In concert – Vilde Frang, CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – Elgar: Violin Concerto; The Panufniks & Schumann

Vilde Frang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Elgar Violin Concerto in B minor Op.61 (1909-10)
Andrzej & Roxanna Panufnik Five Polish Folk Songs (1940, rec. 1945, rev, 1959, orch. 2022) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World Premiere]
Schumann Symphony no.1 in B flat major Op.38 ‘Spring’ (1841)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 8 March 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The relationship between Elgar and Schumann is a fascinating one, aspects of which surfaced in this coupling of the former’s Violin Concerto with the latter’s First Symphony; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra joined by principal guest conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

As with Sibelius not long before, Elgar was an able violinist whose solitary concerto for his instrument makes no technical concessions. There is also a symphonic dimension as seemed uppermost in the thoughts of Vilde Frang, her formidable technique (rightly) geared towards the work’s conveying emotions within an expansive while methodical framework. This was evident in the opening Allegro, the impetus of its initial tutti maintained by flexible handling of contrasted themes on to a climactic development whose intricacy was abetted by the clarity of the orchestral playing. Even finer was a central Andante whose main melodies, among the composer’s most affecting, were never indulged across the course of a movement where the expressive profile remains teasingly intangible right through to those soulful concluding bars.

Maybe the balance between display and insight slipped in the final Allegro molto, with Frang losing focus slightly during its more extrovert passages. Once the accompanied cadenza was underway, however, there was no doubting the rapport of soloist and orchestra as earlier ideas are recalled and speculatively transformed in what comes near to being a confession of intent. Nor was the sudden re-emergence of that earlier energy at all underplayed as the coda heads to its affirmative resolution: one whose conviction duly set the seal on a memorable reading.

After the interval, an additional item in the guise of Five Polish Folksongs written by Andrzej Panufnik after the outbreak of war, reconstructed at its close and orchestrated by his daughter Roxanna so the stark originals for children’s or female voices – with pairs of flutes, clarinets and bass clarinet – were cushioned by these richer orchestral textures. The CBSO Youth and Children’s choruses (finely prepared by Julian Wilkins) gave their all in what were appealing yet at times overly diffuse arrangements of settings that are best heard in their original guise.

So to Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony, a piece whose encapsulating mid-Romantic sentiment seemed uppermost in MG-T’s insightful and, for the most part, convincing account. Evocative fanfares launched the opening Allegro in fine style, the often fitful momentum of its lengthy development vividly maintained through to a sparkling coda. Arguably too slow for its ‘song without words’ format, the Larghetto yet exuded undeniable pathos and made a spellbinding transition into the Scherzo. A (too?) leisurely take on its first trio took the listener unawares, but the winsome closing bars prepared well for a final Allegro whose animated progress was enlivened by delectable woodwind and horn playing on the way to its decisive close. Should MG-T return in future seasons, further Schumann symphonies would be more than welcome.

The CBSO returns next week in a rare UK hearing of Weinberg’s First Sinfonietta, alongside Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Kirill Gerstein and an extended selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – this latter and the Elgar also featuring in a Barbican concert the next day.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website, and click here for the Romeo and Juliet concert, repeated at the Barbican here. Click on the artist names for more on Vilde Frang and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, or composer Roxanna Panufnik

In concert – Alice Coote, Brenden Gunnell, Ashley Riches, CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth – Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Brenden Gunnell (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth

Elgar The Dream of Gerontius Op.38 (1899-1900)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 March 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have had a disastrous premiere here in October 1900, but Birmingham has more than made amends to The Dream of Gerontius through many subsequent performances by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with conductors ranging from Vernon Handley to John Eliot Gardiner, two recordings from its previous chief conductors (Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo), and tonight a reading which more than confirmed that this ground-breaking piece remains a touchstone of the choral repertoire almost 125 years on from that initial failure.

Although the innate Catholicism of John Henry Newman’s text no longer presents obstacles, the work’s technical demands remain considerable. Not least the characterizing of Gerontius himself, in which Brenden Gunnell acquitted himself with conviction – whether his wearied pallor then combative reckoning with Sancta fortis in Part One, or his wonderous musings then anguished acceptance of his purgatorial fate with Take me away in the longer second part. This role was consequently more believable and more empathetic because more human.

Not a little of that impression was abetted by Alice Coote’s contribution as the Angel. Less imperious than many predecessors (or contemporaries), the extent of her involvement only deepened as Part Two unfolded – the restraint, even reticence, of My work is done taking on heightened eloquence during There was a Mortal, before the Softly and gently of her farewell brought with it a transfiguring radiance as carried through to the close. This was a thoughtful and, increasingly, affecting approach to some of this work’s musical highpoints.

Nor should the contribution of Ashley Riches be underestimated, even though this is limited   to two, albeit crucial, appearances in either part. Arresting and suitably proclamatory at the Priest in Proficisere, anima Christiana, he brought unfailing gravity and powerfully wrought rhetoric to Angel of the Agony – the substance of whose musical presentation can be heard in Elgar’s music across the decades to come, whatever the extent to which the composer moved away from accepting those tenets of Catholic orthodoxy that are set out in Newman’s poem.

One of several works to which it has returned regularly over its half-century of existence, the CBSO Chorus brought its wealth of experience to a piece whose difficulties of ensemble and intonation cannot be gainsaid. From the halting appearances of the Assistants, through to the intricate polyphony of the Demons then cumulative grandeur of the Choir of Angelicals and distanced poise of the Souls in Purgatory, the authority of its contribution – prepared on this occasion by Julian Wilkins – added in no small measure to the impact of the performance.

As, of course, did that of the CBSO. Any regret over Andrew Davis’s indisposition was duly tempered by Ryan Wigglesworth’s tangible immersion and belief in this score – to which he brought a composer’s concern for clarity and cohesion, with a sense of pacing and a placing of its emotional climaxes which made appreciate anew the ambition and audacity of Elgar’s overall conception. Birmingham will doubtless hear many more performances of Gerontius over ensuing decades, with this one a marker as to what the work can and should represent.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Alice Coote, Brenden Gunnell, Ashley Riches and the CBSO Chorus. Meanwhile you can read more about Ryan Wigglesworth at two different locations – his composer profile from publisher Schott, and his conductor profile

In concert – Isata Kanneh-Mason, CBSO / Ilan Volkov: Sibelius, Prokofiev & Freya Waley-Cohen

Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov

Sibelius The Oceanides, Op. 73 (1914)
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 (1921)
Waley-Cohen Demon (2022) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World Premiere]
Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82 (1915-19)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 22 February 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A frequent visitor during the past quarter-century, Ilan Volkov’s concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are always to be anticipated, and so it proved with this evening’s programme which brought together the familiar and the new to engaging effect.

Sibelius provided a potent framework, The Oceanides (of which the CBSO made a fine recording with Simon Rattle now almost four decades ago) heard in a reading of unusual breadth and deliberation. Not that this ever impeded the progress of music whose almost impressionistic eddying goes hand in hand with inexorability of motion; the outcome a double climax whose spiralling intensity – visceral even in the context of Sibelius’s later music – makes way for a coda whose understated fatalism was affectingly conveyed here.

Along with her brother Sheku, Isata Kanneh-Mason has had a major impact on the UK music scene – her skill and insight evident throughout this performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. There was no lack of élan in passagework where the composer sought to confirm his own pianistic credentials as he built a career in the West, but also a tendency to brittleness as arguably sold the music short. It was in more reflective sections that Kanneh-Mason came fully into her own – the limpid musing on its main theme at the centre of the first movement, the spectral half-lights of its successor’s third variation, or the warmly expressive melody at the heart of the finale in which her rapport with Volkov was tangible. If the electrifying close brought less than the ultimate frisson, it still set the seal on a reading of impressive potential.

After the interval, another in the CBSO’s Centenary Commissions – the well-regarded Freya Waley-Cohen (above) duly responding with Demon. Its scenario evoking the more ominous of folk stories, this piece packed a considerable amount of incident into its 11 minutes – a Ligetian playfulness offsetting its frequently intricate polyphony to diverting and, throughout the final stages, impulsive effect. Drawing an incisive and precise response, Volkov seemed intent on presenting this colourful curtain-raiser as well worthy of further and repeated performance.

Volkov’s accounts of Sibelius’s Third and Fourth Symphonies were highlights of a complete cycle at the 2015 Proms, and this account of the Fifth found his advocacy undimmed. Others have found greater atmosphere in the first movement’s earlier stages, but the purposefulness with which he built to its defining climax was undoubted; as too a corresponding build-up of momentum in its ‘scherzo’ – Matthew Hardy’s volleys of timpani spearheading the propulsive coda. More intermezzo than slow movement, the Andante had an appealingly winsome aura for all its darker undertones (with some delectable woodwind playing), while the finale made the most of its contrasts in motion – the ‘swan melody’ eloquently rendered – on the way to an apotheosis whose surging affirmation was driven home by those indelible closing chords.

An impressive performance, then, such as brought this concert to a suitably inspiring close. Volkov is on the podium again this Sunday – directing the CBSO Youth Orchestra in a new piece by Bergrun Snaebjörnsdottir, heard alongside music by Grażyna Bacewicz and Berlioz.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist and composer names for more on Ilan Volkov, Isata Kanneh-Mason and Freya Waley-Cohen

In concert – Alban Gerhardt, CBSO / Roderick Cox: Ravel, Saint-Saëns & Bartók

Alban Gerhardt (cello), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Roderick Cox

Ravel Ma mère l’Oye – suite (1910, orch. 1911)
Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto no.1 in A minor Op.33 (1872)
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra BB123 (1943, rev. 1945)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 February 2023 (2.15pm)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brought a judicious programme that not only looked effective on paper but worked well in practice, juxtaposing characteristic works by Ravel and Bartók alongside a favourite concerto from Saint-Saëns.

Although the extended ballet was championed by Simon Rattle during his CBSO tenure, the original five items constituting Ravel’s Mother Goose suite (the Prelude was included on the programme but (rightly) not in this performance) constitutes an attractive sequence and one that played to the orchestra’s strengths. Roderick Cox brought out the serene poignancy of Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane as fully as the winsome poise of Hop-o’-My-Thumb, with its delectable playing from woodwind. Neither was the piquant humour in Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas undersold, nor the stealthy interplay of gentility and earthiness in Dialogue of Beauty and the Beast. Initially a little muted in its rapture, The Fairy Garden built towards a finely sustained apotheosis whose unforced ecstasy was much in evidence.

Saint-Saëns has long enjoyed a following in Birmingham – not least his First Cello Concerto, which this reviewer first heard played by CBSO with the redoubtable Paul Tortelier almost a half-century ago. Evidently no stranger to this piece, Alban Gerhardt launched into the first of its three continuous movements with due purposefulness; pointing up the formal ingenuity as the composer interposes between what are nominally the exposition and development of a sonata design a ‘minuetto’ where soloist and muted strings render the principal themes at an oblique remove. The relatively extended final section can risk feeling diffuse, but Gerhardt’s focus brought a natural sense of intensification then resolution prior to the decisive close. The soulful opening Dialogo from Ligeti’s early Solo Cello Sonata provided an apposite encore.

A staple of the modern repertoire in almost as short a time as it took to be composed, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is a sure test for any such ensemble and one that the CBSO met with alacrity on this occasion. Setting a steady if never inflexible tempo for the Introduzione, Cox drew its contrasts of musing uncertainty and impulsive dynamism into a tensile and cohesive whole. Hardly less effective was the genial succession of duets in Giuoco delle coppie, set in relief by a brass chorale which makes for one of its composer’s most affecting inspirations.

Its sombreness marginally underplayed in its opening stages, the Elegia lacked nothing in eloquence at its climaxes or in its regretful closing bars, then a juxtaposing of folksong with Léhar and/or Shostakovich in the Intermezzo interrotto made for a heady while meaningful amalgam. It might not have followed-on attacca, but the Finale was otherwise the highlight of the reading – Cox as attentive to the music’s energetic and lyrical elements as to a central fugato whose initial fanfares return to cap the work, and this performance, in joyous abandon.

Born in Macon (Georgia) and currently based in Berlin, Cox is a fluent and assured presence such as helped make this an auspicious debut. The CBSO returns next week for an appealing programme with Ilan Volkov, featuring Isata Kanneh-Mason in Prokofiev’s Third Concerto.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Roderick Cox and Alban Gerhardt.

In concert – Alexandre Kantorow, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.2 & Holst The Planets

Alexandre Kantorow (piano), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.2 in G major Op. 44 (1879-80)
Holst The Planets Op. 32 (1914-17)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 February 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

He may not take up his role as Chief Conductor for a couple of months, but Kazuki Yamada already has acute rapport with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as was evident tonight in this unlikely though effective coupling of major works by Tchaikovsky and Holst.

While it has never aspired to the popularity of its predecessor, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto lacks none of the melodic appeal or emotional heft synonymous with this composer. Growing conviction that piano and orchestra were best heard separately rather than together can give the first movement a rather stop-start trajectory, but with Alexandre Kantorow (below) alive to its bravura and poetic facets there was never a sense of disjointedness in a first movement – emphasis on whose ‘brillante’ and ‘vivace’ markings avoided any risk of portentousness.

Although those aspects of the edition by Alexander Ziloti that simplify the solo writing have now been consigned to history, truncation of the Andante into an intermezzo akin to that of the First Concerto remains common. To do so, however, misses out on the expansiveness of this movement – notably its eventful trialogue between piano, violin and cello as dominates the latter stages, and which here saw a sustained interaction between Kantorow and the CBSO section leaders (Eugene Tzikindelean and an as yet unidentified cellist. Yamada directed with an unobtrusive rightness, then gave the soloist his head in a finale that makes up for its relative brevity with scintillating wit and agility – not least in the coda when, having resisted any temptation for a grand apotheosis, Tchaikovsky allows soloist and orchestra an effervescent race to the close.

Tchaikovsky was never an influence on Holst, and the conventional scoring of the former’s piece is worlds away from that of The Planets with its extended range of ingenious timbres and textures. Finding the right martial pulse at the outset of Mars, Yamada built this first piece to a pulverizing climax – after which, the enfolding raptness of Venus was the more tangible in its serenity and poise. The deftness and insouciance of Mercury was no less to the fore, and the only reservations came in a Jupiter whose bracing outer sections verged  on the dogged; with a central section whose indelible melody took on a ceremonial turgidity which has nothing to do with this music as Holst conceived it. Happily, the remaining three pieces, which all too often seem anticlimactic, emerged as highlights of this performance.

Undeniably the emotional focal-point, Saturn unfolded from initial remoteness to a climax whose sense of crisis was palpably evident, before withdrawing into a radiant evanescence. Contrast with the sardonic humour of Uranus was pronounced – Yamada making the most of its flights of fancy, then lurchingly triumphant parade, before the heart-stopping dissolve near its close. Neptune capped proceedings superbly – its strangeness and insubstantiality allied to searching introspection which afforded cohesion to this venture into the unknown.

Placed high to the left of the auditorium, the CBSO Youth Chorus added its ethereal tones. The final fadeout began almost too remotely to be sustained yet, as this repeating vocalise moved beyond earshot, there was no doubt as to the totality of what had been experienced.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Kazuki Yamada and Alexandre Kantorow – and for more on Gustav Holst, head to The Holst Society