In concert – Sunwook Kim, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO / Mihhail Gerts: Kodály, Rachmaninoff, Debussy & Stravinsky

Mihhail-Gerts

Kodály Dances of Galánta (1933)
Rachmaninoff
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)
Debussy
Nocturnes – Sirènes (1899)
Stravinsky
The Firebird – Suite (1919)

Sunwook Kim (piano, below), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mihhail Gerts

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 17 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

As Mihhail Gerts (taking over at short notice from Lionel Bringuier) said in his initial remarks, all four pieces in this concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were written by composers born within 20 years of each other and made for some intriguing interconnections.

Youngest of these composers, Kodály’s piece was on one level the most traditional – Dances of Galánta looking back to the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt with its bringing together folk melodies in a free flowing fantasia whose larger paragraphs were judiciously shaped by Gerts so that a cumulative overall structure was always evident. The CBSO responded with alacrity to Kodály’s vivid if sometimes workaday orchestration, Oliver Janes making the most of the clarinet solo as stealthily sets the course for all that follows through to a teasing final pay-off.

By the time of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff’s music had all but shed its earlier opulence for a tensile, even sardonic quality pointing up expressive contrasts between the 24 variations which fall naturally while ingeniously into a three-movement continuity. It helped that Sunwook Kim constantly brought out those subtle changes of emphasis to which the theme is put, not least when combined with the Dies irae plainchant as if to underline the darker ambivalence at work in this music. That said, the 16th and 17th variations might have been probed even more deeply, so making the famous 18th more affecting in its catharsis, but the six variations of the ‘finale’ headed with unfailing panache to the suitably deadpan close – Kim responding to the enthusiastic applause with a limpid take on Brahms’s Intermezzo in A.

Whether or not it was the earliest piece to use wordless voices as a facet of the orchestration, Debussy’s Sirènes provided a template for numerous comparably innovative works across the next quarter-century and beyond. Gerts was scrupulous as to his enfolding of the textural strands into a cohesive and diaphanous whole; one to which the CBSO Youth Chorus made a suitably ethereal contribution. Nor was this too passive a reading as it moved with notably restive intent toward a culmination which brought a necessary measure of emotional repose.

But (and to misquote Ronald Reagan’s immortal words) ‘where was the rest of it’? Debussy’s Nocturnes being as integrated a triptych as his later La Mer or Ibéria, it seemed unfortunate to jettison Nuages and Fêtes – especially as they would have added no more than 15 minutes to a relatively short programme rounded off with Stravinsky’s The Firebird. This was heard in its 1919 suite, currently returning to favour given the over-exposure of the complete ballet over recent decades. Gerts duly encouraged the CBSO to give its all – whether in the sombre Introduction and a dextrous Dance of the Firebird, the affecting poise of The Princesses’ Khorovod or animated virtuosity of Kashchei’s Infernal Dance, then a Berceuse of real pathos as merged seamlessly into a Finale which conveyed the necessary emotional frisson.

A fine showing for Gerts who, as artistic director of the TubIN Festival, ought to be invited to schedule the Estonian’s Sixth Symphony on a future appearance. The CBSO returns next week in a concert featuring a UK premiere for R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses.

For more information on the next CBSO concert, visit their website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on conductor Mihhail Gerts and Sunwook Kim.

In concert – Sandrine Piau & David Kadouch @ Wigmore Hall – Journeys: Longing and Leaving

Sandrine Piau (soprano), David Kadouch (piano)

Schubert Mignon (Kennst du das Land) D321 (1815), Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister D877: Heiss mich nicht reden; Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (1826)
Clara Schumann Er ist gekommen Op. 12 No. 1 (1841); Sie liebten sich beide Op. 13 No. 2 (1842); Lorelei (1843)
Robert Schumann Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister Op. 98a: Kennst du das Land (1849)
Duparc La vie antérieure (1884); L’invitation au voyage (1870)
Lili Boulanger Clairières dans le ciel (1913-14): Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve; Je garde une médaille d’elle; Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme
Debussy Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917); 5 poèmes de Baudelaire (1890): Le jet d’eau; Recueillement; La mort des amants

Wigmore Hall, London, 17 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast

It was heartening indeed to see the Wigmore Hall at capacity for the visit of soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist David Kadouch, bringing with them a new program with the theme of Journeys: Longing and Leaving.

They delivered the songs in two ‘halves’, one of German Lieder drawn  from the first half of the 19th century, the other of French song from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, giving us a smooth trajectory from Schubert to Debussy.

Refreshingly the journey took in substantial contributions from Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger, three songs from each – as well as showing the increasing influence of Wagner on even the smallest forms of vocal music as the century turned.

Singing from a tablet, Sandrine Piau gave heartfelt performances and had the ideal foil in David Kadouch, whose brushstrokes on the piano were immediately telling. His chilly introduction to the third song in the Schubert group, Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, set the tone after a characterful first song and a sorrowful second, with a soaring vocal line from the soprano. Piau sang with arms outstretched, expressively capturing all the ornamentation and hitting the depths of the song’s turbulent middle section.

The Clara Schumann selection was fascinating, especially given the context of husband Robert’s well-known productivity in the years 1841-1843. The urgent Er ist gekommen was first, a heady song sitting high in the range, before a setting of Heine from just after Schumann’s celebrated year of song, a yearning and ultimately tragic number with a limpid commentary from the piano. The Loreley started in the same key, pushing restlessly forward. The only Schumann song in the program retained its intensity despite a noisy mobile phone introduction, a very different setting to the same text as tackled by Schubert at the start.

Turning to France, we heard two from the small output of Henri Duparc, whose entire output barely covers the length of a single concert. There is quality rather than quantity, however, and we heard the celebrated L’invitation au voyage, sumptuously performed with great poise. The two found the ideal pacing for La vie antérieure before it, solemn but quite open, and building to a powerful declamation.

Lili Boulanger wrote powerfully original music before her tragic death at the age of 24. Her orchestral tone poems have received greater exposure of late but the songs have remained relatively hidden. Piau and Kadouch put that to rights with three songs drawn from the wartime collection Clairières dans le ciel. They found an ominous tone in the lower vocal register from Piau, all the more so given the retrospective knowledge that Boulanger would only live for another three years from when the songs were written. The pained complexion at the end of Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve from Piau was profoundly affecting, then a slightly more optimistic Je garde une médaille d’elle led to the purity of Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme.

Finally a selection from Debussy, prefaced by his final published piano piece Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon. This was a nice touch as an interlude, and was beautifully played. by Kadouch, We then heard three of the five Baudelaire poèmes, beginning with a babbling fountain shaded by Kadouch as Piau’s voice floated easily above. Recueillement (Meditation) found stillness initially but with the poet, distracted by darker thoughts, was mirrored by the music breaking from its reverie. Piau judged the awkward intervals perfectly, especially the final words with their harmonic transformation. The ultimate farewell was saved for last, La mort des amants quite a complex song. As with much early Debussy the harmonies travelled far but arrived at a strangely logical end point, both performers exhibiting exceptional control at journey’s end.

Piau spoke of the program giving ‘therapy after these two long years’, after which Beau Soir – one of Debussy’s celebrated songs – proved the ideal encore, though as the soprano warned, it was essentially saying, “Look at these beautiful things, because everybody goes in the same direction – death!”

Watch and listen

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