In concert – Stephen Hough, CBSO / Edward Gardner: Saint-Saëns, Mazzoli & Debussy

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Stephen Hough (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no.4 in C minor Op. 44 (1875)
Mazzoli Violent, Violent Sea (2011)
Debussy La Mer L109 (1903-05)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 May 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been almost six months since the City of Birmingham Symphony last played to live audiences, but the frisson of expectation was palpable as the orchestra gradually took the stage for this first of nine concerts that, at around an hour’s duration, are being heard at 2pm then again at 6.30. The design of Symphony Hall’s platform makes it possible, moreover, to take out the raised platforms and so accommodate a larger number of musicians than would otherwise be possible in what is (hopefully!) a transitional period out of lockdown. Current restrictions still entail the spreading out of listeners, a small price to pay given the quality of acoustic at almost any point in this auditorium, while the rapid entry and exit procedures also enabled punters to assess the remodelled catering areas in advance of their June reopening.

As conducted by Edward Gardner, this programme featured works by two French composers with more in common than either could have suspected. Saint-Saëns nearly always brings out the best in Stephen Hough, and so it proved in this regrettably rare revival of the Fourth Piano Concerto. Its four sections grouped into two movements (a design the composer returned to a decade on with greater panache if less subtlety in his Third Symphony), the piece touches on aspects of sonata, variation and rondo procedures while its plain-spun material is developed in various and intriguing ways. This plus the close integration of soloist and orchestra often makes for a sinfonia concertante than concerto per se, yet there is no lack of virtuosity such as Hough despatched with alacrity – not least the cascading passagework in the final Allegro.

Saint-Saëns and Debussy evinced no mutual esteem, but as the former integrated symphonic elements into his concerto, so did the latter in his ‘three symphonic sketches’ which comprise La Mer. Here the CBSO came into its own, not least in the purposefully contrasted sequence of From Dawn to Midday on the Sea with its crepuscular writing for solo wind and divided strings through to a climactic chorale of visceral immediacy. Perhaps interplay of timbre and texture in Games of the Waves could have been more deftly handled, but Gardner exerted a firm grip over its course then drew real pathos from the final bars. He also found a persuasive balance between the volatile and poetic aspects in Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, while maintaining steady momentum as issued forth in the chorale on its proudly affirmative return.

Between these works, Violent, Violent Sea by the highly regarded American composer Missy Mazzoli elicited a wholly different response as to its marine concept. Here it is the constant yet rarely insistent melding of translucent harmonies and pulsating rhythms (stemming from marimba and vibraphone) as underpin this music; the sustaining of whose atmosphere is the keener for its succinct duration. The ranging of its relatively modest forces across the extent of the platform also made for rather greater impact than might otherwise have been the case. It certainly added to the attractions of a programme which launched this series of concerts in impressive fashion. The CBSO returns next Wednesday with Nicholas Collon at the helm for a sequence that ends with the uncompromising defiance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about Missy Mazzoli, click here

Live review – Kirill Gerstein, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki: World premiere of Saariaho’s ‘Vista’; Schumann & Debussy

susanna-malkki

Kirill Gerstein (piano), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki (above, photo (c) Jiyang Chen)

Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki
Broadcast Wednesday 12 May 2021, available online

Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 (1841)
Debussy Pièce pour Le Vêtement du blessé (unknown, publ. 1925); Berceuse héroïque (1914); Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon (unknown, publ. 2001); Élégie; Étude retrouvée (both 1915)
Saariaho Vista (2019, world premiere)

Written by Ben Hogwood

One of the very few advantages of being restricted to online concerts in the last year has been the chance to enjoy music making on an international scale. This happily gave the opportunity to hear a major world premiere, a new orchestral work from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

A truly international piece, Vista was co-commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Its title page has the inscription For Susanna – presumably a dedication to the night’s conductor, Susanna Mälkki.

Although scored for a large orchestra, Vista is economical in its use of the forces. Inspired by road signs the composer saw in California – all promising great ‘vistas’ – the work has something of the West Coast about it, a shimmering heat haze and dust on the horizon. In its darker moments the twinkling of the stars, and the metropolis, can be discerned.

Vista impressed from the outset. Its first section, Horizons, began with a high oboe solo, played with very impressive control in this performance. As always with Saariaho’s music, the vivid colours in the orchestra made themselves known early on and after the initial intimacy of the wind instruments the view panned out appreciably, to an expansive picture.

Microtones and almost imperceptible changes in pitch were part of the evocation, and when the music alighted on a particular pitch the effect was striking. Saariaho’s music continuously evolved – shimmering, glistening, darkening, lightening, or casting shadow, as it did in a particularly vivid section where the metallic percussion took centre stage. Here the twinkling of glockenspiel contrasted with the spidery flurries of the strings.

saariaho

Targets, the second section, began with a blast of sound, before brass and strings were involved in dialogue – and we heard a flurry of activity from the whole orchestra, after which all the forces reached the same pitch, the view panning out again. Now the vista was nocturnal, with a shiver in the air.

Saariaho (above) was present, and in a rather moving response to the piece the orchestra and conductor applauded the composer, rather than the other way around. It is always difficult to appraise a major orchestral piece on the basis of its premiere, but on this evidence Vista is a major achievement and a piece to return to as often, Thankfully Mälkki is conducting it with the Berliner Philharmoniker on 22 May, but this was a special performance from the composer’s ‘home’ orchestra.

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Elsewhere on the program we enjoyed a fresh, vibrant performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in which the soloist was Kirill Gerstein (above). He clearly enjoys the piece, and the fast movements were notable for the clarity of their phrasing and lightness of touch. The first movement had an attractive lilt and some very appealing dialogue with the orchestra woodwind, oboe particularly. The slow movement gave plenty of room for Schumann’s softer sentiments, and the finale danced attractively.

The Schumann was complemented by some well-chosen solo Debussy, Gerstein opting for five lesser-known piano works. A palette-cleansing Pièce pour Le Vêtement du blesse, a posthumous publication, was followed by the steady tread of the Berceuse héroïque, given a solemn account. Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon was next, a piece unearthed in 2001 – sounding like a previously unreleased Prélude in these descriptive hands. The profound Élégie was next, then a rippling Étude retrouvée, a seldom-heard study written prior to the book of Études in 1915.

This was a fine concert, nicely structured and pointed towards the Saariaho – which fully lived up to its billing. Catch it if you can!

You can watch the concert on the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra website here

For more information on the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra digital season, you can visit their website here

Sound of mind – New releases

This is not a regular feature, but I thought it would be good to highlight new albums released today that fall into Arcana’s ‘circle of interest’ – the idea being that listening to them or hopefully even buying them will reward the creators in these difficult times. So, without further ado…

Víkingur Ólafsson releases his much-anticipated third album for DG today. A collection of music for keyboard by Rameau and Debussy, it has the hallmarks of Ólafsson’s meticulous presentation, and – I suspect – his meticulous and intimate approach, which has proved so effective with his albums of Philip Glass Etudes and Bach keyboard music.

Sticking with classical music but moving ever so slightly closer to Hollywood, the Sinfonia of London and John Wilson release their third collaboration on Chandos today. It sees them returning to Korngold, whose Symphony in F sharp major they played so brilliantly to celebrate their rebirth as an orchestra. This time they are taking on the composer’s glitzy Violin Concerto, with soloist Andrew Haveron stepping up from duties as orchestral leader. This is coupled with the substantial String Sextet, a work definitely worth getting to know:

Switching on the power, we arrive at Daniel Avery and his collaboration with Nine Inch NailsAlessandro Cortini, Illusion Of Time. This is an intriguing match that on first listen is a successful blend of electronic soundscapes, with Avery’s wide open perspective and Cortini’s analogue synth sensibilities complementing each other:

It’s great to see Little Dragon back. The Swedish band have changed labels, arriving at Ninja Tune – and their sixth album New Me, Same Us. It finds them rejuvenated and pressing forward, with Yukimi Nagano providing the ever-distinctive vocals.

Moving outside of Europe we come to Tamikrest. I can’t pretend to have a good knowledge of African music, but here is a band I have latched onto for their unique blend of Tuareg music and rock. Their new record Tamotaït has the same thrilling combination of propulsive rhythms and heat-soaked atmosphere:

Finally – if you’re after a good house party for your nearest and dearest – you would do well to consider including some of the new Dua Lipa album! She may not be someone who needs the investment, but you can guarantee good vibes throughout Future Nostalgia, especially when the likes of hit singles Don’t Start Now and Physical are present.

Playlist – Sound of Mind 3: Orchestral

Today’s playlist of music for the mind has an orchestral theme, which will hopefully bring you some colour if you’re stuck indoors.

This one features Aaron Copland‘s brightly-scored ballet music Appalachian Spring, the first movement of Rachmaninov‘s Second Piano Concerto, Elgar‘s Sospiri, shorter works by Grieg and Debussy, and Vaughan Williams‘ timeless Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis:

I hope you enjoy it – and stay tuned for some uplifting Friday vibes tomorrow!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Ruby Hughes, Natalie Clein & Julius Drake: Works for soprano, cello & piano

Ruby Hughes (soprano, above), Natalie Clein (cello), Julius Drake (piano, both below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 9 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating hour of music for three instruments not often linked – soprano, cello and piano. Its imaginative programme comprised music by six composers from three different centuries using four languages! It made for a very satisfying whole.

Kodály’s single-movement Sonatina for cello and piano (1:41 on the radio broadcast) began the program. This is a work with which Natalie Clein and Julius Drake are very familiar, having recorded it for Hyperion in 2009, and they immediately found its expressive core. The Sonatina was initially intended for a Sonata the composer finished in 1909, but it happened to work particularly well on its own, and was completed later. Its colourful music – which has parallels to Debussy’s own Cello Sonata – is rich in melodic and harmonic content. Free in form, it speaks directly of the composer’s Hungarian heartlands. Clein’s tone was sumptuous in this performance and Drake’s piano exemplary, the two plotting a convincing course for the work.

This was followed without a break by three of John Tavener’s 6 Akhmatova Songs, written for soprano Patricia Rozario and cellist Steven Isserlis in 1993. In effect the cello is singing here too, its wordless line providing an otherworldly introduction for the third song of the six, Boris Pasternak (10:45). Clein’s rich sound was the ideal foil for the clarity of Ruby Hughes’ soprano. Couplet (12:48) was immediately more agitated, the gruff cello adopting a more questioning slant as it helped describe the poet’s suspicion about praise of her own work. Hughes, too, was more penetrating in her delivery. Finally Dante (14:23) grew outwards from the start, its expressive line shared between singer and instrumentalist.

Deborah Pritchard’s short but powerful Storm Song (16:46), a setting of text by Jeanette Winterson, was the last part of this unbroken first sequence. Premiered almost exactly three years ago, it was led by Hughes’ wide ranging but beautifully shaped melodic lines, soaring above the sinuous cello and piano as they descended into a powerful maelstrom at the song’s heart.

Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis were next, three heady settings of words by Pierre Louÿs, initially claimed to be erotic works from Ancient Greece. They were in fact the poet’s own construction, a fact Debussy presumably knew. La flûte de Pan (23:02) immediately transported the listener to a sultry outdoor setting and a lovers’ tryst, given appropriately chromatic settings by the composer. Julius Drake provided a rich tapestry in Debussy’s piano writing, and the humid setting was enhanced by the slow, tolling bells of the introduction to La chevelure (25:50) Hughes, now lower in her range, cast the spell. Le tombeau des naïades (29:16) closed this deliberately elusive trio, and we were left feeling as though we were all in on a rendezvous that was not supposed to be happening!

On the palmy beach is a commission from Kings Place for Judith Weir, completed in 2019 for these three performers and watched here by the composer herself. A cycle of four themed songs, it takes encounters with the sea and its inhabitants as inspiration, setting four very different poems by Wallace Stevens, Kathleen Jamie, Norman McCaig and Emily Dickinson. Weir has blogged on how she initially intended to keep the two instruments in step with each other, but how it became ‘much more alluring to liberate the cello’. Presumably for copyright reasons, the text for only one of the four poems (the Dickinson) could be printed, which made the text more difficult to follow in spite of Hughes’ wonderful singing. Yet there was a great deal of communication through the music, for which Clein and Drake were equally responsible.

Clein soared towards the heights in the prologue to the setting of Stevens’ Fabliau of Florida (34:30), where foam and cloud are one, and gave a full-throated epilogue too. Weir’s use of the cello to depict a jellyfish in Jamie’s The Glass-hulled boat (38:23) was uncanny, humorous and strangely touching, the agile lines dovetailing with Hughes’ own words. Norman McCaig’s Basking Shark (42:08) was next, the broad cello line a counterpoint to Hughes’s vivid storytelling and only latterly joined by the piano. Finally the setting of Dickinson’s I started Early – Took my Dog – (656) (46:13) was compelling, the sea toying with the author before ultimately opting not to catch her up.

To conclude a unique concert we heard Schubert’s Auf dem Strom (50:57), written for Beethoven’s memorial a year after his death in 1828 and containing a quotation from the Eroica Symphony. Setting the poetry of Ludwig Rellstab, it was written for soprano with horn and piano accompaniment, the composer later adding an obbligato cello was just as valid instead of the horn. This was to our advantage, for it enabled Natalie Clein to project the phrases beautifully, setting the scene for Hughes’ subtly wrought grief. With eloquent playing from Drake, this felt rather like the slow movement of a Schubert piano trio, but with words – expressive and touching.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Kodály Sonatina for cello and piano (1922, published 1969)
Tavener Akhmatova Songs (1993) (excerpts) (10:45)
Pritchard Storm Song (2017) (16:46)
Debussy Chansons de Bilitis (1897-8) (23:02)
Weir On The Palmy Beach (2019) (34:30)
Schubert Auf dem Strom D943 (1828) (50:57)

Further listening & viewing

The works by Deborah Pritchard and Judith Weir have not been recorded yet, but you can hear available recordings of the works by Kodály, Tavener, Debussy and Schubert on the following Spotify playlist:

References to Natalie Clein and Julius Drake’s Kodály recordings of 2009 were unfortunately missed from the Wigmore Hall program. You can hear preview clips of their collection, including the Sonatina on the Hyperion website

The most recent collection of music by Judith Weir comes highly recommended. Airs from Another Planet is a collection of songs and chamber music, released on the enterprising Delphian label:

Meanwhile the music of John Tavener continues to enchant in a lasting way. While awareness of the composer centres all too often around his piece for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil, this collection of works for cello from RCA – nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1997 – has aged very well. It includes all six of the Akhmatova Songs, performed by dedicatees Patricia Rozario and Steven Isserlis: