In concert – Paul Lewis, CBSO / Christoph König: Mozart & Mahler

Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Christoph König

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K595 (1788-91)

Mahler Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-02)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 21 April 2022, 2.15pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Back from a first European tour since the pandemic and following the Easter break, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra hit the ground running with a programme of contrasts featuring Mozart’s last piano concerto and what is likely Mahler’s most popular symphony.

It may have been finished early during his final year, but Mozart’s 27th Piano Concerto was drafted several years earlier, while its relative inwardness as compared to those from 1785-6 need not be read as fatalistic; still less be taken for valediction. This was certainly how Paul Lewis approached it with a poised but never flaccid opening Allegro – its subtle contrasts of themes and dynamics creating their own, discreet momentum with an eloquent rendering of the development then a lucid cadenza such as brought the whole movement deftly full circle.

Might it be that this concerto is only as good as the best performances? Thanks to Lewis the central Larghetto never risked seeming plain spun or uniform, piano dovetailing into strings and woodwind to ingratiating effect. In the closing Allegro, Christoph König pointed up the dance-like robustness of its rondo theme with a lilting impetus as never faltered. This is one of Mozart’s few concertos where his own cadenzas survive; Lewis’s probing manner in the finale setting the seal on a reading as thoughtfully conceived as it was insightfully realized.

His recent recordings of Louise Farrenc having gained widespread praise, König is evidently a conductor in demand and his account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony provided a decisive, no-nonsense take on this much-played piece. Not least an initial Funeral March whose bracing objectivity did not preclude a more visceral response to its frenzied climax or ominous close. Its successor’s competing strands of violence and resignation were purposefully juxtaposed, through to the as-yet provisional emergence of the chorale then a tellingly speculative coda.

Time and again the central Scherzo fails to fulfil its role as this work’s formal or expressive crux, and if König’s approach fell short of the ultimate conviction, it was more than usually cohesive – whether in the discursive unfolding of its ländler-informed sections or the central trio with its rustically evocative overtones. Equally persuasive were those transitions either side, thereby endowing the movement with a cohesive follow-through which paid dividends during a coda whose unalloyed ebullience more than usually indicated what was to follow.

Most conductors now make the famous Adagietto a soulful interlude rather than full-blown slow movement, König going further by making it an extended introduction to the closing Rondo. This evolved almost seamlessly through the gradual intensification of ideas already heard towards the re-emergence of that chorale, here blazing forth with an affirmation that did not pre-empt those final bars in their almost nonchalant affirmation. Mahler might have written deeper finales, but not one whose triumph over adversity was so potently achieved.

An impressive demonstration, too, of the CBSO’s collective prowess (while not neglecting that of trumpeter Matthew Williams) for what is well worth catching in Saturday’s repeat performance; before this orchestra offers ‘something completely different’ next Thursday.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021-22 season, click here

Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Paul Lewis and Christoph König

In concert – Marija Vidović, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig – Pejačević, Sibelius & Mahler

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Pejačević Verwandlung, Op. 37b (1915), Liebeslied, Op. 39 (1915), Zwei Schmetterlingslieder, Op. 52 (1920)
Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47 (1903-04, rev. 1905)
Mahler Symphony no. 1 in D major (1899 version)

Marija Vidović (soprano), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig

Cadogan Hall, London
Thursday 13 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Patrick Allen (Tamsin Waley-Cohen), Paul Persky (Jan Latham-Koenig)

Visits from overseas orchestras are only now getting into their stride following the abeyance caused by the pandemic, so credit to the Zagreb Philharmonic for having undertaken its first UK tour in over half a century with a programme whose challenges were not to be gainsaid.

A recent BBC performance of her Symphony confirmed the significance of Dora Pejačević (1885-1923) in European music of the early 20th century, and it was a pleasure to encounter these four orchestral songs from her maturity. A setting of Karl Kraus’s Transformation won grudging admiration of Schoenberg; here, even more so in that of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Love Song with its winsome violin solo and fervent orchestral interlude, the influence of Strauss is directed towards audibly personal ends. Marija Vidović (above) gave them with no mean eloquence and did comparable justice to those charms of Karl Henckell’s verse in Two Butterfly Songs – the elegance of ‘Golden stars, little bluebells’ then the poise of ‘Flutter by, butterfly, flutter away’, each of them benefiting from especially deft contributions by the Zagreb musicians.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen duly joined the orchestra for Sibelius’s Violin Concerto – likely more popular than ever these days, here receiving a confident and forthright account that was at its most persuasive in a trenchant and cumulative take on the developmental cadenza toward the centre of the first movement, then an Adagio more than usually restive and even ominous as it unfolded. The soloist’s astringent tone might not be to all tastes, but it effectively banished any risk of expressive blandness while maintaining an impulsive interplay with the orchestra – not least in that opening Allegro’s combative coda or a finale which, while its Allegro was not ideally ‘non tanto’, generated an impressive momentum which carried through to a truly visceral close. Some solo Bach enabled Waley-Cohen to demonstrate a more inward touch.

A pity Jan Latham-Koenig (above) rarely appears in the UK, as his engagements seldom disappoint. For all its rawness and passing inelegances, this was as gripping an account of Mahler’s First Symphony as one is likely to encounter. Its opening movement was evocatively launched, the sounds of nature gradually admitting of a human presence such as filters through in its lilting exposition (not repeated) then comes to the fore with joyous immediacy in the coda. Robust and forthright, the scherzo’s outer sections found contrast in the ingratiating charm of its trio.

A symphony with a complex gestation (admirably set out in Timothy Dowling’s programme notes), its ensuing fantasy on a well-known children’s song is shot through with elements of klezmer and art-song in a portrayal of a huntsman’s funeral vividly ironic in its tragicomedy. Latham-Koenig was almost as persuasive in the lengthy finale – its Dante-esque contrasts of violence and supplication channelled convincingly to the spellbinding recollection of earlier motifs which made way for a chorale-dominated apotheosis of notably unsparing immediacy.

Few countries have yet had a composer for president, but Ivo Josipović served Croatia during 2010-15 and the encore of his Prelude to the Millenium sounded redolent of early Ligeti or Lutosławski in its uninhibited verve. The Zagreb musicians gave their collective all – to his evident pleasure.

For further information on the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, click here – and for information on the artists, click on the names to find out more about Marija Vidović, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Jan Latham-Koenig. Meanwhile for more on composer Dora Pejačević, click here

In concert – Fatma Said, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Mozart, Mahler & Richard Strauss

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Richard Strauss Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888)
Mozart
Vado, ma dove?, K583 (1789)
Mozart
La Clemenza di Tito, K621 (1791) – Non più di fiori
Mahler
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1900)

Fatma Said (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may still be over a year before Kazuki Yamada becomes chief conductor and artistic advisor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but concerts such as tonight’s afford ample indication of just what can be expected from this already engaged and productive partnership.

If there any ongoing theme to this programme, it was one of transcendence – admittedly, one of negation in Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, though Yamada relished those encounters chivalrous and amorous during its course. The ‘carnival’ episode drew some especially incisive playing from woodwind and brass, and while the climactic restatement of the horns’ aspiring theme lacked nothing in grandiloquence, it did not detract from the starkness of a coda whose fatalism was to be encountered within this composer’s tone poems more regularly than might be supposed.

Strauss’s lifelong devotion to Mozart made two of the latter’s arias an appealing complement. Written as a replacement number for a long-forgotten opera by Vicente Martín y Soler, Vado, me dove? enjoys frequent revival as a standalone aria and, when elegantly rendered by Fatma Said, it was not hard to hear why. One of the (relatively few) highpoints from Mozart’s final opera La Clemenza di Tito, Vitellia’s aria makes greater expressive challenges to which Said rose accordingly – the trajectory of its ‘Ecco il punto’ recitative subsiding from anguish into that resignation from where the aria itself proceeds unerringly to the resolve at its close. All of which was eloquently conveyed, and while a further aria – the mellifluous Nehmt meinen Dank? – would have been welcome, there was more to come from this impressive singer.

Namely the finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – hardly the rarity it was when Adrian Boult introduced it to Birmingham audiences 95 years ago, but easy to underestimate in the context of this composer’s overall output. As ‘unhurried’ as its heading indicates, the first movement exuded no little ambiguity – Yamada pointing up those myriad timbral and textural shadings that permeate the development and so make possible the heightened equanimity of the reprise. Sardonic but not unduly malevolent, the scherzo was tangibly evocative (Eugene Tzkindelean switching adeptly from his violin to its retuned doppelganger) – with breath-taking change of tonal perspective at the arcadian vision near its end. Visionary was no less apt to describe the slow movement, its variations alternating between fervour and anguish with seamless accord.

Felicitous playing from CBSO woodwind informed its progress on the way to its climax, with ‘heaven’s door’ briefly yet thunderously ajar prior to the transfigured calm of the closing bars. Stealing in just before, Fatma Said was an appealing guide to the setting of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ with its not always blissful recounting of the joys awaiting those who arrive there. Of particular note was the easefulness that spread across the final pages, when the singing ceases and the orchestra withdraws stealthily while raptly to leave just the harp’s pulsing resonance.

A lucid, often captivating performance of a work whose enticements Yamada realized in full measure. Anyone who can make it along to Symphony Hall for tomorrow afternoon’s repeat should certainly do so, while Kazuki Yamada will be back with the CBSO during this spring.

For more information on this concert visit the CBSO website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artists Fatma Said and Kazuki Yamada.

In concert – Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – MahlerFest XXXIV: Sawyers & Mahler Fifth Symphonies

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Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers Symphony No. 5 (2020) [World Premiere]
Mahler
Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor (1901-2)

Macky Auditorium, Boulder
Saturday 28th August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A programme of two five-movement Fifths might not have been what Kenneth Woods had envisaged at this stage of his symphonic traversal in the Colorado MahlerFest but, after an inevitably curtailed season last year, the need to jump-start the festival this time round was evident, and the present double-bill did so impressively. Mahler’s cycle is often viewed as the ‘end of the line’ for the genre of the symphony, yet its ongoing evolution is not hard to discern, and it is to Woods’s credit that he is making this aspect a crucial part of his tenure.

Woods has championed the music of Philip Sawyers for more than a decade, with this Fifth Symphony continuing along a stylistic path comparable to those two before it. Its immediate predecessor ended with an expansive Adagio as was his most impressive such movement so far, and the present work continues from such inward (never self-conscious) seriousness in a Moderato (each of the movements being designated with Shostakovich-like inscrutability) that overrides clear-cut sonata procedures for a gradual unfolding whose thoughtful opening theme takes on greater emotional intensity as it builds to an ominous climax then closes in a mood of some ambivalence. Here, as throughout, the writing for a standard orchestra (with fifth horn and harp though no percussion other than timpani) is never less than resourceful.

From here an Allegro picks-up the pace incrementally to capering and, in its middle stages, wistful effect; before the central Lento pursues a sustained course (not a little unlike that of Rubbra’s slow movements) over two cumulative paragraphs – the second of which climaxes with the most anguished music in the whole work, prior to the brief yet affecting coda from strings. More overtly a scherzo, the ensuing Presto also evinces greater expressive contrast between its impulsive outer sections and a chorale-like ‘trio’ of affecting poise. From here, the final Allegro is the most orthodox movement in its energetic and reflective main themes – taking in an intensive development and subtly modified reprise prior to an apotheosis that ensures a decisive yet, as might be expected from this composer, never bathetic conclusion.

On this first hearing, Sawyers’s new symphony proved a cohesive and absorbing piece – less arresting in content, perhaps, than either of its predecessors but with an unfailing formal logic and expressive eloquence that are not to be gainsaid. Interesting, too, this Fifth should mark something of a rapprochement with ‘classical’ tonality; whereas Mahler’s Fifth, which came after the interval, sets in motion that often fractious discourse which duly informs almost all this composer’s symphonic works from his final decade of creativity – indeed, of existence.

Pacing is crucial in Mahler’s symphonies, with this being no exception. From the outset of a trenchant trumpet solo, the Funeral March was almost ideally judged – its development not too histrionic, and coda whose eruptive force subsided into numbed uncertainty. Proceeding (rightly) without pause, its successor – as if a fantasia to the prelude just heard – steered with unobtrusive authority to its climactic if ill-fated chorale, and if the final return of the opening music lacked vehemence, the pulsating expectancy of the closing bars was tangibly rendered.

That the central Scherzo has long divided opinion is not in doubt (Otto Klemperer avoided the work because of it while Hermann Scherchen reduced it by two-thirds), and though Woods’s conception had its merits – a rustically evocative trio plus the transitions on either side – the unforced equability of its outer portions underlined just how closely this music verges on the platitudinous; its ländler-informed coyness and contrapuntal contrivance over-exploiting the potential of its content. At least the coda wrapped up this movement with real decisiveness.

The remaining movements were finely realized, Woods taking the Adagietto at a flowing yet flexible pace that enabled its rapture to emerge without risk of indulgence (here, as throughout, the strings’ articulation of grace notes served a structural as well as expressive purpose). The deftest of transitions duly prepared for a finale whose elaborate interplay of rondo and sonata elements was replete with a cumulative impetus as carried through to a fervent peroration, the chorale blazing forth during a close where affirmation and nonchalance were irresistibly fused.

It should be added that the playing of the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra was of a consistently high standard – testifying to the excellence of the individual musicians as, also, their collective responsiveness to Woods’s technical acumen and interpretative insight. Its latter-day status as mainstream repertoire may have obscured its innovative qualities (and drawn attention away from its unevenness), but to hear this work so authoritatively realized and within the context of a major new symphonic statement says much for the continued importance of MahlerFest.

Further information on the Colorado MahlerFest can be found on their YouTube channel. For more on the festival, visit their website – and click on the names to visit the websites of Kenneth Woods and Philip Sawyers respectively.

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mahler Symphony no.9

mahler-9-woods

Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Simon Symphony no.9 in D major (1908-10, arr. 2011)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded March 23-25 2021 for online broadcast, premieres 7 July 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The chamber reductions of orchestral works, as pioneered by the Society for Private Musical Performances founded by Schoenberg after the First World War, has gained renewed impetus these past 15 months given the unfeasibility of full-scale performances. Few can have been as ambitious as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – arranged by pianist and conductor Klaus Simon for an ensemble of single strings and woodwind (with doublings), two horns, trumpet, percussion (one player), piano and harmonium; its textural and motivic content thereby remaining intact.

This is evident in the opening Andante, arguably Mahler’s most perfectly realized symphonic movement, whose formal trajectory of interlocking arcs is made explicit so that its long-term expressive intensification and release become no less tangible. To this end, the roles of piano and harmonium are much more than the mere filling-out of texture – respectively articulating and reinforcing the harmonic profile through to a coda which more than usually clinches the overall tonal journey with a serenity the more poignant for its remaining, as yet, unfulfilled.

The ensuing Ländler was no less lucid in terms of its unfolding, Kenneth Woods resisting any temptation to play up the emotional contrasts across a movement whose deceptive blitheness of spirit is only gradually undermined (and a quality this music shares, doubtless unbeknown to the younger composer, with Ravel’s La valse). Equally significant is the way that Simon’s arrangement discreetly emphasizes disparities of timbre and texture, on the way to a closing section where the music only too audibly fragments into a bemused parody of how it began.

More questionable is the Rondo-Burleske – Woods’s underlying tempo for the outer sections, while enabling the music’s contrapuntal intricacy to emerge unimpeded, feeling too dogged to convey its frequently assaultive manner to the degree that the composer surely intended. This is less of an issue in a trio section whose aching regret was potently conveyed, with the stealthy regaining of tension no less in evidence. Animated and accurate, this final section again lacked that seething energy which propels the movement towards its anguished close.

No such questions affect the final Adagio – only equivocally conclusive now that the Tenth Symphony has all but been accepted into the Mahler canon, yet remaining a test of all-round cohesion such as this account rendered with unwavering conviction. Having thus gauged the balance between its alternate paragraphs, Woods assuredly controlled the winding down of tension towards a coda of inward rapture despite its sparseness of gesture – while affording the speculative dialogue between solo strings the necessary temporal and emotional space.

It hardly needs to be said that the playing of this 15-strong ensemble drawn from the English Symphony Orchestra was consistently attuned to the spirit of this music – as, too, is Simon’s methodical and apposite arrangement. Whether such reductions can continue to be relevant in the (presumed) aftermath of the pandemic, it would be a pity were these not to enjoy revival in their own right: revival, moreover, out of aesthetic rather than just didactic considerations, as this impressively conceived and executed rendition demonstrated to often moving effect.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

Further information on Klaus Simon is here, while for further information on the Music from Wyastone series, you can click here. ‘Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables’ is now available from the English Symphony Orchestra Website.