In concert – Peter Donohoe, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Foulds ‘Dynamic Triptych’ & Shostakovich Symphony no.11

Peter Donohoe (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Wednesday 11 December 2019

Foulds Dynamic Triptych (1929)
Shostakovich Symphony no.11 in G minor Op.103 The Year 1905 (1957)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here, though you may wish to skip the interval of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no.8 for continuity.

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Isle of Noises series has attracted – for me at least – some unfair criticism in recent days of the works included in its remit. Granted, the choices are all English, but the composers look beyond these shores with a willingness seemingly out of kilter with the current political climate.

John Foulds is a case in point; a composer who spent the final five years of his life in India before a tragic early death to cholera. Not only did he live in India but he actively explored its musical systems, looking to see how he could incorporate his discoveries and influences into the framework of classical music.

The Dynamic Triptych is a striking example of successful integration. Completed in 1929, its musical language is well beyond its years. In the first movement Foulds becomes obsessed with a modal scale, repeating it over and over rather like Scriabin would do with towers of chords based on intervals of a fourth. The task of playing the modal scales often fell in this performance to the muscular piano part, played with great authority by Peter Donohoe (above). The pianist has spent a great deal of time with this work, recording it with Sakari Oramo and the CBSO in 2006. He led a highly spirited performance, yet despite his brilliant passagework and percussive interventions in the fast music the soul of the work lay in the slow movement.

Here the strings’ quarter tones, beautifully played, brought added mystery to the picture when dressed with evocative percussion, adding to music already in the grip of a poignant sense of loss. Piano and orchestra regrouped for a finale that galloped ahead, Foulds letting the music off the leash to explore more far-flung tonal areas, before a silvery waltz theme was introduced to complement the quickstep. Both fused for a bold and dramatic finale, capping a well-received performance. This was forward looking music of English origin, and not in a 12-tone style either! The LPO should be praised for its inclusion and Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted with characteristic sensitivity, will hopefully explore more of Foulds’ colourful scores in the future.

The colours vanished dramatically after the interval for the opening pages of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11. This performance took on added poignancy with a dedication from Jurowski to Mariss Jansons, sadly departed the previous weekend at the age of 76. Jansons was guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992 to 1997, and he grew up in St Petersburg, on close personal terms with Shostakovich. The Eleventh Symphony, depicting the slaughter of protestors in the city as part of the Russian Revolution in January 1905, could not have been closer to home.

What a performance it was. For an hour we barely moved as Shostakovich’s first-hand account of the action took hold in vivid, cinematic detail. The icy Palace Square of the city could not have been colder in Jurowski’s hands, with ominous timpani rolls signalling tragedy all too early on. When it came, in the second movement, the massacre was delivered by music of uncompromising and stunning power, the proud brass chorale ultimately shut down by deafening percussion before the door slammed shut. Suddenly the square was silent, save for the strings’ icy tendrils which extended once again towards the audience, noticeably holding its collective breath.

The London Philharmonic were absolutely superb. With 22 cellos and basses playing as one, digging in to the ice as though their lives depended on it, the performance was on sure foundations, above which we had special woodwind contributions, with cor anglais (Sue Bohling) and bass clarinet (Paul Richards) just two of several exceptional solos. The percussionists, a vital cog in the Shostakovich machine, judged their contributions ideally too, with sharp snare drum retorts complemented by rolling bass drum and gong.

Still the tension remained, through an elegiac slow movement where the violas’ melody could not have been more poignantly played by David Quiggle and his section. The dedication to Jansons felt most intense here, and the players were given due acknowledgement by Jurowski in their well-deserved curtain call. Yet despite the deeply personal aspect of the performance there were even sharper parallels with the political climate of today, reminding listeners of the protests in Hong Kong and the forthcoming UK election, not to mention the disinformation, code and discrimination that permeate today’s society at every turn.

This account lived and breathed all of those dreadful things, and as the performance reached its shattering climax with tolling bells, Shostakovich was communicating with ever more piercing clarity. It may not be his most accomplished symphony but the Eleventh is one of his most descriptive and emotive. As Jurowski held the score aloft afterwards it was clear he felt the same – and I for one left reeling at the impact of a memorable performance.

Further listening

This Spotify playlist gives recordings of the Eleventh Symphony from Mariss Jansons himself, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Peter Donohoe with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo in the John Foulds Dynamic Triptych:

You can read a tribute to Mariss Jansons on the London Philharmonic Orchestra website

Weinberg 100

Today marks the centenary of the birth of the Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg.

After a long period without exposure for his music we are finally starting to see the full extent of this extraordinary composer’s output. Some of it has been covered by Arcana in his centenary year, including a pioneering cycle of the 17 string quartets given by the Quatuor Danel at the University of Manchester and two concerts from the CBSO’s Weinberg weekend – from an orchestral concert from the CBSO and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to Gidon Kremer‘s Preludes To A Lost Time by way of Kremer and his chamber group Kremerata Baltica in a fascinating concert of putting Weinberg’s works in context.

The Cello Concerto made quite a splash at the BBC Proms this year, and you can watch Sol Gabetta playing it with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Mikko Franck below:

Meanwhile a good place to start for the uninitiated is by taking on Kremer’s two discs on ECM. The first of these comprises the four chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet:

Meanwhile the sequel is an enticing collection of miscellaneous works from the Weinberg pen, including the Symphony no.10:

In honour of Mariss Jansons

Like many lovers of classical music, Arcana was sad to learn of the death of Latvian-Russian conductor Mariss Jansons last weekend, at the age of 76.

Jansons was a great conductor, and I was fortunate enough to see him in a number of concerts. Particularly memorable was a Prom with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Lutosławski‘s Concerto for Orchestra and BrahmsSymphony no.1 – and several years later another outing at the Royal Albert Hall with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss‘s Also Sprach Zarathustra and SibeliusSymphony no.2.

Jansons leaves an extremely strong and varied recorded legacy, from which the playlist below draws a few excerpts. The Lutosławski is included, along with two excellent recordings he made when chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Honegger‘s Symphony no.3 and Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony no.1 (Winter Daydreams).

However a personal favourite, and one I reviewed for Arcana, was his stellar recording of Tchaikovsky‘s Queen of Spades opera, a superb and dramatic account:

These are just hints of what Jansons could do – but show him on his best form. He will be greatly missed.

Saint Nicholas’ Day and Britten’s dramatic response

Today is a celebration of the feast of St Nicholas, the early Christian bishop who died on this day all the way back in the year 343. Nicholas is the model for the modern Santa Claus / Father Christmas, but he is also the inspiration behind a major piece of classical music, completed by Benjamin Britten in 1948.

Arcana’s sister site, Good Morning Britten, has this to say about the cantata:

St Nicolas is scored for tenor solo, chorus, semi-chorus, four boy singers and string orchestra, piano duet, percussion and organ. It was written to text by Eric Crozier, for performance at the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, on 24 July 1948.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s honouring of the Christmas saint was timed for the centenary of Peter Pears’ old school, Lancing College in Sussex. Yet Saint Nicolas did not receive his first performance there – in fact it opened the very first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948. Critics were requested not to write about the piece until its primary function at the school had been performed. The highly acclaimed libretto is from Eric Crozier, with whom Britten wrote Albert Herring.

Donald Mitchell, in his biography of the composer, observes that ‘for a year his music continued in the blithe spirit that Albert Herring had engendered’. He also notes how the work combines professional and amateur, Britten seeking not to exclude anybody on the grounds of musical talent. ‘There are testing but rewarding parts for the amateur singers and instrumentalists; congregational hymns, and one of the catchiest of his tunes for The Birth of Nicolas.’

This gives the strong sense Britten was writing for all ages and beliefs, and is reinforced by Stephen Arthur Allen. Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, he declares it as ‘not purely a work for religious digest’. Furthermore, ‘A duality of narrative may be perceived through the dilemma between Nicolas’s public and private world:

“Our eyes are blinded by the holiness you bear,

The bishop’s robe, the mitre and the cross of gold.

Obscure the simple man within the Saint.

Strip off your glory, Nicolas, Nicolas, and speak! Speak!”

He warms to his theme. ‘The transparent nescience of The Birth of Nicolas is reinforced by its A major setting. The presence of the tritone, governing the stepwise movement of the sequence in each phrase, demonstrates that Britten is able to write music that children can engage with and sing easily, while embodying sophisticated intervals and a symbolic dimension that offsets generic expectations otherwise associated with such material.’

After that, perhaps the words of Michael Kennedy are key: ‘There is little need to examine this cantata in detail; it is best experienced whole and without analytical preparation.’

Thoughts

The advice from Michael Kennedy to refrain from analysing Saint Nicolas too much is sound indeed, for this is a dramatic piece that works best taken on face value.

Once again it is possible to witness Britten’s ability to write dramatic sacred music, and as in The Company of Heaven he bolsters that with sympathetically set hymn tunes. There is a strong sense of progression through the life of Saint Nicolas, too, and at his birth he gets a really catchy tune, written for the boys’ choir in a joyous A major. As he journeys to Palestine Britten colours his relatively small orchestral forces with a glassy, oscillating line for the two pianos and wispy held strings.

Meanwhile the tenor soloist – Pears, of course – gets frequent opportunities to exploit his talent for legato singing, with some extremely lyrical writing that would seem to me to have a strong Italianate flavour, that of Verdi perhaps.

The hymn quotations invite the involvement of a congregation, another element in common with The Company of Heaven. However Britten cannot resist the odd piece of harmonic mischief, and All People That on Earth do dwell, so beloved of Vaughan Williams, gets some unexpected minor chords. I couldn’t help but think that was a deliberate thumbing of the nose!

There is, however, a certain amount of homage being paid here, deliberate or otherwise. I was sure in places I could detect hints of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – especially in the way the two works end, alike in key in harmony, while there are passing elements of Handel and Bach, via Mendelssohn.

Once again Britten uses the performing spaces to his advantage, positioning the children’s choir a distance away from the main action. This is especially effective after the swell of the choir towards the end of His piety and marvellous works, which cuts to the trebles singing ‘Alleluia’ in the distance. It is a magical moment.

Equally fine are the climactic closing pages, the death of the saint marked by the singing of the Nunc Dimittis chant, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in piece, which seals the deal on a very fine and enjoyable work.

Watch and listen

Below you can hear the late Sir Stephen Cleobury talking about the work, and how he went about the 2013 album he made with King’s College Cambridge Choir to mark Britten’s centenary:

On the Spotify link below you can listen to the album Cleobury conducted, which also includes the unaccompanied choral masterpiece Hymn to Saint Cecilia and the celebratory anthem Rejoice in the Lamb, again under the direction of Cleobury.

On screen: Goldschmidt: Beatrice Cenci

Goldschmidt Beatrice Cenci (1949/50)

Prague Philharmonic Chorus; Wiener Symphoniker / Johannes Debus

C Major Blu-ray 751504 [107’] 1080i / 16:9. PCM Stereo / DTS-HD MA 5.1.

Sung in German with English, Japanese and Korean subtitles. Regions A, B and C Video Director: Felix Breisach.

Recorded live at Bregenz Festival on 18th July 2018

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first DVD release for the opera Beatrice Cenci by Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-96), in a production at the Bregenz Festival in 2018 – continuing the lineage of stage-works by once forgotten and suppressed composers to have been presented at this event over recent years.

What’s the opera like?

Finished midway through the last century, Beatrice Cenci might have been expected to revive its composer’s career two decades after reaching its peak with the premiere of his first opera Der gewaltige Hanrei and 17 years after he fled Germany. A Covent Garden staging failed to materialize and it stayed unheard until a concert performance in 1988, with a full production six years later. Drawing on the 1819 verse-drama by Shelley, librettist Martin Esslin created a succinct and cohesive text where tension rarely lets up over the opera’s 105-minute duration.

Musically things are a little more ambiguous. Goldshmidt’s intention was to revive the art of bel canto and Beatrice Cenci indeed focuses attention on vocal writing to a degree unusual in post-Wagnerian opera. That said, melodies per se are in relatively short supply across a work that, for all it drama and immediacy, is arresting rather than memorable in content. Musically the idiom is still rooted in the ‘neue sachlichkeit’ found in the stage-works of Hindemith and Weill 25 years earlier, such that genuine emotion feels reined-in even at dramatic highpoints.

Johannes Erath‘s staging further exacerbates this impression, its lurid tone and over-wrought action suggestive of a gothic overkill that Goldschmidt was surely anxious to avoid. Katrin Connan‘s sub-expressionist sets, Katharina Tasch‘s faux-Renaissance costumes (redolent of Peter Greenaway during his 1980s heyday) and Bernd Purkrabek‘s lighting with its extremes of darkness and light further ensure the outcome has an exaggerated, even two-dimensional quality which leaves little room for subtlety or finesse in delineating character and incident.

Does it all work?

Only in part, but this is hardly the fault of the singers – among whom, Gal James comes into her own as the cruelly mistreated Beatrice with her soliloquy in the final act, with Dshamilja Kaiser eloquent as her step-mother Lucrezia and Christina Bock no less sympathetic as her weak half-brother Bernardo. Christoph Pohl is almost too suave to convey the sheer evil of her father Francesco, while Per Bach Nissen treads a fine line between humour and caricature as the cardinal Camillo, and Michael Laurenz brings purpose to the vacillating prelate Orsino.

The Prague Philharmonic Chorus is heard to impressive effect in those banquet and execution scenes that bring the outer acts to their climax, with Johannes Debus securing a trenchant and committed response from the Vienna Symphony players.

Understandable that the production should have been given in the composer’s own translation of the original libretto, yet this in itself tends to underline the sardonic and darkly comic aspects which, whether in accord with Esslin’s absurdist convictions, inevitably militate against Goldschmidt’s expressive priorities.

Is it recommended?

Yes, in that Beatrice Cenci is a significant and (given its historical context) valiant attempt to renew certain dramatic qualities at a premium in opera of that era. This Bregenz production makes for compulsive viewing, if rather less in the way of affective or empathetic listening.

Further information can be found at the <a href=”http:/www.cmajor-entertainment.com”>C major</a> website