BBC Proms at Birmingham – Claire Barnett-Jones & Simon Lepper in songs by Horovitz, Smyth, Clarke, Vaughan Williams & Wallen

BBC Proms at Birmingham – Claire Barnett-Jones (mezzo-soprano), Simon Lepper (piano)

Horovitz Lady Macbeth – a scena (1970) [Proms premiere]
Smyth Fünf Lieder, Op. 4 (c1877) [Proms premiere]
Clarke The Seal Man (1921-2) [Proms premiere]
Vaughan Williams Four Last Songs (1954-8) [Proms premiere of original version]
Wallen Lady Super Spy Adventurer (2022) [BBC commission: World premiere]

Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Monday 29 August 2022, 1pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (Claire Barnett-Jones) (c) Benjamin Ealovega

The series of regional lunchtime Proms this afternoon reached Birmingham for a song recital by Claire Barnett-Jones, whose success at last year’s Cardiff Singer of the World and having studied at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire made her appearance doubly apposite. Equally so the initial item by Joseph Horovitz, after his death in February at 96. Lady Macbeth – a scena revealed his more serious side – with monologues from the first, second and fifth acts of ‘The Scottish Play’ charting the anti-heroine’s journey from aspiration via ambition to desperation.

The music of Ethel Smyth has been a recurrent feature this season – the present set of Lieder a reminder that, before she achieved fame with The Wreckers and notoriety as a suffragette, she had received a thoroughly Teutonic musical education in Leipzig. Fluent and idiomatic, these five settings are fluent and idiomatic: the enervation of Büchner’s Tanzlied followed by the wistfulness of Wildenbruch’s Schlummerlied and eloquence of Eichendorff’s Mittagsrum, then the assertiveness of Groth’s Nachtreiter and transcendence of Heyse’s Nachtgedanken.

Barnett-James rendered them with sensitivity and insight, with Simon Lepper (above) no less attuned to those most often intricate accompaniments. Qualities equally evident in Rebecca Clarke’s luminous setting of Masefield’s evocative if rather prolix The Seal Man as well as Four Last Songs that Vaughan Williams set to texts by his second wife, the poet Ursula Wood. From the fatalism of The Death of Procris, via the acceptance of Tired and the poise of Hands, Eyes and Heart, to the fulfilment of Menelaus – these are songs which speak of a life well-lived.

A very different take on the journey from innocence to experience is proffered by Lady Super Spy Adventurer, written by Errollyn Wallen for this recital and which might be described as a ‘concert aria’ in that its highly visual – and often visceral – rendering of the composer’s own text is balanced by a sure formal sense as to where these deceptively superficial observations are headed. Barnett-James despatched them with suitable aplomb such that Wallen, listening from home, must have been well satisfied.

Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, the second song from his cycle of Rossetti poems House of Life, made for an affecting encore.

Click on the artist names for more information on Claire Barnett-Jones and Simon Lepper. For more information on this year’s BBC Proms, head to the festival website

BBC Proms #44 – Soloists, BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Ethel Smyth ‘Mass’ & Debussy ‘Nocturnes’

Prom 44 – Nardus Williams (soprano), Bethan Langford (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Božidar Smiljanić (bass), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Debussy Nocturnes (1897-9)
Smyth Mass in D (1891, rev. 1924) [Proms premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London

Saturday 20 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

His third Prom this season found Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an unlikely yet, in the event, thought provoking double-bill of pieces composed at either end of the same decade and which duly played to the strengths of all those who were taking part.

The music of Ethel Smyth has been a prominent feature of this season and while her Mass in D comes too early in her career to be considered ‘mature’, it does evince many of those traits as defined the operas that followed. Written during a brief flush of adherence to Anglicanism, this is demonstrably a concert rather than liturgical setting (which makes its apparent status as the first Mass heard publicly in England for almost 300 years the more ironic) and, moreover, one of a ‘symphonic’ rather than ‘solemn’ conception despite the audible debt to Beethoven.

Smyth reinforces this aspect by placing the Gloria at the close – thereby making it the finale of a sequence in which the Kyrie, building gradually to a baleful climax before returning to its initial sombreness, becomes an extended introduction to the Credo whose numerous sub-sections facilitate a sonata-form design of no mean formal cohesion and expressive breadth. For their part, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei function as extended slow movement whose (for the most part) emotional restraint enables the soloists to come to the fore – after which, the Gloria takes its place as a finale not least in terms of drawing on previous themes and motifs through to the forceful though never merely bathetic culmination. That Smythe did not essay a symphony given her evident structural command seems the more surprising.

Tonight’s performance was no less assured than that which Oramo gave at the Barbican (and subsequently recorded, albeit with different soloists) three seasons ago. The soloists made the most of their contributions – Nardus Williams bringing a plaintiveness and elegance that was ideally complemented with Bethan Langford’s warmth and understated fervency, and though Robert Murray’s ardency showed signs of strain, he was no less ‘inside’ his part than Božidar Smiljanić, whose solo was more affecting for its burnished eloquence. The BBC Symphony Chorus responded as one to the full-on contrapuntal writing of those main movements, while Richard Pearce ensured the (too?) extensive organ part did not muddy the orchestral textures. Oramo directed with clear enjoyment a work that, for the most part, justified its 62 minutes.

In the first half, Oramo presided over a searching account of Debussy’s Nocturnes – its three movements still sometimes encountered separately but far more effective heard as a complete entity. Not its least impressive aspect was the ease with which these followed on from each other with a cumulative inevitability – the fugitive shading of Nuages (melting cor anglais playing by Helen Vigurs) leading to the half-lit activity of Fêtes, with its darting gestures and a central march-past of vivid understatement, then on to the sensuous allure of Sirènes.

As enticing as the women’s voices of the BBCSC sounded in this closing movement, it was the fervency with which Oramo infused its recalcitrant content such as made it the natural culmination of the sequence – the final bars dying away with a tangible sense of fulfillment.

Click on the artist names for more information on Nardus Williams, Bethan Langford, Robert Murray, Božidar Smiljanić and Sakari Oramo and for more information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra head to their website. For more on composer Dame Ethel Smyth, click here

In concert – Elena Urioste, Ben Goldscheider, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Glinka, Ethel Smyth & Rachmaninoff

Glinka Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) – Overture
Smyth Concerto for Violin and Horn (1926-7)
Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-7)

Elena Urioste (violin), Ben Goldscheider (horn), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 24 July 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It might have been a ‘warm up’ for tomorrow night’s Proms appearance, but this afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its Chief Conductor designate Kazuki Yamada gave ample indication of what to expect of this partnership during 2022/23.

On one level, this was an appealingly old-fashioned programme in consisting of an overture, concerto and symphony. The former was that to Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, always an effervescent curtain-raiser which here unfolded at a lively but never headlong tempo that brought out the formal precision of this piece with its deft sonata design. Neither did Yamada under-characterize the amiable second theme, while the strangely ominous atmosphere of the development was made more so through a telling contribution by timpanist Matthew Hardy.

Ethel Smyth is a notable presence at this year’s Proms, the CBSO tackling her Concerto for Violin and Horn. Among her last major works (encroaching deafness saw her write little over the next 18 years), its nominally Classical trajectory belies a formal freedom as extends to an orchestration evoking her French contemporaries as much as her German forebears. Not least the initial Allegro with its trenchant and stealthily imitative writing for the soloists against an orchestral texture at once intricate and luminous. Yamada marshalled his forces accordingly, before giving Elena Urioste and Ben Goldscheider the stage for the ensuing Elegy whose ‘In memoriam’ marking encouraged a response of real eloquence. Robust yet never unyielding, the final Allegro took in a combative cadenza before striding forth to its decisive peroration.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony has moved to the very centre of the repertoire in the four decades since Simon Rattle made it a signature piece with this orchestra. Yamada holds it in equally high esteem – witness the finesse with which he built the first movement introduction to its impassioned apex, before subsiding into an Allegro which drew anxiety and grace into a purposeful accord heightened by the development’s surging inevitability then a coda of terse finality. Unfolding at an animated while not unduly hectic tempo, the scherzo was marginally over-indulged in its lilting second theme, but this did not pre-empt an incisive response in the central fugato – the CBSO strings at their collective best – nor a transition back into the main theme of irresistible verve. The coda exuded a fugitive inwardness that was no less arresting.

Ubiquitous these days as a radio staple, the Adagio needs astute handling if its rapture is not to become cloying and Yamada responded accordingly – not least in his attentive pacing of the main theme with a contribution from clarinettist Oliver Janes of melting poignancy, then a climax whose emotional intensity never became hectoring. The slightly too flaccid tempo for its easeful central span meant that the finale lacked the ultimate in cohesion, but Yamada balanced this elsewhere with an energy which carried through into a scintillating apotheosis.

So, an eminently worthwhile concert beyond merely enabling those who are unable to attend that Royal Albert Hall performance to hear Yamada with the CBSO in a programme such as played to both their strengths. Much to look forward to, then, over the course of next season.

For more information on the CBSO Prom, click on the link on their website. Meanwhile click on the artist names for more on Elena Urioste, Ben Goldscheider and Kazuki Yamada – and for a website dedicated to Dame Ethel Smyth

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival Highlights

eso-woods

Smyth The Wreckers – Overture (1906)
Elgar Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 ‘Enigma’ (1898-9)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Live performances at Worcester Cathedral, Saturday 30 October 2021

One of 2021’s welcome returns to the musical calendar, following its cessation in ‘lockdown year’, was the Elgar Festival – highlights from the final concert held at Worcester Cathedral last October comprising this latest in the English Symphony Orchestra’s digital online series.

The new production at this year’s Glyndebourne Festival should provide Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers with a suitable reassessment. Never having entirely fallen out of the repertoire, the overture affords a decent overview of the emotional impulses found therein and makes for a forceful curtain-raiser. If its headlong opening pages and plangent ensuing melody – shared between cor anglais and oboe – set up a promise not entirely fulfilled, the hymnic fervour of its climax and the impetuous final surge were keenly projected in this forthright performance.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations has been a staple of British music since its premiere 123 years ago and, by definition, a regular feature of this festival. Neither time nor familiarity has (or should have) detracted from the originality of both its underlying conception and its musical content – attributes to the fore with this engrossing account. Kenneth Woods pointed up those formal divisions into which the 14 variations fall, prefaced by the hushed rendering of a theme whose mingled wistfulness and pathos set the tone not just of this work but also for Elgar’s maturity.

On to the first stage with the searching emotion of ‘C.A.E’ – followed by the quick succession of capriciousness in ‘H.D.S-P.’, insouciance in ‘R.B.T.’, then impetus in ‘W.M.B.’. The next three variations opened-out the expressive range accordingly – hence the alternation between the earnest and playful in ‘R.P.A.’, gentle whimsy of ‘Ysobel’ with its teasing viola part, and headlong energy of ‘Troyte’. The next two variations contrast genial elegance in ‘W.N.’ with rapt eloquence in ‘Nimrod’, here rightly conveying ardent passion instead of nostalgic regret.

The following two variations yield studies of a more complementary nature – thus the halting piquancy of ‘Dorabella’ during what becomes a relatively extended intermezzo, to which the swift animation of ‘G.R.S.’ (more probably his bull-dog Dan) functions as a decidedly terse scherzo. Especially persuasive was the next brace of variations – the thoughtful undulations of ‘B.G.N.’ as framed by its haunting cello solos, then the imaginative ‘***’ which romanza takes in easy affability and aching rumination over its unpredictable and speculative course.

Its considerable expanse (though how right Elgar was to extend those concluding stages from the perfunctory end he first envisaged) makes equating the final ‘E.D.U.’ variation with what went before a test of interpretive skill. Suffice to add this performance met its challenge head on – Woods gauging that initial crescendo as a basis from which the ensuing festivities could take off, allowing necessary breathing-space for the inward central interlude to leave its mark prior to resuming the earlier extroversion, then upping momentum for the opulent peroration.

Needless to add, the organ of Worcester Cathedral made its presence felt with those weighty pedals in the work’s closing bars – setting the seal on a memorable reading which benefitted from as spacious and well-balanced sound as has been achieved with this venerable acoustic.

You can watch this concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website, with free public viewing from 8-12 April 2022. The concert is available thereafter only to ESO Digital supporters.

For further information on the 2022 Elgar Festival click here, and for more on composer Dame Ethel Smyth click here Meanwhile for more on Kenneth Woods, click here

Live review – Sinfonia Tamesa & Matthew Taylor – Ethel Smyth Serenade & Brahms Third Symphony

Sinfonia Tamesa / Matthew Taylor

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London
Saturday 9th March 2019

Schumann Genoveva Op.81 – Overture (1850)
Smyth Serenade in D major (1890)
Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Now into its eighteenth season, Sinfonia Tamesa has never been an orchestra afraid to ring the changes when it comes to programming. Tonight was no exception, with a rare hearing for Dame Ethel Smyth‘s Serenade to commemorate International Woman’s Day.

Not that this substantial piece proved unworthy of revival on its own merits. Brahms (whom Smyth admired above all others) is the obvious influence here, but Dvořák is equally evident in the rhythmic lilt and deft woodwind writing of its inner movements, an energetic scherzo followed by a hardly less animated intermezzo, and Matthew Taylor secured playing as lithe as it was incisive. He also brought out those expressive contrasts as make up for the opening Allegro’s lack of textural variety and ensured an underlying propulsion that carried the rather repetitious finale on to its decisive close. No major rediscovery, but a likeable and engaging work by a composer who wrote all too little purely orchestral music; should Tamesa choose to schedule Smyth’s masterly Double Concerto for Horn and Violin, then so much the better.

Framing this piece was music by Schumann and Brahms. The former’s only opera, Genoveva was a failure at its premiere and only infrequently revived today, but its melodic appeal helps compensate for some foursquare characterization – the overture making an effective concert item on its own terms. Some shaky intonation robbed the introduction of mystery, but what followed found a viable balance between agitation and an affirmation which (as also in the opera) ultimately wins through – evident here in the surging optimism of those closing bars.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, its quiet ending merely one of the reasons why this is the least-often heard of the cycle. From the outset, Taylor secured the right tempo for an opening movement that can easily lose shape and direction; finding winsome charm in the second theme, before judging the development’s relaxation then accruing of momentum with assurance. The coda’s transfigured poise (Brahms’s riposte to Tristan?) carried over into the Andante, whose melodic simplicity belies an emotional ambiguity which was teased out from its ruminative asides before being made explicit in those confiding final pages. Good to hear what followed taken not as an unintentional slow movement, but rather an intermezzo whose pathos is accentuated by its deftly propelled motion. The finale brought a culmination in all respects, and though ensemble faltered during more dynamic passages, a sure impetus was sustained across the reprise (the thrilling modulation into which was tangibly conveyed) then a coda that recalls the work’s initial motto with a mingling of aspiration and benediction.

Make no mistake, this was a convincing and insightful take on a symphony of which such readings are still an exception to the rule. A fine showing, too, for Sinfonia Tamesa, which will return to St James’s on 6th July for a Rachmaninov programme under Matt Andrews.

For further information on Sinfonia Tamesa, visit the orchestra’s website – and for more on Matthew Taylor, click on this link