In concert – Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO / Gustavo Gimeno: Humperdinck, Chausson & Tchaikovsky

gustavo-gimeno

Humperdinck Hänsel und Gretel – Prelude (1891-2)
Chausson
Poème de l’amour et de la mer Op.19 (1882-92)
Tchaikovsky
Symphony no.6 in B minor Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893)

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gustavo Gimeno

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 23 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s programme (repeated from yesterday) by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw a welcome reappearance from Dame Sarah Connolly for a relatively rare hearing, at least in the UK, of Ernest Chausson’s probable masterpiece Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

Often described as a song-cycle, Poème is closer to a scena with its unfolding over two large parts separated by an orchestral interlude. Drawing on texts by Maurice Bouchor, these evoke what is ostensibly the protagonist’s ill-fated affair but whose deeper resonance suggests more that disillusion afforded when revisiting the past. Such a trajectory could easily have resulted in indulgence or even self-pity, avoided through Chausson’s unerring formal control over his subject-matter as well as a thematic resourcefulness sustained across the near half-hour span.

Following in a distinguished lineage of mezzos (among them Dame Janet Baker), Connolly brought out the playfulness of La fleur des eaux as it conveys the burgeoning of love against a heady seascape – doubt only creeping in towards the close as the passing of a year is contemplated. This is represented by the Interlude in which first appears a theme dominant by the close, and while the opening of La mort de l’amour brings a renewed anticipation of arrival, the anguish occasioned by forgetfulness is transmuted into a brooding fatalism – the composer drawing on an earlier song for this sombre final stage. Connolly’s eloquence came into its own here, abetted by a soulful response from cellist Eduardo Vassallo among an orchestral response abounding in soloistic finesse. A powerful reading of a still underestimated piece.

Chausson lived a further six years after its premiere in 1893, whereas Tchaikovsky lived just nine days after the premiere that year of his Pathétique before his still-contested demise. Here again, there was no undue emoting thanks to Gustavo Gimeno’s firm grip over the complex formal and emotional trajectory of the first movement – not least its explosive development culminating in an anguished yet also consoling reprise. The ensuing intermezzo had charm but also a purposeful underlying tread – not least in its wistful trio, then the scherzo amassed no mean impetus through to an explosive second half whose orchestral response evinced no mean virtuosity. Heading straight into the finale, Gimeno sustained expressive tension right through to the closing bars as here faded into a silence born of resignation rather than defeat.

The close of that year brought the premiere of Humperdinck’s ‘fairy-tale’ opera Hänsel und Gretel – then, as now, the work by which this undervalued composer is best remembered and whose prelude encapsulates the essence, though not the totality, of the drama while proving equally effective as a concert-overture. Gimeno paced this unerringly, thereby allowing its animated central phase to merge unobtrusively out of then back into the confiding warmth either side. At least one major work written in 1893 can be said to have a ‘happy ending’.

Next week’s concert brings pieces from very different eras – Brahms’s First Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto being preceded by another of the CBSO’s Centenary Commissions, an evidently celebratory overture by Mark-Anthony Turnage called Go For It.

For more information on next week’s concert, click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, and for more on Symphonic Sessions click 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

In concert – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Ruth Gipps, Adès & Brahms

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Gipps Symphony no.2 Op.30 (1945)
Adès
: The Exterminating Angel Symphony (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World premiere]

Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This unexpected yet worthwhile addition to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s season saw the revival of two works recently heard along with a belated premiere – twice postponed – for one of the most notable among the orchestra’s impressive roster of Centenary Commissions.

Its UK premiere guardedly received four years ago, Thomas Adès’s third opera felt limited as to provocative intent by the difficulty of transferring its theme of Spanish religious fascism to a different era. What was undeniable is the suitability of its numerous orchestral passages to being rendered in a more abstract context, hence The Exterminating Angel Symphony heard tonight. Its four sections arguably amount to a symphonic suite rather than symphony per se, yet their formal follow-through undoubtedly makes for a cohesive and finely balanced entity.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla evidently thought so – obtaining an incisive response in the ‘Entrances’ music whose expressive ambivalence intensifies second time around, then a virtuosic one in ‘March’; its malevolence building over a remorseless side-drum tattoo in a vivid foretaste of what lies ahead. Although it draws on one of the opera’s love-duets, ‘Berceuse’ seems a little unyielding in its emotional content despite the allure of scoring as was always apparent here.  It remains for ‘Waltzes’ (following without pause) to provide a suitable finale and, while this extended and ingeniously organized sequence of fragments from across the opera undeniably evokes a notable precedent in terms of its inexorable motion toward ultimate catastrophe, the animation and sheer panache of the CBSO’s playing brought about a suitably emphatic close.

Before this MGT again made a persuasive case for the Second Symphony by the orchestra’s one-time oboist Ruth Gipps, the contrasted sections of its single movement – a martial scherzo and eloquent Adagio framed by an ambivalent Moderato and cumulatively energetic Allegro – audibly unfolding as variations on an evocative theme heard at the start. An autobiographical aspect, concerning personal aspirations near the end of war, explains this piece’s confessional nature. Whether or not it will undergo several further decades of neglect remains to be seen.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, which orchestra and conductor had given before the lockdown last December. Tonight, however, the first movement (exposition repeat taken) was purposefully controlled with real cumulative thrust, a less than decisive transition into the reprise affording the only lapse in momentum prior to a coda of unfettered eloquence. The Andante was once again unerringly shaped in terms of its ruminative contrasts, and if the third movement had now become a little torpid, this hardly affected its unforced pathos. MGT rightly made the finale the culmination in every sense, her tautening of tension at the apex of its development yielding as tangible an expressive frisson as did the coda – where the work’s main motif descends as if from afar to secure the most transfigured of emotional touchdowns.

A memorable addition to an inevitably truncated yet memorable (and for all the right reasons) season, which the CBSO repeated at the Proms the following night. Beyond that, the autumn portion of its 2021/22 season has just been announced.

You can find information on the CBSO’s new season here.

In concert – Alina Ibragimova, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Weir, Prokofiev & Beethoven

Joshua Weilerstein 58_credit Sim Canetty-Clark

Alina Ibragimova (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Weir Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992)
Prokofiev
Violin Concerto no.1 in D major Op.19 (1915-17)
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 July 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Joshua Weilerstein courtesy of Sim Canetty-Clark; Alina Ibragimova courtesy of Giorgia Bertazzi

While not the centenary season as had been anticipated, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current run of live concerts has nevertheless found the orchestra in great shape, reinforced by the final event that marked an equally unexpected if auspicious debut for Joshua Weilerstein.

He may have substituted the planned account of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, but Weilerstein retained Judith Weir’s Heroic Strokes of the Bow to begin the programme. Although written before her spell as the CBSO’s Composer-in-Residence (1995-8), the present piece is among her most characteristic larger works – taking its cue from Paul Klee’s similarly titled painting for a 15-minute study in frustrated momentum, whereby violins pursue an eventful trajectory constantly undermined by rhythmic discontinuity. A belated coming to the fore of woodwind propels this music towards a peroration which never quite materializes prior to its subsiding then terse pay-off. Not a straightforward or necessarily rewarding piece to tackle, the CBSO strings still sounded engaged throughout a piece typical in its sense of ultimate anti-climax.

Alina Ibragimova then joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, its modest scale and prevailing inwardness only partly belying technical demands that were confidently surmounted here. The partnership with Weilerstein, moreover, was a good one – whether in the first movement’s gradual expressive opening-out from, then retreating-back to sustained lyricism, or the Scherzo’s cavorting high-jinx and playful nonchalance. Ibragimova’s tempo for the finale seemed initially a little too deliberate, but the panache of those brief orchestral tuttis then stealthy intensification to the rapturous return of the opening theme left no doubt as to either soloist’s or conductor’s sense of exactly where the music was going – the violin’s airy arabesques melding into the deftest of orchestral textures for the spellbinding final bars.

The inclusion of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony made for a near full-length concert which, being given twice, says much for the CBSO’s collective stamina. Ensemble faltered slightly in the first movement’s introduction, relatively weighty as Weilerstein heard it, but the main Vivace proved unanimous in response as it was trenchant in conception – highlights being an uninhibited transition to the reprise, then inexorable build-up toward a coda whose clinching of the overall design felt more potent through a slight if perceptible acceleration at the close.

Weilerstein (rightly) went directly into the Allegretto, its alternation of pathos and sanguinity ideally gauged, then the scherzo exuded a joyous animation and its trio an eloquence which was no less apposite. The finale may have lacked its exposition repeat, but the seamlessness with which this movement unfolded left no feeling of its being sold short – not least through an astute judging of dynamic contrasts then a final peroration which, if it lacked for a degree of visceral excitement, none the less concluded this symphony with unwavering affirmation. Hopefully, Weilerstein will soon be returning to this orchestra. Next month, though, the CBSO heads to the Proms for a programme featuring Ruth Gipps’s Second Symphony and Brahms’s Third, along with a delayed premiere for Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony.

You can find information on the CBSO’s appearance at the Proms at the festival’s website.

In concert – Jonathan Martindale, CBSO / Michael Seal: Summer Classics

michael-seal

Jonathan Martindale (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Dvořák Carnival Op.92 (1891)
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending (1914/20)
Elgar
Chanson de matin Op.15/2 (1889)
Grieg
Peer Gynt Suite no.1 Op.46 (1875/88) – no.1, Morning; no.4, In the Hall of the Mountain King
Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Vivaldi
The Four Seasons Op.8 (1718/20) – no.2 in G minor RV315 ‘Summer’
Price
Symphony no.1 in E minor (1931-2) – Juba Dance
Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker Op.71 (1892) – Waltz of the Flowers

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 2 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Jonathan Martindale courtesy of Upstream Photography

The penultimate event in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season, this afternoon’s Summer Classics featured a wide-ranging selection of pieces that between them spanned over two centuries, and whose ‘feel good’ factor at no time precluded stylish or committed playing.

With longstanding associate director Michael Seal at the helm, the orchestra made the most of Dvořák’s effervescent Carnival overture; the alluring pathos of its central interlude accorded due emphasis, and with some eloquent woodwind solos. Its popularity during recent years has made Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending a regular inclusion in such programmes, and Jonathan Martindale (below, who also led the concert) gave a thoughtful while never flaccid reading – most perceptive in the middle section with its folk-like whimsy and fanciful evocations of birdsong. The CBSO responded with limpid dexterity, the whole performance a reminder that this work is best tackled as a concertante piece and by a player (recalling such as Hugh Bean, Iona Brown and, more recently, Richard Tognetti) who knows the orchestra from the inside.

Next came an ingratiating take on Elgar evergreen Chanson de matin, then excerpts from the First Suite of Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt – a rapturous Morning and stealthy In the Hall of the Mountain King skirting headlong terror at the close. Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream made for an unlikely but effective centrepiece – the highlight being those fugitive imaginings towards its centre, along with the disarming eloquence of its final bars where the teenage composer conjures a fulfilment he was only rarely to recapture.

The Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons again saw Martindale as soloist in an account that lacked little of that rhythmic vitality his contemporaries (notably Bach) seized on with alacrity; nor was there any absence of poise in its atmospheric second movement. One who has come in from the cold partly through the recovery of her manuscripts, Chicago-based Florence Price broke with convention by introducing the Juba Dance into her symphonies in lieu of a scherzo; the CBSO responding in full measure to its rhythmic verve. A winning harp solo from Katherine Thomas launched Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and ended the main programme in fine style – Seal and the CBSO acknowledging the applause with the final ‘galop’ from Rossini’s William Tell overture as a dashing encore.

Throughout the concert, film expert Andrew Collins interspersed proceedings with his remarks and recollections (not least on that seminal 1970s supergroup The Wombles). The music itself was accompanied by varying shades and colours of lighting, but these rarely seemed intrusive – not least compared to the garish ‘Moulin Rouge’ effects routinely encountered nowadays at the Proms. Certainly, anyone in the process of getting the know just what classical music was all about, and those merely in search of a pleasurable afternoon’s listening, were well served.

Next Wednesday brings the last in this current series of concerts, the CBSO being conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (who is replacing an ‘unable to travel’ Edward Gardner) in an enticing programme of Judith Weir, Prokofiev (with the violinist Alina Ibragimova) and Beethoven.

You can find information on the final concert in the CBSO’s season at their website. For more information on composer Florence Price, click here