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.

Road Trip

Featured recording: Aurora Orchestra – Road Trip (Warner Classics)
road-trip

In which London’s Aurora Orchestra head for the open prairies of America, sampling folk and pop song in between modern classical music from John Adams, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The folk and pop arrangements are done by Nico Muhly.

What’s the music like?

Very accessible. There are folk tunes arranged by Nico Muhly, who has worked with US bands like Grizzly Bear in the past, as well as establishing himself as a talented composer blending a love of old church music with a tuneful modern style, and the orchestra’s viola player Max Baillie,

The classical pieces are nicely contrasted – from the hectic Chamber Symphony by Adams to the luminous Appalachian Spring, Copland’s ballet. This features American folk tunes in fresh, open-air orchestral scoring, peaking with an arrangement of the song Simple Gifts.

Added to these we have a piece by Ives, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, taken from his Three Places In New England. Ives is incredibly difficult to describe, as he operates with so many different orchestral styles, but there are always tunes – and the slow beginning to this piece brings a tear to the eye.

Does it all work?

By and large, yes. The performances are excellent, expertly marshalled by Nicholas Collon, and are closely recorded to get the intimacy of the Copland in particular. The Adams is brisk and punchy – a good listen while running, no doubt! – and has bags of rhythmic interest. The Ives is unlike anything else, though, packing into its short duration a lifetime’s worth of feeling.

Sam Amidon and Dawn Landes sings the folksongs well but I found Nico Muhly’s orchestrations had too much going on – in part a deliberate tactic from the composer – but the ear was often distracted from the tunes themselves. The subjects are a bit macabre, too – especially The Brown Girl, with its dark tales of death and divorce.

Is it recommended?

Yes, overall. The Aurora Orchestra do these sort of themed presentations very well, and as a starting point for modern American music this can be either self-contained or open out into further exploration of the composers on the disc.

Listen on Spotify