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

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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

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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

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