In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus & City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Mirga conducts The Cunning Little Vixen

mirga-cunning-vixen

The Cunning Little Vixen

Opera in Three Acts
Music and Libretto by Leoš Janáček (revised edition by Jiří Zahrádka)
Sung in Czech (English surtitles by Paula Kennedy)

Elena Tsallagova, soprano – Vixen Sharp Ears
Roland Wood, baritone – The Forester
Angela Brower, mezzo – The Fox
Robert Murray, tenor – Schoolmaster / Mosquito / Pásek
Kitty Whately, mezzo – Dog / Forester’s Wife / Woodpecker / Owl
Elizabeth Cragg, soprano – Chief Hen / Jay
William Thomas, bass – Badger / Parson / Harašta
Ella Taylor, soprano – Mrs Pesak / Cock

Thomas Henderson, stage director
Laura Pearse, designer
Jonathan Burton, surtitle operator
Sarah Playfair, casting

Children from Trinity Boys Choir and Old Palace School, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 16 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There could have been no more appropriate an opera for performing at the end of a year like this than Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, given its acutely life-affirming message in the wake of that apathy which threatens to overrun society during a time of continued uncertainty.

Although his Glagolitic Mass was a decisive marker in its early association with Sir Simon Rattle, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has given relatively little Janáček such that this account of his most approachable stage-work was timely in any event. Despite the early start, there was no interval to interrupt the course of its 95-minute trajectory, with those illustrative elements of Thomas Henderson’s stage direction largely restricted to the menagerie gathering around the Forester at his first and last appearances. Here, some deft acting from the children involved and Laura Pearse’s piquant stage-design created an enticingly whimsical basis from which to project those often equivocal and increasingly raw emotions that give this opera its unwavering provocation and, as a consequence, the profundity arising out of its very naivety.

The cast was a strong one and fronted, as it needed to be, by Elena Tsallagova’s rendering of Vixen Sharp Ears – as witty, sensual and as galvanizing a presence as any in recent memory. Not least her interplay with The Fox – to which role Angela Brower brought warmth and not a little empathy, even if her vocal timbre was not ideally contrasted with that of the Vixen. In the role of The Forester, Roland Wood took a secure course from angry cynicism to wisdom born of maturity – exactly the kind of persona Janáček himself would love to have embodied.

The remaining singers all brought a variety of virtues to their multiple roles – not least Kitty Whatley, her put-upon Dog and irascible Forester’s Wife conveyed with precision as well as elegance. Robert Murray was astute casting as the hapless and lovelorn Schoolmaster, while Elizabeth Cragg gave a winning cameo as the feckless Chief Hen – not least in her fractious confrontation with Ella Taylor’s vainglorious Cock. Credit, also, to William Thomas for his poignant world weariness as the Parson or studied incomprehension as the poacher Harašta.

The CBSO Chorus and children’s voices acquitted themselves ably during their limited but pertinent contributions, while the CBSO gave of something approaching its collective best over the course of a score that abounds in the quirks and deceptive non-sequiturs typical of Janáček’s maturity. No other opera of his evinces such characterful or felicitous writing for woodwind, the sheer dexterity of these musicians enhanced by their being on the platform rather than in the pit. Nor were the strings, notably violins, at all fazed by the often cruelly exposed passagework. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a sure sense of where each of the three acts was headed, and if the final scene felt initially a little temperate, the tangible fervour and all-enveloping eloquence generated towards its apotheosis was never in doubt.

Lucky audiences in Dortmund, Hamburg and Paris who will hear this performance when the CBSO takes it on tour during the next week. Hopefully further Janáček operas will feature in MGT’s ongoing association with this orchestra – the omens could hardly be more favourable.

Further information on European performances can be found here. The CBSO’s January to July 2022 season can be found at the orchestra’s website

On record – Peter Fisher & Margaret Fingerhut: Malcolm Arnold – A Centenary Celebration (Somm Recordings)

arnold-centenary

Malcolm Arnold
Violin Sonata no.1 Op.15 (1947)
Violin Sonata no.2 Op.43 (1953)
English Dances (arr. Harris) – Set 1 Op.27 (1950): nos.1 & 3; Set 2 Op.33 (1951): nos.1-3
4 Scottish Dances (arr. Gedge) Op.57 (1957)
5 Pieces Op.84 (1965)
Miscellaneous Pieces (all arr. Poulton): Hobson’s Choice – Suite (1954); Solitaire – Sarabande (1956); Trapeze – Lola’s Theme (1956); The Chalk Garden – Madrigal (1964); Thème pour mon Amis (1965, rev 1985)

Peter Fisher (violin), Margaret Fingerhut (piano)

SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0640 [69’03”]

Producer / Engineer Michael Ponder

Recorded 21 November and 4 December 2020 at Henry Wood Hall, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

SOMM Recordings marks the centenary of the birth of Malcolm Arnold with this collection of his music for violin and piano, including a number of arrangements as are here receiving their first recordings, in what is an (unexpectedly?) wide-ranging overview of his creativity.

