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

In concert – Peter Donohoe, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Foulds ‘Dynamic Triptych’ & Shostakovich Symphony no.11

Peter Donohoe (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Wednesday 11 December 2019

Foulds Dynamic Triptych (1929)
Shostakovich Symphony no.11 in G minor Op.103 The Year 1905 (1957)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here, though you may wish to skip the interval of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no.8 for continuity.

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Isle of Noises series has attracted – for me at least – some unfair criticism in recent days of the works included in its remit. Granted, the choices are all English, but the composers look beyond these shores with a willingness seemingly out of kilter with the current political climate.

John Foulds is a case in point; a composer who spent the final five years of his life in India before a tragic early death to cholera. Not only did he live in India but he actively explored its musical systems, looking to see how he could incorporate his discoveries and influences into the framework of classical music.

The Dynamic Triptych is a striking example of successful integration. Completed in 1929, its musical language is well beyond its years. In the first movement Foulds becomes obsessed with a modal scale, repeating it over and over rather like Scriabin would do with towers of chords based on intervals of a fourth. The task of playing the modal scales often fell in this performance to the muscular piano part, played with great authority by Peter Donohoe (above). The pianist has spent a great deal of time with this work, recording it with Sakari Oramo and the CBSO in 2006. He led a highly spirited performance, yet despite his brilliant passagework and percussive interventions in the fast music the soul of the work lay in the slow movement.

Here the strings’ quarter tones, beautifully played, brought added mystery to the picture when dressed with evocative percussion, adding to music already in the grip of a poignant sense of loss. Piano and orchestra regrouped for a finale that galloped ahead, Foulds letting the music off the leash to explore more far-flung tonal areas, before a silvery waltz theme was introduced to complement the quickstep. Both fused for a bold and dramatic finale, capping a well-received performance. This was forward looking music of English origin, and not in a 12-tone style either! The LPO should be praised for its inclusion and Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted with characteristic sensitivity, will hopefully explore more of Foulds’ colourful scores in the future.

The colours vanished dramatically after the interval for the opening pages of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11. This performance took on added poignancy with a dedication from Jurowski to Mariss Jansons, sadly departed the previous weekend at the age of 76. Jansons was guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992 to 1997, and he grew up in St Petersburg, on close personal terms with Shostakovich. The Eleventh Symphony, depicting the slaughter of protestors in the city as part of the Russian Revolution in January 1905, could not have been closer to home.

What a performance it was. For an hour we barely moved as Shostakovich’s first-hand account of the action took hold in vivid, cinematic detail. The icy Palace Square of the city could not have been colder in Jurowski’s hands, with ominous timpani rolls signalling tragedy all too early on. When it came, in the second movement, the massacre was delivered by music of uncompromising and stunning power, the proud brass chorale ultimately shut down by deafening percussion before the door slammed shut. Suddenly the square was silent, save for the strings’ icy tendrils which extended once again towards the audience, noticeably holding its collective breath.

The London Philharmonic were absolutely superb. With 22 cellos and basses playing as one, digging in to the ice as though their lives depended on it, the performance was on sure foundations, above which we had special woodwind contributions, with cor anglais (Sue Bohling) and bass clarinet (Paul Richards) just two of several exceptional solos. The percussionists, a vital cog in the Shostakovich machine, judged their contributions ideally too, with sharp snare drum retorts complemented by rolling bass drum and gong.

Still the tension remained, through an elegiac slow movement where the violas’ melody could not have been more poignantly played by David Quiggle and his section. The dedication to Jansons felt most intense here, and the players were given due acknowledgement by Jurowski in their well-deserved curtain call. Yet despite the deeply personal aspect of the performance there were even sharper parallels with the political climate of today, reminding listeners of the protests in Hong Kong and the forthcoming UK election, not to mention the disinformation, code and discrimination that permeate today’s society at every turn.

This account lived and breathed all of those dreadful things, and as the performance reached its shattering climax with tolling bells, Shostakovich was communicating with ever more piercing clarity. It may not be his most accomplished symphony but the Eleventh is one of his most descriptive and emotive. As Jurowski held the score aloft afterwards it was clear he felt the same – and I for one left reeling at the impact of a memorable performance.

Further listening

This Spotify playlist gives recordings of the Eleventh Symphony from Mariss Jansons himself, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Peter Donohoe with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo in the John Foulds Dynamic Triptych:

You can read a tribute to Mariss Jansons on the London Philharmonic Orchestra website

On record – Shostakovich: The Bedbug; Love and Hate (Naxos)

Shostakovich
The Bedbug Op.19 – complete incidental music (1929)
Love and Hate Op.38 – complete film-score (1935)

Mannheim Opera Chorus / Dani Juris; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Naxos 8.574100 [58’54”]

Russian transliterations and English translations included
Producer Roland Kistner
Engineer Bernd Nothnagel

Recorded 18-21 February 2019 at Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its ground-breaking traversal of the film and theatre music by Shostakovich with this coupling of scores long unheard as originally conceived, thanks in part to the work of Mark Fitz-Gerald in having reconstructed these from extant sketches and soundtracks.

What’s the music like?

Shostakovich’s earliest theatre score was for The Bedbug, a scatological comedy by the ill-fated Vladimir Mayakovsky whose two parts were set in the then-present and 50 years later in 1979. The main items include several astringent dance numbers audibly akin to Stravinsky and Weill, while others were recycled for later dramatic projects (most notably the Wedding Scene [track 6] which soon became the Overture to Erwin Dressel’s opera Armer Columbus), with resourceful usage of such instruments as saxophone, mandolin and musical-saw. An air of sardonic detachment pervades this music which doubtless contributed to the production’s brief theatrical run and its subsequent oblivion, but the confidence and panache with which Shostakovich acquits himself can hardly be gainsaid. Although the parodying of such Soviet archetypes as firemen and pioneers soon became taboo in a Soviet Union beholden to Stalin, the experience gained served the composer well in subsequent ballets and revues, so making the present score a significant harbinger for what was to follow over the ensuing five years.

That said, it is the score for Love and Hate that leaves the stronger impression here. Directed by Albert Gendelshtein, this one of several films resulting from Soviet-German cooperation in the interwar period and which ceased in 1937 when the gulf between Stalin’s and Hitler’s ‘socialism’ became unbridgeable. In its quirkily compelling amalgam of post-expressionist and socio-realist elements, this film is more than mere historical curio – as Shostakovich’s music makes plain in an expressive directness evident from the outset. Most notable in this respect is the song How Long Will My Heart Ache and Moan?, initially allotted to mezzo and female chorus [track 19], and a series of searchingly descriptive pieces as culminates in the surging intensity of The Funeral [track 33]. It is at such junctures that the more elegiac aspect of the Fifth Symphony (two years hence) comes into focus, making one regret that no suite was previously compiled. Maybe this will now prove possible given the score’s timely availability, so enabling a vital link in its composer’s evolution to be properly appreciated.

Does it all work?

Yes, not least owing to the insight of Fitz-Gerald’s realizations with regard to those missing or fragmentary sections – where he captures the Shostakovich spirit in full measure – as also to the commitment of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz in realizing the often wilful while always arresting nature of the composer’s inspirations. Forward but not unduly immediate sound, with extensive annotations by Fitz-Gerald, musicologist Gerard McBurney and Soviet cinema authority John Leman Riley, further enhance the attractions of this release.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and it is to be hoped Fitz-Gerald will be continuing his exploration of this one facet of Shostakovich’s output as is still inadequately covered in terms of publication or recording. Several of the composer film and theatre scores from the 1930s still await such rehabilitation.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Naxos website, with an article on the recording here

Wigmore Mondays – Barry Douglas & Borodin Quartet – Shostakovich: Piano Quintet

Barry Douglas (piano, above), Borodin Quartet [Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)] (below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 14 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

For the 2019-20 season many of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore Hall have taken on a playlist appearance. This all-Russian programme was no exception, with Tchaikovsky miniatures acting as a prelude to Shostakovich’s most successful chamber work, the Piano Quintet.

Tchaikovsky‘s The Seasons are a lovely set of miniatures for piano, characterising each month of the year rather than the four seasons. Barry Douglas, who has recently recorded the cycle, clearly holds the collection dear, and his accounts of March (the Song of the Lark) and October’s Autumn song were haunting and thoughtful by turn.

The Borodin Quartet followed with Tchaikovsky’s famous Andante cantabile for strings. The previous week they had given it in context, the second movement of four in the composer’s String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11, where it is most effective. Here the silvery, muted textures were lovely, and the central section evoked a light dance, but the work’s placement felt constricted knowing the main act was still to come.

All that was emphatically put to bed by a storming performance of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, as authentic an account as you could wish to hear. The first incarnation of the Borodin Quartet worked closely with the composer on many of his string quartets, and they performed the quintet with the composer on several occasions. The first-hand experience of their predecessors has not diluted the intensity of the experience in transition, and this was a searing account of one of 20th century chamber music’s most powerful utterances.

The Prelude (20:36) and Fugue (25:27) dovetailed beautifully, the former section imposing and powerfully wrought, the latter gathering a mood of grim resilience as the elements of its theme became ever more closely interwoven. This carried through to the outburst that is the Scherzo (35:28). Here Douglas came to the fore, striking the octaves in the upper right hand with shrill clarity, the quartet responding in kind as the textures veered towards the orchestral.

A graceful Intermezzo (39:12) was deeply poignant, the combination of bittersweet violin and simple plucked cello affecting from the outset. Emotions bubbled just under the surface throughout this movement, threatening to break loose at any moment. As the music slipped effortlessly into the finale (45:17) it shifted up a gear, with time for another big theme (46:35) before navigating to the calmer waters of the coda, where resolution was finally found in spite of the slightly ghostly string tone.

This was a tremendous performance, with every ounce of feeling communicated to the audience, occasionally at the expense of tuning in the upper violin area but with an unwavering intensity. The audience loved the repeat of the Scherzo as an encore.

Repertoire

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

Tchaikovsky The Seasons Op.37a: March (2:00), October (4:31) (Barry Douglas solo)
String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11, Second movement (Andante cantabile) (11:12) (Borodin Quartet)
Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57 (1940) (20:36) (Barry Douglas, Borodin Quartet)

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, containing recorded versions by the artists. The Borodin Quartet released Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet with pianist Alexei Volodin for Decca in 2018 – and here it is prefaced by one of the group’s several recorded versions of the Andante cantabile. Barry Douglas’s Tchaikovsky is part of an album of the complete cycle of The Seasons:

Another Russian chamber music powerhouse can be heard below. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, written in memory of pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, is a deeply expressive piece full of pain and resilience. Here it is from Trio Wanderer:

Shostakovich was not done with his piano-based chamber music, adding a substantial Second Piano Trio four years later. You can hear it below with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and cellist Mats Lidström – part of a very impressive all-Shostakovich disc:

Wigmore Mondays – Louis Schwizgebel, Benjamin Beilman & Narek Hakhnazaryan: Shostakovich & Mendelssohn

Louis Schwizgebel (piano, above), Benjamin Beilman (violin), Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello, both below)

Shostakovich Piano Trio no.1 Op.8 (1923) (from 2:14 on the broadcast link below)
Rachmaninov arr. Gayane Hakhnazaryan Vocalise Op.34/14 (1915)
Mendelssohn Piano Trio no.1 in D minor Op.49 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 April 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

A piano trio of exciting soloists gave this memorable concert at the Wigmore Hall as part of BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert series.

Pianist Louis Schwizgebel, violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan are all making a name for themselves on their own terms, but by uniting for chamber music performances illustrate the very first principles of why this music was written.

Before their stylish performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no.1, we heard them in early Shostakovich – his first of two works in the popular form. The Piano Trio no.1 is not a typical work in the context of the composer’s full output, however – but it does show a prodigiously talented 17-year old student making formal innovations and writing heartfelt music, in this case pointing towards the work’s dedicatee, Tatyana Glivenko.

Shostakovich’s teacher Maximilian Steinberg perceived his increased ‘enthusiasm for the grotesque’, documented in Anthony Burton’s excellent notes for this concert, but looking back in the context of the composer’s full output this fascinating work revealed more of a debt to Russian romanticism than could initially be expected.

Beilman and Hakhnazaryan picked up this connection in their ardent melodies, while the steely piano of Schwizgebel gave some clues as to the source of Steinberg’s displeasure. Here though they put the seal on an outstanding account of music full of energy but with its excesses curbed through Shostakovich’s compact design. A captivating performance which is well worth experiencing from 2:14 on the broadcast link.

The inclusion of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (from 17:50) made good sense in the context of the Shostatkovich. Made by Gayane Hakhnazaryan, mother of Narek, this arrangement illustrated the versatility of Rachmaninov’s original, more familiar to us in orchestral guise or for solo instrument with piano. Violin and cello dovetailed beautifully here, the trio managing the balance with an appropriate blend of nostalgia and poise.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no.1 is perfectly suited to a recital such as this, a piece with virtuoso demands that would appeal to the soloists but also a work whose close integration brings a special intimacy to its more reflective moments. This was a terrific performance, the darker colours of the first movement established immediately in Hakhnazaryan’s heartfelt cello subject (27:02). A doleful second movement Song without words was lighter but also touching (37:04), before the twinkling right hand figures of Louis Schwizgebel led a sparkling account of the Scherzo (44:20).

The finale fused all these qualities, starting in relative seriousness and darkness (48:04) but finding bright light as the music transferred subtly but gloriously to the major key (55:16).

As an encore the Scherzo twinkled again, completing a concert notable for its fresh, enthusiastic and virtuosic qualities. Catch it if you can!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard in the best available recordings on Spotify here: