Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Symphony no.21 & Shostakovich: Symphony no.15

Freddie Jemison (treble), Maria Makeeva (soprano), Gidon Kremer (violin, above), Kremerata BalticaCity of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Grazinyte-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 24 November 2018, 11am

Weinberg Symphony no.21 op.152
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major op.141

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Weinberg Weekend being held in Birmingham reached its culmination tonight with this uncompromising yet rewarding symphonic double-bill. Those unfamiliar with the composer’s music may have been disconcerted by what they heard. Whereas the early Violin Concertino (heard at the previous concert) feels not so far removed from comparable works by Malcolm Arnold, the Symphony no.21 breathes an air of stark fatalism. Written at a time which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and dedicated to the memory of those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto (the ‘Kaddish’ subtitle is found in his catalogue but not the actual score), it ranks among Weinberg’s deepest statements. At almost an hour it is also among his longest symphonies, so making its predominant sparseness and concentration the more remarkable.

The single movement falls into several continuous sections – an initial Largo’ introducing the plangent hymn that pervades the work then the chorale whose presence Weinberg traced back to his First Symphony, their alternation making way for the opening theme of Chopin’s First Ballade intoned somnolently on piano. An Allegro draws a theme from Weinberg’s Fourth Quartet into its reckless orbit, while a further Largo similarly utilizes one from his Double-Bass Sonata – the latter’s sepulchral tones sounding more bizarre given the ensuing klezmer-like passage with clarinet, which persists through a tensile Presto then plaintive Andantino that brings the principal climax. A final Lento unfolds with increasing introspection – violin, piano and harmonium adding their spectral sonorities until the music fades out of earshot.

The work went unheard in Weinberg’s lifetime, with its undoubted technical and emotional challenges having made revivals rare. Yet its formal cohesion and expressive consistency are undoubted – in the conveying of which, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla took especial credit for rendering the epic structure as an inevitable yet cumulative entity whose febrile outbursts were held in check by that encroaching vastness which extends right across the whole. She was abetted by an assured response from the City of Birmingham Symphony, bolstered by members of Kremerata Baltica (Gidon Kremer taking the violin solos), and if dividing the vocalise between eloquent Maria Makeeva and plaintive Freddie Jemison slightly disrupted continuity in the closing stages, it hardly distracted from the stature of this reading overall.

Shostakovich‘s Symphony no.15 made a pertinent coupling, with Grazinyte-Tyla having its measure right from her purposeful take on the opening Allegretto. The Adagio’s ominous tread was finely sustained, its numerous solo passages having ample room to unfold prior to an anguished climax then desolate coda, while the brief scherzo fairly crackled with barbed irony. Nor was there any lack of focus in the finale, emerging from its miasma of allusions through to a spectral passacaglia whose seismic culmination never pre-empted the subdued recollection of earlier ideas or, above all, the transfigured conclusion with its evocation of ‘voices overheard’ over simmering percussion. It set the seal on an impressive performance and a memorable concert: one which certainly warrants the proposed commercial release.

Sunday morning saw a lecture in the Recital Hall at the recently-opened Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. As presented by Prof David Fanning (Manchester University) and Dr Michelle Assay (Huddersfield University), Exploring Weinberg offered a selective though consistently informative overview of the composer’s life and career: from his formative years in Warsaw, via his arrival in Moscow following periods in Minsk then Tashkent against the background of war; the dark years of the anti-formalism campaign then his incarceration during the final months of Stalin’s increasingly paranoid rule, then to the decades of growing acclaim from colleagues and public alike during the 1960s and ’70s, before a period of increasing neglect as a new generation of Soviet composers came to the fore and the Soviet Union neared its end.

The lecture was illustrated with numerous visual and musical examples, but it was archival recording of Weinberg playing and singing extracts from his opera The Passenger to the Moscow Union of Composers – in a futile attempt to secure its performance – that riveted attention. Hearing a composer’s actual voice is seldom less than revealing and so it proved here, setting the seal on an event which was certainly worth attending despite the absence of a selection of chamber works from Conservatoire students that was to have followed.

