Arcana at the Proms – Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos, Vienna Philharmonic & Andrés Orozco-Estrada – Dvořák & Korngold

Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Dvořák The Noonday Witch Op.108 (1896)
Korngold Violin Concerto (1945)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From The New World’ (1893)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 4 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

If ever a piece of music could depict the passing of summer, Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Noonday Witch would make a good choice. Introduced to the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in its year of composition, 1896, it raised the curtain for the second Prom of the season from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

There was charm aplenty in the opening pages of this late work, the mother and young son going about their domestic business with a sense of blissful routine, but as the witch of Karol Jaromir Erben’s folk tale appeared the mood grew decidedly chilly. Strings turned icy, woodwind soured and the brass sounded warning notes, telling us how everything was about to go very wrong indeed. The Viennese would not have been too familiar with this music, but it showed in a good way as Andrés Orozco-Estrada secured an insightful performance, the darker hues of the story coming to the fore with descriptive power.

The sun reappeared from behind the cloud for Korngold’s Violin Concerto, soloist Leonidas Kavakos taking us to the heights. The concerto begins with one of the composer’s top-drawer themes. Full of big screen occasion but tender enough to melt the heart, it reaches for a perfect melodic interval and deliberately falls just short, tugging at the heartstrings. That sense of yearning powers the first movement, in which the orchestra were a smooth partner for the ardent violinist. Kavakos possesses a sumptuous tone, even at quiet dynamics, though on occasion when he reached for the highest notes his tuning was just awry.

The second movement glittered with its Hollywood scoring, beautifully rendered by Orozco-Estrada, while Kavakos effortlessly hit the sweet spot with his part without cloying. The finale crackled with energy in response, the to and fro with the orchestra brilliantly judged and executed, before signing off with aplomb. In a daring encore Kavakos gave us Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Tárrega’s most famous guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, performed with an admirable lack of fuss given the considerable physical challenges behind the scenes. Kavakos really is the swan of the violin, channelling the physicality of his playing into the most natural of styles.

After the interval, a fresh set of clothes for Dvořák’s beloved Symphony no.9, From The New World. It is easy to forget just how many good original tunes this symphony holds, the composer spoilt for choice as he moulds, develops and interweaves them. One of the first symphonies to make such prominent use of the pentatonic scale, it is a continued delight when presented to the audience fresh, and the lightness of touch often experienced here gave room to the melodies themselves.

The Largo was the undisputed highlight. Aided by a wonderful cor anglais solo from Wolfgang Plank, it was slightly faster but still found the time to breathe with its phrasing, pausing where necessary, and in the magical coda allowing the solo strings to come to the fore.

The first movement may have lacked a little drama but Orozco-Estrada was clearly enjoying the interplay between his outstanding wind section and the equally capable strings. Having recorded the piece with an American orchestra, the Houston Symphony, he knows the piece well enough to impose sensible phrasing and an attractive give and take on the tempo.

The third movement Scherzo was feather-light in its outer exchanges before the finale took the performance up a level, its first statements probing deeper and the unexpected discords near the end making themselves known, examples of Dvorak’s underappreciated daring with harmony.

After a rapturous curtain call we were given a Viennese encore in the shape of Josef Strauss’s Ohne Sorgen Polka-Schnell Op.271, where orchestra and audience enjoyed a call and response shout. It was slightly out of place with the concert’s mood but judging by the lasting smiles it left Orozco-Estrada had made the right call once again.

Wigmore Mondays: Catriona Morison & Yuka Beppu in songs by Brahms, Korngold & Mahler

Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano, above), Yuka Beppu (piano, below)

Brahms Meine Liebe ist grün Op. 63/5 (1873) (2:01-3:27), Alte Liebe Op. 72/1 (c1876) (3:37-6:37), Geheimnis Op. 71/3 (6:48-8:50) (1877), Ständchen Op.106/1 (c1888) (8:54-10:21), Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer Op.105/2 (1886) (10:32-13:30), Dein blaues Auge hält so still Op.59/8 (1873) (13:37-15:20) and Von ewiger Liebe Op.43/1 (1864) (15:25-19:13)
Korngold 5 Lieder Op. 38 (1947) – Glückwunsch (21:35-24:06); Der Kranke (24:11-26:10); Alt-spanisch (26:25-27:44); Alt-englisch (27:49-28:45), Kein Sonnenglanz im Auge (28:46-30:44)
Mahler Rückert Lieder (1901-2) Ich atmet’ einen linden (32:59-35:20) Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (35:24-36:33); Liebst du um Schönheit (36:43-39:12); Um Mitternacht (39:21-45:22); Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (45:35-51:50)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Catriona Morison and Yuka Beppu began their first recital at the Wigmore Hall with a group of seven Brahms songs, drawn mostly from the composer’s forties and fifties. There was an immediate surge of headstrong passion with the music of Meine Liebe est grün (My love’s as green) (2:01 on the broadcast link), with a typically full texture in the piano, but shadows fell in a moving account of Alte Liebe (Old love) (3:37), especially when the music turned back to its original minor key.

Geheimnis (Secret) (6:48) was notable for its pure stillness, while Ständchen (Serenade) (8:54) was restless but enjoyably so. Dein blaues Auge (Your blue eyes) (13:37) was bittersweet, but the most substantial song was left until last. Von ewiger Liebe (Eternal love) (15:25) threw off the shackles to rejoice in the power of its subject matter. Morison was superb here, pacing herself through to the final, glorious ode, showing here and elsewhere an admirable control of the full tones she has at her disposal. Yuka Beppu was a sensitive partner, bringing clarity to Brahms’ more congested part writing.

Morison clearly has a soft spot for the music of Korngold, and enjoyed the characterisations offered by the composer’s 5 Lieder of 1947. In each his melodic gifts and economy of setting are clearly evident, and in Der Kranke (24:11) the piano’s obsession with a nagging phrase, brilliantly handled by Beppu, felt like a recurring ache. Morison enjoyed the contrasting Alt spanisch (26:25) and the brash Alt-englisch (27:49) before the softer tones of Kein Sonnenglanz im Auge (My mistress’ eyes) (45:35)

In the right performance Mahler’s Rückert Lieder can present an unforgettable concert experience, which was exactly the case here. The flowing, outdoorsy Ich atmet einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance) (32:59) had the ideal weight and pitch, delighting in its floral subject, while Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (35:24) found the subtle humour comparing the privacy of bees and songwriters! The ‘dying’ phrases of Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty) (36:43) were really well done, turning inwards, Morison’s voice again an instrument of beauty, while the famous Um Mitternacht (39:21) cast its spell through descriptive piano playing and expressive singing in Morison’s gorgeous lower register sound, the song’s pain vividly conveyed. Finally Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) (45:35) reduced the audience to silence and reflection on how remarkable it was that two young interpreters of this song could bring so much insight.

A deserved encore followed, returning us to Korngold and one of his finest songs, Schneeglöckchen – where Morison charmed throughout.

Further listening

Catriona Morison has not yet recorded the music heard in this concert, but it can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Meanwhile you can explore the chamber music and songs of Korngold on this double album from Deutsche Grammophon, with the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and friends:

Meanwhile the orchestral versions of the Mahler songs appear on this peerless disc from Dame Janet Baker, one of the all time classics of the vocal classical repertoire:

Ilya Gringolts and Ashley Wass – Debussy and Korngold at the Wigmore Hall

A beginning and an end – Debussy and Korngold Violin Sonatas at the Wigmore Hall

ilya-gringolts-ashley-wass

Ilya Gringolts (violin), Ashley Wass (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 29 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b060brzw

on the iPlayer until 28 July

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert (which Gringolts and Wass have not yet recorded):

What’s the music?

Debussy: Violin Sonata (1917) (12 minutes)

Korngold: Violin Sonata (1912) (42 minutes)

What about the music?

Perhaps surprisingly, the violin sonata was one of the main forms in use for chamber music in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps aware that composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann had mastered the form impressively, others took up the challenge as the new century began its musical breakaway. Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Fauré and Walton – these and more were authors of one or more sonata for violin and piano. Meanwhile an elderly Debussy and child prodigy Korngold offered their own take on the form within four years of each other.

The composers could not have been more different in their circumstances or approach. Debussy was fading fast due to cancer, and the Violin Sonata – a compact yet concentrated piece – was his final published work, meaning we would not get to see the last three sonatas of his projected six-part series. Those that remained – the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, the Cello Sonata and the Violin Sonata – are rightly held in high regard.

