In concert – Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO / Gustavo Gimeno: Humperdinck, Chausson & Tchaikovsky

gustavo-gimeno

Humperdinck Hänsel und Gretel – Prelude (1891-2)
Chausson
Poème de l’amour et de la mer Op.19 (1882-92)
Tchaikovsky
Symphony no.6 in B minor Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893)

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gustavo Gimeno

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 23 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s programme (repeated from yesterday) by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw a welcome reappearance from Dame Sarah Connolly for a relatively rare hearing, at least in the UK, of Ernest Chausson’s probable masterpiece Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

Often described as a song-cycle, Poème is closer to a scena with its unfolding over two large parts separated by an orchestral interlude. Drawing on texts by Maurice Bouchor, these evoke what is ostensibly the protagonist’s ill-fated affair but whose deeper resonance suggests more that disillusion afforded when revisiting the past. Such a trajectory could easily have resulted in indulgence or even self-pity, avoided through Chausson’s unerring formal control over his subject-matter as well as a thematic resourcefulness sustained across the near half-hour span.

Following in a distinguished lineage of mezzos (among them Dame Janet Baker), Connolly brought out the playfulness of La fleur des eaux as it conveys the burgeoning of love against a heady seascape – doubt only creeping in towards the close as the passing of a year is contemplated. This is represented by the Interlude in which first appears a theme dominant by the close, and while the opening of La mort de l’amour brings a renewed anticipation of arrival, the anguish occasioned by forgetfulness is transmuted into a brooding fatalism – the composer drawing on an earlier song for this sombre final stage. Connolly’s eloquence came into its own here, abetted by a soulful response from cellist Eduardo Vassallo among an orchestral response abounding in soloistic finesse. A powerful reading of a still underestimated piece.

Chausson lived a further six years after its premiere in 1893, whereas Tchaikovsky lived just nine days after the premiere that year of his Pathétique before his still-contested demise. Here again, there was no undue emoting thanks to Gustavo Gimeno’s firm grip over the complex formal and emotional trajectory of the first movement – not least its explosive development culminating in an anguished yet also consoling reprise. The ensuing intermezzo had charm but also a purposeful underlying tread – not least in its wistful trio, then the scherzo amassed no mean impetus through to an explosive second half whose orchestral response evinced no mean virtuosity. Heading straight into the finale, Gimeno sustained expressive tension right through to the closing bars as here faded into a silence born of resignation rather than defeat.

The close of that year brought the premiere of Humperdinck’s ‘fairy-tale’ opera Hänsel und Gretel – then, as now, the work by which this undervalued composer is best remembered and whose prelude encapsulates the essence, though not the totality, of the drama while proving equally effective as a concert-overture. Gimeno paced this unerringly, thereby allowing its animated central phase to merge unobtrusively out of then back into the confiding warmth either side. At least one major work written in 1893 can be said to have a ‘happy ending’.

Next week’s concert brings pieces from very different eras – Brahms’s First Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto being preceded by another of the CBSO’s Centenary Commissions, an evidently celebratory overture by Mark-Anthony Turnage called Go For It.

For more information on next week’s concert, click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, and for more on Symphonic Sessions click here

BBC Proms – Dame Sarah Connolly, BBC SO / Brabbins: Berlioz, Payne & Beethoven

sarah-connolly

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (below)

Payne Spring’s Shining Wake (1980-81) (Proms premiere)
Berlioz Les nuits d’été Op.7 (1840-41, orch. 1856)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 13 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A family bereavement meant that Sir Andrew Davis was unable to conduct this Prom, the baton having been taken up by Martyn Brabbins – whose currently in-demand status is a reflection not least of his broad range of musical sympathies and an inherent ability to ‘get things done’.

Not too many conductors would have taken on at relatively short notice a long-unheard piece by the late lamented Anthony Payne then render it with the familiarity of a repertoire staple. Seemingly unheard for 15 years, Spring’s Shining Wake was a breakthrough piece in several respects: the composer fashioning a ‘contemporary’ yet never esoteric idiom, unencumbered by stylistic precedent, as reflected his love of an earlier generation of English music. Delius’s In a Summer Garden is a focal-point in several respects, but what comes over most strongly in its modest scoring (seven wind, one percussionist and strings) is a sense of organic growth from the overtly static formal framework; textures diversifying and intensifying, yet without changing as to their essential features, in music exemplifying the ‘same yet different’ maxim.

From there to the limpid Romanticism of Berlioz’s song-cycle Les nuits d’été is nearer than might be imagined, this latter being notable for its range of expressive nuance despite (even because of) its pervasive restraint. Certainly, there was no uniformity of response from Dame Sarah Connolly – whose whimsical response to Villanelle contrasting with the wide-eyed fantasy of Le spectre de la rose, and becalmed rapture of Sur les lagunes thrown into relief by the fervent heartache of Absence then the spectral imaginings of Au cimetière; itself finding purposeful response in the animated L’île inconnue with its vouchsafing new imaginative realms. Coordination between soloist and orchestra is paramount throughout, and there was no lack of that in a reading as conveyed this music’s potent sensibilities with acute insight.

Nor was there anything routine about Beethoven’s Pastoral after the interval. Readers may remember a cycle of all nine symphonies which Brabbins (above) gave with the Salomon Orchestra just over a decade ago, and his purposeful if never inflexible take on the opening movement left room for its reflective asides and heady flights of fancy. This was no less evident in the Scene by the brook, with its emphasis on seamlessness of transition and unity of content – not least in the way those bird-calls of the coda were integrated into their textural context.

Unfolding with consistency of pulse, the remaining three movements yielded few surprises but no failings. A touch of blandness in the scherzo was duly countered with the immediacy   of the Thunderstorm and its nexus of accrued emotion whose dispersal makes possible the Shepherd’s Song – less cumulative in its eloquence than others have made it, perhaps, but whose inevitability of progress was sustained through to a close of serene poise; underlining the degree to which any trace of ego has been sublimated in the enveloping cosmic dance.

Some elegant and characterful playing from the woodwind of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a highlight of this performance, a reminder that even a work with a Proms tally running to several dozen never need sound routine when approached with such unaffected reverence.

For further information on the music of Anthony Payne, visit the composer’s website. You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

Online music recommendations – Oxford Lieder Festival

Over the last few years the Oxford Lieder Festival has established itself as one of the most attractive prospects in the autumn events calendar for classical music. Given the challenges faced by the sector in this most trying of years, it gives great pleasure to report that the team, led by artistic director Sholto Kynoch, have gone above and beyond the call of duty to present this year’s model.

An online extravaganza lasting ten days, the festival continues its penchant for the use of attractive venues in the city, presenting them in an online format with Tall Wall Media which is both easy to navigate and admire.

The artistic standard remains as high as ever, as does the programming. Viewers on Saturday were treated to James Gilchrist immersing himself in ancient lute songs, with the florid tones of Elizabeth Kenny alongside, from where we switched to the Hollywell Music Room. Here we found the redoubtable Dame Sarah Connolly (above) and Eugene Asti in a program including Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben and a rapt account of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, time standing still during the final two songs, a darkly atmospheric Um Mitternacht and an expansive Liebst su um Schönheit.

Many of the Oxford Lieder concerts include a slot for emerging artists, a healthy recognition of the outstanding young talent coming through in the world of song. On this occasion it was bass William Thomas who lent his fulsome tones to a quintet of Schubert songs. We also heard a nicely linked quintet songs from Finzi, Quilter, Haydn and Geoffrey Bush.

The festival has a very healthy instinct for presenting songs in context and giving them the right level of background through guest musicological experts. Natasha Loges illuminated Brahms’ Lieder contributions with music from baritone James Atkinson and pianist Ana Manastireanu while on Saturday 17 October, the festival’s final day, we will get a fascinating chance to explore the song prior to Beethoven in the company of baritone Stephan Loges and Eugene Asti.

On Tuesday 13 October, the lunchtime concert found tenor Robin Tritschler (above) giving a superb hour of music with pianist Graham Johnson from the Hollywell Music Room, journeying round the Zodiac with all the spirit of first-time voyagers. Travelling through works from Barber, Schubert, Ives, Rebecca Clarke and Argento, their ultimate destination was the Songs of the Zodiac of Geoffrey Bush. This inventive cycle provides a setting for each sign, helpfully introduced by Johnson before the two offered vivid characterisation. Here there was plenty of wit but tenderness too.

The following lunchtime tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook included a substantial world premiere of a work by Michael Zev Gordon, a composer Gilchrist studied with at King’s College Cambridge in the 1980s. There was a rather nice irony about a work with its genesis in Cambridge receiving its first performance in Oxford, and Gordon’s Baruch – Ten Propositions of Baruch Spinoza showed itself to be an impressive piece indeed.

Fusing elements of chant and more modern, English song – Holst’s great Betelgeuse came to mind in the final Ex hoc tertio cognitionis… – it was a dramatic performance that definitely warrants a further viewing. The cycle started with Gilchrist using a harsher tone but as it unfolded the voice blossomed to fill the space around, helped by the sensitive balance provided by Tilbrook. In the words of Gordon, these were ‘aphorisms meant to be heard and pondered; here sung and pondered’. Gilchrist complemented this with an affectionate and yearning account of a work he has known since childhood, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte – the first clearly defined song cycle.

Today’s lunchtime concert was rather special with Ian Bostridge (above) joined by pianist Saskia Giogini at Merton College Chapel in a characteristically intense account of Britten’s Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine. The camera work should be mentioned here, as it captured the glorious chapel in an ideal complement to Britten’s arrangements of Five Spiritual Songs, where Bostridge was masterly, and in the beautiful Bach, the arias Ich habe genug, from the cantata of the same name, and Der Ewigkeit saphirnes Haus (from Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl). Taken on their own, these two – with the Oxford Bach Soloists – reminded us of the true value of live performance, even when given online in these restricted times.

The Oxford Lieder Festival continues until Saturday 17 October, where it will include a performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang from tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Michael Gees. Before then you can enjoy concerts from baritone Benjamin Appl and Sholto Kynoch, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper and a keenly anticipated collaboration between soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and guitarist Sean Shibe. All concerts are available online until 1 November, or 15 November with the event’s Pioneer Pass – which is much appreciated if you want to catch up with recommended concerts from Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton, not to mention the Hermes Experiment!

For further details visit the festival website

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 53: Sir Andrew Davis conducts Vaughan Williams, Hugh Wood and Elgar’s The Music Makers & Huw Watkins

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

A knight of the realm and a dame performing Elgar. It doesn’t get much more English than that! Yet on this humid night in the Royal Albert Hall the continental aspects of the music chosen were just as evident, Sir Andrew Davis securing a trio of very fine performances from the assembled forces.

To begin, the solemn but radiant strains of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, written in the wake of his studies with Ravel in France. That opening chord never fails to transport the listener to another place, and Davis has more experience with it than most. The BBC Symphony Orchestra strings responded as one, their unity as evident in the swelling of the music as it was when the parts were divided. The four soloists at the front – violinists Igor Yuzefovich and Dawn Beazley, viola player Norbert Blume and cellist Susan Monks played beautifully, as did the group of nine instruments on a raised platform at the back of the stage. With these judicious placements Davis ensured the balance of the music – both audibly and emotionally – was firmly aligned.

Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus approach Englishness from a very different perspective – that of the Second Viennese School, headed by Schoenberg. Notorious for its rejection of tonality, the school was an incredibly innovative part of 20th century classical music, and Wood was one of several English composers to fall under its spell. Often the accusation is that music without tonality lacks emotion, but Wood refutes that emphatically.

Scenes from Comus may not have an obvious key centre but it treats its story in a powerfully expressive way. The orchestra told the story with strongly rendered colours, with particularly fine playing from principal horn Martin Owen with the opening theme. Soloists Stacey Tappan and Anthony Gregory (both above) found an ideal balance with the orchestra, and the story – where an Attendant Lady, lost in a ‘wilde wood’, is kidnapped by Comus – came to life. The 87 year-old Wood was present in the audience, waving cheerily at Sir Andrew Davis in acknowledgement of an excellent performance of his piece, performed for the first time at the Proms in 1965.

Elgar’s The Music Makers, a setting of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode, has tended to fall short of critical acclaim, which is unfortunate as it contains some very fine music. In it the composer recycles some of his greatest melodies, quoting and redressing them in the manner of a greatest hits compilation. If anything that approach, when complemented by new musical ideas, makes the piece even more personal, speaking to us of his own favourite moments in music while wrought with worry about the onset of later life and the prospect of war.

The memorable opening line, ‘We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams’, was magical in the hands of the BBC Symphony Chorus, subdued but wonderfully clear as they are in a recent recording made with Sir Andrew Davis for Chandos.

Also on the recording is Dame Sarah Connolly, and her first notes in this particular concert (‘they had no vision amazing of the goodly house they are raising’) sent a shiver down the spine, sung with raw emotion and urgency. She was a dominant figure from her on, passionate yet fully in control of her phrasing, responding forcefully to O’Shaughnessy’s text.

Elgar’s liberal quotations enhanced the music, none of the melodies present for the sake of it, and each reimagined with O’Shaughnessy’s text. The melodies from the Enigma Variations, the Symphony no.1, the Violin Concerto and, most tellingly, The Dream of Gerontius, all contributed to a reading of really impressive gravity and poise. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang with great unity of purpose, aided by sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra and their heartfelt account of the winsome melodies. Sir Andrew Davis is a master Elgarian, and here his credentials were handsomely reinforced.

You can listen to the new recording by these forces of The Music Makers on Spotify below:

BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below: