Live review – Renaud Capuçon, CBSO / Anja Bihlmaier: Dvořák, Ravel, Chausson & Bizet

Renaud Capuçon (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Anja Bihlmaier

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 30 October 2019 (2.15pm)

Bizet arr. Hoffman Carmen Suite no.2 (1887)
Chausson Poeme Op.25 (1896)
Ravel Tzigane (1924)
Dvořák Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (1885)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brought a welcome appearance from German conductor Anja Bihlmaier, presiding over an unlikely yet appealing programme as juxtaposed French and Russian music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bizet‘s Carmen has maintained its hold on the operatic repertoire such that individual items are seldom encountered in concert other than as encores. As arranged by Fritz Hoffmann, this Second Suite astutely alternates entr’actes with vocal numbers. Thus the purposeful Marche des contrebandiers (akin to an offcut from Elgar’s Wand of Youth) precedes the smouldering Habanera, then a Nocturne which is Micaela’s third act aria with its vocal line transferred to violin and soulfully rendered by guest leader Tamas Kocsis. That of the evergreen Chanson du toreador is similarly heard on trumpet, which instrument is duly partnered by flutes in the infectious La garde montante, before wind instruments variously come to the fore during the Danse boheme which rounded off the present selection in appropriately exhilarating fashion.

Renaud Capuçon then joined the orchestra for an unlikely coupling of concertante pieces that is highly effective in concert. It may have been inspired by a Turgenev story, but Chausson‘s Poème is an autonomous entity whose rhapsodic impulses are balanced by formal rigour and an organic evolution as elides between the introspective and ecstatic – a trajectory conveyed with due eloquence by Capuçon, his fastidious tonal shading deftly reinforced by Bihlmaier’s nuanced direction. What is so often an elusive work left a powerful and enduring impression.

As, albeit in its rather more demonstrative way, did Ravel‘s Tzigane. Effectively the result of a bet with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi that this composer could come up with a rhapsody inspired by Hungarian gypsy music, the piece wears its Lisztian antecedents lightly while pointing the way toward the similarly conceived rhapsodies of Bartók. Capuçon teased out the high-drama of its unaccompanied initial section, then – with harpist Alma Klemm – made a breath-taking transition into its heady medley of gypsy-inflected themes prior to the rousing final flourish.

After the interval, Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony came almost as a corrective in its seriousness of purpose and powerful formal logic. Bihlmaier directed a performance as left no doubt as to such qualities, at its best in a thoughtful while never staid account of the slow movement – its brief yet elated climax ideally judged – then a scherzo whose underlying furiant rhythm was suffused with Brahmsian trenchancy (one reason this piece displeased the anti-Dvořák faction decades hence). Not that there was much lacking with the outer movements, though the coda of the initial Allegro was a little too deadpan for its ominousness fully to register, and that of the finale felt too reined-in emotionally; those granitic cadential chords marginally failing to clinch what is surely the most fatalistic of any major-key ending in the symphonic repertoire.

Even so, this was a finely realized account of a work as can all too often misfire. Bihlmaier will hopefully return before long: next week, the CBSO’s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada directs a performance of Mendelssohn‘s Elijah, premiered in this city 173 years ago.

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos, Vienna Philharmonic & Andrés Orozco-Estrada – Dvořák & Korngold

Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Dvořák The Noonday Witch Op.108 (1896)
Korngold Violin Concerto (1945)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From The New World’ (1893)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 4 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

If ever a piece of music could depict the passing of summer, Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Noonday Witch would make a good choice. Introduced to the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in its year of composition, 1896, it raised the curtain for the second Prom of the season from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

There was charm aplenty in the opening pages of this late work, the mother and young son going about their domestic business with a sense of blissful routine, but as the witch of Karol Jaromir Erben’s folk tale appeared the mood grew decidedly chilly. Strings turned icy, woodwind soured and the brass sounded warning notes, telling us how everything was about to go very wrong indeed. The Viennese would not have been too familiar with this music, but it showed in a good way as Andrés Orozco-Estrada secured an insightful performance, the darker hues of the story coming to the fore with descriptive power.

The sun reappeared from behind the cloud for Korngold’s Violin Concerto, soloist Leonidas Kavakos taking us to the heights. The concerto begins with one of the composer’s top-drawer themes. Full of big screen occasion but tender enough to melt the heart, it reaches for a perfect melodic interval and deliberately falls just short, tugging at the heartstrings. That sense of yearning powers the first movement, in which the orchestra were a smooth partner for the ardent violinist. Kavakos possesses a sumptuous tone, even at quiet dynamics, though on occasion when he reached for the highest notes his tuning was just awry.

The second movement glittered with its Hollywood scoring, beautifully rendered by Orozco-Estrada, while Kavakos effortlessly hit the sweet spot with his part without cloying. The finale crackled with energy in response, the to and fro with the orchestra brilliantly judged and executed, before signing off with aplomb. In a daring encore Kavakos gave us Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Tárrega’s most famous guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, performed with an admirable lack of fuss given the considerable physical challenges behind the scenes. Kavakos really is the swan of the violin, channelling the physicality of his playing into the most natural of styles.

After the interval, a fresh set of clothes for Dvořák’s beloved Symphony no.9, From The New World. It is easy to forget just how many good original tunes this symphony holds, the composer spoilt for choice as he moulds, develops and interweaves them. One of the first symphonies to make such prominent use of the pentatonic scale, it is a continued delight when presented to the audience fresh, and the lightness of touch often experienced here gave room to the melodies themselves.

The Largo was the undisputed highlight. Aided by a wonderful cor anglais solo from Wolfgang Plank, it was slightly faster but still found the time to breathe with its phrasing, pausing where necessary, and in the magical coda allowing the solo strings to come to the fore.

The first movement may have lacked a little drama but Orozco-Estrada was clearly enjoying the interplay between his outstanding wind section and the equally capable strings. Having recorded the piece with an American orchestra, the Houston Symphony, he knows the piece well enough to impose sensible phrasing and an attractive give and take on the tempo.

The third movement Scherzo was feather-light in its outer exchanges before the finale took the performance up a level, its first statements probing deeper and the unexpected discords near the end making themselves known, examples of Dvorak’s underappreciated daring with harmony.

After a rapturous curtain call we were given a Viennese encore in the shape of Josef Strauss’s Ohne Sorgen Polka-Schnell Op.271, where orchestra and audience enjoyed a call and response shout. It was slightly out of place with the concert’s mood but judging by the lasting smiles it left Orozco-Estrada had made the right call once again.

Prom 1 – BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Karina Canellakis – Janáček Glagolitic Mass, Dvořák & Zosha Di Castri


Prom 1: Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnson (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass), Peter Holder (organ), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (above)

Di Castri Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (2019) (BBC commission: World premiere)
Dvořák The Golden Spinning Wheel Op.109 (1896)
Janáček Glagolitic Mass (Final version, 1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 19 July 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Sounds app here

In its including of a female conductor, a premiere alluding to the 50th anniversary of the first moon-landing and a Henry Wood ‘novelty’, the First Night of this year’s Proms encapsulated the season in almost all essentials while making for an engaging programme in its own right.

The premiere was that of Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory from Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri. Now in her early thirties, Di Castri has achieved recognition for the arresting timbres and textures of her music and there was no doubt as to the scintillating sonorities she drew from the orchestra in what, loosely defined, was a cantata where changing conceptions of the Moon were articulated through a text drawn centred on the musings of Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Guo alongside fragments by Sappho and Giacomo Leopardi. A pity, then, that the composer’s rather moribund word-setting and vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic meant the emotional affect of this text went for relatively little, for all the orchestral component was often spellbinding in its evoking the immensity yet also intimacy of space above and beyond.

Certainly the BBC Singers projected its contribution with audible assurance, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded ably to the astute direction of Karina Canellakis both here and in a rare revival of Dvořák‘s symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel. Third of his four late such pieces drawing on the folk-ballads of Jaromir Erben, this is usually heard in the abbreviated version prepared by Josef Suk but tonight brought the full-length original with Erben’s poem set line by line in an uncanny musical embodiment of the text. That said, its sheer repetition of motifs and themes can prove excessive and while Canellakis had the measure of the work’s evocative aspect, she was less successful when trying to infuse the sprawling structure with any cumulative impetus such that the rousing final peroration seemed all too long in arriving.

There could not be a piece less given to longeurs than Janáček‘s Glagolitic Mass, first heard in the UK almost nine decades ago but not at these concerts until 1972. Recent hearings have opted for the conjectural urtext whose sometimes reckless audacity its composer toned down before the premiere, but this evening reinstated the final version that Canellakis directed with verve and sensitivity, if lacking a degree of fervency which turns a fine performance into an indelible embodiment of that pantheist spirituality central to the music of Janáček’s maturity.

Not that there was much to fault in the singing, with Asmik Grigorian more than equal to the demanding tessitura of the soprano part and Ladislav Elgr hardly less attuned to the stentorian tenor role. Jennifer Johnson was a mezzo of no mean eloquence, while bass Jan Martiník was only marginally too impassive. Peter Holder duly put the Albert Hall organ through its paces in an incisive and ultimately thunderous organ solo – after which, it was hardly the BBCSO’s fault if the final Intrada sounded a little underwhelming as its rhythmic elan was undoubted.

Throughout this account, the contributions of both orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus left little to be desired. Hard to believe the intricacies of Janacek’s writing were once put down to technical inadequacy. In that respect, as with space exploration, progress has been absolute.

Wigmore Mondays – Juilliard Quartet play Lembit Beecher & Dvořák ‘American’ string quartets

Juilliard String Quartet: Areta Zhulla, Ronald Copes (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Astrid Schween (cello) (photo: Claudia Papapietro)

Lembit Beecher One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time (2018) (2:25-23:52 on the link to BBC Sounds below)
Dvořák String Quartet in F major Op.96 ‘American’ (1893) (26:42-54:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 14 January 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The Juilliard String Quartet are a very different proposition now to when they were formed in 1946. In the analogue recording years string quartets were almost wholly formed of white male players, and it has been very satisfying to see the trend broadening in the last couple of decades. The Juilliards themselves appear to have hit on a perfect blend of youth and experience, with first violinist Areta Zhulla joining their ranks for the 2018/19 season. On this evidence it has given them a real shot in the arm, helped by their willingness to bring with them a new work from Lembit Beecher. This gave their Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert a symmetrical feel, for Beecher’s new work for string quartet draws from Europe and more specifically Estonia – while Dvořák’s most celebrated ‘American’ String Quartet finds him writing in America but using a melodic style common to both the USA and the Czech Republic.

Beecher first, and the European premiere of One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time. The intriguing title takes as its lead an Estonian melody, a waltz written by Beecher’s grand uncle Ilmar Kiiss, now in his mid-90s. This meaningful piece of music puts its head above the parapet in the first two of the three movements making up the quartet, before fully revealing itself in the third. The movements themselves represent different generations and their telling of the same story, which becomes less detailed as one generation passes to the next. As a result the first contains more definitive incidents, the second is more shadowy and less focussed in detail but poignant in mood, and the third, while recalling the attractive waltz in charming detail, is slower in its movements.

In concert this is a very effective piece of music not just to listen to but to watch. The busy conversations of the first movement (2:25 on the broadcast link) feel as though Beecher had set words to music, removing them just before performance, and making the first violin the loudest voice. This reaches a natural apex through Zhulla’s faultless higher register playing (from 5:10), before subsiding in volume and intensity, to some unusually emotional figures around 7:15 that simply dies on the string.

The second movement (from 11:51) uses subtle but effective techniques such as harmonics to create the shadowy effects, while from 14:51 a sudden injection of pace and volume gets an excitable conversation going again. The tender waltz theme would seem to be from 16:58 on the viola, before the violin ascends to the heights.

The third movement (from 18:39) has mottled textures and a slight lethargy, as though the memories are more difficult to place. Again the violin’s voice is loudest, but the shady movements of the others and the closing tremolos (from around 22:25) give a fragile and autumnal air to proceedings. All these elements were superbly marshalled in performance by the Juilliard Quartet, and made you want to hear more of Beecher’s music.

The Juilliard’s performance of the Dvořák, meanwhile, was a joy. This much-played work – one of the most popular string quartets there is, together with the Debussy and the Ravel works – rediscovers its freshness here. This is thanks in part to Zhulla’s clear affection for the piece. After Roger Tapping’s viola gives a silvery exposition of the first tune, she leads with a beautiful tone once again (26:57), enjoying the outdoor nature of the pentatonic melodies – which, as Gerald Larner’s programme note helpfully point out, seem to be equal parts Bohemia and Iowa. (The pentatonic scale, as its name implies, is made up of just five notes – in this case F (the home key), G, A, C and D). Although Dvořák was on a lengthy vacation when he wrote the string quartet, and was doubtless influenced by the melodies he heard in America, there is never the feeling that his Czech heritage is far away. The sentimental second theme (28:21) bears this out.

Meanwhile Zhulla and cellist Astrid Schween capture the bittersweet main melody of the slow movement to perfection (37:18) and (38:03), the rocking motion of its accompaniment acting as a lullaby. The ensemble enjoys the scampering figures of the Scherzo (44:47) before a brief Trio section (46:58) brings forward what the composer believed to be the song of the scarlet tanager in the first violin. The Scherzo resumes shortly after at 47:44.

The finale (48:52) is bold and positive in this performance, the quartet enjoying the abundance of tunes available to them – most of them taking in the pentatonic scale once again, with a rustic, outdoor feel.

With the bonus of a Haydn encore in the same key and mood (the Minuet from his Op.77/2 quartet at 56:06), this was the ideal January concert, an inspiring and optimistic pairing of works that celebrate the diversity of culture but also look at the heritage of each and bring them together. A lesson for the future in this country, perhaps?

Further Listening

Lembit Beecher’s One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time is not currently available online; however you can listen below to his previous work for string quartet, Small Infinities:

The Juilliard String Quartet recorded Dvořák’s American string quartet all the way back in 1968 – yet that version does not appear to have yet reached Spotify. The below link is to a recent disc from the Škampa Quartet, coupling the quartet with the String Quintet in E flat major published immediately after. It is similarly free-spirited:

Further Reading

Lembit Beecher’s composer website contains detailed information on his output, with a healthy dose of videos and audio tracks. Meanwhile you can read more about the Juilliard String Quartet at their website. For a biography of Antonin Dvořák, this dedicated site to the composer is recommended.

Wigmore Mondays – Carducci Quartet play Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt & Dvořák

Carducci Quartet (above, © Andy Holdsworth) (Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), Emma Denton (cello)

Philip Glass String Quartet no.3, Mishima (1985)

Arvo Pärt Summa (1992)

Dvořák String Quartet in F major, Op.96 American (1893)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert presenting Dvořák’s American String Quartet in a very different context to the one we normally see. The Carducci Quartet approached this lovely, tuneful work from the direction of Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, and their different takes on minimalism. By doing this we got to compare the way each composer works and how they write for string quartet, and then had a chance to enjoy the way Dvořák repeats a lot of the themes in his own piece.

Philip Glass first, and his String Quartet no.3, written as part of his music for Paul Schrader’s film about Yukio Mishima. Some of the soundtrack has music for full orchestra but the string quartet are used for childhood flashbacks, and form an intriguing and character-building whole.

Glass took the five such movements and made them into a string quartet, in music of unexpected tenderness and sensitivity. That said, the first movement, 1957: Award montage, feels like a smaller string orchestra given the full bodied scoring (from 1:28 on the broadcast) November 25: Ichigaya (5:59) is a slow, reflective passage that sounds uncannily like the slow movement of the Dvořák to come. Grandmother and Kimitake (from 7:39) is a forceful, sharply defined piece of writing, brilliantly played here, while 1962: Body building (10:58) starts slower, using the mid to lower ranges of the quartet, before picking up again. Blood oath (12:49) has furtive arpeggios that gather power, while Mishima – Closing (16:13) is warmly reflective of what has gone before.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become one of the most popular living composers. His musical style draws from his experience of chant music and bells, and is referred to as ‘tintinnabuli’, drawing from the Latin for bell. One of the first works to use this approach was Summa, written for string orchestra but equally at home in its string quartet setting (from 22:00). Its five minutes pass in blissful simplicity.

And so to the American Quartet (28:04), the perfect piece for a summer’s day. The Carducci immediately find the warmth of Dvořák’s tunes, which may have been written in America but are full of longing for his home country of Czechoslovakia. Most of them use a ‘pentatonic’ scale, which is a scale with five notes rather than the octave’s eight (explained here

The first movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo (meaning fast but not too fast, from 28:04) is full of the fresh outdoors and has some very hummable tunes. Contrasting the mood a little is the Lento slow movement (from 35:23), which gives more prominence to the cello for its gorgeous slow theme. It is sensitively played here by Emma Denton, especially when it returns at 41:13.

The third movement, marked Molto vivace (lively) is quite mischievous (from 42:47) and a little slower than quartets tend to take it in this performance. The sunny outlook remains, the quartet really enjoying themselves – though there are shadows in the central section. The finale (from 47:02) is marked Vivace ma non troppo (lively but not too fast), and zips along with yet more melodic inspiration. The Carduccis give this an ideal performance, thoroughly enjoying the lively and rustic melodies.

Further listening

The works in this concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

If you want to hear more Glass then the Carducci have recorded his other quartets, and they are softly hypnotic:

Meanwhile a very appealing two-disc collection by the Chilingirian Quartet puts Arvo Pärt’s Summa in context with works by his contemporary John Tavener: