City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: Second Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 24 & Sunday 25 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second weekend of the Debussy Festival featured a similar mix of orchestral, song and instrumental events, held at various venues in Birmingham in addition to Symphony Hall and extending over the broad spectrum of Debussy’s music to include several less familiar items.

Saturday evening focussed on ‘Sacred Debussy’, and opened with his prelude La Cathédrale engloutie (1910) in an orchestration by Colin Matthews faithful to its spirit. The CBSO then vacated the platform for Messiaen’s motet O sacrum convivium (1937), fervently sung by the CBSO Chorus under Simon Halsey and preceded by Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue. Its methodical progress was ideally complemented by Dieu parmi nous, concluding Messiaen’s large-scale cycle La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) with a panache to which Thomas Trotter was no less responsive. Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) ended the first half with an allure and poise that Suzy Wilkinson-Kawalec conveyed in full measure; CBSO assistant conductor Jonathan Bloxham securing an elegant and fastidious response from the strings.

After the interval, a rare chance to hear virtually the whole of Debussy’s incidental music for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play La Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). Not, then, the 20-minute ‘symphonic fragments’ arranged by André Caplet (who also undertook much of the original orchestration) or the hour-long complete score with narration, but a 35-minute hybrid where the music for the five acts was amalgamated into a four-movement ‘choral symphony’. With its hieratic modality and austere if never merely archaic polyphony, this is arguably the most emotionally affecting of Debussy’s later works and was superbly sung by the CBSO Chorus. Sopranos Ilse Eerens and Katja Stuber were effortless in their solo parts and Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (below) drawing an eloquent response from the CBSO. Undoubtedly a highlight of this festival.

On to Sunday and an early afternoon concert of ‘Exotic Debussy’, opening with another three Preludes (1913) – the ironic wit of Minstrels, Mussorgskian heft of La puerta del vino and the bracing humour of General Lavine – Eccentric – once again heard in orchestrations by Colin Matthews responsive more to the images being evoked than the music as conceived for piano. Bloxham led the CBSO in a spirited account of the ‘Pas de six’ from Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (1956), then Graźinytė-Tyla presided over two sections from Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (1910) – the piquant Orientalism of Laideronette and the encroaching rapture of Le jardin féerique, both enticingly rendered yet an unsatisfying close to a rather piecemeal first half. A shame the Ravel ballet was not heard in full, as this has long been a CBSO speciality.

There was nothing piecemeal about the second half, with Graźinytė-Tyla taking charge of the CBSO Youth Orchestra for a complete rendering of Debussy’s Images. His largest orchestral work when heard complete, this is difficult to bring off as a totality though this account came close. The ominous understatement of Gigues was well conveyed despite an occasional lack of subtlety, then the central triptych that is Ibéria gave this capable and enthusiastic outfit its head in the traversal from sultry street-life, through nocturnal rumination, to festal celebration – the overall sequence being projected with verve and immediacy. Yet the closing Rondes de printemps was even more successful, its oblique evocation of rural revelry given cumulative impetus such as made for a more than usually conclusive end to this wide-ranging sequence.

The mid-afternoon ‘Tombeau de Debussy’ juxtaposed pieces from the supplement published by La Revue musicale in 1920 with commissions under BCMG’s Sound Investment Scheme. Jungeun Park’s Tombeau de Claude Debussy found violinist Alexandra Wood, cellist Ulrich Heinen and pianist Richard Uttley (above) evoking the composer’s death in darkly ironic terms, then the oblique tonality of Dukas’s La plainte, au loin, du faune … seemed as much a memorial to the creative impasse as to its passing. Highly sensitive here, Uttley was no less probing in the moody ‘Sostenuto rubato’ that Bartók incorporated into his Eight Improvisations; soprano Ruby Hughes joining him for the whimsical profundity of Satie’s setting of Lamartine in En souvenir. Sinta Wallur’s Tagore Fireflies sets three brief verses by the Indian poet in music whose ornamented vocal was complemented by the piano’s gamelan-like patterning. Wood and Heinen found requisite plangency in the first movement of Ravel’s Duo; then cellist and soprano took on engaging theatricality for Frédéric Pattar’s setting of Maeterlinck in (… de qui parlez-vous?). Uttley captured the bluesy elegance of Goossens’s Pièce, before Julian Anderson’s Tombeau united the musicians in a setting of Mallarmé’s tribute to Edgar Allen Poe whose chiselled vocal writing and guitar-like sonorities made for a provocative ending.

