In Appreciation – Libor Pešek

by Ben Hogwood

Today we learned of the sad news that conductor Libor Pešek has died at the age of 89.

A tribute to him has been posted on social media by his management company IMG, while the artist page they held for him contains details on his conducting career.

Libor Pešek made some particularly fine recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra when Virgin Classics was in the ascendancy in the 1990s. They include a cycle of the symphonies of Dvořák but also a rather wonderful disc introducing us to the music of Vítězslav Novák, and in particular his Slovak Suite. The recording became extremely popular with Classic FM listeners, and has led to something of a revival for the composer.

The playlist enclosed here is almost exclusively of Czech music, including works by Suk and Smetana, but we also include a nod to some extremely fine recordings of British music the conductor made, notably Britten’s Young Person’s Guide.

Any listener to classical music from the 1980s onwards will surely have encountered Libor Pešek’s art, and we can appreciate it here:

In concert – Kathryn Rudge, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Across The Sea: Mendelssohn, Elcock, Britten & Elgar

Mendelssohn Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)
Elcock Wreck Op.10 (1998) [World Premiere]
Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op.33a (1945)
Elgar Sea Pictures Op.37 (1899)

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Malvern Theatres, Great Malvern
Saturday 15 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This first full-length concert in the English Symphony Orchestra’s new season focussed on the sea in all its varied qualities, taking in four works whose encompassing a span of almost two centuries also identified crucial aesthetic differences as to what music itself can express.

Not least as it comes between masterpieces of the early Romantic era (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Hebrides), Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage has often been overlooked on its own merits. Yet this concert overture, as inspired by two of Goethe’s best- known poems, is a fine example of the still-teenage composer’s prowess – Kenneth Woods securing a rapt intensity in its introductory phase, then steering its characterful continuation through to a grand while not unduly bathetic peroration with the sea accorded the final word.

From here to Steve Elcock’s Wreck is to encounter more elemental, even existential forces – what the composer refers to as a ‘‘symphonic allegory’’ portraying a ship’s struggle against intemperate weather at sea. This unfolds as a constantly evolving design, juxtaposing music of unchecked aggression with that of fraught serenity, while highlighting Elcock’s mastery of large-scale formal and expressive contrasts, toward a seismic culmination whose gradual subsidence makes possible the sustained closing section. Here, off-stage mezzo sings in an invented (hence unknown) language what he describes as ‘‘a message of salvation beyond despair, of consolation beyond grief’’ but even this is tempered by encroaching doubt. The ESO gave its all in a piece as demonstrably commended itself to the appreciative audience.

Marine vignettes rather than epics came after the interval. Woods had an audible grasp of the diverse moods in the Four Sea Interludes that Britten drew from his opera Peter Grimes, but more notable was his successful segueing between them – the keening plangency of Dawn leading into the equivocal assurance of Sunday Morning, emergent tonal and emotional blur of Moonlight, then the visceral conflict of Storm with its yearning oasis of calm and brutal closing onslaught. A few failings of ensemble hardly offset the intent continuity of the whole.

The ESO previously recorded Elgar’s Sea Pictures in an arrangement with chorus by Donald Fraser, but it was good to hear this song-cycle as Elgar realized it for mezzo – not least when Kathryn Rudge (taking her customary place at front of stage) proved so eloquent an exponent. The troubled pathos drawn from Roden Nole’s Sea-Slumber-Song was duly complemented by the whimsical charm of Alice Elgar’s In Haven (Capri) – tension rising accordingly for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sabbath Morning at Sea, its larger emotional contrasts well defined. Expressive nuances in Richard Garnett’s Where Corals Lie might have been more subtly pointed, but there was no doubt as to Rudge’s identification here or in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Swimmer with its anxious though determined progress to certain affirmation.

It set the seal on a rewarding programme and fine start to what will hopefully be an eventful season for the ESO. More concerts will be announced soon, but for now the recent release of Adrian Williams’s First Symphony (Nimbus NI6432) confirms this as an orchestra on a roll.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Kathryn Rudge, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on composer Steve Elcock, click here

In concert – Alison Balsom & Anna Lapwood @ Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School

Trad. arr. Oskar Lindberg Old Swedish Folk Song (unknown)
Kristina Arakelyan Modal Reeds (2021, world premiere)
Albinoni arr. Balsom / Lapwood Concerto in D Minor (1722)
Debussy arr. Lapwood Clair de Lune (1905); Syrinx (1913); The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (1910)
Britten arr. Lapwood Sunday Morning from Peter Grimes (1945)
Eben Okna (Windows): Green Window ‘Issachar’; Gold Window ‘Levi’ (1976)
J.S. Bach arr. Balsom / Lapwood Chorale Erbarm dich BWV 721 (unknown)
Owain Park Images (2018)
Alain arr. Balsom Litanies (1937)

Alison Balsom (trumpet), Anna Lapwood (organ), Sam Mendes (lighting director)

Chapel of St. Augustine, Tonbridge School, Tonbridge

15 October 2022

by Ben Hogwood

This was an inspirational evening of music, cleverly conceived and executed as the first in an impressive set of concerts to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Tonbridge Music Society. In its existence the society has attracted a stellar cast of classical and jazz artists to the Kent town, where they have a number of fine performing venues at their disposal. Even by their standards, however, this was an auspicious event.

Powered by a series of common musical denominators (and a shared love of Chelsea buns!), trumpeter Alison Balsom and organist Anna Lapwood created an immersive sequence of music for the striking Chapel of St Augustine in Tonbridge School. One of the many inspirations behind this was Alison’s teacher from the Guildhall School of Music, and her thank you gift took the form of an inspiring and memorable evening for many young performers, who in a ceremony afterwards were presented with a series of Diamond Music Awards given by TMS to support local musicians between the age of 5 and 18.

Both performers have a strong belief in giving back to their communities and passing on to the next generation of performers. The week leading up to the concert featured a master class given by Balsom for students of the school, and Lapwood’s continued personal and virtual encouragement for her many followers under the #playlikeagirl hashtag is bearing fruit if the young audience was anything to go by. Both showed why they can be lasting inspirations, their craft borne of a shared passion for the music they play.

Complementing the music was a lightshow, under the direction of Sam Mendes – Balsom’s husband, clearly relishing a more vocational night away from his film director profession. Running smoothly and logically, the music began with solo organ – and few would have been prepared for the immediate and bare emotion of the Old Swedish Folk Song arranged by Oskar Lindberg. We heard a counterpoint from Kristina Arakelyan, who was present for the world premiere of her similarly moving Modal Reeds. A cinematic piece led by Balsom, this had striking parallels to the film music of Thomas Newman in its rich harmonic palette and distinctive, bright textures. It made a strong impression.

The chapel was bathed in blue at this point, a subtle counterpoint to the music. Balsom then fell under the spotlight, moving to the organ loft for a spirited account of Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, its natural arrangement for trumpet making much of the heartfelt second movement, proving there is more than one Adagio bearing the composer’s name! Lapwood’s choice of registrations on the organ throughout the evening was ideal, but here especially she found a rewarding balance and sensitive phrasing.

A Debussy triptych followed – a mellow-voiced Clair de Lune, in the organist’s own arrangement, segueing neatly into Balsom’s account of Syrinx, the solo flute piece taking flight in its arrangement for trumpet. Both instruments combined in a plaintive account of The Girl With The Flaxen Hair.

The evening’s centrepiece was to follow, prefaced by a fiendishly difficult arrangement of Sunday Morning, second of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The longest stop on the organ came into play, rumbling beneath a vividly pictorial account where Balsom added a treble line. From here we moved to two substantial segments from Petr Eben’s Okna (Windows), a 1976 piece inspired by four of Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows. Coincidentally, only three miles down the road stands Tudeley parish church, the only site in England to feature original windows by the artist.

This piece is clearly special to Balsom, and the two gave a penetrating insight into Eben’s writing, taking two substantial excerpts. Lapwood exploited the organ’s colour, the mottled Green Window gathering intensity with some raucous interventions against Balsom’s fluid line. The steady build in the Gold Window was something special indeed, reaching an apex in what Balsom termed ‘the loudest B flat chord ever for non-amplified instruments’. It certainly left its mark here!

Great control was required for the floated melody of Bach’s chorale Erbarm dich before the evocative Images from Owain Park, to which the trumpet added a playful yet poignant treble line. Jehan Alain’s Litanies also benefited from this, the organ piece given an extra-ceremonial air to close proceedings. We were not fully done, however, as a softly played encore arrangement of Shenandoah held the audience rapt a little while longer.

Both artists should be applauded for their creativity and collaboration here, two words that sit towards the forefront of their thinking. The balance was ideal, a notable achievement given the familiar problems of tricky sightlines and the distance between the two performers. Mendes, too, should be credited for a sensitive response that cast a spell on those in the chapel, moving from cool blue hues to dramatic outlines in gold. A special evening indeed – how about reproducing it as a late-night Prom?

For more information on Anna Lapwood’s new Images album, featuring the piece from Owain Park, click here. Meanwhile for more on Alison Balsom’s recent release Quiet City, click here – and for more information on her debut album for EMI Classics (latterly Warner), containing a complete account of Petr Eben’s Okna, click here

In concert – Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Marie-Christine Zupancic, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Vaughan Williams, Haydn, Elgar, Weinberg & Britten

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Haydn Cello Concerto no.1 in C major Hob.VIIb/1 (c1761)
Elgar Sospiri Op.70 (1914)
Weinberg Flute Concerto no.1 Op.75 (1961)
Britten The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra Op.34 (1945)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 6 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Shortly to embark on its first tour of the United States in almost a quarter-century, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra tonight played some of the pieces to be included there – a diverse selection that amounted to a cohesive and well-balanced programme on its own terms.

Opening the concert was one of those pieces heard on the CBSO’s album The British Project, and while this orchestra has performed Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis often, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla relatively swift traversal compelled attention. The opening stages felt a little detached – the offstage ‘orchestra’, placed offstage-left, more a background presence than active participant – but the string quartet contribution was eloquently rendered while the approach to the main climax was as unerringly judged as that resonant final chord.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been playing Haydn’s cello concertos extensively, so there was no doubting the control and insight brought to the C major work – earliest of the pair and poised between the Baroque and Classical eras in its combining formal lucidity with melodic poise. Kanneh-Mason was mindful of the opening movement’s Moderato indication, maintaining a steady and never headlong tempo that allowed his tonal finesse and elegance of phrasing full rein. The Adagio could have had greater inward intensity, but not that stealthy transition into the return of the main theme, and the final Allegro had wit and incisiveness aplenty. A much-reduced CBSO was responsive in support – Kanneh-Mason offering an unlikely yet appealing pizzicato take on Bacharach’s I Say a Little Prayer (found on his new album Song) as encore.

There cannot have been many times when Elgar’s Sospiri began the second half, but it did so this evening to enticing effect. MG-T drew out its pathos without no trace of affectation, and if the organ part was missing, the strings’ burnished eloquence was more than compensation.

After last week’s public premiere of his Jewish Rhapsody, MG-T turned to (relatively) more familiar Weinberg with his First Flute Concerto. It also proved an ideal showcase for Marie-Christine Zupancic, longstanding section-leader of the CBSO, to demonstrate her prowess as soloist – whether in the energetic interplay of the initial Allegro, deftly understated threnody of the Adagio, or whimsical humour of an Allegro that anticipates Weinberg finales to come. The strings responded with alacrity to a piece now taking its place in a still-limited repertoire.

Britten‘s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra has not been out of the repertoire in 77 years and it remains not just the finest educational work of its kind but an impressive showpiece in its own right. With the CBSO heard at full strength for the only time tonight, MG-T directed a performance which only fell short in the rather stolid rendering of the theme at the start. The traversal through the four orchestral sections threw up various distinctive cameos, while the closing fugue duly put the orchestra back together for what was an exhilarating apotheosis.

This was not quite the end, MG-T introducing the encore to feature on tour – Thomas Adès’s O Albion (from his quartet Arcadiana), here suitably evocative even if the irony of playing so -named a piece to a Birmingham audience can hardly have been lost on most of those present.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Marie-Christine Zupancic for more information, and head to the website of Mieczyslaw Weinberg for more information on the composer.

In concert – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: The Sea – Britten, Adès, Weinberg & Debussy

Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1945)
Adès The Exterminating Angel Symphony (2020)
Weinberg Jewish Rhapsody, Op. 36 No. 2 (1947) [First public performance]
Debussy La mer (1905)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 28 September 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra found Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the helm for her first concert as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor in what was a varied programme featuring music of (more or less) Jewish emphasis framed by evocations of the sea.

The Four Sea Interludes that Britten extracted from his opera Peter Grimes invariably makes a worthwhile concert-opener, not least with Dawn as hauntingly poised as this. MG-T drove Sunday Morning hard, so that the cross-rhythmic interplay between wind and strings came close to decoupling, but there was no lack of atmosphere either here or in Moonlight where a sense of emotional disintegration was almost tangible. Storm was as relentless and, in its latter stages, imploring as the music requires – hurtling forth toward a close of brutal finality.

Next, a revival of The Exterminating Angel Symphony as derived from the eponymous opera by Thomas Adès, commissioned and premiered by the CBSO last August. As previously, its four sections feel more a symphonic suite than symphony per se – the whole still amounting to more than the sum of its constituent parts. MG-T secured a virtuoso response – whether in the encroaching expressive ambivalence of Entrances, or relentless build-up and malevolent aura of March. Berceuse remains uninvolving in emotional content despite the allure of its scoring, while Waltzes provides a suavely ingenious finale in its inexorable motion towards catastrophe. It would be hard to imagine a more committed or convincing account, such that the composer – making one of his rare appearances as a non-performer – looked well pleased.

After the interval, MG-T continued her advocacy of Mieczysław Weinberg in what was billed as a ‘first public performance’ for his Jewish Rhapsody. One of various pieces at a time when Soviet composers attempted (inevitably unsuccessfully) to placate officialdom with music of an outwardly populist nature, it forms the middle part of a Festive Scenes trilogy only recently located in its entirety. Beginning with an affecting melody for flutes it proceeds, via solos for clarinet and violin, to sombrely eloquent music (a little akin to that of Kodály’s folk-inspired works from the 1930s) which gains in energy until breaking out in dance-music of decidedly manic cast – a recall of the initial melody on flute then oboe leading to the headlong pay-off. Superbly rendered by the CBSO, this is no mean discovery and warrants repeated hearings.

Finally, to La mer – a piece of which this orchestra has given many memorable performances over the decades, and which did not disappoint here. If the opening stages of From Dawn to Midday on the Sea were a little tentative, the theme for divided cellos was finely articulated and the apotheosis powerfully wrought. Play of the Waves had no lack of capriciousness or delicacy, while Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea duly contrasted those visceral and poetic elements towards a peroration that never lost sight of the essential pathos within its triumph. An impressive close, then, to a concert such as gave notice of the continued rapport between orchestra and conductor. MG-T returns next week for an equally diverse selection with Sheku Kanneh-Mason in Haydn and the CBSO’s own Marie-Christine Zupancic in more Weinberg.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. You can visit Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla‘s website here – and for further information on Weinberg or Adès, click on the composer names