Leif Ove Andsnes records Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures

Leif Ove Andsnes – picture (c) Gregor Hohenber

by Ben Hogwood

We all love a bit of Dvořák, don’t we?

That might be a bit of a sweeping statement – and don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him! – but the 19th-century Czech composer is much loved and admired for his winning way with a melody. His symphonies, concertos, chamber music and increasingly the vocal works are all part of the main body of classical repertoire.

Yet a part of Dvořák’s work is consistently overlooked, and that is his substantial body of piano music, that is hardly ever played. Leif Ove Andsnes, in a new album for Sony Classical, is looking to put that right. This is Dvořák’s Spring Song, taken from the 13-part cycle Poetic Tone Pictures, published in 1889:

The Poetic Tone Pictures are, as Leif explains briefly here, a ‘cycle of many stories’:

Happily we will be discovering much more of this music in the next month, from Leif himself. Stay tuned!

In concert – Nicola Benedetti, CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada: Dvořák, Mendelssohn & Grigorjeva

Dvořák Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1892)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Grigorjeva In Paradisum (2012)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Nicola Benedetti (violin), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 20 September 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been a largely mainstream programme, but tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra drew a capacity house at the beginning of a season in which Kazuki Yamada takes on the reins for what looks an eventful new era near the start of the orchestra’s second century. The CBSO’s response in Dvořák’s Carnival Overture more than confirmed it was ready for the challenge – Yamada ensuring the nocturnal evocation at its centre worked its evocative spell, then building an irresistible momentum going into the thrilling final bars.

Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto cannot have been absent from many of the CBSO’s previous 102 seasons and made its appearance this evening, Nicola Benedetti tackling a piece she must herself have played on many occasions. Not that there was anything routine about a reading such as abounded in subtle touches – especially the opening Allegro’s cadenza, which more than usually fulfilled its role as this movement’s structural fulcrum. In the Andante, Benedetti pointed up the expressive contrast between its main themes; the second of which was notable for a tonal astringency that brought out its plangency in full measure. If there was nothing so arresting in the finale, the interplay of soloist and orchestra was astutely judged through to the effervescence of the closing bars. Certainly, a performance to make one enjoy the piece anew.

Introducing the second half, Yamada requested the audience remain silent during the pause between pieces – the first a setting of In Paradisum by Ukrainian-born Galina Grigorjeva (b 1962), its lucid harmonies and heady culmination bringing the best out of the CBSO Chorus.

From here to the New World Symphony was no great step. Once again, a work rarely absent from the CBSO’s schedule seemed largely revitalized. Not that all of Yamada’s interpretative decisions came off – after an introduction of no mean gravitas the opening Allegro unfolded a little fitfully, though so interventionist an approach might have gained from the exposition repeat to place these in greater context. There were similar touches in the Largo, yet here the focus of Yamada’s conception and the raptness of the player’s concentration were their own justification – not least towards the close, with the front desks combining to poignant effect. Without being driven as ruthlessly as is often the case, the Scherzo has the requisite impetus and, throughout its trio, a whimsical elegance which proved as engaging as the charged coda.

Heading into the final Allegro with minimal pause, Yamada brought out its inherent force but also the ruminative eloquence of its second theme; the transition to which, in the reprise, was ideally judged. Nor did the apotheosis lack for drama as those closing bars melted into silence.

Prior to the start of this concert, a minute’s silence was observed then (most of) the audience joined in possibly its first rendering of God Save the King. A more localized farewell was paid later in the evening to Colin Twigg, first violinist for over 31 years and whose retirement will hopefully see more of his own compositions as have featured in Centre Stage recitals over the years. A miscellany is featured on a Toccata Classics release and worth anyone’s investment. The CBSO will be back in action on Saturday with a major new commission from Brett Dean.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For further information on the night’s artists, click on the names for composer Galina Grigorjeva, and for artists Nicola Benedetti and Kazuki Yamada

Summer heat – Josef Suk’s A Summer’s Tale

by Ben Hogwood

As you will no doubt be aware, this week has seen record breaking temperatures in the UK, which has inspired something of a hot weather classical music sequence.

After works from Debussy and the Danish composer Poul Ruders, I have been reminded of this substantial orchestral piece A Summer’s Tale, by the Czech composer Josef Suk.

Suk, the son-in-law of Antonin Dvořák, has been given greater appreciation in the last few decades for an orchestral output notable for its descriptive and emotional powers. Perhaps his best known work is the tragic symphony Asrael, mourning the loss of both his wife and father-in-law. Operating on a very large scale (lasting 70 minutes in most performances) it is an incredibly powerful work of Mahlerian dimensions. A Summer’s Tale is the work that builds on the hope offered by the end of Asrael, becoming a positive celebration of our sunniest season.

Certainly the first movement, Voices of life and consolation, becomes a heady exultation with full orchestra, a true celebration of nature. The small scale third movement, Blind Musicians, is an account of the composer’s encounter with a small-scale band, playing repetitive folk music – and he sets it for smaller orchestral forces here. Meanwhile the fourth movement, In the Power of Phantoms, is a joyous and almost riotous affirmation. For the fifth movement, Night, Suk employs a sultry nocturne, the music finding rest from the sun but also exploring the richness of the lower strings in a surging chorale episode.

You cab listen to A Summer’s Tale below in a particularly fine version from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras:

In concert – April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mozart, Richard Strauss, Doolittle & Dvořák

Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor K546 (1783, rev 1788)
Richard Strauss (arr. Burke) Morgen! Op.27 no.4 (1894)
Doolittle A Short, Slow Life (2011)
Dvořák (arr. Burke) Rusalka B203 – Song to the Moon (1900)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

April Fredrick (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Great Malvern Priory, Malvern
Wednesday 15 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This latest concert in its current season found the English Symphony Orchestra back at the Priory in Great Malvern in a programme with, at its centre, a contrasting triptych of vocal items from April Fredrick which continued her Affiliate Artist role in impressive fashion.

At its centre was a performance (the UK premiere?) of A Short, Slow Life, Emily Doolittle’s setting of a poem which finds Elizabeth Bishop at her most Dickinson-like with its reflection on growing up in a seeming Arcady latterly undone as much by existential as environmental factors. Enfolding and intricate, its scoring for nine instruments offers an evocative context for the vocal line to emerge from and with which to interact – Fredrick making the most of their dialogue in this winsome and, thanks to Kenneth Woods, finely co-ordinated reading.

Either side came chamber reductions from Tony Burke. In Morgen!, Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay, it was the understatement of Fredrick’s approach that compelled by drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those from half-a-century later. In ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, her unaffected eloquence arguably came through more directly in an arrangement that (rightly) predicated the soloistic nature of the orchestral writing. Technically immaculate, Fredrick’s artistry was itself never less than life-affirming.

Framing this programme came two not unrelated works by Mozart. Written in 1783 when the composer was extending the formal and expressive weight of his music by intensive study of Bach and Handel, this C minor Fugue’s two-piano austerity took on a greater richness when arranged for strings and prefaced by a brief if searching Adagio which throws its successor’s contrapuntal density into greater relief. The ESO duly responded with playing of sustained trenchancy that incidentally reminded one no less than Beethoven took its example to heart.

Having given perceptive accounts of Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies earlier this season, it made sense that Woods and the ESO to include the 39th as opens what increasingly seems a symphonic triptych in design and intent. This performance was no less idiomatic – the first movement’s introductory Adagio imposing yet flexible so that its ‘heroic’ quality with those wrenching harmonies was never in doubt, the main Allegro building up tangible momentum through a tensile development then an even briefer coda decisive in its impetus and sweep.

Even more than its successors, the Andante is the heart of the work – among the most striking instances of that ineffable pathos Mozart made his own. Inward while with no lack of forward motion, it made a telling foil to the Menuetto with its bracing outer sections and a trio which featured a delectable expressive pause prior to a last hearing of the clarinet’s amiable melody. Nor was there any lack of wit in the scintillating finale, the repeat of its second half necessary for one of Mozart’s rare incursions into the ‘false ending’ beloved of Haydn to leave its mark. A fine conclusion, then, to another worthwhile concert by the ESO which returns early next month for a very different, all-American programme that includes a rare outing for the full-length version (including the ‘hurricane’ episode) of Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring.

For further information on April Fredrick, click here, and for more on Emily Doolittle click here. To find out more about the artists, click on the names for more Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

Spring sunshine from Dvořák

It is a beautiful spring day outside Arcana’s ‘head office’ today…so to celebrate, one of Dvořák‘s sunniest symphonies is on the playlist. Here is a performance given by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck, in celebration of the green season: