In concert – Nicola Benedetti, CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada: Dvořák, Mendelssohn & Grigorjeva

Dvořák Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1892)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Grigorjeva In Paradisum (2012)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Nicola Benedetti (violin), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 20 September 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been a largely mainstream programme, but tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra drew a capacity house at the beginning of a season in which Kazuki Yamada takes on the reins for what looks an eventful new era near the start of the orchestra’s second century. The CBSO’s response in Dvořák’s Carnival Overture more than confirmed it was ready for the challenge – Yamada ensuring the nocturnal evocation at its centre worked its evocative spell, then building an irresistible momentum going into the thrilling final bars.

Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto cannot have been absent from many of the CBSO’s previous 102 seasons and made its appearance this evening, Nicola Benedetti tackling a piece she must herself have played on many occasions. Not that there was anything routine about a reading such as abounded in subtle touches – especially the opening Allegro’s cadenza, which more than usually fulfilled its role as this movement’s structural fulcrum. In the Andante, Benedetti pointed up the expressive contrast between its main themes; the second of which was notable for a tonal astringency that brought out its plangency in full measure. If there was nothing so arresting in the finale, the interplay of soloist and orchestra was astutely judged through to the effervescence of the closing bars. Certainly, a performance to make one enjoy the piece anew.

Introducing the second half, Yamada requested the audience remain silent during the pause between pieces – the first a setting of In Paradisum by Ukrainian-born Galina Grigorjeva (b 1962), its lucid harmonies and heady culmination bringing the best out of the CBSO Chorus.

From here to the New World Symphony was no great step. Once again, a work rarely absent from the CBSO’s schedule seemed largely revitalized. Not that all of Yamada’s interpretative decisions came off – after an introduction of no mean gravitas the opening Allegro unfolded a little fitfully, though so interventionist an approach might have gained from the exposition repeat to place these in greater context. There were similar touches in the Largo, yet here the focus of Yamada’s conception and the raptness of the player’s concentration were their own justification – not least towards the close, with the front desks combining to poignant effect. Without being driven as ruthlessly as is often the case, the Scherzo has the requisite impetus and, throughout its trio, a whimsical elegance which proved as engaging as the charged coda.

Heading into the final Allegro with minimal pause, Yamada brought out its inherent force but also the ruminative eloquence of its second theme; the transition to which, in the reprise, was ideally judged. Nor did the apotheosis lack for drama as those closing bars melted into silence.

Prior to the start of this concert, a minute’s silence was observed then (most of) the audience joined in possibly its first rendering of God Save the King. A more localized farewell was paid later in the evening to Colin Twigg, first violinist for over 31 years and whose retirement will hopefully see more of his own compositions as have featured in Centre Stage recitals over the years. A miscellany is featured on a Toccata Classics release and worth anyone’s investment. The CBSO will be back in action on Saturday with a major new commission from Brett Dean.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For further information on the night’s artists, click on the names for composer Galina Grigorjeva, and for artists Nicola Benedetti and Kazuki Yamada

BBC Proms #49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony

Prom 49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Birtwistle Donum Simoni MMXVIII (2018)
Mahler Symphony no.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 24 August 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

The words of Gustav Mahler were never more appropriate than in the context of this exceptional BBC Proms concert, as Sir Simon Rattle and assembled forces from London and Birmingham threw body and soul into a spectacular performance of the composer’s Symphony no.2.

This, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony, puts its listener through the emotional wringer on a journey inhabiting life and death itself. The work has become a calling card for Rattle, too – he marked the opening of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with a memorable performance in 1991, and took his leave of the CBSO with the same piece. Here, as he prepares to step down as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, he was marking the turning of a page through a move to pastures new in Bavaria, where he will become Chief Conductor of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Bavarian Radio Chorus.

The pastures were a standout feature of this performance – but we began in turmoil, the huge first movement funeral march rumbling into gear with lines hewn from granite in the lower strings. Rattle pushes this movement forward much more than he once did, keeping a firm hand on the tiller, but with immediate and full immersion in Mahler’s thoughts. As the first movement took shape the horrors of death revealed themselves – along with hopes of sunnier climes through some beautifully shaded rustic scenes. Yet the chill winds kept returning, ultimately sweeping these away as the movement closed in their bleak acceptance.

Many accounts of the ‘Resurrection’ lose their focus at this point, but not this one. Instead we had a balletic triple time Ländler, danced with grace as the feather-light strings had their charming way. The main theme swelled like a newly budding flower, and although ghoulish reminders of the first movement persisted, this was the abiding impression. As Rattle pressed on without a break, however, the reveries were abruptly quashed by the hammer and tongs of the third movement Scherzo. Here the music twisted and turned sharply, the LSO responding to its conductor with peerless virtuosity in music of fire and brimstone. Percussion, wind and brass were superb.

Then, as the music teetered on the point of collapse, it was time to be borne away with the consoling tones of Dame Sarah Connolly (above, right). A consummate Mahlerian, she sang with compelling strength and grace, a powerful stage presence in league with Rattle, who presided over accompaniment of the greatest clarity. Connolly’s Urlicht was beautifully judged, taking us ever nearer to the wondrous entry of the choir.

Now time stood still. The audience, especially in the arena, were rooted to the spot at the massed choirs of the CBSO Chorus and London Symphony Chorus, singing as one in magically hushed tones. As the finale took shape it was by turns earth-moving and tender. Scenes flashed before the eyes, and an especially vivid episode from brass and percussion in the gallery observed a village-band intimacy. Here the Royal Albert Hall was utilised to its full potential, managing the wide scope of Mahler’s vision to perfection.

At the centre of this apocalyptic finale, percussion depicted the rising of the dead and the release of their chains, Rattle intentionally dragging his feet here to heighten the seismic impact. And then we were free, the resurrection itself met with blazing colours all around as the choirs sang Friedrich Klopstock’s text ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst di’ (‘Rise again, yea rise again, shalt thou’) as though their lives depended on it. Was it fanciful to suggest three years’ worth of pent-up emotion being released at this point? Probably not, when you consider the day-to-day roles of the choral singers themselves – carers, key workers, parents and children alike – with all finding the time and the need to bring us this music of the utmost quality.

Great credit should go to chorus director Simon Halsey for securing such discipline and humanity in the texts, and to soprano Louise Alder (both above with Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Simon Rattle). Alder sang above the masses with perfectly judged dynamics and phrasing, like Connolly fully aware of the scope of her role. Organist Richard Gowers added the icing on the cake, underpinning the throng with ideally judged balance.

This was a performance to talk about for years to come, a throwing-open of the doors to proclaim that music can – really – triumph over pretty much anything, the ‘Resurrection’ symphony, clearing everything in its path.

As an upbeat to the symphony we heard a short gift to Rattle from Sir Harrison Birtwistle, to whose memory the Prom was dedicated.  Donum Simoni MMXVIII was typical of its composer, a spiky and even snarky postcard firing out missives from the (superb) percussion section against barbed comments from wind and brass. Lasting barely four minutes, it served its function well – but for tonight, as Mahler would have wished, the symphony was everything.

You can listen to Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony on Spotify below, where the CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra are joined by soloists Arleen Auger and Dame Janet Baker:

In concert – Janai Brugger, Karen Cargill, CBSO Chorus & CBSO / Markus Stenz: Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony

CBSO season finale: Mahler.

Mahler Symphony no.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-94)

Janai Brugger (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Markus Stenz

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 25 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photos courtesy of Beki Smith

At the end of another season by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra what could be more fitting than the symphony to have been programmed by the orchestra’s last five principal conductors, defining the Simon Rattle era and been scheduled during the majority of seasons ever since?

Tonight’s performance (and that on the previous Wednesday) was to have been conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, but maternity leave occasioned an infrequent UK appearance (at least since his highly regarded tenure with London Sinfonietta in the mid-1990s) for Markus Stenz, who has recorded a Mahler cycle with the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne as centrepiece of his discography majoring on 20th-century music and that of the post-war era. A ‘Resurrection’, indeed, where this work’s ‘darkness to light’ trajectory seemed by no means a fait accompli.

Many are the conductors who, even now, ride roughshod across the first movement’s fraught trajectory or fall victim to a deceptively sectional unfolding; under Stenz, there was no doubt as to the cohesion with which dramatic and pastoral elements were drawn into an integrated and dynamic whole. Suffused if not overloaded with pathos, those closing pages carried over the ensuing (two-minute) pause into an Andante whose alternation of the genial and ominous was pointedly but never self-consciously evident. Felicitous playing here from CBSO strings and woodwind, then by the brass in a scherzo whose barbed irony and ‘dancing on a volcano’ volatility was tangible. Stenz was right to proceed directly through the latter four movements with minimal pause – so ensuring an intensifying emotional curve into those conflicts ahead.

First, Karen Cargill made for an eloquent though not ideally steady exponent of the ‘Urlicht’ setting with its calm before the storm of the vast closing movement. Positioned at upper left of the platform, she and Janai Brugger gave of their best in a setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s (suitably Mahler-ized) hymn Die Auferstehung where the relatively lean CBSO Chorus gave notice of its long familiarity in this music. The route taken there brought out the best from the CBSO but also Stenz’s interpretive focus – the starkly contrasted orchestral episodes evincing a formal logic and expressive inclusiveness that, with playing of unfailing clarity (not least by his antiphonal placing of the violins), ensured the finale never degenerated into a sequence of dramatic tableaux – the sureness of Mahler’s symphonic reach tangible throughout its course.

At around 85 minutes, this was a spacious while never lethargic reading which positioned the work as a precursor to the existential symphonic battles ahead rather than the culmination of a symphonic lineage stretching back to Beethoven’s Fifth. Nor was there any impersonality or lack of conviction with Stenz’s approach – his grip on the formal dimensions of the outer movements being matched by his conception of the work as a cohesive and cumulative unity. The CBSO’s playing married assurance with a palpable sense of responding ‘to the moment’.

Birmingham might have waited until 1975 to hear Mahler Two, but it gave the premiere of Stanford’s Requiem back in 1897 and gives this work again when Martyn Brabbins directs the CBSO in a revival next Saturday. An event which, in itself, is of no mean significance.

For more information on the CBSO visit their website, and for more on the soloists click on the names to read about Janai Brugger, Karen Cargill and conductor Markus Stenz

In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus & CBSO / John Butt: Handel’s Messiah

John-Butt

Handel Messiah HWV56 (1741)

Mary Bevan (soprano), Reginald Mobley (countertenor), James Gilchrist (tenor), Christopher Purves (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / John Butt (harpsichord)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 8 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Unlikely as it might seem, the CBSO Chorus had never given Handel’s Messiah before this evening – the regular stream of performances by choral societies or the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra having other priorities putting paid to any such intention until tonight.

Not that Messiah has ever lacked for performances since its Dublin premiere in April 1742 – after which, it soon became recognized as, if not necessarily the finest of Handel’s numerous oratorios, then certainly the most representative; a template for the genre such as dominated music-making in Britain over the next 175 years. His text drawn freely from the Old and New Testaments, Charles Jennens relates Christ’s birth, death and resurrection then triumph of the Christian gospel in meaningful while not profound terms as were bound to strike a resonance.

Formerly the work falls into three parts of 16 scenes and 53 individual (not always separate) numbers, ranging from brief solo recitatives to lengthy arias and extended choruses in what became a blueprint for those oratorios as followed apace over the next decade. Although all four soloists share in relating aspects of the narrative, there is no division into specific roles as in Passion settings; itself a sure means of conveying a dramatic scenario without the need to endow musical content with an overly theatrical aspect as might have become distracting.

Tonight’s soloists evidently had no lack of familiarity with the work. For all their individual excellence, the deftness of Reginald Mobley’s lightly inflected alto, mellifluousness of James Gilchrist’s high tenor and elegance of Christopher Purves’s lyric baritone perhaps limited the emotional contrast possible between solo items. This was hardly the case with Mary Bevan (above), whose eloquent assumption of the soprano numbers, not least an I know that my Redeemer liveth as brought out the pathos of music that long ago seemed to have become its own stereotype.

Otherwise (not unreasonably) it was the choral items which really hit home. Enthused by the chance to sing this work the CBSO Chorus gave its collective all: whether in those energetic earlier choruses, fervent anticipation of Glory to God in the highest, contrapuntal vigour of Hallelujah or the majestic accumulation of Worthy is the Lamb, whose elaborate ‘Amen’ was powerfully rendered. Simon Halsey and Julian Wilkins (behind the organ manual) had evidently ensured that, for the CBSOC’s rare outing in this work, nothing was left to chance.

Not that the CBSO’s contribution was found at all wanting. Avoiding a temptation to try out one of the latter-day orchestrations, the string sections were modest (10.8.6.4.2) while almost always achieving a viable balance with the chorus. Bassoon, theorbo and organ constituted a discreet continuo, Matthew Hardy’s timpani underpinned the final choruses and Gwyn Owen was superb in the concertante role of The trumpet shall sound. Directing at the harpsichord, John Butt secured playing of incisiveness and depth with no recourse to specious authenticity. Given that the CBSO Chorus celebrate its half-century next year, it might have been thought advisable to schedule this performance during 2023. No matter – tonight proved a memorable occasion and it seems highly unlikely that a repeat account will have to wait another 49 years.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021/22 season, visit their website, and for details on the newly announced 2022/23 season click here. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of John Butt, Mary Bevan, Reginald Mobley, James Gilchrist and Christopher Purves

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: