In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Antonio Pappano – Respighi & Dallapiccola

Respighi Vetrate di Chiesa (1925-6)
Dallapiccola Il prigioniero (1944-8) {Sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Ángeles Blancas Gulín (soprano – Mother), Eric Greene (baritone – Prisoner), Stefano Secco (tenor – Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor), Egor Zhuravskii (tenor – First Priest), Chuma Sijeqa (bass-baritone – Second Priest), London Symphony Chorus, Guildhall School Singers, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano

Barbican Hall, London

Sunday 5 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse Pictures (c) Mark Allan Photography

This second of the London Symphony Orchestra’s two concerts of Italian music with chief conductor designate Sir Antonio Pappano consisted of two pieces that brought the aesthetic and political divisions of Italy between the world wars into acute while always productive focus.

It might have originated in piano pieces written for his wife, but Respighi’s Church Windows duly emerged among the most opulent and evocative of his orchestral works. That both title and subtitles were postpriori additions does not lessen their relevance – not least as concerns The Flight into Egypt, its tense understatement a telling foil to the ensuing Saint Michael the Archangel with its warlike images rendered graphically by brass and percussion, before climaxing in one of the most theatrical of tam-tam crashes as Satan is banished from Heaven.

Not that Respighi was averse to gentler expression as appropriate, The Matins of Saint Clare featuring orchestration of unfailing finesse on its raptly expressive course. Inevitably, it is the magisterial finale of Saint Gregory the Great when this composer comes most fully into his own – its cumulative fervour drawing on all aspects of the sizable forces for what becomes a heady apotheosis. Music, indeed, that needs to be realized with discipline and focus to avoid overkill, which was certainly the case in a performance where the LSO left nothing to chance.

The London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano perform Ottorino Respighi Church Windows Luigi Dallapiccola Il prigioniero In the Barbican Hall (Ángeles Blancas Gulin Mother, Eric Greene Prisoner, Stefano Secco Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor, Egor Zhuravskii First priest, Chuma Sijeqa Second priest ) on Friday, 3 June 2022. Photo by Mark Allan

Whereas Respighi pays (indirect) tribute to Italy’s cultural greatness, Dallapiccola exposes its darker recesses in his one-act opera The Prisoner. Composed over several years that span the decline and fall of Mussolini’s Italian empire, its libretto is drawn from the novel by the late 19th century author Villiers de l’Isle-Adam whose title Torture by Hope became subtitle for this opera by intimating the culmination of a scenario set during one of the grimmest periods in the Spanish Inquisition. By this time, Dallapiccola had evolved that distinctively personal brand of serialism which served him thereafter, but his knowledge of and devotion to Italian opera meant that those more methodical or systematic aspects are harnessed to an emotional fervour as makes for a consistently powerful and often moving while harrowing experience.

The performance was a compulsive one – centred upon Eric Greene’s assumption of the title-role that built gradually to an apex of elation suddenly and cruelly denied. The opening stage is dominated by the Mother – rendered with unfailing charisma yet never wanton melodrama by Ángeles Blancas Gulín, and Stefano Secco brought hardly less conviction to the twin-role of the Gaoler whose urgings to remain steadfast assume a chilling tone when he is revealed as the Grand Inquisitor. There were telling cameos from Egor Zhuruvskii and Chuma Sijeqa as the Priests, with the London Symphony Chorus and Guildhall School Singers combining to potent effect in offstage Psalm settings – the final one a climax of sombre grandeur. Pappano directed with absolute assurance an opera he doubtless, and rightly so, ranks with the finest.

It brought this enterprising and superbly executed concert to an impressive close. One only hopes Pappano will have the opportunity to programme further such music over the coming seasons: the enthusiastic response suggested an almost full house would be there it hear it.

To read more on the London Symphony Orchestra’s current season, visit their website. For more information on the artists involved, click on the names for Antonio Pappano, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Eric Greene, Stefano Secco, Egor Zhuravskii and Chuma Sijega

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 – Yuja Wang, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.1 & Smetana Má Vlast

yuja-wang

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.1 in F sharp minor Op.1 (1891, rev.1917)
Smetana Má Vlast (1874-82)

Yuja Wang (piano, above), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London
Tuesday 15 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood Photo credits Petr Kadlec

This was the first visit by an overseas orchestra to the Barbican since the coronavirus pandemic began, one of many reasons for the buzz of anticipation accompanying the arrival of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and their principal conductor Semyon Bychkov.

Their two-night residency began with the first published notes from Rachmaninoff, a call to arms signalling intent at the start of his Piano Concerto no.1. With the athletic piano playing of Yuja Wang, this was a sure way of getting the concert off to a high octane start. Hers was a virtuoso performance, seizing the music by the scruff of the neck early on but also bringing impressive clarity to her melodic phrasing, so that among even the more congested orchestral writing her line could be clearly heard.

