Rossini Guillaume Tell – Overture (1829) Mozart Violin Concerto no.5 in A major K219 (1775) Berlioz Le carnaval romain, Op.9 (1844) Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet – Suite no.2 Op.64ter (1936)
Baiba Skride (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (above)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Wednesday 13 October 2021, 2pm
Written by Richard Whitehouse; Picture of Andrew Gourlay (c) Kaupo Kikkas, Baiba Skride (c) Marco Borggreve
This afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw an unexpected but welcome return from Andrew Gourlay (replacing an indisposed François Leleux) for this diverse programme as worked much better as a concert than it might have appeared on paper.
Its fame as a novelty item in cartoons et al can easily obscure the innovative qualities of the Overture to William Tell, last and most ambitious of Rossini’s operas, in terms of its eliding between curtain-raiser and symphonic poem; which latter aspect Gourlay emphasized in this evocative but cohesive account – whether in the ruminative calm of its opening section with the CBSO cellos eloquently fronted by Eduardo Vassallo, a scrupulously controlled ‘storm’ episode, a not unduly mawkish ‘lullaby’ then a closing galop free from Hollywood overkill.
Mozart was barely out of his teens on writing his Fifth Violin Concerto, if not the finest then certainly the most eventful of his cycle through such as the soloist’s alluring first entry in the opening Allegro with music not directly related to either of the main themes and rendered by Baiba Skride with real finesse. Equally successful was her succinct yet ideally proportioned cadenza prior to its close; after which, the Adagio had elegance without excessive sweetness. In the final Rondeau, others may have made more of that contrast between graceful lyricism and the robust humour of its central section’s stylized Turkishness, but Skride brought these into complete accord and, with Gourlay securing limpid playing from a scaled-down CBSO, this was a persuasive performance of music whose felicities can easily be taken for granted.
Formerly ubiquitous as a concert-opener, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival – the inspired recycling of music from his opera Benvenuto Cellini – launched the second half to striking effect. If the soulful introduction took a little time to settle (doubtless occasioned by a soon extinguished onstage rebellion before Gourlay’s return), what ensued was not lacking rhythmic elan or that scintillating interplay of orchestral timbres as was Berlioz’s gift to the orchestra. Effecting a tangible crescendo into the blazing peroration, Gourlay undoubtedly saved the best until last.
Ad hoc selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet rarely provide a satisfying second half, making one of three suites the composer extracted from his ballet the more viable option. Of these the Second Suite is the best overview, and this account quickly found its stride with a visceral take on the music which opens Act Three, the grinding progress of Montagues and Capulets proving no less forceful. Juliet as a young girl exuded the right insouciance and pathos, as did Friar Laurence that of earnest authority. The lithe Dance made a telling foil to Romeo and Juliet before parting, its fraught rapture potently conveyed here, then Dance of the girls with lilies made for an appealingly wistful entrée into Romeo at Juliet’s grave with its searing anguish that only gradually subsides into expectant calm towards the close.
Gourlay had previously directed a fine account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony with this orchestra and the Prokofiev confirmed his prowess in Russian music. The CBSO, meanwhile, returns next Wednesday for a varied American programme with the saxophonist Jess Gillam.
Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’swebsite. For more on Baiba Skride, clickhere – and for more information on Andrew Gourlay, head to the conductor’s website
Prom 69 Baiba Skride (violin, below), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (above)
Bernstein Serenade (after ‘Symposium’) (1954) Shostakovich Symphony no.4 in C minor Op.43 (1936)
Royal Albert Hall, Monday 3 September 2018
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Proms website here
The second of the Boston Symphony’s Proms, with its music director Andris Nelsons, offered a pertinent coupling which played to this orchestra’s strengths, while also suggesting that the interpretive insights of this much-lauded partnership are by no means to be taken for granted.
Time was when Bernstein’s Serenade was something of a rarity in live performance, but what is surely its composer’s most successful piece for the concert hall had come into its own well before the onset of his centenary celebrations. This sequence inspired by (though not indebted to) Plato’s consideration of Love in his Symposium was a gift on which Bernstein seized with alacrity, condensing its seven eulogies into five movements such as amount to a varied while cohesive totality to which he aspired without equalling in the concert music of his later years.
Baiba Skride proved a sympathetic exponent, segueing deftly from the lyricism of Phaedrus to the incisiveness of Pausanias and savouring the whimsical irony of Aristophanes. The fussiness of Erixymachus was pertly done and eloquence of Agathon not unduly emotive, for all its expansiveness; the finale almost achieving unity in the rumination of Socrates as overtaken by the ebullience of Alcibiades. Nelsons secured an engaging response from the reduced strings, while keeping some over-effusive percussion writing within sensible limits.
A pity that the sizable audience was not ideally attentive, suggesting that Bernstein as concert composer was less to its liking than when in ‘musical’ mode. It seemed rather more focussed for Shostakovich’s Symphony no.4 – an era-defining piece kept under wraps for a quarter-century after its completion, before gradually making its way into the 20th-century repertoire where it has been ever since. Subversive and despairing in equal measure, it duly received a commanding account where the BSO conveyed both visceral power and fastidious ensemble.
Were these the deciding factors of a great performance, this would assuredly have been one. Yet behind the formidable technical façade was a lack of empathy with this most emotionally charged of symphonies, not least a first movement whose stark alternations of Stravinskian energy and Mahlerian anguish Nelsons drew into a formally unified if expressively uniform whole. With its subtler pivoting between anxiety and elegance, the central intermezzo was finely rendered, even if its closing percussion ostinato was neither sardonic nor speculative.
Come the finale and Nelsons found an ideal tempo for its opening funeral march, though its overtones of heroism and plangency felt passed over on the way into a toccata section which lacked cumulative intensity for all its incisiveness. The ensuing divertimento gave several of the orchestra’s principals their moment in the spotlight that they took with panache, then the entry of duelling timpani was clumsily prepared going into a peroration as was imposing but never inexorable; the postlude which follows one of somnolence rather than numbed despair.
As so often this season, there was no encore – Nelsons purposely extending the silence at the close of the Shostakovich as its own epitaph. It set the seal on a lucidly conceived and superbly executed reading that yet missed out on what makes this piece an experience like few others.
Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
This is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Annie Turner (above) gives her thoughts on Prom 62.
Baiba Skride (violin), Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Christopher Maltman (baritone) BBC Symphony Orchestra / Siobhan Young
Bayan NorthcottConcerto for Orchestra (2014-2016, world premiere); MozartViolin Concerto no.5 (1775); ZemlinskyLyric Symphony (1922-23)
I was born in 1980 and so my earliest musical memories would be Vangelis, Dire Straits, Phil Collins and stuff like that, so I’m very fond of that music in a sentimental way. I was really interested in playing music, and I remember when I was about seven or eight I was absolutely desperate to learn the recorder, as the older kids in school were playing them. My mum asked the teachers but they said I was too young, and I had to wait until I was nine!
I learned recorder and got to play in the school concerts, but after that you pick up another instrument, so I did keyboard. I went to a country school in Australia, so there wasn’t a big music program. I learned piano for a while but struggled with the music because I didn’t find it interesting! It was classical, and it was a bit boring for me as a kid, but I really loved listening to music and working out the fidelity for myself. My dad was really into Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I used to work out bits of melody from Phantom of the Opera and Cats.
Then I stopped and didn’t pick it up again until high school when I was interested in bands. I got interested in grunge and wanted to play it, so I got into drums and guitar lessons, and really loved that. By the time I was that age I got really shy and didn’t want to play in front of anybody, so I was a bedroom musician. I still kept studying music at school though, and then when I graduated from high school I really wanted to play in a band.
I moved to Melbourne to go to university, and it was my dream to play in a band, so I just had to get over my stage fright! I joined any band that would have me…and I’ve played in some terrible bands and some awesome bands, but I mostly ended up playing drums in all of them, so I dropped the guitar. I played in a heavy metal band, a punk band and an experimental bands, a few jam bands. I did that for a few years, and we recorded and toured which was great. Then I moved to London and didn’t do it again, because London was a bit too big and intimidating and it was hard to have the resources. So that was my musical upbringing!
Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?
There is a Norwegian black metal band called Satyricon, which I love, and I love them because I find their music is well written, well-constructed, engaging, it’s very melodic, atmospheric, it’s quite dark as well which I find when you’re in that mood. It’s frenetic, there’s a lot of energy to it, and I find it really interesting.
I don’t find I listen to acts any more, I listen to songs rather than acts…but I actually love Calvin Harris! I’ve followed his career, and I don’t love everything that he’s done, but I really love the fact he’s a pop purist. He writes and produces but he does it very well in a purely pop way but I think he respects that genre. He does quality work and it’s such good, good pop I think it’s genius – the construction, the way he has that mix of happiness and sadness in one song. Pop music you have to capture the kind of strategy of teen romance, which is kind of ‘gaggy’ but at the same time it’s got drama, some of it’s got humour, and I just think he’s excellent and very intelligent pop auteur.
For the third I would have to say I love Nirvana really, because that was the band I really got into in depth, because it was rebellious, artistic, subversive, but also even though it was very aesthetically abrasive it was pop music right down the line in the middle. It got me very interested in playing music as well as listening to music, and as well it had more implications for popular music. I was very obsessed with that band for a good five years!
What has been your experience of classical music so far?
I’m generally familiar with the big hits because you hear them on TV, and on adverts, and there are definitely pieces I’ve come to know and like, but other than that it’s really through watching films. I did a degree in film theory, and studied lots of films, but didn’t really study the music on the film.
I guess also there was a time when I would tune the radio to Classic FM because I didn’t want anybody to sing at me, I didn’t want to hear any words! I wanted something I knew would be relatively calm and peaceful. I know it’s not always like that though, and that classical music can be tumultuous! I was seeking something that would be a bit more calming I suppose. I remember I did buy an iTunes album of the greatest hits of the classics, but I didn’t really follow it any further than that.
How did you rate your first Proms experience?
I really enjoyed it. I had no expectation, and I guess I thought I might have got bored because if I didn’t know the music I might not follow it. I was surprised that I really did find myself getting enthralled, so I rated it to the point where I would definitely come back on my own. I would like to investigate it more, ask for tips, you know?
I like the opera Carmen, but any other opera I don’t like, because sometimes it sounds to me like yelling. I know you could say I listen to death metal, and that’s shrieking, but you know, it’s just yelling! The vocal music we just saw I didn’t think about it that way, I heard the music and looked at their faces, saw that emotion, and it felt a bit like I was watching a play. I think I might be coming around to being converted!
What did you think of the Bayan Northcott Concerto for Orchestra, the first piece?
That started off really avant-garde, and more modern, and I guess that surprised me in how it developed. It developed very smoothly into something that was a bit more formulaic in a classical sense. I had to remind myself that I didn’t really know what was going on, and the transitions I enjoyed. I felt that one took you on a bit of a journey that was quite surprising. I particularly liked the dynamics where you could hear something that was really loud, layered and reverberant, and then you could get something that was really quiet and minimal on one instrument. I enjoyed the delicacy of the sound, because when you see a band or a DJ you don’t get that, you just get ‘loud’ or ‘off’!
What did you think of the Mozart?
I thought I recognised it from having heard it before. I really liked it, and having someone palying solo you can focus in on it and follow their emotion, which was new and interesting, and I thought it was interesting too how the orchestra seemed to be all on the same level.
Normally you go to see a band and you think I’m seeing my idols, or seeing this famous person, and the people who created the music. They’re in a higher hierarchy so to speak. With the orchestra I had this sense that they’re just normal people, serving the music and all enjoying it. I liked it when it wasn’t about the composer, the rock star, and not about the conductor – they’re not facing us, they’re just delivering it. I really liked that sense of the music being the star. That was a new experience, you could see a different perspective even in the formalities of ‘now it’s my tern to stand up and play’, the ritual of it. It was really touching, and I think classical music might tend to have this image of being a little bit posh, a little bit fancy, but actually these people are not royalty, they’re working for the music. There wasn’t any grandiosity, it was very humble.
And the Zemlinsky?
That was probably my favourite. I was a bit apprehensive because it was like opera, and I’ve not really liked opera before, plus it sounded like it was in German. I don’t speak German, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be a language that would lend itself to singing! But OK, I was really surprised. I stopped thinking about the music. My mind did keep wandering and I was thinking about my own life, and I don’t know if the music was really influencing that or not, but it wasn’t like I was standing there going oh, that was a great bit of trombone, I was thinking about my own life! I was thinking about what was going on in my life.
I’ve recently started doing meditation, and know that it’s good to be present and mindful, so I did start to drag myself back and focus on the sounds and what was going on. It was good, though I did feel like it was a soundtrack to my thoughts. There was a lot of percussion and I really liked the textures of the drums, how deep that sound is, and I think there was a lot of melancholy and ‘blue’ notes. I like that darker sound, I guess that might be a bit of a cliché, but the sadder stuff probably says more to me than the jolly little dances I suppose!
I deliberately didn’t research the program, so think I will read that on the bus home which will be really interesting, to see what was in the text!
Would you go again?
I would. It would be amazing to see a piece I was already familiar with and really liked, so next year I can find out which composers I like more and make a plan to see more of them. At the same time I would also select something at random – something familiar and something new – and see how that works!
Nielsen Violin Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 35 (1912) (20 minutes)
In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below. Neither of the Skride sisters have recorded this repertoire before, but there are other versions picked out instead:
About the music
An intriguing program based on the first instrument of composers Sibelius and Nielsen – the violin. While both composers wrote violin concertos that are either extremely well known (Sibelius) or appreciating gradually (Nielsen) their music for violin and piano is almost shrouded in secrecy.
Sibelius wrote a few sonatas but much more in the way of short pieces for violin and piano, many of which were requested as commissions for the salon market. The four here are characteristic examples of a composer who uses economy in his writing, often ending his pieces abruptly but using music of charm and poise – and inventive textures.
Nielsen’s Violin Sonatas are rarely heard, but the second sonata, completed in 1912, is a substantial piece that shows the composer’s ease with dealing in bigger forms of music. The second sonata falls between the third and fourth symphonies in his output.
We also hear shorter pieces for violin and piano by two composers heavily influenced by Sibelius and Nielsen, the Latvian Peteris Vasks and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. The warmth felt in both sets of pieces show how Nordic music is not just about the cold!
Arcana was not at the concert at the Wigmore Hall, but listening to the broadcast it is clear of the involvement both performers have in these works.
The deep-seated passion running through the third of the Sibelius pieces is striking and intense, with the technical mastery of what sounds like a tricky Rigaudon very stylishly achieved.
If anything the Second Violin Sonata of Nielsen carries a greater impact, for this is an impressive piece of work whose stature grows with each hearing. It is unjustly neglected for sure, and the Skride sisters give it an excellent performance here, the violinist’s tone especially impressive in the longer notes used by the composer for many of his themes.
Providing light for the relative shade are the works by Vasks and Rautavaara, full of charm, warmth and melodic invention. They complete a program with an outdoor feel, and both performers give this seldom-heard music the fresh performances it deserves.
What should I listen out for?
1:57 Impromptu The first piece of the four has a dreamy piano and more energetic violin, which feels free spirited over the relatively static harmony.
4:01 Romance The sweet tone of the romance is carried by the violin’s melody over a calm piano accompaniment. There is a childlike quality to the main material reminiscent of Schumann, but the music becomes more passionate.
7:14 Religioso A heavier feel to this, especially in the piano, which uses more of the keyboard in its part, and the lower register of the violin too. A melancholy piece.
12:55 Rigaudon A French dance that starts commandingly in the major key but then has a brief shadow of darkness (13:19) when it shifts into the minor. The rhythm is often syncopated in a way that suggests the tango, and the piece ends abruptly – as so many Sibelius pieces do!
16:42 The opening section of this piece (marked Breit, Klangvoll) sounds like bird calls exchanged between the violin and piano.
17:55 A slow episode (marked Nicht Eiland), sweetly sung by the violin.
19:27 A dance, led by the violin, with a rustic, outdoor feel.
21:10 The music takes a serious tone, moving to a minor key, and appears lost in thought.
23:53 – a glittering descent on the piano (a glissando) introduces another folksy section, with an outdoor feel.
25:21 – once again we hear the first section, with its bird calls.
27:14 – Rautavaara’s interpretation of summer is a dreamy one, with a wandering line on the piano, but it gradually gathers its intensity for a passionate middle section, falling back and then gathering once again with the violin holding long, lyrical notes. It then fades into the middle distance.
32:25 – initially the mood is calm, starting on the lowest note of the violin, but the music wanders and soon the violinist is taking charge of a passionate section that includes a grand theme in C major around 34:31. By 37:30 the music is a little lighter on its feet but the exchanges continue to brim with passion. The movement ends with reflection at 39:40.
39:55 – the slow movement begins with a broad melody from the violin. The long notes are countered with a restless piano part. That spills over into a fraught statement at 40:48, after which the music calms down. The piano figure can never be fully shaken off however, and even when the movement ends sweetly at 46:48 it does so with the two note progression the piano used almost all the way through.
47:18 – the third and final movement flows with more serenity, and then the piano at 48:44 introduces a jubilant episode, joined in a high register by the violin. By this point the music has reached E major – the same key Nielsen uses as a home base in his exuberant Symphony no.4 (the Inextinguishable). The music gathers greater energy, and at 51:10 the piano hammers out brittle, percussive notes before the music fades to end.
53:11 – the Mazurka by Sibelius, Op.81/1, the first of five published pieces. This is a piece with plenty of fire in its introduction, but charm when the theme is heard again, softly, at 53:52. The violin has to move between passionate low register tune and a swift upsurge to the high register.
Baiba Skride has recorded both the Sibelius and Nielsen Violin Concertos, and these can be heard in company with Sibelius’ 2 Serenades for violin and orchestra. They are on Spotify here: