In concert – Simon Höfele, CBSO / Kevin John Edusei: Street Music – Stravinsky, Ellington, Zimmermann & Rota

Rota La Strada – Suite (1954, rev. 1966)
Zimmermann Trumpet Concerto ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I See’ (1954)
Ellington (orch. Henderson) Harlem (1950-51)
Stravinsky Petrushka (1910-11, rev. 1947)

Simon Höfele (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kevin John Edusei

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 1 December 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was one with a difference, Kevin John Edusei directing a programme which avoided the Austro-German mainstream with a vengeance as it surveyed music with a distinctly ‘alternative’ outlook.

Federico Fellini’s La Strada accords with the realism of post-war Italian film, yet its acutely emotional undertow makes it equally prophetic and Nino Rota’s score embodies both aspects with its heady dance-music but also a plangent inwardness in those passages for solo violin (eloquently rendered here by Philip Brett) where the tragic relationship between Gelsomina and Zampanò is made explicit. The suite Rota subsequently derived from the music’s later incarnation as a ballet remains among the most significant of his output for the concert hall.

While Rota looks to popular idioms, Bernd Alois Zimmermann utilizes jazz in his Trumpet Concerto, its (later appended) subtitle denoting the spiritual as underpins much of its content and comes to the fore at crucial junctures. The subtly varied orchestration – with saxophones, Hammond organ and ‘rhythm section’ featuring electric guitar – is complemented by that for the soloist with its range of mutes and a virtuosity new to the classical domain which Simon Höfele despatched with alacrity born of conviction. The respectively brooding and headlong initial sections created an expectancy fulfilled by a climactic episode which was taken a little too fast for its layering of jazz rhythms to come through unimpeded, though the final section lacked nothing in evocative power as it subsided edgily towards a close of muted anguish.

Duke Ellington’s Harlem may now have become relatively familiar in concert, but few such performances can have conveyed the sheer panache as was evident here. Edusei traversed the numerous brief sections of this ‘Tone Parallel’ (commissioned but never conducted by Arturo Toscanini) with innate appreciation of their musical as well as scenic potency that culminates with a rhythmic energy whose effect was undeniably visceral. A little audience participation, moreover, did not go amiss in the final pages where the orchestra duly gave its collective all.

From social, via racial and cultural to psychological alienation. Stravinsky may have intended Petrushka as a vehicle primarily for balletic or orchestral display, but the inner two of its four tableaux, defining the contrasting psyches of Petrushka and the Moor as they compete for the attentions of the Ballerina, provide acute character portraits delineated here with needle-sharp clarity (not least by pianist James Keefe – his crucial obligato contribution vividly embedded within the orchestral texture). Nor did the outer tableaux lack for atmosphere – the sights and sounds of St Petersburg’s Shrovetide Fair palpably in evidence, Edusei securing more poise and pathos than was usual from the relatively utilitarian orchestration as Stravinsky revised it. The closing stages of Petrushka’s death and apparition felt spine-tingling in their immediacy.

This resourceful reading concluded what is sure to prove a highlight of the orchestra’s current season. Other concerts might attract larger attendances, but the attentiveness of those younger listeners present confirmed this as precisely the kind of event the CBSO should be presenting.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Simon Höfele and Kevin John Edusei

In concert – Clara-Jumi Kang, CBSO / Elena Schwarz: Dukas, Prokofiev & Dvořák

Dukas L’apprenti sorcier (1897)
Prokofiev Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor Op.63 (1935)
Dvořák Symphony no.8 in G major Op. 88 (1889)

Clara-Jumi Kang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Elena Schwarz

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 15 November 2022 2.15pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra followed the once customary format of overture, concerto and symphony for what was a compact but cohesive programme which duly highlighted the considerable conducting prowess of Elena Schwarz.

It may be a ‘symphonic scherzo’ rather than overture, but Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice after an early ballade by Goethe makes for an ideal curtain-raiser and if Schwarz stressed its purely musical rather than evocative qualities (there being little sense of Fantasia goings-on), the piece still packed a fair punch. Other accounts might have brought out more of that sense of teetering on the brink of disaster during its climactic stages though, a couple of awkward transitions and premature entries aside, this was rarely less than gripping as a performance.

So, too, was Clara-Jumi Kang in Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Long a staple of the repertoire, the work’s appeal can often be undermined by an emotional disengagement over its course. There was no chance of that here – Kang alive to the opening Allegro’s interplay of ambivalence and eloquence as were barely resolved by the terse closing pay-off. Nor was there any absence of expressive poise in the Andante, Kang’s often astringent tone pointing up that uneasy lyricism such as characterizes so much of the composer’s music at this time.

Kang entered fully into the final Allegro’s bracing if often sardonic spirit. The main theme’s rhythmic undertow, accentuated by castanets on its returns, likely indicates no more than a generalized Spanish-ness rather than any Civil War premonition, but it does add an edginess to the music’s course right through to its peremptory signing-off. This was a performance to savour, and Kang responded to its warm reception with an encore – the soulful Grave from Bach’s Second Violin Sonata (BWV1003) – which seemed entirely appropriate in context.

Although this was her debut with the CBSO, Schwarz clearly found no mean rapport with the musicians, as was evident in Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Not all those tempo changes in the opening Allegro were equally well handled, but the unbridled verve with which the composer handles his material was sustained through to the effervescent coda. With its deft alternating between wistfulness and pathos, the Adagio is surely as finely achieved a slow movement as Dvořák wrote and such qualities were as evident here as was the raptness of its closing bars.

The other movements might represent a marginal falling-off of invention, but the Allegretto’s gentle lilt was delightfully inflected with its unexpected breezy coda made all of a piece with the foregoing. Similarly, the variation format of the final Allegro can easily become a formal strait-jacket – yet with a delectable response from the CBSO woodwind and Schwarz pacing its eventful progress ideally through the ruminative latter variations and on to a scintillating close, it rounded off this performance with no less conviction than was evident at the outset.

From a relatively traditional programme to one much freer – next week’s CBSO concert is devised and directed by Pekka Kuusisto, and features music by Sibelius, Vaughan Williams and Rautavaara as part of an ingenious sequence centred on the concept Birds of Paradise.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Elena Schwarz and Clara-Jumi Kang

In concert – Kate Trethewey, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO / Martyn Brabbins: Vaughan Williams at 150: Scott of the Antarctic

Vaughan Williams
Scott of the Antarctic (1948)
Directed by Charles Frend
Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Presented by Big Screen Live

Kate Trethewey (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 11 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth concluding this evening in a showing, with live orchestral accompaniment, of Scott of the Antarctic which proved to be the composer’s most ambitious cinema project.

Directed by Charles Frend (who presided over several UK films in the 1940s and ‘50s, before having an equally prominent role in television) and released in November 1948, the film was a commercial success not least owing to the expressive scope and richness of its music. This extended to some 80 minutes, but Vaughan Williams was more than happy for it to be edited as required and was so in accord with Ernest Irving (director of music at Ealing Studios) that he dedicated to him his Sinfonia Antartica, evolved from the original score, four years later.

It was this close synchronization between image and music that Tommy Pearson (director of Big Screen Live) was intent on capturing when he prepared the film for concert presentation (and the background to which was described in entertaining detail in the programme for these concerts). Suffice to add while the overhauled soundtrack, consisting of dialogue and sound-effects, was all too evidently recorded in mono so that it is easily obscured by the music, the visual component has an opulence and immediacy as transcends its more than seven decades.

Occupying a space equivalent to the lower half of the organ in Symphony Hall, the screen was less dominant in a venue of this size than it would have been even in larger cinemas, but any wider or wrap-round treatment would doubtless have raised many technical obstacles and the print had, in any case, a clarity evident from the rear of the stalls. Much the same could also be said of the orchestra’s contribution, even if its seating on a level platform meant certain of those more intricate details and textures seemed less prominent than under concert conditions.

There can be little but praise for Martyn Brabbins’s direction. A Vaughan Williams exponent of stature (the latest instalment in his traversal of the symphonies has recently been issued on Hyperion), he has an instinctive feel for the emotional highs and lows of this music along with its myriad instrumental subtleties. That divide between what was retained for the soundtrack and what became the composer’s Seventh Symphony is greater than is often supposed, yet the degree to which the former effects and enhances one’s experience of the film is considerable.

This is not the place for any detailed overview of the film itself, though it is notable just how restrained and even absent is the music from the latter stages when Robert Scott and his team head towards oblivion the further they seem to be heading on their return journey. This might have been more to do with Frend or even Irving, but the resulting psychological dimension – beholden neither to inter-war expressionism nor wartime realism – was ostensibly new in a cinematic epic of this kind and makes the film historically as well as artistically significant.

The singing of Katie Tretheway and the CBSO Youth Chorus left nothing to be desired, but many attendees having stocked up on liquid refreshment beforehand saw a steady coming and going over much of the two hours: something that would not be tolerated in a concert, so why here?

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Kate Trethewey, Martyn Brabbins and the CBSO Youth Chorus

In concert – Roderick Williams, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Michael Seal: Vaughan Williams at 150: 5 Mystical Songs, Symphony no.5

Vaughan Williams
The Wasps – Overture (1909); Towards the Unknown Region (1906-07); Five Mystical Songs (1906-11); Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)

Roderick Williams (baritone, above), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 10 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s mini-series devoted to Vaughan Williams continued this evening with the overture from his music to Aristophenes’ satire The Wasps, paced by Michael Seal (below) so its animated and soulful themes complemented each other perfectly.

Judicious was no less true of this first half with its overview of the composer’s music across the first decade of the last century. Its premiere at the Leeds Festival bringing a first taste of national acclaim, his ‘song for chorus and orchestra’ Toward the Unknown Region sets Walt Whitman with assurance and imagination in its evocative opening section, and if the ensuing peroration feels a little contrived – the journey proving more memorable than the destination – that was no fault of the CBSO Chorus whose contribution was sensitively attuned throughout.

As it was with those Five Mystical Songs in which the composer gave full vent to his love for the Metaphysical poets and George Herbert in particular. A curiously hybrid conception, the chorus is very much secondary to the baritone soloist throughout much of the first three songs – a congregational presence in the processional Easter and then underpinning the emotional intimacy of I Got Me Flowers or confiding profundity of Love Bade Me Welcome, before falling silent in The Call. Roderick Williams was eloquence itself in this latter setting and a forthright presence in the preceding, before sitting out the Antiphon with its pealing bells and mounting exultation. Williams has recently given the rarely heard version of these songs with piano but hearing them with such burnished splendour as here was its own justification.

Is the Fifth Symphony unduly exposed nowadays? The composer’s most characteristic and culturally significant such piece might risk palling with too much repetition, but there was no chance of that here. Seal (above) set a flowing if not too swift tempo for the Preludio, pointing up the radiant tonal contrast between its themes – the second of them capping the movement to thrilling effect towards its close. Its rhythmic pitfalls ably negotiated, the Scherzo had the requisite deftness and mystery while taking on a degree of malevolence over its later stages. The Romanza then emerged surely yet unforcedly through glowing chorales and plaintive soliloquy (CBSO woodwind at its most felicitous) to a heartfelt culmination before subsiding into a hardly less enveloping serenity – its inspiration in John Bunyan tacitly acknowledged.

Enough had wisely been kept in reserve for the final Passacaglia – its initial stages evincing an almost nonchalant gaiety as only clouded towards its centre with the recollection of earlier ideas. By making it the work’s emotional highpoint, moreover, Seal ensured that the epilogue capped not just this movement but the work overall – its transcendence (hopefully) speaking as directly to listeners today as those at the premiere almost 80 years ago. Certainly, it would be a real misfortune were this music ever to be viewed solely from the perspective of the past.

An absorbing performance, then, that reaffirmed the greatness of this music to an enthusiastic audience. Vaughan Williams at 50 concludes tomorrow evening with the CBSO providing a live soundtrack to the composer’s most ambitious cinematic project – Scott of the Antarctic.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on Scott of the Antarctic, click here – and click on the artist names for more on Roderick Williams, the CBSO Chorus and Michael Seal

In concert – Alexandra Lowe, Benson Wilson, City of Birmingham Choir, CBSO / Adrian Lucas: Vaughan Williams at 150: A Sea Symphony

Vaughan Williams
Benedicite (1929); Fantasia on Greensleeves (arr. Ralph Greeves) (1934); A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1903-09)

Alexandra Lowe (soprano), Benson Wilson (baritone), City of Birmingham Choir, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Adrian Lucas

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 6 November 2022 [3pm]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been celebrated a year late, but this concert marking the centenary of the City of Birmingham Choir tied in with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vaughan Williams and saw this choir joining forces with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in appropriate fashion.

Even when it had all but fallen out of the concert repertoire, A Sea Symphony yet remained a favourite of choral societies around the country such that the CBC has given its fair share of performances over the decades. On this occasion Adrian Lucas (musical director of the choir these past two decades) presided over an account whose shortcomings (notably an occasional misbalance between choir and orchestra in those more densely scored passages) were more than outweighed by the conviction with which the composer’s essential vision was realized.

Certainly, the surging choral paragraph which launches A Song for all Seas, all Ships was powerfully conveyed with its subsequent sections introducing the soloists – Benson Wilson’s baritone ardent and mellifluous while just a little strained in its upper register, and Alexandra Lowe’s soprano such as rang out imperiously towards the centre of this opening movement. Momentum can easily falter in the latter stages, but Lucas (below) ensured its apotheosis provided an emotional counterweight to the beginning and never risked outweighing its rapt conclusion. Wilson came into his own with On the Beach at Night, Alone, its ruminative if often uneasy calm notably in evidence and with the more animated central section paced unerringly up to its fervent choral climax – after which, those brooding final pages yielded an evocative poise.

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As the symphony’s scherzo The Waves can feel overly contrived in context, but Lucas duly made the most of its rousing outer sections – the CBC in command of its textural intricacies – and convincingly integrated the Parry-like nobility of its ‘big tune’ into its evolving structure. Everything then came together in The Explorers, a finale which is also this work’s longest movement and features its finest music. By turns serene and speculative, the initial sections built assuredly to a rousing peroration from where the soloists’ impulsive re-emergence was the more telling. Lucas again ensured the culmination had the requisite grandeur without pre-empting the epilogue; at one with some of Walt Whitman’s most affecting lines in conveying that all-encompassing vastness as was a hallmark of Vaughan Williams’s endings henceforth.

The relatively short first half brought a welcome revival for Benedicite – its origins as a test-piece for competition likely telling against the qualities of a piece that, while it may break no new ground in its composer’s output, denotes his maturity in its vigorously wrought opening section, before a limpid setting of the 17th-century poet John Austin that brought an eloquent response from Lowe that itself preceded an energetic close. The once ubiquitous Fantasia on Greensleeves made for an appealing and by no means cloying interlude prior to the interval. All in all, this was a worthy commemoration of the respective anniversaries. The CBC can be heard in Handel’s Messiah early next month, and the CBSO continues its Vaughan Williams at 150 series next week with programmes conducted by Michael Seal and Martyn Brabbins.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Adrian Lucas, Alexandra Lowe, Benson Wilson and the City of Birmingham Choir