Summing up, the Weinberg Weekend fairly succeeded in terms of introducing Birmingham audiences to music by a composer whose importance continues to increase and as a prelude to what looks set to be a deluge of UK performances over the course of his centenary year.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Live review – Benjamin Grosvenor, CBSO / Vassily Sinaisky – Mozart, Sibelius & Wagner

Benjamin Grosvenor (above, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraVassily Sinaisky (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 October 2018 (matinee concert)

Wagner Der fliegende Holländer – Overture (1841)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.21 in C major K467 (1785)
Sibelius Symphony no.1 in E minor Op.39 (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It has often been remarked that concerts adhering to the once ‘standard’ format of overture, concerto and symphony are hardly frequent nowadays, so making this afternoon’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Vassily Sinaisky the more welcome.

Wagner has always made for an effective curtain-raiser, not least his overture to The Flying Dutchman. Earliest of his acknowledged operas, its eventful 10 minutes fairly encapsulate the salient incidents and principal themes – not least in this performance, Sinaisky confirming his operatic credentials (in which capacity he has been regrettably little heard in the UK) with an assured reading; most perceptive in its approach to Senta’s eloquent ballad near the beginning and in its Tristanesque return during the closing bars such as Wagner transformed in revision.

A scaled-down CBSO was equally responsive in Mozart‘s K467, happily no longer indelibly associated with one of the dreariest 1960s films. Often at his most perceptive in 19th-century music, Benjamin Grosvenor is no slouch in Mozart and his performance – as was that at this year’s Proms with the BBCSO and Sakari Oramo – was full of felicitous phrasing, even if the formal focus of the imposing first movement was likely of Sinaisky’s choosing. The Andante was affecting without affectation, Grosvenor embedding the solo part closely into that of the orchestra, then the final rondo conjured up effervescence at a not unduly headlong tempo. All credit to Grosvenor in choosing cadenzas by Robert Casadesus (whose Mozart recordings are required listening) and for a limpid reading of Rachmaninov‘s Lilacs as his encore.

Although his ambivalent relationship with the Austro-German symphonic tradition has often been noted, Sibelius’s Russian heritage is often downplayed – yet his first two symphonies would be inconceivable without Tchaikovsky’s input. The First of these has been compared with the Pathétique in its epic and ultimately tragic nature, but the influence of the Russian’s Fifth Symphony feels even more overt in its sombre clarinet-led introduction and an Allegro with its ingenious take on the sonata format. Sinaisky duly has the measure of its brooding power and surging energy, then opted for a flowing account of the Andante that brought out its pathos and quixotic changes of mood without it seeming turgid or episodic. The Scherzo, too, had the requisite dynamism and, in its trio, an appealing whimsy that was deftly drawn.

The highlight, though, was the finale – most often the movement which fails to ignite by dint of its discursive structure. Yet ‘Quasi una Fantasia’ need not imply rhapsodic and Sinaisky treated it accordingly, characterizing its dramatic then fervent themes with due appreciation of their formal integration towards an impassioned climax whose fateful outcome was never in doubt. It helped that orchestral playing was of unwavering commitment, with the CBSO giving of its collective best in a piece which it has played frequently over the past 86 years.

It set the seal on a concert which was a reminder one that even a mainstream programme can surprise and engage when the constituents are thoughtfully planned and performances never less than responsive. The enthusiastic reception of a sizable house was its own confirmation.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Live review – Yulianna Avdeeva, CBSO / Constantinos Carydis – Skalkottas, Tchaikovsky & Beethoven

Yulianna Avdeeva (below, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraConstantinos Carydis (above)

Photo credits: Thomas Brill (Constantinos Carydis), C Schneider (Yulianna Avdeeva) 

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Thursday October, 2018

Skalkottas Four Images (1948)
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no.1 in B flat minor Op.23 (1875)
Koukos In Memoriam Y. A. Papaioannou (1989)
Beethoven Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1812)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Conductors are not obliged to programme their compatriots, though Constantinos Carydis certainly rang the changes by including music by Nikos Skalkottas (1904-49) – who, along with Xenakis, is undoubtedly the leading Greek classical composer from the 20th century.

Nor is the City of Birmingham Symphony unacquainted with his work, having given the first complete performance of his First Symphonic Suite in 1972. That piece typifies the intricate, serially-derived music of his earlier maturity, whereas the Four Images comes from his last years when tonal music predominated. Derived from a longer ballet score for piano, these characterful miniatures amply evoke folk scenes (without using actual folk themes) in a way recalling Bartók’s Dance Suite or, more directly, the dances from Ginastera‘s ballet Estancia.

Carydis accordingly had their measure – whether the forceful rhythms and acerbic harmonies of The Harvest, or wistful pathos of The Sowing with its resplendent, bell-capped climax. After this, The Vintage provides a scherzo of no mean propulsion and Carydis was right to lead directly into The Grape Stomping for a finale of scintillating vigour and impetus. Such were the qualities that the CBSO brought to this music, in what was a captivating account of a piece which could easily become as familiar as those aforementioned given such advocacy.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has never wanted for exponents, so credit to Yulianna Avdeeva for her engaging perspective on music to which the ‘war-horse’ epithet is too often applicable. The indelible opening melody was majestic without being portentous, with the imposing first movement convincingly held together so that the accrued momentum carried through to a searching take on its lengthy cadenza. There was no lack of deftness during the Andantino, replete with woodwind playing of real elegance, while the finale had energy to spare on its way to a surging peroration. This is an impressive interpretation in the making.

As well as his illustrious forebears, Carydis was intent on promoting the music of his Greek contemporaries. Well regarded for his operas, Periklis Koukos (b.1960) is little known in the UK, but the tribute to his teacher In Memoriam Y. A. Papaioannou suggests a composer of no mean eloquence – this threnody for strings not a little redolent of Nino Rota in its restrained sentiment, and a solo violin part that leader Anna-Liisa Bezrodny rendered with ideal poise.

Carydis then headed directly into Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, here given a reading that was always invigorating and often electrifying. Dynamic contrasts occasionally verged on the contrived, and the repeat of the scherzo’s hymnal trio was almost parodic in its stateliness, but these were outweighed by the power and incisiveness elsewhere. Carydis drove the CBSO hard in the finale, but the players admirably rose to the challenge – antiphonal violins to the fore as the coda reached its visceral culmination. Whatever its inconsistencies, this was a performance to reaffirm the greatness of this music, as an enthusiastic reception testified.

A persuasive programme of the evergreen and unfamiliar. Should Carydis include Skalkottas’ ballet The Maiden and Death in a future engagement with the CBSO, then so much the better.

Tonight’s concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall on Sunday 7th October at 3pm. For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Michael Hubbard on the CBSO concert of Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series musicOMH editor Michael Hubbard gives his verdict on the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their Prom of French music.

Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Michael, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There was always a guitar hanging in the lounge, as my father learnt a bit in the 1960s. He used to play things like Islands In The Sun, and then my mother would say “That’s enough!” and hang it up again. When I was in infant school, like anybody else, recorders became a fixture in my life. I had a descant, a tenor and a treble at various points. I never got round to the bass, only one person had that, maybe because her parents were richer.

In terms of the music I used to listen to, that was something else entirely. My mother was deaf, but she could somehow pick out some music more than others. She passed some of that on to me, and some of that was the opera side – especially Puccini – but there was music from King Sunny Adé through to Tina Turner, too. My father’s music taste could be discerned a little from what he used to play on guitar. When I was a little older I was able to go through his music and play some of it, from Johnny Cash to Abba. I know my mother’s teenage fixation was Elvis Presley. So although I had no formal music knowledge before I started learning an instrument, there was I suppose a lot of music around – but I had to look for it.

When were you first aware of classical music?

I was doing things in school, music class – and starting to pick up names like Purcell. When I started flute lessons at the age of 11, more of those composers became names to me, but up until then it was essentially things I heard on the radio. I had very little knowledge at that time.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I could probably name about 300 and they’d change every time I tried to answer… so this will be the first three that come to mind.

Jean-Michel Jarre was a massive hero of my early teens. He is probably the main reason why the first musical instrument I was really interested in was the synth. I was self taught; when my grandmother died she said in her will, ‘he must have a keyboard’, and my mother stuck to that. She brought me the keyboard I wanted, a Yamaha PSS-680, with its mini keys. I went on to Korgs and Rolands after that, and eventually had a couple of years of piano lessons, which supplemented the flute tuition I’d been persevering with. Knowing my way round a synth – and covering Jarre tracks with it – opened the door to composition, and before long I’d written some rudimentary pieces. I could never have done that with just a flute, on my own – the synth allowed me to play everything. Like Jarre. His enormous Fairlights were of course a world away from my Yamaha, but here was a doorway through which I wished to step.

There was also a sense of drama in what Jarre was doing, it was like ‘I’m taking over Docklands for a concert’, or ‘I’m taking over a space shuttle launch site’. I loved that, that everything stopped because music was that important. The very idea he was putting out there was ‘I AM – LOOK’. The idea that drama could be a thing that is art – something you could express from yourself as opposed to someone scripting it for you, it could be you creating it, and you could take over the whole district of a city with your lights and your sound – was amazing to me. I had videos of the Docklands concert and Rendezvous Houston. I think they helped me become aware that hiding in the corner in the hope of never being seen was a life strategy that I’d already taken too far.

Another very big influence on my life was Erasure. Vince Clarke was composing on guitar but transferring his ideas across to synth. I think I’d pigeonholed synths and guitars in different worlds until I understood his process. You composed on one or the other, and that instrument of composition would then define your music and your artistic statement. Nonsense, of course. 1984 was for me a pivotal year as I discovered the UK Top 40 on Radio 1 and its visual highlights on Top Of The Pops. The charts were, it quickly became apparent, full of gays – as well as (half of) Erasure, there was Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, and especially Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the list went on.

Through them and their conduit, the BBC, I became aware of a larger world. Andy Bell could appear in gold lamé hotpants to sing Sometimes on prime-time BBC1 and millions of our countrymen – not least my parents – would watch. I began to realise that we probably reacted differently to this performance. With my age still in single figures, the lyrical meaning of Frankie‘s Relax, I confess, passed me by – but Erasure’s songs, beginning with the chorus of Sometimes, had me analysing and reanalysing all sorts of assumptions. It marked at least the beginning of an awakening.

I’d already bought my first album on cassette tape, but my first CD album was for someone of my age not an obvious choice – Delirium by Capercaillie. En route to America for the first time, I was in a duty free shop with my father. He’d been concerned I wouldn’t have enough to occupy me on the plane, and took me into a shop and get me an album to listen to. I could choose from whatever was there. I can’t think what caused me to choose Capercaillie – I didn’t then know the band was named after a bird, or anything about their music. I did know they were Scottish, having scanned the sleeve notes, and somehow I’d lasted this long on the planet without owning any music by Scots, despite most of my family hailing from north of the border. Maybe it was a curiosity to hear if we’d have a shared connection.

Delirium merged synth sounds with their Gaelic folk music, and the latter was an otherworldly thing to my ears – I had no idea what those lyrics were about. I listened to the reels and jigs, and I wanted to listen to more of them. By extension from there started to listen more broadly to folk music. Capercaillie’s Delirium is not pure folk, but they are steeped in its traditions, and it opened that world up to me and gave me landmarks to mark the course of exploration.

The Proms does that too. You go along to see something that, as a piece of sheet music written hundreds of years ago, could be stultifying, but actually it’s alive because people are on stage and giving their own interpretations – like tonight’s Prom, with the trombonist in the orchestra in Boléro.

What did you think of the music in tonight’s Prom?

It was my first time ever hearing Boléro live, although like most people I expect I know it very well. It was my first time hearing anything by Debussy live, and had never heard anything by Lili Boulanger. I’ll work back, because I have Boléro in my mind at the moment.

I think it’s a pivotal piece of music. It’s not that exciting because once you’ve heard it you know where it goes, but that’s also true of most trance singles released on Positiva at the turn of the century. It’s a dance music track in embryonic minimalist form, building layers, reshaping loops, falling back. It’s also a pop music track because it’s instantly memorable. And it’s a classical music track because it uses an orchestra – it’s many different things. I want to know how it affects the broader world beyond classical, not if it was too fast or too slow, or which genre it neatly fits into. It’s probably not Ravel’s best in his own mind, but it’s certainly his big crossover hit from beyond the grave.

