviting final cadence. Nor was there a lack of that intensive interplay as has been a hallmark of this composer’s music from the outset, and to which these musicians responded with their customary precision and verve.

The other pieces (both included on a new NMC release) were by Param Vir, whose music has been a welcome if undervalued presence over four decades. Firstly, the latter two items from his song-cycle Wheeling Past the Stars after Rabindranath Tagore – the charm and vivacity of Grandfather’s Holiday then musing inwardness of New Birth, both eloquently rendered by Patricia Auchterlonie with Ulrich Heinen. Finally, to Hayagriva – the horse-headed being and mythological archetype behind a work whose headlong rhythmic energy suddenly moves, via an intricately detailed transition, to a final section whose subdued manner does not preclude music of fastidious textural variety emerging. The analogous sequence ‘red-green-blue’ was reinforced by overhead lighting, even if Vir’s musical trajectory is appreciably more subtle.

BCMG responded to Geoffrey Paterson’s direction with alacrity, not unreasonably pleased to be back performing for a live audience in an impressive indication of what can be expected from this ensemble during the 2021-22 season and barring, one hopes, no more false alarms!

You can find information on further BCMG activities here, while further information on Wheeling Past the Stars by Param Vir can be found at the NMC website

In concert – Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Soliloquies & Dialogues – Music made in Lockdown

bcmg-soliloquies

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Oliver Janes (clarinet), Ryan Linham (trumpet), Colette Overdijk (violin), Julian Warburton (percussion), Amelie Thomas (trumpet)]

Oram Counting Steps – first version (2020)*
Murail Les Ruines circulaires (2006)
Ma Xiao-Qing Back to the Beginning (2020)*
del Avellanal Carreño speak, sing… (2020)*
Donghoon Shin Couplet (2020)*
Howard R (2021)*
Reich New York Counterpoint (1985)
Birtwistle The Message (2008)
Oram Counting Steps – second version (2020)*

[Works indicated * received their live premieres]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Tuesday 15 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been unable to present live events during the past 15 months, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has not been inactive – commissioning a series of pieces from composers around the world for performance online as part of its Soliloquies & Dialogues project. Having been performed at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery last Friday, a representative selection of these was this evening presented at CBSO Centre – in the process, confirming that ‘‘while we were all unified by lockdown, our reactions were still highly individual’’.

Tristan Murail’s Les Ruines circulaires was written well before the pandemic, but it vividly encapsulates the ‘dialogues’ aspect – clarinet and violin in confrontation, before opening out into a melodic discourse in a two-way process that might always be the same, only different.

It was vividly realized tonight, violinist Colette Overdijk then having two solo pieces – the first a live hearing for Ma Xiao-Quing’s evocative Back to the Beginning which, while less demonstrative than the online premiere, integrated elements of music and speech with greater subtlety and finesse. Donghoon Shin’s Couplet placed its expressive contrasts in stark relief – thus, an ‘aria and toccata’ in which long-breathed lyricism was succeeded by music whose gestural force and its rapidly accumulating energy were rendered with no mean virtuosity.

Between these works, clarinettist Oliver Janes gave the premiere of speak, sing…, where José Del Avellanal Carreño took advantage of new developments in Machine Learning technology – recorded improvisations by the soloist forming a basis for the interaction between ‘human’ responses as written by the composer with ‘artificial’ responses as generated by the prism-samplernn programme. The outcome was an eventful and unpredictable dialogue, though the subfusc quality of the electronic element rather stood in the way of more engaging synthesis.

Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint was no less radical in its interplay between clarinet and tape four decades ago, Janes (understandably) sounding more at ease in the dialogue with his pre-recorded self in this performance of appealing deftness and not a little quizzical humour. Beforehand, percussionist Julian Warburton took the stage for the live premiere of R, where Emily Howard explores geometrical concepts as well as the possibilities of sonic growth and decay in a piece whose variety is more immediate given its concision and sense of purpose. Afterwards, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Message provided a telling foil in its halting dialogue between clarinet and trumpet – tersely curtailed by the arrival of military drum; a piece that commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the London Sinfonietta in the pithiest of terms.

Framing the whole, two versions of Celeste Oram’s Counting Steps anticipated then reflected on what was heard. Taking its cue from Fux’s treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, specifically two aphorisms with their expressing strength through courage in the face of weakness and decay, its methodically elaborating trumpet part against a graphic video projection was confidently rendered by Ryan Linham – with, in the second version, Amelie Thomas hardly less assured in support. An arresting framework in which to present this always enterprising programme.

You can find information on the next BCMG live performance here, while Colette Overdijk gives the online premiere of Back to the Beginning here

In concert – Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Huang Ruo: A Dust in Time

dust-in-time

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Kate Suthers (violin), Colette Overdijk (violin), Adam Römer (viola), Ulrich Heinen (cello)]

Huang Ruo A Dust In Time (2020)

St Paul’s Church, Hockley, Birmingham
Tuesday 18 May

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant lockdowns has put paid to many events, not least a performance of A Dust in Time by Huang Ruo planned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for December, after a memorable online account three months earlier. Fortunately, it was possible to reschedule this to coincide with the further lifting of restrictions – enabling a socially distanced audience to hear what, when that created as the consequence of these past   18 months can be assessed more objectively, will come to be regarded as a defining artwork.

Born in southern China and now resident in the United States, Huang has emerged among the more striking composers of his generation (recordings of four Chamber Concertos and three of his ‘Drama Theatre’ pieces are well worth investigating on Naxos). Stylistically his music ranges across Eastern and Western, traditional and original sources – the resulting synthesis notable for its keen integration. An approach evident in this work, contrast between whose underlying concept and formal procedures are outweighed by its overall expressive impact.

Drawing inspiration from the circular concept of the mandala central to Hindu and Buddhist cultures (not least that of Tibet), while unfolding along the lines of a passacaglia which has long been a favoured formal model in European music, A Dust in Time patently evokes issues of transience and becoming over the course of an inevitable yet inexorable progress. Starting and ending on unaccompanied cello, it draws in viola, second then first violins as harmonic and rhythmic movement increase towards the sustained convergence of sound and emotion.

In its shortest incarnation (as previously performed by groups such as the ASKO-Schönberg Quartet) the piece ends here, but this evening it gradually effected a falling-off of tension on the way back to its beginning – deft usage of the Golden Section bringing it full circle at just under an hour’s length. In the earlier stages, listeners may have been reminded of the opening ‘Elegy’ from Shostakovich’s 15th Quartet with its oblique allusion to Russian Orthodox chant and comparable ‘otherness’, but the continuation and outcome could hardly be more different.

The performance, by a quartet from BCMG, was no less impressive than that given online by these same musicians – not least in its immaculate tonal blending and sense of venturing forth on a shared trajectory toward a common goal. Ensemble faltered passingly in the later stages, but never enough to undermine the intense focus and concentration which was brought to the music-making. Certainly, those present were held in thrall through to the transfigured closing bars – heard to advantage in the resonant while never cloying ambience of St Paul’s Church.

Huang has spoken of an extended version in which the piece can be looped round to twice its current length and played by a larger body of strings as an installation, though it is debatable whether music of this intensity would translate into a relatively passive listening experience. Hopefully, tonight’s account will be made available commercially – making possible a larger audience for a work which, together with the Donmar Warehouse’s production Blindness last year, is the surest statement of defiance and transcendence in the face of unforeseen tragedy.

Last year’s BCMG online performance of A Dust in Time can be seen here:

For further information about Huang Ruo you can visit his website here, while more information on the activities of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group can be found at their website

In concert – Michael Collins & Michael McHale: Widor, Bax, Muczynski & Horovitz @ Wigmore Hall

collins-mchale

Michael Collins (clarinet), Michael McHale (piano)

Widor Introduction et Rondo Op.72 (1898)
Bax Clarinet Sonata in D major (1934)
Muczynski Time Pieces Op.43 (1984)
Horovitz Sonatina (1981)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a joy to see audiences back in Wigmore Hall on a Monday lunchtime, as the venue took its first available opportunity of 2021. The gathering was for an enterprising program of 20th century works for clarinet and piano from Michael Collins and Michael McHale, pleasingly off the beaten track in its selection and proving highly accessible.

Viewed online in this case, the excitement was palpable – from Andrew McGregor’s introduction for the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 to the performers’ demeanour as they began. The clarinetist successfully overcame an instrument malfunction, too, which caused him to repeat the first few minutes of the Bax sonata.

Collins and McHale began with Widor, however, a competition piece written for students of the Paris Conservatoire in 1898. Both performers settled immediately, Collins with a beautifully floated introduction and McHale with sensitive pedaling, the pianist then echoing the excitable flourishes from of clarinet when the Rondo itself arrived. This work occupies a happy place in Widor’s output, and was a joyful overture here.

The mood deepened for the Clarinet Sonata in D major of Sir Arnold Bax from 1934. First performed by Frederick Thurston, it is an unusually structured work, but the two movements sit together nicely. It was during the beautifully floated opening that Collins had to change his clarinet, but the advantage of this was that we were able to marvel at his control for a second time, supported by rippling figures from McHale. The first movement unfolded as though in one long phrase, revealing the influence of Wagner but establishing Bax’s own melodic grace too. The second movement had impressive urgency, with chromatic surges from the piano and impressive breath control from Collins. A typically deep second theme was matched by a lovely, poised closing section.

The Polish-American composer Robert Muczynski has an intriguing works list including many pieces for woodwind, and the Time Pieces of 1984 are among his most-performed. Each of the four movements looks to bring out different qualities of the clarinet and Collins was fully alive to their possibilities. The busy first piece was enjoyable, clarinet and piano ducking and diving in their interplay, while time became suspended in the outer sections of the second piece, lost in thought. The third explored the timbres of the solo clarinet, wonderfully nuanced by Collins, while the spicy dialogue of the fourth was laden with syncopation and brilliantly played.

The Sonatina for clarinet and piano from Joseph Horovitz dates from 1981, when it was first performed by Gervase de Peyer and Gwenneth Pryor in the Wigmore Hall itself. Like Muczynski, Horovitz is at home writing for wind and brass. Working within a compressed structure, the Sonatina was packed with incident and melody. A perky first movement unfolded with easy, winsome phrases, while the second was more introspective and took time for soul searching. Not so the finale, whose offbeat japes were carefree and witty in this performance, instinctively played.

It was over all too soon – but we were treated to an encore, Collins every bit as enthused as the audience. The warm-hearted Summer, from Paul Reade’s suite Victorian Kitchen Garden, was the ideal choice.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.