The early-evening programme of ‘Natural Debussy’ commenced with the arresting cameo of flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic playing Debussy’s plaintive Syrinx (1913) at the rear of the auditorium; overhead lights gradually raised on the platform from where Bloxham directed the CBSO in an engaging account of Printemps (1887). Whatever its formal inelegance and stylistic derivativeness, this two-movement piece has an insouciance and extroversion which Debussy only occasionally re-captured – enhanced by the knowing sophistication of Caplet’s orchestration a quarter-century later. Graźinytė-Tyla returned for George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980), its evocation of desert storms rendered with a graphic immediacy and sure sense of purpose to make one regret that an unfortunate accident onstage meant the performance had to be curtailed before the close. The orchestra reassembled after a break for La Mer (1905) – emotional contrasts stressed a little too readily in ‘Jeux de vagues’, but with the outer movements bracingly projected to round off this final concert in impressive fashion.

Even on the basis of these Symphony Hall concerts, this Debussy Festival did its composer proud by conveying the sheer variety of his output and also its relevance to Western music during the century since his death. Omissions were few – of which the most significant, his full-length opera Pelléas et Mélisande, will be redressed with a concert performance on the 23rd June. For now, Graźinytė-Tyla deserves full credit for having initiated this ambitious festival: its orchestral events leaving no doubt as to the rapport between her and the CBSO.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: First Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There are numerous commemorations this month of the centenary of Debussy’s death, but the Debussy Festival taking place in Birmingham over the weekends of 17/18 and 24/25 March is likely the most extensive mounted in the UK.

Together with chamber and song recitals, films and talks, there is a series of concerts by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as its related orchestras and ensembles, which between them offer an overview not only of Debussy’s major works but also those who influenced him and those who have been influenced by him in their turn.

Saturday evening focussed on Sensual Debussy, opening with the piece in which the composer effectively became himself. Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) began proceedings, its pervasive sensation of lazy eroticism palpably conveyed. This segued into Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) – a rare instance of Debussy’s acappella writing, its lithe alternation of solo and ensemble voices enticingly conveyed by the Birmingham University Singers. Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (above) then directed a perceptive account of La Damoiselle élue (1888), its Rossetti text inspiring a cantata whose luminous modality and ecstatic lyricism fairly define musical pre-Raphaelitism. Soprano Ilse Eerens was eloquent in the ‘title-role’ and mezzo Aga Mikolaj (below) searching in her narrative, with the CBSO Youth Chorus’s singing ethereal but never cloying.

Mikolaj returned for three of Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz (1914) and captured their capricious flights of fancy as made one wish the whole cycle of eight could have been given. This might have been preferable to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) that rounded-off the concert – finely played and convincingly directed, save for a rather jarring accelerando toward the climax of the Prelude, but whose emotional intensity was rationalized by Debussy into something more oblique and understated. As had just been heard in the latter’s Nocturnes (1899), first of his orchestral triptychs and a marvel of shifting textures in Nuages, then ominous evocation in Fêtes. The diaphanous yearning of Sirènes was hardly less evident; less than perfect integration with its female voices the only real flaw.

Sunday afternoon brought Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a programme devoted to Debussy’s Legacy. Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) set the scene with its wave-like eddying of pithy motifs, then the music of Tristan Murail (above) took centre-stage with pieces from across three decades of his career. Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) is a reminder of how radical yet understated (à la Debussy) his music must have sounded in a French scene dominated by Boulezian serialism, harmonic overtones a constant around which the ensemble inhales then exhales its glistening timbres. How Murail got there was duly underlined by Couleur de mer (1969): almost his first acknowledged work, its five sections pit serial constructions against a more intuitive take on harmony and texture in music whose eruptive central span is almost as startling as its cadential sense of closure. Between these, Feuilles à travers les cloches (1998) is an evocative and eventful miniature anticipating the stark post-impressionism of Murail’s more recent music. Fastidious playing from BCMG, and perceptive direction by Julien Leroy.

The CBSO returned that Sunday evening for Modern Debussy, another hour-long sequence opening with a further account of Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune in the arrangement that Schoenberg’s pupil Benno Sachs made in 1921. With flute, oboe and antique cymbals left in place, and harmonium ingeniously filling-out the ensemble, this proved an appealing novelty and ideal complement to the Première Rapsodie (1910) in which Debussy transformed a test-piece into a minor masterpiece – CBSO principal clarinettist Oliver Janes as responsive to its melodic elegance as to its deft virtuosity.

Responsive in support, Graźinytė-Tyla then directed a bracing account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921) where some refined playing toned down the 1947 revision’s asperities. A pity Takemitsu’s exquisite Green had to be dropped (were the parts not received in time?), but Michael Seal presently took charge for a characterful reading of Jeux (1913) – confirming Debussy’s developing variation as no less crucial than Stravinsky’s mosaic-like construction to the evolution of music this past century.