Korngold, meanwhile, was just into his teens, somehow with an orchestral work under his belt at the outrageously young age of twelve. This sonata, only three years later, was written just after he had been learning with Zemlinsky, who taught Berg and Schoenberg. It was completed for no less a pair than violinist Carl Flesch and pianist Artur Schnabel. It is an imposing work, clocking in at over forty minutes, and is full of big, romantic gestures and rich, chromatic harmony. It also contains melodic pointers towards the much shorter Violin Concerto he was to complete in 1945.

Performance verdict

A fascinating double act, this – chalk and cheese, but the two works complementing each other perfectly as they represent two centres of musical development in Europe at the start of the century.

Debussy, representing Paris, is by far the more concentrated, and both performers are careful not to be too outrageous with the sudden loud bits, nor too restrained in the quiet moments. Technically very sound, Gringolts has a consistently appealing tone, and the shading from Ashley Wass’s colourful piano part brings out the detail.

The Korngold could not be more different – more than three times the length, and focussing in on Vienna with its rich musical language, its big gestures and its long, florid tunes. With this we hear something of what composers like Zemlinsky (his teacher) and Schoenberg (in his early works) were up to.

Both performers give this their all, and the balance between singing violin and quasi-orchestral piano is impeccably observed, particularly in the heavy set second movement. Gringolts really sings in the more lyrical passages – notably the trio of the second movement – and the whole performance stands as a most impressive achievement, with its most concentrated moment right at the end.

What should I listen out for?

Debussy

1:42 – the first of three short movements in this sonata, notable for its brief but intense ideas, and a tendency to go from private thoughts to sudden outbursts. The use of chromatic harmony makes the music a bit wary at times, before it signs off quickly and emphatically.

6:01 – Gringolts and Wass waste no time in moving straight into the second movement, which is once again elusive. Several ideas sound instinctive, almost improvised, and perhaps indicate the composer’s restless move. Debussy makes a very distinctive sound when the two instruments play the same tune at 7:56. The performers lead straight into…

10:13 – the final movement, which moves swiftly into a memory of the main tune from the first. Again the violin and piano spar with each other, sometimes playfully, and sometimes with brief aggression that Debussy lets loose. The end, when it comes, is high-spirited.

Korngold

16:02 – this massive work begins quite innocuously, with a movement marked ‘ben moderato, ma con passione’ (a moderate tempo, with passion). Then it really gets going, as though the young composer is straining at the leash. The piano part is expansive and wide ranging, as though Korngold has an orchestral sound in his head.

All the opening thoughts head for a massive climax point at 21:43, after which point the music subsides a bit, though the rich, lyrical melodies continue to pour from the violin.

26:39 – the second movement, a scherzo, reveals two very different musical strands. The first is jumpy, with an angular line, both players are performing gymnastics as they leap up high and crouch down low. Then at 27:12 there is a sly melody that slips down on the violin, with a languid piano line for company. This is at odds with most of the movement though, as the high voltage musical exchanges continue – with the sly melody now heard at full volume (around 29:10).

Then at 31:12 the contrasting ‘trio’ begins, with a beautiful and graceful melody from the violin and flowing piano. This reverie is broken at 33:56 by the return of the jumpy opening material, and around 35:30 we hear some pretty savage chords from the piano, leading to the end at 37:49

38:14 – the slow movement, and a time for a little respite. Korngold once again writes a tune with some unusual contours to it, but one that suits the singing tone of the violin. From 40:55 the violin uses a mute briefly, the sound constricted and quite ghostly, but by the time we reach 43:00 there are forceful and passionate thoughts once again – leading to the soaring violin of 45:58. After that it effectively collapses in a heap!

46:56 – quite an elusive tune from the violin to begin the finale, wandering amiably. Gradually the music picks up momentum and Korngold introduces more dialogue between the instruments, culminating at 51:09 when a fugue starts in the piano left hand, picked up by the violin at 51:14. Again the lines become more angular – but then at 52:20 calm prevails, and a beautiful coda begins. Both violin and piano are serene, the passion of the preceding forty minutes or so summed up in the soft but heartfelt closing pages, finishing at 55:06.

Further listening

If you want further music for violin and piano, a nice calling point from the Debussy is the Violin Sonata no.1 by fellow French composer Fauré:

If however it’s more Korngold that you want the album below offers you a way in to The Sea Hawk, one of his finest film scores – while the one below that will introduce you to the substantial Symphony in F sharp, an increasingly popular orchestral work.

For more concerts click here