In concert – Ian Bostridge, CBSO / Michael Seal: Britten Nocturne & Malcolm Arnold Symphony no.5

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Ian Bostridge (tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Britten Nocturne Op.60 (1958)
Arnold Symphony no.5 Op.74 (1961)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 9 June 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been centred on ‘England’s dreaming’, but there is surely a future for such astute juxtapositions of works by British composers as that heard in this latest concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; two pieces separated by just three years but poles apart stylistically.

The fourth and last of Britten’s orchestral song-cycles, Nocturne is a sequence with emphasis very much on the cyclical aspect. Its eight settings each features an obbligato instrument heard alongside string orchestra, the tenor adopting a flexible arioso manner with which to deliver a range of texts across centuries of English poetry. After a somnolent initial setting of Shelley – strings introducing a spectral rhythmic figure acting as a ritornello across the work – the bassoon emerges for an ominous setting of Tennyson, then the harp for a jejune rendering of Coleridge.

Notably restrained with his characterization thus far, Ian Bostridge upped the expressive ante when horn came to the fore in an evocative treatment of Middleton; the more so as timpani entered for Wordsworth’s troubled verses on the aftermath of revolution. Accrued tension spilled over to a plangent setting of Owen with cor anglais in attendance, then flute and clarinet joined the voice in a rapt take on Keats. All seven instruments duly reappeared for the final setting of Shakespeare – complementing tenor and strings when they arrived at a barely tangible repose.

Throughout, Michael Seal was typically alert and sensitive in accompaniment – before letting the CBSO off its collective leash for Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. If not the finest of his cycle (which accolade would likely go to the Seventh), the Fifth is the most representative in its disjunct contrasts and fraught emotions – not least in an opening Tempestuoso whose pivoting between stark irony and consoling empathy results in several assaultive climaxes as were fearlessly delivered. In his pointedly succinct note for the premiere, Arnold confessed himself ‘‘unable to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality’’ – a disingenuity that made possible the Andante with its aching main melody and soulful secondary theme which between them engender a baleful culmination before the earlier raptness is fitfully regained.

In his unequalled 1973 recording with this orchestra, Arnold secured playing of transcendent poise from the strings in this movement, but Seal was not far behind in the sustained intensity he drew from the present-day CBSO. Nor was there any lack of sarcasm in the scherzo which follows – wind and brass exchanging gestures either side of the clarinets’ freewheeling tune in the trio, then an abrasively confrontational coda. It remains for the Risoluto finale to attempt a summation with elements from the earlier movements thrown together in an atmosphere of martial volatility; climaxing in a restatement of the slow movement’s main theme resplendent but, ultimately, futile – the music collapsing into a void in which bells echo forlornly against fading lower strings. The CBSO imbued these closing minutes with truly graphic immediacy.

This instructive and cathartic programme brought a (rightly) enthusiastic response from those present. Next week features another British symphony, the first by Thomas Adès, alongside music by Purcell and Mozart for what should be a no less provocative and absorbing concert.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert of Purcell, Mozart and Adès on Wednesday 16 June, click here, and for more on Sir Malcolm Arnold you can visit the website dedicated to the composer.

In concert – Paul Lewis, CBSO / Chloé van Soeterstède: Mozart, Beethoven & Mendelssohn

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Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Chloé van Soeterstède (above)

Mozart Don Giovanni K527: Overture (1787)
Beethoven Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major Op.19 (1787-9, rev. 1795)
Mendelssohn Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.107 ‘Reformation’ (1830)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 2 June 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photos from Symphony Hall by Hannah Blake-Fathers

‘Heaven and Hell’ might have been too histrionic a title for this latest concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, yet it indicated the trajectory of a programme featuring Mozart at his most Romantic, Beethoven at his most Classical then Mendelssohn at his most Baroque.

Making her debut with this orchestra, French conductor Chloé van Soeterstède played down the rhetoric in those indelible opening chords of the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni but maintained impetus throughout the deftly modified sonata design as it sets out the tone if not content of what follows. In its theatrical context the music continues directly into the opening scene, but – despite (or even because?) of its emotional terseness – the ‘concert ending’ is by no means un-effective in its propelling the dramatic focus on towards a decisive conclusion.

Paul Lewis then joined the CBSO for Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto – actually, the first in chronological terms and easy to underestimate in terms of its stylistic antecedents. Yet, as Lewis demonstrated in engaging terms, this is only incrementally less then characteristic and such as the close of the first movement’s initial tutti and transition into the reprise could only be by Beethoven. Lewis now feels the composer’s 1809 cadenza involves too great a stylistic disparity, and his own solution is formally and expressively consistent with what went before.

The highlight of this performance was nonetheless the Adagio (probably the earliest music in what was a lengthy gestation), limpid and poetic while never cloying – the closing interplay between soloist and orchestra unerringly well judged. Lewis then set a swift if not headlong tempo for the ensuing Rondo which gave full rein to the music’s bracing vigour but also its deftly ironic asides. Not least those tonal sideslips near the outset of the coda, with pianist and conductor at one in projecting an ebullience right through to the spirited final pay-off.

Good to see Mendelssohn’s Reformation reasserting its place in the repertoire after decades at the periphery. With controversies over a Jewish-born composer commemorating a Protestant anniversary (and quoting the ‘Dresden Amen’ of Catholic liturgy) now consigned to history, the innate power of the initial Allegro can readily be appreciated and not least in so assured a reading as this. Van Soeterstède brought out its inexorable onward motion in full measure, the scherzo providing an ideal foil in its infectious gaiety and the whimsical guile of its trio.

Eloquently rendered as a soulful ‘song without words’, the third movement thus balanced the work’s introduction as a searching contrast to what follows – here, a finale which unfolds as an extended paraphrase on the Lutheran chorale Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, its heady if sometimes overbearing emotional force adroitly channelled toward a fervent apotheosis. The CBSO woodwind made a felicitous contribution, not least Marie-Christine Zupanic with the flute’s gentle intoning of that chorale – Mendelssohn’s devotion to Bach here made manifest.

An auspicious showing for Van Soeterstède, who will hopefully be returning in due course. Next week sees a very different programme of Britten’s Nocturne and Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony, doubly welcome in view of his centenary and its close association with the CBSO.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert on Wednesday 2 June, click here, and for more on conductor Chloé van Soeterstède you can visit her website

In concert – Lawrence Power, CBSO / Nicholas Collon: Stravinsky, Britten & Shostakovich

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Lawrence Power (viola), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (above)

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, revised 1947)
Britten Lachrymae Op.48a (1950, orch. 1976)
Shostakovich Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 26 May 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s live concerts, heading out of lockdown, featured works from the first half of the last century – focussing on wind then strings, before bringing the whole orchestra into play for one of the defining symphonies from this period.

It was an astute move to open with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments as, 14 days short of the centenary of its premiere to a bemused London public, the extent of its innovation and influence was there for all to hear. The performance was attuned to its bracing alternation of diverse musical types, and while the elongated platform layout might have caused passing uncertainties, Nicholas Collon made a virtue of its fluid continuity right through to the final chorale which ‘remembers’ Debussy with an emotion the more acute for its hieratic restraint.

It may have entered the repertoire but slowly, Britten’s Lachrymae is now well to the fore of the viola’s still limited concertante output and Lawrence Power gave a potent rendering of a piece conceived for William Primrose then orchestrated for Cecil Aronowitz. The evocative if sparse writing for strings is a reminder this was Britten’s final creative act, bringing out the ambiguous shadings of these variations on Dowland’s Flow my tears (played and sung at the outset by Power) which culminate with a rendering of the full song in all its grave elegance.

Speaking beforehand, Collon (who gave a perceptive account of the Ninth Symphony with the CBSO some years back) spoke of his pleasure in utilizing the extent of Symphony Hall’s platform to programme a work on the scale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Accordingly, this was a performance whose impact and intensity were evident from the outset; the opening movement unfolding gradually but with keen underlying intensity though its searching, then wistful main themes, to a surging development and climactic reprise before subsiding into a fateful coda. If the scherzo was less capricious than it often is, Collon’s trenchant handling   of its outer sections exuded an acerbic charm – offset by the trio’s deadpan humour (with an airily whimsical solo from leader Jonathan Martindale), before a pay-off of ominous import.

The ensuing Largo is the work’s emotional heart in every sense, and this afternoon’s reading made the most of its fraught eloquence with some limpidly unforced string playing then, in the mesmeric central episode, woodwind soliloquys of a spectral remoteness. Nor was there any lack of gravitas as the movement reached a baleful culmination, and from where Collon oversaw a faultless transition through to those consoling final bars. Always difficult to bring off, the finale had the virtue of almost seamless progression through its high-octane opening stages then the musing introspection at its centre – Collon making light of some tricky tempo changes on the way to an apotheosis of unremitting focus. The tonal ambivalence between triumph and tragedy might have been more acute, but its inevitability was never in doubt.

An impressive way to conclude what was almost a full-length concert (and one these players had to repeat just three hours later). The CBSO returns next Wednesday with a less strenuous programme which will include a welcome outing for Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert on Wednesday 2 June, click here

In concert – Stephen Hough, CBSO / Edward Gardner: Saint-Saëns, Mazzoli & Debussy

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Stephen Hough (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no.4 in C minor Op. 44 (1875)
Mazzoli Violent, Violent Sea (2011)
Debussy La Mer L109 (1903-05)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 May 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been almost six months since the City of Birmingham Symphony last played to live audiences, but the frisson of expectation was palpable as the orchestra gradually took the stage for this first of nine concerts that, at around an hour’s duration, are being heard at 2pm then again at 6.30. The design of Symphony Hall’s platform makes it possible, moreover, to take out the raised platforms and so accommodate a larger number of musicians than would otherwise be possible in what is (hopefully!) a transitional period out of lockdown. Current restrictions still entail the spreading out of listeners, a small price to pay given the quality of acoustic at almost any point in this auditorium, while the rapid entry and exit procedures also enabled punters to assess the remodelled catering areas in advance of their June reopening.

As conducted by Edward Gardner, this programme featured works by two French composers with more in common than either could have suspected. Saint-Saëns nearly always brings out the best in Stephen Hough, and so it proved in this regrettably rare revival of the Fourth Piano Concerto. Its four sections grouped into two movements (a design the composer returned to a decade on with greater panache if less subtlety in his Third Symphony), the piece touches on aspects of sonata, variation and rondo procedures while its plain-spun material is developed in various and intriguing ways. This plus the close integration of soloist and orchestra often makes for a sinfonia concertante than concerto per se, yet there is no lack of virtuosity such as Hough despatched with alacrity – not least the cascading passagework in the final Allegro.

Saint-Saëns and Debussy evinced no mutual esteem, but as the former integrated symphonic elements into his concerto, so did the latter in his ‘three symphonic sketches’ which comprise La Mer. Here the CBSO came into its own, not least in the purposefully contrasted sequence of From Dawn to Midday on the Sea with its crepuscular writing for solo wind and divided strings through to a climactic chorale of visceral immediacy. Perhaps interplay of timbre and texture in Games of the Waves could have been more deftly handled, but Gardner exerted a firm grip over its course then drew real pathos from the final bars. He also found a persuasive balance between the volatile and poetic aspects in Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, while maintaining steady momentum as issued forth in the chorale on its proudly affirmative return.

Between these works, Violent, Violent Sea by the highly regarded American composer Missy Mazzoli elicited a wholly different response as to its marine concept. Here it is the constant yet rarely insistent melding of translucent harmonies and pulsating rhythms (stemming from marimba and vibraphone) as underpin this music; the sustaining of whose atmosphere is the keener for its succinct duration. The ranging of its relatively modest forces across the extent of the platform also made for rather greater impact than might otherwise have been the case. It certainly added to the attractions of a programme which launched this series of concerts in impressive fashion. The CBSO returns next Wednesday with Nicholas Collon at the helm for a sequence that ends with the uncompromising defiance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about Missy Mazzoli, click here

In concert – Piotr Anderszewski, CBSO / Omer Meir Wellber: Bartók & Bruckner

Piotr Anderszewski (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Omer Meir Wellber (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 10 March 2020

Bartók Piano Concerto no.3 (1945)
Bruckner Symphony no.6 in A major (1879-81)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is a measure of how far Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony has come from being one that even dedicated exponents avoided to one relative newcomers tackle as a way into this composer. The indisposition of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla could have seen its removal from this evening’s programme, though Omer Meir Wellber (who for the past season has been chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, among his portfolio of notable positions) was clearly unfazed by this most technically exacting and emotionally unpredictable among Bruckner symphonies.

As was evident from the start of the Majestoso, the City of Birmingham Symphony’s violins rendering its indelible rhythm with real incisiveness and Wellber duly steering a purposeful course through this most animated of Bruckner’s symphonic movements, while never at the expense of those more lyrical and monumental themes to come. The climactic transition into the reprise was thrillingly done, and how persuasively Wellber pointed up the coda’s breath-taking modulations then its surging peroration whose sudden slowing-up was ideally judged. The Adagio was hardly less fine, with the CBSO strings securing burnished eloquence in its alternation between lament and rapture – underpinned by a majesty no less tangible than that in the following symphonies for all its restraint and, in the closing pages, gentle evanescence.

Other conductors might have found greater wit and insouciance in the Scherzo, but Wellber yielded to few in his delineating of its quizzical and propulsive gestures; nor did the trio want for elegance, for all its final phrase was ‘leant on’ a little too insistently. Notoriously difficult to make cohere, the Finale felt all of a piece with what went before – Wellber mindful that its ultimate affirmation is not without its quixotic or even ironic asides; moreover, that its formal divisions are secondary to its being in constant transition, on the way to an apotheosis where this movement audibly chases its tail as an unlikely and even uproarious means of bringing the work full circle. Quite a piece and quite a reading as set the seal on a performance that, if not the last word as interpretation, was never less than confident and assured in its traversal.

Coupling Bruckner with Bartók might seem a risky strategy but, in the event, the Austrian’s ‘cheekiest’ symphony followed-on ideally from the Hungarian’s deftest piano concerto. Piotr Anderszewski’s (above) take on the Third was one of judicious touches, not least an initial Allegretto tougher and more demonstrative than usual, without sacrificing this music’s innate sense of ingratiation. What followed was arguably too slow for an Andante, though how acutely the pianist brought out its ‘religioso’ marking in those poised exchanges of soloist and strings then woodwind – the brief central scherzo a ‘night music’ as delectable as it was evocative. Nor did Anderszewski under-characterize the final Allegro, its underlying vivacity accorded heft and not a little ambiguity on route to the most agile and uninhibited of Bartók’s codas.

A successful concert, then, which should certainly find favour on the (regrettably truncated) European tour the CBSO now undertakes. It is back in Symphony Hall for Verdi’s Requiem, then a varied programme that features the UK premiere of Julian Anderson’s Cello Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded the Bruckner before there is a recent version available from their former chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The playlist also includes the CBSO, Rattle and pianist Peter Donohoe in a 1992 recording of the Bartók:

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