The balance between soloist and orchestra was ideal throughout and proved especially satisfying in the Andante cantabile second movement, where the volume dipped to a mere whisper. Is it too fanciful to suggest that audience coughing is now much less since we returned to live music? Certainly, the Barbican was almost completely silent in response to Wang’s absorbing and feather-light playing, and her dovetailing with the eloquent bassoon of Ondřej Šindelář was a delight.

The finale returned us to the raw power of the first movement, but both Wang and Bychkov ensured the melodies still held sway, the latter marshalling the orchestra with effortless command but keeping a tight ensemble. Wang’s fingers and hands were a blur at times, as she somehow brought the most complicated passagework under her wings without missing a beat or a phrase. Her dedication was wholehearted and her love for the piece was clearly shared by the orchestra, who were smiling readily. Rachmaninov’s first and underplayed utterance was well served indeed.

After the interval Bychkov (above), born in Russia, spoke eloquently about the current situation with his home country, dedicating the performance of Smetana’s Má Vlast to the people of Ukraine. He noted the unplanned but happy coincidence brought by programming one of Romantic music’s most heartfelt patriotic statements on this night. Written to bring pride and inspiration to the Czech people, Smetana’s rousing set of six symphonic poems could not have wished for a more fitting performance here.

The lofty construction of Vyšehrad was led off with expansive harps tracing the building’s lofty lines, the music growing in stature as the rest of the orchestra joined. Bychkov’s pacing in this noble movement was ideal, a powerfully wrought performance with tasteful phrasing. The same could certainly be said for Vltava, whose depiction of the river bubbling up was wonderfully exuberant. The wind section clearly enjoyed their vivid profile of the waters and their surrounds, with no obvious pause for breath as the current gained in power. There was a persuasive lilt to the rhythmic profile of the music too. This was felt especially in the peasant dance section, Bychkov encouraging the strings to dig their bows in, dragging the beat tastefully. It was glorious fun.

If anything, this performance grew stronger and leaner as it progressed. Šárka drew sharp parallels with Liszt, whose symphonic poems Smetana was looking to emulate, telling the story of the female warrior with sharp rhythmic snaps and the tightest possible ensemble. From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, by contrast, was a glorious celebration of the countryside, its fugal episodes bouncing off each other before the colourful village festival took hold. By this point the orchestra had unexpectedly carried out a series of substitutions, the wind section effectively replaced halfway through. It says so much for their function as a team that the overall sound was not affected.

Both wind sections stood out in this performance, stylish and authentic, but the finer details to this interpretation impressed greatly. The percussion, for instance, took such great care with their cymbal and triangle contributions, the shading just right and complementing Smetana’s fulsome melodic writing, made all the remarkable with the reminder that he had lost his hearing by this point.

The final pairing of Tábor and Blaník proved every bit as dramatic as Šárka, the orchestral sound given a renewed heft through powerful strings, rolling timpani and fulsome brass. There was a stern countenance to Tábor’s opening pages, and the Hussite tune dominating these two poems had a lasting resolve which carried unmistakable parallels to the current situation. The final pages of Blaník were thrilling, recalling Vyšehrad in blazing colour before Bychkov signed off emphatically.

There were no encores in the concert, and nor were they needed, for this was a wholly memorable occasion, a true privilege to say, ‘I was there’.

You can listen to the repertoire in this concert by using the Spotify playlist below, which includes the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra‘s recent recording of Má vlast, made with their previous and sadly missed principal conductor Jiří Bělohlávek:

Live review – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle: Stravinsky, Birtwistle & John Adams

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (above)

Barbican Hall, London
Thursday 2 May 2019

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original version) (1920)
Birtwistle The Shadow of Night (2001)
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Written by Ben Hogwood

These days attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert brings with it a guarantee of intriguing programming and breathtaking musicianship. This one had a real ‘darkness to light’ demeanour, moving from the blacker than black recesses of Sir Harrison Birtwistle to the wide open, sunlit panoramas created by John Adams.

Before that, a composer whose influence could be keenly felt in the music of both composers. Stravinsky made many innovations in pieces other than his celebrated Rite of Spring, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments could certainly be regarded as one of his most original. With the term ‘symphony’ interpreted through its original meaning, the ‘concord of sound’, Stravinsky proceeds to build an innovative one-movement piece that contrasts busy movement with still reflection.

The instrumentation is fascinating, especially in the original version, which uses alto clarinet and alto flute. It explains the simply wonderful sounds made by the 24-piece London Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, the rich chords often baleful and downcast (the piece is a memorial to Debussy) but the faster music sprightly and energetic. A better performance of this piece would be hard to imagine, energetically guided by Sir Simon Rattle.

The music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle continues to split opinion. For this particular listener it is not an easy prospect, and I confess to having developed headaches in previous performances of Earth Dances and Neruda Madrigales, while admiring The Moth Requiem and Silbury Air. I therefore approached The Shadows of Night with some trepidation, but found it an ultimately rewarding score, its heavy darkness punctuated by relieving solos of glittering light from bassoon and E-flat clarinet, where Chi Yu Mo was simply superb.

Birtwistle’s colouring of the lower regions of the string orchestra is particularly fine, and the first five minutes were a sonic wonder to behold, as though the Barbican had opened up into a monstrous cave. Then the piccolo stated a John Dowland song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, after which the piece lumbered through a number of sections with gathering tension. Once this was released the clarinet worked its magic, and Rattle set us down in a heap for the interval.

Following Birtwistle with John Adams was like throwing open the curtains to greet a sun-splashed new morning, and the LSO sparkled with what seemed to be new-found freedom. Harmonielehre delights in tonality, politely rejecting Schoenberg’s treatise of the same name to power forward with terrific rhythmic impetus and walls of consonant harmonies. Within themselves these create some exquisite dissonance and colour, with the brass and percussion in particular shining through. Rattle has this piece under his skin, having recorded it with the CBSO in 1993, and if anything his interpretation has gained speed and electricity. as the composer himself noted on Twitter!

The audience were swept up in the cumulative power and energy of the piece, particularly in its closing section, which carried all before it. Of all the prominent exponents of minimalism, Adams has the most effective orchestral writing, and his clear signposts of influences (Sibelius Symphony no.4, Stravinsky, Debussy and even Britten) were all used to original effect. It was an invigorating close to a terrific concert.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

You can read Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s thoughts on The Shadow of Night at his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, and John Adams talks about Harmonielehre on his own webpage

Live review – Leonidas Kavakos, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle: Brahms, Debussy & Enescu

Leonidas Kavakos (violin, above), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (below)

Barbican Hall, London
Sunday 16 December 2018

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major Op.77 (1878)
Debussy Images (1905-12)
Enescu Romanian Rhapsody no.1 in A major Op.11/1 (1901)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra tonight continued their ‘Roots & Origins’ project with a diverse programme ranging from the innate classicism of Brahms, through the refracted (post-)impressionism of Debussy then on to the unaffected nationalism of Enescu.

A change in the running order saw a first half devoted to Brahms’s Violin Concerto – easy to pigeon-hole as archetypally Austro-German, though fairly permeated with elements derived from popular and traditional sources. Nor did Leonidas Kavakos deliver a bland or uneventful account, maintaining palpable momentum across the expansive initial movement that carried through to an uncommonly perceptive take on Joachim’s monumental cadenza, followed by an easeful coda in which the symbiosis between soloist and orchestra was at its most tangible.

While there was no undue lingering in the Adagio, Kavakos brought out its gentle eloquence in full measure – abetted by playing of burnished warmth from the LSO’s woodwind, though there was no lack of agitation in the contrasting central section. The Hungarian overtones of the finale were then given full rein, Kavakos projecting the music’s rhythmic drive as surely as he propelled the coda to its effervescent close. Throughout this performance, Rattle was at one with his soloist in a work he has no doubt given many times during the past four decades.

A dynamic and vividly projected reading, then, from Kavakos (very different from the inward and almost self-communing one he gave during last year’s Enescu Festival), who returned for a predictably scintillating account of the Les furies finale from Ysaÿe’s Second Solo Sonata.


Debussy’s Images has long been a Rattle staple: his running-order differs from that published – though there is arguably no ideal sequence for such a contrasting assemblage. Certainly, the fatefully understated Gigues makes a plausible opening, its fugitive gestures and searching ambivalence more an evocation of the composer in his last years as of any English environs. Rondes de printemps is the positive corollary, its vernal freshness and simmering energy an indication of that renewal in French culture made explicit by the late sonatas. In both pieces, Rattle secured a superfine response from the LSO and if characterization in Ibéria was less acute, this may have been owing to the music’s broad-brush Spanish quality than to any lack of insight. Not in doubt was the cohesion that Rattle drew from this composite work overall.

Cohesion was also key to his performance of Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody. More than a medley of popular tunes, its integration is that of a borne symphonist and Rattle responded accordingly as he built momentum across the suave initial episodes before cutting loose with the bacchanal. The degree of detail lost was outweighed by the visceral excitement that held good through to the coda. A piece associated with Rattle since the early 1980s, and of which the LSO gave a memorable televised reading a decade earlier, ended this concert in fine style.

The question remains why Rattle has never added further Enescu to his repertoire. Perhaps he considers him lesser to Szymanowski, whom he has championed assiduously? Pieces such as the Second Symphony, Third Suite and Vox Maris cry out for his advocacy. Maybe one day?

For more information on forthcoming concerts from the London Symphony Orchestra in 2019, you can visit their website. Meanwhile you can enjoy Kavakos in a recent performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto below: