Live review – Anna Vinnitskaya & CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla perform Shostakovich

Anna Vinnitskaya (piano, above), Jonathan Holland (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 16 March 2019

Shostakovich
The Limpid Stream: Suite Op.39a (1935)
Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor Op.35 (1933)
Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Anna Vinnitskaya (c) Gela Megrelidze

With Birmingham Opera Company’s staging of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk having finished its run, an all-Shostakovich concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony was not just apposite but underlined the rapport between the orchestra and its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

The programme centred on Shostakovich’s music before and after an infamous Pravda article irrevocably altered the composer’s evolution. Attacks on The Limpid Stream were admittedly gratuitous; this last of his ballets finds Shostakovich at his most accessible – as witnessed by the suite devised several years later. Starting with a suave Waltz (which found fame as title-music for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), this continues with a vigorous Russian Dance then breezy Galop. The highlight is an Adagio whose soulful cello melody was eloquently rendered by Eduardo Vassallo. A deft pizzicato Polka was a rather inconclusive ending: the uproarious final dance (which follows-on almost continuously) would have made for a more decisive conclusion. No matter, this was still an engaging sequence and captivatingly played.

Shostakovich conceived his First Piano Concerto for his own pianism. Influences derive more from stage and screen than any earlier concertos, but its formal ingenuity is undeniable. Anna Vinnitskaya gauged ideally the first movement’s volatile tempo changes, while the Lento had poignancy and no mean vehemence at its climax; the ensuing intermezzo an upbeat to a finale whose high-jinx were teasingly held in check. Jonathan Holland was engaging in the obligato trumpet part, and the CBSO strings retained their articulation even in the hectic closing pages.

Whether or not an explicit response to that condemnatory Pravda article of January 1936, the Fifth Symphony is crucially important for moving the emphasis within Shostakovich’s output away from the theatrical. Nothing reinforces this more than the opening Moderato, with its individual take on sonata design that Gražinytė-Tyla handled with real assurance – keeping the exposition in motion with a fleeter than usual second subject, before eliding seamlessly into a purposeful development then an anguished reprise and desolate coda. The Scherzo had ironic wit without heaviness, whereas the slow movement impressed through its inevitability of progress towards a central episode of rapt inwardness; after which, the searing climax did not pre-empt the coda with its musing interplay of harp and celesta against suspended strings.

The finale offers the greatest challenges but Gražinytė-Tyla had its measure too, her fast yet never inflexible tempo for the surging initial stages segueing into the central episode with its heartfelt recall of earlier ideas then ethereal searching towards a crowning peroration. Neither wantonly triumphal nor turgidly defeatist, this was a thoughtful yet decisive conclusion to the overall emotional trajectory; maybe those searching trumpet dissonances could have sounded even more baleful, though a sense of coming through against the odds was never in doubt.

This was an impressive account of a symphony which has been much harder to interpret once its ultimate ‘message’ became a matter for debate. Gražinytė-Tyla provided no easy answers; instead, her presenting the work as a cohesive and integral whole was its own justification.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Anna Vinnitskaya‘s recording of the Shostakovich with Kremerata Baltica:

Live review – CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru: Copland Symphony 3, Clyne & Szymanowski with Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little (violin) CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 24 February 2019, 3pm

Clyne This Midnight Hour (2015)
Szymanowski Violin Concerto no.1 Op.35 (1916)
Copland Symphony no.3 (1946)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Concerts from the CBSO Youth Orchestra have long been a regular and welcome fixture on the Symphony Hall calendar, with this afternoon’s programme offering a judicious selection such as ranged across almost a century of music by British, Polish and American composers.

Many CBSO Youth Orchestra concerts feature a world or local premiere, and today started with a first Birmingham outing for Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour. Drawing inspiration (albeit obliquely) from poems by Juan Ramon Jiménez and Charles Baudelaire, this compact piece initially alternates between energy and rumination with steadily accumulating impetus. A pity, then, that the second half rather loses focus through an uneasy amalgam of waltz-like flaccidness and folk-inflected juvenilia; the whole seeming rather less than the sum of its parts.

Tasmin Little (above) then joined the orchestra for Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, now firmly established as a repertoire item after many years on the periphery. Not the least fascinating aspect is its formal ambiguity – the continuous span interpretable both as a three-movement form as well as an extended sonata design.

