In concert – Behzod Abduraimov, CBSO / François Leleux – Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no.2; Brahms: Serenade no.1 & Academic Festival Overture

Behzod Abduraimov (piano, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / François Leleux (below)

Brahms Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 (1880)
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor Op.18 (1900-1901)
Brahms Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1858-9)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 April 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Its first concert since returning from a European tour saw the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a programme which tellingly placed Rachmaninoff’s most famous composition within the context of less often heard or uncharacteristically (?) humorous pieces by Brahms.

Cinematic and other extra-musical associations often obscure the purely musical qualities of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, so credit to the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov for duly underlining these in a reading full of incident and unfailingly cohesive. Among the former might be mentioned the limpid elegance of the first movement’s second theme and its improvisatory continuation before the coda, bewitching transition from the Adagio’s central scherzo back to the main melody, and those evocative interludes after the finale’s ‘big tune’ – this latter returning to cap the whole work in unforced ardour. Integration between piano and orchestra was unfailing, as too the emotional immediacy of the CBSO’s response, and who could question Abduraimov’s decision not to provide an encore after so fine a performance.

Rachmaninoff and Brahms seldom complement each other in concert, though the Academic Festival Overture provided an ideal curtain-raiser. Typically more than a potpourri of student songs (drinking or otherwise), the cunningly fashioned sonata design was deftly unfolded by François Leleux so that its portentous and uproarious elements were held in perfect accord. The percussion audibly relished its rare outing in a Brahms score, not least at the close when the hymn-like ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ emerges to see this piece through to its exhilarating close.

Following the interval, a relatively infrequent hearing for Brahms’s First Serenade. Originally planned for chamber ensemble and later rescored for late-Classical forces (with four horns), its equivocally symphonic ambitions and proportions were inevitably overshadowed by what Brahms went on to achieve, but its musical attractions are many and Leleux had its measure. Not least during an initial Allegro, its dextrous horn theme setting the tone for a movement whose impetus was engagingly maintained through to the touching insouciance of its coda.

Omitting repeats in this movement’s exposition and the first half of the Scherzo – which latter anticipates Brahms’s intermezzos in its speculative aura and understated progress – ensured a viable balance with the Adagio. A pre-echo of slow movements to come, the observance of its ‘non troppo’ marking prevented any loss of expressive focus across the methodically evolving whole. If the remaining movements are closer conceptually to serenade rather than symphony, Leleux gave them their due – whether the twin Menuettos with their enticing contrast between woodwind and strings, a second and more rhythmic Scherzo with rustic horn writing here and in the trio, then the final Rondo in which Brahms looks back to those comparable movements from early Beethoven and Schubert with a lack of inhibition he was only rarely to recapture.

Such was the effect of an account that received an enthusiastic response from the near-capacity house. The CBSO strings take the stage next Saturday for a coupling of Schubert arranged by Mahler and Vivaldi interspersed with Piazolla, directed by their leader Eugene Tzikindelean.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Behzod Abduraimov and François Leleux

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