With Debussy I found myself not focusing on the musicians, but drifting. Not that it was bad, but I think that’s what it was about. I started thinking of other images the music was putting in my mind, in a way that Boléro didn’t. The first piece (the Prélude à L’apres-midi d’un faune) I thought was better at doing that than the Nocturnes. It was a nice warm-up, and I could see why it was first. Nobody stood out, it was a piece that brought everybody together. There was one thing happening organically. I couldn’t sing you a note of it now, but it engendered thoughts of other things.

With the Boulanger I found it very quiet, despite everything on stage – which felt like a choice that the performers had decided to restrain things. I thought that was odd.

What was your experience of the arena compared to elsewhere in the Royal Albert Hall?

For the Debussy I think I would rather have been sat down, but not for Boléro. It was odd to be standing up for classical, I would have expected to sit down and would rather do that I think.

Verdict: A qualified SUCCESS, even more so with seats!

Prom 44 – CBSO Choruses & Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot – Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

Prom 44 Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (above)

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo of CBSO (c) Upstream Photography

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Proms website here

One of the BBC Proms’ most valuable undertakings this season is the music of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). Her biggest choral work, a setting of Psalm 130 (Du fond de l’abîme) was the centrepiece of this enchanting concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot.

For once the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was ideally suited to the instrumentation of a piece, especially with the amount of detail lit up by this particular interpretation. Beginning with organ and lower strings that seemed to be positioned somewhere underground near the loading bay, the piece grew assuredly in stature and emotion, finding the nub of its text. The assembled throng of the CBSO Chorus sang as one, shaping Boulanger’s phrases beautifully while enjoying the harmonic twists and turns that give this piece – completed a year before its composer’s death – a distinctively modern turn.

Boulanger (above) was a friend of Debussy but had a tragically short-lived existence, dying from complications of illness at the age of 24. In that brief time she had already served notice as a composer of considerable invention, deep emotion and the ability to extend colour, harmony and melody in particular. All these things were on show in Psalm 130, the performance notable for its exquisite brush strokes.

The only problem was a difficulty in following the text itself from the arena. Although the right notes were undoubtedly there from the chorus, and mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė was full of tone in her solo passages, the words themselves were difficult to grasp above the texture. Some of the blame for this could go to the Royal Albert Hall acoustic itself – and it certainly wasn’t at the expense of a quite wonderful piece that should occupy a much firmer place in the repertoire.

For the rest of the programme Morlot and his charges gave us popular Debussy and Ravel, beginning in the heat haze of Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune and ending with the minimalist Boléro. These pieces were fascinating to contrast, from Marie-Christine Zupancic’s languorous flute solo that led off the Debussy – beautifully played – to the insistent, temple-knocking side drum of Adrian Spillett in the ubiquitous Boléro. Morlot paced both to perfection, giving us a chance in the Ravel to indulge in Matthew Knight’s trombone solo but also bringing out the Spanish rhythms and colour that make the piece a riot. He brought percussion section leader Spillett to the stage for a well-deserved curtain call at the end.

Before Boléro we were treated to the exquisite Nocturnes of Debussy – which would have been even more exquisite were it not for a barrage of coughing around the hall. Still, that did not completely harm a sensuously shaded account of Nuages (Clouds), the first Nocturne, whose softly oscillating chords left their understated mark, before the second and much quicker Fêtes (Festivals) ran lightly on its feet. The central procession episode of this pictorial movement was brilliantly paced by Morlot, with a hallucinogenic effect achieved through to muted trumpets, distant horns and wide open string textures.

While these two movements were special the concluding Sirènes (Sirens) was bewitching, fusing women’s voices and orchestra in an innovative combination that predates Holst’s The Planets by some 20 years. The CBSO Youth Choir were superb here, singing as one and hitting the high notes without fear – and without compromising the colour Debussy so clearly strives for. Morlot portrayed the vast, wide open scope of the sea – but also seemed to be looking beyond, casting his gaze far into space. This worked extremely well in the Royal Albert Hall, though perhaps quelling the coughers at the end was an even greater achievement!

This was an inspirational Prom, giving us familiar classics and the relatively unknown, boosting the profile of Lili Boulanger while reasserting the claims of Debussy and Ravel to be masters of their field. French classical music at its finest.