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 – Soloists, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Robert Nathaniel Dett – The Ordering of Moses

Ives (orch. Schuman) Variations on ‘America’ (1891/1962)
Bernstein (orch. Ramin & Kostal)
 Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ (1957/61)
Dett
The Ordering of Moses (1937) [UK premiere]

Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Chrystal E Williams (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Eric Greene (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 23 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was an all-American programme, centred as it was upon the first performance in this country for what is likely the most ambitious work by the African/American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943).

Although he gained prominence as a choral conductor (his Hampton Choir having performed for President Hoover and Britain’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald), Canadian-born Dett failed to make a lasting breakthrough as composer – his death when barely 61 confining him to a footnote in American cultural history. The ‘sacred cantata’ The Ordering of Moses was a statement of intent when submitted for his MMus in June 1932. Adapted from Exodus and Lamentations, its text describes the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt by the parting of the Red Sea over the course of 55 eventful minutes. The brooding prelude is rich in atmospheric writing for lower woodwind and brass, while the climactic sequence draws wordless chorus and orchestra into a graphic depiction of the ‘crossing’; after which, thanks is rendered unto God in suitably festive terms – Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast an audible precedent. Much has been made of the use of spirituals but, apart from the rallying presence of ‘Go down, Moses’, they serve more a textural and harmonic role in heightening the music’s expressive potency.

A potency owing in no small part to its vocal and choral forces. Eric Greene was predictably sonorous in his eloquence when setting the scene as ‘The Word’, while Chrystal E Williams made the most of her small if crucial part as ‘The Voice of Israel’. Most memorable, though, were those contributions of Rodrick Dixon as the impulsive and ardent Moses, then Nadine Benjamin whose Miriam exuded poignancy and fervour in equal measure. The CBSO Chorus represented ‘The Children of Israel’ in suitably implacable and ultimately affirmative terms.

The whole performance was ably handled by Joshua Weilerstein, who ensured certain more discursive episodes in the cantata’s earlier stages never hung fire and drew a lusty response from the CBSO. Astute programming, moreover, in preceding a still little-known work with staples from the American repertoire. It might not encapsulate the whole of the musical, but Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ captures its essence via orchestration (with judicious assistance from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) as made a suitable impact here.

Surprising that William Schuman’s bracing orchestration of the teenage Charles Ives’s bravura organ piece Variations on ‘America’ does not enjoy more regular performance this side of the pond, or perhaps the quirky and increasingly uproarious incarnations of what Weilerstein pointedly referred to as the National Anthem of Lichtenstein still rankles with home-grown listeners? Whatever the case, the conductor made a persuasive case for this engaging and effervescent music to be heard more frequently – the CBSO players remaining straight-faced throughout.

It certainly provided an irreverent curtain-raiser to an engrossing programme as may yet have blazed a trail. More little-known American music on Sunday when Weilerstein directs only a second UK outing for Florence Price’s Piano Concerto, alongside Korngold and Tchaikovsky.

For more information on the next CBSO Youth Orchestra concert, click here. For more on the composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, head to a website devoted to his work. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artsts – Joshua Weilerstein, Nadine Benjamin, Chrystal E Williams, Roderick Dixon and Eric Greene

In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus & City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Mirga conducts The Cunning Little Vixen

mirga-cunning-vixen

The Cunning Little Vixen

Opera in Three Acts
Music and Libretto by Leoš Janáček (revised edition by Jiří Zahrádka)
Sung in Czech (English surtitles by Paula Kennedy)

Elena Tsallagova, soprano – Vixen Sharp Ears
Roland Wood, baritone – The Forester
Angela Brower, mezzo – The Fox
Robert Murray, tenor – Schoolmaster / Mosquito / Pásek
Kitty Whately, mezzo – Dog / Forester’s Wife / Woodpecker / Owl
Elizabeth Cragg, soprano – Chief Hen / Jay
William Thomas, bass – Badger / Parson / Harašta
Ella Taylor, soprano – Mrs Pesak / Cock

Thomas Henderson, stage director
Laura Pearse, designer
Jonathan Burton, surtitle operator
Sarah Playfair, casting

Children from Trinity Boys Choir and Old Palace School, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 16 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There could have been no more appropriate an opera for performing at the end of a year like this than Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, given its acutely life-affirming message in the wake of that apathy which threatens to overrun society during a time of continued uncertainty.

Although his Glagolitic Mass was a decisive marker in its early association with Sir Simon Rattle, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has given relatively little Janáček such that this account of his most approachable stage-work was timely in any event. Despite the early start, there was no interval to interrupt the course of its 95-minute trajectory, with those illustrative elements of Thomas Henderson’s stage direction largely restricted to the menagerie gathering around the Forester at his first and last appearances. Here, some deft acting from the children involved and Laura Pearse’s piquant stage-design created an enticingly whimsical basis from which to project those often equivocal and increasingly raw emotions that give this opera its unwavering provocation and, as a consequence, the profundity arising out of its very naivety.

The cast was a strong one and fronted, as it needed to be, by Elena Tsallagova’s rendering of Vixen Sharp Ears – as witty, sensual and as galvanizing a presence as any in recent memory. Not least her interplay with The Fox – to which role Angela Brower brought warmth and not a little empathy, even if her vocal timbre was not ideally contrasted with that of the Vixen. In the role of The Forester, Roland Wood took a secure course from angry cynicism to wisdom born of maturity – exactly the kind of persona Janáček himself would love to have embodied.

The remaining singers all brought a variety of virtues to their multiple roles – not least Kitty Whatley, her put-upon Dog and irascible Forester’s Wife conveyed with precision as well as elegance. Robert Murray was astute casting as the hapless and lovelorn Schoolmaster, while Elizabeth Cragg gave a winning cameo as the feckless Chief Hen – not least in her fractious confrontation with Ella Taylor’s vainglorious Cock. Credit, also, to William Thomas for his poignant world weariness as the Parson or studied incomprehension as the poacher Harašta.

The CBSO Chorus and children’s voices acquitted themselves ably during their limited but pertinent contributions, while the CBSO gave of something approaching its collective best over the course of a score that abounds in the quirks and deceptive non-sequiturs typical of Janáček’s maturity. No other opera of his evinces such characterful or felicitous writing for woodwind, the sheer dexterity of these musicians enhanced by their being on the platform rather than in the pit. Nor were the strings, notably violins, at all fazed by the often cruelly exposed passagework. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a sure sense of where each of the three acts was headed, and if the final scene felt initially a little temperate, the tangible fervour and all-enveloping eloquence generated towards its apotheosis was never in doubt.

Lucky audiences in Dortmund, Hamburg and Paris who will hear this performance when the CBSO takes it on tour during the next week. Hopefully further Janáček operas will feature in MGT’s ongoing association with this orchestra – the omens could hardly be more favourable.

Further information on European performances can be found here. The CBSO’s January to July 2022 season can be found at the orchestra’s website

In concert – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: A Covid Requiem

mirga-grazinyte-tyla

Adès O Albion (1994, arr. 2019)
Pärt
Fratres (1977, arr. 1991)
Purcell (arr. Britten)
Chacony in G minor Z730 (c1680, arr. 1948)
Barber
Adagio in B flat minor Op.11 (1935, arr. 1936)
interspersed with poetry readings by Casey Bailey
Fauré
Requiem in D minor Op.48 (1887-90, rev. 1893)

James Platt (bass), Casey Bailey (poet), CBSO Children’s Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Tomo Keller (violin/director), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 6 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Even if live music-making has gradually been returning to how it was, the (ongoing) legacy of Coronavirus could hardly be overlooked, thus a concert such as that given this evening by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a necessary act of remembrance for all the many concertgoers to have been affected by the pandemic. As befitted such an occasion, no speeches or prefatory remarks were needed, with the darkening of the auditorium during the performance a simple but effective gesture which helped focus musicians and listeners alike.

Strings only were onstage in the first half – Tomo Keller directing a sequence as began with O Albion, Thomas Adès’s arrangement of the sixth movement from his quartet Arcadiana, whose gentle pathos made for the ideal entrée. Arvo Pärt has written numerous memorials and while Cantus might have been more appropriate in this context than Fratres, the latter’s sparing deployment of percussion as to underline its ritualistic emergence then withdrawal conveyed no mean eloquence. Surprising, perhaps, that Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony is not heard more frequently on such occasions, its expressive intensification here informed by an acute rhythmic clarity. Barber’s Adagio is, of course, a staple at these times – the visceral emotion of its climax and subdued fatalism that ensues audibly conveyed here.

Interspersed between these pieces were poems by Casey Bailey, currently Birmingham Poet Laureate and whose readings were undeniably affecting in their sincerity – whether the heady reportage of 23.03.21 (a date no-one in the UK could hope to forget), the intimate evocation of Weight or graphic remembrance of Once. His appearances on stage were precisely judged as to segue into then out of the music either side and it was a pity when he did not take a call at the end of this first half, alongside the CBSO strings, given his contribution to proceedings.

Tomo Keller remained for the second half – adding ethereal counter-melodies to two of the sections in Fauré’s Requiem, whose 1893 version is without violins but with divided violas and cellos along with reduced woodwind and brass to make for a reading closer to the initial conception and certainly more apposite tonight. Her credentials in the choral repertoire well established, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a real sense of this work’s essential poise but without neglecting any deeper emotions. James Platt brought a ruminative warmth to the Hostias and Libera me, and it was an inspired touch to have the Pie Jesu sung in unison by the Children’s Chorus; its plaintiveness offsetting those richer tones of the Youth Chorus and CBSO Chorus, while opening-out the music’s textural and expressive range accordingly.

In one sense it would have been better had this concert not had to take place, given the legacy it commemorated (as was witnessed by the personal recollections occupying five pages of the programme) and yet, as those ethereal strains of the In Paradisum receded beyond earshot, a feeling of the Covid crisis having been recognized then overcome was palpable on the part of those present. Moreover, the CBSO’s next event is a performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – surely as transcendent and life-affirming an experience as could be hoped for.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Casey Bailey, click here, for James Platt click here, and for Tomo Kellner here

In concert – Carolyn Sampson, Anna Lapwood, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Poulenc Gloria & Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

Yamada_Kazuki_5142_c_Zuzanna_Specjal

Tchaikovsky Solemn Overture ‘The Year 1812’ Op.49 (1880)
Poulenc
Gloria FP177 (1959)
Fauré
Messe Basse IGF50 (1881 rev.1906)
Saint-Saëns
Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1886)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anna Lapwood (organ), CBSO Youth Chorus (Julian Wilkins, director), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Zuzanna Specjal (Kazuki Yamada), Marco Borggreve (Carolyn Sampson), Kirsten McTernan/BBC (Anna Lapwood)

It was no doubt coincidental that this opening concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new season was typical of those programmes which one-time chief conductor Louis Frémaux gave with this orchestra during the mid-1970s, in its featuring two of his French specialities.

Back then, Poulenc’s Gloria could still be regarded as contemporary music, though its adept borrowing from the Stravinsky textbook married to the French composer’s insouciant brand of expressivity is arguably more widely accepted now than in that often style-conscious era. It duly responded to Kazuki Yamada’s keen impetus in the opening Gloria then the bracing syncopation of Laudamus te or a joyously animated Domine Fili. Carolyn Sampson (above) was an elegantly detached soloist in Domine Deus, opening-out emotionally in the Agnus Dei whose inward ecstasy was unerringly conveyed. Yamada elided deftly between the surging energy then calm resignation of the final Qui sedes; here, as throughout, the CBSO Chorus bringing supplicatory warmth to music it has been associated with almost since its founding.

Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony was a familiar item at CBSO concerts during the Frémaux era and one that the present-day orchestra tackled with no less alacrity. Yamada was clearly (and rightly) intent on stressing its symphonic cohesion – drawing ominous expectancy from the first half’s Adagio introduction then securing a powerful momentum in the main Allegro, before the organ’s hushed entry for a chastely eloquent slow movement. There was no lack of incisiveness or humour in the second half’s scherzo, not least its scintillating passagework for piano duet, but also purposeful intent as segued directly into the finale with its indelible main theme and its methodical build-up to an electrifying peroration. Here, too, Anna Lapwood’s (below) subtle choice of registration underlined motivic resourcefulness more than gestural brilliance.

In between these works, opening the second half, Fauré’s Messe Basse enjoyed relatively rare revival (at least in the concert hall). Initially a collaboration with André Messager, Fauré later essayed a complete setting of what is a Missa brevis (thus omitting the Gloria and Credo) for female voices and which sounds no less apposite when rendered, as here, by young singers. The CBSO Youth Choir summoned a poised detachment under the assured guidance of Julian Wilkins, abetted by Lapwood’s thoughtful accompaniment in this modest yet appealing piece.

One aspect of this programme that Frémaux would not have opted for was to commence with Tchaikovsky’s 1812, though few would surely dissent given the all-round focus of Yamada’s conception. Not least when the CBSO Chorus added its yearning tones to the opening section, returning towards the close for an emotive rendering of ‘God Save the Tsar’ to cap an already resplendent apotheosis. Tubular bells and Mahler-type mallet more than compensated for the absence of canon et al when this piece is trotted out at the end of a ‘greatest hits’ assemblage.

It was indeed fortuitous that Yamada open this season given his recent appointment as Chief Conductor of the CBSO from April 2023. He returns in due course, while next week brings Sarah Connolly for a rare hearing for Chausson’s rapturous Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday 18 September at Symphony Hall – click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, while for more on Kazuki Yamada you can visit the conductor’s website