Food for thought, indeed, over the course of this first weekend – not least for reminding one of just how central to modern Western music Debussy’s presence has been. Hopefully, too, the overall quality of interpretation will be maintained throughout next weekend’s concerts.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website

 

Live review – CBSO with Oliver Janes & Andrew Gourlay: Strauss, Copland & Rachmaninov

Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Thursday 6th April, 2017

Richard Strauss Don Juan Op.20 (1888)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 in A minor Op. 44 (1936)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

An ear infection meant that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla had to withdraw from this concert, which provided a welcome opportunity for Andrew Gourlay (now into his second season as Music Director of the orchestra in Valladolid) to make his debut at Symphony Hall with the CBSO.

A pity the Fourth Suite from the ballet The Golden Key by Mieczysław Weinberg had to be dropped from the programme, but that will hopefully be rescheduled (and if Gražinytė-Tyla could tackle one of this composer’s symphonies as his 2019 centenary approaches, then so much the better). Instead, Gourlay directed an account of Strauss’s Don Juan which, while it rather failed to ignite in the earlier stages, evinced some suitably enticing playing during the amorous central episode and then a rousing culmination prior to those fatalistic closing bars.

Hardly a natural complement to Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, but the latter piece works well in a variety of contexts. It also provided an impressive showcase for Oliver Janes, now into his third season as principal clarinet of this orchestra and a player whose elegant while never unduly soft-grained tone was admirably suited to the first movement, with its limpid backing for strings and harp. Janes tackled the central cadenza with no less security – necessarily so as, in addition to its technical virtuosity, it functions as a formal and expressive ‘bridge’ into the second movement. This latter, substituting piano for harp and focusing on the jazz idioms often to the fore in Copland, was a little too reined-in over much of its course with the final pages failing to lift off, though there was never any doubting Janes’s identity with the piece.

The highlight of the concert came after the interval with a perceptive and involving account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. Although it lags well behind its predecessor in terms of performance, this piece has moved from the periphery of the repertoire as earlier tendencies to dismiss it as a rerun of past glories have yielded to a recognition of just how subtly while effectively it overhauls the composer’s thinking for the inter-war period. Not for nothing was Nikolay Medtner alarmed by what he heard as the ‘modernization’ of Rachmaninov’s idiom.

In terms of textural balance and formal continuity it poses more problems than any other of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works, but Gourlay was never fazed by these potential pitfalls. The unworldly ‘motto’ launching the first movement was hauntingly rendered, and the only error in what followed was the omission of an exposition repeat necessary to balance an extensive development whose crisis-riven denouement was acutely realized here.

Neither did Gourlay misjudge the integration of slow movement and scherzo in what follows – the outcome being a developing variation as seamless as it was affecting. If the finale then unfolded at slightly too relaxed a pace, this enabled Gourlay to characterize detail in as resourcefully orchestrated a movement as Rachmaninov ever penned – with the closing accelerando vividly brought off.

A convincing take, then, on this engaging symphony and a fine marker for Gourlay to have laid down in what should prove an ongoing association with this orchestra. Those unable to attend Saturday’s repeat can hear it being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 18th April.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Live review – CBSO with Nicholas Collon: Savitri & The Planets

nicholas-collon

Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano, Sāvitri), Robert Murray (tenor, Satyavān), James Rutherford (baritone, Death), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Wednesday 8th February, 2017

Holst Sāvitri, H96 (1909); The Planets, H125 (1916)

holst

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Cheltenham-born Gustav Holst enjoyed a close relationship with the City of Birmingham Symphony right from its inception, so it was good to see a concert being devoted to his music as part of The Spirit of England series running through to the orchestra’s centenary in 2020.

The elapsing of 108 years has not dulled the innovative qualities of Sāvitri, Holst’s one-act opera with which he made a decisive move from the Wagnerian opulence of his earlier music (not least the three-act opera Sita, still awaiting complete performance), towards the lean and often introspective expression of his maturity. Just over half-an-hour in length, it explores the time-honoured operatic themes of love and redemption as a means of transcending death – all rendered from a curious amalgam of Vedic teaching and Socialist thinking wholly of its time yet no less influential for being so. In addition, the scoring for just three woodwinds and nine strings, along with (wordless) offstage female voices, blazed the trail for later generations of British opera. No Sāvitri = no Britten chamber-operas and no Maxwell Davies music-theatre.

First heard in Birmingham 63 years ago, Sāvitri was given by the CBSO in 2004 and 2008. Then, as now, James Rutherford took the role of Death – his forceful yet ultimately humane assumption complementing the title-role, in which Yvonne Howard (replacing an indisposed Sarah Connolly) responded with fearlessness but also compassion; Robert Murray likewise conveying the heroic vulnerability of Satyavān as he succumbs to then escapes death via the intercession of Sāvitri. Choral and instrumental forces responded ably to Nicholas Collon’s direction, using the spatial possibilities of Symphony Hall’s acoustic to telling effect, but it was a pity that dimmed house-lights made it impossible to follow the succinct yet detailed libretto which was otherwise not always audible. Maybe surtitles could have been provided?

It would be an unlikely all-Holst concert as did not feature The Planets, which duly followed the interval. Collon presided over a performance which, while it offered few revelations, still did justice to the power and originality of this music. Mars evinced a brooding implacability through to those seismic closing bars, then Venus brought eloquence without sentimentality and a solace that was never cloying. Mercury was nimble and quick-witted, not least in the hectic approach to its close, and the only partial disappointment (as so often in this work) was Jupiter, whose outer sections were a shade unsubtle rhythmically, the indelible melody at its centre haltingly paced.

Saturn went much better – Collon alive to the gaunt solemnity of its opening pages and the monumental climax, the final section effortlessly combining radiance and resignation. Nor was there any lack of impetuousity in the goings-on of Uranus, the martial episode reaching a heady culmination (its organ glissando finely integrated into the texture) and wrathful final climax not pre-empting the stillness around it.

Following-on without pause, Neptune rounded-off this reading with a fitting evocation of the ethereal – the CBSO Youth Chorus now placed high in the Symphony Hall auditorium so its role was wholly audible yet, in keeping with Holst’s conception, poised on the intangible.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

BBC Proms 2016 – Kamasi Washington and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Kamasi Washington (c) Mark Allan

Prom 61; Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2016

You can listen to this Prom from its BBC broadcast here

Late night Proms at the Royal Albert Hall are usually special – and this one even more so. Kamasi Washington arrived to a great fanfare in 2015, firstly for his work as orchestrator and band leader on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly, then latterly for his extraordinary triple album Epic, released to great acclaim on Ninja Tune.

Washington, while perhaps not earmarked as the future of jazz, is definitely a figure to whom audiences are turning. Some approach him from the hip hop direction, from Lamar or Snoop Dogg, while others with jazz more embedded in their listening recognise the influences of Sun Ra and John Coltrane. But how would all these elements blend with a 32-voice choir and the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra?

Extremely well, as it turned out. It helps that Washington has a wonderful, almost beatific stage presence. He is a mixture of assertion and modesty, which suits his music too, for there were long, ecstatic phrases where the Royal Albert Hall itself seemed to be lifted from its foundations on a tide of good feeling. As the long phrases swelled from the ground up, supported by cellos, basses, the bass of Miles Mosley and the drums of Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin, the treble instruments and assembled chorus were swept along on the good vibes.

That was certainly the case in Change of the Guard and The Next Step, while in The Magnificent 7 there was more of a soloistic approach, Washington’s band each invited to present their extraordinary virtuosity. Top of the pile were Mosley and pianist Brandon Coleman, both placed centre stage and forming a supple rhythmic base as well as a source of boundless musical enthusiasm.

However the praise for the effectiveness of the arrangements should also be directed at Jules Buckley, for whom this was a third appearance at this year’s Proms. Buckley is a master arranger, responsible for a lot of last year’s Ibiza Proms arranging but also this year taking on Quincy Jones and Jamie Cullum – each foils for the music of Washington, where he conducted the strings.

It also helps that Washington’s music is so well orchestrated, for although he allows his band solo time, in the quieter music things stripped back to allow the string orchestra room to be heard. Although they were swamped in the opener Change of the Guard there was plenty of room for the bittersweet cello lines of Henrietta, Our Hero to make a strong impact.

This was one of many high points in the concert, Washington introducing his father Rickey as they both paid homage to Kamasi’s grandmother in a song beautifully intoned by Patrice Quinn. There was a new piece, too, The Space Traveller’s Lullaby, which formed an effective mid-set interlude, stripping back to saxophone, trombone, voices and strings. Washington’s moving solo was backed by twinkling stars projected onto the backboard.

The music lingered long into the night. Some extraordinary phrases, both loud and quiet, issued from Washington’s saxophone, played with the utmost of care. His music has the power to move from tiny, quiet moments or through the massive, surging crests of the wave where all 80 performers were involved. Its wholly positive outlook won the day.

Ben Hogwood