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.

Stream

tbc

Buy

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

Wigmore Mondays – Benjamin Appl & Kristian Bezuidenhout: Schumann, Loewe, Mendelssohn & Zelter

Benjamin Appl (baritone, above), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 September 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Lieder can be downright miserable sometimes, as Benjamin Appl acknowledged when thanking us for attending this recital of ‘jolly German music’, with which the Wigmore Hall opened their 2019-20 season of BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts.

Appl, a baritone of ever-growing reputation, was performing with Kristian Bezuidenhout, who played a Blüthner fortepiano dating back to Leipzig in 1856 – the year of Schumann’s death. The instrument, an attractive rosewood colour, proved the ideal foil for an interesting programme looking at the Lied in Germany around the first half of the 19th century. In an hour we covered some little known ground from the output of Schumann himself, complemented by settings by Mendelssohn, Zelter and Loewe.

The pairing began with three later Robert Schumann songs, all based around the character Harper, from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Schumann set the songs in 1849, the centenary of the poet’s birth. Appl stood tall and upright in front of the piano, communicating directly with the audience through his eyes as well as his voice. Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass (Who never ate his bread in tears) was a sombre note on which to start, though the pain eased a little before the end, Bezuidenhout’s spread chords giving an indication of the fortepiano’s rounded sound. Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt (Who gives himself to loneliness) had a penetrating delivery from the singer, with a dark and unsettled postlude from the piano, while An die Türen will ich schleichen (From door to door will I steal) had a slightly lighter touch.

There followed three songs by Mendelssohn setting the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau. The short song An die Entfernte (To the distant beloved) danced lightly and was nicely phrased, before the nocturnal Schilflied (Reed song) was distracted and occasionally lost in thought. Frühlingslied (Spring song) emphatically blew away the cobwebs, the positive energy of the new season blowing the dark thoughts away.

The music of Carl Friedrich Zelter, a good friend of Goethe, is not often heard in the concert hall these days. He had his friend’s blessing however, the author approving of his direct methods of word setting, without too much in the way of musical dressing. His three Harfenspieler are bold settings and Appl sung them with clarity here, hitting the high notes of the second song with impressive intensity. Bezuidenhout was subtle in his complementary melodic lines on the fortepiano.

Contrasting with these were the dramatic songs of Carl Loewe. Herr Oluf is a self-contained Danish legend against the dangers of meeting Elves, and was performed with no quarter given, a terrific introduction from Bezuidenhout setting the energy level high. On occasion the singer has quite an unusual melodic profile, but this was straightforward for Appl’s vivid interpretation. The mischievous Hinkende Jamben was gone in an instant, with its mannerisms and lisps, before an expansive introduction to Tom der Reimer brought a grand tone from the singer. In a legend comparable in profile to Herr Oluf, it finished with brightly ringing bells, courtesy of Bezuidenhout’s picture painting.

When Schumann made his six settings of Lenau’s verse, he added a short Requiem in the mistaken knowledge that the poet had died. However when the day of the first performance arrived in 1850, news reached the gathering that Lenau had only just passed away, making the composer’s tribute strangely prophetic.

It is a dark cycle, reflecting perhaps the struggles of both men with mental illness – but illustrating at the same time the inner strength that music and poetry gave them. The steely Lied eines Schmiedes (Blacksmith’s Song) found Appl gathering himself with impressive projection, before the mood and heart softened a little for a languid account of Meine Rose (My Rose). Meanwhile Kommen und Scheiden (Meeting and Parting) had a devastating pay-off in the form of the emphasised last word, where the ‘last dream of my youth was taking leave of me’

Die Sennin (The Cowgirl) began with flowing piano, which led to Appl’s ringing delivery of ‘spring’s first song in the trees’, one of the recital’s most memorable moments. From there the cycle took a darker tone, Bezuidenhout breeding anxiety with the restless fortepiano line of Einsamkeit (Solitude), where Appl’s vocal was bold, and then to Der schwere Abend (The Sultry Evening) which was darker still, with a cold final line ‘to wish us both dead’. Thankfully the Requiem itself – a short Latin text – offered consolation and rest, as well as a rousing central section looking to the heavens.

This was a magnificent recital, with grace and power in equal measure from both performers, and the sound of the fortepiano a real treat in complement to Appl’s caramel tone. As a bonus we heard Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song), finishing in celebratory mood.

Repertoire

Benjamin Appl and Kristian Bezuidenhout performed the following songs (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schumann Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt Op.98a/6 (1:54); Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass Op.98a/4 (4:55); An die Türen will ich schleichen Op.98a/8 (all 1849)
Mendelssohn An die Entfernte Op.71/3 (1842) (9:56); Schilflied Op.71/4 (1832 (11:17); Frühlingslied Op.47/3 (14:08) 1839)
Zelter Harfenspieler I-III (18:03)
Loewe Herr Oluf Op.2/2 (24:18) Hinkende Jamben (29:51); Tom der Reimer (30:35)
Schumann 6 Gedichte von Nikolaus Lenau & Requiem, Op.90 (37:53). Individual songs: Lied eines Schmiedes (37:53), Meine Rose (39:05), Kommen und Scheiden (42:52), Die Sennin Schöne (44:00), Einsamkeit (46:08), Der schwere Abend (49:11), Requiem (50:49)

Encore – Mendelssohn Auf Flügeln des Gesanges Op.34/2 (56:07)

Further listening

Benjamin Appl has not yet recorded any of the repertoire in this concert, save the encore, but suitable recorded versions can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Matthew Taylor Symphony no.5, Mendelssohn & Beethoven

Pavel Šporcl (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (above)

Cadogan Hall, London
Sunday 9 June 2019 (3pm)

Taylor Symphony no.5 Op.59 (2018)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 (1844)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor Op.67 (1808)

Written by Richard Whitehouse, who also introduced the concert with Matthew from the Cadogan Hall platform

This debut at Cadogan Hall by the English Symphony Orchestra was also the third in its 21st Century Symphony Project, having previously included the Third by Philip Sawyers and the Ninth from David Matthews. This afternoon brought the Fifth Symphony of Matthew Taylor (below).

Symphonism goes back to the start of Taylor’s composing career, his Sinfonia Brevis having been completed at just 21. The present work is only his second such piece in four movements, but here the formal and expressive emphasis feels very different. Indeed, the opening Allegro is unprecedented in his output for its tensile volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzi: the first (a tribute to composer and teacher Cy Lloyd) as terse and equivocal as the second (a tribute to Angela Simpson, wife of composer Robert Simpson) is poised and wistful. It remains for the final Adagio (a tribute to Taylor’s mother Brigid) to secure that eloquent apotheosis towards which the whole work had been headed.

The ESO responded with playing of sustained emotional power such as carried through this movement’s plangent twin climaxes and on to its resigned coda. Not that there was any lack of commitment earlier – Kenneth Woods having set a suitably headlong tempo for the first movement as left his players unfazed, then characterizing the central intermezzi with regard for their subtly different auras. A fine rendering of a piece which amply reinforces Taylor’s standing as a symphonist of stature. Hopefully further hearings will not be long in coming.

The rest of this concert consisted of standard repertoire, but there was nothing routine about the performances. Pavel Šporcl (above) was soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, notable for the trenchancy and forward impetus of its opening movement – not least the structurally crucial cadenza placed between development and reprise, then the alternately easeful and searching Andante. The finale had no lack of wit or insouciance – Šporcl duly returning for a dynamic account of the Fifth Caprice by Paganini, its coruscating passagework delivered with aplomb.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony received a reading as attentive to the smaller detail as to its overall trajectory. The initial Allegro was incisive though never inflexible, not least in delineating the myriad variants on its indelible four-note ‘motto’, and if the Andante evinced a marginal lack of grandeur at its relatively swift tempo, those teasing asides which open-out its expressive course were deftly underlined.

Using the Clive Brown edition of this piece, Woods (rightly) opted to include the second-time repeat of scherzo and trio – giving it an enhanced presence as ideally complemented the finale’s ensuing majesty. There was little to fault in the latter’s uninhibited course: whether, or not, this edition places greater emphasis on the piccolo part, the clarity with which it emerged itself proved something of a revelation.

A memorable conclusion to a concert which also underlined the importance of this project in bringing together past and present of the symphony as a genre of ongoing and vital relevance. Next year sees a third instalment in the guise of the First Symphony by James Francis Brown.

Further listening

Toccata Classics have previously issued an album of Matthew Taylor orchestral music, recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Garry Walker. The composer’s Second Symphony and Viola Concerto can be heard here:

Pavel Šporcl can be heard in violin concertos by Richard Strauss and Korngold on the album below:

For more information on Matthew Taylor, visit the composer’s website Meanwhile Kenneth Woods has a detailed website of writing and engagements here, and you can read more about the English Symphony Orchestra here