In concert – Jonathan Martindale, CBSO / Michael Seal: Summer Classics

michael-seal

Jonathan Martindale (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Dvořák Carnival Op.92 (1891)
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending (1914/20)
Elgar
Chanson de matin Op.15/2 (1889)
Grieg
Peer Gynt Suite no.1 Op.46 (1875/88) – no.1, Morning; no.4, In the Hall of the Mountain King
Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Vivaldi
The Four Seasons Op.8 (1718/20) – no.2 in G minor RV315 ‘Summer’
Price
Symphony no.1 in E minor (1931-2) – Juba Dance
Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker Op.71 (1892) – Waltz of the Flowers

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 2 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Jonathan Martindale courtesy of Upstream Photography

The penultimate event in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season, this afternoon’s Summer Classics featured a wide-ranging selection of pieces that between them spanned over two centuries, and whose ‘feel good’ factor at no time precluded stylish or committed playing.

With longstanding associate director Michael Seal at the helm, the orchestra made the most of Dvořák’s effervescent Carnival overture; the alluring pathos of its central interlude accorded due emphasis, and with some eloquent woodwind solos. Its popularity during recent years has made Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending a regular inclusion in such programmes, and Jonathan Martindale (below, who also led the concert) gave a thoughtful while never flaccid reading – most perceptive in the middle section with its folk-like whimsy and fanciful evocations of birdsong. The CBSO responded with limpid dexterity, the whole performance a reminder that this work is best tackled as a concertante piece and by a player (recalling such as Hugh Bean, Iona Brown and, more recently, Richard Tognetti) who knows the orchestra from the inside.

Next came an ingratiating take on Elgar evergreen Chanson de matin, then excerpts from the First Suite of Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt – a rapturous Morning and stealthy In the Hall of the Mountain King skirting headlong terror at the close. Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream made for an unlikely but effective centrepiece – the highlight being those fugitive imaginings towards its centre, along with the disarming eloquence of its final bars where the teenage composer conjures a fulfilment he was only rarely to recapture.

The Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons again saw Martindale as soloist in an account that lacked little of that rhythmic vitality his contemporaries (notably Bach) seized on with alacrity; nor was there any absence of poise in its atmospheric second movement. One who has come in from the cold partly through the recovery of her manuscripts, Chicago-based Florence Price broke with convention by introducing the Juba Dance into her symphonies in lieu of a scherzo; the CBSO responding in full measure to its rhythmic verve. A winning harp solo from Katherine Thomas launched Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and ended the main programme in fine style – Seal and the CBSO acknowledging the applause with the final ‘galop’ from Rossini’s William Tell overture as a dashing encore.

Throughout the concert, film expert Andrew Collins interspersed proceedings with his remarks and recollections (not least on that seminal 1970s supergroup The Wombles). The music itself was accompanied by varying shades and colours of lighting, but these rarely seemed intrusive – not least compared to the garish ‘Moulin Rouge’ effects routinely encountered nowadays at the Proms. Certainly, anyone in the process of getting the know just what classical music was all about, and those merely in search of a pleasurable afternoon’s listening, were well served.

Next Wednesday brings the last in this current series of concerts, the CBSO being conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (who is replacing an ‘unable to travel’ Edward Gardner) in an enticing programme of Judith Weir, Prokofiev (with the violinist Alina Ibragimova) and Beethoven.

You can find information on the final concert in the CBSO’s season at their website. For more information on composer Florence Price, click here

In concert – Alban Gerhardt, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Straight from the Heart

kazuki-yamada

Alban Gerhardt (cello, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Anderson Litanies (2018-19) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK premiere]
Dvořák Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (1884-5)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 30 June 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Alban Gerhardt courtesy of Kaupo Kikkias

Losing the greater part of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s schedule across the past two seasons has meant postponing many of its ‘Centenary Commissions’, but of those which have been rescheduled, none was more keenly anticipated than that of Julian Anderson’s Litanies.

Anderson produced four works during his tenure as the CBSO’s Composer-in-Residence over 2001-5, this new piece renewing its formal and expressive archetypes by fresh and intriguing means. The first of three continuous sections presents cello and orchestra – its modest forces including double wind, harp and piano, their pitches modified by a quarter-tone – as sparring partners in propulsive, toccata-like music. This gradually mutates into a central slow section, whose fraught lyricism intensifies (with unexpected if effective assistance from the orchestra) towards a chorale in memory of Oliver Knussen. From here an increasingly animated cadenza leads to a capricious, dance-like final section that culminates in a splenetic orchestral outburst; the soloist then resuming for a soulful postlude which brings about a calmly equivocal close.

Alban Gerhardt (below) made the most of some finely gauged technical challenges, as he overcame passing vagaries of sound-balance (and what appeared to be a leg injury) to give a confident realization of a piece already heard in Paris, Örebro and Lausanne. The CBSO was no less assured under Kazuki Yamada; if balance between strings and wind occasionally lost focus (second violins placed further to the rear of the platform than would normally be the case), this did little to offset the attractions of a notable addition to the contemporary repertoire.

During a break for platform rearrangement, the CBSO’s Principal Guest Conductor spoke of his gratitude that audiences were again able to attend live concerts. Something of this evident pleasure came through the ensuing performance of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony – not least an opening Allegro that, despite a few tentative string entries, undoubtedly had the measure of its stoic defiance and underlying seriousness of purpose. Best was a coda whose dramatic initial stages subsided effortlessly and inevitably into sombre rumination towards the close.

The highlight, however, was a slow movement whose Poco adagio marking was studiously observed – Yamada infusing the emotional ebb and flow of a movement whose formal follow -through can seem fitful with unfailing poise, the CBSO wind eloquent in their contribution. Nor was anything amiss in the Scherzo, its ‘furiant’ rhythm audible not just in the trenchant outer sections but also the trio where its simmering presence ensured no let-up in tension on route to a subtly modified reprise then explosive coda. The final Allegro capped the reading accordingly – Yamada never rushing its stealthy alternation between starkness and lyricism, while ably negotiating several testing changes in tempo as the composer ratchets up tension going into an apotheosis whose inherent fatalism was enhanced by the resplendent playing.

A gripping performance, then, as was met with a suitably enthusiastic response. The CBSO is back this Friday with altogether lighter fare for a programme of Summer Classics (including The Lark Ascending), which is conducted by Michael Seal and presented by Andrew Collins.

You can find information on the CBSO’s Summer Classics concert at their website. For more information on composer Julian Anderson, click here – and for more on cellist Alban Gerhardt, visit his website here

Playlist – Sound of Mind 6: Celebrating mothers

Today is a celebration of mothers.

My own mother Coralie passed on five years ago, but this is a chance to celebrate her musical influence (which I did in written form here)

Here is a selection of her own favourite music, from Mozart‘s Clarinet Quintet – which she studied at college – through to Sibelius, Spanish guitar music, which she had a real fondness for, and Sir Peter Maxwell DaviesFarewell to Stromness.

I’m sure you’ll agree there is music here to match the blue skies today brings here in the UK – and it offers a chance to celebrate our mothers, too. Happy listening.

Ben Hogwood

Playlist – Sound of Mind 3: Orchestral

Today’s playlist of music for the mind has an orchestral theme, which will hopefully bring you some colour if you’re stuck indoors.

This one features Aaron Copland‘s brightly-scored ballet music Appalachian Spring, the first movement of Rachmaninov‘s Second Piano Concerto, Elgar‘s Sospiri, shorter works by Grieg and Debussy, and Vaughan Williams‘ timeless Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis:

I hope you enjoy it – and stay tuned for some uplifting Friday vibes tomorrow!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Daniel Müller-Schott & Annika Treutler: Dvořák, Webern & Franck

Daniel Müller-Schott (cello, above), Annika Treutler (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 17 February 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

There is so much original music for cello and piano dating from the 19th century that there is a danger of feeling short changed in a concert when presented with music arranged from a different instrument. Yet such was the conviction with which Daniel Müller-Schott and Annike Treutler played these pieces that it was possible to forget those thoughts and enjoy the music, pure and simple.

It also showed just how flexible some of the original music is. Dvořák’s 4 Romantic Pieces began as works for string quartet but their songful nature gives them just as much expression in their better known arrangement for violin and piano, and then in Müller-Schott’s own arrangement here. The first piece, a Cavatina, is a lyrical treat (2:36), while the second has a comparatively stern expression (5:44), ending with imaginative use of harmonics from the cellist. The third and most lyrical of the four pieces (8:28) returns to the same key as the first, and is ideally suited to the cello’s range, while the fourth and longest piece (10:51) is more thoughtful and affecting.

It usually takes longer to write about Webern’s music than it does to perform – which is again the case here. Yet such is the compressed intensity of his writing that the Drei Kleine Stücke will have stuck in people’s memories, despite lasting less than 5 minutes. Webern wrote the three pieces at a particularly fraught time in 1914, and Daniel Müller-Schott’s probing tone communicates their strength of feeling. As did Annika Treutler’s timely interventions, lingering on the mysterious chords of the first (from 19:06) signing off the second piece abruptly (20:15) and then the two savouring the ghostly sonorities of the slow, stretched out notes of the third piece (20:42).

The Violin Sonata in A major is one of César Franck’s most enduring works. Brimming with good tunes, it has an air of spring about it, and its abundance of good feeling makes it a very popular concert piece – as it surely was in its first performance, at the wedding of legendary Belgian violinist and composer Ysaÿe. Although originally written for violin and piano Franck was fully aware of the potential of a version for cello, and specified it could be played as such. This was eventually realised with the help of French cellist Jules Delsart.

Because most of the melodies are an octave lower in pitch it means the sonata does not have quite such a sunny outlook in its cello arrangement – but it does bring out the red blooded Romanticism of the stormy second movement.

Before that, Müller-Schott and Treutler delight in the dreamy first movement, threading Franck’s thematic ideas together beautifully (from 24:11). The second movement, the most effective in the arrangement, powers forward with impressive momentum (30:15), the music flowing freely as Müller-Schott’s probing tone and intonation shine through. At the same time Treutler proves the ideal anchor, the two judging the tempo just right.

The third movement is a freeform recitative for cello with subtly voiced thoughts for the piano (38:22), and the pair’s instinctive feel for the music gives it just the right amount of room to breathe. The finale (46:17) is a masterful bit of writing, a canon where the cello part shadows the piano at a close distance almost constantly. There is little more to say here than simply to enjoy the music and Franck’s powers of invention in an ideal performance!

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Dvořák, arr Müller-Schott 4 Romantic Pieces Op.75 (1887) (2:36)
Webern Drei Kleine Stücke Op.11 (1914) (19:06)
Franck, arr. Desart Sonata in A major (1886) (24:11)

As an encore we had a nicely chosen Schumann treat, the first of 3 Fantasiestücke Op.73 (54:04). Like the Dvořák and Franck before it, this is a piece whose songful nature means it can be arranged for any number of instruments. The cello does just fine here though!

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, most of it recorded by Müller-Schott himself:

Beyond the Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet, very little of César Franck’s chamber music gets a regular airing. This playlist adds the String Quartet and Trio Concertant no.1, two substantial and major works that show off once again Franck’s talent for recycling and developing melodies:

On a very different tip are Webern’s works for chamber forces. Never one to overstay his welcome, he did nonetheless contribute some remarkable works in the smaller form, among them the Concerto for 9 instruments and four distilled pieces for violin and piano. They are included here as part of a disc that begins with the famous Symphony:

As well as writing large scale chamber works, Dvořák was able to put together much shorter pieces for the salon and light entertainment. The Cypresses for string quartet fall into this category, essentially working as songs without words: