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

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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

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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

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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

Live review – CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Brahms’ German Requiem & Mozart Serenade for wind

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Florian Boesch (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 March 2020

Mozart Serenade for wind in C minor K388 (1782-3)
Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Op.45 (1865-9)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season features several major choral works that have long been central to this orchestra’s repertoire. While it has received numerous readings (most recently with Andrew Manze), Brahms‘s A German Requiem is not among these – so it was fascinating to hear what Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla might make of a piece that, though it has never fallen from favour since its premiere 152 years ago, remains a stern interpretive test in terms of projecting formal integration and an expressive essence more elusive for its restraint.

In the event the performance was a fine one – not least because this conductor found the right balance between flexibility of motion, without which the textures all too easily risk stolidity, and that seriousness of manner without which the music soon loses any sense of purpose. A balance as evident in the lengthy second movement, the inexorable tread of its outer sections framing an interlude of wistful grace then with the ensuing fugue building animatedly to its serene close, as in the brief fourth movement whose blithe exterior conceals music of artful dexterity. Camilla Tilling (above) summoned a winsome response in the fifth movement, a late but necessary addition in its opening-out the work’s emotional range, while Florian Boesch (below) was suitably if not unduly vehement in his initial contributions to the third and sixth; the former crowned by a fugue of visceral and unflagging energy, though that in the latter movement marginally lost focus as its grandly rhetorical gestures ran their (too?) predictable course.

It is in the first and seventh movements that Brahms’s highly personal concept of redemption through love is at its most explicit, MG-T duly having the measure of their calmly insistent searching towards eventual catharsis – even if the finale’s gradual winding-down resulted in less than the ideal repose. The CBSO Chorus was on fine form throughout – a tribute to the expertise of associate chorus director Julian Wilkins, who also made a pertinent contribution in an organ part no less crucial for its understatement; underpinning and often motivating an orchestration which adds in no small measure to the work’s humane and compassionate spirit.

A relatively short first half gave welcome opportunity for the CBSO’s woodwind to take the stage for an un-conducted reading of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, last in his trilogy of such pieces which transcended an ostensibly lightweight genre and, in doing so, made possible the emotional substance of the symphonies that followed. Ensemble seemed a shade insecure in the opening Allegro, but its underlying intensity carried over to an Andante whose ineffable rapture was itself contrasted with the textural severity of the Menuetto. Best, though, was the final Allegro – a set of variation on an unassuming theme with the formal outline of a sonata-rondo made explicit with its major-key ending. Overall, a winning account of a piece whose scoring for wind octet has gained it less exposure than Mozart’s comparable orchestral works.

It also made for an unlikely while successful coupling and a similarly thought-provoking one is scheduled for next Tuesday, MG-T making her first foray into Bruckner with the erstwhile elusive Sixth Symphony alongside the deceptive simplicity of Bartók‘s Third Piano Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded either of these works before but these are fine alternatives:

For further information on the current season of CBSO concerts, visit the orchestra’s website

Live review – Soloists, CBSO Chorus & Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Mahler Symphony no.8

Erin Wall (soprano, Magna Peccatrix), Natalya Romaniw (soprano, Una poenitentium), Katja Stuber (soprano, Mater Gloriosa), Karen Cargill mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano, Maria Aegyptiaca), A. J. Glueckert (tenor, Doctor Marianus), Roland Wood (baritone, Pater Ecstaticus), Morris Robinson (bass, Pater Profundus), CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Children’s Chorus, University of Birmingham Voices, Baltimore Choral Arts Society, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 18 January 2020

Mahler Symphony no.8 in E flat major ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1906)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The run-up to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s centenary features several major choral works – none more so than the Eighth Symphony by which Mahler essayed his grandest and most-inclusive musical conception, at a pivotal juncture in the evolution of Western culture.

If more frequent performances these past few decades have made this piece less of an event than it once was, there was no lack of occasion in tonight’s rendering. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla launched the setting of Veni, creator spiritus with an impulsiveness as held good throughout this first part. There were passing intonational flaws among the soloists, along with moments of awkward coordination between choruses and orchestra, but these were as little next to the eloquent ensemble at Qui diceris Paraclitus, the spectral interlude prior to Informa nostri corporis, the vast and cumulative fugal edifice at Accende lumen sensibus, or the ecstatic outpouring from Gloria sit Patri Domino; sustained here with an unerringly judged rhetoric as ensured that this music hit the ground running right through to its heady closing cadence.

Perhaps for this reason MG-T chose not to make a substantial pause before the setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust that forms the second part, enabling the accumulated intensity to carry over into this latter’s lengthy orchestral prelude with its mingled anxiety and pathos.

From its starkly evocative beginnings, Mahler’s singular take on the ultimate Enlightenment text can feel at best discursive, so it was a tribute to the conductor’s sense of overall cohesion that what can easily sprawl rarely, if ever, lost focus as the path to redemption is outlined in philosophical and, above all, musical terms. Highpoints included a notably ominous response in the Choir and Echo, a powerfully sustained solo from Morris Robinson then an equally soulful one from A. J. Glueckert, appealingly deft singing from the combined children’s and youth choirs (no hint of coyness or schmaltz here), then the exquisitely dovetailed interplay of Erin Wall, Karen Cargill and Alice Coote – during which their subtly contrasted timbres were heard to advantage against an orchestral backdrop of the greatest delicacy and poise.

Next to these, Roland Wood’s solo lacked fervour and that by Natalya Romaniw sounded a touch ill at ease, though Katja Stuber had all the rapture necessary for her brief offstage solo while Glueckert surged through his second solo on route to an orchestral interlude in which the rippling interplay of woodwind and keyboards was limpidly rendered. Even more telling was MG-T’s handling of their gradual evanescence, from where the final Chorus Mysticus emerges. Always a distinctive moment, it proved especially memorable for the way in which the massed voices unfolded their intensifying expressive curve towards those seismic closing bars – here afforded maximum impact through the conductor’s refusal to linger unnecessarily when the off-stage brass enters to bring the whole work grandly and majestically full circle.

Such reservations as there were will likely be remedied in tomorrow’s performance, yet while MG-T will doubtlessly uncover further depths and nuances in the future, it is hard to imagine she will deliver a reading of greater conviction or purposefulness than that heard this evening.

The reviewed performance is being repeated today, Sunday 19th January. Further information can be found at the CBSO website