What’s the music like?

The three original pieces find Arnold gradually evolving a distinctive personality. If his First Sonata is indebted in many aspects to Bartók or Shostakovich, the tensile expressive contrasts of its opening Allegretto then the plaintive melancholy giving rise to wrenching anguish of its central Andante posits an emotional disjunction that the final Allegro’s stealthy tarantella can only waylay prior to a scabrous close. Its tensile single movement unique in Arnold’s output, the Second Sonata unfolds as oblique variations on a pensive theme whose speculative final guise implies much more than is being said. Playable separately, the Five Pieces (for Yehudi Menuhin) is a cannily integrated sequence that moves from an acerbic Prelude, via an edgy Aubade and a bittersweet Waltz, to an impassioned Ballad then a jazzy Moto perpetuo.

The arrangements from Arnold’s sets of dances provide ready-made encores. David Gedge’s take on the Scottish Dances is wholly idiomatic – hence the strutting gait of the Pesante with its ‘Scotch snap’, careering toward inebriation of the Vivace, wistful naivety of the Allegretto and whirling energy of the final Con brio. The English Dances selected by Paul Harris makes for a viable collection as it moves from the insouciant Op.33/2 and wistful Op.27/1, via the melancholic Op.27/3 and ruminative Op. 33/2, to the resolute Op.33/1.

The miscellaneous arrangements were all done by Alan Poulton – who, as Arnold’s manager during the 1980s, played a vital role in his rehabilitation as a composer. One of two specially written additions for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Solitaire, Sarabande is a mellifluous gem – as, in its rather more sensuous way, is Lola’s Theme from Carol Reed’s film Trapeze. Nor is a ‘Suite’ derived from David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice found wanting as a breviary of this inimitable film (Arnold’s favourite from his more than 120 scores), and the suave Madrigal from Ronald Neame’s The Chalk Garden gives no hint of that film’s ominous subject-matter. Conceived as a jingle for Player’s cigarettes then refitted for BBC2’s My Music series, Thème pour mon Amis is a delightful jeu d’esprit with which to recall this much-missed personality.

Does it all work?

Yes – given that Arnold, a professional trumpeter and skilled composer for brass, had ‘across the board’ mastery of instruments such that his writing for strings is hardly less idiomatic, as is witnessed by the original pieces. The arrangements should not be regarded as mere pièces d’occasion, given that these include several of Arnold’s most appealing melodic ideas and are worthwhile recital additions. The performances by Peter Fisher and Margaret Fingerhut, both long-time advocates of British music, could hardly be improved on for sensitivity and insight.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recording is well-nigh ideal in terms of the balance between these instruments, with Alan Poulton’s booklet notes highly readable and informative, though note the correct running-order of the English Dances as discussed above. Great booklet-cover artwork too!

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the SOMM Recordings website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more information on the Malcolm Arnold society, click here – and for more on the artists, click here for Peter Fisher and here for Margaret Fingerhut.

On record – Aurora Trio: Crépuscule (EM Records)

crepuscule

Alwyn Two Folk Tunes (1936). Crépuscule (1955). Naïades (1971)
Bax Elegiac Trio (1916)
Lewis Divertimento (1982)
Lipkin Trio (1982)
Patterson Canonic Lullaby (2016)
Rawsthorne Suite (1968)

Aurora Trio [Emma Halnan (flute), Jordan Sian (viola), Heather Wrighton (harp)]

EM Records EMRCD069 [76’52”]

Producer Tom Hammond
Engineer John Croft

Recorded 15-16 February, 13 August 2020 at St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Aurora Trio makes its debut for EM Records in a collection of British music featuring flute, viola and harp that spans exactly 100 years and encompasses a variety of approaches with regards to the combining of these distinct yet undeniably complementary instruments.

What’s the music like?

If not the most elaborate of his numerous works for ensemble, Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio is among his most affecting as an in-memoriam for those friends who died in the course of the Easter Uprising in Ireland. Although the overall mood rarely moves far from that implied by the title, the undulating emotion filtering through the textural ‘weave’ proves as subtle as it is elusive. Scored for just flute and harp, William Alwyn’s Naïades unfolds on a larger scale and inhabits a wider range of expression as it evokes both the eponymous spirits of antiquity and the environs of the Suffolk village of Blythburgh where it was written, while also being    a ‘fantasy sonata’ whose instruments interact with more than a little improvisatory freedom.

By contrast, the Suite that Alan Rawsthorne wrote for the Robles Trio is typical of his later music in its harmonic astringency and oblique while never abstruse tonal follow-through. A highly personal use of serial elements underpins the elegant opening Andantino as surely as it does a graceful, intermezzo-like Allegretto then the more demonstrative Allegro vigoroso. All these other works are here receiving their first recordings. Alwyn’s Crépuscule for harp offers a foretaste of that masterly concerto Lyra Angelica in its ethereal poise, whereas his Two Folk Tunes emerges as an appealingly contrasted duo – viola and harp as ruminatively combined in Meditation as they are animatedly juxtaposed in Who’ll buy my besoms?

The highlight is undoubtedly the Trio by Malcolm Lipkin, a composer yet to receive his due and who, as the present work affirms, was unafraid to elide between tradition and innovation with strikingly personal results – whether in the terse emotional contrasts of its Variations, tense and increasingly soulful inwardness of its Intermezzo or purposeful onward progress of a Finale whose impetus subsides towards the pensively fatalistic coda. Canonic Lullaby has Paul Patterson bring flute and harp into limpid accord, while Paul Lewis’s Divertimento puts all three instruments through their paces in a lively March, before embracing them in the lyrical Love Song then cordially sending them on their way in the nonchalant Waltz.

Does it all work?

Yes, given the relative stylistic range of the music featured and, moreover the quality of these performances. Care has evidently been taken to assemble the eight works into a cohesive and satisfying sequence such as this ensemble might tackle at one of its recitals, and which flows well as an overall programme. The playing leaves nothing to be desired in terms of accuracy, while the relative personality of each composer cannot be gainsaid. Ideally the release would encourage composers from the middle and younger generations to write for this combination.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recording is excellent, with the frequently awkward balance between instruments expertly judged, and there are detailed annotations on both the works and their composers. It all adds up to a worthwhile release which deserves to be followed up, hopefully on this label.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the EM Records website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more on the Aurora trio, you can visit their website

In concert – BCMG: Nights

bcmg-nights

Cage The Perilous Night (1944)
Woolrich Watermark (2010)
Bray Midnight Interludes (2010)
Crumb Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) (1964)
Anderson Capriccio (2017); Sensation – Nuits (2015/16)
Jia Ripples in Spacetime II (2017)

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Mark O’Brien (clarinets), Colette Overdijk (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello) John Reid (piano)]

Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 12 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This recital by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group promised ‘‘An evening of starlight-inspired music’’, the environs of Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space – part of the recently completed refurbishment of Symphony Hall’s main foyers – showcasing a programme which ranged over 75 years of creativity. The attraction of Ice Skate Birmingham provided a scenic backdrop, and if the reflection from a repeating promo-video for B:Music proved on occasion distracting, it never drew attention away from the music heard or those musicians playing it.

John Cage may have been at emotional and aesthetic crossroads at the time of The Perilous Night, but its deft sequence of vignettes – obliquely inspired by Irish folktales – finds him at his most focussed and engaging when writing for prepared piano. It certainly drew a lively response from John Reid, who characterized the pieces with great delicacy but also a rigour which prevented them from sounding decorous. Cage later undertook more ambitious works in the medium, yet without recapturing the elegance and inquisitiveness demonstrated here.

More metaphysical matters are addressed by John Woolrich in Watermark, its imaginative interplay for bass clarinet and violin likened to ‘‘Planets revolving around the same sun’’ and whose juxtaposing same or similar material accrues palpable momentum before its dispersal. One of Charlotte Bray’s most notable scores is her song-cycle Midnight Closes after Thomas Hardy, and Midnight Interludes draws on the same texts for three miniatures that summoned a quizzical and sometimes even brusque response from Mark O’Brien and Ulrich Heinen

When George Crumb wrote Four Nocturnes for violin and piano as the second of his Night Music series, he was embarking on his most productive phase. Echoes of Bartók and Webern are frequent, though the finesse with which the composer elides between these apparent poles of dynamism and introspection is captivating – particularly when realized with the sensitivity and attentiveness of Colette Overdijk, in a performance to remind one that Crumb is too often overlooked as part of a decade (the 1920s) with more than its share of compositional mastery.

Next came two piano pieces by Julian Anderson. Capriccio is a heartfelt yet never turgid memorial to Steven Stuckey, its balance between precision and playfulness a reminder that the latter composer was a leading authority on the music of Lutosławski. More elaborate is Sensation, a cycle of six movements playable either separately or in various combinations – of which Nuits ‘‘presents the sounds and perfumes of the night’’ in music by turns evocative and ominous, all the while encompassing the extent of the keyboard to an enticing degree.

Finally, to Jia Guoping and a welcome revival for Ripples in Spacetime II. Drawing upon cosmic waves as emitted from a pulsar, the piece evolves in terms as emphasise the timbral diversity of its instrumental quartet. Its pitches derived from the acronym CHINA FAST (a radio telescope), its playing techniques evoke traditional Chinese instruments over the course of a capricious interplay between those competing (and ultimately irreconcilable?) claims of innovation and tradition – making for an absorbing end to a thoughtfully planned programme.

Hopefully BCMG will return to this performance-space during the second half of this season (details of which are imminent). Next month sees a recital by the musicians of NEXT at the Centrala Gallery in the suburb of Digbeth, providing another change of scene and ambience.

Further information on future events can be found at the BCMG website

In concert – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: A Covid Requiem

mirga-grazinyte-tyla

Adès O Albion (1994, arr. 2019)
Pärt
Fratres (1977, arr. 1991)
Purcell (arr. Britten)
Chacony in G minor Z730 (c1680, arr. 1948)
Barber
Adagio in B flat minor Op.11 (1935, arr. 1936)
interspersed with poetry readings by Casey Bailey
Fauré
Requiem in D minor Op.48 (1887-90, rev. 1893)

James Platt (bass), Casey Bailey (poet), CBSO Children’s Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Tomo Keller (violin/director), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 6 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Even if live music-making has gradually been returning to how it was, the (ongoing) legacy of Coronavirus could hardly be overlooked, thus a concert such as that given this evening by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a necessary act of remembrance for all the many concertgoers to have been affected by the pandemic. As befitted such an occasion, no speeches or prefatory remarks were needed, with the darkening of the auditorium during the performance a simple but effective gesture which helped focus musicians and listeners alike.

Strings only were onstage in the first half – Tomo Keller directing a sequence as began with O Albion, Thomas Adès’s arrangement of the sixth movement from his quartet Arcadiana, whose gentle pathos made for the ideal entrée. Arvo Pärt has written numerous memorials and while Cantus might have been more appropriate in this context than Fratres, the latter’s sparing deployment of percussion as to underline its ritualistic emergence then withdrawal conveyed no mean eloquence. Surprising, perhaps, that Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony is not heard more frequently on such occasions, its expressive intensification here informed by an acute rhythmic clarity. Barber’s Adagio is, of course, a staple at these times – the visceral emotion of its climax and subdued fatalism that ensues audibly conveyed here.

Interspersed between these pieces were poems by Casey Bailey, currently Birmingham Poet Laureate and whose readings were undeniably affecting in their sincerity – whether the heady reportage of 23.03.21 (a date no-one in the UK could hope to forget), the intimate evocation of Weight or graphic remembrance of Once. His appearances on stage were precisely judged as to segue into then out of the music either side and it was a pity when he did not take a call at the end of this first half, alongside the CBSO strings, given his contribution to proceedings.

Tomo Keller remained for the second half – adding ethereal counter-melodies to two of the sections in Fauré’s Requiem, whose 1893 version is without violins but with divided violas and cellos along with reduced woodwind and brass to make for a reading closer to the initial conception and certainly more apposite tonight. Her credentials in the choral repertoire well established, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a real sense of this work’s essential poise but without neglecting any deeper emotions. James Platt brought a ruminative warmth to the Hostias and Libera me, and it was an inspired touch to have the Pie Jesu sung in unison by the Children’s Chorus; its plaintiveness offsetting those richer tones of the Youth Chorus and CBSO Chorus, while opening-out the music’s textural and expressive range accordingly.

In one sense it would have been better had this concert not had to take place, given the legacy it commemorated (as was witnessed by the personal recollections occupying five pages of the programme) and yet, as those ethereal strains of the In Paradisum receded beyond earshot, a feeling of the Covid crisis having been recognized then overcome was palpable on the part of those present. Moreover, the CBSO’s next event is a performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – surely as transcendent and life-affirming an experience as could be hoped for.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Casey Bailey, click here, for James Platt click here, and for Tomo Kellner here