In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: Trios for flute, viola and harp (Marie-Christine Zupancic, David BaMaung & Katherine Thomas)

Instrument-detail-Neil-Pugh

Bax Elegiac Trio GP178 (1916)
Weinberg
Trio Op.127 (1979)
Debussy
Sonata for flute, viola and harp L137 (1915)

Members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute), David BaMaung (viola), Katherine Thomas (harp)]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Thursday 18 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although little more than a century old, the enticing combination of flute, viola and harp has since given rise to a host of stylistically varied pieces – three of which were featured in this Centre Stage lunchtime recital by members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

If not the most elaborate of his numerous works for mixed ensemble, Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio is surely among his most affecting as a (deliberately?) understated ‘in memoriam’ for those friends who had died as a result of the ill-fated Easter Uprising in Ireland. While the underlying mood rarely moves too far from that implied by the title, the close-knit motivic writing and subtly shifting emotions which are filtered through the textural ‘weave’ prove    as subtle as they are elusive – not least in a performance as focussed or as assured as this.

His extensive chamber output might be dominated by his 17 string quartets, but Mieczysław Weinberg wrote numerous pieces for sundry combinations – of which the present Trio could be considered typical of his spare and elusive later idiom. As in other works from this period, descriptions are replaced by metronome markings, endowing the music with an inscrutability as leaves the musicians to convey more tangible expression – whether in an initial movement that uncovers its formal trajectory as it brings these instruments into play, a central movement whose fragmentary textures never quite evolve into cohesive exchanges, then a finale whose vigorous rhythmic motion is tersely curtailed almost out of spite. An insightful account of an absorbing piece, especially when not given in its alternative version with piano replacing harp.

A recital such as this almost had to close with the Sonata by Debussy that will likely remain the template for this ensemble. Here, the opening Pastorale seemed a little too restive fully to convey this music’s ethereal emotion, but the Interlude found an ideal balance between incisiveness and elegance whose minuet-like gait belies its almost intuitive unfolding, while the Finale drew all three instruments into an inexorable motion through to the decisive close – the composer asserting his credentials as ‘musicien français’ with pointed understatement.

An appealing and not a little thought-provoking recital for which Marie-Christine Zupancic, David BaMaung and Katherine Thomas placed those present in their debt. The Centre Stage series continues on December 3rd, with a programme from the CBSO Percussion Ensemble.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here

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

hough-gardiner

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.

kirill_gerstein

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