In concert – Eugene Tzikindelean, CBSO / Alpesh Chauhan: Brahms, Nielsen & Shostakovich

Brahms Tragic Overture Op. 81 (1880)
Nielsen Violin Concerto DF61 (1911)
Shostakovich Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Eugene Tzikindelean (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Alpesh Chauhan

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 December 2022 [2.15pm]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A gratifyingly large house greeted this afternoon concert given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its former assistant conductor Alpesh Chauhan, taking in works long established in the repertoire and a concerto which remains on or about its periphery.

Tackling Brahms’s Tragic Overture depends on whether one sees it as an overture pure if not so simple, or as a tone poem with its ‘programme’ subsumed into the music’s inner workings. Chauhan favoured a viable mid-way course, his steady if never flaccid approach keeping its sonata design firmly in view but with enough expressive license to bring out the pathos in its second main theme and, especially, that spellbinding transition to its reprise when a wistful vulnerability steals over the music as if denying the implacable fatalism otherwise dominant.

CBSO leader Eugene Tzikindelean then took the stage as soloist. A bold if unexpected choice for such an appearance, Nielsen’s Violin Concerto has never quite received its due outside of Denmark but that it makes a cogent impression was never in doubt in a reading as insightful as this. Its Praeludium keenly yet sensitively rendered, Tzikindelean despatched the ensuing Allegro with the right chivalrousness and suavity. A broken string in the development caused only minimal delay as he produced its replacement then restrung his instrument with alacrity.

Its self-sufficient halves make sustaining an overall trajectory the crucial factor in this piece and Tzikindelean succeeded admirably, drawing inward rapture from the second movement’s lengthy Poco adagio before steering a never too hasty course through its lightly ironic Rondo. Tzikindelean responded to the enthusiastic response with the opening ‘Country Musicians’ section from Enescu’s Impressions d’Enfance as a delectable encore: maybe we can expect that composer’s Caprice Roumain or Pascal Bentoiu’s Violin Concerto on a future occasion?

Throughout this performance, Chauhan proved steadfast and attentive in support, then came into his own after the interval with an impressive take on Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. If the earlier stages of the Moderato seemed a little reined-in, the development accumulated the requisite intensity on the way to a powerfully conceived reprise, then a coda of aching regret. Steadier and less capricious than usual, the ensuing Allegretto yielded a keen impetus and, in its trio, a deftly ‘knowing’ contribution from Tzikindelean having retaken the leader’s chair.

It was the Largo that proved the highlight of this performance. Chauhan sustained its heartfelt interplay of themes with unforced rightness, CBSO woodwind heard to advantage in its rapt central episode before a climax of wrenching eloquence that subsided into expectant stillness. Launched (almost) attacca, the final Allegro unfolded with due emphasis on its ‘non troppo’ marking; its calculated aggression pointedly undercut by musing circumspection, before the heady ascent towards an apotheosis which was more than usually defiant in its equivocation.

A performance that provided ample indication of Chauhan’s emergence as a conductor of the front rank. Hopefully he will be returning to the CBSO soon, the latter’s activities continuing with the customary Christmas and Viennese New Year concerts with which to see out 2022

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Alpesh Chauhan and Eugene Tzikindelean

Playlist – Natalia Gutman

Today marks the 80th birthday of the distinguished Russian cellist Natalia Gutman.

A pupil of Mstislav Rostropovich, Gutman has performed and recorded with legendary conductors Kirill Kondrashin, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Yuri Temirkanov among many others. Alfred Schnittke wrote a number of pieces for her, including his first Cello Concerto.

In the biography on her website, Elizabeth Wilson writes that ‘as an enthusiast of chamber music she formed an important musical relationship with the exceptional violinist Oleg Kagan, who became her husband. Together they formed a trio with Sviatoslav Richter, who also frequently acted as Natalia’s duo partner.

You can enjoy her artistry through the Spotify playlist below, including recordings of concertos by Shostakovich and that dedication from Schnittke:

BBC Proms #25 – Carolina Eyck, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds: Kalevi Aho Theremin Concerto, Saariaho & Shostakovich

Prom 25 – Carolina Eyck (theremin), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Aho Eight Seasons (Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra) (2011) (London premiere)
Saariaho Vista (2019) (Proms premiere)
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major Op.141 (1971)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 4 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

John Storgårds has given some memorable Proms with the BBC Philharmonic in the decade since he became this orchestra’s guest conductor, and tonight was no exception for featuring a theremin concerto by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Its title Eight Seasons should be taken advisedly – the eight continuous sections encompassing a period from autumn to spring, as is reflected in the mostly restrained yet constantly changing textures which define a progression from the richness of Harvest to Midnight Sun with its serenity informed by new potential.

An instrument as fascinating to watch being played as it is to hear, the theremin has become the victim of its own ubiquity as an enhancer of atmosphere in film-scores and for musicians from Brian Wilson to Jonny Greenwood. Carolina Eyck was a dedicated exponent (evident in her encore-demonstration) – not least in the latter stages when her vocalise proved an enticing extension of her instrumental prowess, and the myriad timbral shifts more than compensated for the intermittent blandness of Aho’s acutely fastidious if not consistently involving music.

The layout of this piece (wind quintet and percussion alongside reduced strings) necessitated an early interval to prepare for those relatively lavish forces of Vista, Kaija Saariaho’s latest return to the orchestra and inspired by traversing the Californian coast from Los Angeles to San Diego. This is embodied over two cumulative movements – the expectancy of Horizons duly fulfilled with the mounting activity of Targets which itself subsides into an intensified recollection of the opening, now sounding as expansive as that ‘vista’ envisaged by the title.

Music so complex needs a sure hand to maintain its focus, the BBC Philharmonic responding with alacrity to Storgård’s attentive direction while he steered a convincing trajectory through what is likely Saariaho’s finest large-scale work for years – the intricacy and translucency of her writing having a panache which ensured this was manifestly a showpiece with substance. In particular, the sense of ideas being tentatively anticipated then vividly recalled added much to the evocative quality of music as formally substantial as it sounded expressively involving.

From recent Finnish orchestral works to Shostakovich’s last and most equivocal symphony is a fair step aesthetically, but Storgårds ensured the succession was a meaningful one. If it did not evince the ultimate in ominous irony, those laughs elicited from the opening movement’s stealthy activity and allusive inanity were for real – as, more regrettably, were those hesitant coughs denoting uneasy response to the slow movement’s emotional intensity as heightened by its sparseness of gesture, while not forgetting an eloquent response by cellist Peter Dixon.

Nor was the percussion found wanting in its almost concertante role, to the fore in a scherzo where the whimsical and sardonic found an unlikely accord. From its sombre initial gestures, Storgårds then had the measure of a finale whose central passacaglia built toward a powerful climax, and while tension dropped with the resumption of earlier ideas, the spectral transition into the coda was judiciously handled with the latter mesmeric in its deft profundity. Should the BBC Philharmonic need a new chief conductor, Storgårds might be worth approaching.

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

In concert – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, CBSO / Ludovic Morlot: Britten & Shostakovich

patricia-kopatchinskaja-2

Britten Gloriana – Symphonic Suite, Op. 53a (1954)
Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (1947-8)
Britten Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33a (1945)

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 June 2022, 2.15pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra might largely have repeated that of the previous evening, but its inclusion of Shostakovich’s most wide-ranging concerto with suites which Britten devised from two of his operas ensured an absorbing listen.

In Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, it helped to have Patricia Kopatchinskaja at her most combative. Admittedly the opening Nocturne took time to come into focus, though its latter stages were powerfully shaped and with the sombre foreboding of the main climax gradually fading into silence. The Scherzo was distinguished by incisive repartee between soloist and orchestra, along with the vivid pointing up of those Jewish-derived elements which give this music a sardonic quality as becomes increasingly frenetic as the movement reaches its close.

The Passacaglia depends for so much of its emotional impact on its inexorable cumulative motion, and here Ludovic Morlot was at one with Kopatchinskaja in projecting the anguish – without undue vehemence – at its apex then forlorn manner of the soloist’s musing soliloquy. The Cadenza emerged methodically but with no lack of spontaneous expression, creating an impetus that the final Burlesque fulfilled in ample measure as it careered onwards – soloist and orchestra keeping enough in reserve for the coda fully to register its desperate defiance.

A pity last night’s UK premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Catamorphosis (a co-commission for the CBSO’s centenary) could not be repeated, but that concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date. Moreover, Kopatchinskaja had music of her own to perform when she returned to the platform for a duet with principal bassoonist Nikolaj Henriques in what was a repost to the authoritarian leaders who curtail creative expression, as have their predecessors before and after Stalin. Suffice to add that this piece made its point in notably visceral terms.

Opening the concert, Britten’s Symphonic Suite from his opera Gloriana made for a short if eventful first half – moving from the imperiousness of The Tournament, via the eloquence of The Lute Song (the tenor line of the original plaintively taken by oboist Emmet Byrne) and inspired pastiche of The Courtly Dances with its felicitous writing for woodwind and percussion, to the powerful apotheosis that is Gloriana moritura with its baleful brass and burnished strings. Not often revived, it made a suitably thoughtful impression this evening.

The Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s earlier opera Peter Grimes is more frequently heard in concert, with Morlot clearly relishing the stark timbral contrasts of Dawn as much as the scenic and temporal interplay in Sunday Morning. The highlight, though, was Moonlight whose sustained intensity and encroaching harmonic dissonance were palpably conveyed – after which, Storm concluded the sequence in vividly dramatic terms while not excluding that element of weary soul-searching as briefly ‘takes the stage’ before the dramatic close.

A distinctive programme with performances to match. Morlot is a conductor not seen often enough in the UK, and the same might be said for Markus Stenz who will be appearing with the CBSO next Thursday and Saturday in performances of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

For more information on the CBSO, visit their website, and for details on the newly announced 2022/23 season click here. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Ludovic Morlot

In concert – Sheku Kanneh-Mason, CBSO / Charlotte Politi: Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich & Weinberg

16-March-Sheku-KM

Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Act 2 – Scène, Op. 20 No. 10 (1875-6)
Shostakovich
Cello Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 126 (1966)
Weinberg
Symphony No. 3 in B minor, Op. 45 (1949-50, rev. 1959)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Charlotte Politi (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 16 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra should have been a Weinberg double-bill but the last-minute indisposition of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (having tested positive for Covid) brought to the podium one of the orchestra’s assistant conductors, Charlotte Politi.

Something in the programme had to give and that was only the second hearing in the UK for Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony, an incisively neo-classical piece long familiar to enthusiasts through the Melodiya recording issued in the 1970s and which, while it lacks the gravitas of later symphonies, is never less than engaging in its own right. Instead, the programme began with the ‘Scène’ from Act Two of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (itself the opening number of the suite) – its fraught pathos enticingly realized, if making for an all-too brief curtain-raiser.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason was still present for Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, among the first products of his final creative period and one of his most equivocal works in any medium. Most accounts over-stress its introspection, but Kanneh-Mason gauged the varied expressive shades of its Adagio with unforced rightness; its wrenching climax finding acute contrast with the sombre rumination from which it emerges and to which it returns. The ensuing Allegrettos could not be more dissimilar – a tensile and sardonic scherzo culminating in raucous fanfares as set into motion the finale. If coordination of soloist and orchestra in the former was a little tentative, Kanneh-Mason adroitly negotiated the latter’s gnomic dialogue – afforded focus by an easeful refrain and with a culmination of defiant exasperation, then a coda of furtive repose.

With its unshowy virtuosity and its concertante-like solo writing, this is a hard piece to bring off, but Kanneh-Mason rendered it with some conviction. He returned for an eloquent encore of what sounded to be a (Ukrainian?) folksong with the front four desks of the CBSO cellos.

After the interval, another chance to hear the Third Symphony by Weinberg this orchestra has rather made its own in recent seasons. Ostensibly a response to the anti-formalist campaign as spearheaded by Andrei Zhdanov, with the intention of making Soviet art more accountable to the public, its citing Belorussian and Polish folksongs is offset by the opening Allegro’s often ambivalent progress to a coda shot through with foreboding. Politi was often persuasive here, then not at all fazed by the Allegretto’s interplay of whimsical with a more sardonic humour.

Even better was to come in the Adagio’s finely sustained progress towards a climax of stark tragedy, only slightly mediated by the pensive close. An energetic final Allegro duly set out to secure an affirmative end, only to culminate in marked desperation, and it was a measure of Politi’s insight that the coda maintained its uncertainty even as those decisive closing bars echoed to silence. The CBSO responded impressively throughout a piece it must know better than any other orchestra, and it was to Politi’s credit that her own input was so often evident.

Hopefully MG-T will recover in time for the CBSO’s forthcoming European tour, such that Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony will gain the hearings it deserves. And if next season she can schedule the Fifth, arguably his finest purely orchestral symphony, then so much the better.

For more information on the CBSO’s spring tour, visit their website. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Charlotte Politi and Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Meanwhile for more on composer Mieczysław Weinberg, click here