BBC Proms – Víkingur Ólafsson, Philharmonia / Paavo Järvi: Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev & Shostakovich

olafsson-jarvi

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi

Prokofiev Symphony no.1 in D major Op.25 ‘Classical’ (1916-17)
J.S. Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor BWV1056 (c1738-9)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Shostakovich Symphony no. 9 in E flat major Op.70 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Saturday 14 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s Prom brought change of conductor, the always reliable Paavo Järvi stepping in for Santtu-Matias Rouvali in what would have been the latter’s Proms debut, but not of soloist – Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson duly making his first appearance at these concerts with concertos which, for the most part, played to his strengths.

The number of times that Bach’s keyboard concertos have been heard here on piano in recent decades can be counted on the fingers on one hand (Tatiana Nikolayeva’s D minor resonates in the memory), but that in F minor was a good choice in terms of its succinctness – the outer movements pitting soloist and (sizable body of) strings against each other with a trenchancy as was vividly conveyed here, with the central Andante an oasis of serenity that was not without its plangent asides.

Placing this piece before the interval, however, made for a distinctly short first half – given the relative length of Mozart’s C minor Concerto after the interval. There were many good things in this latter, Ólafsson keeping the first movement on a tight yet never inflexible rein so that its inclination to pathos – if not always its portentous undertones – came through in ample measure; not least in a coda that had been cannily prepared by the soloist’s cadenza. The central Larghetto was none the less the highlight – Ólafsson varying his tone such that piano melded into the woodwind for an early and defining instance of timbral colouration, with its limpid elegance never undersold. Maybe the finale was a little staid in the overall unfolding of its variations, but the coda’s strangely ambiguous poise was tangibly realized.

An auspicious debut, then, for Ólafsson, who underlined his prowess with affecting readings of the slow movement of Bach’s Fourth Organ Sonata (BWV526) in August Stradal’s chaste transcription and Liszt’s not unduly mawkish version of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (K617). These further extended the disparity between each half – the first of which had commenced with Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, not in the least small of scale or mimsyish as Järvi heard it; witness his acerbic and impetuous take on the initial Allegro, trumpets and timpani to the fore, then a Larghetto whose swift underlying tempo left little room for any harmonic piquancy to emerge. The Gavotte was slightly marred by several mannered agogics which tended to impede its rhythmic profile, but the Finale lacked little in sparkle or insouciance.

Among the most travelled and recorded conductors of today, Järvi can seem detached or even aloof in manner – but there was no such reticence evident in Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony as ended this programme. After a tensile and assertive Allegro, which audibly benefitted from the sizable forces onstage, the Moderato recalled Efrem Kurtz’s classic recording as to overall restraint and a dark-hued introspection rising to anguish in its twin climaxes. Playing without pause, the other movements were of a piece with the foregoing – a driving and almost manic Presto subsiding into a Largo, whose ruminative bassoon soliloquys were eloquently taken by Emily Hultmark, then an Allegretto whose capriciousness was acutely gauged through to its bitingly sardonic climax and breathless final payoff. Undoubtedly a performance to savour.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

In concert – Lawrence Power, CBSO / Nicholas Collon: Stravinsky, Britten & Shostakovich

nicholas-collon

Lawrence Power (viola), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (above)

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, revised 1947)
Britten Lachrymae Op.48a (1950, orch. 1976)
Shostakovich Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 26 May 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s live concerts, heading out of lockdown, featured works from the first half of the last century – focussing on wind then strings, before bringing the whole orchestra into play for one of the defining symphonies from this period.

It was an astute move to open with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments as, 14 days short of the centenary of its premiere to a bemused London public, the extent of its innovation and influence was there for all to hear. The performance was attuned to its bracing alternation of diverse musical types, and while the elongated platform layout might have caused passing uncertainties, Nicholas Collon made a virtue of its fluid continuity right through to the final chorale which ‘remembers’ Debussy with an emotion the more acute for its hieratic restraint.

It may have entered the repertoire but slowly, Britten’s Lachrymae is now well to the fore of the viola’s still limited concertante output and Lawrence Power gave a potent rendering of a piece conceived for William Primrose then orchestrated for Cecil Aronowitz. The evocative if sparse writing for strings is a reminder this was Britten’s final creative act, bringing out the ambiguous shadings of these variations on Dowland’s Flow my tears (played and sung at the outset by Power) which culminate with a rendering of the full song in all its grave elegance.

Speaking beforehand, Collon (who gave a perceptive account of the Ninth Symphony with the CBSO some years back) spoke of his pleasure in utilizing the extent of Symphony Hall’s platform to programme a work on the scale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Accordingly, this was a performance whose impact and intensity were evident from the outset; the opening movement unfolding gradually but with keen underlying intensity though its searching, then wistful main themes, to a surging development and climactic reprise before subsiding into a fateful coda. If the scherzo was less capricious than it often is, Collon’s trenchant handling   of its outer sections exuded an acerbic charm – offset by the trio’s deadpan humour (with an airily whimsical solo from leader Jonathan Martindale), before a pay-off of ominous import.

The ensuing Largo is the work’s emotional heart in every sense, and this afternoon’s reading made the most of its fraught eloquence with some limpidly unforced string playing then, in the mesmeric central episode, woodwind soliloquys of a spectral remoteness. Nor was there any lack of gravitas as the movement reached a baleful culmination, and from where Collon oversaw a faultless transition through to those consoling final bars. Always difficult to bring off, the finale had the virtue of almost seamless progression through its high-octane opening stages then the musing introspection at its centre – Collon making light of some tricky tempo changes on the way to an apotheosis of unremitting focus. The tonal ambivalence between triumph and tragedy might have been more acute, but its inevitability was never in doubt.

An impressive way to conclude what was almost a full-length concert (and one these players had to repeat just three hours later). The CBSO returns next Wednesday with a less strenuous programme which will include a welcome outing for Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert on Wednesday 2 June, click here

On record – Oberton String Octet – Slavic Soul (ARS Produktion)

Oberton String Octet [Jevgēnijs Čepoveckis, Veronika Brecelj, Andrii Uhrak and Alberto Stiffoni (violins), Serhii Zhuravlov and Hanga Fehér (violas) Floris Fortin and Dorottya Standi (cellos)]

Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet Op.11 (1924/5)
Afanasyev Double Quartet in D major ‘Housewarming ‘(1872)
Glière String Octet in D major Op.5 (1902)

Ars ProduktionARS38305 [59’26”]

Producer Anette Schumacher
Engineer Daniel Comploi

Recorded 19-21 December 2019, Florentinersaal, University of Arts, Graz

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The debut release from this ‘purpose built’ string ensemble which intends to encompass the repertoire for octet and double quartet, examples of both being featured here together with music by a composer whose ‘enfant terrible’ phase proved as reckless as it was short-lived.

What’s the music like?

Long since a footnote in musical history, Nikolay Afanasyev (1821-98) became a pioneer in Russian opera and chamber music, likely composing this Double Quartet for the inauguration of the St Petersburg Society for Chamber Music. Taking his cue from those four pieces with which Spohr had intended to launch a new medium, it follows an outwardly classical format while being permeated by aspects of Russian folk music. Best are an animated Scherzo with its stately trio, then an Andante of suffused pathos. Both outer movements betray a degree of formal uncertainty, a reminder that Afanasyev (as with Glinka before him) was essentially an autodidact, yet their energy and charm override such failings. Certainly, the Oberton sounds captivated by the qualities of this ‘Housewarming’ which it is (rightly) intent on championing.

Whereas Afanasyev writes for four parts, Glière writes for eight voices in his Octet. One of several works for string ensembles from the outset of his career, this follows audibly in the lineage of Mendelssohn with its emphasis on intensive dialogue and textural richness, even if both its formal layout and tempo indications indicate knowledge of his Russian forebear. Here, too, the middle movements – the second poised between scherzo and intermezzo, and the third an eloquent ‘song without words’ – are highlights, though the initial Allegro yields telling understatement while the finale builds a cumulative momentum that carries all before it. The Oberton are unfailingly alive to its contrapuntal energy and often orchestral sonority, adding another piece to the roster of Octets such as marked their composers ‘coming of age’.

As curtain-raiser, Shostakovich’s Two Pieces duly launches the programme in unequivocal fashion. Written either side of his seminal First Symphony, the ‘Prelude’ fairly abounds in volatile emotion while the ‘Scherzo’ evinces a coursing energy and caustic dissonance that points unerringly to those works immediately following it. What a pity the intended fugue never progressed beyond the sketch stage, though the work as stands remains testament to the ‘confidence of youth’ and the Oberton’s charged reading assuredly takes no prisoners.

Does it all work?

As a programme, undoubtedly. The repertoire for string octet and double string quartet is a select yet significant one, and the Oberton is evidently on a mission to convey this in both performance and recording. Hopefully, this release will be the start of a project as could do worse than to couple each double quartet by Spohr with those octets of Mendelssohn, Gade, Svendsen and Enescu. Moreover, the logistics involved in bringing together eight musicians based around Western and Central Europe will hopefully not limit their live music-making.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The SACD sound has exemplary definition if almost too great an immediacy in more demonstrative passages, while the booklet notes are succinctly informative. Strongly recommended, with the hope further releases from this ensemble will not be long in coming.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can read more about the Oberton String Quartet at their website

LSO: Always Playing – Rachmaninov, Shostakovich & Balakirev tonight at 7pm

Tonight’s London Symphony Orchestra concert promises a trio of Russian treats. Firstly Seong-Jin Cho is the soloist in Rachmaninov‘s Piano Concerto no.2 – surely one of the best-loved of all piano concertos. Following this is another Russian work with piano, Balakirev‘s Islamey – only this time in the orchestral arrangement by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella. An exotic piece, it is a travelogue inspired by a visit to the Caucasus.

Following this we have the chance to marvel at the prodigious Symphony no.1 by the teenage Shostakovich. His graduation piece, it shows already the hallmarks that were to distinguish him as an exceptional symphonist in the 20th century.

Gianandrea Noseda, currently in the midst of a Shostakovich symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra for their LSO Live label, conducts this performance from March 2019, which you can watch on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7pm tonight here:

Live review – Vilde Frang, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Shostakovich Violin Concerto no.1 & Respighi’s Roman Trilogy

Vilde Frang (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 February 2020

Shostakovich Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor Op.77 (1947-8)
Respighi Feste romane (1928); Fontane di Roma (1916); Pini di Roma (1924)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Spending parts of their careers under two of the most potent dictatorships this past century, Shostakovich and Respighi might not appear to have much else in common – so all credit to Kazuki Yamada for making the juxtaposition work so effectively for this evening’s concert.

Never planned as a symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is the most symphonic of his six concertante works and responded accordingly to Vilde Frang’s long-breathed while highly involving approach – whether in the introspective probing of the Nocturne (Graham Sibley deftly lucid in the obligato tuba part) or folk-infused fervency of the Scherzo, then a Passacaglia of wrenching eloquence; its speculative postlude giving rise to a cadenza whose cumulative impetus was carried over into the final Burlesque with its irresistible high-jinx then sprint towards the end where soloist and orchestra very nearly finished in sync. Typical, moreover, of this most self-effacing among present-day virtuosi that Frang evidently had no intention of providing an encore – so completely was her performance its own justification.

Hard to imagine the mature Shostakovich setting much store by the orchestral pyrotechnics of Respighi’s Roman Triptych – yet these heady evocations of time and place in the Eternal City remain audience pleasers of a high order, especially when scheduled as this ‘triple whammy’.

Beginning with Roman Festivals might risk premature overkill, but Yamada brought out the ceremonial fervour of Il Giubileo as surely as the teasing playfulness of L’Ottobrata with its journeying forth and amorous encounters. Yamada’s unbridled enthusiasm rather got the better of him in the imposing if unruly climax of Circences, while the CBSO sounded just slightly inhibited during the all-out celebrations of La Befana – its melee of colliding tunes and textures lacking the subtlety that Respighi instils into even his most uproarious passages.

As the late Gerald Larner pointed out, Fountains of Rome pre-dates the incipient era of Italian grandiloquence. Yamada allowed full rein to the effervescent joy of Triton at Morning, then dazzling majesty of Trevi at Midday – its prolonged evanescence hanging as if suspended in Symphony Hall’s ambience. The outer evocations felt less successful, Valle Giulia at Dawn too passive to be alluring and Villa Medici at Sunset lacking pathos (an offstage bell might have helped), yet the delicacy and suppleness of their melodic lines could hardly be gainsaid.

On to Pines of Rome and Yamada was again at his most perceptive in those central episodes – Near a Catacomb yielding a baleful anguish (offstage trumpet judged to perfection), then At the Janiculum bringing rapture without coyness and a closing string tremolo hardly less exquisite than the nightingale above it. Of the Villa Borghese seemed almost too fractious to be exhilarating, but while Yamada set slightly too rapid a tempo for On the Appian Way, the final peroration (organ and additional brass right on cue) was nothing if not resplendent.

Not a triptych for all occasions but a feast of scintillating sonority and one to which the CBSO responded with panache. Principal guest Yamada returns on Sunday afternoon at the helm of the CBSO Youth Orchestra for a varied programme that closes with Elgar’s First Symphony.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded these works before but these are fine alternatives:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37OgPsGcfpJR1qGTmFWdDw?si=KiceQpncQIW_GVwDskulFw

Further information on the next CBSO concert with Kazuki Yamada as described by Richard can be found at the CBSO website