In concert – Jonathan Martindale, CBSO / Michael Seal: Summer Classics

michael-seal

Jonathan Martindale (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Dvořák Carnival Op.92 (1891)
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending (1914/20)
Elgar
Chanson de matin Op.15/2 (1889)
Grieg
Peer Gynt Suite no.1 Op.46 (1875/88) – no.1, Morning; no.4, In the Hall of the Mountain King
Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Vivaldi
The Four Seasons Op.8 (1718/20) – no.2 in G minor RV315 ‘Summer’
Price
Symphony no.1 in E minor (1931-2) – Juba Dance
Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker Op.71 (1892) – Waltz of the Flowers

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 2 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Jonathan Martindale courtesy of Upstream Photography

The penultimate event in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season, this afternoon’s Summer Classics featured a wide-ranging selection of pieces that between them spanned over two centuries, and whose ‘feel good’ factor at no time precluded stylish or committed playing.

With longstanding associate director Michael Seal at the helm, the orchestra made the most of Dvořák’s effervescent Carnival overture; the alluring pathos of its central interlude accorded due emphasis, and with some eloquent woodwind solos. Its popularity during recent years has made Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending a regular inclusion in such programmes, and Jonathan Martindale (below, who also led the concert) gave a thoughtful while never flaccid reading – most perceptive in the middle section with its folk-like whimsy and fanciful evocations of birdsong. The CBSO responded with limpid dexterity, the whole performance a reminder that this work is best tackled as a concertante piece and by a player (recalling such as Hugh Bean, Iona Brown and, more recently, Richard Tognetti) who knows the orchestra from the inside.

Next came an ingratiating take on Elgar evergreen Chanson de matin, then excerpts from the First Suite of Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt – a rapturous Morning and stealthy In the Hall of the Mountain King skirting headlong terror at the close. Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream made for an unlikely but effective centrepiece – the highlight being those fugitive imaginings towards its centre, along with the disarming eloquence of its final bars where the teenage composer conjures a fulfilment he was only rarely to recapture.

The Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons again saw Martindale as soloist in an account that lacked little of that rhythmic vitality his contemporaries (notably Bach) seized on with alacrity; nor was there any absence of poise in its atmospheric second movement. One who has come in from the cold partly through the recovery of her manuscripts, Chicago-based Florence Price broke with convention by introducing the Juba Dance into her symphonies in lieu of a scherzo; the CBSO responding in full measure to its rhythmic verve. A winning harp solo from Katherine Thomas launched Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and ended the main programme in fine style – Seal and the CBSO acknowledging the applause with the final ‘galop’ from Rossini’s William Tell overture as a dashing encore.

Throughout the concert, film expert Andrew Collins interspersed proceedings with his remarks and recollections (not least on that seminal 1970s supergroup The Wombles). The music itself was accompanied by varying shades and colours of lighting, but these rarely seemed intrusive – not least compared to the garish ‘Moulin Rouge’ effects routinely encountered nowadays at the Proms. Certainly, anyone in the process of getting the know just what classical music was all about, and those merely in search of a pleasurable afternoon’s listening, were well served.

Next Wednesday brings the last in this current series of concerts, the CBSO being conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (who is replacing an ‘unable to travel’ Edward Gardner) in an enticing programme of Judith Weir, Prokofiev (with the violinist Alina Ibragimova) and Beethoven.

You can find information on the final concert in the CBSO’s season at their website. For more information on composer Florence Price, click here

In concert – Paul Lewis, CBSO / Chloé van Soeterstède: Mozart, Beethoven & Mendelssohn

chloe_conductor

Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Chloé van Soeterstède (above)

Mozart Don Giovanni K527: Overture (1787)
Beethoven Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major Op.19 (1787-9, rev. 1795)
Mendelssohn Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.107 ‘Reformation’ (1830)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 2 June 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photos from Symphony Hall by Hannah Blake-Fathers

‘Heaven and Hell’ might have been too histrionic a title for this latest concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, yet it indicated the trajectory of a programme featuring Mozart at his most Romantic, Beethoven at his most Classical then Mendelssohn at his most Baroque.

Making her debut with this orchestra, French conductor Chloé van Soeterstède played down the rhetoric in those indelible opening chords of the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni but maintained impetus throughout the deftly modified sonata design as it sets out the tone if not content of what follows. In its theatrical context the music continues directly into the opening scene, but – despite (or even because?) of its emotional terseness – the ‘concert ending’ is by no means un-effective in its propelling the dramatic focus on towards a decisive conclusion.

Paul Lewis then joined the CBSO for Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto – actually, the first in chronological terms and easy to underestimate in terms of its stylistic antecedents. Yet, as Lewis demonstrated in engaging terms, this is only incrementally less then characteristic and such as the close of the first movement’s initial tutti and transition into the reprise could only be by Beethoven. Lewis now feels the composer’s 1809 cadenza involves too great a stylistic disparity, and his own solution is formally and expressively consistent with what went before.

The highlight of this performance was nonetheless the Adagio (probably the earliest music in what was a lengthy gestation), limpid and poetic while never cloying – the closing interplay between soloist and orchestra unerringly well judged. Lewis then set a swift if not headlong tempo for the ensuing Rondo which gave full rein to the music’s bracing vigour but also its deftly ironic asides. Not least those tonal sideslips near the outset of the coda, with pianist and conductor at one in projecting an ebullience right through to the spirited final pay-off.

Good to see Mendelssohn’s Reformation reasserting its place in the repertoire after decades at the periphery. With controversies over a Jewish-born composer commemorating a Protestant anniversary (and quoting the ‘Dresden Amen’ of Catholic liturgy) now consigned to history, the innate power of the initial Allegro can readily be appreciated and not least in so assured a reading as this. Van Soeterstède brought out its inexorable onward motion in full measure, the scherzo providing an ideal foil in its infectious gaiety and the whimsical guile of its trio.

Eloquently rendered as a soulful ‘song without words’, the third movement thus balanced the work’s introduction as a searching contrast to what follows – here, a finale which unfolds as an extended paraphrase on the Lutheran chorale Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, its heady if sometimes overbearing emotional force adroitly channelled toward a fervent apotheosis. The CBSO woodwind made a felicitous contribution, not least Marie-Christine Zupanic with the flute’s gentle intoning of that chorale – Mendelssohn’s devotion to Bach here made manifest.

An auspicious showing for Van Soeterstède, who will hopefully be returning in due course. Next week sees a very different programme of Britten’s Nocturne and Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony, doubly welcome in view of his centenary and its close association with the CBSO.

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, and for more on conductor Chloé van Soeterstède you can visit her website

Live review – Hannah Hipp, CBSO / François Leleux: Mendelssohn & Berlioz

Hannah Hipp (mezzo-soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / François Leleux (conductor/oboe)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 December 2019

Mendelssohn Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Berlioz Les Nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1840/1, orch. 1856)
Mendelssohn arr. Tarkmann Five Songs Without Words (arr. 2009)
Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (1829-31, 1841/2)

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits François Leleux: © HR/Thomas Kost; Hannah Hipp: Matthew Plummer

No doubt about it – Mendelssohn is still a prime attraction in Birmingham, the near-capacity audience for last month’s Elijah at Symphony Hall matched by that at Town Hall for tonight’s programme in which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by François Leleux.

Oboists turned conductors have a formidable precedent in Heinz Holliger, but even he cannot often have directed from his instrument as did Leleux when, commencing the second half, he presided over a selection of Mendelssohn Songs Without Words in an appealing arrangement by Andreas Tarkmann. Lauded in their day only to be patronized by subsequent generations, the pieces retain a melodic appeal exemplified by Venetian Goldola Song as its centrepiece. Switching adeptly between playing and directing, Leleux certainly relished them to the full.

Prior to the interval, he had partnered mezzo Hannah Hipp (above) in Berlioz‘s Les nuits d’été. Often considered the first orchestral song-cycle, these six songs to texts by Theophile Gautier were only belatedly orchestrated and are linked more by shared expression then any overt thematic links. Nor are they easily encompassed by one singer, but Hipp tackled their highly distinct tessitura with some confidence – moving seamlessly from the whimsy of Villanelle, via the distanced eloquence of La Spectre de la rose to the enfolding inertia of Sur les lagunes; then from the stark anguish of Absence, via the poetic fatalism of Au cimetière, to the impulsive anticipation of L’ile inconnue. For his part, Leleux ensured that those diaphanous and subtly differentiated orchestral textures audibly underpinned the often heady emotional sentiments.

Pieces from Mendelssohn’s earlier and later maturity framed this concert. The overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains a teenage masterpiece by any standards, not least for its evocation of the spirit-world to whose quicksilver elegance the CBSO did ample justice. If the more demonstrative passages sounded a little too generalized in expression, there was no lack of projection overall or doubt as to Leleux’s welding of these elements into an integrated whole. Only the forward ambience of the refurbished Town Hall prevented a true pianissimo.

Dynamic niceties are less of an issue with the Scottish Symphony, its lengthy gestation likely indicating a summative intention on the part of the composer. The first movement’s resigned introduction was superbly rendered, though the ensuing Allegro lacked focus in its trenchant development and surging coda. Not over-driven as often can be, the Scherzo exuded humour alongside its incisiveness, while the Adagio had both grace and suppleness to offset any risk of earnestness or stolidity. Nor did the finale want for energy or purpose, and if Leleux was more insightful during its hesitant transition than the triumphal apotheosis that follows, there was no doubting the underlying conclusiveness with which it rounded off this most inclusive and ambitious of Mendelssohn’s orchestral works – to the evident delight of those present.

A well balanced and immensely enjoyable concert, then, which further attests to the rapport that Leleux enjoys with these musicians. The CBSO is back in Symphony Hall next Thursday for another of the orchestra’s Centenary Commissions alongside music by Elgar and Brahms.

Further listening

With the exception of the Songs Without Words arrangements, the music in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. This includes recent recordings of the Mendelssohn pieces by the CBSO themselves, conducted by Edward Gardner:

For further information on the orchestra’s next concert, under their chief conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, click here

Live review – Soloists, CBSO and Chorus / Kazuki Yamada – Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Keri Fuge (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 7 November 2019

Mendelssohn
Elijah Op.70 (1846)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although 173 years have passed since it first echoed around the Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah remains synonymous with Birmingham’s cultural tradition. Performances may be fewer than in its 19th-century heyday but there have been memorable ones – not least that in 1989 with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, for whom this piece was a speciality – and tonight saw a memorable account by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada, who duly banished any notions of this being a mid-Victorian period piece.

Whatever his failings on a broader aesthetic level, Mendelssohn was nothing if not creatively pragmatic when it came to a big occasion, and Elijah accordingly fulfilled its remit. Whereas the composer’s earlier oratorio St Paul had given notice of his abiding interest in the Passions of Bach, here he drew on the exemplar of those biblical epics through which Handel shaped English musical taste over the ensuing 150 years; enhanced by the rhythmic poise of Mozart and the harmonic subtleties of Beethoven to result in music wholly representative of its era.

Structured in two parts of almost equal duration, Elijah charts the trials of its eponymous hero as he draws the Israelites away from the pagan enticements of Baal and back to the true faith before himself ascending on a fiery chariot to Heaven. Julius Schubring‘s text (as sung in the idiomatic translation by William Bartholomew) fashions out of Kings and associated biblical sources a framework whose emotional rhetoric is balanced by a keen underlying momentum and unfailing sense of when to open-out the narrative to allow for more intimate expression.

The score implies eight soloists, but the four on hand (the brief role of ‘The Boy’ affectingly taken by chorus soprano Ella McNamee) proved more than able. As Elijah, Matthew Brook conveyed the anguish and the ecstasy of his part with unwavering assurance, while Robert Murray overcame initial strain to give commanding portrayals of his advocate Obadiah and detractor Ahab. Keri Fuge brought due pathos to the Widow, with Karen Cargill eloquent as the Angel – having stolen the show as the Queen who vents her wrath in unequivocal terms.

As with most of its forerunners, of course, Elijah is defined by a choral contribution in which the CBSO Chorus was not found wanting. Having recently sung the work with Yamada (and these soloists) in Monte Carlo, it conveyed the anger and supplication of the forsaken People with audible conviction, while being no less assured in those intricate choral items by which Mendelssohn frames and punctuates the drama. If choral numbers were appreciably less than the composer might have expected, then this was undoubtedly a case of less equalling more.

Neither should there have been any surprise as to the degree of Yamada’s identity with this music. Japan has produced notable exponents of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, with the present conductor evidently following in their wake. If those choruses ending each half summoned not quite the intensity evinced by Frühbeck all those years ago, the clarity and incisiveness he drew from both chorus and orchestra was hardly to be gainsaid – so setting the seal on a memorable reading of a work sure to wear its Birmingham credentials well into the future.

Listen

(Ben Hogwood writes…) Among the many available versions of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, sadly none of these appear to yet include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – though one wonders if an extension to their Mendelssohn in Birmingham series will be forthcoming under Edward Gardner.

Spotify does however have a recent recording of Elijah from the Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh, with Robert Murray once again in the roles of Obadiah and Ahab. The organ itself was recorded in Birmingham Town Hall:

On record – CBSO / Edward Gardner – Mendelssohn in Birmingham Vol.5: Overtures (Chandos)

Mendelssohn
Trumpet Overture Op.101 (1825)
Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)****
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)**
The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Op.26 (1830)*
The Fair Melusine, Op. 32 (1834)
Overture to St. Paul Op.36 (1836)
Ruy Blas Overture Op.95 (1839)***
Overture to Athalie Op.74 (1844)
Lorenda Ramou (piano)

Chandos CHSA5235 [74’53”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper and ****Robert Gilmour

Recorded *20-21 October 2013; **15 and ***16 February 2014; ****13-14 July 2015; 10-11 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

For the fifth release in Chandos’s series Mendelssohn in Birmingham, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its onetime guest conductor Edward Gardner further traverse the orchestral output of a composer who was not averse to snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness.

What’s the music like?

It should be pointed out only a part of this release consists of new material. The Hebrides, Ruy Blas and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage first appeared in harness with Symphonies nos.4 and 5, nos.1 and 3, and no.2 respectively; while A Midsummer Night’s Dream was coupled with a selection of the incidental music for Shakespeare’s play as well as the Violin Concerto. Those who have been acquiring this series may thus feel a little short-changed, which perhaps makes purchasing those previously unreleased items as individual downloads the best option.

Proceeding chronologically, the Trumpet Overture reinforced Mendelssohn’s precocity in the wake of his Octet for strings – its breezily incisive manner, opened-out expressively by ominous asides, a viable template for future generations on which to hone their aspirations. Few could have hoped to match A Midsummer Night’s Dream as to prodigality of invention or technical resource, not least in terms of its redefining the orchestra near the outset of the Romantic era. A more prolix structure, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage yet merits revival through the limpid eloquence of its introduction and surging impetus of its Allegro towards a rousing peroration. That said, it cannot compare with The Hebrides in terms of an evocation sustained via formal sleight of hand and emotional clarity as remain breath-taking to this day.

Into the 1830s, The Fair Melusine still remains engaging for those subtly tangible images of watery domains (proto-Wagnerian, though the connection is easily overstated) and headlong fate through a vivid if increasingly impersonal idiom. Such impersonality had all but taken hold by the time of the oratorio St Paul, its overture breathing an aura of unforced piety and ‘natural order’ increased by the fugal interplay at its centre then almost apologetic fervency near its close. Mendelssohn rather grudgingly supplied incidental music for Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas, but the overture retains its drama and melodic appeal up to the surging coda. Would that Athalie conveyed comparable conviction, but this overture to Jean Racine’s play yields little more then technical proficiency as its composer strives gainfully for inspiration.

Does it all work?

On a technical level, absolutely. Mendelssohn was a master of his craft whose abundant early promise was only intermittently fulfilled by his later music. Tackling these overtures in order of composition (rather than that of this disc) tends to reinforce such an observation, which is not to deny the sheer technical command of even those lesser pieces or of the conviction that Gardner and his players have invested into this programme overall. Save for just a couple of overly headlong climaxes, there is little to fault here in terms of either playing or recording.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with the proviso detailed above. Bayan Northcott’s estimable booklet note mentions the overture to cantata The First Walpurgis Night as being inseparable from its main work, which makes a CBSO recording of this ‘dark horse’ among Mendelssohn works the more desirable.

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Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Chandos website