City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: Second Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 24 & Sunday 25 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second weekend of the Debussy Festival featured a similar mix of orchestral, song and instrumental events, held at various venues in Birmingham in addition to Symphony Hall and extending over the broad spectrum of Debussy’s music to include several less familiar items.

Saturday evening focussed on ‘Sacred Debussy’, and opened with his prelude La Cathédrale engloutie (1910) in an orchestration by Colin Matthews faithful to its spirit. The CBSO then vacated the platform for Messiaen’s motet O sacrum convivium (1937), fervently sung by the CBSO Chorus under Simon Halsey and preceded by Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue. Its methodical progress was ideally complemented by Dieu parmi nous, concluding Messiaen’s large-scale cycle La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) with a panache to which Thomas Trotter was no less responsive. Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) ended the first half with an allure and poise that Suzy Wilkinson-Kawalec conveyed in full measure; CBSO assistant conductor Jonathan Bloxham securing an elegant and fastidious response from the strings.

After the interval, a rare chance to hear virtually the whole of Debussy’s incidental music for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play La Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). Not, then, the 20-minute ‘symphonic fragments’ arranged by André Caplet (who also undertook much of the original orchestration) or the hour-long complete score with narration, but a 35-minute hybrid where the music for the five acts was amalgamated into a four-movement ‘choral symphony’. With its hieratic modality and austere if never merely archaic polyphony, this is arguably the most emotionally affecting of Debussy’s later works and was superbly sung by the CBSO Chorus. Sopranos Ilse Eerens and Katja Stuber were effortless in their solo parts and Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (below) drawing an eloquent response from the CBSO. Undoubtedly a highlight of this festival.

On to Sunday and an early afternoon concert of ‘Exotic Debussy’, opening with another three Preludes (1913) – the ironic wit of Minstrels, Mussorgskian heft of La puerta del vino and the bracing humour of General Lavine – Eccentric – once again heard in orchestrations by Colin Matthews responsive more to the images being evoked than the music as conceived for piano. Bloxham led the CBSO in a spirited account of the ‘Pas de six’ from Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (1956), then Graźinytė-Tyla presided over two sections from Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (1910) – the piquant Orientalism of Laideronette and the encroaching rapture of Le jardin féerique, both enticingly rendered yet an unsatisfying close to a rather piecemeal first half. A shame the Ravel ballet was not heard in full, as this has long been a CBSO speciality.

There was nothing piecemeal about the second half, with Graźinytė-Tyla taking charge of the CBSO Youth Orchestra for a complete rendering of Debussy’s Images. His largest orchestral work when heard complete, this is difficult to bring off as a totality though this account came close. The ominous understatement of Gigues was well conveyed despite an occasional lack of subtlety, then the central triptych that is Ibéria gave this capable and enthusiastic outfit its head in the traversal from sultry street-life, through nocturnal rumination, to festal celebration – the overall sequence being projected with verve and immediacy. Yet the closing Rondes de printemps was even more successful, its oblique evocation of rural revelry given cumulative impetus such as made for a more than usually conclusive end to this wide-ranging sequence.

The mid-afternoon ‘Tombeau de Debussy’ juxtaposed pieces from the supplement published by La Revue musicale in 1920 with commissions under BCMG’s Sound Investment Scheme. Jungeun Park’s Tombeau de Claude Debussy found violinist Alexandra Wood, cellist Ulrich Heinen and pianist Richard Uttley (above) evoking the composer’s death in darkly ironic terms, then the oblique tonality of Dukas’s La plainte, au loin, du faune … seemed as much a memorial to the creative impasse as to its passing. Highly sensitive here, Uttley was no less probing in the moody ‘Sostenuto rubato’ that Bartók incorporated into his Eight Improvisations; soprano Ruby Hughes joining him for the whimsical profundity of Satie’s setting of Lamartine in En souvenir. Sinta Wallur’s Tagore Fireflies sets three brief verses by the Indian poet in music whose ornamented vocal was complemented by the piano’s gamelan-like patterning. Wood and Heinen found requisite plangency in the first movement of Ravel’s Duo; then cellist and soprano took on engaging theatricality for Frédéric Pattar’s setting of Maeterlinck in (… de qui parlez-vous?). Uttley captured the bluesy elegance of Goossens’s Pièce, before Julian Anderson’s Tombeau united the musicians in a setting of Mallarmé’s tribute to Edgar Allen Poe whose chiselled vocal writing and guitar-like sonorities made for a provocative ending.

The early-evening programme of ‘Natural Debussy’ commenced with the arresting cameo of flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic playing Debussy’s plaintive Syrinx (1913) at the rear of the auditorium; overhead lights gradually raised on the platform from where Bloxham directed the CBSO in an engaging account of Printemps (1887). Whatever its formal inelegance and stylistic derivativeness, this two-movement piece has an insouciance and extroversion which Debussy only occasionally re-captured – enhanced by the knowing sophistication of Caplet’s orchestration a quarter-century later. Graźinytė-Tyla returned for George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980), its evocation of desert storms rendered with a graphic immediacy and sure sense of purpose to make one regret that an unfortunate accident onstage meant the performance had to be curtailed before the close. The orchestra reassembled after a break for La Mer (1905) – emotional contrasts stressed a little too readily in ‘Jeux de vagues’, but with the outer movements bracingly projected to round off this final concert in impressive fashion.

Even on the basis of these Symphony Hall concerts, this Debussy Festival did its composer proud by conveying the sheer variety of his output and also its relevance to Western music during the century since his death. Omissions were few – of which the most significant, his full-length opera Pelléas et Mélisande, will be redressed with a concert performance on the 23rd June. For now, Graźinytė-Tyla deserves full credit for having initiated this ambitious festival: its orchestral events leaving no doubt as to the rapport between her and the CBSO.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: First Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There are numerous commemorations this month of the centenary of Debussy’s death, but the Debussy Festival taking place in Birmingham over the weekends of 17/18 and 24/25 March is likely the most extensive mounted in the UK.

Together with chamber and song recitals, films and talks, there is a series of concerts by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as its related orchestras and ensembles, which between them offer an overview not only of Debussy’s major works but also those who influenced him and those who have been influenced by him in their turn.

Saturday evening focussed on Sensual Debussy, opening with the piece in which the composer effectively became himself. Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) began proceedings, its pervasive sensation of lazy eroticism palpably conveyed. This segued into Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) – a rare instance of Debussy’s acappella writing, its lithe alternation of solo and ensemble voices enticingly conveyed by the Birmingham University Singers. Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (above) then directed a perceptive account of La Damoiselle élue (1888), its Rossetti text inspiring a cantata whose luminous modality and ecstatic lyricism fairly define musical pre-Raphaelitism. Soprano Ilse Eerens was eloquent in the ‘title-role’ and mezzo Aga Mikolaj (below) searching in her narrative, with the CBSO Youth Chorus’s singing ethereal but never cloying.

Mikolaj returned for three of Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz (1914) and captured their capricious flights of fancy as made one wish the whole cycle of eight could have been given. This might have been preferable to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) that rounded-off the concert – finely played and convincingly directed, save for a rather jarring accelerando toward the climax of the Prelude, but whose emotional intensity was rationalized by Debussy into something more oblique and understated. As had just been heard in the latter’s Nocturnes (1899), first of his orchestral triptychs and a marvel of shifting textures in Nuages, then ominous evocation in Fêtes. The diaphanous yearning of Sirènes was hardly less evident; less than perfect integration with its female voices the only real flaw.

Sunday afternoon brought Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a programme devoted to Debussy’s Legacy. Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) set the scene with its wave-like eddying of pithy motifs, then the music of Tristan Murail (above) took centre-stage with pieces from across three decades of his career. Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) is a reminder of how radical yet understated (à la Debussy) his music must have sounded in a French scene dominated by Boulezian serialism, harmonic overtones a constant around which the ensemble inhales then exhales its glistening timbres. How Murail got there was duly underlined by Couleur de mer (1969): almost his first acknowledged work, its five sections pit serial constructions against a more intuitive take on harmony and texture in music whose eruptive central span is almost as startling as its cadential sense of closure. Between these, Feuilles à travers les cloches (1998) is an evocative and eventful miniature anticipating the stark post-impressionism of Murail’s more recent music. Fastidious playing from BCMG, and perceptive direction by Julien Leroy.

The CBSO returned that Sunday evening for Modern Debussy, another hour-long sequence opening with a further account of Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune in the arrangement that Schoenberg’s pupil Benno Sachs made in 1921. With flute, oboe and antique cymbals left in place, and harmonium ingeniously filling-out the ensemble, this proved an appealing novelty and ideal complement to the Première Rapsodie (1910) in which Debussy transformed a test-piece into a minor masterpiece – CBSO principal clarinettist Oliver Janes as responsive to its melodic elegance as to its deft virtuosity.

Responsive in support, Graźinytė-Tyla then directed a bracing account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921) where some refined playing toned down the 1947 revision’s asperities. A pity Takemitsu’s exquisite Green had to be dropped (were the parts not received in time?), but Michael Seal presently took charge for a characterful reading of Jeux (1913) – confirming Debussy’s developing variation as no less crucial than Stravinsky’s mosaic-like construction to the evolution of music this past century.

Food for thought, indeed, over the course of this first weekend – not least for reminding one of just how central to modern Western music Debussy’s presence has been. Hopefully, too, the overall quality of interpretation will be maintained throughout next weekend’s concerts.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website

 

BCMG – Celebrating Carter

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Elliott Carter (above)
Mosaic (2004)
Bariolage (1992)
Two Controversies and a Conversation (2010/11)
Two Thoughts about the Piano (2007)
Double Trio (2011)
Epigrams (2012)

Town Hall, Birmingham; Sunday 28 January 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Little of Elliott Carter’s music was heard in Birmingham during his lifetime, but an account of the then recent song-cycle In Sleep, In Thunder remains vivid in the memory 35 years on. That was directed by Oliver Knussen, who was latterly assiduous in the scheduling and even commissioning of the composer with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, which this afternoon devoted a whole programme to Carter and was conducted for the first time by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

A composer who not only lived to a great age but continued writing up until his death meant that BCMG had a sizable number of pieces from which to choose. It was an astute move to open with Mosaic, as this eventful piece is a paradigm for that ‘late late style’ Carter evolved in his 90s. Harp is the first among equals here, Carter having spoken of his desire to explore techniques developed by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo. Not that these are deployed for effect; indeed, this piece evinces an almost continuous ‘through line’ from which emerges a discourse as inventive as it is diverting – with an incitement to disciplined virtuosity that the musicians, not least Céline Saout, seized on with assurance. The harpist took centre stage for Bariolage, taking its cue from Rilke in what is a scintillating exploration of those techniques.

Nor is humour at a premium in this music. Two Controversies and a Conversation finds the piano at first mediating precariously between ensemble and percussion (first marimba, then woodblocks), before more balanced and equable discourse is made possible.

Carter’s earliest musical mentor, Charles Ives, would have been impressed by this refracted recollection of a concept he himself pursued in his Second String Quartet and while he might have been less convinced by the abstraction of Carter’s writing for piano, there can be little doubting the effectiveness of the latter’s Two Thoughts about the Piano. Complementary pieces too – the preoccupied and silence-riven progress of Intermittences countered by the linear velocity of Caténaires; Pierre-Laurent Aimard tackling both these pieces with his customary poise and precision.

Back in the early 1980s, Triple Duo was one of Carter’s most effervescent and entertaining works – its stealthy ingenuity posited in far more gnomic ways by Double Trio with its often impulsive if ultimately resigned interplay between violin, trombone and percussion as heard against trumpet, cello and piano.

Gražinytė-Tyla’s direction was at its most perceptive here, though it was left for Aimard, Alexandra Wood and Ulrich Heinen to take the platform for what was Carter’s final work. Epigrams consists of 12 refractory miniatures for piano trio (designed by the composer so that their cohesion would be assured however many were completed) – their salient gestures constantly though unpredictably recurring such that their diversity is never achieved at the expense of their unity, however hard-won this may seem.

If there was anything predictable here, it was the conviction and technical finesse of tonight’s performance, rounding off a programme as compact and absorbing as the music itself. Those yet to do so should investigate BCMG’s disc of Carter’s ‘late music’ as a matter of urgency.

For more information about Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, visit the ensemble’s website

Further listening

You can listen to the BCMG’s disc of Carter that Richard refers to on Spotify below:

Proms premieres – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

bcmg

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

Proms premieres – Johannes Schöllhorn, Shiori Usui, Betsy Jolas and Joanna Lee
Ulrich Heinen (cello), Hilary Summers (contralto), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Franck Ollu (Proms Saturday Matinee 1)

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e9h9rz#b063d52d

What’s the story behind the pieces?

Four Proms premieres in one concert here, given by the ever-enterprising Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. They begin with Johannes Schöllhorn’s arrangements of three Boulez Notations, plus a transcription for ensemble of a fragment from each of the thirteen originals – one bar from each, in fact! The arrangements are Notations 2, 11 & 10, while the collage is La treizième.

Shiori Usui’s piece has an extremely macabre background, and is not for the faint-hearted! Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. is a nasty little fungus – as in an infectious fungus that completely eats up the ants that are unfortunate enough to capture it. Usui was struck by an image of one in a nature magazine, and this gave her the sounds she wanted to create.

Betsy Jolas, meanwhile, says of Wanderlied in an onstage interview that “I was trying to make the listeners imagine an old woman going from town to town as a storyteller”. The old woman in this case is a cello, accompanied by the instrumental ensemble – and we are warned of a ‘surprise’ at the end.

Finally Joanna Lee’s Hammer of Solitude, for singer and ensemble. This was written with Boulez in mind, and when she looked at individual movement titles of his she was taken to writing about the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, and her life, using text by Rory Malarkey. This is a bleak piece indeed, for Lee chooses to devote the last of the three songs to Plath’s suicide.

Did you know?

The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has premiered over 160 works in its 27-year existence. It was born from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1987.

Initial verdict

Johannes SchöllhornNotations 2, 11 & 10; La treizième

johannes-schollhorn

An energetic set of pieces, benefiting from incredibly well drilled performances. With sharp phrases, these brief thoughts are distilled into really short paragraphs, with only the briefest period of relaxation. There is a wonderful rumble on the bass drum to finish La treizième, which is a great concept if rather difficult to follow!

Shiori Usui Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l.

shiori-usui

Drawing by Fumio Obata

Usui has certainly picked a grisly but rather captivating subject for a new composition, and given the scenario the music is very vivid – uncomfortably so in fact!

There is a striking, bluesy clarinet solo midway through, but, but by this time the ant appears to be giving up the ghost.

Then we hear some very ominous loud brass with a thumping bass drum, before macabre sounds signal the beginning of the end for the ant. Usui captures the forest and its clicks and murmurs with some imaginative scoring, while also conveying the really grotesque side of Mother Nature.

Betsy JolasWanderlied (from 21:28)

betsy-jolas

The cello feels restless from the beginning of this piece, while the rest of the ensemble appear to be painting the picture of a wider expanse, through which the old woman is travelling.

Not surprisingly the old woman takes the lead in the conversation throughout, and is very expressive. Its tone of speech is very much in the human range

The ‘surprise’ appears to be a form of hidden track, where the audience think the music has stopped, and begin to applaud, and then find that it hasn’t.

Joanna LeeHammer of Solitude

joanna-lee

The first song, Hammer Alone In The House, features a very distinctive half spoken / half sung vocal from the alto, above some atmospheric orchestral colouring. The Love Song has a little more tenderness, but The Suicide is much less forgiving. It is surely very difficult to portray such a bleak and decisive moment in music, but Lee does so powerfully.

Second hearing

Tbc!

Where can I hear more?

Right here! Embedded are sound clips for each composer’s work:

Johannes Schöllhorn

Shiori Usui

Betsy Jolas

Joanna Lee