In concert – CBSO Youth Orchestra plays Shostakovich with Michael Seal

michael-seal-bcsoyo

Howard Argentum (2017)
Britten
Diversions Op.21 (1940, rev. 1954)
Shostakovich
Symphony no.10 in E minor Op.93 (1953)

Nicholas McCarthy (piano, below), CBSO Youth Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 31 October 2021 (3pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It seems quite a while since the CBSO Youth Orchestra was last in action – this afternoon’s concert playing to its strengths with a programme as featured respectively early and mature works from Britten and Shostakovich, while beginning with a recent piece by Dani Howard.

Now in her late twenties, Howard is one among several British composers who have come to prominence in the past five years. Written to commemorate the silver-wedding anniversary of two close friends, the appropriately named Argentum is in a lineage of curtain-raisers by such as John Adams or Michael Torke – drawing audibly yet productively on such post-minimalist traits in music whose unbridled animation subsides towards a mid-point stasis, before rapidly regaining its previous energy over the course of a build-up to the pointedly affirmative close.

The CBSOYO evidently enjoyed making its acquaintance, then seemed no less attuned to the eclecticism pursued by Britten in his Diversions. Written for Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right-arm in the First World War, it takes the form of 12 variations on a theme announced by the orchestra whose faux-portentousness determines what follows. Prokofiev is the main influence (Britten could not have known his left-hand Fourth Concerto, written for but never played by Wittgenstein and unheard until the 1950s) on music of an inventiveness and verve admirably conveyed here by Nicholas McCarthy; his characterizing of each variation astutely gauged through to a scintillating ‘Toccata’ cadenza, with Michael Seal similarly judicious in the mock-solemnity of the ‘Adagio’ then a final ‘Tarantella’ of suitably uproarious humour.

Over his years as Associate Conductor of the CBSO, Seal has gained a formidable reputation in symphonic repertoire, with his account of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony never less than satisfying in its long-term cohesion. Not least the opening Moderato, unfolding at an almost unbroken pulse with the stark main theme powerfully wrought and its successor lacking only a degree of irony. The central development exuded palpable impetus and while the climactic arrival of the reprise could have been even more shattering, the wind-down into the musing coda was ideally judged. Taken at a swift if never headlong tempo, the Scherzo was suitably graphic in its evoking of violence (whether, or not, a ‘portrait’ of Stalin is beside the point), then the ensuing Allegretto was poised unerringly between slow movement and intermezzo.

This most intriguing portion of the work again lacked little in insight – with due credit to first horn Alex Hocknull for coming through, almost unscathed, in one of the lengthiest and most testing solos of the orchestral literature. A pity that Seal did not head straight into the finale, but his handling of its Andante introduction astutely mingled pathos with anticipation – the main Allegro itself pivoting between nonchalance and defiance through to a conclusion in which any thought of triumph over adversity was – rightly- withheld until the closing bars.

All in all, a gripping performance of a symphonic masterpiece and a fine demonstration of the CBSO Youth Orchestra’s collective prowess. The CBSO returns this Wednesday for Mozart and Mendelssohn frère et soeur, with Benjamin Grosvenor in Beethoven’s First Concerto.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Michael Seal, click here – and for more on pianist Nicholas McCarthy, click here

Wigmore Mondays – Jennifer Pike & Martin Roscoe: Dani Howard world premiere & Elgar Violin Sonata

Jennifer Pike (violin, above), Martin Roscoe (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 27 January 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

How refreshing to witness a world premiere brighten up an incredibly dull January day. Dualism, by British composer Dani Howard, is a new piece by violin and piano based on the conflict between ambition and relaxation that we experience on an increasing scale in our everyday lives. With the premise in hand it was easy to spot the ambitious bits – the piano’s energy propelling the music forward initially, the violin swept along – and the much-needed relaxation, where the music paused rather beautifully to take in its surroundings.

Because of these moments Dualism (2:39) was easy to relate to, and its tonal language, with wide open textures in the piano part, brought with it thoughts of the space achieved by the music of Copland and John Adams. Howard created some buoyant harmonies to go with the relatively angular melodic writing but the piece had depth too, an ongoing tension between the power for which it strove and the respite it also needed. The ultimate winner was difficult to call over the nine and a half minutes, Jennifer Pike and Martin Roscoe finding a balance between the elements and each other in an attractive performance.

Elgar’s Violin Sonata followed, an important work in his output as it effectively signals the beginning of his late, shadowy style. Here is where the composer’s work takes on an appreciably darker tinge, though each of the four main works in the period – the Sonata, String Quartet, Piano Quintet and Cello Concerto – each contain moments of light despite all being set in a minor key.

The Sonata is an elusive work, but Pike and Roscoe found its essence and its tunefulness. The first movement (2:39) was the strongest, and you can hear on the broadcast the strength of feeling immediately transmitted through the long sweeps of violin melody. The first theme is passionate, but soon the wisps of violin melody (16:28) indicate the dappled light of autumn.

The second movement (23:38) is a Romance, reaching levels of intensity that speak of sadness and bitter personal experience. It begins with a spirit of unrest, and the light humour forces a short-lived smile before Elgar retreats to the shadows once again. Pike and Roscoe apply a lightness of touch that really suits the dance-like figures that ultimately never get off the ground.

The final movement (31:08) is much broader in its dynamic reach and Pike relishes the return to the sweeping style of the first movement, her broad bow strokes bringing beauty to the melody. Meanwhile Roscoe successfully clarifies the busy piano part, again judging its volume ideally. A fine performance – bittersweet but ultimately resolving positively.

The pair finished with a rustic Theme and Variations from Miklos Rózsa, the composer of such epic film scores as Ben-Hur, Spellbound and A Double Life. Rózsa had a firm grounding in classical forms, writing a Violin Concerto for Jascha Heifetz in 1953 among numerous orchestral pieces. The Hungarian Peasant Song in this concert found him inspired by the folk music of his native country, and more specifically the Mátra region – where he wrote 14 variations on a rustic, outdoor theme. Pike had a lot of fun with these but found the emotional centre too, right from the unaccompanied theme itself (42:34).

The piece progressed through long, powerful lines, bold double stopping or short, twanged pizzicato (plucking). Roscoe’s counterpoint to this was a delight, knowing exactly when to hold back or push on, the pair navigating the very different moods of Rózsa’s variations before bringing them all back together at the end.

Repertoire

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

Dani Howard Dualism (2019, world premiere) (2:39)
Elgar Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 (1918) (14:28)
Rózsa Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song Op.4 (1929) (42:34)

A well-chosen encore came in the form of Elgar’s Salut d’Amour (54:00), this orchestral favourite working beautifully in reduced form and given the appropriate level of indulgence by Pike.

Further listening & viewing

The Elgar and Rózsa music from this concert can be heard in the recorded versions below, including a classic account from early in Nigel Kennedy’s career, with pianist Peter Pettinger:

Martin Roscoe has recorded the Elgar with Tasmin Little previously, but that version is not available on Spotify. However Jennifer Pike has recorded the orchestral version of the Rózsa Variations, and they form part of a highly rewarding disc devoted to the composer’s orchestral works, including a substantial Cello Concerto:

Jennifer Pike’s most recent album The Polish Violin comes highly recommended, a homage to her Polish roots. Based mainly on the exotic works for violin and piano by Szymanowski, it is brilliantly played and really well programmed, with works by Karłowicz and Wieniawski also included:

Finally a playlist of those four late Elgar works – the Violin Sonata, String Quartet, Piano Quintet and Cello Concerto, in order of publication: