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:

Playlist – Spring Serenades

To celebrate the month of May, and what should in theory be a passage of warmer weather (!), Arcana is celebrating the art of the Serenade in a playlist.

Serenades have been a form in classical music for a good 250 years now, elevated to a higher form by Mozart but also perfected by 19th century composers such as Tchaikovksy, Dvorak and Brahms.

This playlist chooses selections from some of the best, venturing into the 20th century for examples by Elgar, Britten and Swedish composer Dag Wirén, while drawing on wonderful ‘drawing room’ music from the 18th century by composers including Mozart, Beethoven and Hummel.

Find a quiet hour if you can, and enjoy…

In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Dvořák 8th symphony & Janáček Glagolitic Mass

220316_London_Barbican 2_WebRes_007_(c)_Petr Kadlec

Dvořák Symphony no.8 in G major Op.88 (1891)
Janáček Glagolitic Mass (1928 version)

Evelina Dobračeva (soprano), Lucie Hislcherová (alto), Aleš Briscein (tenor), Boris Prýgl (bass), Daniela Valtová Kosinová (organ), CBSO Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London
Wednesday 16 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood Photo credits Petr Kadlec

To hear the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra play Dvořák is surely one of classical music’s great pleasures. It was Dvořák who conducted them in their first ever concert, and for the second instalment of their Barbican visit Semyon Bychkov chose to programme his Symphony no.8, a work surely written with the spring season in mind.

The Eighth gets a slightly raw deal, sandwiched in Dvořák’s published output between the critically acclaimed Seventh and the ubiquitous Ninth, the New World. This is a shame because the joyous melodies and persuasive dance rhythms are a celebration of life itself, the composer glorying in the outdoor spaces of the Bohemian countryside. Melodic invention abounds throughout the four movements, and this performance gave room to the delightful swagger of the outdoor tunes, while retaining an elegant, almost Schubertian profile. Perhaps unexpectedly there were also pointers towards early Sibelius, the vivid natural scenes laden with intensity and fulsome orchestration.

The Czech Philharmonic wind section were the stars of this performance, with a sunny flute in the opening pages and some outstanding clarinet playing in the Adagio. Not to be outdone, the strings offered a cushion of sound as springy as the forest floor itself, while bright trumpets energised the fanfare at the start of the finale. The elegance of the cellos’ theme at the start of the first movement and the violins’ graceful way with the Intermezzo were two of many memorable moments from the strings. Bychkov judged the work’s profile to perfection, and there were many smiles among orchestra and audience alike as each new melody made itself known.

A very different mood prevailed for the second half, where celebration came at a cost. Janáček‘s Glagolitic Mass remains a work of extraordinary intensity, stretching its performers to the limits of their range and veering wildly between adulation and strife.

The CBSO Chorus were on heroic form throughout. Superbly marshalled and prepared by chorus director Simon Halsey, organist Julian Wilkins and conductor / pianist Lada Valesova, they sang as one, nailing the tricky ‘Old Church Slavonic’ pronunciations with apparent ease – in particular the distinctive ‘Amin, amin’ refrain of the Gloria. The Credo, the beating heart of this piece, had a white-hot intensity while leaving room for interpretation on the composer’s own religious feelings. By contrast the miraculous chord on which the Agnus Dei often hangs was truly celestial, ideally voiced and weighted. Its introduction was chilling indeed, strings and brass icy to the touch.

The Glagolitic Mass is a tough gig for its four vocal soloists, who have little room in which to make an impact, but the quartet here largely caught its operatic dimensions. If soprano Evelina Dobračeva seemed a little withdrawn initially she soon found her footing. Tenor Aleš Briscein, the highest of high priests, was commendably secure in his intonation but appropriately edgy as Janáček’s writing pushed the limits of the vocal range. Boris Prýgl offered fulsome support as bass soloist, as did alto Lucie Hislcherová in her brief appearance. Organist Daniela Valtová Kosinová, on the other hand, made the most of her instrument’s crucial role, launching into a Postludium of fearsome strength and wildly irregular rhythm. The instrument was well balanced through the Barbican speaker system, Kosinová’s feet a whirl as they kept up with Janáček’s demanding bass part, before those two damning final chords of the crucifixion. Bychkov encouraged the feverish violins through an Intrada that, while ultimately triumphant, only heightened the searing intensity of what had gone before.

Both these national statements felt so appropriate for the times, celebrating freedom of movement but also the power – and cost – of faith. As with the first night performances Bychkov eloquently dedicated the music to the people of Ukraine, before a performance of the country’s national anthem. It is hard to think of two more appropriate or contrasting accounts, and the Czech Philharmonic and their principal conductor deserve the utmost credit for two nights of unrivalled artistic brilliance.

You can listen to the repertoire in this concert by using the Spotify playlist below, which includes the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra‘s recent recordings of both works for Decca, made under their previous and sadly missed principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek:

In concert – Laura van der Heijden & Jâms Coleman @ Wigmore Hall – Pohádka: Tales from Prague to Budapest

Laura van der Heijden (cello), Jâms Coleman (piano)

Janáček Pohádka (1910, rev. 1912-23)
Dvořák Gypsy Songs Op. 55: Songs my mother taught me (1880)
Kaprálová Navždy from Navždy Op. 12 (1936-7)
Mihály Movement for cello and piano (1962)
Kodály 3 Songs to Poems by Bela Balazs Op. posth.: Why are you saying that you do not love me (1907-9); Énekszó Op. 1: Slender is a silk thread (1907-9)
Sonatina for cello and piano (1909)
Janáček Violin Sonata (1914-15, rev.1916-22)

Wigmore Hall, London, 9 March 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood Pictures (c) Olivia Da Costa (Laura van der Heijden), Sim Canetty-Clarke (Jâms Coleman)

It bears repeating that times are tough for new artists in music. Competition is fierce, while opportunities for live performance and recording have been severely hampered over the last two years of lockdown and pandemic restrictions. How refreshing, then, to talk about two new artists, a long term agreement with Chandos and a chamber music album notable for its originality and depth of expression.

The new artists, cellist Laura van der Heijden and her musical partner, pianist Jâms Coleman, have been performing together since 2017. Their debut album, for which this concert was an official launch, looks at music from Central and Eastern Europe with its roots in folk, either written directly for cello and piano or falling naturally into a vocal range.

The album shares its title, Pohádka, with a three-part fairy tale for cello and piano by Janáček, based on a Russian tale. This began the concert, a picture book performance bringing the story to life with sharp characterisation and flair. Janacek used a good deal of his music to explore macabre storylines and this was no exception, though the lighter, more lyrical moments were good fun. van der Heijden’s tone was sonorous and projected easily to the back of the hall, while Coleman’s stylish playing was capped with limpid work in the second section.

We then heard arrangements of two songs from Dvořák and Vítězslava Kaprálová as an idea complement, the former transcribing beautifully from voice to cello, with tasteful ornamentation from the cello. It was good to hear more of Kaprálová, a talented Czech composer who tragically died from tuberculosis when she was just 25. Her music immediately cast a spell, Coleman’s mysterious chords matched by a remote but moving line from the cello in its higher register.

Different qualities were required for the music of Hungarian composer and conductor András Mihály. His Movement for cello and piano was a dramatic rollercoaster, and rather volatile at times – reflecting perhaps the differing styles at play in modern music when it was written in 1962. While there were undoubtedly elements of Bartók and even Webern in the music’s contours, which veered into atonality at times, there was a fierce expression suggesting Mihály’s music should be explored further. Both players responded with a terrific performance, mastering the technical demands.

Zoltán Kodály was also an influence on Mihály, and his music suits the cello hand in glove, whether in large-scale sonatas or shorter, folk-informed songs. We heard two songs here, the cello a doleful voice for Why are you saying that you do not love me, while Slender is a silk thread found Coleman beautifully spinning out the silvery tale. However the single-movement Sonatina for cello and piano, at just under 10 minutes, made a lasting impression with its passion, profound lyricism and subtle melancholy. The performers’ love for this piece was clear, and the high voltage account found them finishing each other’s musical sentences.

The same could be said for Janáček’s Violin Sonata, a pungent piece whose proximity to World War One is evident in the rapid fire of its phrases. The composer’s unusual musical language was once again wholly compelling, with broad lyrical statements countered by strange, abrupt full stops to his melodies. The parallels with the current situation in Ukraine were impossible to ignore, especially with the emotion both players brought to the second movement Ballada, its sweeping melodies reaching skyward. Ultimately the acidic third and fourth movements cast a cloud over the mood, the players vividly depicting the distant sound of gunfire alongside more thoughtful introspection. van der Heijden was commendably modest about her own arrangement of the Sonata, for cello and piano, an extremely successful version losing none of the intensity or fractious treble phrases. Both players were superb, their virtuosity and togetherness notable throughout.

This was an extremely rewarding concert, energetic and romantic in turn but also thought-provoking through its wartime undercurrents. Laura van der Heijden and Jâms Coleman deserve great credit for their refreshing take on a chamber music album, which bodes well for their ongoing relationship with one of Britain’s best classical independents. Theirs is a partnership to watch closely.

Watch and listen

In concert – Raphael Wallfisch, CBSO / Gergely Madaras: New Worlds – Sibelius, Jonathan Dove & Dvořák

gergely-madaras

Sibelius Finlandia Op.26 (1899)
Dove In Exile (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Raphael Wallfisch (cello, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gergely Madaras

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 9 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra amounted to a themed programme with late 19th century evergreens by Sibelius and Dvořák framing another of this orchestra’s Centenary Commissions in the first UK performance of a major work from Jonathan Dove.

In his introductory remarks, Dove spoke of In Exile as a hybrid of cantata, operatic scena and concerto; a fusion that has surprisingly few antecedents – one being Concerto on Old English Rounds by William Schuman, with viola and chorus as ‘soloists’. Here the roles were taken by baritone and cello during a half-hour piece whose texts, adapted by Dove’s regular librettist Alasdair Middleton, examine the state of exile from a perspective less about those emotions experienced in the adoptive country than of sensations evoked by what has been left behind.

Drawing on Medieval sources, Dante and Shakespeare then, from the early 20th-century, the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran and Irish scholar Douglas Hyde, to the Iranian-American Kaveh Bassiri, In Exile unfolds as a formally continuous and emotionally cumulative sequence whose traversal from the general to the specific is complemented by its undulating texture, enhanced with resourceful writing for strings and tuned percussion, which graphically evokes a journey of the mind as well as body. Simon Keenlyside gave a powerful rendering of the vocal part in all its burnished rhetoric, while Raphael Wallfisch (to whose mother, the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, this piece is dedicated) was no less searching as his ‘alter ego’ whose role takes in several exacting cadenza-like passages. Certainly, a work that should bear repeated hearings.

Making his debut with the CBSO, Gergely Madaras conducted with a sure sense of where this piece was headed, having opened the concert with a gripping account of Finlandia. Sibelius’s apostrophizing of his homeland can descend into bathos – Madaras ensuring otherwise in this tensile reading whose sombre brass, supplicatory woodwind and strings, then dashing central episode led into a lilting take on what became Finland’s unofficial national anthem, before the peroration urged the music on to a conclusion whose grandeur was shot-through with defiance.

There was equally much to admire in Dvořák’s New World after the interval, even though this was essentially a performance of two halves. Madaras’s listless way with the first movement’s introduction set the tone for a rather terse and short-winded account (made the more so by its lack of exposition repeat) of the Allegro, while Rachael Pankhurst’s eloquent rendering of the Largo’s soulful melody was hardly enhanced by peremptory changes in tempo, notably in the tense middle section. Not so the Scherzo, its coursing outer sections ideally complemented by the whimsical trio at its centre, then the final Allegro brought an impulsive response that kept its histrionics on a firm rein yet without losing sight of an intently growing momentum whose outcome was a powerfully wrought apotheosis – its radiant closing chord judged to perfection.

So, a well-conceived and finely executed concert featuring a conductor who will hopefully be returning in due course. The CBSO has three Choral Christmas concerts coming up later this month, then can be heard on January 9th in a Viennese New Year programme to see in 2022.

For more information on ‘A Choral Christmas’ click here. For more information on the January – July 2022 CBSO season, you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Jonathan Dove, Gergely Madaras, Sir Simon Keenlyside and Raphael Wallfisch.