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

In Praise of Shostakovich’s String Quartets: The Carducci String Quartet @ Wigmore Hall, London

By John Earls

The string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1977) hold a special place in my heart. At various times they have moved, inspired and consoled me.

Of course, it’s not just me. Wendy Lesser has written an outstanding book about the quartets, Music for Silenced Voices, in which she considers the great Russian composer’s life through the quartets whilst examining the music through a non-musician’s lens.

The quartets have featured amongst the Desert Island Discs selections of castaways as varied as Sheila Hancock, Tariq Ali and Marcus du Sautoy.

Stephen Joseph has written a powerful, honest and compelling essay on the composer, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, and how his music helped with Joseph’s mental illness, which includes a section on the “exceptional phenomenon” that is the Eighth Quartet.

Shostakovich (seen above with the Beethoven Quartet) is renowned for the range of his symphonic work. He completed his first symphony in 1926 and his final symphony (there were also fifteen) was completed in 1971. He worked under the Soviet system and after early official recognition often fell out of favour with the Communist regime including denunciation during the Stalin era. The quartets were written over the period 1938-1974 and are often said to reveal a more personal side of Shostakovich in a way that his symphonies, which were subject to greater scrutiny by the Soviet authorities, don’t. One shouldn’t overstretch this, but there is certainly a deep sense of his own voice in the quartets.

There are a number of recordings of the complete cycle of quartets and amongst the most cited are those by the Emerson String Quartet, the Beethoven Quartet and the Borodin Quartet. All are worth your time – the Emersons (recorded before live audiences) being a good place to start:

Meanwhile the Beethovens are of significant interest because of the special relationship they had with the composer (they premiered most of the quartets):

I have a soft spot for the Borodins, who provided my introduction to the quartets (I still have the brilliantly designed box set of recordings from 1978-1983 reissued in 2006 by the Russian Мелодия label)

Wendy Lesser writes that Shostakovich always knew how his music should sound and her book contains a wonderful story from Valentin Berlinsky, cellist of the Borodin Quartet, concerning one of the  quartets that illustrates this perfectly. Recalling preparing for a performance of the Third Quartet in the company of Shostakovich some years after its premiere, Berlinsky states:

“I said…’we’ve given it some thought…It seems to us that pizzicato [rather than arco] sounds better here.’

‘Yes, yes,’ he hastily interrupted, pizzicato is much better, but please play arco all the same.'”

Of course, each of the quartets can be appreciated as an individual piece of music in its own right. But there is also something about hearing them played in one chronological series that gives something of a narrative thread. Lesser also writes of the “vital power” of Shostakovich’s quartets in live performance “that makes any interpretation seem incomplete until it is played before an audience”. Which brings me to the incredible feat that was the Carducci String QuartetMatthew Denton (violin), Michelle Fleming (violin), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola) and Emma Denton (cello) – performing the full cycle of all fifteen quartets in chronological order in five magnificent concerts over two days on the weekend of 22-23 January 2022 at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Total admiration must go to the Carduccis for the dedication and application sustained over the two days and evident from the very first concert starting at 11:30 in the morning on the Saturday. Comprising of the first four quartets, it was for me probably the pick of the (pretty consistently impressive) bunch. The First Quartet was bright before the opening of the Second Quartet gripped with its bold first movement and a second movement featuring some absolutely yearning and sorrowful first violin. The stabbing ‘forces of war unleashed’ (to cite Shostakovich’s supposedly original subtitle) in the third movement of the Third Quartet was another arresting highlight.

More has been written about the Eighth Quartet than all the others combined and it has acquired a special status not least because, although dedicated ‘to the victims of fascism and war’, it is often considered to be Shostakovich’s memorial to himself, featuring as it does not only quotations from some of his other works, but his famous ‘DSCH’ musical monogram. It ended the second of the concerts with the Carduccis giving full musical and dramatic effect to the fevered second movement and forceful fourth movement.

Indeed, there were times when watching the Carduccis perform was just as gripping as listening to them play. This was the case in the ‘furioso’ second movement of the Tenth Quartet, which was near-exhausting to watch and featured in the third concert of the series which opened Sunday’s proceedings, as did the Eleventh Quartet with a deft dealing of its repetitions.

Picture (c) John Earls

The fourth concert gave particular effect to Shostakovich’s inventiveness showcasing the Twelfth Quartet with its mixing of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism and more familiar harmony as well as the unsettling Thirteenth Quartet with the Carduccis opting to tap the fingerboards of their instruments with their fingers rather than bodies of the instruments with bows for the percussive elements. The Thirteenth Quartet also featured some enthrallingly eerie sliding on the viola as well as a wonderfully dramatic finale.

The final concert comprised of the last two quartets ending with the Fifteenth Quartet. The longest of the quartets it was completed in 1974 when Shostakovich was in hospital having been diagnosed with lung cancer. Its six desolate slow movements give a sense of mortality and the lack of a dedication has led to a notion that Shostakovich may have written it as an unofficial elegy for himself. It was played with appropriate respect and sensitivity, something that was recognised by the sustained silence from the audience following its – and the cycle’s – completion before generous and well-earned applause.

This remarkable series of concerts was a precious reminder of what an exceptional body of work Shostakovich’s string quartets are and how any one of them can stand on its own. But there is definitely something special about hearing them together and the Carducci String Quartet in this unforgettable weekend of concerts demonstrated how both hold true. However, it is the full cycle that I want and what I will be asking for on Desert Island Discs.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

posted on 27 January 2022

In concert – CBSO Youth Orchestra plays Shostakovich with Michael Seal

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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

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

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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