Live review – Soloists, CBSO and Chorus / Kazuki Yamada – Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Keri Fuge (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 7 November 2019

Mendelssohn
Elijah Op.70 (1846)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although 173 years have passed since it first echoed around the Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah remains synonymous with Birmingham’s cultural tradition. Performances may be fewer than in its 19th-century heyday but there have been memorable ones – not least that in 1989 with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, for whom this piece was a speciality – and tonight saw a memorable account by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada, who duly banished any notions of this being a mid-Victorian period piece.

Whatever his failings on a broader aesthetic level, Mendelssohn was nothing if not creatively pragmatic when it came to a big occasion, and Elijah accordingly fulfilled its remit. Whereas the composer’s earlier oratorio St Paul had given notice of his abiding interest in the Passions of Bach, here he drew on the exemplar of those biblical epics through which Handel shaped English musical taste over the ensuing 150 years; enhanced by the rhythmic poise of Mozart and the harmonic subtleties of Beethoven to result in music wholly representative of its era.

Structured in two parts of almost equal duration, Elijah charts the trials of its eponymous hero as he draws the Israelites away from the pagan enticements of Baal and back to the true faith before himself ascending on a fiery chariot to Heaven. Julius Schubring‘s text (as sung in the idiomatic translation by William Bartholomew) fashions out of Kings and associated biblical sources a framework whose emotional rhetoric is balanced by a keen underlying momentum and unfailing sense of when to open-out the narrative to allow for more intimate expression.

The score implies eight soloists, but the four on hand (the brief role of ‘The Boy’ affectingly taken by chorus soprano Ella McNamee) proved more than able. As Elijah, Matthew Brook conveyed the anguish and the ecstasy of his part with unwavering assurance, while Robert Murray overcame initial strain to give commanding portrayals of his advocate Obadiah and detractor Ahab. Keri Fuge brought due pathos to the Widow, with Karen Cargill eloquent as the Angel – having stolen the show as the Queen who vents her wrath in unequivocal terms.

As with most of its forerunners, of course, Elijah is defined by a choral contribution in which the CBSO Chorus was not found wanting. Having recently sung the work with Yamada (and these soloists) in Monte Carlo, it conveyed the anger and supplication of the forsaken People with audible conviction, while being no less assured in those intricate choral items by which Mendelssohn frames and punctuates the drama. If choral numbers were appreciably less than the composer might have expected, then this was undoubtedly a case of less equalling more.

Neither should there have been any surprise as to the degree of Yamada’s identity with this music. Japan has produced notable exponents of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, with the present conductor evidently following in their wake. If those choruses ending each half summoned not quite the intensity evinced by Frühbeck all those years ago, the clarity and incisiveness he drew from both chorus and orchestra was hardly to be gainsaid – so setting the seal on a memorable reading of a work sure to wear its Birmingham credentials well into the future.

Listen

(Ben Hogwood writes…) Among the many available versions of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, sadly none of these appear to yet include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – though one wonders if an extension to their Mendelssohn in Birmingham series will be forthcoming under Edward Gardner.

Spotify does however have a recent recording of Elijah from the Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh, with Robert Murray once again in the roles of Obadiah and Ahab. The organ itself was recorded in Birmingham Town Hall:

Live review – Renaud Capuçon, CBSO / Anja Bihlmaier: Dvořák, Ravel, Chausson & Bizet

Renaud Capuçon (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Anja Bihlmaier

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 30 October 2019 (2.15pm)

Bizet arr. Hoffman Carmen Suite no.2 (1887)
Chausson Poeme Op.25 (1896)
Ravel Tzigane (1924)
Dvořák Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (1885)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brought a welcome appearance from German conductor Anja Bihlmaier, presiding over an unlikely yet appealing programme as juxtaposed French and Russian music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bizet‘s Carmen has maintained its hold on the operatic repertoire such that individual items are seldom encountered in concert other than as encores. As arranged by Fritz Hoffmann, this Second Suite astutely alternates entr’actes with vocal numbers. Thus the purposeful Marche des contrebandiers (akin to an offcut from Elgar’s Wand of Youth) precedes the smouldering Habanera, then a Nocturne which is Micaela’s third act aria with its vocal line transferred to violin and soulfully rendered by guest leader Tamas Kocsis. That of the evergreen Chanson du toreador is similarly heard on trumpet, which instrument is duly partnered by flutes in the infectious La garde montante, before wind instruments variously come to the fore during the Danse boheme which rounded off the present selection in appropriately exhilarating fashion.

Renaud Capuçon then joined the orchestra for an unlikely coupling of concertante pieces that is highly effective in concert. It may have been inspired by a Turgenev story, but Chausson‘s Poème is an autonomous entity whose rhapsodic impulses are balanced by formal rigour and an organic evolution as elides between the introspective and ecstatic – a trajectory conveyed with due eloquence by Capuçon, his fastidious tonal shading deftly reinforced by Bihlmaier’s nuanced direction. What is so often an elusive work left a powerful and enduring impression.

As, albeit in its rather more demonstrative way, did Ravel‘s Tzigane. Effectively the result of a bet with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi that this composer could come up with a rhapsody inspired by Hungarian gypsy music, the piece wears its Lisztian antecedents lightly while pointing the way toward the similarly conceived rhapsodies of Bartók. Capuçon teased out the high-drama of its unaccompanied initial section, then – with harpist Alma Klemm – made a breath-taking transition into its heady medley of gypsy-inflected themes prior to the rousing final flourish.

After the interval, Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony came almost as a corrective in its seriousness of purpose and powerful formal logic. Bihlmaier directed a performance as left no doubt as to such qualities, at its best in a thoughtful while never staid account of the slow movement – its brief yet elated climax ideally judged – then a scherzo whose underlying furiant rhythm was suffused with Brahmsian trenchancy (one reason this piece displeased the anti-Dvořák faction decades hence). Not that there was much lacking with the outer movements, though the coda of the initial Allegro was a little too deadpan for its ominousness fully to register, and that of the finale felt too reined-in emotionally; those granitic cadential chords marginally failing to clinch what is surely the most fatalistic of any major-key ending in the symphonic repertoire.

Even so, this was a finely realized account of a work as can all too often misfire. Bihlmaier will hopefully return before long: next week, the CBSO’s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada directs a performance of Mendelssohn‘s Elijah, premiered in this city 173 years ago.

On record – CBSO / Edward Gardner – Mendelssohn in Birmingham Vol.5: Overtures (Chandos)

Mendelssohn
Trumpet Overture Op.101 (1825)
Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)****
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)**
The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Op.26 (1830)*
The Fair Melusine, Op. 32 (1834)
Overture to St. Paul Op.36 (1836)
Ruy Blas Overture Op.95 (1839)***
Overture to Athalie Op.74 (1844)
Lorenda Ramou (piano)

Chandos CHSA5235 [74’53”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper and ****Robert Gilmour

Recorded *20-21 October 2013; **15 and ***16 February 2014; ****13-14 July 2015; 10-11 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

For the fifth release in Chandos’s series Mendelssohn in Birmingham, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its onetime guest conductor Edward Gardner further traverse the orchestral output of a composer who was not averse to snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness.

What’s the music like?

It should be pointed out only a part of this release consists of new material. The Hebrides, Ruy Blas and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage first appeared in harness with Symphonies nos.4 and 5, nos.1 and 3, and no.2 respectively; while A Midsummer Night’s Dream was coupled with a selection of the incidental music for Shakespeare’s play as well as the Violin Concerto. Those who have been acquiring this series may thus feel a little short-changed, which perhaps makes purchasing those previously unreleased items as individual downloads the best option.

Proceeding chronologically, the Trumpet Overture reinforced Mendelssohn’s precocity in the wake of his Octet for strings – its breezily incisive manner, opened-out expressively by ominous asides, a viable template for future generations on which to hone their aspirations. Few could have hoped to match A Midsummer Night’s Dream as to prodigality of invention or technical resource, not least in terms of its redefining the orchestra near the outset of the Romantic era. A more prolix structure, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage yet merits revival through the limpid eloquence of its introduction and surging impetus of its Allegro towards a rousing peroration. That said, it cannot compare with The Hebrides in terms of an evocation sustained via formal sleight of hand and emotional clarity as remain breath-taking to this day.

Into the 1830s, The Fair Melusine still remains engaging for those subtly tangible images of watery domains (proto-Wagnerian, though the connection is easily overstated) and headlong fate through a vivid if increasingly impersonal idiom. Such impersonality had all but taken hold by the time of the oratorio St Paul, its overture breathing an aura of unforced piety and ‘natural order’ increased by the fugal interplay at its centre then almost apologetic fervency near its close. Mendelssohn rather grudgingly supplied incidental music for Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas, but the overture retains its drama and melodic appeal up to the surging coda. Would that Athalie conveyed comparable conviction, but this overture to Jean Racine’s play yields little more then technical proficiency as its composer strives gainfully for inspiration.

Does it all work?

On a technical level, absolutely. Mendelssohn was a master of his craft whose abundant early promise was only intermittently fulfilled by his later music. Tackling these overtures in order of composition (rather than that of this disc) tends to reinforce such an observation, which is not to deny the sheer technical command of even those lesser pieces or of the conviction that Gardner and his players have invested into this programme overall. Save for just a couple of overly headlong climaxes, there is little to fault here in terms of either playing or recording.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with the proviso detailed above. Bayan Northcott’s estimable booklet note mentions the overture to cantata The First Walpurgis Night as being inseparable from its main work, which makes a CBSO recording of this ‘dark horse’ among Mendelssohn works the more desirable.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Chandos website

The Peterloo Massacre: Sir Malcolm Arnold’s response

On the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, this vivid musical interpretation of events on that day comes from Sir Malcolm Arnold.

Arnold completed the overture in 1968, when it was published as his Op.97. In his description of the piece for Faber Music, he described the events and his response in some detail:

Peterloo is the derisive name given to an incident that happened on August 16th, 1819 in St Peter’s Fields Manchester, when an orderly crowd of some 80,000 people met to hear a speech on political reform. On the orders of the magistrates they were interrupted by the yeomanry attempting to seize the banners they carried, and to arrest their speaker, Henry Hunt. Cavalry were sent in, and eleven people were killed and four hundred injured in the ensuing panic.

This overture attempts to portray these happenings musically, but after a lament for the killed and injured, it ends in triumph, in the firm belief that all those who have suffered and died in the cause of unity amongst mankind, will not have died so in vain.”

The extraordinary piece – which really should be better known – can be heard below, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer:

It may start with a regal theme but soon the cavalry approach, and the music is thrown into disarray and discord. Ominous brass and squealing woodwind signal the onset of violence, before a description of the outright chaos on what has become a battlefield gets ever louder, like the climax of a Shostakovich symphony.

Then suddenly all is emptiness, the horrors fully revealed…but from the depths comes a beautiful lament from oboe and a repeat of the main theme from the strings, now held higher – before a salute from full orchestra ends the overture in triumph. The piece is a powerful and moving response to the tragedy, a musical portrayal of courage in the face of terror – and it proves every bit as relevant to today’s political climate as it would to the victims of the massacre.

If you want to hear more Arnold, the album from which this piece is taken includes three fine examples of his nine symphonies (nos.1, 2 & 5), and two more entertaining overtures, Tam O’Shanter and Beckus the Dandipratt:

As you will gather from those titles alone, the composer was not without a sense of humour!

The picture is a coloured print of the Peterloo Massacre, published by Richard Carlile.

Live review – Lucy Crowe, Karen Cargill, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Mahler Symphony no.2

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus,
City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 June 2019

Mahler
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ (1888-95)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Almost 46 years since this orchestra first played it, then 39 years since Sir Simon Rattle made it his mission-statement, Mahler’s Resurrection is one of those pieces which constitutes a ‘rite of passage’ for conductors at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony. Tonight it was the turn of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – who, coming towards the end of her third season as music director of this orchestra, presided over a reading which assuredly had the measure of a work that, over recent decades, has too often felt in danger of becoming a classy lifestyle accessory.

If there was anything at all lacking (aside from a handful of imprecisions as would only have surprised those drawn to this music for its showpiece potential), it was of the piece evolving as a cumulative and inevitable unity. As often, the first movement brought most reservations – Gražinytė-Tyla’s handling of its long-term momentum being slightly less convincing than her characterization of its individual components; though at its best, as in her easing into the ruminative second subject or her sustaining of tension going from the eruptive climax of the development into the reprise, this was highly impressive. Mahler seldom approached sonata design other than obliquely, and the deadpan fatalism conjured from its final pages suggests this conductor already has the measure of its expressive range if not yet its formal cohesion.

Coming after a judicious pause, there was little to fault in the Andante – its lilting main theme as felicitous as the counter melody with which it finds common cause, and with the animated secondary theme sounding suitably crepuscular. More unexpected was the scherzo, exuding a suave and even phlegmatic air as Gražinytė-Tyla hears it – though few could have objected to the aching nostalgia of its trio, even if tempo elisions during its final stages were just a touch awkward. Karen Cargill (left) then brought out the tenderness and intimacy of the Urlicht setting.

It was in the epic expanse of the finale, however, that this performance readily came into its own. Launched with explosive intent, its starkly contrasted constituents were drawn together so that the sense of a steadily evolving whole was never in doubt. Such as the baleful chorale passage and the ‘last judgement’ frenzy which duly parodies it were judiciously realized, as was the contribution of offstage brass and percussion in opening-out its emotional remit on the way to the (partial) setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode which forms the culmination.

Tellingly, Gražinytė-Tyla had the chorus remain seated for most of its length – building gradually but intently towards its blazing affirmation of the beyond. Lucy Crowe (left) was a little overwrought in her initial entries, while joining ecstatically with Cargill in their subsequent duet, yet it was the CBSO Chorus (who must have sung this music more often than almost any other such group) that ensured a truly blazing culmination; after which, the brief orchestral postlude unfolded swiftly and headily toward those majestic closing chords.

Eschewing bathos, and shorn of any tendency to grandstanding, this was a powerful end to what is an impressive interpretation in the making, besides confirming the rapport between orchestra and conductor that is audibly on the incline as the CBSO approaches its centenary.

Further listening

You can listen to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of the Resurrection Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle on Spotify below: