In concert – Eugene Tzikindelean, CBSO / Alpesh Chauhan: Brahms, Nielsen & Shostakovich

Brahms Tragic Overture Op. 81 (1880)
Nielsen Violin Concerto DF61 (1911)
Shostakovich Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Eugene Tzikindelean (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Alpesh Chauhan

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 December 2022 [2.15pm]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A gratifyingly large house greeted this afternoon concert given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its former assistant conductor Alpesh Chauhan, taking in works long established in the repertoire and a concerto which remains on or about its periphery.

Tackling Brahms’s Tragic Overture depends on whether one sees it as an overture pure if not so simple, or as a tone poem with its ‘programme’ subsumed into the music’s inner workings. Chauhan favoured a viable mid-way course, his steady if never flaccid approach keeping its sonata design firmly in view but with enough expressive license to bring out the pathos in its second main theme and, especially, that spellbinding transition to its reprise when a wistful vulnerability steals over the music as if denying the implacable fatalism otherwise dominant.

CBSO leader Eugene Tzikindelean then took the stage as soloist. A bold if unexpected choice for such an appearance, Nielsen’s Violin Concerto has never quite received its due outside of Denmark but that it makes a cogent impression was never in doubt in a reading as insightful as this. Its Praeludium keenly yet sensitively rendered, Tzikindelean despatched the ensuing Allegro with the right chivalrousness and suavity. A broken string in the development caused only minimal delay as he produced its replacement then restrung his instrument with alacrity.

Its self-sufficient halves make sustaining an overall trajectory the crucial factor in this piece and Tzikindelean succeeded admirably, drawing inward rapture from the second movement’s lengthy Poco adagio before steering a never too hasty course through its lightly ironic Rondo. Tzikindelean responded to the enthusiastic response with the opening ‘Country Musicians’ section from Enescu’s Impressions d’Enfance as a delectable encore: maybe we can expect that composer’s Caprice Roumain or Pascal Bentoiu’s Violin Concerto on a future occasion?

Throughout this performance, Chauhan proved steadfast and attentive in support, then came into his own after the interval with an impressive take on Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. If the earlier stages of the Moderato seemed a little reined-in, the development accumulated the requisite intensity on the way to a powerfully conceived reprise, then a coda of aching regret. Steadier and less capricious than usual, the ensuing Allegretto yielded a keen impetus and, in its trio, a deftly ‘knowing’ contribution from Tzikindelean having retaken the leader’s chair.

It was the Largo that proved the highlight of this performance. Chauhan sustained its heartfelt interplay of themes with unforced rightness, CBSO woodwind heard to advantage in its rapt central episode before a climax of wrenching eloquence that subsided into expectant stillness. Launched (almost) attacca, the final Allegro unfolded with due emphasis on its ‘non troppo’ marking; its calculated aggression pointedly undercut by musing circumspection, before the heady ascent towards an apotheosis which was more than usually defiant in its equivocation.

A performance that provided ample indication of Chauhan’s emergence as a conductor of the front rank. Hopefully he will be returning to the CBSO soon, the latter’s activities continuing with the customary Christmas and Viennese New Year concerts with which to see out 2022

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Alpesh Chauhan and Eugene Tzikindelean

BBC Proms #42 – Jan Lisiecki, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard: Nielsen, Beethoven & Sibelius

Prom 42 – Jan Lisiecki (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Sibelius Symphony no.7 in C major Op.105 (1924)
Beethoven Piano Concerto no.4 in G major Op.58 (1804-6)
Nielsen Symphony no.4 FS76 ‘The Inextinguishable’ (1914-16)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 18 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

Ending his tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard directed this programme which once again played to both his and the orchestra’s strengths – in the process underlining just what they have achieved together over the past six seasons.

He might not have scheduled Sibelius quite so assiduously as his one-time predecessor Osmo Vänskä, but Dausgaard is hardly less perceptive in this composer as was proven with his take on the Seventh Symphony. If not a tale of two parts, the first half that resonated more deeply – an introduction shot through with expectancy that preceded a powerful build-up to the first emergence of the trombone theme, and an effortlessly accelerating ‘scherzo’ as made feasible a central climax of rare intensity. From here tension dropped a little over the course of a lucid yet (in this context) over-extended ‘intermezzo’, and if the approach to the final return of the trombone theme had the right inexorability, the strings’ climactic response was a little reined-in emotionally. Nor did the fraught cadence into the home-key have the desired inevitability.

Whether or not the Sibelius should open a concert, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto made for an ideal continuation. Stepping in at the eleventh hour, Jan Lisiecki is no stranger to this music such that his lightly articulated if rarely insubstantial tone complemented Dausgaard’s incisive but never headlong accompaniment. Just occasionally in the opening movement this jewel-like pianism felt a little self-defeating, though not with a lucid rendering of the (more familiar) cadenza or transition from the Andante into the finale of heart-stopping eloquence. The latter movement had the necessary vigour but also an appealing intimacy, as in the lower strings’ transition towards the final return of the rondo theme or those ruminative woodwind asides before the decisive coda. Chopin’s C minor Nocturne (1838) made for a limpid encore.

Keen to get on with proceedings, Dausgaard launched Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony after the interval before applause had subsided. Often a conductor willing to modify his approach, he might have steered the opening Allegro less forcefully given the textural detail that was lost in the Albert Hall’s ample expanse, but the twofold appearances of the ‘motto’ theme were magisterially rendered – the shocked transition into the intermezzo proving as mesmeric as this latter movement was affecting through its deft combination of winsomeness and pathos.

Equally memorable was Dausgaard’s handling of the slow movement, here exuding fervency without undue histrionics both in the searching string threnodies and the confiding passages either side – the latter of which provided a stealthy transition into the final Allegro. Here the placing of a second timpani set front-left in the arena made stretched the antiphonal contrast a little too obviously, but the music’s overall intent came across unscathed as the ‘motto’ made its climactic final appearance then those closing bars hit the ground as they should – running. Whether or not Dausgaard intended ‘Inextinguishable’ to sum up his music-making with the BBCSSO, or whether anything might be read into his wearing a Covid mask throughout, this concert was a worthy leave-taking. Hopefully he will not be absent from the UK for too long.

Click on the artist names for more information on Jan Lisiecki and Thomas Dausgaard, and for more information on the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra head to their website

BBC Proms #41 – Behzod Abduraimov, Elizabeth Watts, Benjamin Appl, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard: Nielsen ‘Sinfonia espansiva’, Beethoven & Ravel

Prom 41 – Behzod Abduraimov (piano), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Benjamin Appl (baritone), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Ravel La Valse (1919-20)
Beethoven Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15 (1795, rev. 1800)
Nielsen Symphony no.3 ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ (1910-11)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 17 August 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) Mark Allan

There is a changing of the guard in Glasgow. On his way in as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is the conductor, composer and pianist Ryan Wigglesworth, an exciting and evolving artist. He will replace Thomas Dausgaard, who leaves City Halls after six years and is signing off with two consecutive Proms of symphonies by his Danish compatriot, Carl Nielsen.

We began this concert in Paris, however, with a distinctly chilly account of Ravel’s La Valse. The horrors of the First World War encroach into Ravel’s writing, and were all too audible around the edges in this performance, which was brilliantly played and lucidly controlled. The feather-light strings of the opening bars ensured the dynamic contrasts were extreme, and when the full orchestra cut loose towards the end the effect was both exhilarating and terrifying, the ‘fatal whirring motion’ of Ravel’s inspiration collapsing in the final bars.

Dynamic contrasts were a feature, too, in a fine performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.1, with soloist Behzod Abduraimov. The Uzbek pianist was the ideal foil for the clarity of the reduced forces of the BBC SSO, giving an affectionate performance notable for its dance-like qualities. There were occasional rhythmic indulgences in the solo party, but these were both tasteful and well-managed, with Dausgaard alive to his flights of fancy. The dialogue with the orchestra was often exquisite, especially when piano and clarinet (Yann Ghiro) linked in the slow movement. Time stood still for an early example of one of Beethoven’s heavenly silences, before the Rondo danced its way into the minds of the audience for the interval. Stylishly played and with some attractive, witty touches, this was an endearing account of high technical quality. Abduraimov’s encore was slightly at odds with the feather-light touches displayed in the Beethoven, being a heavyweight performance of Mercutio from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet transcriptions for piano. There were fireworks and great virtuosity, though the significance of choosing a Ukrainian-born composer should not be overlooked.

Dausgaard returned after the interval to conduct his compatriot’s ‘most Danish’ symphony. David Gutman’s ever-helpful Proms notes revealed that Nielsen’s Sinfonia espansiva was somehow not performed at the Proms until 1990, and even this was its first Royal Albert Hall performance in 23 years. It was a memorable encounter, the high voltage first movement immediately into gear with its repeated notes surging forward, bursting through the dam. The exultant first movement was complemented by the radiance of the second, with wordless vocals from on high in the gallery supplied by soprano Elizabeth Watts and baritone Benjamin Appl. The combination, over hushed strings, enchanted the hall and made the best possible use of its spatial options. Surrounding their contributions were winsome cadenzas from the BBC Scottish woodwind, portraying the great Danish outdoors with crisp outlines.

The third movement built its energy cumulatively, all the while pointing towards the finale, where we heard the Danish ‘ode to joy’ in luxurious tones from assembled strings and horns. This was music of wide-eyed optimism, galvanizing orchestra, audience and conductor alike to an emphatic signing off. With contributions from golden brass and thundering timpani, this performance was truly expansive – and served to emphasise what the Proms audiences have been missing with this symphony all these years!

For more information, click on the names to discover more on the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their new chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth

Playlist: Herbert Blomstedt at 95

by Ben Hogwood

To mark the 95th birthday of the great Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt on Monday just gone, Arcana has put together a playlist including a snapshot of some of his greatest and most enduring recordings.

They include the Fifth Symphony of Nielsen, part of a landmark cycle of the composer’s symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for Decca. Blomstedt’s recordings with that orchestra in the 1990s were notable for their sonic prowess but left some critics cold; however on revisiting his Sibelius cycle, for instance, they stand up very well. The Third Symphony is included here, as is the first Peer Gynt Suite of Grieg.

Also in the 1990s came a trio of fascinating discs lending weight to the cause of Paul Hindemith. A disc of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, the Symphonic Metamorphoses and Trauermusik was to be expected, perhaps, but the follow-ups were even more valuable – a disc of the music for Nobilissima Visione, the Konzertmusik for Brass and Strings and Der Schwanendreher, and a pairing of the Symphonia Serena and symphony from the opera Die Harmonie der Welt, included here.

Blomstedt has more recently recorded a well-received Brahms cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, though prior to that recorded a fine disc of the composer’s choral works in San Francisco. With the Gewandhaus, however, he has completed his most recent release, that of Schubert’s Unfinished and Great symphonies. The former is included here. Enjoy this selection of wonderful recordings!

In concert – Clare Hammond, CBSO / Michael Seal: Nielsen, Grieg & Sibelius

clare-hammond-grieg

Nielsen Helios Overture FS32 (1903)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius
Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39 (1898-9)

Clare Hammond (piano, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 9 March 2022 (2.15pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A Scandinavian programme this afternoon from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, featuring music by the three most famous of this region’s composers (so no representation for Sweden), and presided over with his customary authority by CBSO’s associate conductor Michael Seal.

Unusual nowadays to have a programme consisting of overture, concerto and symphony – but Nielsen’s Helios is as fine a curtain-raiser as any, its ‘sunrise to sunset’ scenario captured with one of the most graphic crescendos and diminuendos in the literature. Seal ensured this gradual emergence, and its faster evanescence, were unerringly paced – the horns’ echoing sonorities enfolded into the orchestral texture; and if the intervening intermezzo and fugato rather tread water by comparison, their role within the formal scheme made for a cohesive overall entity.

Whether or not Grieg tired of hearing or at least playing his Piano Concerto, he would surely have appreciated Clare Hammond’s take on its solo part. The inedible opening gesture might have been less than usually arresting, but the opening movement proceeded methodically and often poetically so its structural seams were barely in evidence – culminating in a resourceful account of the cadenza with the composer’s motivic ingenuity much in evidence. Easy to pass off as a bland interlude, the Adagio had an appealing poise that opened into keen pathos at its height. Trenchant rather than impetuous, the outer sections of the finale were rarely less than engaging but it was the warm soulfulness at the centre that really struck home; its return for a triumphal apotheosis did not quite avoid portentousness, but it ensured a decisive conclusion.

A distinctive and, for the most part, convincing performance which Hammond followed with the caressing harmony of the eleventh from Szymanowski’s Op. 33 Etudes – music in marked contrast to the existential drama of Sibelius’s First Symphony which came after the interval.

The latter work’s emergence against a background of fraught self-determination has inevitably taken on far greater resonance during recent weeks, and it was to Seal’s credit that he played down any tendency to overt sentiment – rendering the first movement, its sombre introduction limpidly realized by Oliver Janes, as the striking and frequently innovative study in expressive contrasts it should be. Nor was there any lack of Tchaikovskian pathos in the Andante, whose whimsical passages were as vividly delineated as those eruptive outbursts towards its climax.

The ensuing Scherzo had the right rhythmic tensility and, in its central trio, enticing whimsy – but it was the Finale as set the seal on this performance. The ‘Quasi una fantasia’ marking can result in emotional overkill but Seal kept its prolix follow-through in focus at all times – whether with the anguished recall of the work’s initial theme, surging impetus of its swifter sections, or the heart-on-sleeve immediacy of its ‘big tune’; pervaded by an ambivalence to the fore in a peroration which (almost) avoided histrionics on the way to its fatalistic close.

A fine response from the CBSO, playing here with burnished eloquence and Matthew Hardy making the most of a timpani part that has structural as well as expressive significance. Few having heard it are likely to underestimate this work’s status in Sibelius’s symphonic output.

For more information on the CBSO’s current season, visit their website. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Clare Hammond and Michael Seal