It was a measure of Little’s insight that she elided between these possibilities in a performance which stressed the music’s organic inevitability as much as its heady sensuousness, abetted by Cristian Măcelaru’s attentive handling of an orchestration as by no means ‘plays itself’ in terms of overall balance. This was evident not least in the rapturous main climax – after which, Little vividly despatched the brief cadenza prior to the coda’s poignant recollection then the disarming evaporation of those final bars.

Copland’s Third Symphony is another piece to have garnered regular hearings in recent years – consideration of its being an anomaly in the composer’s output, by dint of its monumental aspirations, having become secondary to the sheer impact invested into its relatively modest (Brahmsian rather than Mahlerian) dimensions. A quality Măcelaru kept in mind throughout what was a cohesive and convincing account – whether in the steadily arching accumulation of tension then release across the first movement, tensile interplay of energy and nonchalance in the scherzo, or the calmly unfolding sequence of variants on a wistful opening theme that is the slow movement. Not the least significant aspect is the degree to which Copland secures thematic consistency across the broader span in the interests of formal and expressive unity.

The CBSO Youth Orchestra responded admirably, not least when being tested to the limit by the music’s polyphonic intricacy and textural density. Gratifying, too, that the best was saved until last – the finale powerfully launched by a paraphrase on Fanfare for the Common Man, before it heads into intensive discussion of the various thematic strands then builds inevitably to a majestic peroration. In Măcelaru’s hands, the latter conveyed affirmation without bathos – as though to confirm that emotional oneness no doubt at the heart of Copland’s conception.

The performance assuredly left its mark on the Symphony Hall audience, which responded with a well-deserved ovation. Next up is a concert by the CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy – for a programme of Weber, Shostakovich and Dvořák – at Town Hall on Sunday 28th July. You can find out more on the orchestra’s website

Further listening

Unfortunately there are no recording of Anna Clyne‘s This Midnight Hour online currently, but you can hear a recording of her orchestral piece Night Ferry on Spotify below:

Meanwhile Tasmin Little‘s recording of both violin concertos by Szymanowski for Chandos Records can be heard here, coupled with a scarcely recorded concerto by Mieczysław Karłowicz:

Finally Copland‘s Symphony no.3 can be heard below in a famous recording where the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

Live review – CBSO with Oliver Janes & Andrew Gourlay: Strauss, Copland & Rachmaninov

Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Thursday 6th April, 2017

Richard Strauss Don Juan Op.20 (1888)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 in A minor Op. 44 (1936)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

An ear infection meant that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla had to withdraw from this concert, which provided a welcome opportunity for Andrew Gourlay (now into his second season as Music Director of the orchestra in Valladolid) to make his debut at Symphony Hall with the CBSO.

A pity the Fourth Suite from the ballet The Golden Key by Mieczysław Weinberg had to be dropped from the programme, but that will hopefully be rescheduled (and if Gražinytė-Tyla could tackle one of this composer’s symphonies as his 2019 centenary approaches, then so much the better). Instead, Gourlay directed an account of Strauss’s Don Juan which, while it rather failed to ignite in the earlier stages, evinced some suitably enticing playing during the amorous central episode and then a rousing culmination prior to those fatalistic closing bars.

Hardly a natural complement to Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, but the latter piece works well in a variety of contexts. It also provided an impressive showcase for Oliver Janes, now into his third season as principal clarinet of this orchestra and a player whose elegant while never unduly soft-grained tone was admirably suited to the first movement, with its limpid backing for strings and harp. Janes tackled the central cadenza with no less security – necessarily so as, in addition to its technical virtuosity, it functions as a formal and expressive ‘bridge’ into the second movement. This latter, substituting piano for harp and focusing on the jazz idioms often to the fore in Copland, was a little too reined-in over much of its course with the final pages failing to lift off, though there was never any doubting Janes’s identity with the piece.

The highlight of the concert came after the interval with a perceptive and involving account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. Although it lags well behind its predecessor in terms of performance, this piece has moved from the periphery of the repertoire as earlier tendencies to dismiss it as a rerun of past glories have yielded to a recognition of just how subtly while effectively it overhauls the composer’s thinking for the inter-war period. Not for nothing was Nikolay Medtner alarmed by what he heard as the ‘modernization’ of Rachmaninov’s idiom.

In terms of textural balance and formal continuity it poses more problems than any other of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works, but Gourlay was never fazed by these potential pitfalls. The unworldly ‘motto’ launching the first movement was hauntingly rendered, and the only error in what followed was the omission of an exposition repeat necessary to balance an extensive development whose crisis-riven denouement was acutely realized here.

Neither did Gourlay misjudge the integration of slow movement and scherzo in what follows – the outcome being a developing variation as seamless as it was affecting. If the finale then unfolded at slightly too relaxed a pace, this enabled Gourlay to characterize detail in as resourcefully orchestrated a movement as Rachmaninov ever penned – with the closing accelerando vividly brought off.

A convincing take, then, on this engaging symphony and a fine marker for Gourlay to have laid down in what should prove an ongoing association with this orchestra. Those unable to attend Saturday’s repeat can hear it being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 18th April.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Shostakovich, Copland & Prokofiev

oberon-draperOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of 20th century music from the superpowers, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 11 June

Shostakovich Festive Overture (1954)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Prokofiev Symphony no.7 (1952)

Cosima Yu (clarinet), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

This evening’s concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra comprised three pieces which complemented each other ideally, especially when their immediacy and accessibility as music tends to offset their frequent technical difficulties – albeit for musicians rather than listeners.

Not least Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written in three days to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, whose tunefulness does not make for ease of ensemble; not that this was an issue when the players were as alert rhythmically in the first theme as surely as they conveyed the suavity of its successor, and the grandeur of its framing fanfares emerging without undue heaviness. That Shostakovich struggled to refocus his music in the post-Stalin era hardly lessens the appeal of this piece when so capably rendered.

The sharp stylistic contrasts in Copland’s output may have been determined more by aesthetic than political considerations, yet here again those pieces written for a wider audience are by no means straightforward to perform. One might have expected a testing solo part in the Clarinet Concerto composed for Benny Goodman, but the high and exposed writing in the first movement hardly makes life easy, and it was a credit to the Oberon musicians that they met the challenge while capturing the Mahlerian plangency of this music. The second movement, with its continual syncopation and recourse to jazz idioms, presents difficulties that were less fully surmounted; which in no way deterred Cosima Yu – her elegant phrasing and rhythmic verve much in evidence through to that final and decidedly Gershwinesque upward glissando.

While it has never been neglected, Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is still too often interpreted at face value. A letter to the ailing composer from Shostakovich soon after the premiere betrays a recognition of deeper and more ambivalent emotion behind the outward naivety (something the latter clearly had in mind when writing his final symphony two decades on), and it was this ambivalence that Samuel Draper brought out most convincingly – not least in an initial Moderato of a formal simplicity concealed by the harmonic subtlety with which Prokofiev navigates its searching and often uneasy course. This was no less true of the ensuing Moderato, a waltz-sequence of ingratiating melodies undercut by a rhythmic assertiveness made manifest during a coda whose forced jollity came ominously to the fore.

The highlight was the Andante – easy to glide over when its themes are so simply and unobtrusively drawn, but here given with  a plaintiveness and regret as disarming as is the piquancy of its scoring (not least the melting harp passage toward its close). While the final Allegro was less convincing, this further instance of ‘easy’ expression allied to its fair share of technical difficulties is far from plain-sailing, and if ensemble was not always precise in the cavorting main sections (or the admittedly uninspiring central episode), the return of the first movement’s ‘big tune’ was finely judged and the coda suffused with acute poignancy.

Draper rightly opted for the quiet ending that Prokofiev had initially intended: no matter if   its final pizzicato was not together – the music’s essential fatalism could hardly be ignored.

The next Oberon concert takes place on 17th September 2015, where the orchestra will play the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ symphony and Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes. Here they are in the Tchaikovsky’s Fifth:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

Keith Emerson

The sad news today is that Keith Emerson, spearhead of the legendary trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, has died aged 71.

The group could be regarded as the original pirates of classical music, taking pieces by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bach, Bartók and – famously – Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition, reworking them affectionately for rock band and a new audience.

By way of tribute, here they are in their most famous arrangement of all, Copland‘s Fanfare for the Common Man:

A full appreciation of Emerson’s achievements, especially with regard to his use of classical music, will follow in due course.