Online concert – Steven Isserlis & Connie Shih mark the centenary of Saint-Saëns @ Wigmore Hall

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Saint-Saëns Cello Sonata no.1 in C minor Op.32 (1872)
Liszt Romance oubliée S132 (1880)
Fauré Romance Op.69 (1894)
Saint-Saëns Romance in F major Op.36 (1874)
Bizet arr. Hollman Carmen fantaisie (not known)
Willaume La noce bretonne Op.14 (pub. 1924)
Holmès arr. Isserlis Noël d’Irlande (1897)
Hahn 2 improvisations sur des airs irlandais (1894 rev. 1911)
Saint-Saëns Cello Sonata no.2 in F major Op.123 (1905)

Steven Isserlis (cello, above), Connie Shih (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, London
Thursday 16 December 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

This well-devised program to mark the centenary of the death of Saint-Saëns was put together by cellist Steven Isserlis and his regular partner, pianist Connie Shih. They presented the composer’s two cello sonatas, the first of which was recorded by Isserlis back in 1992, in an intriguing historical context.

There is no room for shrinking violets in the first movement of the Cello Sonata no.1 in C minor Op.32, a relatively early work, and both performers threw themselves headlong into the music. Saint-Saëns was a virtuoso pianist, and on occasion his writing for the instrument is as demanding if not more so than the instrument it is ‘accompanying’. Here however the two were on equal terms, with plenty of cut and thrust in a dramatic first movement. The C minor casting and stormy start draw parallels with Beethoven, and these were built upon in the players’ compelling dialogue. The improvisatory slow movement was ideally poised, with an air of mystery in its central section where the cello was in its lowest register, complemented by twinkling figures from the piano. The Allegro moderato third movement returned us to powerful, passionate music, Isserlis’ double stopping passages immaculately delivered and Shih finding the necessary definition and phrasing in a superbly played piano part.

A full 32 years elapsed between the first sonata and its sequel, the Cello Sonata no.2 in F major Op.123. By this time the 70 year-old composer’s style had developed considerably. It is a substantial piece, running over 35 minutes, and is perhaps less-performed on that basis, not to mention the demands made on the performers. Isserlis and Shih showed what a fine work it is, however, in a performance that was gripping from the off, full of passion but also finding the more elusive statements in the quieter music, where Saint-Saëns could be found writing subtle but far-reaching sleights of harmony.

A joyous opening paragraph surged forward with considerable energy, powering an impressive and flowing first movement, Shih harnessing the power of the piano but continuing to hold a sensitive balance. She led off a capricious scherzo, whose variations were brilliantly characterized, from a limpid third variation (marked Tranquille) to a rippling Molto allegro that followed.

The heart of the piece, however, lies in the substantial Romance, a dreamy slow movement with a beautiful melody and a profound middle section turning towards the minor key. Both played with poise and affection, finding the centre of music the audience could fully lose themselves in. The last movement, which the composer promised ‘will wake anyone who’s slept through the rest of the piece’, was terrific, working from its deceptively innocuous opening phrase to throw off the shackles and end in celebratory mood. Isserlis was typically generous with his expression, with Shih deserving credit for her technical command and shapely melodic phrasing. The octaves towards the end were especially well-handled.

While the two sonatas were the main works of the concert, the complementary pieces were no less involving, providing an ideal foil. Firstly we heard from Saint-Saëns’ close friend Liszt, one of his few works for cello and piano. The Romance oubliée began with a recitative, with beautiful tone in the held notes from the cello, setting the (intense) mood. Then another great friend (and pupil), Fauré – whose Romance uses the whole range of the cello, starting in the mysterious depths and ending in the rarefied upper register. Saint-Saens’ own warm-hearted Romance in F major Op.36 was affectionately recounted, before the showstopping Carmen fantasie from Saint-Saëns’ friend and regular recital partner, Joseph Hollman. This was a showstopper, with quickfire dances and a pizzicato Habanera, stylishly done by Isserlis.

Shorter pieces followed from Gabriel Willaume, Reynaldo Hahn and Augusta Holmès, each with fascinating connections to the composer. Willaume’s La noce bretonne (The Breton wedding) was rather moving, its distant drone growing in feeling and power before passing by and disappearing again. Hahn’s 2 improvisations were songlike and affecting in their simplicity, a soulful Willow Tree especially, before an arrangement by Isserlis of Holmès song Noël d’Irlande, its pentatonic language easy to absorb.

This was a very fine concert, with playing of an exceptionally high standard by both artists, but crucially with the involvement that told us how Saint-Saëns, in particular, could combine virtuosity with deep feeling, contrary to some opinion. It is hard to imagine how his centenary could have been better observed – and it ended with a perfectly weighted account of The Swan, one of his most famous shorter pieces – taken as it is from Carnival of the Animals. Isserlis needed only to introduce it with a wave of the hand.

You can watch this concert on the Wigmore Hall website for the next 28 days – and you can hear most of the music played by Isserlis and Shih on the Spotify playlist below, with some of the recordings drawn from their recent album Music from Proust’s Salons. That disc can be heard (and purchased) from the BIS website

In concert – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: A Covid Requiem

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Adès O Albion (1994, arr. 2019)
Pärt
Fratres (1977, arr. 1991)
Purcell (arr. Britten)
Chacony in G minor Z730 (c1680, arr. 1948)
Barber
Adagio in B flat minor Op.11 (1935, arr. 1936)
interspersed with poetry readings by Casey Bailey
Fauré
Requiem in D minor Op.48 (1887-90, rev. 1893)

James Platt (bass), Casey Bailey (poet), CBSO Children’s Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Tomo Keller (violin/director), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 6 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Even if live music-making has gradually been returning to how it was, the (ongoing) legacy of Coronavirus could hardly be overlooked, thus a concert such as that given this evening by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a necessary act of remembrance for all the many concertgoers to have been affected by the pandemic. As befitted such an occasion, no speeches or prefatory remarks were needed, with the darkening of the auditorium during the performance a simple but effective gesture which helped focus musicians and listeners alike.

Strings only were onstage in the first half – Tomo Keller directing a sequence as began with O Albion, Thomas Adès’s arrangement of the sixth movement from his quartet Arcadiana, whose gentle pathos made for the ideal entrée. Arvo Pärt has written numerous memorials and while Cantus might have been more appropriate in this context than Fratres, the latter’s sparing deployment of percussion as to underline its ritualistic emergence then withdrawal conveyed no mean eloquence. Surprising, perhaps, that Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony is not heard more frequently on such occasions, its expressive intensification here informed by an acute rhythmic clarity. Barber’s Adagio is, of course, a staple at these times – the visceral emotion of its climax and subdued fatalism that ensues audibly conveyed here.

Interspersed between these pieces were poems by Casey Bailey, currently Birmingham Poet Laureate and whose readings were undeniably affecting in their sincerity – whether the heady reportage of 23.03.21 (a date no-one in the UK could hope to forget), the intimate evocation of Weight or graphic remembrance of Once. His appearances on stage were precisely judged as to segue into then out of the music either side and it was a pity when he did not take a call at the end of this first half, alongside the CBSO strings, given his contribution to proceedings.

Tomo Keller remained for the second half – adding ethereal counter-melodies to two of the sections in Fauré’s Requiem, whose 1893 version is without violins but with divided violas and cellos along with reduced woodwind and brass to make for a reading closer to the initial conception and certainly more apposite tonight. Her credentials in the choral repertoire well established, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a real sense of this work’s essential poise but without neglecting any deeper emotions. James Platt brought a ruminative warmth to the Hostias and Libera me, and it was an inspired touch to have the Pie Jesu sung in unison by the Children’s Chorus; its plaintiveness offsetting those richer tones of the Youth Chorus and CBSO Chorus, while opening-out the music’s textural and expressive range accordingly.

In one sense it would have been better had this concert not had to take place, given the legacy it commemorated (as was witnessed by the personal recollections occupying five pages of the programme) and yet, as those ethereal strains of the In Paradisum receded beyond earshot, a feeling of the Covid crisis having been recognized then overcome was palpable on the part of those present. Moreover, the CBSO’s next event is a performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – surely as transcendent and life-affirming an experience as could be hoped for.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Casey Bailey, click here, for James Platt click here, and for Tomo Kellner here

In concert – Carolyn Sampson, Anna Lapwood, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Poulenc Gloria & Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

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Tchaikovsky Solemn Overture ‘The Year 1812’ Op.49 (1880)
Poulenc
Gloria FP177 (1959)
Fauré
Messe Basse IGF50 (1881 rev.1906)
Saint-Saëns
Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1886)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anna Lapwood (organ), CBSO Youth Chorus (Julian Wilkins, director), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Zuzanna Specjal (Kazuki Yamada), Marco Borggreve (Carolyn Sampson), Kirsten McTernan/BBC (Anna Lapwood)

It was no doubt coincidental that this opening concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new season was typical of those programmes which one-time chief conductor Louis Frémaux gave with this orchestra during the mid-1970s, in its featuring two of his French specialities.

Back then, Poulenc’s Gloria could still be regarded as contemporary music, though its adept borrowing from the Stravinsky textbook married to the French composer’s insouciant brand of expressivity is arguably more widely accepted now than in that often style-conscious era. It duly responded to Kazuki Yamada’s keen impetus in the opening Gloria then the bracing syncopation of Laudamus te or a joyously animated Domine Fili. Carolyn Sampson (above) was an elegantly detached soloist in Domine Deus, opening-out emotionally in the Agnus Dei whose inward ecstasy was unerringly conveyed. Yamada elided deftly between the surging energy then calm resignation of the final Qui sedes; here, as throughout, the CBSO Chorus bringing supplicatory warmth to music it has been associated with almost since its founding.

Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony was a familiar item at CBSO concerts during the Frémaux era and one that the present-day orchestra tackled with no less alacrity. Yamada was clearly (and rightly) intent on stressing its symphonic cohesion – drawing ominous expectancy from the first half’s Adagio introduction then securing a powerful momentum in the main Allegro, before the organ’s hushed entry for a chastely eloquent slow movement. There was no lack of incisiveness or humour in the second half’s scherzo, not least its scintillating passagework for piano duet, but also purposeful intent as segued directly into the finale with its indelible main theme and its methodical build-up to an electrifying peroration. Here, too, Anna Lapwood’s (below) subtle choice of registration underlined motivic resourcefulness more than gestural brilliance.

In between these works, opening the second half, Fauré’s Messe Basse enjoyed relatively rare revival (at least in the concert hall). Initially a collaboration with André Messager, Fauré later essayed a complete setting of what is a Missa brevis (thus omitting the Gloria and Credo) for female voices and which sounds no less apposite when rendered, as here, by young singers. The CBSO Youth Choir summoned a poised detachment under the assured guidance of Julian Wilkins, abetted by Lapwood’s thoughtful accompaniment in this modest yet appealing piece.

One aspect of this programme that Frémaux would not have opted for was to commence with Tchaikovsky’s 1812, though few would surely dissent given the all-round focus of Yamada’s conception. Not least when the CBSO Chorus added its yearning tones to the opening section, returning towards the close for an emotive rendering of ‘God Save the Tsar’ to cap an already resplendent apotheosis. Tubular bells and Mahler-type mallet more than compensated for the absence of canon et al when this piece is trotted out at the end of a ‘greatest hits’ assemblage.

It was indeed fortuitous that Yamada open this season given his recent appointment as Chief Conductor of the CBSO from April 2023. He returns in due course, while next week brings Sarah Connolly for a rare hearing for Chausson’s rapturous Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday 18 September at Symphony Hall – click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, while for more on Kazuki Yamada you can visit the conductor’s website

In concert – Steven Isserlis & Mishka Rushdie Momen @ Wigmore Hall

It must have been extremely special for Steven Isserlis to be playing the music of three of his favourite composers at the Wigmore Hall on this day – even more so as the date fell on the birthday of one of them, Robert Schumann.

He is one of the cellist’s greatest musical loves, and the sense persists that Isserlis is still discovering more things that make it so. One of Schumann’s many strengths is the versatility of his music, meaning pieces such as the 3 Romances Op.94, originally written for oboe and piano and given to his wife Clara as a Christmas present in 1849, can easily be performed with violin or, indeed, the cello.

Schumann’s birthday was marked by a performance of unaffected romantic beauty from Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, very much on an equal footing playing the composer’s first instrument. The pair caught the doleful and slightly inquiring nature of the first romance beautifully, while the surge of feeling in the central music of the second was a strong cumulative wave. The third, its theme given in a darker shade, was briefly introspective in its unison phrases but then more overtly passionate.

Before Schumann came another ‘birthday’ composer. Beethoven’s 250th is not likely to receive quite so much live coverage as it would have done in a year without a pandemic, but what it lacks in quantity it will surely make up for in quality. The Sonata for piano and cello no.1 in F major, the first of a pair published as the composer’s Op.5, is the ideal concert opener. It begins in slight trepidation of what it is about to discover, but then, on establishing what is effectively a new form of writing for the cello and piano together, throws itself headlong into the rapids.

The Allegro that comes after that first sense of discovery was joyous indeed, with lovely dialogue in play between the two protagonists. Isserlis smiled frequently, as though revelling in the combination of favourite music and venue once again, while Momen’s clear phrasing dovetailed neatly with the cello’s, owning some of the really tricky right hand runs with fearless accuracy.

The second movement had a terrific burst of energy, the sun breaking through at every possible opportunity when its catchy theme made several reappearances. The pair also gave a nice air of mystery when Beethoven suddenly departed from ‘home’ and ended up in a number of seemingly unrelated tonal centres, before reassuring us with the warmth of the home key once again.

As he introduced his favourite 20th century cello sonata, there was a sense of Isserlis’ heart almost bursting with the chance to play music live again. He described his discovery of Fauré’s late music as ‘being outside a door but then passing through and wondering why on earth I had been outside’, before the pair played the Cello Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.108, the first of two such works from the Frenchman.

This was a very fine performance indeed, Isserlis and Momen watchful and urgent at the start, its music wracked with uncertainty but nonetheless pushing forward with great conviction. The Andante slow movement began lost in thought, the bell-like toll of the piano matched by Isserlis’ rich legato tone, before reaching heights of passion that the final movement also delivered, the performers now glorying in the major key and Fauré’s bursts of sunshine, the strong resolve of the first movement bringing its ultimate reward.

The pair finished with a profound account of Isserlis’ own transcription of a Bach chorale prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, in which – as the cellist noted – Bach says it all.

Talking Heads: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood
Picture courtesy of Decca Classics

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a rare commodity. In the midst of dazzling publicity, he is helping open doors for classical music by his very approachable demeanour and an approach to album-making that brings it into closer contact with other forms. On the evidence of this interview he is refreshingly grounded and intently focussed on his first love, which of course is music.

While some have expressed concern that the cellist might be overworked early in his career, our discussions around second album Elgar confirm him to be relaxed and deeply satisfied with the newest addition to his discography.

His debut album Inspirations, released this time in 2019, presented the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, the piece he played to win the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. Kanneh-Mason coupled it with diverse pieces from Pablo Casals, Offenbach, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley. This time however his main focus is the work of a much older man, the Cello Concerto in E minor of Sir Edward Elgar.

The recording of this much-loved corner of the cello repertoire was made with conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. It has an intensity which belies Kanneh-Mason’s tender years, offering new viewpoints into what will be familiar music to a lot of people. Again the context into which Sheku puts the Elgar on his album is intriguing, of which more later. But where did he first hear the music of Elgar – and was it the piece he has just recorded?

“It would have been the concerto, definitely”, he recalls. “I listened to it a lot when I was younger, and I grew up with the famous Jacqueline du Pré version. While we were working on it I listened to a lot of different recordings of the piece, it’s such a special work. Other recordings I really love are the most recent Steven Isserlis recording, Truls Mørk with Simon Rattle, and the famous one from Beatrice Harrison with Elgar himself conducting. There is a huge range of ways in which people approach the piece, and what strikes me about the piece is that everyone reacts in a different way.”

The second movement (a Scherzo) finds Kanneh-Mason and Rattle scooting along with a particularly quick choice of tempo, and the cellist clearly relishes the fast bow strokes required. “It’s a fun piece to play, and you get swept up in it but you have to work on getting a lightness of touch with the repeated notes.”

Elgar’s concerto may be the main piece on the album but there are a variety of shorter pieces imaginatively included by Kanneh-Mason. One composer in particular we may be hearing from again is the Swiss-born American Ernest Bloch, born to Jewish parents. Two of his shorter pieces are included here. “I love his music”, says Sheku. “For Grade 8 I did the Prayer for cello and piano, which is a piece I knew to play young. It’s music I really love, and there’s also the piece for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, which I hope to record in the future. You can feel some of the pain in the harmonies he uses.”

More obscure still is a piece for cello ensemble, Hymnus, by the German composer Julius Klengel. “It’s an amazing piece”, he says. “He was a cellist as well, so I think that’s how he ended up writing for 12 instruments. Every week at the Royal Academy of Music we had a cello ensemble, and that’s how we got to know it. There’s a nice link there, as there is for all the pieces on the album. It’s very inspiring being around really young hardworking musicians and all of us being based in one place.”

How does Kanneh-Mason balance his studies with days like today, where he has a whole day of promotional interviews to navigate? “I just have to be very organised with my time, which is a good thing for us anyway. I never feel that I have too much on.”
He is particularly gushing when talk turns to his work with Sir Simon Rattle, and the bond they share in the interpretation of the Elgar. “Definitely. I think what I love about working with someone is the freedom to do what I want but knowing that they can do everything as well. It’s the spirit of true collaboration I think”.

The theme of collaborating runs through both albums, and Kanneh-Mason identifies with this original approach. “It’s nice to have a link and a reason for putting them together, like creating a concert program. It’s great to record a masterpiece and a big piece, and put it with smaller pieces that have an equal range of colour and harmony, and perhaps more subtleties.”

For Elgar he was helped by Simon Parkin, with sensitive arrangements for cello and orchestra of Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations, and the Romance originally written for bassoon and orchestra. To that he adds Frank Bridge’s Spring Song, the folksongs Blow The Wind Southerly and Scarborough Fair, and Fauré’s profound Elégie.

“He’s an amazingly skilled arranger”, says Sheku of Parkin, “and he keeps the heart of the pieces while making the most of the instruments. I love mixing the arrangements that complement the pieces of music in their original form, and it’s great to record them in respect of friends and teachers, which makes it more personal. I’m always excited and open to lots of new things and working with new people. I’ve had some amazing experiences with these recordings, and you can hopefully hear the enjoyment from them.”

As you might expect given his album programming, Sheku’s ‘out of hours’ musical tastes are varied. “I listen to a mixture of classical, jazz, reggae, and different kinds of folk music”, he says. “Growing up with music all around me has been really inspiring, and it has kept me grounded and motivated. Now I live with students, and the people below me are also musicians.”

Thinking back to his BBC Young Musician of the Year triumph brings Kanneh-Mason onto a subject close to his heart, musical education. “I think we should have as many young people in music as possible. The Young Musician of the Year is great as it shows people playing to the highest standard. When I did it I found watching people three or four years older than me was really inspiring, and it ultimately gives people the opportunity to do many more things.”

He also notes the importance of after care. “Afterwards there was so much attention, but the BBC really looked after me. It was important to have the right people around me and to be working with the right people. A competition is only good if what comes after is good.”

With time running out, we conclude by discussing his favourite musicians of the moment. “I love Steven Isserlis”, he says. “He’s my favourite cellist to watch…and I also love listening to the violinist Daniel Lozakovich. Martha Argerich is also someone I find really inspiring, I love watching her play the piano.”

This blend of youth and maturity, established and new, is perhaps the most inspiring thing about Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s success. His approach is very inclusive, and his next ventures will be very interesting to chart and appraise. With Elgar reaching the heights of number eight in the album charts so far, the musical world is very open to him right now.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Elgar album is out now on Decca Classics – it can be purchased here, via Apple Music, or streamed below via Spotify: